Life Unexpected, redux

Almost fourteen years ago I met a guy at church. I liked the guy. The guy liked me. Four years later, we married. Four years after that, we had our daughter. Two years after that, we had our son. I went to grad school and became a social worker and a Presbyterian minister. He gigged and practiced, practice and gigged. He recorded albums. He toured. He practiced, and practiced and practiced. He was nominated for a Grammy. TWICE. Lost to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. If you’re gonna lose, you want to lose to these guys.

I pastored a church. We lived in Brooklyn. We figured out how to be a pastor and jazz musician and parents and a husband and wife who still enjoy one another’s company.

Life is difficult sometimes. Never enough time. Hardly enough money. But, oh, we are having fun. And, oh, am I proud of this man. He is a gifted artist– truly, truly gifted. And he is humble. And faith-filled. And kind. And generous. And the best dad of all time (well, he’s tied with my dad and my brother).

Today was a good day, because he is finally allowing me to make public (because it’s already public now!) a little of what he was up to this summer. It’s big, flashy, sexy news. It is a testament to his art, and to the friends and mentors who surround him and teach him and encourage him.

Ryan Keberle, Donny McCaslin, and David Bowie. Maria Schneider, pictured below.

Ryan Keberle, Donny McCaslin, and David Bowie.
Maria Schneider, pictured below.

Enjoy this big, flashy, sexy news. And then… listen to his stuff on iTunes. Get ready for his new album, set to release in February/March 2015.

Life unexpected… What an understatement.

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Life Unexpected

Back with the good folks at Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea today. The air smelled like the ocean; the gutters were filled with yellow leaves; and we kept our sweaters on in the chilly sanctuary. It’s fall, baby!

I originally preached this sermon at The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York (click here to listen or download the mp3) on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s always a good day to talk about subways and baptism!

Life Unexpected
October 12th, 2014
Mark 1:4-11Acts 19:1-7

When I realized, over six years ago, that I was going to become a parent raising a child in the city, I immediately thought about what it would be like to travel on public transportation with a baby, and then a toddler, and all of the paraphernalia of parenthood. So I hoped fervently for a child, and then children, who would tolerate the subway, who would be able to abide the crowds and the stink and the noise that often accompany a subway riders’ journey. And I got two. Claire and Henry LOVE the subway. I mean, they really, really, love the subway. They know virtually the entire system, deciding, all on their own, how we will get from here to there and back again, according to an algorithm beyond my own understanding or pay-grade as a mother. When Claire was in nursery school, sometimes we had to take the 2 train to school, and only the 2 train would do; and she would wait patiently (more patiently than me) as a 3 train rumbled into the station and out again, leaving us alone on the platform. Sometimes we had to disembark at Nevins Street, when Claire had a hankering to ride the 4 train. When we were coming home from school on weekday afternoons, we had to take the Q, so that we could watch the boats cruise the East River and catch a glimpse of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park from our high perch on the Manhattan Bridge. Claire and Henry know that the F train will take them to the really big tree and the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center during the holidays and the B will deliver us to the beach at Coney Island in the summertime.

And so, it comes as no surprise that one of their favorite books is entitled, appropriately enough, Subway Story[1]. Jessie, the book’s main character, is a subway car, an R36 model first introduced for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, affectionately called a “redbird” for its distinctive red coloring and silver roof. Well, Jessie loved her life with the MTA. She adored shuttling passengers back and forth to their destinations, opening and closing her doors to welcome them aboard, racing through the tunnels all day and night. But as Jessie grew older, her smooth red coat became pockmarked and covered with graffiti, and her un-air-conditioned car was displeasing to passengers.

One gray morning, Jessie’s conductor failed to appear at the rail yard. She stayed in the yard as summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, then spring, and summer again. Until one day, Jessie’s windows were removed and her doors unbolted, and she was loaded onto a barge, stacked high with cars just like her- older cars, retired from service, having been replaced by the New Millennium R142A subway cars, sleek silver bullets with digital information boards and strip maps. The barge chugged slowly down the river and out past New York Harbor, and then out, out into the middle of the ocean. One by one, a crane on the barge began to pluck the cars from their stack, swinging them wide beyond the barge, and then PLOP! dropping them, unceremoniously, into the dark, deep waters. Before she knew what was happening, Jessie was picked up by the crane, swung wide beyond the barge and PLOP! She fell quickly, the cold water rushing into her open windows and doors, until she finally landed with a thud, on the bottom of the ocean.

Let me pause here with a spoiler alert- I am going to tell you how the story ends! But first I want to tell you that as I read this story to Claire and Henry, again and again, I become increasingly distracted by what I perceived to be Jessie’s angst and sadness as she moved further and further away from her old life, toward some unknown, unexpected, and perhaps unwanted, fate. This was not based on the book, of course, which is genuinely hopeful from beginning to end- it is a children’s book, after all, and I knew there would be a happy ending, but I felt a little bit sad, and little bit apprehensive, as I read it.

