Today was the last sabbath day of summer to spend with my son. At this time next week he will be in school. We spent most of our day cleaning the apartment and especially his room. The goal was to clear all the floor space so that we could vacuum. Mission accomplished. We interpsersed our work with part of the movie “The Book of Kells” and a bit of reading. Then he went to Rye Playland with some friends.
It has been a month since I have written a sabbath reflection, mostly because I have been on vacation. I will blog more fully about our trip later, but essentially we spent a week exploring New England and another week in Florida. The latter included a fishing expedition with my family, including my son and nephew. The photo above is of my proud son’s catch of a 14 inch grouper.
I read a lot on vacation, but returned this week to my intentional reading of multi-national literature. This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in part because my nephew will be reading it in school this year, and in part because of our family fishing expedition. Hemingway wrote this novel while living in Cuba, and it was nostalgic to imagine the lights of Havana by night along the Malecon. In the novel, the old man Sebastian imagines sharpening his knife in Guanabacoa. I visited the statue of Hemingway which sits in Guanabacoa harbor during my second visit to Cuba in 1998. This short novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
So, a quick post on my way out the door. I am performing a wedding on Long Island this weekend and then off for vacation, beginning Sunday. On this sabbath day I helped my son deliver food to the local food pantry, shared communion with a member of the church I serve, and did a lot of laundry. For dinner we celebrated National Cheesecake Day with half-price slices at The Cheesecake Factory. Now, we’re off.
This past week of reading multi-national literature focused on Nicaragua and Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal was already an accomplished poet when he came to Colombia University. But if I had ever known, I had certainly forgotten, that after Cardenal experienced his religious transformation in New York he then spent two years at the Abbey of Gethsemane with Thomas Merton. There, in Kentucky, he became the man I first met by reading The Gospel in Solentiname. I visited these stories again this week, reading a different discourse each day from this brilliant, peasant led interaction with the Christian gospel story. The image at the top of this post is of the Solentiname islands.
I began the week reading With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems 1949-1954. This collection reads like a vision quest, re-narrating the Central American experience of brutal colonization. It is dream-like, or rather nightmare like.
Grateful for the opportunity afforded by my sabbath practice to reach back and look at this stuff again.
On Sunday, June 26, I shared the following story with my congregation. I wrote it during a retreat on bioregional theology led by Ched Myers and held at the Maryknoll Mission Institute. Last Sunday we used the sermon reflection time to test our watershed literacy. This week we deepened our biblical literacy by reading closely the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:4-20.
And we tried to imagine: If Jesus came to our watershed…
- In what body of water would Jesus be baptized?
- What prophetic figure from our region plays a role analogous to John?
- What wilderness would John have come from and would Jesus have gone out to?
- What local bird, rich with symbolism, would have descended upon Jesus?
- What flora would have sustained him during his temptation, and what would those temptations have been in this place?
- Who are the marginal people Jesus would have organized in bringing ‘good news’?
- Is there a critical moment in our history that Jesus would have interrogated?
Here is how I imagine it might have happened.
This is the story of how Jesus came to the natural community known today as the Bronx River Watershed. Native peoples knew it as the Aquehung River. It was a rich forest area filled with American Chestnuts, home to beaver, bear, and an abundance of fish, shellfish and birds. The river provided home for several Algonquin tribes, known locally as “the people of the shells.” All that remains from this time are mounds of shells.
With the coming of Europeans – Dutch merchants, English Puritans, and French trappers – life around the river changed. First came the farmers who settled here in 1683, drawn by the rich and fertile soil of quaropas – meaning White Plains. But within the first hundred years of colonization, the native people were gone, slaves were imported, two wars were fought, and the river was damned/damed (in both senses of the term). With the coming of the dams, migratory fish disappeared from the upper reaches of the river. During the American War of Independence the valley suffered under the double occupation of both British and patriot alike – with battles fought up and down the length of the river. Native Places like Bear Swamp were renamed after the war’s carnage, Dead Man’s Swamp.
In the second hundred years of colonization, the combination of population growth, urbanization, increasing land shortage on Manhattan Island, and rapid industrialization amidst an ever-uncertain economy, profoundly changed the valley. The river was forced to serve bleach companies, paint companies, textiles and die plants and even weapons manufacture. Despite the growing thirst of New York City, our southern neighbor, the Bronx River was repeatedly passed over as a water source because it was too foul to drink. Hungry poor families, victims of this new economy, fled the city, often seeking refuge around the wealthy towns of the once wild Westchester. Laws were passed to keep them out.
