Before God and this community I am accountable each Thursday for keeping the 4th commandment.
While my son August was in ecology camp today at Cranberry Lake Preserve (Valhalla), and my wife Noelle was working at home, I hiked my way through five parks and preserves in Vista and Lewisboro. I began at the Leon Levy Preserve, a well cared for local park with challenging terrain and beautiful ruins of stone buildings. I then worked my way south down 121 to the Old Church Lane Preserve, Onatru Farm [pronounced "On A True" Farm], and the trails behind St. Paul’s (Episcopal) Chapel. The latter is laid out as a meditative walk, complete with icons, niches and prayer benches. After replacing a faulty brake light at a local repair shop I wound up my afternoon at the Lewisboro Town Park, which opens into Ward Pound Ridge Preserve.
Today was a day of color. Bright green mosses and bold white lichens abounded, as did orange, red, white and indigo flowers and fluorescent fungi. Frogs, geckos, butterflies and musical birds were my constant companions.
I spent the late afternoon at the White Plains Public Library planning the camping trip I am taking with August in two weeks. Noelle made a fabulous pasta for dinner with local, organic vegetables which we shared with a good friend who supplied genuine Kentucky moonshine from a distillery handed down through is wife’s family.
I should note (with deep, mellow, soulful joy) that the Grateful Dead have been my constant companion today, except when hiking. I have been working my way through fall 1970 and spring 1990. Jerry’s birthday is next week, as is my long anticipated vacation and wedding anniversary, and celebrations are planned for both.
All in all, this has been a satisfying, relaxing, restorative day. It took me six miles to work out my mental preoccupation with the church I serve and all that needs to be done there. By mile seven I was simply walking … and only then did I begin to “see in color.” I think this is a parable of sabbath rest. As in the photo above, I began to be able to look through the old in order to perceive the new which even now is growing.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 20, 2014
Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24 Genesis 28: 10-19a
Last week Pastor Jeff encouraged us to try the practice of keeping a manna jar, to write down signs of God’s blessings and presence in our lives on little slips of paper and place them in a container. In the morning of the next day we were to take out the papers, read and remember those signs, and then let them go so that the jar would be empty and ready to be refilled.
As I thought of things to place in the manna jar this week, I noted how specific or particular were the blessings I encountered. They were all tied to a specific place, a particular person, an unrepeatable moment in time. In the manna jar, I placed the joy of seeing a dolphin leap and dance out the water on the beach in Florida where I was earlier this week. I placed in the jar a conversation I had up in the enormous, sturdy branches of a Banyan tree with a friend I’ve known for 18 years. I placed in the jar the feeling of warm air and relief as I left the surgeon’s office with good news for my upcoming jaw surgery.
Yes, we know that God is everywhere and in everything but we humans encounter God in particular places and moments in our lives, moments of connection with one another, with the created world, with the presence of the living God. They are ordinary and sacred moments that deepen our care for one another and the earth.
Jacob encounters God in a dream, a vision in the night. He is on the run, disconnected from family and community. He stole his brother Esau’s blessing from their father, Isaac and now he’s an outcast. When Jacob lay down to sleep that night, he was very much alone. But the dream changes and reconnects him.
He sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth and angels moving up and down the ladder. Walter Brueggeman notes, “Those angels in that vision are connectors. And this man in exile is disconnected, and what he discovers in his vulnerability is that he is connected.”[i] God, standing beside Jacob, reminds him that he is part of generations of blessing, a blessing so large that it encompasses all nations, all the earth. Jacob awakens with a deeper knowing of his connection to God and to the human community and to the earth itself, the dust of the earth.
Jacob stumbled into that site as night was falling. He did not recognize that God was in that place until the gracious gift of that dream but now he recognizes God’s presence saturates that ground, the night air, the early dawn, the rock pillow that becomes the foundation for an altar. Jacob now approaches this place with care. Jacob declares the site, Bethel, the house of God because that is where Jacob noticed the nearness of God.
