Oh, Say Can You See…


Independence Day is upon us, an appropriate time to wade into a topic which can prove contentious for many congregations – national flags in sanctuary spaces.  If your worship space contains a national flag, I would urge you to use our national holiday to reflect upon the meaning and implications of that placement.  I would also urge you to consider prayerfully its removal.

My objection to national flags in worship spaces does not rest upon a simple “separation of church and state” argument.  Those of us who identify simultaneously as politically progressive and theologically Reformed have too often fallen back on that phrase reflexively and uncritically, especially when critiquing the political involvement of our more conservative and evangelical sisters and brothers.  Yet we belong to a tradition that actively encourages us to live out our faith in all spheres of our lives, including the political.  We have misunderstood the separation at times, and allowed ourselves to substitute that pithy phrase for a sustained theological argument.  There is more to be said here, but in another post.

However, I do believe it is instructive to remember our history whenever we do theology communally.  We know that our ancestors lived in times and places where the conflation of national identity with particular expressions of faith led to persecution and to corrupt theology.  We don’t have to step back too far into history, either.  The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church is less than a century old, but its words about the dangers of a co-opted church are still relevant.  Composed as a rejection of rise of the Nazi party and the collusion of German Christians with the party, the authors of Barmen wrote:

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

When our churches — through our words, our deeds, or our symbolic actions – become too closely identified with the nation in which we exist, we lose the ability to speak prophetically to the nation.  When we accept the patronage of the state, we simultaneously diminish our capacity to serve the state in that important way that our Reformed ancestors thought so crucial, namely through prayer and critique, sometimes vigorous critique.

I do not mean to suggest that we check our political selves at the doors of our sanctuaries.  Our churches should be places of theologically committed and respectfully conducted political debate.  We are Reformed after all, and our heritage demands no less.  But worship also reminds us of who we are and of whose we are. Our identity as children of God comes before all other identities.  It is an identity which transcends nations.  Our church symbols should reflect that truth.

Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.  He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.

Special Note: 
Thank you for reading and sharing our blog. We hope you find it thought provoking and inspirational. This is our last post for a while. We will be taking our summer Sabbath and we hope that these coming days provide some Sabbath time for you, as well. See you again in September.

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Calling

Muscles

In the month in between my first call and my current call, I spent some time reflecting on what I’d learned, what I wanted to bring with me, what I wanted to do differently. And once again, I realized that self-care needed to be more of a priority…that I could only care for a congregation if I was also caring for myself.

And as fate (or the Spirit) would have it, a Facebook ad popped up on my newsfeed, advertising a gym a mile away from our new house that was offering 12 week transformation sessions–12 intentional weeks of strength training multiple times per week, along with one-on-one nutrition coaching, meal planning, and bi-weekly appointments to track progress.

I thought, “Wow, that sounds awful and insane.” And then I found myself filling out the application form.

After four weeks of the transformation session, I was feeling pretty good about myself.  I’d been eating better, I had more energy, I was getting the hang of each routine. And then I showed up Monday of week five, and my trainer said, “Ok, we’re changing everything up now.”

And I said, “But I just started getting good at this.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s why we’re changing it up.”

He said that our bodies are smart, and that once our muscles become accustomed to working in a certain way, they are able to do so more efficiently with less energy. The more familiar a movement becomes, the less our bodies have to work. He said that by changing fitness routines every four weeks, our bodies continue to work harder, learn new movements, and gain more muscle.

I think Paul knew this on some level.

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” he writes to the church in Ephesus, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Then and now, there is no way to lead a life marked by these traits without regular reflection, growth, and refinement.

Paul assures the Ephesians that Christ has gifted them all through grace so that together they might be the body of Christ and continue to build up the body of Christ. And friends, Christ has gifted each and every one of us as well to be the body of Christ and to build up the body of Christ, to equip the saints for ministry, to seek unity that isn’t uniformity.

But now more than ever, in this time and in this place, realizing these gifts in ourselves and in others means that we are constantly switching our routines and pushing ourselves to learn and to grow and to change.

Now more than ever, in this time and in this place, God is calling the church to lead the life worthy of the calling to which it has been called.

May it be so. Amen.

