Paradise Found

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:43)

Expulsion and restoration: these are the bookends of Scripture.

Like Adam and Eve, we are cast out of the Garden.  Rather than rejoicing at what we have, we are tempted to be satisfied only when we obtain what we crave.  We pursue the one thing we should leave alone and our lives are made miserable.  We are expelled from Eden.  Paradise lost.  We are outside the Garden and we yearn to be restored to its blissful splendor.

Once we are on the other side — the outside — looking in, we see what we miss.  We want to return, but we cannot find the way.  Grief overtakes us.  Anger blinds us.  Discouragement crushes us.

On the brink of giving up all hope, we then hear someone say, “Follow me.”

Jesus comes to show us the Way back to Paradise.  “Follow me,” he says at the beginning of his ministry.  “Follow me,” he says at the end.  Jesus is the Way.

There is at least one person who believes him unequivocally.  When Jesus is on the Cross, one of the criminals being executed alongside him says, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus responds by saying, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”   

The culmination of Jesus’ ministry is the return to Paradise.  Jesus will lead us back to the Garden.

Is it any wonder that Mary Magdalene, when she encounters the Risen Lord, presumes him to be the gardener!  Jesus is the Gardener.  He wants to show us how to re-enter the Garden.  His desire is to show us the Way back to Paradise.

All we have to do is follow.

Laurie A. McNeill is a member of Hudson River Presbytery and she serves as the Pastor of yoked congregations in Highland and Marlboro, New York.

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Do Not Hold Back

I just came back from the NEXT Church conference, a gathering of church leaders, including elders, pastors, seminarians, educators, youth leaders and church members who are exploring a more relational, diverse, and collaborative way of being the church in the 21st century. The Rev. Jennifer Hope Kottler and I attended, explored the town, took a yoga class, connected with friends and colleagues, and got to hear great speakers, and attend workshops. And oh, yes, we presented a number of times during the plenary and gave a workshop as well.  (You can watch us on the Hudson River or NEXT Church website.)

One of the workshops I attended was called “Verse and Vision, Poetry, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation,” by Nancy Arbuthnot and Gerry Hendershot, both poets and educators.  In the workshop we learned about resources for worship and education, and did a writing exercise.  There were a number of pastor/poets in the room, already well versed, so to speak, in this art, but I didn’t feel myself to be one of them.  I was a little intimidated.

My poetry, in a word, is not good.  See?  That’s three words. But.  This week in the Spiritualty and Practice groups in Bedford we tried the exercise out anyway.  And, to our surprise, we found out something.  We are ALL POETS.  Two different times, two different groups of people, different times of the day, different Bible verses. Together, doing our own work, we were able to come up with something beautiful; each of us, different, diverse and unique.

The process was simple:  we read aloud some Bible verses, seeing which one drew us.  From there, we each picked one and picked out a phrase and put it at the top of a blank page.  Next, we took a word from that phrase and put it in the middle of the page.  From there, we wrote words around that word, reacting to it, defining it, and drawing lines from it to the central word, like spokes on a wheel.  Next, we took another piece of paper, and “free wrote” for five minutes, timed.  At the end of that, we paused, set the timer again, this time for seven minutes, and from all of our material, the words, the phrases, the free writing, we each crafted a poem.

Here’s my verse and poem.  Isaiah 54:2, Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.

“Do Not Hold Back”
Go, if you want to
And you want to
You have got this;

And it comes, is coming
Has come
Oh, the places you’ll go.

Stretch, if you want to
And you want to
Life is a big damn tent
With no sides
And plenty of room.

Stake everything on this
God’s strength is your joy
God’s joy is your strength

Home is there
Grace is now

You couldn’t hold back if you wanted to.

See?  I am not a poet.  And yet there it was.  And it was there for everyone- if fact we are sharing our beautiful words with each other still.  So I think, is the church needfully worried about its future and livelihood?  Or does the Word continue to nourish us still, if we in our diverse, collaborative and relational way sit down together and experiment a bit?

If you’re afraid, set a timer.  You can do anything for five minutes, even scary things. You are a POET.  Congratulations.  And as my grandfather used to say, “you’re a poet, and don’t know it, but your feet show it—they’re Longfellow’s.

Peace,  Leslie

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

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Look Up!

I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?

How many times have I heard Psalm 121?  At how many funerals have I read it or heard it read?  Countless.  Yet as is often the case, sometimes something happens and one sees such familiar texts in new ways.  As I pondered this psalm for a recent sermon, the bible I was working with had a page break after that very first line.  All I could see was the question: “from where will my help come?”