The drama of Jacob’s dream – the incredible image of a ladder connecting the heavens and the earth, the awesome fear-inspiring presence of celestial beings – may distract us from the very ordinariness of this encounter with God, the mundane circumstances that host sacred revelation. God uses the ordinary stuff of creation – Jacob’s lonely night under the stars, the bread and wine we share, our laughter and tears – to reveal the sacred and to call us to deeper love and care for all that God has created.
This summer I’ve been slowly working through the essays of Kathleen Dean Moore, a Philosophy Professor and nature writer from the Pacific Northwest. She writes with vivid detail about the creation she observes and what is revealed in it. She tells the story of a nighttime spent with her daughter, listening on a small island off the west coast. I heard echoes of Jacob’s dream in her words describing the revelation of that night:
“But if you sit still in the dark, breathing quietly, the world will come to life around you. Astonishment will rise in you like the slow tide, sliding in under the soles of your feet. And then you will understand: you are kin in a family of living things, aware in a world of awareness, alive in a world of lives, breathing as the shrimp breathe, as the kelp breathes, as the water breathes, as the alders breathe, the slow in and out. Except for argon and some nitrogen, every gas that enters your lungs was created by some living creature – oxygen by plankton, carbon dioxide by the hemlocks. Every breath you take weaves you into the fabric of life.”[ii]
I’ve heard many people say in the last couple of days, “This was a hard week, a heavy week.” It feels as if the fabric of life is unraveling. In light of all that is happening in the world – acts of war, mass movement of refugees, local tragedies of violence, and the pain that is simply a part of life – the office of the Presbyterian Church offered a prayer for use in worship, which we will use during the Prayers of the people. The prayer begins with these words: God of light we praise you for the wonder and glory of this world and the many blessings we have received. Still, at times the darkness is like a night and it feels you have hidden your face from your people. [iii]
This prayer speaks of a different nighttime than the one that Moore describes or the night of Jacob’s dream of brilliant celestial light. In the long night of pain and tragedy in our world –the land and people – we are called to reveal God’s nearness to one another, to rebuild what Kathleen Dean Moore calls an “ecological ethic of care.” Listen to how she describes this way of caring,
“I think [Philosophy’s] ethic of care has it right: The care we feel for people is the ground of our moral responsibilities toward them. And I think Aldo Leopold [the American ecologist] has it right: Our moral responsibility to care for the land grows from our love for the land and from the intricate, life-giving relationships between people and their places. Then doesn’t it follow? – that our moral calling must be to reknit and cherish healthy webs of connection not only to people, or not only to land, but also to families, human communities, landscapes, and biotic communities – all our relations.
What we need next is a new ethic – call it an ‘ecological ethic of care’, call it a ‘moral ecology’. It’s an ethic built on caring for people and caring for places, and on the intricate and beautiful ways that love for places and love for people nurture each other and sustain us all.”[iv]
Alone in the desert, Jacob encountered God in a place and through a people. He cared for the place and returned to it in later years. He cared for the people – in his own broken human way. This is our work: to care for people and places that we encounter because they are holy; to let the love that we feel for the people and places we know and cherish move us to love people and places that we do not know; to be aware of God’s presence in unexpected messengers; and, to be, ourselves, the ordinary stuff of creation through which God draws near in the long night.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of light we praise you for the wonder and glory of this world and the many blessings we have received. Still, at times the darkness is like a night and it feels you have hidden your face from your people. The most vulnerable and innocent among us seem to be hemmed in by violence and conflict. This week we realized that no place is safe—not home, not a 2,000-mile trek through rainforests and deserts, not 30,000 feet up. Yet, we profess that you know all things, count the hair on our heads, and know our rising and our sitting. How can this be?
God we are saddened by the news reports of people taken too soon from this world and we shake our head with disbelief when we see the bodies of children carrying the ravages of war. It seems as though the only ones in the crosshairs of violence are those with no power, little to gain, and much to lose. They pay with the thing you hold most precious, the very breath you breathed into our lungs.
