The Sound of Silence


During Advent my congregation explored silence, as this was the 100th
anniversary of the Christmas Carol Silent Night. At the beginning of this year I
visited an audiologist and learned that I have “mild to moderate” hearing loss, (not
unusual for someone “my age” apparently). And during the month of February my
congregation is following the theme “Lift Every Voice,” looking at race, privilege
and faith in worship and adult education.

All of this has made me think about silence, hearing and speech. Silence as a way of getting closer to God is a spiritual practice in many traditions: Christian, Jewish
and Buddhist.

The Christian practice of centering prayer is defined as “… a method of silent
prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which
we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than
thinking, closer than consciousness itself.” Silent prayer.

Sara Maitland, in A Book of Silence, describes her search for silence, a search that
takes her to the Sinai, to the Isle of Skye, to the hills in Scotland. Silence and
solitude. It’s easy to forget how noisy modern life is, how many ways there are to
seek silence and how hard true silence is to find.

Silence and hearing. What do we find in the silence, and what do we not hear
because we can’t hear?

I now wear hearing aids. As soon as I put them on, sounds were, well, crisper. My
wife also has hearing aids, and recently, after we were at a Super Bowl party, she
asked me if I could hear the conversation between two of our friends. I said I
could; she wondered if we were eavesdropping. I told her that I would bet that
before we wore hearing aids, before our “mild to moderate” hearing loss, we would
have probably heard that conversation and thought nothing of it.

I have a years long meditation practice but until last year I didn’t sit every day.
Last year I committed to sit every day and I did. Ten minutes every day. Not to
empty my mind but to sit in silence. To meditate on the words of the psalmist: “Be
still and know that I am God. “Psalm 46:10 And what did I hope to hear in the
silence? Nothing. What do I feel in the silence? The presence of God. Not every
time I sit. But often when I sit.

What has changed in me because I sit in silence? I think I “hear” better, more
deeply. Not only with my ears, thanks to my new hearing aids, but with my heart. I
think sitting in silence for ten minutes a day has made me a kinder, more
compassionate person. You’d have to ask those around me if that’s true, and
maybe the change is so small as to not be noticeable to anyone but me, but that’s
what the sound of silence has done for me.

Finally, what about speech? “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can
listen twice as much as we speak” Epictetus supposedly said. Sitting in silence has
taught me that the voice that needs to be lifted up isn’t always mine. Often isn’t

I hope you find silence amid the noise of your life, so that you might hear the
sound of silence.

May it be so. Amen.

Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a
participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River
Presbytery. She is serving as Moderator-Elect of the Hudson River Presbytery
during 2019.

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On Being (Faithful)


Ok, so not all of my deep thoughts come from Instagram, but the posts I tend to follow are the ones that give an encouraging comment, an engaging quote or a suggestion for practice. And there’s plenty of snark, too; the Thug Yoga memes that read “I don’t carry any hate in my heart. If I loved you before, I’ve still got love for you. Stay away from me, though.”

I recently read an article about Krista Tippett in New York magazine, called “Krista Tippett is a Religion,” and it was about the phenomenon of her broadcast “On Being,” whose episodes have been downloaded some 53 million times. Tippett is a divinity school graduate, as are some of her staff, and in her new incarnation as the head of “The On Being Project,” she continues to have conversations about our way of being in the world, about our shared humanity, and how we want to live and relate to one another.

Although the show avoids talk of God, it delves deeply into mystery, existential questions of death and beauty, and the inner life and how it manifests. Particularly in this time of division, denial, and seemingly senseless power struggles, my curiosity about how the secular world makes sense of (what to me are faith) questions intrigues. And so I scroll, keeping the time limited, to investigate The Met, Huff Post, I Require Art, and one of my favorites, Drinking With Chickens.

As someone who navigates the divide between the church world and secular employment, I think often of how I want to live and relate in my various incarnations as preacher, teacher, office staff, pastoral presence, colleague and friend. I can talk the church talk and the faith talk, but if that is a foreign language to my friends and colleagues who have no church or faith background and aren’t particularly interested in one, am I equipped to attend to their mystery, their existential questions and their inner lives, without my overlay of faith vocabulary? I think most of us have this skill but I wonder if it is time to develop it still more, to let go of our own answers and ask anew what it would be like to hear and to speak good news of love and compassion and truth and kindness in a new context.

I don’t have an answer here, or a new program, or a new format for general use. What I do have is willingness, and practice. As a yoga teacher, I have to show up every day on the mat and work with the body and the mind that are present in that moment, which changes, often. As a Spiritual Director, I have to release of any knowledge, insight, past history and expectations and attend to what God is doing in this moment, this conversation, right now. Mostly, though, I have to let go of what I think would be helpful and live into a humility that a wisdom not my own will guide me though, even if it comes from a meme mash up. Today’s was a picture of Fred Rogers, Steve Irwin, and Bob Ross, with the caption, “Rogers: Be Kind to Other People, Irwin: Be Kind to Animals, Ross: Be Kind to Yourself.” Their pictures were backlit with white clouds and radiating sunbeams in a blue sky. Across the sky was written, The Trinity of Wholesomeness.” I laughed, and thought, “Well, we could do worse.”

