Fighting Spiritual Numbness

There was a moment last week where I just broke down. No more “holding it together,” no stoic single tear rolling down my cheek as I read the news—just a full-on, ugly cry. It all just feels like too much. A lynching in Georgia, covered-up and ignored by local law enforcement for more than two months. Parents at the border, given the “choice” between letting ICE kidnap their children or risking their lives in indefinite detention—imprisoned in facilities where COVID voraciously spreads. An overall death-toll that now surpasses 100,000 people, while our federal government lies about its culpability in the mass slaughter of our people, and tries to hastily reopen our economy so even more can die.

All of this compounding trauma ought to provoke a near-constant state of grief and mourning, but I’ve been worried how—in recent weeks—a creeping numbness has overtaken my own sorrow. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but pain seems to have crossed a threshold where my body stopped being able to process it, and so it simply stopped trying. And I think that’s a far louder alarm bell than any wailing.

My mind is brought to scientists’ experiments with learned helplessness. In the laboratory, they inculcate the feeling by shocking rats, without giving them any possibility of escape. Repeated trauma is so effective that, over time, the rats stop even trying to flee the pain—and simply sit sedentary even when escape becomes available. Viktor Frankl describes suffering as “pain without meaning;” and too often prolonged suffering inculcates despair.

So, if you are despairing, know that you are not alone. It is not normal to watch your government ignore tens of thousands of deaths—for it to express no remorse about preventable, mass death. It is not normal to live in a country where armed white militias can shut down a state legislature. And it’s entirely reasonable to get angry, and demand answers from God about why a loving creator would let all of this happen. I think those kinds of questions are the very essence of faith, not its absence.

But it’s why I was actually really glad when God stirred me from emotional numbness—breaking walls my heart had erected—and shattered the numbing calm. To mourn is to be reminded that we are still human—amidst and against forces that intentionally try to make us forget and deny our humanity. So, if you’re able, feel the full weight of your grief and despair today. Find time to break down—to weep and admit that it’s all just too much.

Hope and despair are not mutually exclusive, but co-companions on this road. Moreover, I believe that it is actually through intimately knowing and feeling our despair that we bring hope just a little bit closer. Grief reminds us of the love that underlies our pain, of exactly what and who we are fighting for.

The book of Lamentations opens, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people.” The writer mourns—not because the city will never again see life but because something irretrievable has been lost. The Babylonian exile did not last forever, the people eventually returned. But right now, we are in exile. It’s okay to cry.

Rev. Benjamin Perry is the Minister of Outreach and Media Strategy at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City’s East Village.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

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Unfolding Time

Black-capped Chickadee

Let me just say this – I see a lot of bird butts.  I would like to see more, of the bird, that is, but I am an amateur, and by the time I get my binoculars on an active participant, it has flitted high overhead or behind a branch.  There are birding “apps” that help with identification, showing the bird from all angles, including from underneath, but by the time I get the phone out, the app open, and my glasses on, the bird has decided on another agenda, and another tree.

Needless to say, I don’t do any of this well.  And birding is not something you can hurry.

Bald Eagle

With the majority of trails and preserves shutting down, I gave up taking my binoculars on my walks recently, thinking the best viewing spots would be unavailable. A few days ago, walking the Foundry Cove, I was on the little path that parallels the railroad tracks.I love the marsh there, and watched the wind play over the water as the incoming tide edged into the cove. It was a gray day, and cool, and so I watched, idly, for a goose perhaps or a red-winged blackbird, but expected nothing out of the ordinary.

I heard the loud chittering whistles to my right; it took my brain a few seconds to process the sounds – high, familiar, and loud:  Eagles.   And there they were, right overhead, an adult pair, talking to one another, touching beaks, and then turning to survey the few passersby below.  I walked by, slowly, and then climbed up the stairs to the Kemble Overlook, sitting down on the bench about 50 yards away, so as not to disturb them.  They saw me, of course, but then returned their attention to each other, and as they called, I heard a response from over the water – and a large juvenile flew up, and joined them on the branches, all three whistling, feeding, and preening. 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Never have I regretted more not having my binoculars, the eagles remaining in one place, so close, for so long.  But I had time, and this was the gift; time to sit and be, time to watch them watch the water.  As I came down the steps, I saw another smaller bird flitting around right at eye level: a ruby-crowned kinglet, a migratory visitor in late April to early May.  He was right on time, and so was I.