May your Spirit of peace and wisdom descend on the Middle East. May the words and actions of Abram haunt the leaders of Palestine and Israel. May they rescue one another, become great nations, and bless all peoples on earth. Protect the innocent and send prophets among them and their leaders to find a just resolution. Grant this through Christ our Lord
Wars rage on the ground, the sea, and in the air in the Ukraine, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and many other places. Families mourn the loss of loved ones and are robbed of hope for a future for their children. Help us see the painful reality that conflict zones cannot be contained. Comfort the grieving and burden the rest of us with this senseless loss of life. Open the way for aid agencies and those offering relief, give them courage and resources to ease the immediate suffering they encounter. Grant this through Christ our Lord
Walk with children fleeing homes terrorized by gang violence, crushing poverty, and drug wars. We know they carry a singular hope, to have abundant life that you have promised us. The journey is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Hold them in your arms and nurture the hope planted in them by their families and your Spirit and do not allow it to be crushed by hatred and racism. Grant this through Christ our Lord
Break our hearts Holy God by the reality that faces so many of your people. Let the scales fall from our eyes so that we may see how our own choices and passive acceptance of U.S. policy contribute to unrest and injustice. Grant this through Christ our Lord
God grant us the grace and courage to work for all these things that we pray. Help turn sadness into righteous anger and action. May we know your ways, and beat our weapons of destruction into instruments of reconciliation and creation. It is an honor to be agents of your peace so that this world will know and confess your name.
In the name of the one who taught us to pray:
[i] Moyers, Bill. Genesis: A Living Conversation (New York: Doubleday, 1996), p. 292.
[ii] Moore, Kathleen Dean. The Pine Island Paradox (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004), p. 54.
[iv] Moore, Kathleen Dean. The Pine Island Paradox (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004), p. 64-65.
This is my weekly post describing how I spent my sabbath.
Last week a member of the congregation I serve told me that she has known a lot of pastors but not one of them faithfully kept a sabbath. In her experience, I was the first. What a sad commentary on the example clergy are setting. Sabbath is a commandment. It is the connection between the first three commandments pertaining to our relationship with God and the final six pertaining to our relationships with one another. It is difficult to observe because it flies counter to almost all of the engines of our contemporary society. For any who wish to explore this further, I cannot recommend highly enough Walter Brueggemann’s recent Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
I began this day by walking August to science camp, as I have everyday for the last two weeks. Actually, I walk or bike and he rides his scooter. This week he is exploring our universe in a camp called “Astronaut Training.” The camp is run by Discovery Science and meets in our church hall.
I then took two hours to finish Volume 13: Berlin 1932-1933, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works. It has been two months since I picked this book up, and I was immediately engrossed again. I have now finished six of the sixteen volumes in my journey through old favorites and new material. This selection covered Bonhoeffer’s pastoral and university work in Berlin during the year of Hitler’s rapid rise, including correspondence, writings/speeches and sermons. The volume ends with a sermon preached on election day in the church, the day in which the German Christians won 66% of the vote and ceased to be a Christ’s church. The last items of correspondence have to do with the position Dietrich had been offered in London, and his acceptance. It also contained his powerful essay “Thy Kingdom Come” and his justly famous speech “Christ our Peace.”
I then headed out for a hike. I began at Brownell Preserve in Lewisboro. As has become habit, I dictating thoughts as I walked. This morning I said:
“I feel about as far away from civilization here as I have anywhere in Westchester. The paths are well marked but not well trodden. In fact, throughout most of the preserve there is no trail at all, only blazes. If one were to lose sight of these one would be hopelessly lost. I have to be attentive the whole time. I cannot simply let my feet follow a trail because there is none. Streams and rivulets crisscross the property and as there are no bridges these have to be forded on roots and rocks. I lost my footing several times and stepped in the mud, but this was quickly wiped from my shoes in the tall grasses. I have never been more concerned about ticks and poison ivy on a hike. For all of my wading through knee-deep or waist-deep grass, I have only seen one snake, though I have surely stepped over many.
