The In-between Time


I am writing this on Holy Saturday – the day between the death of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter.  In church terms, I think of this as the day that death sinks in, the day of hopelessness and pain.  But as I look out the window at a barge moving down the sparkling river, at families walking in the park next door, at trees drinking in the sunshine, it looks as if resurrection is already happening.  And I remember that in real life death and resurrection both happen every day.

But still, the in-between time feels important.  The leaves that come down in autumn need the process of winter in order to become nourishment for spring growth.  Food needs to be digested before it can nourish us.  And we need time to measure a loss before we can start to build a new life.

When a tree comes down in our yard, we must first deal with the damage, and the mess:  clear the tangle of branches, chop and split the trunk – or have it carted away.  It is only as we wrestle with debris of its death that the new landscape presents itself – the hole where the sky comes in, the bald patch in our garden.  And it is only as we live with that new landscape that we can decide what form of new life we want to emerge.  Will we choose a young tree to replace the old?  Will we leave the openness and welcome the greater light?  Will we use the logs to build a playhouse for our children?  The new life, the resurrection, does not come right away.

And when the loss is of someone we love, we need the in-between time as well.  We need to know what we have lost.  A lover?  A cheerleader?  A guide?  We need to feel the pain and the absence in order for new life to emerge.  The pain is still there, but we learn to pay the bills ourself.  We continue to grieve, and we hire someone to repair the toilet.  We miss them desperately, but we find the space inside that turns out to contain our mother’s wisdom or our father’s encouragement.  The new life, the resurrection, does not come right away.  It needs to take root in the loss, in the death, before it can grow.

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

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BE the Change…or Get Out of the Way

Friends, today was a watershed moment. I’m proud that my husband and sister-in-law traveled to Washington, DC to join the March for Our Lives. I sat home and watched the coverage of the rally on TV and was in awe of these young men and women from all over the country. Lyric traveled to our place from Indiana — this is how she wanted to spend her spring break. Amen, sister!

Ghandi reminded his people that they needed to be the change they want to see in the world. Today people took to the street in DC and in hundreds of places around our country and around the world to be the change they want to see in the world. They are protesting the ubiquitous nature of guns in our communities, and the fear they experience just going to school.

What will it take to change the nature of the conversation about guns in our country? How many more children and teens will need to die to change that conversation? I don’t want to lose my husband or my colleagues to violence in churches, synagogues or mosques. I don’t want to lose my little sister to violence in our schools.

So why get political? Jesus was political — he was crucified because he claimed to be the ruler of a realm where God reigns supreme. We are still fighting that same battle as Christians today. Do we believe that God reigns supreme? I believe that God is love. If our God reigns, then love must reign. I know that Jesus was present with those amazing young leaders today. I believe that God is present wherever we speak out and say that love must conquer fear — because the greatest commandment is to love God, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And who is our neighbor? Jesus answered that question with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbor is the person in need of our care — regardless of who we are, or who they are.

As we head with Jesus into these last days of the season of Lent, let us remember the life of Jesus, all that he came to teach us, and all the ways that we still see his presence in our midst. Thank you to all the young people who helped me remember that all is not lost, that our best days are not behind us, and that God is certainly not finished with us yet.

The Rev. Jennifer Hope Kottler is a life and leadership coach and spiritual director in private practice in Irvington, NY and a corresponding member of HRP. This post was originally published on her blog at jenniferhopekottler.com.

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Rebuke and Restoration


“Get behind me, Satan!”

(Mark 8:33)
Jesus’ words to Peter are both a rebuke and a call.  The rebuke compares Peter to Satan.  The call is when Jesus says, “Get behind me.”  This is Jesus’ way of saying, “Follow me.”

Paul McCartney sings a similar theme: “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.”  Peter is the first disciple to be called and, even after he is rebuked,  Jesus extends the call once again: “Get behind me!”  Peter is out of line; he needs to get back in line.  Fall in!

Peter fails and he is restored.

We may take heart that a disciple whom Jesus compares to Satan is one who is held in great esteem.  Peter is the disciple who bookends the Gospel of Mark — he is the first to be named and the last to be mentioned.  Peter is named 25 times, more than any other disciple.  When a list of the Twelve is given, Peter is first.  Peter is present for the Transfiguration and he is with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Peter is prominent among the disciples even though he is rebuked by Jesus and even though he denies knowing Jesus three times.  Ironically, Peter’s distinction arises not because of his successes; instead, he is the epitome of discipleship because of his failures.  Through Peter we are shown that God needs us to be present, not perfect.

Peter denies knowing Christ at the time of the Crucifixion, yet he is the disciple who is singled out by name to go to Galilee to see the Risen Lord.  In John’s Gospel, Peter is the first disciple who enters the empty tomb of Jesus.  Peter remains in the fold.  He never is cast out for his transgressions.

A Brief Statement of Faith from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reminds us: “In life and in death we belong to God.  With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God is more forgiving than humans.  The rebuke and expulsion we suffer at the hands of others may not be accompanied with forgiveness and restoration.   With God, however, we never are forsaken.  We are rebuked and restored.  Thanks be to God!