And, it occurred to me as I was reading (and let me pause again to say that Claire and Henry were not pleased when I stopped reading, caught in this reverie about Jessie’s life. “Mommy, READ!” they insisted more than once)… it occurred to me that Jessie’s story is not unlike our story, and that I had encountered, in this children’s book, an allegory for understanding some of the mystery and uniqueness of the Christian life.

The Christian life is, according to the stories we tell and the sacraments we celebrate, often about embarking on journeys with very little information, or participating in rituals that are shrouded in mystery. In the Gospels, Jesus instructs his disciples to be prepared to leave their home and family in order to receive the new home and the new family of God’s revealing, but does not tell them what that new home will look like, or who that new family will be. When we, as the church, celebrate the sacrament of baptism, we are invited, in the baptismal prayer, to die to our old life and be reborn into new life with Christ. And when we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we find our place cards set upon a new table that does not look immediately familiar, and with dining companions who might never show up at our own dinner parties. And it’s not really clear what all of this means, or how it will happen, or where we are headed, or what this new life will look like. But we are here, drawn by these stories; drawn to this person, Jesus; attached to this community; and longing for the new life God has promised.

There once was a church in Ephesus. Or not a church so much as a congregation. Or not a congregation even so much as a collection of individuals who met for a shared meal to tell stories about Jesus. This group of people, united not by the common bonds of vocation, or social status, or even longstanding religious affiliation, did not know exactly where they were headed, or what this new community of theirs would look like, or even how it would happen. There was no institutional structure, no hired leadership- only a rotating presence of wise men and women, tellers of the same stories about Jesus, who stopped through town to offer support, to share wisdom, to assist in the work of establishing a Way for living this new, unexpected life.

In Ephesus, there had been a man named Apollos; one of these traveling evangelist/disciples. He had a reputation- for eloquence, for scriptural knowledge, for oratorical acuity, for zeal. But Apollos had one glaring deficiency for all his gifts, according to the author of Acts. He knew only the baptism of John. He did not know, and therefore could not share, what Jesus had inaugurated at his own baptism, presided over by John but blessed and made complete by the Holy Spirit, who appeared as a dove and spoke those heartbreakingly tender words, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.”

When Paul showed up in Ephesus and asked the members of the Ephesian church, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” The disciples responded, “We have never even heard of the Holy Spirit!” And right then and there, Paul set about baptizing those Ephesian disciples in the name of Jesus, and in that moment, as promised, the Holy Spirit showed up in that place.

Just like that- snap– the story goes, the old life passed away and the new life began.

Well, it is hard not to be a little envious of those Ephesian disciples. Though we may harbor no longing to experience ecstatic speech, there is something remarkably comforting in the solidity of the encounter, the tangibility of the baptism, the surety of what was taking place. To be gifted with articulation instead of fumbling speech. To be the recipients of the expansive, dynamic and inclusive winds of the Spirit that could lift us from places of ambivalence, awkwardness, or estrangement. To see the old life pass away for a new life, unexpected but not unwelcome. Who wouldn’t want to be one of those Ephesians? For truth be told, most days, there is no Spirit-wind stirring in the stillness of our lives- just dust motes hanging in the sunlight; the stale smell of a room with no open windows; the static sound of silence. We long for the presence of God- the solid, tangible, sure presence of the one who has promised to abide with us. We crave a recognizable end moment to the old life of emotional peril, physical deterioration, spiritual disorder- no more heartbreaks or heart surgeries, no more empty nests or nesting anxieties, just the gentle flutter of a dove’s wings, bearing the message that we are beloved and pleasing to God.

We receive, with this story- the gift of the Holy Spirit to sweep in upon us, when we are unsuspecting, unprepared, unknowing and maybe sometimes even unwilling, and to fill us with that expansive, dynamic and inclusive energy that is the fuel for our life together. The Spirit will blow the dust off our rusted frames; it will purge with fire the stale accumulations of our lives; it will immerse us in the waters and refresh us. The Spirit will make a home in us that is welcoming; it will inspire our discipleship; it will give breath to our prophetic voices; it will delight us and comfort us. But we must be willing to receive it. To open our windows and doors and allow it to flow through us, aware, as we must surely be, that change may not come easy, and it might very well be dramatic!

Have you been waiting for me to finish the story about Jessie the subway? Are you frustrated with my reverie, like my kids? Claire and Henry, poor things, are still pulling on my sleeve, instructing me to keep reading. You see, they haven’t been feeling the least bit sad or apprehensive. She is, with a child’s joy, curious to discover what new and unexpected life will be waiting for Jessie.

Well, I’ll tell you…

Jessie fell fast to the bottom of the ocean floor with a thud. She was cast into darkness, alone. But a little fish appeared, swimming through the open window frame, finding the water in Jessie’s car filled with tasty little things to eat.

          Over the next few days, more fish decided to move in and live with Jessie.  In the following weeks, shellfish settled inside and plants began to grow all over her.  The bigger fish from the deeper parts of the ocean came ….  Sometimes a dolphin or turtle would stop by to visit.