In the end I did lose the blazes in a large section of overgrowth. I gave up and cut across private property back to RT 138 and hiked back to my car. I had limited success at the nearby Marx Tract Preserve, which is also hopelessly overgrown.
I then headed over to Mountain Lakes Preserve in North Salem. There are ten miles of well marked trails here, and numerous camp sites. With our County Pass they are relatively inexpensive. Perhaps we will return as a family for a few nights before school begins.
I took the long orange loop, carefully avoiding the several summer camps that are meeting out here. About half of this route was unpaved road, which allowed me to follow my feet and keep my eyes and ears open to the lack of sound around me. I met an orange slug, a green beetle, and lots of mosquitos. I also clearly chose the wrong way around. I went counter-clockwise, which meant I was walking uphill most of the way. A short green trail led further up to Mt. Bailey, the highest point in Westchester County, according the to the map. Unfortunately, there is no vista, as the mountain is fully covered with trees.
Maountain Lakes Park was the 100th park I have hiked in Westchester, and marked the 66th hike in the Westchester 100.
Evening found me breaking my ten day fast by with an beer and wings at the Lazy Boy Saloon. This was a surprise birthday celebration for a friend. We sat outside and enjoyed a lovely evening. Noelle made a Yoda-shaped cake.
On Sunday, July 13, the Rev. Sarah Henkel presented the following Minute for Mission to the White Plains Presbyterian Church. Please read it carefully and you consider how to respond to this crisis.
Many of you have heard us lift up in prayer or heard stories in the news about the growing number of unaccompanied children from Central America who are coming to the United States seeking safety. It’s estimated that between 60,000 and 90,000 children, ranging in age from 1-18 will arrive in the U.S. this year, the majority traveling from three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The majority of children are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries; others are seeking out family members who already live in the United States. A United Nations report approximates that over half of the children qualify for protection under international law, refugee or asylee status.
This is a complex issue. To fully understand what is happening we are asked to educate ourselves about the root causes of the migration of children seeking refuge, which have a long history in economic and foreign policy involvement of the United States in Central America. We are asked to wade into the complex politics around the formation of immigration law. We will do this together as a faith community.
This is a complex situation and it is one that demands a clear and compassionate response from us as people of faith. Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, of the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued a statement this week reminding us that, “In the Presbyterian tradition, the congregation as a whole covenants with a family to nurture their children in the faith. We look after one another’s children. We corporately tend to their safety and growth. The children arriving at our borders are no less in need of nurturance and no less bearing the likeness of God.”
What can we do? We’re inviting you to three actions today:
1) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is working with congregations and Presbyteries on the U.S.-Mexico border as they minister to children seeking safety and sanctuary. PDA is asking for our financial assistance as they organize these efforts. If you would like to donate, you can write a check to White Plains Presbyterian Church with “PDA” in the memo line or donate online here.
2) The Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church is asking us to take action by contacting our senators and representatives to ask for additional funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement as they respond to an increasing demand for the work that they do to protect the basic needs of children arriving here. After worship I will be at a table outside where you can sign a letter to your representative which we will mail on Monday. [Copies of the letter and local addresses may be downloaded here]
3) I will also have a “reaching out” sheet for you to sign. It is a thank you note – a love note – that we will mail to several congregations on the border who have opened their sanctuaries and fellowship halls to be shelter for children who have made a very long journey. Some of these congregations have received hate mail because of the compassion they have shown to children. We will send them love mail.
