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

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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My Story with the Clergy Consultation Service

PeggyThe Rev. Margaret E. (“Peggy”) Howland

I was one of the clergypersons who co-founded the clergy consultation service in 1969 in the Capital District of New York State (Albany, Troy and Schenectady area).  I had recently been called as Pastor of the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy.   When I took on a part-time position with Troy Campus Ministry as Protestant Chaplain at the nearby Hudson Valley Community College, the Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy approached me about starting a Clergy Consultation Service.

I was already committed to reproductive freedom.  In the early sixties I had served on the Board of Planned Parenthood in Passaic County, New Jersey, where we hired a field worker to go door to door in the public housing projects in Paterson, NJ.  Poor women with several small children would shed tears when they learned there was a way to stop having babies every year.

It wasn’t until 1965, while doing graduate study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City that a psychology professor asked us a question – should women be “baby factories” for the sake of childless couples wanting to adopt?  Yes, it seemed right that young women should not be forced to bring a pregnancy to term against their will.

Up to that time, I had been opposed to abortion, because it was the cause of injury and death to many women, especially the poor and the young and uneducated.  Soon the New York State Council of Churches launched a campaign to repeal the abortion laws in NY State, because it was ILLEGAL abortion that was killing women.  Ending illegal abortion could only be accomplished by providing safe legal abortions with proper medical care under sanitary conditions.

I recall the excitement in 1967 when I read in the New York Times that Howard Moody and other clergy had announced their Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion.  It was the same year that I was approached by a clergy friend in Connecticut to escort a 16 year old girl to Puerto Rico for an illegal abortion, which had been arranged by her family doctor.  We knew, of course, that privileged women could get safe abortions with the right connections and enough money, even if illegal.

We used assumed names.  I did not know her real identity, and she did not know mine, or where I lived.  We met in a Philadelphia train station, where her family and boyfriend had brought her under the guise of going on a vacation together.

She and I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  My plane ticket said “Martha Hill”, but no I.D. was required in those days.

The taxi driver in San Juan questioned me about the doctor’s address, and why we were going so far when there were plenty of doctors closer that he would be happy to take us to.

After the procedure, when she was doubled over with pain, she was a real trooper when I told her quietly that she must stand up straight and walk slowly to the taxi station and show no pain on her face.  We repeated that quiet slow walk into the hotel and across the lobby and into the elevator, standing up straight and looking calm and maintaining our secret.

That night I held her stomach while she vomited.  If we had gone to a hospital, they would have demanded to know the name of the doctor who had performed the abortion. So I called the same doctor, who sent an M.D. to the hotel.  She was having a reaction to the anesthesia.  Later I learned that a University of Colorado study at the time had determined there were 350,000 cases of post-operative complications every year in the United States, following illegal abortions.

When I got my first Pastorate in Troy in 1968, I came committed to using this opportunity in New York’s Capital District to work for the repeal of abortion laws.

So it was an enthusiastic “yes” to the RPI chaplain, and we organized a group of fourteen clergy – both Jewish and Protestant – to become the “Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies”.  This name seemed safer to use in the Capital District than including “abortion” in our name.  We got a phone with an answering machine and a message that was changed every week, giving two phone numbers that could be called for help with “problem pregnancies”.  Two of us were on duty each week, so we used our own phone numbers, but great precautions were taken to keep our records private and secret, not to say anything over the phone, and not to give “advice”.

What we gave was information.  We trained ourselves in what later was called “all options counseling”.  We learned medical facts, the choices available, how to implement choices, and we gave information, leaving every choice and the carrying out of that choice to the women who came.

We met with other clergy from across New York State, for training in the facts by medical personnel.  If a woman chose having a baby to keep or to give for adoption, we provided information on whatever she needed to know.   If a woman chose abortion, we told her how to get a legal abortion, if possible.  Anyone who lived in Schenectady County could get a legal abortion in a hospital if two Medical Doctors signed that her life was in danger, and seven psychiatrists were willing to sign those papers.  She could also go to England or to Japan where it was legal.  So we had information on how to get a passport.

But often no legal recourse was practical, so we had a list and gave her appointment information for illegal procedures that were safe.  She had to make the call and the reservations herself.  It was a humbling thing to have women follow our instructions and arrange to meet a stranger on a street corner near a certain motel in a distant city, trusting us that they would be safe with a real ob-gyn trained doctor who was taking this risk to help them.

I sent women to Philadelphia, where there were ob-gyn residents from Lafayette Hospital who were working with us to provide this care.