The Rev. Elizabeth Smith-Bartlett is the Associate Pastor at The Larchmont Avenue Church and chair of HRP’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. This post is an excerpt from a sermon preached at the 2017 Early Ministry Institute, sponsored by the Synod of the Northeast.

 

 

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Have we, too, forgotten?

Mary McKenzie - Navitiy Project

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  -Luke 24:9-11

 

The women remembered Jesus’ words and believed them.  The women remembered Jesus’ teachings about love: for enemies, for their neighbor, for the least among us; love that unites every human being with another; love that that is stronger than fear and drives out hate; love that is merciful, compassionate and forgiving.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

They remembered Jesus’ words about humility, generosity, welcoming the stranger,

justice and hope that makes one strong in the face of abusive power.  They remembered his words about power embodied in the model of servant leadership.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

But the others…the others thought their words were an idle tale.  They wished to return to the ways of the world.  It always made more sense to them.  They ways of might is right; the ways of vengeance and power over another; the ways of looking out for oneself and giving into one’s fears.

The others forgot and thought the women’s words were an idle tale.

Have we too forgotten?  Have we refused to believe?

It would seem we have.

At times, it feels that we have replaced the Gospel of Jesus with the gospel of America First.  You may like this “tough person, bully” nationalistic persona.  You may embrace this “me first” ideology but if you do… do so on your own.  Do not bring Jesus into it.

If you do you have forgotten his words…you have refused to believe.

There is no way one can experience the story we heard this Easter season and at the same time embrace the rash, bravado of these current times. For Jesus’ life embodied, love, non-violence, compassion, mercy and forgiveness; Jesus’ death was at the hands of a system that embraced capital punishment and put to death an innocent man; And God’s response was to overcome this violent death, not vengeance, not with missiles and bombs but in a non-threatening, peaceful way: Jesus’ resurrection.

This is the story the women remembered and believed.

Naïve? Perhaps.  But so is the notion that violence makes for peace.  So is the notion that violence makes us safe.  So is the notion that greatness equals power.  So is the notion that any one people’s lives are more precious to God than another’s.

May we, with the women, remember and believe.

May we go and tell those in power we refuse to forget, we refuse to stop believing.

 Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:9-11)

The women remembered Jesus’ words and believed them.  The women remembered Jesus’ teachings about love: for enemies, for their neighbor, for the least among us; love that unites every human being with another; love that that is stronger than fear and drives out hate; love that is merciful, compassionate and forgiving.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

They remembered Jesus’ words about humility, generosity, welcoming the stranger, justice and hope that makes one strong in the face of abusive power.  They remembered his words about power embodied in the model of servant leadership.

The women remembered his words and believed them.

But the others…the others thought their words were an idle tale.  They wished to return to the ways of the world.  It always made more sense to them.  They ways of might is right; the ways of vengeance and power over another; the ways of looking out for oneself and giving into one’s fears.

The others forgot and thought the women’s words were an idle tale.

Have we too forgotten?  Have we refused to believe?

It would seem we have.

At times, it feels that we have replaced the Gospel of Jesus with the gospel of America First.  You may like this “tough person, bully” nationalistic persona.  You may embrace this “me first” ideology but if you do… do so on your own.  Do not bring Jesus into it.

If you do you have forgotten his words…you have refused to believe.

There is no way one can experience the story we heard this Easter season and at the same time embrace the rash, bravado of these current times. For Jesus’ life embodied, love, non-violence, compassion, mercy and forgiveness; Jesus’ death was at the hands of a system that embraced capital punishment and put to death an innocent man; And God’s response was to overcome this violent death, not vengeance, not with missiles and bombs but in a non-threatening, peaceful way: Jesus’ resurrection.

This is the story the women remembered and believed.

Naïve? Perhaps.  But so is the notion that violence makes for peace.  So is the notion that violence makes us safe.  So is the notion that greatness equals power.  So is the notion that any one people’s lives are more precious to God than another’s.

May we, with the women, remember and believe.

May we go and tell those in power we refuse to forget, we refuse to stop believing.

The Rev. Angela Maddalone, is Pastor of Palisades Presbyterian Church.  The image of the three women is by Mary McKenzie for The Nativity Project.