I have always been in a hurry. When I was young, my Nana taught me bird songs.  She could whistle like a cardinal, and told me to listen for the birdy-birdy-birdy of their call.  I couldn’t wait to master it, even though I had no front teeth at the time. She also taught me mnemonics to remember their songs:  The chicka-dee-dee-dee of the black-capped chickadee. The cheery up, cheery me of the robin.

Northern Cardinal

When I started birding, I immediately got the three CD set of Peterson’s “Birding by Ear,” hoping to learn all 96 calls and songs on the CD before my first birding festival, in two weeks.  I figured if I couldn’t see them, at least I would know who’s in the neighborhood. But it’s easy to be fooled: the blue jay imitates the scream of a red tailed hawk.  The mockingbird imitates everything.  Learning takes time.

Spring has been slow to arrive this year.  And because of the need to stay sheltered in place, I have had time, each day, to learn in a new way.  I have learned that I don’t need to “know” so much as to observe.  I have learned, over this slow time, to watch the goldfinch’s feathers morph from olive green to bright yellow.  I’ve had time to see each day how my one remaining tulip opens and closes to the sun and wind.  I have had time to see the tree branches grow feathery in the first tinges of yellow green.  I’ve had time to listen to the rusty gate squeak of a boat-tailed grackle, and watch a robin with her beak full of grass fly to a nest unseen.

American Robin

I am learning that I can’t hurry anything.  As busy as this time has been, in this Eastertide I feel that I have been given a chance to really see.  All that is terrible and harsh and sorrowful and wrong in our country, and all that is beautiful and true and loving right in front of me.

As I read the resurrection stories, I learn that it is only when we turn to look in recognition that we see. It was a slow unfolding then, as it is now. We with our short attention spans must learn to take the long view. At the end of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s essay, “Trust in the Slow Work of God,” he writes,

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

So, even if now all I can see is a bird butt, I hope that I, in the long term, can embody the words to the old hymn, and “join with all nature in manifold witness” to the goodness and beauty of God’s unfolding, and timely, grace.

Leslie Mott, M. Div., RYT, CFP, is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the
Presbyterian Church (USA).  She serves as Coordinator for Spirituality and
Practice in Bedford, NY, and was the Coordinator of the Pastoral Sabbath at
Holmes Camp and Stony Point Center from 2015-2019.  As a consultant and
retreat leader, she has presented to and guided groups at The Garrison
Institute, Holy Cross Monastery, Johnsonburg Camp, Mariondale, the NEXT
Church Conference, and Maryknoll, among others. She is now serving as
Interim Minister in North United Church of Christ in Middletown, NY, having
previously served as a solo pastor in Cold Spring, NY for 13 years.
Leslie is a yoga teacher, Spiritual Director, and Certified Focusing
Professional.  She received her Master of Divinity from Princeton
Theological Seminary; her Spiritual Direction certification through the
Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinecliff, NY, and is a member of Spiritual
Directors International.  She is also a member of the International Focusing
Institute.   With a regular practice of meditation, focusing, yoga and
Centering Prayer, Leslie considers herself a student first and a teacher
second, joining with others to discern and live out lives of contemplation,
mindfulness and action.

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On black holes and empty tombs

For science nerds like myself (because just being a church nerd isn’t nerdy enough…), one of the most mind-blowing news items from last year was the first image taken of a black hole.  The subject of the portrait was the M87, a supermassive black hole that’s 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, and 53 million light years away.  In the actual picture, it looks rather like a doughnut that’s been set on fire.

Distance wasn’t the only challenge involved with achieving this image.  A much larger problem is that a black hole itself is unseeable.  Its gravitational force is so great, it even draws inside it all the light that could possibly make it visible.  What you can see in the image, that bright ring, is the hot, glowing gas falling across the event horizon.  The event horizon is the point of no return, the point where objects are no longer able to escape the irresistible pull of the black hole – and then they’re gone, we don’t quite know where.  Somewhere into the singularity, where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate.

It is awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

But the thing is, the objects are not gone; they’re just gone from our observable universe.  One theory is that while the black hole is busy pulling everything in on one side, it’s pushing out new creations on the other.  And what looks like death from our vantage point might actually be life, the birth of entire universes.

When the women showed up at the tomb that first Easter morning, there was nothing but death from their vantage point as well.  What they found was the promise that new life had emerged on the other side of tomb.  They had come prepared to be undertakers, but instead, were tasked as midwives: the first witnesses to the crowning of that resurrection life, the first to hold onto that newborn good news, and bear it to others.  And they left with fear and great joy.