We worship a savior – Jesus – who as a small child that crossed a border, fleeing persecution. He traveled with his parents and we cannot doubt that Jesus now travels with all children who travel alone.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 13, 2014
Upon leaving Egypt and the oppressive rule of Pharaoh, Moses and the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, and they grew hungry. So hungry that they began to crave the foods of Egypt. Better to eat the meager rations of a slave than starve in pursuit of freedom. Seeing their desperate need, God provided food for free, a soft, white substance upon which the people would feed for 40 years. They called the food manna, which means “What is it?” They would gather “What-is-it?” for breakfast and “what-is-it?” for lunch. God supplied their daily needs in abundance, but not for accumulation. Only as much as was needed for the day could be collected, and any extra turned to worms by morning. As a reminder of all that God had done for them, God told them to collect an Omer of manna, which is about two quarts, and to keep it in a jar before the covenant. Later this manna jar was carried in the Ark of the Covenant, right beside the Ten Commandments.
It’s a tiny story, popular in Sunday school, but with a huge impact throughout scripture. This free provision of daily food for each according to their needs and never more, became the basis of biblical economy and ecology. The Hebrew people’s first experience of the Sabbath was as a day of rest from food collection, a day on which freed slaves were specifically freed from their work as a sign of their freedom. Remembering the sign of the manna, later generations added Jubilee practices to curb the accumulation of property and possessions within Israel, so everyone had what they needed and no one had more.
In the New Testament, Jesus picks up these images of God’s abundance in his wilderness feeding of the multitudes, and in the passages of John’s gospel where Jesus refers to manna as “Bread from Heaven” and to himself as the “living bread which came down from heaven”. Jesus added that if anyone ate this bread, they would live forever.
But the manna jar is never mentioned again.
For several years I was a part of a close knit Bible study that often asked the question: why don’t we have a manna jar in our sanctuary? After all, God did say to Moses, “Let an Omer of manna be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
It’s an interesting idea. A manna jar would be a visible reminder of God’s grace. But I think the question behind the idea of a “real” manna jar is “What are the concrete reminders of God’s grace toward us, God’s provision of our need, God’s abundant mercies?”
I’m always leery about speaking with newspapers because you never know what the paper will print: they have a way of hearing what they want to hear and not necessarily what you say. A number of years ago, when Noelle and I were living on Long Island, we were pleasantly surprised with an article by Newsday that focused on clergy couples and the difficulty of balancing family life with professional life and the needs of multiple congregations. The Newsday reporter focused on three clergy couples, a Methodist couple from Flatbush, two reformed Rabbis from Brooklyn, and Noelle and myself. And despite the fact that the paper reversed our ages, lost six years of Noelle’s ordained ministry, got my graduation wrong, all in all it wasn’t bad.
We were pleased though that the paper did faithfully represent what Noelle and I both think is most important in balancing vocation and family, and that is that nurturing our relationship is part of our vocation. The article recounted how we fell in love across a crowded room when our eyes met and we felt the world stopped around us. As all of you already know yourselves, without nurturing your relationships with those you love, there is no other balance that really matters. That no amount of juggling professions, job, school, church can earn you the love of your spouse or the affection of your child, or the deep care of a true friend.
If it isn’t clear, let me say: Noelle’s love for me is manna – for she shows to me a love, a grace, acceptance, understanding which exceeds my imagination, that I can do nothing to earn and that I so much need. She is a sign of God’s grace to me.
What is your manna? What jar does it come in?
If it’s manna, it can’t be something that you can accumulate. It can’t be something you can hold or possess. It must be something you receive daily, or at least when you need it, something that shows your dependence – for manna is the ultimate sign of our dependence on God.
In one sense manna is a kind of a painful reminder because when we look at the manna jar we not only remember the grace we have received but we remember our dependence and our helplessness in times of crisis or despair when the only way through is for someone from the outside to open a door or reach out a hand and pull us out. The manna jar is a symbol that denies self-sufficiency.
For while it reminds us of God’s care and abundance and faithfulness; it also reminds us of our continual dependence. And for those of us who like to secure ourselves or our family’s well-being on our own efforts or good market conditions or by living in the right place, the manna jar is the ultimate reminder that the only sovereign who is both benevolent and dependable is God. It reminds us that we’re not the sovereign. And so when we think about what we put in our manna jar, we have to touch that part of ourselves that is vulnerable, that is honest enough to realize that at some fundamental level we cannot provide for ourselves. And this is especially difficult for men who have traditionally thought of themselves as providers.
