Privilege, Pride or Wonder


Last Sunday in the lectionary we were reminded of the presumptuous questions to Jesus from James and John, the sons of Zebedee.    (Mark 10:35-48) First they established their privilege, “ If we ask you a question will you grant our wish?”   They did not ask a direct question, but wanted to establish their close relationship (their privilege) to Jesus so that a “No” answer would seem impossible.  Jesus gives them a “Maybe” answer  (much like a parental “We’ll see”).  And like in all these sorts of exchanges Jesus means “Only if practical” and James and John interpret “Of course”.

So out of privilege and self pride as disciples they ask this presumptuous question: “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory – one on the right and the other on your right.”   Jesus replies, “You have no idea what you are asking.”

Often our questions and presumptions about the world around us and what might happen next come from our positions of privilege and pride.  They come from our unconscious understanding of self—based on skin color, education, economic situation and where we live.  Cathy Surgenor and I spent a month visiting with Presbyterians in Colombia last February.  Most of those we visited had been forced off their ancestral land by greedy “Ipressarios” (large land owners).  These folks had been forced to walk long distances to find crowded city living after simple farm living situations. Privilege and pride in the farming communities were the result of small sustainable farms in a community of similar folks.  In the cities they had no land or yards, had to find employment where ever they could and were afraid of the corruption all around them.

But these folks in Colombia and the Presbyterian Church leaders in Colombia learned ask questions out of wonder as they encountered the church and church people.  They live with no sense of privilege except that they are welcomed into the church.  The church lives and preaches equality which is not equal opportunity to accumulate/steal wealth but opportunity to work for peace in communities and in their country.  The Colombians ask questions about scripture and lives of faith that come from their sense of wonder.  Wonder that when I feel so useless a God and community of faith welcome me.

It is easy for us today to act and speak from our position of privilege and pride.  To think that it will always happen to “them” rather than me or my family.

As our elections near, I would suggest that we enter into conversations and relationships with questions of wonder rather than positions of privilege.  I am reminded that when my parents moved to a retirement community years ago there was a rule about dinner conversations.  No one would discuss their health, grandchildren or politics.  Once this became the norm they began to discover wonderful things about each other and to forge great friendships.

In the days ahead,  take moments to talk with others without discussing politics, grandchildren (or children), health and anything else that makes us feel more special.  Wonder about each other. Find the special in each to build relationships that will endure through the next two weeks and beyond.

Remember that this passage ends with the famous pronouncement, “but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Put others first in your conversations, your wonderings and your questions.

Peter Surgenor retired in September 2017 after 18 years as the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center.  He is currently finishing service as the Temporary General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery.  Elder Deb Milcarek will become the next General Presbyter on November 1, 2018. Peter and his wife Cathy live in Newburgh, NY.

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photo-1511297968426-a869b61af3daAlthough I have not been a regular attendee in the past year, the Heretics of Stony Point are still going strong.  Meeting on the 2ndand 4thWednesdays, the lectionary study/preaching discussion/deeply pondered/often passionate/sometimes raucous group gathered last week.  Ten of us pondered the lectionary texts in the light of the sturm und drang of a judicial confirmation and a woman’s testimony.  We talked about #metoo, the need to be courageous, our despair and our anger, our hope and our truth.  At one point, a member recounted through tears a recent experience of being scolded and shamed for a Facebook post; the women nodded in recognition, the men listened quietly.

It brought to mind all the moments, large and small, where the culture and norm of sexism has been folded into my history as pastor, leader, and woman in ministry.  I remember the Elder whose public, heavy handed attempts at humor were put downs of my leadership and in private often brought his 300 pound frame and face inches from mine when disagreeing with me. On one Easter Sunday, as I was at the door shaking hands he accused me of anti- Semitism, because what he heard (which is not what I said) offended him.  Misquoting me, he spoke, loudly, everyone around us in shocked silence.   I stammered out, “I’m sorry! I don’t think I said. . . . I didn’t mean . . .” and then, I felt my eyes fill with tears and I couldn’t speak.  Then he said, “Oh, give me a hug.”  And went out the door, smiling.

I remember the negotiation around an honorarium for my leadership at a workshop at a tall steeple church. (I had politely declined to do it for $50.00.)  After the workshop and the wonderful work we did together and the applause and all the positive comments, there was, unfortunately, no check. Someone forgot to make sure that it was requisitioned. A few phone calls and a few weeks later, I was eventually paid. The topic of the workshop?  “Sexism and the Workplace.”