          Tiny creatures clung to the same poles that people held on to when Jessie lived and worked aboveground.  Hundreds of fish darting through the doors that people once used.

Instead of red and silver, she was now the color of living coral, of waving sea anemones, of other sea creatures who nestled in her nooks and crannies.

And just like that, Jessie’s new life had begun. Unexpected but not unwelcome.

Claire and Henry are satisfied with this story. For them, Jessie in the city’s tunnels and Jessie the living reef coexist without interruption or interference. There is a linear arc to the story, but it is optional. The same is true for us, if we are open to the possibility. The new life to which God calls us as a community of faith is not a line in the sand to be crossed over once and for all. It is an invitation, given again and again, received over and over, inaugurated time after time. That is our Christian life, after all, isn’t it? Unexpected but not unwelcome. There is more awaiting us than the daily grind of getting from here to there and back again. The good news is that there is life unexpected when we open ourselves to the Spirit, received, but not confined by, the rhythms and sacraments of our life together.

As someone once said, the perennial strategy of the Christian endeavor is to gather the folks, break the bread and tell the stories. In gathering, breaking, and telling, the Spirit is present, giving life and light and meaning to our shared enterprise. And so we do- we gather, we tell, and we break, in the unique and joyful mystery of our life together.
May it continue to be so. Amen.

[1] Julia Sarcone-Roach. Subway Story (Knopf Books for Young Readers: New York, 2011).

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The Stories We Tell

Christ by the Sea Presbyterian Church

Christ by the Sea Presbyterian Church

I preached this morning and administered the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for the small, devoted congregation of the Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea in Broad Channel, Queens. It was only my second time with them, and, once again, they welcomed me, (and today my entire family), with open arms, like old friends.

When I called for the offering, my 5 year-old and 3 year-old ran forward and grabbed the collection plates before the ushers even had a chance to stand. My children had participated in collecting the offering at last week’s presbytery meeting and simply assumed the task again, to everyone’s surprise. The good folks at Christ by the Sea laughed and passed their offerings forward, and my heart filled with gratitude. They kept smiling as my children moved back and forth from the front pew to the chancel during the service. And when we left, they made a point of inviting my children to attend again. My son and daughter responded with big smiles and high-fives all around.

Broad Channel, Queens.

Broad Channel, Queens.

It was a radically new experience for me as a pastor, having come from a very different liturgical culture, with a large weekly attendance and prescribed liturical elements for children. Today was an experience of ‘the church for all ages’ that has captured my attention and imagination. Spontaneous. Gracious. Inclusive. Challenging.

It was a good day.

What follows is my sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2014:

The Stories We Tell
Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea
Philippians 3:4b-14

Three weeks ago, I began work as a chaplain-in-training at New York- Presbyterian Hospital on the Upper East Side. I will be, for the next seven months, part of a multifaith team of chaplains serving the entire inpatient population of that hospital. We are a collection of clergy and non-clergy, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish, who have been charged with the responsibility of looking after the spiritual well-being of our patients, as well as their family and caregivers.

I have been assigned to a ‘general medical unit,’ which means that patients on that floor have a wide range of diagnoses and presenting ailments. When I tell other hospital staff which unit I’m on, they tend to smile and nod knowingly- ‘Oh, we know that unit. It’s… exciting.’ I think exciting is really a euphemism for ‘crazy,’ but I can neither confirm nor deny that yet.

Here is what I know. For as much as I considered myself prepared for the task of chaplaincy–  a minister and social worker by training with over ten years professional experience, and, in the privacy of my own head uniquely qualified to succeed in chaplaincy– nothing, nothing could really have prepared me for what will be required of me… to walk into a room knowing only the name of a patient and be confronted with, in my case, a woman in her early 50s, bald from the side effects of her chemotherapy and wrapped in tubing, and alongside her, her 15 year-old son, propped in the corner with a look of fear and bewilderment etched into his young face.

If we shared anything in common, me and this stranger to whom I was supposed to offer spiritual care, it is this…  Whatever health or status any of us may have been born into, whatever honor or education or privilege we may have acquired by our own efforts, at some point in our lives, we will be confronted with the reality that it all amounts to a pile of beans. Me, with my official hospital badge, and she, in her worn hospital gown, had been thrown together by something other than our own preparations, and we were powerless to do anything about it.

I am preaching to the choir today. You know what it means to have your life upended in a singular moment. By natural disaster, of course, but perhaps also by illness, or the whims of an unstable economy, by violence, maybe, or addiction. We are buffeted by these outside forces like a storm’s lashing winds, and we see our careful preparations tossed aside like the flotsam on an unsettled sea.

This is the stuff spiritual crises are made of. These are the moments when our frailty and mortality take center stage. This is the moment when the future is uncertain, and we are balanced on the fulcrum that can send us toward hope or despair. These are the moments when our choices are not so much about the outcome, so much as they are about our participation in the unknown and unknowable.