 

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The Time Has Come


The New York Times recently published a terrific piece that details the rising cadre of religious leaders who are diving headfirst into our political morass in an effort to reframe which values our culture views as “biblical.” The article is astute in its observation that, for the past couple decades, political engagement by clergy has largely been the domain of the religious right. This imbalance of Christian voices in the public square has had grievous consequences. When I ask my non-churchgoing peers to define “Christian values,” they are quick to point to hot-button, reactionary stances like staunch pro-life views on womens’ reproductive choices, or vitriolic backlash against gay marriage. These positions don’t describe my own beliefs, nor the convictions of most Christians I know, and yet they have come to define—for many—the essence of Christianity. And then we sit and wonder why more young people aren’t drawn to the Church.

I understand why many clergy are loathe to venture into the fray. Our politics have become so toxic that civic exhortations from the pulpit, or religious demonstrations in the street, can often engender animosity from members in the congregation who disagree; others are made uncomfortable by the close proximity of church and state. However, if we continue to remain silent on the moral crises that currently plague our government, we ought not be surprised if church attendance continues to dwindle. An aversion to political engagement isn’t just a public relations issue, though, it cuts to the core of what it means to be a Christian.

Politics is the vehicle by which our values become reality. If we pray on Sunday that the hungry might have food to eat, but remain silent in the face of proposed cuts to meals on wheels or food stamps programs, our prayers are impotent. If we ask God to heal the sick but do not decry efforts to eliminate health coverage for millions, we reveal our words as empty. If we sing of swords made to plowshares but turn a blind eye to our nation’s ever-increasing militarism, then Isaiah’s dream will remain an idle one. Welcoming the stranger, providing aid to the poor, healing the sick, safeguarding our planet, struggling to end violence: these are Christian values. It’s time to fight for them.

Ben Perry is the Assistant Director of Communication and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a member of the Bedford Presbyterian Church.

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Backwards Faith


I went to a small liberal arts college in the heart of Arkansas, and it was there that I decided that I wanted to pursue ministry as a calling.  Over the course of my four years, I became a religion major, studied a semester at a divinity school, and interned at a local church, and as I neared my senior year, I felt quite passionate about this direction in my life.

The first and only time that all of our class’ religion majors were in class together was for our senior colloquium, and it became clear very quickly that only about one third of the religion majors were actually religious.  And they were equally as passionate about that direction for their lives—that for them, there was a place for the academic study of religion, but not so much for its practice, let alone belief.

And so I responded as any passionate 21 year old would respond: I got a tattoo.

I was very thoughtful in this decision, carefully choosing the placement and the word—faith, in Hebrew.

Afterwards, I proudly showed a fellow student who knew Hebrew.  And he looked at it for a few moments, and squinted a bit before saying, “Those are Hebrew characters…but that’s not a word.”  Turns out Hebrew goes from right to left, whereas my tattoo’s characters were left to right.  My faith was backwards.

My friends tried to comfort me, assuring me that it didn’t matter so much—that it was more about what the tattoo meant to me than if it actually said what it was supposed to say.  While they were kind, it didn’t make up for the fact that within six months I’d be taking my first Hebrew class in seminary with gibberish Hebrew tattooed on me.

So a second trip to the tattoo artist and a little bit of grace later, my faith actually said faith, in English this time.  It wasn’t the tattoo that I had first envisioned.  The lines were rough (and now several years later, faded), and the script a little strange as a result of being a cover-up job.

But I think faith is like this.  It’s not always particularly elegant.  There are places where it’s a little rough because that’s what it took to fix what was once backwards.  The faith that we have now isn’t necessarily the faith that we had first envisioned having.  It sometimes has more questions than answers.  It learns to navigate dark nights of the soul.  It isn’t afraid to grow and learn and change, to make the circle wider, to err on the side of grace, to let go of a little pride in order to be authentic.

My desire is to practice this kind of faith, and to help our people practice it as well.

Rev. Elizabeth Smith-Bartlett is the Associate Pastor at The Larchmont Avenue Church, where they now know that she has a tattoo.

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Is This The Time?


Tucked in the first chapter of Acts this line challenges us today.  The disciples were waiting according to Jesus direction in Jerusalem.  Maybe getting a bit antsy as forty days had passed since Jesus death and resurrection.  They are standing on a hillside looking over Jerusalem and ask themselves, “Is this the time the kingdom will come?”