I remember the older gentleman who, upon shaking my hand after a worship service said, “You’re not married?!  Wow! Some guy is missing SOMETHING!!” Which he repeated, in Fellowship Hall at coffee hour, to anyone who would listen:  “Some guy is missing SOMETHING!”

These incidents, and others, taken separately, over the course of years, have, by the mercy of God, been handled with courage and grace and humor.  But it is the cumulative effect that wears.  My brothers, your sisters in Christ, your fellow laborers in the field, are preaching and teaching and praying still.  And some days, these days, we are unutterably tired and sad.

At the Heretics lunch, after the discussion about preaching the Gospel with passion but not anger, with truth but not stridency, where we shared our pain and our hope about the love of Christ reaching the hearts of those who sit in the pews, a brother at the table said, “All I have to contribute is this,” and spoke a blessing: “Go from this place in peace, remembering that in the goodness of God you were born, that in the providence of God you have been kept to this day, that in the love of God made manifest in Jesus the Christ, you are redeemed, for purposes unafraid.  And may the grace of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Creator, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you, with those you love, and with those for whom you pray, this day, and in all your days.  The tears, this time, were in gratitude, as we said Amen.

And so, my brothers (and sisters) this is what you (and we) can do.  Speak peace.  Speak peace to us.  Speak peace to your sisters in ministry.  Speak peace to your brothers.  Speak peace before the meeting, or in a phone call, or in your email.  Speak peace.   Speak peace at the table and in the waiting room. Speak peace in line and on line.  Speak peace to yourself and to the world, the birds of the air, the creatures of the field, the driver in traffic, the worker you do not know.  Speak peace with courage and daring.   And may the Peace of Christ go forth, and abide, with us all.

Rev. Leslie Mott is the Coordinator of the Pastoral Sabbath at Stony Point Center and Camp Johnsonburg, the Coordinator for Spirituality and Practice at Bedford Presbyterian Church, a yoga teacher, Spiritual Director, and a Certified Focusing Professional.

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Fearfully & Wonderfully Made

knitting and needles 4Every knitter has their own style.  There’s the way they hold the needles, and the tension with which they allow the yarn to feed into the project.  There’s the method they choose to cast on, or place the first loops on the needle, and cast off or end the piece.  There’s the manner of knitting they prefer.  Some favor English knitting, throwing each loop of yarn around the needle, while others opt for Continental, also called German, in which they pick the loops through.  Then come all the other choices they make about the yarn itself: fiber, texture, color.   Bamboo, alpaca, hemp, merino.  Hand-dyed, lace-weight, self-striping.

If they’re designing their own garment, a knitter chooses which stitches to use, and in what pattern.  When making those famous Aran sweaters, named for islands off the west coast of Ireland, knitters choose their own mix of traditional motifs, each symbolizing an aspect of regional culture.  Cables depict the ropes used by fishermen; moss stitch represents the carrageen seaweed that inhabits Galway Bay; the honeycomb celebrates bees, and sweet reward for honest labor.  Legend has it that each knitter signed their work with a signature stitch, a bit of stitchery that was uniquely theirs.  It’s said that sons and husbands drownedat sea and washed up on shore were identified by the signatures of their mothers and wives, knit into their sweaters.

So many tools at a knitter’s disposal: technique, style, material, pattern, symbolism and tradition, all coming together to form a singular creation.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

What a beautiful image: God in her knitting chamber, pulling lengths of yarn from some fabulous skein.  Needles making that gentle clickety-click as She rocks back and forth.  Fashioning inward parts.  Fashioning outward parts.  Hemming us in, behind and before.  You.  Me.  Fearfully and wonderfully made.

How might you approach the day differently if you woke up every morning and recalled that?  If before you even got out of bed, you recited to yourself You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  How might your choices be different, how might your treat yourself, if you always remembered that you were knit together by God?

I think I might imagine a better care label on my body.  Maybe put less junk into it and take it outside for some fresh air and sunshine more often.  Instead of criticizing what I see as flaws, I might look at myself and see a pattern that God found pleasing, with a signature that says to whom I belong.

What about you?  Would you be kinder to yourself?  Would you stand up for yourself?  Hold yourself to higher standards?  How could your life be different, if you always remembered that you were fearfully and wonderfully made?

Of course, the Divine Knitter is a busy one.  Each of us is a unique creation among innumerable others.  What might change if we were to say to ourselves when we look at one another You are fearfully and wonderfully made?  Job wondered aloud how he could face God if he didn’t treat others around him justly: Did not he who made me in the womb make them?  And did not one fashion us in the womb?  Somewhere in each of them is God’s signature stitch.  How would the world be different if we let ourselves be willing, and even eager, to look for that God-knittedness in others?  What could that acknowledgement and curiosity bring to our marriages and our parenting, our political discourse and policy-making and ministries?