For the apostle Paul, who penned this beautiful letter to the Church in Philippi from a prison cell, whatever we claim as our own- rather acquired by birth or effort- will ultimately become obstacles to knowing God in Jesus Christ. Those things that we work so hard to achieve and which can provide so much satisfaction, when piled one upon another, serve only as stones to build high the walls that block out the light of Christ and leave us isolated when those singular moments arrive.

Paul knows this firsthand, and so he tells us his story, so that we will tell ours.

Paul had it all, by his own account. He was born into privilege and achieved renowned for his righteousness. He was known throughout the region as blameless before the law. ‘If you think you have reason to be self-confident,’ he says, ‘look to me, I really had it all.’ Until, in a singular moment, everything he once believed came crashing down around him and what once held value became worthless, in his words, ‘rubbish.’

He is referring back to the moment of his conversion, told in the Book of Acts. Still called Saul at the time, he was journeying from Jerusalem to Damascus, puffed up by honor and arrogance, when he is struck down by the voice of God and an inexplicable blindness. We know he’s about to turn into the great Apostle Paul (that the story has a ‘happy’ ending), but Paul didn’t know that, nor does he depict his conversion as the solution to a problem, or the release from some deep spiritual crisis. He didn’t think he had a problem or a crisis; he thought he had it all. So it’s possible that in that moment, Saul was devastated, terrified and despairing at the loss of his physical health and his status. He was, we know, powerless, probably for the first time in his life. He had no control over this future and had to rely on strangers for his well-being and care.

His letter to the Philippians is, in part, his reflection on that moment, looking back through the lens of his new life in Christ.

His former achievements and status, Paul says, “mean nothing when I compare it to what I have found in Christ. It is all considered rubbish to me now, because knowing Christ, being found in Christ, is all that matters.” It is the only prize Paul now seeks. In response, he is willing, even eager, to bear these worldly losses, as he says, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

I’ve heard it described that “knowing Christ refers to those moments when we feel Christ’s presence, feel Christ’s grace, and know Christ’s assurance deep down in our very hearts.”

“Knowing Christ is, for most of us, not a sustained thing; it may be momentary, although its effects may be permanent.” It is also a singular moment, unique and irreplaceable. We may be able to describe it; we probably can’t share it.

John Wesley, credited with the foundation of the Methodist Church, recounts his own personal experience of “knowing Christ” in an entry from his journal for May 23, 1738. He writes,

‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’

Moments like these are fleeting. Most of us, can’t sustain them, and so we go back to living our lives, participating in the daily ups and downs that each day brings. This happened to John Wesley too, as he recorded in the same entry: “After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again.”

But the memory of that night on Aldersgate Road burned constantly before him like a beacon in the night. It gave him a newfound sense of his own strength. In Wesley’s words, “I as often lifted up my eyes, and God “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.” [i]

Wesley tells his story, because Paul told us his story… so that now we will tell ours.

I met another patient last week, on my first day on my new unit at the hospital. The first thing he told me when I introduced myself was that his mother was a Methodist minister. I laughed and said, and which we did you go? Because preachers’ kids, I’ve heard, go one of two ways- all the way in, or all the way out. He laughed and said, “I went the latter.” When I asked how he was doing, he told me “Better this week than last.” The doctors had told him that his liver is failing, and he would need a transplant, but they can’t put him on the transplant list until he’s been sober 60 days. “They just told me,” he said, “ straight out, and I’m glad about that. Glad they didn’t sugarcoat it. Was I surprised? Yeah, a little. But it didn’t come totally out of the blue. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m 58. I’d like to see 68 or 78.”

What’s different this week? I asked. He answered, “Well, I’ve made my peace. I can’t look back, only forward now. Get my 60 days sober; get the transplant; hope for the best. I can only do what I can do, and that’s my plan.” And he smiled. And his eyes twinkled. And the space between us became a living prayer, and like, Wesley, my heart felt strangely warmed by the peace bestowed on me from that hospital bed, a peace which passes all understanding.

He told me his story, so that I could tell mine.

Paul writes, “But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Since walking into the hospital on that first day, I have felt my training and experience slough off me like a snake shedding its skin, and what I have been left with, thankfully, is God. Not platitudes, nor false promises, but a silent plea to Christ to enter that space of fear and sadness. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Because Christ Jesus has made US his own.

Paul tells us his story, so that we will tell ours. If the outcome of our efforts is a mystery, the goal, life with God, is assured.

So what is your story?

[i] This entire section about John Wesley is summarized and also quoted verbatim, with thanks to the author whose name I cannot locate from the The United Methodist Church worship resources.

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Why I took my kids to the People’s Climate March

With the Rev. Jenny Phillips.

With the Rev. Jenny Phillips.

It wasn’t an easy decision to take my young children to the People’s Climate March. Let me clarify. From a moral and theological standpoint, it was an easy decision. My heart is broken by the devastation wrought upon this beautiful, fragile earth, and my spirit cries out for justice for a world filled with food and millions of starving people.

But from a logistical perspective, it wasn’t quite so easy… (and in all unvarnished truth, most decisions that I have the privilege of making these days are logistical.)

