Too Small


But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah,

From you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel,
Whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Micah 5:2

The Sufi Muslim poet, Rumi said:
You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.

Which makes me wonder…
When was the last time you felt you were only one person. Too small to make a difference? When was the last time you felt too insignificant to impact or to influence the change which, when you look around you and into your heart of hearts, you know needs to be made? When was the last time you felt too small to change the world? The last time you felt like a drop in the bucket to say nothing of a drop in the ocean?

Which brings us to today.
And, to Advent.
And, to its miraculous, jaw-dropping story of the birth of Jesus. Not miraculous because of Mary or angels or wondrous star or wisemen who find their way. Miraculous because everything one would normally expect in a story like this gets turned upside down.
The holy city Jerusalem is replaced by backwater Bethlehem.
Herod and his royal court are replaced by Joseph and Mary.
The Roman legions partroling the countryside and streets in an effort to maintain law and order is replaced by the heavenly hosts who sing Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.
The Emperor Caesar Augustus is replaced by Jesus of Nazareth.
The drop in the bucket becomes the bucket.
The drop in the ocean becomes the ocean.

And, if this story is true, then this also is true.
The small things matter and can make a difference.
The kind word.
The caring touch.
The welcome extended.

And, this is true.
The forgotten shall be the ones who step forward and claim their place.
The disparaged shall be the ones whose presence helps to bend the long arc of history in the direction of the Kingdom of God.
The marginalized and the silenced shall be the ones who find their voice and sing and shout.

And, this also is true.
Too small is no longer an excuse to do nothing.
Too insignificant is no longer a reason to turn away.
For if God can use Bethlehem God can use you.
If God can use Mary and Joseph God can use you.
If God can speak to the shepherds huddled in the field God can speak to you.
If wisemen can see and follow a star so can you.
Because you are the ocean.

Paul Alcorn is the Pastor at Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village, New York.

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The Long Wait


Image: Clothed in the Sun by Jan Richardson

In the days leading up to the birth of our child, Will and I observed a “counting up” ritual.  The ritual was created by Rabbi Tivka Fremer-Kensky, author of Motherprayer, as a way of marking the days of expectation in the last month of pregnancy.  Each night we lit a candle and remembered one person who is part of the community, the family that our child would be born into as we counted up to the baby’s arrival.  We hoped each night that this ritual would not run the full course of the 40 names we prepared.  We hoped that the birth would interrupt our plans to light the candle and pray before another night of restless sleep. Each night we wondered if this would be the night. On the evening of the 40th ritual as we remembered the 40th name I felt the first labor contractions.

I wonder if the new life waited until we had run the full course of the ritual, until we were fully surrounded by the web of friendship and love we began to weave with our remembering.

Birth is unpredictable.  What is being prepared in us and in this world this Advent season may not arrive on Christmas.  It may require many more weeks of gestation and ripening. It may desire us to continue the work of preparation, of tending the light of justice and joy until they are fully present in our midst.

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.

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A Deadly War on Christmas


It seems that, around this time every year, we hear about the new and latest salvo in the “War on Christmas.” In 2013, non-white depictions of Santa emerged in the crosshairs. In 2015 the offense was an all-red Starbucks cup. This year did not disappoint: Starbucks has returned to the center of attention, this time for “promoting the gay agenda,” on their holiday cups. The sad truth, however, is this: There’s a real war on Christmas raging, but it sure as hell doesn’t have anything to do with Starbucks’ coffee cups.

In the biblical Christmas account, we read a story about a poor family. Mary and Joseph are forced to migrate far from their home to register for the unjust and exploitative taxes the Roman Empire levied upon the region. Lacking shelter, Mary is forced to give birth in a stable. Then, fearing for the life of their child, the family is forced to flee as refugees into Egypt. And yet, despite ostensibly celebrating a holiday centered around poor folks and refugees, a predominately Christian Congress and White House is taking action that would devastatingly harm Mary, Joseph & Jesus’ modern-day analogues.

The real “War on Christmas” looks like revoking the DACA program, throwing 800,000 lives into chaos. These children, in many cases, were brought into this country by parents seeking to protect them, just as Mary and Joseph sought to protect Jesus. The “War on Christmas” looks like shutting our nation’s doors to refugees fleeing war and violence. And — like the exploitative Roman economics of old — we see the war on Christmas in efforts to raise taxes on the 45 million Americans who live in poverty to marginally increase the excesses of the wealthiest.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus promises that we will be judged by how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable among us. When we shut out immigrants and refugees, we exclude Christ. When we pass laws that harm the poor, we oppress Christ. If we care at all about Christmas, we are called to combat this injustice. And, unlike the trivial “War on Christmas” that so often occupies media attention, this “War on Christmas” matters: Its outcome will be measured in lives.