In the midst of this pandemic, we may find ourselves leaning more toward fear than joy.  If resting in the promise of the resurrection was a challenge before, we may find it near impossible, with the specter of death so near and potent. And we know that when all is said and done, we will be mourners.  We will be undertakers.  We will need to bear the spices and ointments and words of burial for far too many, and we pray to God for the strength to get us through those holy tasks. 

But we are Easter people, and we are tasked to be midwives to new life.    To cradle in our arms the memory of those who have died, along with the promise that they are not lost.  To welcome into the world new ways of serving our communities and of being the church.  To nurture that appreciation we now have for things we once took for granted, and a new resolve to fight the many injustices revealed and amplified during this pandemic. 

Congratulations; it’s a risen Christ.  May we find joy, and life, in the midst.

Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY, and as editor of this blog.  For the time being, she is leading worship from her 2nd floor guest bedroom.

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A Voice on the Bare Heights Is Heard

Sunday, I sat in my living room, a late afternoon sunbeam warming me as I sat crossways in an overstuffed chair, my back leaning against one arm, my legs draped over the other; on the telephone. Again. This time my phone was on mute, listening while others shared in a teleconferenced recovery meeting. We went through the traditional format and introduced ourselves. It was hard, at first, not being able to see others reactions to the conversation, like speaking into a void. But as people began to share their anxiety and their struggle, as well as their hope and their gratitude, I felt my shoulders release downward with every word and response. As I nodded in silent solidarity, I also began to notice the lump in my throat, constricting with the pent up anxiety that I had not allowed myself to feel before that moment.

I was glad of the telephone then, that no one could see me begin to weep – I felt ashamed at being so afraid, when, as I chided myself, I was one of the privileged – but as the confessions of others’ anxiety found their way into my heart, my own fear rose up and the tears came.

In a meeting, in person, when you struggle not to make the crying face, people respond; they glance in sympathy, they pass you tissues, they pat your arm. But there was no one to do that, and so my fear was able to have its way: full- fledged and an affront to all my good intentions and foundational theology.

I know that tears are healing and letting them come does far more good than attempting to batten down the hatches of your psyche. So I let them come, and the tightness began to ease. Eventually I pressed unmute and shared, although the emotion was still evident in my voice. I told the truth, that my faith was shaky, my fears were high, and I felt powerless – to get to my parents, who are compromised and high risk, to not be able to visit others whom I might be putting in danger, and especially powerless over my rage at the political laissez-faire and callousness. I expressed gratitude for local action. I spoke my own connection to all of it. When I finished, there was a “bing” of a bright pink heart emoji, via text. I stared at it, eyes filling again, for this small and extraordinarily lovely thing.

Others went on to share, and we ended the meeting with gratitude at creating this community of voices. A community unseen but not unfelt, speaking into a silence that was not a void, something new and unexpectedly connected.

As our communities close down our traditional way of being together, I give thanks for the technology that allows us to rediscover alternatives. There is much coming across the internet waves that is beautiful and wise. On Being is sending podcast care packages. The National Audubon Society is sending collections of photos and articles to remind us of the beauty of our world. Poets are waxing eloquent about the compassion that is possible, in spite of our fear. The earth, without humanity’s brutal fingers on her for a few weeks or months, could begin to heal. And all who minister are speaking into the questions as well as the uncertainty, knowing that silence is not a void, and that something new and unexpectedly connected can come.

“A voice on the bare heights is heard,” the prophet Jeremiah says. It seems that clarity is coming, and that the uncertainty, the silence, and even the void will lead us in new and challenging directions. I join my voice with his, and yours, my brothers and sisters, as we lean into to winds of profound change, speaking our love with courage and skill.

Here’s yet one more voice, that of Father Richard Hendrick, OFM, Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries – a blessing for this day:

Yes, there is fear.
Yes, there is isolation.
Yes, there is panic buying.
Yes, there is sickness.
Yes, there is even death.
But,
they say that in Wuhan after so many years
of noise
you can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
the sky is no longer thick with fumes
but blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
people are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighborhood
so that elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down
and reflecting.
All over the world people are looking
at their neighbors in a new way.
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
to how big we really are
to how little control we really have
to what really matters.
To love.
So we pray and we remember that
yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not need to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul.
Yes there is even death.
But there can be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic.
The birds are singing again.
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
To touch across the empty square,
Sing.

