Compared to high school bands of today, my high school marching band was very simple.  We marched in one parade each year – the Memorial Day Parade.   We spent a couple of weeks every spring learning to march in a straight line and to turn left in preparation for this parade.  This was because the parade marched up one street, turned left into the cemetery and then two more left turns before we played the Star Spangled Banner as part of the ceremonies.  These were days when Civil War monuments were prominent in the cemetery, when the patriotic sacrifices of our grandparents and parents in WWI and WWII were still fresh in family stories and community self-image.

As the 60’s wore on, patriotism changed as class mates went off to Viet Nam and the wisdom of political decision makers began to be questioned.  These patriots served, were wounded and often died even as class mates questioned or protested.  As the years progressed our country sent young adults to assist in struggles which often seemed noble at inception but which became quagmires as ancient struggles for power persisted.

Patriotism has been built on Christian principles influencing the self-perception of our country flavored by norms of the times.  The voices of the original 13 colonies were voices of privilege protesting exploitation by the Colonial System.  Strong nationalistic fervor with two very different perspectives led to our own Civil War.  A country reluctant to engage in the European and Asian conflict finally joined with great gusto and sacrifice to turn the tide against racism and totalitarianism.

This week we honor those who have given their lives in service to our country with its high stated values.  At the same time we face our challenges of “me over my neighbor”,  #MeToo,  health care controversy and more.

Memorial Day is a moment for fond remembrance of those who gave their lives for this country.

In addition, Memorial Day is a call to remember the noble words which set those voices of the late 1700’s on the path to revolution.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [women and children] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Parades today celebrate sacrifices made for our freedom.  There will be fancy marching bands making both left and right turns, scout and community groups proudly contributing.  Lincoln’s speech will be recalled and stirring words celebrating patriotism will be shared.  What will be the stories told in years to come about our work today, this year, for freedom and equality for all children, women and men?  How are we living out Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Rev. Peter Surgenor recently retired as the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center.  He was the moderator of Hudson River Presbytery in 2017.  He and his wife Cathy were Accompaniers with the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia in February of this year.  Peter and Cathy are regular volunteers with Habitat for Humanity in Newburgh where they now reside.

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Hearing and Understanding

After Kim Clijsters lost the French Open tennis tournament in 2001, she won the hearts of the crowd.  She spoke in French at the awards ceremony, and the people were delighted to hear the Belgian citizen speak their language.  Clijsters then spoke in Flemish, her native-tongue, and she finished her remarks in English.  There were some who followed what she was saying throughout her entire speech.  I was not one of them.

Languages are not my forte.  I often feel like the pet dog I once saw in a cartoon.  The caption in the first frame of the cartoon states WHAT IS SAID  by the dog’s owner — “Sit, stop barking, behave.”  The next cartoon frame declares WHAT IS HEARD by the dog — “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

When the people gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, the initial sound of the crowds was like me listening to Kim Clijsters speaking Flemish or the dog listening to its owner, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  The people were speaking different languages and dialects — Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and more.  Imagine a meeting of the United Nations without any translators!

Then, the miracle of Pentecost transpired.  The people suddenly were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they begin to speak in languages understood by those who had gathered to worship God.  WHAT WAS SAID was articulated in the tongue of one’s native language, but WHAT WAS HEARD was a clear message.

The diversity of the people remained; however, their differences did not divide them.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they were united.  People spoke.  They were heard.  They were understood.

We now clad ourselves in red on The Day of Pentecost as an invocation: “Come, Holy Spirit!  Grant us such understanding, today!”

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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Duc in Altum

A few years ago, I was in Israel and visited the newly opened archeological and worship site at Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee.  The site included the discovery of a first century synagogue, and the beginnings of an expanded dig and exploration of the ancient city of Magdala.  It also had a brand new worship space. As we got off the bus, we were met by a young, earnest member of the staff, who allowed us to wander around the site for a while, and then to meet in the new Chapel for a tour.

The Chapel was lovely, open and spacious, modern, with a large worship area and small chapels around, each with a mural depicting a healing of a woman; the bent over woman, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and of course Mary from Magdala, but for the preachers on the tour the best part was the pulpit- it was a boat.  You climbed up the stairs in the back, and literally stood in the boat to preach, with the huge windows framing the Sea of Galilee directly behind you.

We took turns taking pictures, and then all too soon we were called back to the foyer, where our guide began to give us the information about the site, its discovery and the plans for its future.  I don’t know what it was about her, maybe her rehearsed, somewhat canned delivery, her youth (she was probably about 19), but she had the fervor of the newly converted, and when she began to tell us a Bible story, I internally rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh no, the baby Christian is going to tell us about Jesus. Isn’t that sweet.”

