29 September 2008

For We Will Stand the Storm Together

by Anonymous

"We’ll stand the storm it won’t be long
We’ll anchor by and by
We’ll stand the storm it won’t be long
We’ll anchor by and by…"

What an amazing, tempest-tossed time in which we live! Between the financial crisis and the election/debate coverage it can be easy to forget to pray for Presbytery meetings let alone work toward 1000 Conversations…the waves are coming in sets.

In the midst of the chaos I find I cannot quite get this chant out of my head. It sounds somewhat like an African American spiritual meets Taize: it’s meditative yet sway-inducing. I take comfort in the Spirit of hope, community, and resistance in which the song was written. According to the composer, Bernice Johnson Reagan (formerly of Sweet Honey in the Rock), “The composition represents a unique musical expression of the myriad elements that inspired historical ‘life or death’ battles for freedom and survival, and which continue to sustain us in our ongoing struggles against oppression in contemporary times.” (www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/projectsLD.shtml)

The song does not make promises it cannot keep. Chanting it will not guarantee calmer seas, a great spot to dock or what the final vote will mean. Today perhaps it is enough to know we are in the boat singing together and the same Spirit that creates us and sustains us will also guide us through by and by.

I searched in vain to find a recording to share so that these words might musically enter your soul, too. Instead, I invite you to repeat the words over and over; first reading them and then without looking so that the phrases can begin to wash over you, too. For WE will stand the storm together…[we hope and pray] it won’t be long…WE will anchor by and by…We’ll stand…

22 September 2008

Prayer for Unity in the Midst of Difference

This prayer was offered the morning after a rigorously divisive debate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. In recalling Scriptural commands to love God and neighbor, fellow student Douglas Grace reminded his classmates that our call to unity is greater than any perceived difference. A message especially alive and important in this year of denominational and national debates and votes.

I invite you to take the hand of the person next to you and to close your eyes. Take in a deep, loud breath – a breath by its very sound names the divine. A breath that is healing, sustaining and life-giving.

Creating, forgiving and affirming God, hear our prayers this morning. Many of us left this space last evening after lively and passionate debate; debate over issues that plagued your ancient children as much as their contemporaries – issues of justice, race, sexuality, equality, respect, liberation and independence; debate that raises sensitivities in some and perhaps, insensitivity from others. Debate and questioning which may result in frustration, hurt, anger, some not being heard or some feeling confused. Bring love, justice and peace to our collective communities and remind us of our ongoing bond here at Union and the commitment of respect, even within and among academic, theological or denominational difference. We have learned about tension and resistance; conquest and oppression; the Exodus; the phenomenon of oppression from an oppressed people; overall suffering and liberation – all from so many events and characters in our Bible. Let us unite around the common call to love our God and our neighbor. Help us to move beyond difference, beyond simple tolerance of the other, even beyond acceptance of the other, and into the ultimate of love; divine love that embodies each one of us! God of Wisdom, remind us that Paul still writes to us today that the opposite of fear is not righteousness, but love. Help us to see Your love in all of Your diverse creation. Guide us now, ancient and present God, this new day, as we learn from Isaiah about the creation of new heavens and a new earth; that former things shall not be remembered or come to mind, but all shall be glad and rejoice forever in what You, oh God, are creating: that of joy and of a people with whom You can delight!

And all of God’s people said, AMEN.

19 September 2008

The Radical Inclusion of the Rev. "Mister" Rogers

Fred Rogers, known around the world as everyone's favorite neighbor, "Mr. Rogers," was an ordained Presbyterian minister (Pittsburgh). Fred did not like what he saw on the early days of television and thought this great invention could be used to "broadcast grace." His then-local children's show was his ordained ministry. What may be not as well known was his deeply inclusive love.

He is universally remembered for the kind and tender way in which he talked to his child (and adult) viewers. One of his signature lines was a message of radical inclusion: "You make every day special just by being you!" He really meant it. There are stories of Rev. Rogers being asked to condemn someone who was gay but instead he looked the intended target straight in the eye and warmly assured them, "God loves you just the way you are." One of his over 200 songs he wrote was titled, "I Like You As You Are."