My 5 year-old daughter and 3 year-old son and I were hanging out in our Brooklyn apartment, eating waffles and drinking smoothies and pondering the gray, muggy weather. Taking a 5 year-old and a 3 year-old anywhere in New York City by public transportation takes strong resolve, patience, and a lot of lower back strength. Taking small children to a march that was expecting over 100,000 people (and may have actually exceeded 300,000)?  Not an easy decision to make.

We did it.

I packed my son’s backpack with every conceivable snack; filled two canteens with water (God forbid we get caught purchasing bottled water at the march); stuck my ID and a credit card in my back pocket; and walked us out the door.

Here is why I did it.

My 5 year-old has been asking really hard and interesting questions recently about creation and life and death and dinosaurs and volcanoes and graveyards and God. We have had some great conversations, and some stilted ones, and I have confronted the vagaries of language to convey abstract concepts about the world to my kindergartner.

The People’s Climate March was a picture worth a thousand words. Or an experience that no words could ever convey. At one point, my daughter, contemplating the thousands of people swirling around her, asked, “Is this all people in the entire world?” Mind you, she’s a New Yorker who, on more days than not, must stand in a crowded subway car on her way to school. No, darling, I offered, but these people here are looking out for all the people in the entire world.

Without meaning to, I centralized my explanations around the theme of food justice. We talked about the amount of energy required to raise meat for human consumption in comparison with vegetables. We are omnivores (a new word for her), but attentive ones. She asked if it was people in other parts of the world who were eating too much meat, and I told her that, in fact, it was us, in our country, eating too much of everything. “Why?” she asked. It’s cheap for us, I said. We like it. And we stop paying attention to what it means for everybody else.

Later on, I got stuck trying to define ‘climate’ just as we were attempting to cross Central Park West at 65th Street and encountered a group of topless women using “People’s Climate March” stickers as pasties. We both got distracted, and I didn’t have to answer. I’m not ready to talk about climate change directly with her, unconvinced that she needs to know about the awful things being done to the earth that jeopardize her future. There will be a time for that. Just not now.

After an hour and a half of greeting friends (the Rev. Jenny Phillips, marching with the United Methodist Church and their Fossil Free Campaign; Rebecca Barnes, representing my own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)), we made it to a quiet bench inside the park to eat our peanut butter sandwiches and drink our tap water. And all of a sudden, it got very quiet; it seemed like the marchers were taking a moment of silence. And then, incredibly, like a train approaching, this loud rushing, roaring sound began north of us, barreled into us and moved south. A wall of sound- eerie and powerful. I’d like to think that it had an impact on my daughter in some way. Perhaps she recognized the power of people standing together to send a message. Or a sense of the vastness of the world and its inhabitants.

Maybe it did. But after the wave of sound had passed us by, she looked east and pointed and said… “Mommy, look. Horses!”

My girl.

My girl.

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The Mission Field

The Underhill Playground in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

The Underhill Playground in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

As a temporary freelancer and stay-at-home mom, I have been spending quite a lot of time in our neighborhood of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. It is a jewel of a community, with a mix of African American and Caribbean residents who have inhabited the brownstones and prewar apartment buildings for more than a generation, alongside the expected influx over the past fifteen years or so (with increased speed in just the last 5 years) of artists and musicians, young families, and single, young professionals. Gentrification, yes, but boy am I tired of that term being used universally to describe a phenomenon that is unique and specific in each community. Some small businesses are being forced out by increased rent, yes. A lot of small businesses are finding their way in. There are no Starbucks (hallelujah!), no national chain restaurants. The owners and managers of the businesses typically live in the neighborhood; their investment goes way beyond the profitability of their business. They walk their dogs down the block; they send their children to the local, public schools; they patronize the established businesses that long preceded them.

The local playground is a feast for the eyes and the cherry on top of the sundae that is our chosen home. Renovated seven years ago, it is occupied from dawn ’til dusk with such a vast array of diversity that I’m often caught people-watching rather than child-watching… The young professionals, mostly white, though by no means entirely. Caribbean and African American. Orthodox Jewish. Japanese. German. Australian.

And on a beautiful little corner, one block away from the playground, sits a Presbyterian Church. There is a large, historic Roman Catholic Church a few blocks down, and a host of storefront churches lining the larger avenues. But by and large, you would be hard pressed to identify anybody headed to church on a Sunday morning. The coffee shop is packed; the bagel shop mobbed; the playground full. The beautiful little Presbyterian church has a small (very small) faithful congregation with an average age of 70+. I think, though I don’t know for certain, that they long to engage the community outside their door, but simply don’t know how or can’t find the resources to do so.

I’ve had sideways conversations with a lot of moms and dads about their religious backgrounds and choices. Many, I’d even say most, tell me that they wished they had a connection to a local congregation because they want their children to grow up with some relationship to a community of faith. But the parents are unchurched, or long since separated from their ‘church of origin,’ and they don’t know where to begin. It’s not easy to make a decision to ‘church shop’- to troll the internet and Yelp for local congregations, to dress the kids and wait for the bus…

And here is where I stand, gazing in one direction to my cohort of parents with young children, sorting out the logistics of career, childcare, finances, schooling, sanity… and gazing in the other direction at my beloved ‘church’- the place where I have so often found God’s presence made manifest in worship and community.