Perhaps we don’t feel dependent on God the way the Israelites did. Perhaps it’s only when we go through a personal or social wilderness that we understand how precious and essential God’s grace is.
And I think the name manna is right, because we ask “what is this?” What-is-this thing that makes me aware of my deepest needs but also of the incredible love and sustenance God provides? What is this? And that’s why manna is a sign of grace, because it is completely unmerited. It’s a pure gift.
This week I encourage you try a spiritual practice to increase our mindfulness of the ways God is sustaining us every day. Find a jar – a real jar – and place it somewhere visible in your home – a place where you will see it a number of times a day. This is going to be your manna jar. And at the end of each day, I invite you to write on a piece of paper how you experienced God’s love sustaining you through the day. And be concrete. If it was a conversation with a friend, say who the friend was and something they said that was sustaining. If it was a glimpse of beauty in a surprising place, describe it. If it was that money came from some unexpected source and you were able to make your rent, write it down. These notes don’t need to be long – a sentence or two is fine. And it need not be something big – it could be something that to the outside world might seem an insignificant thing, but to you is important. Put the note into the jar and secure the lid. Then leave the note in there over night. In the morning, take it out of the jar and read it and lay it aside. Now your manna jar is empty. But we know, God is faithful, this day and every day.
And throughout the week and next Sunday, let’s share what we’re noticing and experiencing about God’s sustenance with each other. I look forward to hearing about your adventures of manna collection.
For as the Psalmist declares:
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
Faith Sharing, Sunday June 29.
White Plains Presbyterian Church member Leslie Mardenborough served as the elder commission from the Hudson River Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Upon her return she shared some of the challenge and joy of experience with the congregation on a Sunday morning. Here are my words of introduction to this uniquely Presbyterian experience, followed by Leslie’s Faith Sharing.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
In just a few short sentences of power and compassion, we are challenged to think more deeply about what it means to welcome one another. Because it is only after doing so that we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us. In today’s reading, we hear of compassionate welcome or hospitality as a form of service to Christ. This kind of welcome can and should be performed by us at any time and is not confined to large heroic acts by those eligible for sainthood. The simple, basic act of kindness we perform in genuine welcome of one another are all that God asks of us. We must look around us to see who is in need and then do something about it. And yet, since in our culture simple decency and respect can no longer be taken for granted, one must sometimes think like a hero, to behave like a merely decent human being. (from Feasting on the Word)
The Gen. assembly at the Presbyterian Church (USA) is the most inclusive counsel of the church. It meets every other year, and is made up of teaching and ruling elders commissioned by each of the 173 presbyteries that make up our denomination. It is also guided by advice from our youth, from theological students, and from missionary and ecumenical delegates. The purpose of the General Assembly is to discern where God is leading the church and find ways to follow. All of the questions addressed by the assembly originate in local congregations like ours, congregations who have asked for guidance in their ministry, who are addressing needs in a way they believe may benefit the whole church in our attempt to be faithful, or who have heard the cry “How Long, Oh Lord?” and believe they hear God saying “now is the time.” (Psalm 13)
Some of these actions always make newspaper headlines. This year, the embrace of same gender marriage and our divestment from three companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. Other actions don’t appear in the newspaper, but are no less important. Addressing gun violence, climate change, a new translation of the Heidelberg catechism, and a discussion of fossil fuel dependance. As you can imagine, this kind of churchwide discernment is often contentious. But the biggest story coming out of our general assembly this year as you will here in just a moment, was the welcome shown by delegates to one another, the careful listening, the prayerful speaking, and a clear understanding that though we may not always agree, God is called us together, to be together, in this one church.
This year’s General Assembly met two weeks ago in Detroit and our own Elder Leslie Mardenborough was a commissioner to the Assembly. She’s going to share with you this morning what it has meant and means for her faith to have participated in this assembly and be a part of this church.