Another typical story relates an evening when he was to be the honored dinner guest at a wealthy home and upon learning that his limousine driver, Billy, would be sitting in the car waiting for him through dinner, invited the driver to eat with them, much to the bewilderment of Fred's hostess. On the way home from the evening, he sat in the front seat talking to the driver and learning about his family. When told they were passing the driver's house, Fred asked if they could stop and say hello. They stayed late visiting and Fred entertained the whole family (and many of their neighbors) with piano playing. A few years later Fred learned that Billy was dying of AIDS. He was on vacation with his family at the time but tracked Billy down to talk to him and offer him words of comfort.

The world was one neighborhood in Fred's vision and everyone belonged -- just the way they are. And in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, during an episode about missing one's parents and having bad dreams, shy Daniel Tiger tells Lady Aberlin that he wonders about things. He "sings his wonders" for her and she sings her reply of "what I believe."

[Daniel Tiger]
Who made the rainbow and the sky?
Who made the bird and let it fly?
Who made the hour?
Who made the day?
Who had the power to make the flower?

And who made the rain and made the snow?
Made us, and made us want to know?

[Lady Aberlin]
God made the rainbow, the bird, and the summer sun.
God made the mountains, the stars each and every one.
God made the sea and she made the land.

God made the mighty and God made the very small
God made the world made the people;
He made it all.

To which we might add, Amen.

08 September 2008

Prayers of the People

By Rev. Chris Shelton
Presbyterian Welcome
Worship & Response to GA
September 8, 2008 at Rutger's Presbyterian Church

Let us pray…

Way-making, Life-breathing, Song-singing God –
Into the chaos of this world,
You called forth a chorus of Light
and all the harmony of Creation.

In your Love, there is always something to sing about.
Hear us, as we shout our songs for justice.
Embolden us, as we lift our songs of the struggle.
Enfold us, as we cry out our songs of sorrow.
Embrace us, as we improvise our songs of love.
Sing with us, as we dance our songs of joy.

God of Grace and God of Glory, on thy people pour thy power.
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

This road didn’t start here, we are but pilgrims on a journey.
We thank you for those who have gone before us:
serving in silence or shouting from the rooftops
bold preachers and gentle guides
wrestlers with identity, and wrestlers with you
students of your Story
celebrants of your glory
We thank you for leading us here, and we know you lead us still.

God of our Life, Through all the Circling Years, We trust in Thee.
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Though walls enclose us, we are not alone.
Your body, your Church, is boundless.
Forgive us for the boundaries we try to build:
walls of racism,
dividing lines of sexism,
false distinctions of class and character,
fears and hates of homophobia,
idols of ideology.
Heal us where we are fractured.
Mend our broken places until we are made one in you.

In Christ, there is no east or west, in Christ no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Grant us ears to hear to voices long silenced, or long ignored.
Grant us hearts able to listen to those who would not listen to us…
compassionate listening:
hearing the heartache under the voice of anger
hearing the neighbor within the voice of the adversary
hearing your voice in the Spirit-filled silence.

And, grant us voices to speak.
Grant us words of compassion and courage,
grant us peace-filled words to still the storms,
grant us the fire of your prophets,
or the music of your poets,
or the whisper of your still small voice.

We’ve a story to tell to the nations…
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Hear our open hearts, Gracious One,
and know our prayers, our groans, our hopes, our fears…
send your Spirit to pray with in us
where words aren’t enough…


Way-making, Life-breathing, Song-singing God –
Into the chaos of this world,
You called forth a chorus of Light
and all the harmony of Creation.

In your Love, there is always something to sing about.
Sing with us, sing through us…

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

--Rev. Chris Shelton

02 September 2008

What We Long For

by Rev. Barbara E. Davis
preached Sunday, June 29, 2008
First Presbyterian Church of New York City

Matthew 10:40-42; Exodus 17:1-7

When I was pregnant with my daughter Hannah, I learned quickly about the importance of drinking water during pregancy. As first trimesters go, mine was manageable; I was exhausted and I was a pickier eater than I had ever been, but I was happy with vegetarian sushi most nights – although I can’t speak for my partner, who for some reason wearied of it after a few nights in a row. I learned to snack throughout the day, eating multiple smaller meals. I had given up coffee before I started trying to get pregnant, so I drank tea in the morning and then water throughout the day. I thought I was doing pretty well managing all of these new routines until I passed out one Friday afternoon at Grand Central Station.