Leslie Mott ministers in the area of clergy care and nurture and is  Spiritual Director and Yoga teacher.

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Going Another Way

camels-1150075_1920The past month we have been enjoying the familiar Christmas stories in church, in books and in the media.  So many familiar presentations that at times we can almost say each word out loud from memory.   For me, the movie “White Christmas” takes me back to high school in snowy Western New York.  I am often troubled by the raw nature of “It’s A Wonderful Life” depicting hard New England life in tough times. (It helps a bit to know now that Jimmy  Stewart was processing his WWII PTSD in his acting.)

All of our versions of the Bible story of the scholars who come with gifts for the new king include the intriguing aspect of a visitation or intuition instructing them not to travel home through Jerusalem the way they had arrived.  Listening to these voices that change our plans can be very important.

Once or twice we get to sing the hymn from the tag end of the story, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.  These characters always show up at the end  of the Life Nativity or on a low Sunday after Christmas.  Our imagination runs wild in concert with our life stories as we read the few verses in Matthew 2 which describe the Scholars from the East.  No mention of three either men or women just a description of the three gifts that this group brought with them.  They are exotic, they are a costume challenge (what a great use of those bathrobes in the closet!)

The imaginations of authors have always been intrigued by this bit of scripture.  We have that familiar hymn “We Three Kings” with it’s unusual minor key and rhythm designed to bring images of deserts and camels.  Barbara Brown Taylor has a new illustrated story book Home by Another Way which adds great detail and flavor to all the characters so familiar in this story.  Henry van Dyke wrote a challenging take on the story in 1895 titled The Story of the Other Wise Man.  Van Dyke tells the story of the “fourth” scholar who was delayed meeting the other “three” and spends the next 30 years following in search of the new king born that night in Bethlehem.

Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” has the opportunity to experience an alternative to his expected life story.  The scholars visiting Bethlehem are inspired/led to take a different road on their journey home. A challenge for each of us is to be open or aware of different paths or endings to our stories.  I was challenged this week by this video clip on Facebook.  Amanda Riggan is a young woman who works as a FedEx delivery person.  At the beginning of a busy day she makes a delivery to a woman in tears. They have a quick conversation and after continuing her route for some time Amanda feels compelled to return to pray with and for the woman in a tough life situation.  Amanda describes how Going Another Way is not always the first reaction or an easy reaction but is indeed a response in faith.

Be prepared to be challenged to act a different way in this new year.  Enjoy being washed in the familiar winter stories.  Look forward to longer days and spring time on the horizon.  But be ready to listen to that voice (not always like Francis the Angel who is able to demonstrate an alternative life),  sometimes like the dream (those midnight subconscious times of working out life’s problems) or the voice that says “go back and pray”.

Rev. Peter Surgenor is a retired minister member of Hudson River Presbytery living in Newburgh, NY.  He is an active Habitat for Humanity volunteer in Newburgh with his wife Rev. Cathy Surgenor.  Peter and Cathy have six grandchildren spread between Peekskill and Helena, MT.

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I Wonder As I Wander


And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” –   Luke 2: 10-12

“It may be said unequivocally that whenever anyone is in extremis (whether it is a marital crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis, or a health crisis), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see.”

― Edwin H. Friedman

In a few weeks we will sing like this is the big one.  We will read the words of once and for all.  We may even imagine that the proclamation of world peace is within our grasp.  The words of the well-known carol “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” beckon us into such a world.  Incredible promises… However, it is not how we will act.  We will act as if there is no comfort in Christmas.  We will rush from here to there burdened by the very existence of the event.  We may not be afraid but there will be little relief until the day is accomplished.  I am not sure it is the response the herald hoped for when it sang “glory to the new born king.”

It is the sad reality of modern life. We live in a world awash in anxiety.  Every eventuality has a dark cloud.  We anticipate the very worst.  In the hope of safety we worry all the details.  It is little wonder that anxiety has surpassed depression as the leading malady of our collective mental/emotional state.  We are anxious indeed and the anxiety of the time makes the proclamation of Advent so very mute. Or at least just one more problem.

Yes, many of the readings of the lectionary in this season have a dark foreboding to them but only one stuck in the downward spiral of these days could not see beyond that dark horizon.   The truth is that we have let the structures of anxiety shape our worlds so that even the gospel, the good news of this season is suspect.

Yes, I know it is not accomplished yet.  I understand the world is far from the fair words of Christmas.  I am aware that the promises can seem empty when we look around the world.  And yet at the same time the promise of the season is still so beautiful and yes, it is filled with hope.  We need such a vision.  We need something better and lighter to strive for.  We need to be fed the possibility so that we might act upon it. The promise is here, what is left is our response.  So I urge not to rush too much.  Take a moment to remember this other worldly vision of angels, and shepherds, and magi and let your mind just slip a bit.  Get taken by the story and wonder.  It is a great opening for God to enter our souls and well worth the time. In many ways it has already happened and yet we miss it because it seems too much trouble to stop and listen.