Leslie Mott, M. Div., RYT, CFP, is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the
Presbyterian Church (USA). She serves as Coordinator for Spirituality and
Practice in Bedford, NY, and was the Coordinator of the Pastoral Sabbath at
Holmes Camp and Stony Point Center from 2015-2019. As a consultant and
retreat leader, she has presented to and guided groups at The Garrison
Institute, Holy Cross Monastery, Johnsonburg Camp, Mariondale, the NEXT
Church Conference, and Maryknoll, among others. She is now serving as
Interim Minister in North United Church of Christ in Middletown, NY, having
previously served as a solo pastor in Cold Spring, NY for 13 years.
Leslie is a yoga teacher, Spiritual Director, and Certified Focusing
Professional. She received her Master of Divinity from Princeton
Theological Seminary; her Spiritual Direction certification through the
Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinecliff, NY, and is a member of Spiritual
Directors International. She is also a member of the International Focusing
Institute. With a regular practice of meditation, focusing, yoga and
Centering Prayer, Leslie considers herself a student first and a teacher
second, joining with others to discern and live out lives of contemplation,
mindfulness and action.

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Mr. Ganz

Photo credit: Kristine Fong

I note the obvious differences / between each sort and type / but we are more alike, my friends / than we are unalike. – Maya Angelou

…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ – Matthew 12:30-31

My wife Ann and I moved into our home in a wooded area of Bedford Hills in the fall of 1996.  Our son was just a few months old and it seemed that we had found the place we would raise a family and make a life.  We both loved it immediately and have continued to love it through these many years.

We chose Bedford Hills for its beauty and diversity.  The elementary school was filled with many different kinds of kids and that seemed right to us.   The world can be very segregated, but not this community.  One oddity of our home was that it was located across from a Hasidic Yeshiva and community.  I knew nothing about Hasidism but it seemed to fit with our ideal of diversity.  One neighbor said that they were great neighbors because they never bothered you. So be it.

When my son was a bit older, he would point to Hasidic men in their distinctive dress wherever he might see them and say, “Look, Dad, our neighbors!”  All for the good.

There was some interaction as they lived across the street.  One rather irksome interaction that happened a few times was that a Hasidic man had approached me at the store or shopping center and asked for a ride to the Yeshiva.  I wasn’t sure if it was a religious rule they were following or that they were stranded and just didn’t want to walk.  But I remember saying to Ann, “These people are kind of pushy!”  I guess being so forward offended my midwestern sensibilities.

That pushiness was nothing compared to the day that Mr. Ganz showed up at my door.  Passover was approaching and he was looking for a place for him and his family to stay that wasn’t far from the Yeshiva.  I was a bit taken aback, but I like to think that I practice hospitality, so I heard him out.  How many people in your family?  I asked.  Ten he said.  I swallowed hard. 

Coincidentally, we had just finished the basement and it was just a big wide-open space with a bathroom.  We could probably host them, I thought.  But I put off Mr. Ganz.  I had to talk to my wife, could he come back in a day or so.  He said sure, but didn’t come back the next day.  He had asked to stay the following weekend and as he didn’t show up day after day it occurred to me that he was going to show up Friday with his whole brood.  I thought to myself, these people are so pushy he thinks he can stay here!  And as the week went by I became convinced that he was going to show up expecting to stay the weekend.  And sure enough there he was Friday afternoon knocking at the side door.

I pulled open the door and blurted out, “Mr. Ganz, you can’t stay here!”  He looked at me kind of funny and said, “I know; I talked it over with the Rabbi and we decided it would be better for me and my family to stay elsewhere, but I wanted to come by and give you this challah bread that my wife made as a gift for you.  You were so gracious about considering us staying here.”

I felt more than a little foolish.  I fancy myself as open and accepting, but there it was.  I received his gift with humility and used it as the communion bread that Sunday at church. I prayed to learn the obvious lesson, and told the story to my congregation as we communed with our God and each other.

Tim Ives is the minister of the Scarborough Presbyterian Church and he is a New York State licensed psychoanalyst. He is married to Ann Guerra and has two grown children. He plays golf and hockey, skis when he can and grows roses and tomatoes, cooks, and reads a lot of history. 

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Appreciating Our Mentors in Faith

With Lent right around the corner and, according to Punxsutawney Phil, spring trying to arrive soon, I began to think about key influencers in my faith. You probably can identify one or two of yours right away.  Pause for a moment to remember them.