Karen and I were going to Conneticut for a conference that started that evening and lasted through Saturday. We were meeting at Grand Central, and I had arrived first. Standing there, somehow, things just didn’t seem quite right. Thankfully, I kneeled down and the next thing I remember there was a paramedic beside me along with a ring of police and heavily-armed National Guard officers. I was trying to explain to the paramedic that I was fine, just pregnant, when my cell phone rang – it was Karen asking where I was. I mumbled something about passing out and being surrounded by the National Guard, and I’ll never forget her response – “oh, I see you” as if it had been our plan to meet at that spot all along. After a short ambulance ride and two bags of fluids in the emergency room at St. Vincent’s, we were on our way home, having learned a great deal about limitations and the importance of hydration.

I don’t know if bags of saline count as cups of cold water, but they should. The passage from Matthew that we heard today models an expression of hospitality that overflows. It begins with a description of hospitality that equates it to a chain reaction: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Hospitality is like a line of dominoes, the challenge is to remember that we always want to get to that last one, the domino that embodies the divine presence of God.

Being hospitable to God is crucial, and yet it has presented generations with the problem of having a personified God whose face we are not able to see, we never know when God is among us. Jesus’ guidance on this problem was consistent and challenging: treat everyone as if they were the presence of the divine. He witnesses to this practice by eating with tax collectors, healing lepers, not shunning the woman with the flow of blood. He welcomes all those who might expect to not be greeted with much hospitality, and then reminds the people he is talking with that their tradition actually calls them to do the same.

Quenching thirst is a common metaphor in the Bible describing our spiritual thirst. “Cups of cold water” are one of the distinct metaphors for offering hospitality. Our congregation and Presbytery know about extending this kind of hospitality; we take pride in the fact that we sponsor the Evelyn Davidson Water Table in front of our building on this day every year. As the marchers in the Heritage of Pride march come down Fifth Avenue, whether they are prophets or righteous persons, they are in need of cups of cold water. It is a satisfying way to spend the afternoon, and frankly the interactions with all the people are reward enough on this day, but we should not think that having literally lived out giving cups of cold water means that our mission is accomplished.

The last verse of this passage from Matthew begins “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” When Jesus puts it like that, it sounds as if giving cups of cold water is the least that we are called to do. If you have nothing else, “even a cup of cold water” will do. In fact, water would be the least one would offer in Jesus’ time by way of hospitality. A visitor who was fully welcomed might anticipate a meal, their feet washed, and even lodging in exchange for news from where they had been traveling. A cup of cold water would be a simple gesture in comparison to the fuller limits of hospitality.

Another issue is brewing in these verses from Matthew and it is the issue of “reward.” This idea strikes a discordant note; given that a cup of cold water would be the least that could be offered, shouldn’t it just be offered without expectation of reward? The very idea of hospitality offered with expectation flies in the face of a whole body of Reformation theology, from Luther to the present, who try to break the connection between works and rewards. It’s a relationship too prone to corruption. Commentators understand this passage from Matthew in different ways, but one explanation that may be helpful to us today is that these verses are actually the conclusion of a larger teaching in which Jesus is explaining that the time of final judgment will be a time when all secrets will be revealed, especially one’s faith allegiance.1 Christianity’s early roots are connected with secrecy, mostly because of fear of persecution and rejection. The reward of sharing cups of water is about revealing one’s faith and breaking the cycle of living in fearful secrecy.

If offering cups of cold water in Jesus’ time were to reduce secrecy and fear, how many more thousands of years and millions of cups will this project take? Too many people still live in the grips of fear and secrecy. There are many kinds of secrets that our culture encourages people to keep. A relative who committed suicide, a loved one’s battle with mental illness, a friend’s disability, a struggle with alcoholism, a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation. In the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community secrecy and fear are still real and present issues, and the church of tradition stands as guilty as the culture it competes against in perpetuating homophobia. But there are places, like this congregation, where the welcome is wide and the work has begun. These places are like Massah or Meribah, where Moses got water from the rock, and the question was asked “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Testing the Lord is not always viewed favorably in the bible, and even in the Exodus story, the reader’s ear is tuned more to relate to Moses and to hear the Israelites as a bunch of complainers. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible outlines two patterns of the murmuring stories from the people’s journey in the wilderness. One is this pattern: a complaint by the people, followed by punishment from God, followed by intercessions, ending with reprieve. The second is the pattern followed in section we heard from Exodus 17 this morning: there is a need, a complaint is expressed, intercessions are made, a miracle occurs.2

This passage is challenging to our usual hearing, because when we stop and think about it, the people being in need of water is not such an unusual or demanding request. This pattern is not one where water had been provided in some way that was not the people’s liking or where the people were provided water and asked not to hoard it, as happened with the manna. The problem is simple: “They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.” It is Moses who seems irritated with the people’s need for water; Moses who accuses them of quarreling, Moses who suggests they are testing the Lord. Once Moses puts their request to the Lord, the response is simple and miraculous.