I want to bridge the gap. I want the one to see the value of the other. I want the one to be enriched by the other. I want the needs of both to be met by the other.

It’s happening in some places. I know folks and communities who are doing it. It’s not happening here, in my little corner of New York City. Not that I can see. Not yet.

I’ve looked around long enough, to see who might be willing to take up the task of building that bridge…

I am saying this out loud because I need y’all to hold me accountable. Not to achieve ‘success.’ But to follow the path where it might lead. To not make excuses. To not miss an opportunity. To not try to convince you and myself that I’m not the right one for the job. (Let the biblical examples flow forth…)

Here goes…


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Peripheral Vision

I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 31st at Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea in Broad Channel, Queens. Their sanctuary and fellowship hall are newly restored after major flooding suffered during Hurricane Sandy almost two years ago. Many of their members are still displaced or living in half-restored homes. We spent time together (just a few days after the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina) talking about longterm recovery and the prospects of maintaining both resources and public support. It seems unlikely. Yet there is determination in their midst, also strong community bonds, patience, humor, and grace.

It was a privilege to meet them for the first time, and I hope not the last.

Peripheral Vision
Exodus 3:1-15

He fled the only home he’d ever known. Barely had time to grab a toothbrush and a change of socks before he was out the door, heading East to ‘who knows where’, anywhere but there.

It had happened so quickly. One moment, he was taking a walk through the construction site; the next instant, he’s digging a hole in the sand to hide the corpse. He still couldn’t grasp what had come over him in that moment- was he defending the life of another or just acting out some fantasy of vigilante justice? In either case, he thought the matter would stay a crisis of his conscience alone, until he realized that others had witnessed the deed.

Word got back to his adoptive father, the most powerful man in Egypt and a man with his own quick temper, and now he was fleeing for his life, convinced that he was drawing his last breaths.

Somehow, by chance or fate, he escapes with his life. His wanderings lead him to a bucolic land of rolling hills and bleating sheep. The simple life, he thinks, with a sigh of relief, as he sits down by a well and draws a long drink of cool water. And then, struck again by a bolt of good fortune, he meets his future wife, the daughter of a holy man. They marry and have a son. He is content; he feels safe; he even begins to forget that troubled past.

He actually enjoys taking care of his father-in-law’s flock of sheep. He likes the solitude of the wilderness, the mountain breezes, the steady rhythm of his heartbeat as he strolls toward the next grazing spot. One day, a day he never forgets, he feels adventurous and takes the flock a bit farther than usual, up the side of a mountain. He’s looking for a breathtaking vista, one of those big views that puts the wideness of the earth in perspective. But before he has a chance to settle down to enjoy the view and a nice long nap, he spots something out of the corner of his eye.

A brush fire, or so he thinks. Surprising, since there had been such good rain that year. He looks closer, and he rubs his eyes in disbelief. Flames are leaping off a bush, but the leaves sparkle green and dewy, as cool and fresh as the dawn. Nothing burns, no smoke rises in the sky, no ashes fall to the ground. The flames dance, red and orange and blue, and the green leaves flutter in the movement of the dance.

He says to himself, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’ It will be the decisive moment of his life, the moment between ‘before’ and ‘after.’ The point of no return. The choice to turn toward the unknown, the unknowable, and in so doing, encountering God.

That’s when he hears his name. It comes from outside himself, clearly distinguishable and yet not human. The voice repeats his name again. His heart pounds, and he wonders if he is suffering from food poisoning or some kind of delirium. Yet before he knows what he is doing, he responds to the voice, ‘Here I am.’ It comes out like a squeak, squeezed out through his constricted throat, muffled by his hands as he rubs his face to clear his sight and wake himself up from this weird dream.

And then the voice continues. There is no denying now that the source of this voice is not in his head. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the voice says. The God of the Hebrews, the voice says. The God of his birth family, the voice says. The same God his sister and mother claimed was present at his own birth, saving him from certain death at the hands of the one who would become his adoptive father. The God that watched over and sustained the Hebrew people through years of enslavement.

This God knows what he has done. Knows about the one he killed; knows about his efforts to cover it up; knows that he fled the scene of the crime. He can run no further. His past has caught up with him. What he did was wrong, and he prepares to receive whatever justice this God will mete out. He crumples to the ground. He buries his head in his hands and sobs. For the child who would not know his father; for his wife who would struggle to support their family as a widow; and for the one whose life he stole those many years ago. He tears at his tunic, ripping the fabric; he grabs big fistfuls of dust and covers his head and neck. His tears mingle with the dust, creating great streaks of mud down his face. And in front of him, the flames continue to dance and the leaves flutter. And the voice continues to speak…

He is confused. He wipes his nose on the back of his hand, tries to clear away the fog of grief that surrounds him. God has come for another reason. God is sending him back to the place of his transgression, not to receive punishment, but to liberate the community of his birth from their oppressor. God is calling him to confront the power of his adopted family and demand freedom for those held captive.