At this time a strange man appeared, wearing garments made entirely of leather. They were, in fact, hand fashioned from discarded workboots. He lived in the remaining wild places, finding shelter in old caves no doubt known to the First Nations of the valley. He walked continuously a 365 mile route through three watersheds: The Connecticut River, the Bronx River, and the Lower Hudson. It took him 34 days to complete his circular pilgrimage, carrying all he owned, including a French prayerbook, in a leather bag of his own making. He asked for and received hospitality from those he visited. He never spoke a word. But his presence evoked pity and fear, and most importantly, human kindness. So regular were his visits it is said that men could set their watches by his arrival, and women would bake bread in anticipation of his visit. Tables will be set up outside their homes. He always ate outside under the blue sky. No one knew his name, nor would he give it, if asked, so he was simply called “The Old Leatherman.” A man out of time, his presence hearkened back to a simpler time when neighbors took care of one another and welcomed strangers with hospitality.
It was at this time that Jesus came to the valley. He met the Old Leatherman on one of his pilgrimages through the Bronx Watershed. Jesus offered the old man a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and in turn Jesus was taken down into the waters of the river. With an oyster shell taken from one of the many memorial piles — Ebenezers, evoking the memory of the first inhabitants of the valley, the Leatherman baptized Jesus into the aquehung.
Immediately a famished red tailed hawk descended on Jesus and began to pluck at his eyes and pinch flesh from his head. And Jesus realized that the hawk was hungry because the mice and hare and frogs and snakes and, most of all, the fish who belonged to the river were gone.
Immediately, Jesus set out to trace the Leatherman’s path in reverse – working backwards through the history of this region to take account of where errors were made and to ‘unsettle’ the present people.
This Jesus never left the Bronx valley. He never made it to the other valleys, the Connecticut or Hudson. Jesus would have to arrive differently there.
Wading through the river, Jesus became sick through contact with the waters, and he began to understand what had happened to the animals. They had been poisoned by toxins in the water, their habitats destroyed by invasive species. By the time he reached the only remaining old growth forest just above 182nd street bridge, Jesus needed rest, and he sought shelter in one of the Leatherman’s old caves for forty days.
In this barren place, Jesus longed for the company of the animals whose cries continually rose up out of cages and enclosures of the Bronx Zoo, for there were no animals left to attend him by the river. He hungered for the lush fruit trees of all varieties in the manicured and utterly artificial wilds of the NY Botanical Gardens, for there was nothing left but the invasive and bitter mustard root. Mad with thirst, he could not drink the water. It was essentially an open sewer. So he went down to the river to pray.
And Jesus said, “I am living water. Let all who thirst, come to me.” And from that time Jesus entered the river and from that time spoke only as the river. And he began to draw disciples.
He drew scientists from the Bronx Zoo who were embarrassed by the offensive smell coming of the river, and the Wildlife Conservation Society was born.
He drew Italian, German, Jewish, African American, and Latino neighborhoods to work together to reclaim the abandoned vanity projects of the rich as new green spaces and community spaces.
He called William Niles to design the nation’s first parkway to build a buffer between human pollution and the water’s fragile banks.
He drew the legislatures of NYC’s poorest borough and wealthiest suburbs to recognize the shared nature of this river and work together for the good of the whole natural community.
He called children and youth to pick up trash and remove invasive species at the plant new trees.
And he called citizen activists to form the Bronx River Alliance to re-inhabit the watershed through river rambles, canoe trips, local history and watershed literacy projects.
Today, the Jesus who entered into the river has become incarnate in its citizens who listened to his voice.
This is also a resurrection story. Today, the river is healthier than at anytime in the last 300 years. In 2007 a beaver named José returned to the river, the first since the 18th century. And in 2010 he was joined by another beaver named Justin. With the building of a fish ladder at the Roaring Falls, the very site where Jesus entered into the river, alewife herring and eel have returned to the upper river. Now, even the churches are awakening and beginning to work in their watersheds.
For more information on our local watershed, check out Stephen Paul DeVillo’s brand new The Bronx River in History and Folklore (2015) as well as Maarten de Kadt’s The Bronx River: An Environmental and Social History (2011). I also preached on the watershed last year on River Sunday. By coincidence, Canoe through the Bronx, appeared in this week’s Washington Post. Check it out, please.
A few weeks ago Pastor Sarah shared some of these thoughts in a very moving sermon at White Plains Presbyterian Church. The grief of Jesus, and the weariness of his disciples, is the context for tomorrow’s sermon about loaves and fishes.
Originally posted on A Curious Faith:
Do you remember your baptism? Do you remember the one who baptized you?
I was dedicated as an infant in the Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois and baptized when I was 15 years old on the eve of my confirmation in the Reformed Church. Friends and family gathered at a congregation member’s above ground pool. My father, the pastor at the Reformed Church of Secaucus, and Elva Grace, an elder at the church, stood in the pool with me and baptized me in the name of the Holy Three in One. It was September and the water was cold as I was submerged three times. Afterwards we feasted together as a church family.