Let me start with my Thank Yous. First, I thank and am thanking God for answered prayers. At the orientation for the HRP’s Commissioners and Overture Advocates a host of people – Thank you Hudson River Presbytery — have been praying for me and for my concern that I would have the stamina to withstand the grueling General Assembly schedule. When Pastor Jeff asked you to pray for me during our worship under the tent a few weeks ago, he brought you into this unceasing prayer. Thank you, White Plains Presbyterian Church.
The Wednesday morning before I left, when I had reached the end of my energy rope, I followed the example of our sister in Christ, Alice Pala Englert, and put it all in God’s hands…my anxiety about my fatigue; about leaving my mother alone for 10 days, the longest I would be away since her diagnosis of vascular dementia – and I that hadn’t done everything I thought I should to make this comfortable for her and her caregivers; about whether my convictions going into the Commission on Civil Unions and Marriage were God-led; about my unfounded and anxiety-produced fear that my friend who was to drive with me to Detroit would drop out at the last minute.
Oh, I was a mess that Wednesday morning. But I stopped myself before I got out of bed, and prayed simply something like this: God, I can’t do this on my own. I am putting myself and the work before me in your hands. I have been praying for discernment and guidance, now I’m praying that you will renew me spiritually and physically…take away this debilitating anxiety and mitigate my fatigue, get me to and from Detroit without harming myself or others, speak clearly to me if I am not acting or speaking in your will…lead me, guide me along this way.
Immediately I felt less anxious, and I never felt either exhaustion or anxiety during the next fortnight. (Wow, always wanted to use that word, fortnight.) I continued to pray unceasingly throughout the assembly and the trip home. Yes, there were plenty of times I was concerned about this or that. Yes, I felt sleep deprived, especially on the last day when we were in session from 8:30 in the morning to late into Friday night. But, there was no time when I felt that I couldn’t go on or that I was lost as I did the previous Wednesday morning. So, Hallelujah, I’m praising and thanking the triune God.
Now, let me talk about my GA experience.
Some of you may have followed the Presbytery’s GA blog. Some of you don’t know what a blog is, and that’s okay. Basically the commissioners shared the work of posting periodic updates about what was going on in our committees and then, during our plenary sessions. If you are interested in seeing these blog posts, you can find it here.
On the second Saturday morning of the Assembly, after way too little sleep, I arrived at the last Assembly session and tried to write my final blog post during the opening announcements and recognitions. Never finished it as I got caught up in the business at hand. But, here’s what I would have, and may still, post:
Well, here we are in the last session of the 221st General Assembly. More work to do in the next couple of hours, but my focus is split. Not because I’m exhausted (and I am), but because my heart keeps switching between elation and mourning.
Once I again, I’m grateful to God to be part of the Presbyterian branch of God’s family. What seems like a long time ago, I taught confirmation classes where we studied the book of Acts to understand the foundations of the Christian church. This week I have experienced what the church is meant to be: people who come together to worship God. People in continuous worship, fellowship, study, prayer and working to presage the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.
Despite strong preferences on opposite sides of a host of issues, our consistent invoking of the Holy Spirit to be with us and to guide us, our constant focus on God’s will and being responsive to God’s love, our commitment to listening to and talking with each other, I believe that most of us walked away from the 221st GA loving each other and our church.
I know that all of us are struggling with how to bring reconciliation in our presbyteries and churches on the contentious issues, but that wasn’t the primary thing on my mind as I shared passionate goodbye hugs with Steve and Evan, who served with me on the marriage commission and were on the opposite side of the argument; with Dries, my teaching elder brother who immigrated from South Africa and taught me so much about apartheid and its continuing effects in the world; Wendy and Anne, and, and, and…
One of my blog posts described my GA experience as“not a pale image of Pentecost.” We came from across the United States and Puerto Rico as Commissioners and Overture Advocates. We had Ecumenical Advisers who came from other denominations and countries. We had Missionary Advisors. We had advisers from seminaries and representing young adults in our churches. We came advocating this and disapproving of that. But the Spirit descended and hovered over us like it did at Pentecost and when the Israelites struggled through the wilderness for 40 days. And we heard each other. We valued each other. We loved each other.