Was it possible that this voice, this God, has mistaken him for someone else? Who is he to be some kind of hero or liberator for a people who know him only as a murderer and an impostor, raised as he was in royal courts with the privileges of the ruling class? He is a shepherd now, a husband and a father, a simple man. But the voice called his name, called it twice, even, and he responded, ‘Here I am.’ There is no mistake.

He realizes he is in the presence of God- that alone has become clear to him by now. Yet before he can stop the words, he finds himself questioning God out loud: ‘Who am I that I should be the one you choose to do this thing?’ And for the second time that day, he crumples to the ground in tears, knowing somewhere deep in his gut that there can be only one answer to the question.

‘I will be with you’ answers the voice. And that was that. It did not matter who he was, or what he had done in the past, or how he felt about the task he had just been given. What mattered was that the voice, God, was choosing him. There would be no rational explanation, no relief from the guilt of his crime, no comforting words of his worth; there would be only a promise, a promise that the one who had chosen him would not leave him.

And for the second time that day, he finds that he can not swallow his words in the face of the divine, and he asks, ‘If I do what you say, and I tell the people that you are the one who sent me to do this thing, and they ask me your name, what will I answer them?’ He asks this not for clarification, but for his own protection, for he fears that he will not be believed, and that the people will laugh, or worse, will throw him in the very same river which had served as his salvation in infancy. He wants proof to offer the skeptics, proof that he is not some lunatic who suffers hallucinations of burning bushes and the voice of God.

And the voice answers him in what sounds like a riddle, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He doesn’t understand, but he finally knows better than to ask for an explanation.

Then the voice disappears, and the flames stop dancing and the green leaves stop fluttering. There he sits, in a dusty mess on the ground, with the sheep contentedly bleating on the hillside, and the wind blowing gently around him; and the peace is startling to him.

He could not have known then the magnitude of the journey he was embarking upon. He knew only that by choosing to turn aside, he had met God, and that God, for reasons that would never be explained to him, had taken the initiative and called him to a task of mythic proportions. Upon reflection, he found surprising comfort in knowing that God had not answered his question, ‘Who am I?’ because it was irrelevant. All that was relevant was the promise, ‘the one called I AM will be with you.’

Years later, what would seem like many lifetimes later, he would have an opportunity to reflect back upon God’s initial calling. Sitting on another hillside, not unlike the one he sat upon that day, in a far away land after a long journey, he stared out over a breathtaking vista, the kind that puts the wideness of the earth in perspective. He laughed a little when he thought of his younger self- sniveling in the dirt and dumbstruck by the miracle of that burning bush. He had seen so much since then. And he knew God with such a greater confidence and deeper intimacy, that he smiled when he remembered those first moments, hearing that voice- a voice that had since become as familiar as his own. And he thought again about the questions he asked and about the responses God gave.

‘Who am I that you call me into service, God?’ He had asked the wrong question the first time, and God, in God’s mercy, had not answered it. But then God presented him with another chance, and without knowing it then, he had asked the right question, ‘Who are you that you call me into service, God?’ And God’s answer was the key that unlocked the door to his future and cleared away the past, equipping him for what God would ask of him. God took the initiative and called him into service. God promised to abide with him through all that would take place. God was and would always be the great I AM, in whom all things became possible.

And what about him? What had been his role? He had, in time, responded to God’s call, allowing the promises of God to live in and through him. It didn’t happen right away, and from time to time he lost his way and need proof, to allay his fears and liberate him from his own doubts. Over time, he learned to trust that what God promised, God delivered. He stopped questioning whether God had made a grave mistake in choosing him. He stopped rationalizing God’s choice to call him in the first place. He stopped trying to achieve the unachievable worthiness he thought was required to be in God’s service. By turning aside to see that unlikely thing and offering those fateful words, ‘Here I am,’ he accomplished the most difficult thing he had ever done, or would ever do.

As he closed his eyes on that farther hillside, having reached the end of his journey and the end of his life, he knew that the same God who had called him was still beside him, showing him a land flowing with milk and honey, where generations of his beloved people would live and prosper. They would face the same challenges he had- turning to God and then turning away in fear and doubt. They would question their worthiness to be called the people of God, and they would seek the easier comfort of idol worship where less was expected. But God’s initiative would not fade; God’s commitment to them would never grow less fervent. And inevitably, the people would return, promising again to accept the call and believe not in their own capacity, but in God’s capacity to fill them up and make them wholly new. It would be a cycle that would repeat itself from generation to generation.

God would even take a new initiative with the people, joining the earthly community in human form, altering the call to one of discipleship. God’s initiative would widen, encompassing all who declared faith in the great I AM, and all who declared faith in the new initiative of the one called Christ.