This is the conflict that God cares about. When children, migrants, and poor folk are dying, God couldn’t give a damn about our coffee cups.

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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Honest Patriotism


At the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2018, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy will present a resolution for consideration entitled “Honest Patriotism.”  The draft of this resolution can be found here.  Building on Donald Shriver’s work in his 2005 book Honest Patriots, the resolution lifts up this time and place as crying out for authentic Christian witness.  It seeks to reclaim a Reformed vision of faithful participation in the body politic as a vital part of our shared calling.  It calls on the church to be a prophetic voice against “public dishonesty and chauvinistic nationalism” while at the same time modeling a different way of being in our own interactions with each other.

Lifting up honesty as a paramount Christian virtue may seem a bit obvious.  It sits fairly unambiguously in the middle of the Ten Commandments.  But in this time and place, it is incumbent upon us to reaffirm this value.  Honesty is not simply best policy.  It is vital to the way we organize ourselves into communities.

Public dishonesty corrodes the trust which is integral to the proper functioning of a society.  When we lie to each other in private, the dangers and hurts are powerful enough.  We display a lack of respect for our conversation partners and we damage our own credibility.  But when dishonesty becomes a default position in our public speech, the stakes are even higher. We open up the possibility of descending into a world where facts don’t matter, where “winning” a rhetorical joust becomes more important than the truth.  Public dishonesty is fatal to a republic built upon the sharing of ideas and the quest for a common good.

And then there is the question of patriotism.  This may be of more controversy in Christian circles.  All of us have heard arguments about keeping our church lives separate from our political lives.  However, if we take our Reformed heritage seriously, we must affirm the value of good government as ordained by God.  We must further accept our responsibilities to nurture and participate in God’s commonwealth.  Part of our calling as Christians, at least according to our Reformed forbears, is to be a prophetic voice, supporting our leaders as they strive towards a more perfect justice, and holding them accountable when they violate the trust of the people.

As much as we might want to stay away from the fray (and given the current level of debate, that option becomes more and more tempting) we must know that versions of our faith are already part of the political conversation, and they are loud.  What is our response, as people of faith, when we hear a legislator use the incarnation of Jesus as an excuse for child abuse? What is our response when a prominent Christian evangelist calls Islam “wicked and evil”?  What is our response when a pastor calls Hurricane Harvey God’s punishment for Houston’s support of LGBTQ rights?

The question going forward is what version of the Gospel will our country hear?  If we cede the field to those who attach the name of Jesus to hatred, division, and violence we have made a political decision.  We have chosen to accept, by our silence, these pernicious teachings.  When we exempt ourselves from being Christians in our public lives, we are acting out a theology.  But is it a faithful one?

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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Breathe


Breathe,” my teacher said, as my arms flailed and I tipped to the side, releasing my foot from my calf just in time to step hard on the mat before I fell into the person next to me.  When had my gracefulness left me?  Was I too old for this?  I was a beginner in Yoga, but standing on one leg I didn’t think would be so hard.  As a child, one of my habitual postures was almost the same: my mother called me “the stork,” because often I perched a foot on my knee while standing.

But this was “tree pose,” and I was no longer 7, but early forties, among some lithe younger women, a newcomer, in a place that was welcoming but somewhat alien.  I did, however, keep coming back; yoga fit my body and my mind in a way nothing else had, and I grew to love it, to study it, and eventually, to teach.

Balance, neurologically speaking, is an amazing thing.  When we balance, on one foot or two, the body both anticipates and responds in milliseconds. Neurons fire from the part that is grounded, to the brain and back again, hundreds of times a second, so that the body shifts, adjusts, catches itself, corrects, and finds its center again and again.  The difference in someone who is wobbling and someone who appears still is that those neurons are simply moving more rapidly, and the adjustments become smaller, faster, and more subtle.

In fact, we never really stop balancing.  Each movement we make has an element of balance. I often tell my class, “Ride the wobble,” letting the breath and body move through, softening instead of holding on, letting go instead of gripping. And it helps to keep a steady gaze, keeping your eyes on a fixed point.  “Breathe,” I remind my class.

How apropos for the life of the Spirit.  In my journey as chaplain, pastor, yoga teacher, focusing practitioner and spiritual director, following God’s call has meant stepping out, often unsteadily, and with plenty of flailing.