Wonderful are your works, Lord.

That I know very well.

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 one really messy house.

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Mad As Hell



“Be slow to anger because your anger does not produce God’s righteousness…” – James 1:20

So, we come to this moment in the ebb and flow or our republic when everyone seems to be mad as hell.  People of all political bends walk around with a scowl ready to burst into vitriol in order to bring righteousness to the fore. And yet righteousness slips through our fingers like the water of a stream…and dissipates.  The more anger we express, the cloudier our sense of righteousness becomes.

Howard Beale, the main character of an old 1970’s movie (Network), who encouraged people to run to their windows and yell out into the streets, “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!” seems to have been resurrected and placed in the hearts and minds of the citizens of these United States.  There is not anyone who is not fed up and ready to say so, it seems.  It is so pervasive that there can only be one conclusion.  People truly believe that their anger will be transformative.

It is the problem with anger.  In the moment it always seems to be an answer and sometimes the only answer.  However, beyond the moment anger is exposed for what it is.  It is a destroyer of trust and relationships and so often demands large doses of forgiveness and kindness to repair.  I don’t know if I can remember a single instance in which anger ever returned on its promise.  It seems like it will solve some difficult situations.  And yet I know people who haven’t spoken for a lifetime because of a volatile moment of anger.  That is no solution.  Anger accomplishes nothing and yet we seem to continue to believe in it.  And so we drift ceaselessly toward the abyss.

The words from the Letter of James are quite appropriate for our time, then.  I usually don’t like the lengthy preachiness of the epistles.  And yet sometimes there are things that we need to be lectured about.  This is one of those subjects because left to our own devices we are quick to anger and believe too readily in the power of anger to bring God’s righteousness.  I see it daily. However, we are wrong. As the Letter of James makes clear, anger has never helped and never will.

There is a story that is truly instructive.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrust into an angry maelstrom in late 1955 in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  He became one of the leaders of the boycott and was identified as such.  As the boycott continued into January King received forty hate letters a day and hateful phone calls all night. On January 30 when he was out speaking for the boycott a fire bomb was thrown onto the porch of his house.  His wife Coretta and his infant daughter were inside.  Talk about a true reason for righteous anger!  And yet when the mob of angry supporters gathered around his house and he could have said the word and they would have burned down Montgomery…he did something different.  He sent them home.  He knew the anger they had in mind was not God’s will.  It is wisdom for the ages.  We may be mad as hell but no matter how mad we are it will not help. God calls us away from that anger to truly transformative answers of love and hope and faith.  Love your enemies.  Could it be stated any clearer? Let it be so.

The Rev. Dr. Tim Ives is the pastor of Scarborough Presbyterian Church
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Reaching Back to Find My Way Foward

I wouldn’t be who I am today
Or, where I am today
If, when I was 19 years old, I hadn’t stumbled upon the book Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton. I can no longer find it on my bookshelf, but what I remember of that book is that on every page I underlined something and scribbled countless notes in the margins. Even though I read it cover to cover, it never registered with me that Thomas Merton was a monk. A Trappist monk. As in vows of silence and poverty and never leaving the monastery. Over the next several months, I read as many of his books as I could. Devouring them. His writing about life and faith and God and prayer touched something deep within me. Something I was looking for/needing, but didn’t know I was looking for it until I found it. Twice, in the next several years, I was privileged to visit and to stay at the monastery where he had lived. I sat in the same Chapel in which he had sat. I prayed the same Offices he had prayed. As I said, I am who I am today because of him.

All that came back to mind because a week or so ago, I wrote about wanting to find a different way to start my day. Rather than opening up the paper or my tablet and being swallowed up by the news, I decided I would take my cup of coffee and sit for a few minutes in our backyard allowing the quiet of the morning instead of the headlines to be the start to my day. After a day or two, I also took a book.

Maybe it is, that as I get closer to retirement, I am reaching back to my roots for grounding and direction. Anyway, the book I picked up to take into the backyard with me was a book of short excerpts from Merton’s writing. Each morning I read a page or two. A sentence I read a day or so ago has stuck with me. “In a world in which men have forgotten the value of prayer, it is the monks who pray for the world and for all those in the world who have forgotten how to pray.”