The elders are to go ahead with Moses until they find the Lord standing by a rock at Horeb (really this is what the text says), and Moses is to take the staff he used to strike the Nile River and strike the rock on which the Lord is standing, and water will come from it. Moses does what the Lord commanded with the elders, and the people are provided with water. It is almost as simple as the pattern outlined earlier: need, complaint, intercession, miracle.

Imagine applying this method to other problems in our life: gas prices, mortgage payments, health issues, daycare – it could all be as easy as finding that rock where God is standing and having a good staff, and good aim. The problem however is not just that we don’t come face to face with God on a rock very often, the problem is that like the Israelites we fall victim to being halfway to the promised land with one foot still in Egypt. That problem is highlighted right in the middle of this Exodus passage in verse three, which says: “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’” The problem is not that the people want water, the problem is that the people are looking to the past for the solution to being thirsty in the present, instead of believing that the thirst quenching water can be provided right then, right there. Egypt quickly becomes the good old days, and the promise of that day is lost in the way things used to be. The Israelites are halfway people in this passage and being halfway people lends itself to secrecy and fear finding footholds too easily in our lives.

Fear and secrecy worry me the most as my partner and I try to navigate our way through the maze of parenthood. We have many of the same fears that any parent has, is our child safe? Is our child learning how to treat others with respect? Are we responding adequately to her independent spirit? Is she eating enough vegetables and getting enough sleep? I never tire of watching her sleep, and my thoughts in that time are full of how much better my life is with her in it. But my partner and I have unique fears as lesbian moms, which center on how to respond to homophobia in front of our daughter so that she inherits strength from her parents and not shame or fear. Parenthood dismantles a layer of secrecy in a relationship; there is no longer room to pass for something other than who we are. To Hannah, we are her Mommy and Mutti – the name she calls Karen from her German heritage. Other people we encounter occasionally have trouble figuring it out.

The most difficult time so far was when we took Hannah to the emergency room near our home in Brooklyn with a very high fever. When we were moved into the intake area, the person filling out the paperwork asked us, “Which one of you is the mother?” Our unison reply, “We both are,” was met with another question, a clone of the first, apparently in more remedial form for us: “Which one of you is the real mother?” This question is an expression of being halfway people. We live in a world that expects children to have a mother and father, despite myriad of family structures lived out everyday. We live in a world that reinforces halfway thinking, and makes it difficult to live beyond that perspective. We all have one foot in that restrictive structure as we try to lunge forward past the halfway point. Being halfway people is not a place where we can flourish. What we long for is, whatever our circumstances, to never be asked a question like “Who is the real mother?” again. What we long for is for something to get us past that halfway point.

The fear that the world will never change keeps us from trying to change the world. God is leading us to the water in the rock, but it is up to us to decide if that water merely reminds us of Egypt or inspires us to something new. The problem is that in order to get past halfway, where we can no longer feel so committed to mistakes of our past, we must decide what tools are going to help us build our future. This decision is a decision about survival. This decision is a decision about healthy survival. The essayist Audre Lorde reminds us of this important point about the tools for survival: “Survival is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at this own game, but they will never bring about genuine change.”3

The call to begin a chain reaction of hospitality and the call to find and strike the rock at Massah are calls to bring about genuine change. These calls recognize the human condition without condemning the humans in those conditions. They call us to quit being halfway people and move into a place where we all can thrive. The cups and the staff are before us. They lead us to a way of imagining how we can all flourish, how our differences can make us stronger. Reach for them, they are just over there, just a bit beyond halfway.

1- Boring, M. Eugene. “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), p. 263.
2- Williams, Michael E., editor. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: Exodus – Joshua, vol. II. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1992), p. 73.
3-Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (The Crossing Press: Freedom, CA, 1984), p. 112.