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Sabbath Day – Hudson Hiking

September 9, 2016

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Though today was my Sabbath Day, I found myself involved in a number of church programs. It was, therefore, more important than ever that I took the first part of my day to hike a new trail. Hiking the Hudson felt like an initiation into part of the history of the congregation I serve – which requires some explanation.

I am the 25th pastor to serve the White Plains Presbyterian Church in its 302 year history. The first Presbyterian to shepherd this flock was The Rev. John Smith, whose gravestone says he was “worn out by many duties” as pastor here. (He should have taken more Sabbath Days!)

In 1722, Smith was twenty years old and living with his mother, Madam Susanna, in Manhattan. As devout New England Calvinists, the Smiths had been members of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, but the new Scottish pastor of the church overstepped his authority (which meant stepping on the well developed colonial style of church democracy) and Susanna led a group out of the church and into her home where she established a small Presbyterian Church – New England style. The congregation eventually found a meeting place on Williams Street, near the docks, and began to search for a pastor. Yale University sent them a very young Jonathan Edwards – yes, THE Jonathan Edwards, the voice of the Great Awakening – to serve as unordained stated supply. The nineteen year old Edwards and the twenty-year old Smith struck up a fast friendship. Edwards wrote in his journal that the two Johns would often take long walks along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore” to contemplate the beauty of nature and the sacrificial compassion of Christ to which all nature pointed.

When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see his love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of the birds, are emanations of his infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines [are] shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of his sweet grace and beauty.

Edward’s most intense and interior writings come from this period when he was regularly walking along the river with Smith, who he describes as a spiritual brother and a soul mate. His diary is filled with observations of animals and plant life, waterfalls and blue skies, all manifesting the Glory of God of which the two men felt a part. During these walks, they committed their lives together to doing all they could to advance God’s kingdom. In more ways than one, but certainly by theological affinity and through service to the congregation Smith helped establish, I am heir to their experience of nature and subsequent spiritual commitment.

These are thoughts I was thinking as I hiked an eight mile loop along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore.” Exit 1 on the Palisades Parkways is Englewood Boat Basin, through which the white blazed Undercliff Trail passes and meanders along the river. I hiked north along the rocky path…

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and along stretches of hidden beach…

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eventually climbing the Palisades to look out upon the river…

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and down upon the path I had been walking.

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The photo above was taken at High Tom Point, which I found while hiking back toward my car along the Long Path. The Long Path is a 357 mile path  extending from Fort Lee (below the George Washington Bridge) all the way to Altamont, near Albany. This stretch ran along the top of the Palisades through the Palisades Interstate Park (and along the highway).

While hiking, I was particularly attentive to the fauna of the park. I was intrigued that parts of the white trail are underwater twice a day at high tide, as evidenced by water lines on rocks and the ever present smell of exposed sea life. I found quite a few dead fish on the path, left behind, I believe, by the omnipresent raptors. I saw huge osprey, gulls, hawks and heron, as well as lots of ducks; blue and black butterflies; a fair number of snakes; as well as squirrels and chipmunks. On the Long Path I was surrounded by the omnipresent singing of crickets and cicadas, and well as birdsong. And deer (including two that had been hit by cars and crawled into the shelter of the trees to die). Several creeks and waterfalls cross the path, and I found clamshells dropped by large birds all the way up beside the Palisades Parkway. Once, feeling like a little kid, I pried up a stone to see what little life might skitter and squirm back into the dark earth.

This Sunday will be observed as Animal Sunday at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation. It was fun to think that John Smith and Jonathan Edwards saw all this life beside the river (and more) and found in it the voice of creation singing praise to God. So do I.

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On the friendship between Smith and Edwards, see George Marsden’s magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003), which won the Bancroft Prize. I grabbed the citation from Edward’s journal from Belden Lane’s wonderful book on creation spirituality Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford, 2011).

 

 

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