Yes, I mourned leaving this conclave. The only experience I can compare this to is leaving summer camp. Regardless of the time spent together, you always remember your summer camp friends…even when you can no longer remember their names. I may never see Steve, Anne, Wendy, Evan or Dries again. I may never see Marilyn or Betty with whom I shared a long late lunch on the day we arrived after Marilyn noticed us sitting alone at separate tables. But, I will carry them all in my heart forever. I will pray for them. If they ever need something from me, they have as much of a claim on my heart as any member of the White Plains Presbyterian Community.
I have always been an enthusiastic member of the connectional Presbyterian church. White Plains is my church home…but I am intimately connected to a host of Christians through our Presbytery and our national church. I’m delighted to work with other churches and with our Presbytery. There’s no way that I can respond to even the needs I know about here in the US or in the world. But, I’m called by Christ to meet those needs. And I have a connectional church that is equipped and ready to help me meet those needs.
Although the big news stories coming out of General Assembly have to do with divestment and marriage – admittedly hot button issues, I came away from GA so excited about the work our church is doing in this country and others. Who’s heard about “Educate a Child, Transform the World,” a commitment this Assembly made to improve the quality of education for 1 million children in this country and others. Who’s heard about our peacemaking initiatives or the measures we approved to prevent gun violence (without gun control provisions.) Who’s heard about the social justice issues we tackled: tax justice, how to advocate for more effective drug policies, the call for a moratorium on the death penalty and to initiate a study on end of life issues, measures to promote food sovereignty, action to counter a new wave of voter suppression, and so on. And, I couldn’t keep up with the reports on work by the Presbyterian Mission Agency and Presbyterian Foundation.
I’ve posted a copy of a PC(USA) bulletin, The Assembly in Brief, on our bulletin boards if you are interested in reading more about this work. The type is kind of small, so I’ve also written the web address on each copy so that you can access it through the Internet. [pcusa.org/resource/assembly-brief-221]
So, yes, I’m still tired. But, oh so excited about the work God is doing in his church. So excited about the hand the Presbyterian church extends to other churches and denominations for fellowship and partnership in ministry. So excited to have been part of this work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12) and excited about the unceasing invitation from our church for me…and for you…to engage in this work.
A month (or two) in review.
Ok. So I have only enjoyed two sabbaths in a row one time since the beginning of April. A series of funerals and visitations, hospital calls and pastoral calls, took priority, as they should have. I have not taken a hike in five weeks, nor been climbing in the gym since the beginning of May. I did take most of a Monday one week to try and recover a sabbath rest, but have not had a day off since.
And after posting “whoops, no sabbath today” on May 2, I have not even bothered writing about what I was missing.
Well, the lectionary this week brings us these words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus rested. And gives this gift to us as well.
Sabbath rest is good for our souls, because rest prepares us for those time of turmoil when we are called upon around the clock; rest helps us distinguish between commitment and mere driveness; and a rested mind makes better decisions. Part of who we are, and who God is is, can only be accessed through rest.
I have rabbi friend who burnt himself out once before learning as a leader to receive the sabbath rest God intends. He taught several of us clergy to embrace this gift before we burn out.
Sabbath is a weekly practice for me, most of the time. I dedicate Thursday as my sabbath day. It had been regular practice for years, not given over to housework or backlogged tasks but to reading, reflection, exercise, hiking, climbing, talking, dancing, sleeping, and family time. Some sabbaths look busier than others, but all are intended to restore balance, mindfulness, and focus.
I took a sabbath this week. I spent the whole day in an amusement park with my family and with good friends from Australia. The fireworks got rained out, but we had a full day of fun and laughter, an oversized American meal, and a good night’s sleep.
It was followed by my first holiday off this year.
God is good.