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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Lent Amidst the Toppled Trees


I love trees.  In my younger days, there wasn’t a tree I wouldn’t climb to explore and try to get its view of the world.  I stick to the ground these days, but I love learning about them, planting them, and tending them.  One of my favorite tree books is the classic A Natural History of Trees by Donald Peattie.  His descriptions of each species are part botany, part poetry,  but all love for these amazing creations.  Here is part of his description of the white pine:   “The white pine may be distinguished at a glance, almost as far as it can be seen, by its pagoda-like outline and habit of growth.  The whorled branches grow in well-separated tiers, as if they formed successive platforms of a tower.  When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be “raining brimstone” on the deck.”

In the wake of the recent nor’easter, in addition to many people out of power and heat, the area has been littered with the sight of magnificent old trees felled by the high winds.  Hundreds of years of slow growth, recklessly thrown to the ground, cut up, chipped up and carted away.  Beyond the temporary inconvenience, it has been a tree-lovers nightmare.

It has a Lenten feel to it.  Ashes, death, wilderness, the cleansing of the temple.  Those have all been a part of life inside the church in this season – a Lenten journey now reflected in the toppled trees around us.  The Spirit brings not just peace, patience, kindness, and other such lovely things, but also wind and fire.  It stirs us, pushes us – even toppling long and dearly held notions of who God is, who we are, and why we are here.  It isn’t always much fun.  And at this point, I’m ready for some resurrection!

Outside, eventually, a hint of resurrection will be seen in the spaces left by all the fallen trees.  Sunlight will find places it hasn’t seen in decades.  Long-dormant seeds will spring to life.  Reaching for the sun, new future magnificence will begin its slow and steady climb to the sky.

In a few weeks, inside the sanctuary trumpets will sound, and we will hear it said again – He is risen!  He is risen with the April-foolish promise that such a resurrection isn’t just for a single body two thousand years ago.  We are foolish enough to believe that it is also the way of the entire world –inside the church, out among the trees, and in every part of creation where such new life is so very much needed.

May it be so!

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

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The Beauty of Dependence and the Grace of Helplessness

Hand

In my daily life, I am usually a giver of support.  In my work at the prison, particularly, I open myself to sense what is happening in the woman with me, trying to hear the feelings beneath and behind her words.   When this works, it is as if God is with us, an open channel, enabling us to understand each other deeply.  I think of this as God working through both of us, allowing up hidden pains and fears to emerge, and starting to heal them with trust, compassion, and mercy.

But in the last weeks, since I had knee replacement surgery, I have been the recipient, rather than the giver, of support.

In physical therapy, before the surgery, I realized that my therapist used a similar kind of deep understanding to discern the source of my pain and how I could move toward easing it.  The focus and the content of our work was very different from the work I do in the prison; but he, too, used a wordless channel to understand my suffering and to convey that I could trust his understanding.

Real connection, real support, comes from our ability to feel someone else’s experience inside our own self.  Not an intellectual “Oh, yes, I know exactly how you’re feeling!”, but a felt sense that encompasses more than what the other has conveyed in words.  For me, that connection is a facet of the Divine – whether its focus is childhood abuse or an arthritic knee.

After the surgery, I was helpless.  Without assistance, I could not get in or out of bed, or get to the bathroom, or prepare something to eat.  Even my ability to think and make decisions was compromised by the haze of pain meds.

Early on in this state, an image came to me that has persisted throughout my recovery.  I am lying on my back in a tiny boat, no bigger than my body, being swept down a river.    I rock a little from side to side as the current moves me; but even lifting my head, I cannot see beyond the boat to upcoming rocks or turns.  I am simply carried by the current.  I will come to rest when the river is finished with me.

Surprisingly, I trust the journey – and the boat.  It is clear to me that God is in both the river and the vessel.  That does not mean that I am safe from hitting the rocks.  But somehow the wisdom of the river and the boat are greater than my wisdom.  My job is to respond, to roll with the current, not to plot the course.

In another few weeks, I will resume my responsibilities – returning to the prison, and preaching, and committees, and my full portion of housework.  But I will be changed in more ways than just the acquisition of a strong and stable left knee.  I have learned something of the beauty of dependence and the grace of helplessness.  In the kingdom of God, which we encounter in bitsand snatches, it is rich and sustaining to experience those connections of understanding and support.  It is rich and sustaining to be the supporter, as I am in the prison.  And it is rich and sustaining to be supported, as I have been by the aides, the surgeon, the nurses, and a multitude of others in these last weeks.  They have been the boat, carrying and protecting me on this journey.

I am grateful for the spiritual as well as the physical experience.

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

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Connecting to Our Bodies

Downy Woodpecker

The day did not start off all that well.  I was in a hurry, with an agenda in my head mapped out, anxious about the weekend to come:  Leading a two hour intuition workshop on Friday evening, leading yoga for a retreat Saturday morning, attending a grant writers workshop Saturday afternoon, guest preaching at a church on Sunday morning, and leading a workshop on death and grieving at another church on Sunday afternoon.  Who set this ridiculous schedule?  Ah, yes, that would be me.