I remember the stories.  One college student came with her boyfriend.  They planned to get married after graduation, but her father had recently had a heart attack, and she was afraid it would kill him if he learned that she had gotten pregnant. There was the distraught married woman whose daughter had been born while her husband was in Viet Nam.  She had immediately gotten pregnant again when he returned, but apparently suffering from PTSD, he paid little or no attention to her or to their little daughter and spent most of his time out at bars drinking and getting drunk.  Unfortunately, there was no way I could help her, because she was already at 20 weeks and past the cut-off time for a safe illegal abortion.

This was a cause that I was willing to go to jail for, if necessary.  But I worked carefully at keeping our records private, because I did not want to endanger my brother clergymen who were working with us.  I had a Presbyterian clergy friend in another state who was arrested and put on trial for counseling women on abortion, but when Roe v Wade was passed, the trial was stopped.  I am grateful to him for his courage.

In 1970, the New York State Legislature voted to permit legal abortion, which many of us had worked actively to support. The Presbytery of Albany had joined with me and our Church and Society Committee to vote in favor of legalizing abortion, and calling on the legislature and governor to do so.  A group of older white-haired women had come to support me with pickets and protest signs in front of the Presbytery the day we voted, because they knew what illegal abortions were about and told stories of packing a girl’s vagina with rags and other attempts at ending pregnancies in days gone by.  And they called the local TV station to come and film their picket signs at the meeting!

I organized the Rensselaer County Committee on Abortion Law Reform, and used it to spread information and encourage support.  I started speaking before church groups, women’s groups and service organizations, who were very interested in hearing a woman minister, a total rarity in those days.  I even spoke to a Roman Catholic women’s group, who said they had never heard anyone give a single reason in favor of abortion.  My own state assemblyman told me, with a judge listening, that we shouldn’t try to get rid of illegal abortion, because where else could he take an 18 year old if he accidentally got her pregnant?

After NY State legalized abortion, the doctors wanted our Clergy Consultation Service to continue counseling pregnant women and taking care of helping them.  But we felt our work should change, and we started asking hospitals to permit abortions in their facilities.  I worked with the Leonard Hospital in North Troy to approve allowing abortions to be performed there.

However, the movement to provide abortions mainly in specialized clinics was soon underway, and following Roe v Wade in 1973, that became the norm.  I became active in RCRC, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and served as Secretary of the New York Metropolitan RCRC and later the New York State RCRC.  I did All Options Counseling Training for seminary students and was on call for special cases where personal counseling was needed in difficult family situations.  The years since then have seen constant battles to keep clinics open, to protect clinic patients from protestors, to support Planned Parenthood and RCRC, and to fight legal attempts to make abortions difficult to obtain.

In the years I was working to make abortion legal in New York State, a lawyer friend of mine asked me what I would do next after we got abortion legalized.  I told him we would work on getting hospitals to approve letting men have vasectomies without requiring that they have lots of children before they would do it.  I explained to him how much easier and simpler it is for men to have vasectomies than for women to have major surgery to tie their tubes.   He was on the Board of a local hospital, so he got them to change their policy.

There has always been more to do.

The Rev Margaret E (“Peggy”) Howland was the 12th woman ordained to Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church on October 19, 1958 and first woman in the PC(USA) to serve as pastor of a congregation of more than 200 members, the Woodside Church in Troy, New York.  Peggy is honorably retired member of Hudson River Presbytery and active involved in Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.

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Circus Reflections

While on the road recently, I passed a billboard advertising the final tour of the Ringling Brothers Circus.  I had briefly registered an article about the passing of the circus earlier this year, but the billboard brought it home and I confess that I was surprised by my reaction.  I felt a visceral sadness that the circus was leaving town for the last time.

I’m not entirely sure why.  I wasn’t much of a circus kid.  I probably saw the Ringling Brothers circus two or three times in my childhood and my memories are fond, but it didn’t play a significant role in my life.  The sadness was more for the passing of an institution that I took for granted.  It was part of the background of life in a particular time and place (the United States in the twentieth century), and its goodbye seemed a goodbye to that time and place as well.

I know there are good reasons for the natural death of institutions.  In the case of the Ringling Brothers Circus, new forms of entertainment, indeed new forms of the circus itself, have captivated new audiences and the Ringling Brothers’ time was passing.  And the treatment of circus animals, so central a part of the Ringling Brothers spectacle, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, suggesting that its methods were part of the past as well, and for good reasons.  But even now, I can’t help but feel a little melancholy that my son never saw this particular circus and that soon it will exist only in memory.

I think the tone of melancholy and nostalgia that often attaches itself to discussions about the church these days is a similar type of sorrow.  For many of us, a particular type of church catering to a particular type of people and worshipping in a particular type of way was so much a part of the backdrop of our lives that we assumed it would always exist, as it did when we were children.  And our worry about the direction of the church today is often colored by that longing.