The word prayer is a part of my vocabulary.
But, I realize it may not be a part of yours.
So, what about this…
Instead of pray/prayer, insert the word kind/kindness.
Or, welcome.
Or, compassion.
Or, understanding.
Which translates to something like this:
In a world in which people have forgotten the value of kindness, we are the ones who practice kindness for the world and for all those in the world who have forgotten how to be kind.
Whether it is we pray…
Or intentionally practice kindness…
Or intentionally extend hospitality…
Or make understanding and compassion central to our lives…
We do so not just for ourselves or the other.
We do so on behalf of the world.
And, on behalf of all those who have forgotten how to be kind or compassionate or welcoming or understanding.

I am grateful that when I have forgotten how to pray there are those who have not. I am grateful when kindness eludes me there are those who practice it for me and others. I am grateful…

When the world has forgotten, we can remember.

And this note…
This is the time of the year when A Curious Faith takes its summer sabbath. We will take a deep breath and hope you do as well. See you again in the fall.

Paul Alcorn is the pastor at Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village, NY.

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God Is Watching

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  6 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
 (Matthew 18:1-6)

Attorney General, Jeff Sessions used a passage from Romans to support the administration’s evil policy to separate children from their parents who are entering this country illegally.  Since he has brought God into this, which because of separation of church and state is unacceptable to begin with, it is the moral obligation of clergy, laity and all people of faith to speak up against this heresy.

Regardless of whether or not a person is breaking the law, Scripture clearly mandates that we treat all humans with respect, love, mercy and compassion.  Separating children from their parents and housing them in tent cities is immoral and the total antithesis of the very Bible he is quoting.

Perhaps he failed to read further on in Romans 13 from which he quoted.  Paul clarifies his call to obedience to those in authority by reminding us there is a greater allegiance to which we called: “8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8,10) Or perhaps he missed the chapter before, Romans 12.13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Or Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Or how about Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  And of course, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of admonitions to welcome the strangers: Leviticus 19:34: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

This has nothing to do with politics or political allegiances.  This is about human decency whatever one’s worldview or ideology.  How are we to follow in the way of Jesus if stand silent in the face of the suffering of children.  How are we to live out the teachings of Matthew 25 to care for the least among us if we do nothing in the face of such sin?

I have been called too political lately, but I am not being political.  I am striving to live out the Gospel.  Jesus’s teachings are radical.  He offered those who had ears to hear and eyes to see a counter-cultural “kin-dom” where every human being was of equal value, where every human being is a beloved child of God.  We are at a watershed moment.  Are we to stay silent in the face of such inhumanity or are we going to speak out to our leaders demanding an end to cruel mean-spirited policies.  The choice is ours and I believe God is watching.

Angela Maddalone is the pastor at Palisades Presbyterian Church in Palisades, NY.

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The Root of the Matter?

As spring finally, slowly, eased into town, I was thrilled to get back to my garden, ready to try my novice hand at another year of vegetables.  But there was a problem that I’d been pondering all winter.  For the last few years, a garden that had produced so well had been failing miserably.  After some light tilling, the seeds always sprouted – popping up hopefully as the days warmed.  But by mid-summer, it was as if they all gave up.  Nothing grew.  I tested the soil. I composted. I watered more.  I watered less.  But for three years, the same result.  By August, most everything died off.

This spring, I decided to dig a bit deeper.  Literally.  With the help of an able-bodied son, we dug a trench on one side of the garden all the way down to the clay beneath the topsoil.  We found the culprit.  Roots.  Deep roots.  Loads of roots from a tree nearby – a tree that I had planted years ago that had found a way to tap into all the water and nutrients of my garden.

Years ago I installed a fence above ground to keep out the marauding deer.  I now have an underground fence to see if I can keep the searching roots of an oak tree at bay.

All things considered, I’m not a big fan of fences. Jesus constantly seems to be about the business of breaking down the fences that we erect.  He calls us to openness and risk, rather than walling ourselves in out of a fear-induced need for protection.  We need to be very careful about our fences.

But in this case it may be needed.  For everything there perhaps is a season.  That which creeps in and steals away our joy, our hope, our life – perhaps it too needs to be kept at bay.  And for all Jesus’ openness, this spring we read of him talking about doing a bit of pruning – trimming back unhealthy unneeded growth so that the fruit God desires will come in abundance.

So perhaps it’s worth asking.  In the gardens of our lives, and in the garden of our churches, what creeps in unseen that crowds out the life of the Spirit from us?  What needs to be pruned?  What needs to be cut back so that other fruit might flourish?

Dan Love is Co-Pastor at the Rye Presbyterian Church.

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