Reading this caused me to wonder as well. And to push further, “What am I doing to further the Kingdom of God?”   On Memorial Day weekend, we remember soldiers who served and came home and those who served and did not return home.  They served to bring justice in places of injustice.  And many paid a great price – their lives or their emotional health.  I give thanks for their efforts.

I also remembered, my father.  One of millions of Americans not in uniform but supporting those overseas.  He was a scientist training physicians during World War II.  But more importantly working in a laboratory which discovered how to distill human plasma from blood donations.  Plasma which could be transfused to patients on the battlefield without concern about blood type.  A life saving gift to wounded in need of immediate medical support.  Lives were saved because of this laboratory work.  The Kingdom of God came closer as a result of scientists laboring over centrifuge and microscope.

A recent weekend group at Holmes Camp included a number of children and young adults born in the US, but whose parents came from other lands for greater opportunity.  I was struck as the retreat leader reminded the staff that they might be in the company of some anxious children.  Not anxious about being away from home, but anxious that their parents might not be home at the end of the event.  Not home because of arrest for immigration irregularities.  These group leaders were sharing faith, building a welcoming community and contributing to the Kingdom of God.  How are we working in our communities to build the Kingdom of God for these children?

There are other arenas  where effort is needed to bring God’s Kingdom.  Environment, equal rights, access to education, homelessness and poverty, ………

What has been your contribution to the coming Kingdom of God this week?  This weekend?

Have you shared your story with family and friends to encourage them?

What will be your contribution to the coming Kingdom of God in the next week? The next month?

Peter Surgenor is the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Center and currently Moderator of Hudson River Presbytery.

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Swept Away


Lots of people have the jitters on their wedding day, and I was no exception.  Mine were about the dancing.

Like many of my generation, I learned most of what I know about dancing from John Travolta and “Saturday Night Fever.”  I suppose Werner and I could have taken some lessons in actual ballroom dancing – but who had time, what with work and wedding planning and going to Dead shows?  Instead, there we were, our first dance as husband and wife, lurching around the dance floor as graceful as Frankenstein and his Bride.

My father and I were mutually apprehensive about the Father-Daughter dance.  Dad had the skills; but, with failing health and weakening legs, there was no way he could make it through more than a few bars of  “Spanish Eyes,” the song we’d chosen, Dad’s favorite.

On the morning of the wedding, he shared his worries with my mother’s cousins from Astoria, and the Ruggiero brothers came up with a plan.

When it came time for the dance, they watched, and waited.  And when the picture-taking moments had passed, and they saw my dad struggling to hold his own, one of them tapped him on the shoulder and cut in.  Soon, another cousin came along and did the same, and then another, each taking a few turns with me around the dance floor.

Those Ruggiero boys  – could they ever dance! Even if I didn’t know what I was doing, they did.  At first, I tried to make sense of it.  I tried to use my brain to figure out the pattern, to learn the steps in real time.  I soon realized, there was no other way than to just trust the leader, and let myself be led.  To respond to a gentle push against one leg, or to the pull of a hand placed at the small of my back.

I didn’t know how to dance, but before long, I felt like Ginger Rogers out there.

I just had to let go, and let myself be swept away.

What would our lives, or our churches look like, if we would allow ourselves to be swept away by God?  And, how do we even begin? Maybe we could start by spending as much time praying as we do in meetings.  As much time dreaming as we do answering emails.  As much time perched on sidewalk benches or vinyl-clad diner booths or bar stools as in our offices or sanctuaries.   Maybe if we stopped trying to lead long enough, we might begin to discern God’s unspoken instructions, and feel the push and pull of the Spirit.

Ah, but being swept away can be so disconcerting!  Loosening our grip on the illusion that we are in control, and falling into the arms of the Holy One.  But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s in that very dance that we discover the steps that take us to who we were meant to be – and maybe even find the new rhythms of Christ’s grace-full church.

In her poem “I won’t take no for an answer,” St. Catherine of Siena wrote,

“I won’t take no for an answer,”
God began to say
To me

When He opened His arms each night
Wanting us to
Dance.

I’m ready to be swept off my feet.  How about you?

The Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY.  She has one husband, two kids, one dog, five cats and two left feet.

 

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