Much of our leadership grew up in the Presbyterian Church of the 1950s and 1960s, when mainline churches dominated the social landscape in this country like no time since (and to be accurate, like no time before).  At times, we betray a longing for that church when we worry about the state of the church today.  Of course, we know that while the church of our childhood may have seemed more robust than the one in which we worship today, it had its share of problems.  It was a more exclusionary church than ours is, even if we have much work to do.  It was a church of the status quo, and as such often avoided the difficult task of being prophetic.  It was a church of abundance, often disconnected from a world of need.

That church is largely no more.  My childhood church is no longer a part of the denomination.  Our numbers are smaller, and our life as an institution is entering a new stage, perhaps a terminal one.  But God’s work in the world is not done.  We are called to this time and place, to be a remnant perhaps.  But God still has use for us, and I for one am excited to see what comes next.

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.

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The Truth Beyond Magic

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”

                                                                                                     -Hebrews 11:1

“It was a problem of faith. The future seemed intolerable. There was fatigue too and anger, but more than anything there was the emptiness of disbelief.”

                                                                                                     -Tim O’Brien In the Lake of the Woods


In the strange post resurrection days when the stories are all about trying to understand the impossible I offer this story found in a book called The Magus by John Fowles…

Once upon a time there was a young prince who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in princesses, he did not believe in islands, he did not believe in God. His father, the king, told him that such things did not exist. As there were no princesses or islands in his father’s domains, and no sign of God, the young prince believed his father.

But then, one day, the prince ran away from his palace. He came to the next land. There, to his astonishment, from every coast he saw islands, and on these islands, strange and troubling creatures whom he dared not name. As he was searching for a boat, a man in full evening dress approached him along the shore.

Are those real islands?’ asked the young prince. Of course they are real islands,’ said the man in evening dress. And those strange and troubling creatures?’ They are all genuine and authentic princesses. ‘Then God must exist!’ cried the prince.’I am God,’ replied the man in full evening dress, with a bow.

The young prince returned home as quickly as he could. “So you are back,’ said the father, the king. “I have seen islands, I have seen princesses, I have seen God,’ said the prince reproachfully.

The king was unmoved. ‘Neither real islands, nor real princesses, nor a real God exist.’

‘I saw them!’

‘Tell me how God was dressed.’

‘God was in full evening dress.’

‘Were the sleeves of his coat rolled back?’

The prince remembered that they had been. The king smiled.

‘That is the uniform of a magician. You have been deceived.’

At this, the prince returned to the next land, and went to the same shore, where once again he came upon the man in full evening dress.

‘My father the king has told me who you are,’ said the young prince indignantly. ‘You deceived me last time, but not again. Now I know that those are not real islands and real princesses, because you are a magician.’

The man on the shore smiled. ‘It is you who are deceived, my boy. In your father’s kingdom there are many islands and many princesses. But you are under your father’s spell, so you cannot see them.’

The prince pensively returned home. When he saw his father, he looked him in the eyes.

‘Father, is it true that you are not a real king, but only a magician?’

The king smiled, and rolled back his sleeves. ‘Yes, my son, I am only a magician.’

‘Then the man on the shore was God.’

‘The man on the shore was another magician.’

‘I must know the real truth, the truth beyond magic.’

‘There is no truth beyond magic,’ said the king.

The prince was full of sadness.

He said, ‘I will kill myself.’

The king by magic caused death to appear. Death stood in the door and beckoned to the prince. The prince shuddered. He remembered the beautiful but unreal islands and the unreal but beautiful princesses.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I can bear it.’

‘You see, my son,’ said the king, ‘you too now begin to be a magician.’

Tim Ives is a therapist who has a special interest in teens and families.  His office is in Bedford Hills. He is also a Presbyterian Minister at Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is married and  has two children.

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May It Be So

It has been a hard week.  Early Easter morning my uncle died.  At almost 90, his death was not a tragedy; but we will miss him deeply.  And then came news of the death of a friend’s teen aged son. This one was much harder to take in and accept.  In this season of rebirth and resurrection, I am reminded that there is still suffering and death.

So I decided to look for signs of hope, small instances of rebirth and resurrection taking place at the prison where I volunteer.

At first it was not promising.  There are few flowers, although even there the trees still bud.  The office where I spend most of my time was cold.  The windows do not open, and in the winter it is sauna-like, as the heat cannot be regulated.  But mid-April is the time for the heat to be turned off.  So with no heat, the room was cold, and I was glad that I had brought a warm wool shawl with me.  Perhaps my impulse to bring warmth with me was the first sign.