Last March, when I ended my time as pastor to a beloved congregation after thirteen years, in order to pursue a call to minister to clergy, life was chaotic:  I had to refinance my home and take on a housemate. I had no steady income, and the insurance would continue only for another month. I was presenting to NEXT Church. I wrote and received a grant to start a new program of ongoing retreats for clergy. My mother went into the hospital for major cancer surgery.

Many times I woke in the night.  I prayed.  I wept.  I found miracles of grace.  And in that time, in the chaos and the unbalance, I felt the steady eye of the Beloved on me, reminding me to let go, to soften. I learned to keep my gaze steady on the One who called me and calls me still.  And in the love of that gaze, I can breathe.

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

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Giving and Receiving

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Gospel of Matthew, 25:34-36

Matthew quotes Jesus telling his followers that they welcomed him, visited him in prison, took care of him when he was sick. Those who are hearing this parable are confused, and they ask, when did we do that? And he answers “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

In the past, when I heard this parable, I was reminded to give food, water, visit the sick and so on. I saw this as what Christ was calling me to do, and I gladly did so.

Only recently have I been on the receiving end of such gifts, and now do I understand even more how important it is to not only “take care of the least of these” but to be the least of these.

Let me explain. In my house we are calling this past summer and early fall the season of surgery. My wife had knee replacement surgery in July; we planned for this and thought we were prepared, or as well as one can be.

But at the end of June, when I had my annual routine mammogram, I was told I needed to schedule biopsies. We scheduled them for the end of July, figuring that my wife’s knee replacement recovery would be well along by then. I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in August. We didn’t plan for that! And so, we were dealing with two surgeries; scheduling them, recovering from them, dealing with them.

We are an inter-faith family; my wife is Jewish, and we belong to a synagogue. I am Presbyterian and active in my church. We had never been on the receiving end of visits, food, prayers, but now we had two faith communities caring for us. And I found this very humbling.

I appreciated the visits, the cards, the food more than I ever thought possible. My friend Margery calls the food gifts “love on a plate” and they were. A friend from our shul brought dinner over one night; I didn’t realize that I was too tired to cook anything until I sat down and ate food someone else had prepared for me. Others brought us soup, zucchini bread, homemade ice cream.

Now that we both have recovered from our respective surgeries, and I have been told that I will be absolutely fine (following radiation), I have had time to reflect. This experienced has taught me that being on the receiving end of care is a humbling experience, especially in our culture where strength and independence are valued so highly. A friend from church reminded me that “people want to help you-let us help!” and so we did.

I have been changed by being “one of the least of these.” Being cared for in ways big and small has made me realize that I am not in control, God is, and God provides in every way, if only we will let God do so.

May you see God in everyone you meet, and may you, too, experience God’s love and care.

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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Wedding of the Waters


Clinton got the credit, although the idea was first proposed in 1724 by Cadwallader Colden.  Governor Dewitt Clinton was determined to build the Erie Canal.

The governor appropriated a whopping $7 million to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie.  New York would have to foot the whole bill.  President Thomas Jefferson refused to provide federal assistance for the undertaking he considered to be “little short of madness.”  Ground was broken for “Clinton’s Ditch” on July 4, 1817.

When the Erie Canal was completed eight years later, Clinton stood at New York Harbor and dumped a keg of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic.  This symbolic gesture of the  “wedding of the waters” took place on November 4, 1825.

Called a river of gold —  the canal is 40 feet wide and 363 miles long.  Six weeks was the time needed to traverse the state before the Erie Canal was created.  Six days was all that it took after it was completed.  A ton of wheat had cost $100 for delivery from Ohio to New York City; via the Erie Canal, the cost was reduced to $10.  The Erie Canal was the channel for New York to become the Empire State.

Water was the genesis for a new development for New Yorkers.  The same is true for Christians.  Water launches our journey.  By the waters of Baptism, we are grafted into the Body of Christ.  We are connected.  Through the waters of Baptism, new life is begun.

During stewardship season, we sometimes forget the hopefulness that springs from Baptism.  Christians often express the skepticism of Jefferson instead of the boldness of Clinton.  Parishioners scarcely believe that the actions we take today will transform our lives and those of the generations who follow.

As we establish our budgets for 2018, what are we funding that would take eight years to complete?  What are we envisioning that might take 100 years to implement?

What do our church budgets say about our vision?  What does our giving demonstrate about our faith?

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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