Maybe it was that page break that separated out the question and prevented a quick rush to the answer in the verses that follow.  Maybe it has been the amount of time I’ve had my head down in a newspaper, or deep in cable tv news trying to take in and understand all that is going on in our world these days.  Maybe both.

But it was a good reminder.  My help, my foundation, my direction, does not come from me.  Those ashes still hanging around from a few weeks ago actually mean something… remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  And so my first look each day – rather than news, rather than my own dusty, befuddled or overwrought head – needs to be to the One who made heaven and earth – the One who breathed life into all that dust.  The one who gives breath and life even now.

First, look up.

Dan Love serves as Co-Pastor at Rye Presbyterian Church in Rye, NY.

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This Little Light of Mine

A reflection on Matthew 5: 14-16

It is so simple.
And, so hard at the very same time.

When you are kind to another
     You are the light of the world.

When you stand up for what you know to be right
     You are the light of the world.

When you feed someone who is hungry
     You are the light of the world.

When you smile at a stranger
     You are the light of the world.

When you walk humbly with your God
     You are the light of the world.

When you treat another the way you would like to be treated
     You are the light of the world.

When you treat another the way they would like to be treated
     You are the light of the world.

When you extend hospitality
     You are the light of the world.

When you build a longer table rather than a higher wall
     You are the light of the world.

When you see God in the eyes of another
     You are the light of the world.

When you see God in your own hands and face
     You are the light of the world.

When your words heal
     You are the light of the world.

When your vision of tomorrow matches the Dream of God
     You are the light of the world.

When your vision of tomorrow drives your actions today
     You are the light of the world.

When you claim your calling as a child of God
     You are the light of the world.

When you include those Jesus named as the least of these
     You are the light of the world.

When you sow seeds of hope
     You are the light of the world.

When you build up rather than tear down
     You are the light of the world.

When you seek justice and resist evil
     You are the light of the world.

When you reach out your hand
     You are the light of the world.

When love wins
     You are the light of the world.

When the Bread of Life becomes intertwined with your life
     You are the light of the world.

When you understand you are the Cup of Blessing
     You are the light of the world.

This little light mine I’m going to let it shine.

Paul Alcorn is the Pastor of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village, NY. 


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God Bless You!

The fifth chapter of Matthew contains some of the most familiar passages in the New Testament, including the Beatitudes. To our 21st century ears they might sound strange:

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
Blessed are the meek for the will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

What do we hear? What is Jesus saying? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He goes on, Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.

Ah, there’s a pattern here. Each beatitude consists of two phrases: the condition and the result. In almost every case the condition is from familiar Old Testament context, but Jesus teaches a new interpretation.

What does beatitude mean? The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin beatitudo, meaning “blessedness.” 

I could hear these in a number of ways. One way I could hear them is, when I’m pure of heart then I’ll be blessed. Or when I am really a peacemaker, then I’ll be blessed.

Preacher David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and has a completely different take. Listen to what he says:
But let’s be clear — or at least pay attention to the fact that Matthew is quite clear — Jesus isn’t setting up conditions or terms but rather is just plain blessing people. All kinds of people. … Why? To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be — with the poor rather than the rich, those who are mourning rather than celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. This is not where citizens of the ancient world look for God and, quite frankly, it’s not where citizens of our own world do either. If God shows up here, Jesus is saying, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.

Wow. So Jesus isn’t saying, hey you over there, you meek person, I’m blessing you. Jesus is saying that if God is with these, the weak and vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.

God is blessing us. And here’s the challenge.  Can we accept God’s blessing? And accepting that blessing, can we share it with each other?

I fall short of what I think God expects me to be. How I need help! I worry-am I “good enough?” Am I doing enough? Do I recycle enough? What about that bottle of water I bought when I was in the city the other day? I have good intentions. We all know about good intentions, right?

And then I hear the beatitudes.

And so friends know that God has blessed you, and all that you do, and all that you will continue to do, in Jesus’s name.

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.