The first woman I saw told me of her own impulse that morning to walk beside a friend who was feeling vulnerable and at risk.  With surprise she described other friends joining them, so that the woman at the center could feel safe.  None of this was requested or planned.  It was a spontaneous demonstration of support, of community.  Definitely a sign.

I have been meeting regularly with an inmate, let’s call him Sam, who has started transitioning from the female identity, with which he was born, to the male identity, which has been his inner reality since early childhood.  His most recent journey is a reminder that New York State’s policy of support for transgender inmates is itself a resurrection of compassion.  Sam has been getting hormone shots for a little while now; and this week, in some way I could not define, he has begun to look more male, particularly when he speaks seriously and furrows his brow.  He has not yet reached the moment, described by one of his friends, of suddenly recognizing, “I feel like me!  I feel like the real me – for the first time in my life!”  But for Sam, each day is a moment of rebirth, of new birth, into a self in which he feels whole and at peace.  More good signs.

In the afternoon, in a bible study class, we talk about where death and resurrection are occurring in our own lives.  And we reflect on a poem by W. H. Auden:
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

The women discuss the illusions that they must allow to die in order to be reborn into the new lives they long for:  that I can drink for fun without consequence; that getting high will make the pain of a lover’s suicide – and all the other pains – go away; that my worth is shown by beautiful, expensive clothes and a lovely apartment;  that being controlled and even beaten by my partner is a sign of his love; and the most universal, and most deadly – that I am pretty worthless and have little to offer the world.

The recognition, the naming, of these illusions are the first steps in their death.  The movements toward resurrection in that group do not make me miss my uncle less; nor do they bring back my friend’s son.  But they are evidence that God is still at work, that this season does contain rebirth as well as death, and that hope and the possibility of joy do surround us.

May it be so.

Dorothy Muller is a Chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and a Parish Associate at Bedford Presbyterian Church.

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The Weakness of God

As we moved from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to the silence of Saturday, I found myself dreading Easter.  I was not ready to rejoice as news of the bombing of Afghanistan continued in the headlines.  I didn’t want to enter into the mighty, triumphant, victorious, conquering language of Easter as destructive acts of power echoed around the world.  

What exactly does it mean to live as ‘Easter people’? What is the victory that we claim and how is it different from the powers of war and Empire wreaking havoc in the world? Too often in our Christian history there has been little difference.  

In his book, The Weakness of God, John D. Caputo invites us to suppose that God cannot be known or understood through a “strong theology” but only through the weakness of God, “the only thing strong enough to save us.”  Let’s join in Caputo’s imagining:

“Is not the very idea of God as the sovereign lord of the universe the very model after which every terrestrial sovereignty is designed? Is not the sovereign Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the very model of every earthly patriarchy? How often has the ‘reign of God’ meant a sovereign reign of theocratic terror? What has been more violent than theocracy? What more patriarchal, more hierarchical? What more authoritarian, inquisitorial, misogynistic, colonialist, militaristic, terroristic?

Suppose we abandon the top-down scheme of one Father Almighty, one king to the rule the land (another father), in favor of a paradigm where such sovereign power slips out of favor?…

Suppose we think of God as someone who prowls the streets (a voyou) and disturbs the peace of what Kierkegaard called ‘Christendom’? …

Suppose our thought of God is not domesticated by Sunday sermons by His Reverence or co-opted by ecstatic visions of great military show of arms in a massive square, visions of the supereminent power of the supreme creator of heaven and earth, of the hyper-eminence of the arche?

Suppose instead we take our lead in thinking about God from images of the most powerless remnants and marginalized bodies and nobodies, the little me onta, the obscure pockets and folds and hovels of the world?…

Suppose God is the prime mover unmoved not of physical movement but of justice, and that God moves not by force but by attraction, like a call, by drawing us on and luring us?”*

Suppose, Easter People….

Sarah Henkel is a Teaching Elder. She is a resident at Stony Point Center and member of the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith community of Jews, Muslims, and Christians dedicated to the practice and study of radical hospitality, justice, and nonviolence.

*John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. 32-34

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A Prayer for Holy Week

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Sometimes it causes me to tremble. Tremble. Tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Help us to be there, O God.
At least as close as we can get.
Somewhere among the crowd who shout hosanna and wave their palm branches. Somewhere in that upper room as bread is broken and wine is poured and a meal is shared. Somewhere in that garden with it anguished prayer and sleepy disciples. To the betrayal and the denial and the trial before Pilate.
To the cross.

Help us to find our way through these days before us that we might also find our way to the promises of the resurrection. Amen.

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

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