Not proud of my internal snark, I nodded politely, of course, and somewhere along the way I forgot who was telling it and began to listen.  The story was about Jesus, preaching from Simon Peter’s boat, a little way off from shore, to the crowds that had come to hear him.  He asks the fishermen on board to let down their nets for a catch.  They respond that they have fished all night and caught nothing.  Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water . . . .”  Our tour guide repeated it.  “Put out into the deep water.”  And when she said those words, I felt tears came to my eyes.

The invitation to go deep, to put out into uncharted seas, to trust, took me completely by surprise.  There, looking out at the sunny waters of the Galilee, I hadn’t expected to be touched, deeply, especially by a bright young person with a prepared script.  But there it was.  How often, I thought, have I stayed safely, and poorly, shallow?  How often have I given up after some of my best efforts have come to nothing?  How much can I trust God to lead me in a way that might feel futile, or even risky?  How can I listen for the voice that invites me to launch again into the unknown?  Put out into the deep.

That phrase, in Latin, Duc In Altum, is the name of the Chapel, and on the t shirt that I bought to remind me to listen, and maybe once more, again, to hear the call to let down my nets, my guard, my preconceived notions and let God fill me with something new, something abundant, something alive.

Put out into the deep.
Duc In Altum.
Invited to trust.
And like the disciples, to follow.

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

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Giving Thanks for Eartha Kitten

Having closed on the purchase of our little house in the Hudson Valley, my husband Werner and I set about making it a home.  Our first stop was the furniture store.  Our second stop was the Animal Rescue Foundation in Beacon, where we adopted our dog, Spotless.  And our third stop was the Ulster County SPCA, where we found a tiny handful of fur that we named Eartha Kitten.

Now Spotless was a sweet, gentle, lovable creature, one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs.  Eartha, on the other hand, was an ornery spit of a cat, whom we adored for always being exactly herself.  And when she finally breathed her last a few springs ago, at the ripe old age of twenty-one-and-a-half, I found a sunny spot on the west side of our yard, and began that final labor of love: digging her resting place.

It was brutally hot and humid that May afternoon, and the ground was typical of the region – rocky and full of clay, making each shovelful an effort.  Sweat poured off my face, and less-than-holy things poured from my mouth.  Then, for some reason, I remembered something I’d read years before, about a woman who decided to give thanks for one thing upon rising each day.  On day one, she began by giving thanks for her bed.  But then, as she allowed the idea to unfold in her mind, she found herself, long after, still giving thanks: for the trees that gave the wood for the headboard, for the farm workers who raised the cotton that covered the mattress, and so on.

I decided to follow her lead, and began to give thanks for Eartha Kitten.  I gave thanks for the SPCA volunteers who first took her in, and for the staff at the animal hospital, who had watched over her health at great personal peril, often donning falconer’s gloves to handle the difficult patient.  I gave thanks for all the fish, and for the fishermen who caught all the fish that found their way into the nearly 8,000 cans of food she’d eaten over the years.   I gave thanks for the sun that warmed her favorite sleeping spots, and for the God who set it amid the countless stars.  For the fact that I have a piece of property in which she might be laid to rest, and for a body strong enough to dig that hole.  Eartha was just a little, ornery cat – and yet, with my mind tuned to gratitude, I saw that there was blessing upon blessing associated with her life.

Is there a more transformative spiritual practice than gratitude?  It has the power to turn sweat into offering, and grave-digging into prayer.

The Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY.  She is grateful for her family, furry and otherwise.


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Practicing Resurrection

We are in the liturgical season of Easter.  What does that mean? To me it means that we are “practicing resurrection.” It means that we are called to be an “Easter people.”  Let me explain.

Recently our lectionary reading was from the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. We believe that Acts was written sometime after 70 CE. Acts provides us with a history of the early church. In this book we learn that Jesus appeared to the apostles frequently in the 40 days between the time of his resurrection and his ascension into heaven. Jesus ascends into heaven by the 11th verse of the first chapter of Acts and the apostles are on their own.

And how did the Apostles behave?  The apostles were transformed by Jesus’s resurrection. They, too, were practicing resurrection. And by doing so, they became an Easter people. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” and because of that resurrection “there was not a needy person among them.” God’s kingdom was being realized on earth.

Their transformation lasted for some time. And then Paul had to start writing to the churches in Corinth, in Thessalonia, in Rome. Each church had its own issues.

But I can understand that. A friend of mine once reminded me that anyone can pitch one inning but it takes real stamina to pitch for nine. It’s a nice way of saying that it’s easy to start something and hard to keep the course.

Ever train for a long race? Or start a big project? Or try to replace a bad habit with a good one?

We start out with enthusiasm and then it’s hard to “keep the faith.” It’s hard to be an Easter people as we get further and further from Easter. It’s hard to practice resurrection. Practicing resurrection is a life’s work.  Wendell Berry suggests that in his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. It’s a long poem, so I’ve selected a few verses:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

May we learn how to practice resurrection.
May we really be an Easter people.