It was Thursday, and I had a lot of preparation, still.  I taught a yoga class at 7am, and afterward, with the dog in the car, swung around to the deli to grab coffee so I could head to the office for an appointment; rushing.  I had my money in hand; I slammed the car door shut behind me and suddenly, found myself flat on the ground, in between the curb and the car, stunned and hurting.  I had tripped somehow and fallen, splatted, really, full out on the pavement, smacking my palms, banging my knee and the opposite shoulder.  My thumb had a bloody gash where my car key had sliced it open.  I sat up, unlocked the car and sat in the driver’s seat to assess the damage.  I wrapped my thumb in a napkin-I had already gotten blood on my shirt-and pulled up my pants leg to survey my knee, which also was skinned and bloody.

This is what happens sometimes when I am stressed and lose the connection to my body. I bump my elbows, or trip, or in this case, take a full swan dive onto gravel.  My brain is minutes, or hours, or days ahead of my body, and my physical self, being grounded in time and space, cannot keep up.

So.  I slowed down.  I waited patiently in line for my coffee, handing over my two crumpled dollars awkwardly with my left hand and said keep the change. I drove, slowly, to the office. Where I sat and breathed with a friend.  Literally.  Her daughter was ill and anxious and I was teaching some breathing techniques to pass on and to use with her.  I taught Ujayii breathing and we did that for a few minutes.  Then I demonstrated alternate nostril breathing and we did that for a time.  Then I had her sit back and did a full Yoga Nidra body relaxation, so that she could experience it, and share it with her daughter.  In helping her connect with her breath, I connected with mine.

So. Later I took the dog for a hike in the woods, listening to the birds.  A woodpecker overhead was hammering a tree looking for breakfast.  I couldn’t see him, but knew he was somewhere in the canopy high up.  I put my hand on the trunk of a nearby tree–and I felt it.  His beak drumming the branch above reverberated down the trunk and right into my palm. Surprised, I stepped a few yards away and looked up- there he was, a Downy, busy at work. I came close and put my hand back on the trunk, amazed that I could feel him all the way from the top branch, through the trunk, and into my skin.  We were connected, by wood and sap and bark and beak and skin and breath.

I looked down at roots under my feet- connecting to earth and leaves and water and soil.  I felt the breeze and watched as the yellowed leaves let go from the trees and connected with sunlight and air as they twirled slowly down.  The heartbeat in my hand connected to the woodpecker’s drumming tattoo on a tree branch.  My dog’s gaze met and connected with mine as he paused before dashing ahead.

I had been in a hurry, but had been forced to slow down.  In a new way, I knew that we can be connected if we take the time-to take a breath, to be fully present to one another, to gaze up, to look down, to feel.  That our bodies, grounded in space and time, need this as much as they need water and air.

Later, I connected with my chiropractor, a couple of aspirin, and a bath of epsom salts, much needed after my dramatic tumble.  So be it- if that’s what it takes.  I hope that today there is a connection for you-a little less dramatic, perhaps: sunlight, or a kind word, or a touch or a cup of tea, that lets you connect with the loving person you know yourself to be.

Take a deep breath in and out; I’ll do the same.

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

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Suffer the Little Children

Child with Gun Violence Poster

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”   -Mathew 19:13

We have failed miserably and that millstone that Jesus sometimes threatened his disciples with should drag us to the bottom without mercy. Forever.

The statistics build up and are unforgiving.  The pictures filled with teenaged energy stare back at us and there is no escape.  We have failed and no amount of social media remorse or outrage can ever recover the children that were given to us to love and protect.  We may think that this was not the community I live in so the tragedy is somehow not mine but the sad truth is that this darkness could afflict any community at any time, that is how deeply we have failed.

Finger pointing won’t do it either.  It’s their fault.  Whoever we don’t agree with is somehow at fault.  People on the other side of our political views are the ones and should be held responsible.  Or so the vitriol of the day goes on and on and on.

What was it that Jesus said… take the log out of your own eye before you remove the speck from the other’s eye?

Me who me?

Yes, we have together become a basket of vipers at each other with venom enough to destroy everyone…and it is.

The self-righteousness alive right now spits at the idea of loving one’s enemies and yet God pleads with us to somehow reach out and include the ones we can’t accept. But we don’t.

What happened to discussion over condemnation?  What happened to listening?  What happened to compromise and negotiation?  What happened to submerging self interest and championing community interest?  What happened to working out a solution?

And we who call ourselves religious are as guilty as anyone.  God did not call us to be Christian so that we could wax superior over our rivals.  I am sick of it and convicted by the news time and time again.

Children die in our schools, children die at the end of our drone attacks (how dare we call a child collateral damage!) children die of starvation all over the world, children die on the end of weapons we buy and deploy, children die trying to escape the chaos that war has made out of their homes, children die, children die, children die… and yet we still want to believe it isn’t our fault.

It is our fault, all of us together.  So, it is up to us to change it.  Jesus said it best with the very first words he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Turn towards God, humble yourself, and believe that somewhere there is good news to be lived.  Now is the time.  Don’t delay.  In fact there is no other time.

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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