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Giving Up Lent for Lent

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”                                                                                   ―
John Chrysostom

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”                                                                                                                                                 -Matthew 6:1

I have never been very pious.  And I am almost always suspicious of the overly pious.  Piety always seemed to be a way of showing off how really religious a person is.  And I never thought that the whole God thing was about being best at your religion.  I think Jesus agreed.  He was often quite critical of those who appeared to be very religious but were missing the point.  (See Matthew 23)  And he championed those who may have not been religious or even of the right religion and yet did the will of God.  The Syrophoenician woman (Mathew 15:21-28) who actually argued with Jesus (not a very pious thing to do) was a woman of great faith or so Jesus concluded after his encounter with her.  Wrong religion and not pious but filled with faith.  I think that is what Jesus encourages.

My suspicion of piety and the pious makes Lent a little daunting.  It is often seen as a time of challenging oneself to greater piety.  In my mind nothing could be a bigger waste of time especially if you give any credence to the popular approaches to Lent.  Who hasn’t heard the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  As if the only way to move closer to God is to give up something.  I don’t think God really cares if you give up chocolate or some other thing you like or crave for Lent. In a world filled with darkness and hatred where millions of children go to bed hungry giving up chocolate or anything else doesn’t matter much.  I hardly think the best way to God is through self-denial.  Jesus did say that the great commandments were to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself.  Seems to me if you want to be disciplined in your faith for Lent it would have more to do with fulfilling these basic commandments rather than some small self-improvement.  To my mind that would mean taking something on rather than giving up something.  If you want to truly make this Lent a celebration of God’s work in the world find something important to do.  Right now there is a particularly wanting world looking for God’s presence.

Jesus tells us, in his Sermon on the Mount, that we ought to love our enemies. Now that is something to take on for Lent.  Who scares you?  Who do you especially despise?  Is there a group you avoid?  Maybe work on that prejudice.  Make friends with someone you would never otherwise.  Help someone or group you usually avoid.  Open your heart to forgive and reach out to someone you have closed off for years.  This is the work that will move you toward God.

Go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give of yourself in ways you never thought you could.  That is pleasing to God.  That is a way to prepare for the miracle of Easter.  Grow in patience, kindness, understanding, and hospitality.  There are many such opportunities right now as we find ourselves so horribly polarized and in opposition to one another.  This is not the world God wants but there is hope.  People of faith and good will can come together serving God for the good of the whole.  Piety can’t do that but faith and hope and love can.  Those are Lenten disciplines for all of us all our lives.

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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Take a Hike!

treesMany of you in the Presbytery know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.

Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” Many of the great saints were hikers and climbers, including Jesus!  The more contemporary literature of walking, from Rousseau and Nietzsche to Thoreau, Muir and Proust, reminds us of a way of living all but lost to us today. Health and heart, body and soul, I am at my best when I stay connected to the world God made at the pace God intended.

Being outdoors also has many health benefits. I’ve recently read, for example, that a ninety minute walk in nature can significantly reduce rumination – the negative or obsessive thoughts so many of us experience, which take us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. (And who would not benefit from that, after this past month). Walking outdoors can reduce activity in part of the brain associated with mental illness and increase creativity and problem solving.

Since this was such a beautiful weekend with temperatures in the low 60s, I took my son out after worship yesterday for a traipse (a great word for a particular way of walking) along the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. We parked beside the Housatonic River (the name means “river of the mountain place” in Mohican) and scrambled hand over hand up St. John’s Ledges and hiked over to Caleb’s Peak with majestic views of the Taconic Mountain range. We followed animal tracks, identified the cries of raptors, and observed various kinds of scat.  We also reflected on the Biblical stories behind the names of landscape we were tracing. We spoke of the coming Sunday’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration that took place after a day of rigorous mountain climbing and in the presence of Moses and Elijah, both of whom were accustomed to ascending and descending mountains in search of God. And we remembered other hikes we have taken together, of lessons we have learned, and people we have met. The great joy of hiking as a spiritual practice means that our day together on the mountain was not just a single event but part of our growing relationship with one another, our world, and its maker.

The holiest of moments (the moment of wholeness, for us) took place on a snow covered forest floor nestled between two ridges where “the world in solemn stillness lay” below the bright blue sky. We had escaped the busy world, for a while, and could hear not a sound about us. We simply stood, silent ourselves, and content together. When next we spoke, we were ready to head home.

Now, more than ever, we need practices of self-care that keep us connected to others and immerse us in this world that God loves so much, practices that bring us regularly to places of health and wholeness.  How do you do it?
The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary is pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church and a GreenFaith Fellow.  He is especially proud to have been the first person to have completed the “Westchester 100” (after the authors of the hiking guide, of course)!
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