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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Persistent Faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
– Hebrews 11:1
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

After the tragic and frightening events in Charlottesville last summer, I decided to learn as much as I could about the rise of the National Socialists in Germany in the years running up to World War II.  I did a series of lectures about it at church and have continued my personal exploration reading a number of books about mostly ordinary people who had to deal with this darkness that disrupted the world and ended so many lives and caused such deep suffering.  The books I have read are both fiction and non-fiction, but all depict ordinary people dealing with a world gone mad that they cannot escape. Truly frightening.

It has been a fascinating journey with a very telling theme that runs throughout these books.  That theme is faith.  I am not talking about the clean, get up on Sunday, well ironed and brushed, go to church kind of faith but rather the persistent nudging of resilience that these people did not let go of.  All of the stories are incredible whether it was about a Jewish family trying to survive wartime Poland or a German fighter pilot who ferried a very badly damaged American bomber across Germany.  None of the stories are nice Sunday School fodder.  They are all gritty life and death stories where faith was real, and faith was all these people had.

I am reading one now about Christian missionaries who got caught in the Dutch East Indies when the Japanese invaded.  It is called Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose.  It is written with a kind of positivity that I would be most suspicious of if I did not know what she went through.  I do not cotton to that brand of Christianity that does not take the presence of evil seriously. I know that “aw shucks” approach because that is where I come from.  In the Midwest it is believed that “nice” fixes everything.  And the way this woman writes she sounds just like she believes it.  And in fact, the writer grew up in Iowa.  However, this woman’s faith was not just nice.  In the end it proved to be fierce and inspiring.

To begin with I was so very impressed that she would be in the East Indies (Indonesia today) at all.  She felt called to be a missionary (with her husband) to people so remote there was hardly any way to get to them and once they got there life was primitive at best.  The challenges were myriad.  And my first reaction was to be amazed that they would want to do this and then did it.  Yes, we are much more sophisticated and cynical today and have a certain skepticism about the mission’s field.  At least I do but I could not question the conviction of these missionaries.  The faith they had in their mission and their God was incredible.  If we had even a mustard seed of that we could bring world peace, today.

Their lives were as difficult as they could be and then the Japanese showed up.  And again, this tragedy is told in the speak of one who lived by the signs and presence of God.  Even in the worst situations the Bible is quoted, prayers are said, and an effort at good cheer is maintained.  What a powerful weapon to combat all that afflicts us, but we hardly ever get there unless we are desperate.  That is too bad because our lives could be much different, and the world could be transformed if we lived as if God was very present.  I believe that I am a faith filled person, but I am not at all sure I could have lived and survived and thrived as she did.  Hers is a story worth telling again and again.

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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Picture This

I vividly remember seeing the ads as a child; a polar bear floats alone on a solitary iceberg, adrift amidst an endless sea. For many, this iconic image still indelibly marks Earth Day appeals. Yet, despite its staying power, this visual badly misrepresents what is truly at stake in our climate crisis. This isn’t because polar bears aren’t badly threatened (they are), but because it portrays ecological catastrophe as something far away—a distant concern felt in the Arctic but not in our communities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One need not travel to the polar circle to find environmental devastation, we see the defiling of God’s creation all around us—and its horrendous impact on the world’s most vulnerable people. Instead of bears, picture Flint, Michigan—whose lead contamination is worse than when it occupied headlines two years ago. Look at Cape Town, a city of 3.78 million people, projected to run out of water within the year. Envision Minden, West Virginia—a town so toxicly polluted that one resident reported, “Every neighbor I’ve had has died of cancer.” These are the images that should occupy our minds, and yet these tragedies are woefully underreported—their suffering sinfully ignored.

The other reason the polar bear image is so woefully inadequate, however, is that it only portrays ecological collapse; it doesn’t show the incredible ways that impacted communities are organizing to save both themselves and our planet. If we truly heed the gospel message, we can’t simply weep over images of ecological crucifixion—we must join the resurrection unfolding all around us.

We must follow indigenous communities, placing our bodies between corporate greed and sacred wilderness. We must join movements like the Poor People’s Campaign—which names and confronts the ecological devastation’s interconnectedness with racism, poverty, and militarism. We must stride boldly upon the Earth, marshalling whatever forces we can muster in its defense.

But, as Presbyterians, we must begin by getting our own house in order. It is egregious and unacceptable that—despite fossil fuels’ clear and present threat—our Church has still not divested itself from ongoing evil. This summer, we have another chance to do precisely that—to take the first step towards aligning our church with those struggling on behalf of people and planet. And we need your help. If you’re able, please join the Walk to Divest. This prophetic journey from the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville to this summer’s General Assembly in St. Louis is an opportunity to pray with your feet, and to call our Church to follow God’s call in this most dire moment. With luck, our children will not associate the climate justice movement with polar bears, but with courageous communities living into right relation with one another and our world.

Ben Perry is the Assistant Director of Communication and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

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