Tim Ives is the minister at the Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is also a New York State licensed Psychoanalyst in private practice in Bedford Hills, New York.

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Stepping Into Advent


Here we are.

Stepping into Advent.

And, doing our best to turn our attention and our lives in the direction of the promises and hopes wrapped up in our celebration of Christmas.

As I make that shift, this verse has been tugging on my heart and running through my mind.

“The light shines in the darkness…”

Believing as I do that the Bible is never just about then, but also about now.

And never just about them (including Jesus), but also about you and me.

I have been asking myself how I am to be that light?
That light in the face of the migrant crisis at our borders?

That light in the face of endless lies and constant blaming?

That light as black men are shot again and again and again.

That light as friends and family struggle with crippling illness and relentless pain?

That light in the face of expectations which pile up one upon the other?

It is not enough…

It has never been enough…

To just leave it to Jesus.

After all…

If we take him at this word…

He is the one who looked at us and said,

“You are the light of the world.”

Paul Alcorn is the former pastor of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village. He is now Honorably Retired (whatever that means) and living in Vermont.


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“Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.  I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:9-10)

“We are invited to glean!” announced Meg Pribeck.  During the announcements highlighted in worship, Meg alerted our congregation that we could volunteer with others at a local apple orchard for a Farm-to-Food Pantry Apple Gleaning.  To glean is to pick through the remains of a field after it has been harvested.

The gleaning opportunity this month continued a practice described in ancient scripture.  Provision is made for the poor and the alien.  Coincidentally, when Meg extended the invitation, the lectionary text for that Sunday featured Ruth and Naomi, after Ruth had been gleaning in the field of Boaz.

Ruth was an alien.  She was a Moabite.  When she followed her mother-in-law to Bethlehem, there was no guarantee that Naomi’s family would receive Ruth and allow her to stay.  It was possible that Ruth would be turned away at the gate of the city, sent home, or worse.

Fortunately, Boaz, the cousin of Naomi, provided for the two widows.  He allowed them to glean from his fields.

Ruth married Boaz.  They had a son named Obed.  Obed was the father of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of David.  David became King of Israel.  Centuries later, Jesus restored the House of David as Messiah.  Jesus’ legitimacy to be the anointed one was through his adoptive father, Joseph, who was a descendent of David.  Thus, Jesus was a descendant of Ruth.

Ruth, a foreigner, an alien, was the forebear of the Prince of Peace.

Laurie A. McNeill is a member of Hudson River Presbytery and she serves as a Teaching Elder in Highland and Marlboro, New York.

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Prophets and Kings


My Disciple Bible study group is studying the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. I have come to appreciate the relationship between politics and a people’s relationship with their God.

Prophesy in the Hebrew Bible isn’t about telling what will happen in the future. The prophets are God’s messengers to God’s people. The prophets say, if you keep doing what you are doing, this is what will happen.

Books like Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Amos and Hosea aren’t light reading.

Disciple study guide tells us, “We must know the history in order to understand the work of the prophets. We must hear them in context.” Each prophet is paired with a king: Samuel with King Saul, Nathan with King David, Elijah with King Ahab, Amos with King Jeroboam II, Hosea and Amos with King Zechariah.

Some of this “history” sounds like this morning’s news. Nathan was one of many of the advisers to King David. Once King David crossed a line, lusting after Bathsheba and sending her husband off to war to be killed so that David could marry her, Nathan became a prophet.

He told King David a story about two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man has many sheep and cattle; the poor man has only one ewe lamb that has grown up with his family. The poor man and his family love this lamb, the way we might love our dog or cat. The rich man has a visitor, and to feed the visitor, takes the poor man’s lamb and feeds it to the visitor. King David sees right away the injustice of this and says “the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and had no compassion.” (2 Samuel 12:5b-6)

And Nathan says—You are that man!

How bold! What courage! He is speaking to the king, who could order him killed.

Much later the prophet Micah enumerated the crimes of the people. The priests only taught if they were paid to do so, government policies and taxes favored the rich, judges took bribes, idolatry was rampant.

TheDisciplestudy guide puts it this way “The prophets preached peace when they ate well but lashed out against those who didn’t pay them…The sanctuary prophets were not shameless charlatans. They simply were so much a part of the sins of the society they couldn’t see the plumb line of God. That’s why they didn’t speak out. That’s why they resented the criticism.”

I ask:

  • Who are today’s prophets?
  • Who are today’s kings?

And I wonder, am I so much a part of the sins of society that I can’t see the plumb line of God?

May we remember these words from Micah: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) and do what the Lord requires from us, whatever the criticism, whatever the cost, knowing that the Lord is with us always.

May it be so.

Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River Presbytery. She will be serving as Moderator-Elect of the Hudson River Presbytery beginning in January 2019.

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