In this past Sunday’s lectionary, we remembered the death of John the Baptist as told in Mark’s gospel. It is a painful story to hear. Imagine what Jesus must have felt upon hearing the news. When…
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My sabbath day this week was fabulous. The two young men above, Jeff and Ethan, volunteered to help me clean out the History Archive at the church – something that has not been done in a long, long time. We took five hours to remove items, move filing cabinets, sweep, sort, and restock the shelves. It was a sometimes tedious, very dirty, but always fascinating way to spend a day. “I thought this would be boring but it turned out to be a lot of fun,” said one of the volunteers. With music going, lots of jokes, and some serious story-telling, we accomplished a project that has been on the books for years. Both young men came to the church via the White Plains Youth Bureau, looking for a way to spend a meaningful day. They found it.
I had an early dinner with Noelle at Wild Fusion – vegetable sushi roll – and then found a quiet, public place to finish reading Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011). This fascinating read has been working itself into my imagination over the last couple of weeks. Woodward argues that “The United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another.” Here is a nice description of the argument, while this provides a one sentence description of each nation. Rich with information and analysis. I am trying to hold this and the bioregions vision together. Fascinating.
My week of reading multi-national literature began at Maryknoll last week when I came upon a poem by Dom Helder Camara called “Water, My Sister.” It begins
When you were created / did you know / how many would be / the things you must do, / from the most noble / and beautiful / to the most base / and desolate?
I will read this someday before, or during, a baptism.
That same day our retreat group was led in remembering Dorothy Stang, an American nun who was murdered in 2005 because of her witness on behalf of the God’s creation and her support for Brazilian workers who were organizing to protect the Amazon rainforest. Walking alone in the forest, she was confronted by gunmen who asked her if she had any weapons. In response she took out her Bible and said, “This is the only weapon I have.” And she began to read. The gunmen listened for a moment, shot her through the hand which held her Bible, and then shot her six more times. I have spent part of everyday this week in contemplation of Dorothy and the light of our planet. The whole story is told in Martyr of the Amazon: The Life of Sister Dorothy Stang by Roseanne Murphy.
I rounded out the week with more poetry. I have two volumes of Dom Helder Camara on my shelves, A Thousand Reasons for Living and his poetic theology of liberation The Desert is Fertile. Camara was a bishop in Rio de Janeiro from 1952-1964 and Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in North-East Brazil. In his writings, the spirituality of justice, liberation and peace for people and the planet sounds so simple. Sister Dorothy is a reminder of the great cost that goes with such simple spirituality.
Finally, my Ecco Anthology of International Poetry introduced me to another half-dozen contemporary poets from Brazil, including Adléia Prado, who moved me with the line
How could we know how to live a better life than this,
when even weeping it feels so good to be together?
Amen. Happy sabbathing…
The White Plains Presbyterian Church is part of the Bronx River Watershed. Watersheds are earth’s natural communities. They are defined by the water that runs through them and the ridges that cause water to flow into one watershed or another. Everyone lives in a watershed. This past Sunday, as part of our sermon reflection time, we tested our literacy of this place we call home.
I took as my text, “And when Jesus came to that place…” I didn’t cite any particular chapter and verse because this phrase or one like it can be found in almost every chapter of Mark’s gospel. (In chapter six alone Jesus is seen racing from place to place). We thought about the importance of particular places in scripture, and wondered what it would be like for Jesus to visit “our place.”
Which raised an important question: Do we like this place?
One of the last things that Kurt Vonnegut wrote is a prose-poem he called Requium.
The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
“Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do.”
The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
”It is done.”
People did not like it here.
So I asked, “Do we like it here? Do we even know where here is?”
The importance of this question about place is underscored by Baba Dioum, a forest engineer from Senegal:
We won’t save places we don’t love;
We can’t love places we don’t know.
We don’t know places we haven’t learned.
I asked my congregation “What is the one question you can count on every child asking from the back seat of the car during along road trip?” And the congregation responded, “Are we there yet?”
I responded that the question running through our worship service would be, “Are we here yet?”
For the remainder of our reflection time I shared a series of questions from a watershed literacy quizdeveloped by Kevin Kelly called The Big Here. You can read the questions yourself and see how well you know the place where YOU live. The congregation on Sunday discovered that they could pretty easily identify local flowers, the time of sunset, even the source of our drinking water. But they struggled to know (specifically) where our trash is taken, who uses our recycling, and where solid wastes go when we flush them.(I had answers for all of these). There are many more, and much more challenging questions in the quiz.
Over the next several months I will be collecting this information on my blog as a sort of “watershed welcome” for new residents in White Plains. If you know an answer to a question pertaining to the Bronx River Watershed, please send it along to me. The EPA also has this cool tool to help you find out what watershed YOU live in.