In the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” an acerbic, skeptic reporter is assigned to interview Mr. Rogers for a profile piece.  Instead of being interviewed, Mr. Rogers learns more and more about the reporter in each of their visits together.  Mr. Rogers listens to the reporter and challenges him to become more personal in the interview process.  A paragraph profile turned into a major magazine article as a result.

There is one powerful scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers takes the reporter to lunch in an urban restaurant.  In the midst of a busy place, Fred Rogers challenges the reporter to be silent for one minute and think of the people who have been important in his life.  In the magic of the movie, the silence grows in the restaurant until all present are silent as well.  The minute seemed agonizingly long but incredibly effective.  (If you watch the movie, look for Mrs. Rogers and Mr. McFeeley, who are “extras” in the restaurant).

Recently, Cathy and I led a church retreat organized around Mister Rogers (a fellow Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate) and some of his inspirational thinking.  One habit we practiced at the end of each of our content sessions was “Mister Rogers Minute of Silent Directed Thought.”  After active conversation, we sat in stillness and guided thinking. For one minute at the end of each multigenerational session, we were challenged to think about specific people or experiences in our faith lives.  Everyone present found the practice helpful.

Can you pause during Lent to take a “Mister Rogers Minute of Silent Directed Thought” on a regular basis?  Once a week, set time apart to remember and thank those key influencers of your faith.  Take a moment to write out seven prompts to challenge yourself to reflect, one for each week (e.g., remember the key influencers in your faith;  remember those who say that you are a key influencer in their faith; think about those in your daily life who lack a key influencer).  Post the list in your reflective space to remind you to sit in silence – then take the time.

Peter Surgenor served Holmes Camp and Retreat Center (Holmes, NY) and Crestfield (Slippery. Rock, PA) as Executive Director and Director for over 40 years.  He served as the second pastoral staff member for three Western PA churches for three years before moving to camps.  He has been Moderator of Hudson River Presbytery and President of both the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association and the American Camp Association.  He and his wife Rev. Cathy Surgenor live in Newburgh, NY and are active volunteers at Habitat for Humanity Newburgh.  In addition, Peter volunteers at the Riverport Boat Building School in Kingston, NY.  They have five daughters and six grandchildren who keep them busy.

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So, what does a Moderator do, anyway?

The passing of the HRP Moderator toolbox (Photo credit: Tim Chin)

Congratulations! What does a Moderator do, anyway?

On January 28th I was installed as the Moderator of the Presbytery of the Hudson River, a presbytery of seventy-nine churches throughout eight counties of New York State. Friends who are not Presbyterian (and some who are!) have asked me, “What does a Moderator do?”

This question has prompted me to give thought to Presbyterian polity.

Presbyterian polity is a beautiful thing. Our constitution consists of two parts. The first part is the Book of Confessions, or the statements of our beliefs. The second part, aptly named, is the Book of Order, which prescribes how we are to govern ourselves, including describing the role of the Moderator.

Each of the four councils in the denomination, from the individual church’s session, through the Presbytery, the Synod and the General Assembly, must fill two functional roles: that of the Moderator, and that of the Stated Clerk. Joan S. Gray and Joyce C. Tucker in their book Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders remind us that these are not honorary offices but functional offices.

So, what does a Moderator do? The simplest answer is that the Moderator is the presiding officer of the council. Our method of governing is both participatory and representative. All seventy-nine congregations are represented at each meeting of the Presbytery, and ministers and elders are represented equally.

My most visible job is to preside over the four or five meetings we hold each year, and ensure that the meetings are orderly, efficient and fair, respecting Robert’s Rules of Order throughout the meeting. We try to reach consensus, where consensus means that we agree to support a decision that might not be our favorite decision, but is in the best interests of the group. This is where the process of discernment comes into play, as we seek to understand God’s will for the Presbytery. I pray that I’ll be able to be a “non-anxious presence” or at the very least, “keep my head when all about me are losing theirs” (thanks, Rudyard Kipling!).

Oh, there are other things that a Moderator does, most of which include, in good Presbyterian fashion, attending meetings. I’ll be working with the General Presbytery, the Stated Clerk and members of the Council to set the direction for the Presbytery.

I am so blessed to be part of this exceptional group of staff and volunteers. God has been good to me, providing me with work experiences that have taught me skills I will need as we move forward together in 2020.

So now you know what a Moderator does!

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 of the Hudson River Presbytery during 2020. In a former life she was a programmer, a systems analyst, a financial systems manager, a management consultant, a college professor and a college dean. She is now retired from all of that.

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