Of course, he couldn’t have known any of that on that first day, as he stared at the red and orange and blue flames, dancing over the fluttering green leaves. And he couldn’t have known how his story would be transmitted, across millennia, across the far reaches of the globe, landing in the lives of others like him- people with a past they regretted and a future they couldn’t discern; people with their own doubts of worthiness; people who could not fathom that God would and did take the initiative in their lives; ordinary people being called into service by the great I AM, to accomplish God’s work on earth. He couldn’t have known, and yet it was so.

© Sarah McCaslin 2014

Posted in Five Books of Moses; Pentateuch; Torah, Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Knee Deep

I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 10th at the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY.

Knee Deep
Matthew 14:22-33
The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin

I am so pleased to be here with you all this morning, and so grateful to CB Stewart and Jen Aull and Anne Kansfield for inviting me into this pulpit. I am new to Greenpoint Reformed, but not brand new. My first Sunday with you all was on Easter, just four months ago. I was ending a seven year ministry at a Presbyterian church in Manhattan, and my family and I were looking for a new place to worship (I think the technical term is ‘church shopping’). We were missing our old church and feeling uncertain about starting over. On the advice of Facebook friends and colleagues, and because we are Brooklynites, too, we started our search here. And you welcomed us, immediately and unconditionally, and though we’ve been irregular in our attendance, we haven’t been ‘shopping’ anymore.

I can’t resist telling you one story to illustrate. Our youngest, Henry, who you have now met, is unused to being in ‘big church’- having spent all of his infancy and toddlerhood in church childcare. But reluctant to separate from us, we brought him into the sanctuary a couple of months ago, instead of taking him upstairs. I was armed with books, crayons, and, yes, I’m ashamed to say, my iPhone, so afraid I was that he might be a disturbance to others. But Henry didn’t need distraction. He was, from the very beginning of the service, completely transfixed by the band, which I think included piano, upright bass and ukulele that day. And then Jen stood up to make the morning’s announcements, and she mentioned that there would be a party in the garden after worship, WITH CAKE, and Henry, in his excitement, yelled back, “CAKE!” (Never assume that the 2 year-old isn’t paying attention).

Then, after all the music and talk of cake, we stood for the unison prayer of confession. Henry stood on the pew between Donny and me, and while we were reciting the prayer, Henry began to sing the theme song to Thomas the Tank Engine (Henry REALLY loves Thomas). It took me a few minutes before I realized what was happening. Henry wasn’t disrupting worship, he was participating! He does not read, he could care less about Reformed theology, but he saw all the other people speaking together, and he wanted to join in.

At another church, Henry’s solo performance might have drawn disapproving stares or gentle suggestions that we avail ourselves of the professional childcare. But you didn’t flinch. In fact, you smiled, and you spoke to us after worship, and spoke to Henry, too. That’s just one illustration of how you have captured my heart as a community of faith.

As I said before, we have been erratic in our attendance, but even in my absence, I have been thinking about Greenpoint Reformed, and thinking about how well you ‘do’ church. In particular, I think about y’all in the context of the Pew Research studies and Huffington Post Op-Ed pieces about the decline of the church and the increase of the religiously unaffiliated that carry the dismissive, and frankly offensive, moniker, nones- N-O-N-E-S. These are the folks who, for history or experience, cannot, or choose not, to identify with a religious group or institution. Folks who have been recipients of the sideways glare or the unmet expectations. Or who fail to meet the demands of even moderate orthodoxy.

Then there are the refugees from, or strangers to, the institutional church. Those who have been shamed out of the church, or those who have never darkened the door of a worship space. Those whose illiteracy makes the recitation of a written prayer another embarrassing reminder.

For a thousand different reasons, it can require a lot of courage to walk through the doors and sit in the pew. Creating a worship space that is neither isolating nor exclusionary is the work of all the leaders of a congregation, not only the pastors. Creating a welcoming community with a real message of inclusion might mean deviating from other plans for programmatic growth. Most churches, or so the numbers suggest, choose to stay on the well-worn cow path.

And yet… “Around the edges of organized religion…” according to the author and social historian Diana Butler Bass, “[some Christians] are trying to reform, reimagine and reformulate their churches and traditions. They are birthing a heart-centered Christianity that is both spiritual and religious. They meet in homes, at coffeehouses, in bars— even in some congregations.”[i]

Energy, grace, and Holy Spirit vitality are showing up in new and transformed communities (like this one!) where even two year-olds sense the difference and respond. Where all are welcome and fully-formed belief is not a prerequisite for church inclusion (nor even, necessarily, the aim).

The traditional way of doing church followed the helpful alliterative structure—Believe, Behave, Belong.[ii] Belief was assumed as the starting point, followed by participation. Then, if everything was ‘decent and in order’ (as we Presbyterians like to say), membership would be the culminating act of the Christian life. Butler Bass suggests that the real work of churches- well, let me clarify- the real work of churches that want to live and grow and be responsive to the world and offer grace and compassion to the entire human community- is to accommodate an inverted structure.

In this paradigm, people may join first, crossing over this first threshold before faith or belief or action can even be comprehended. Joining is not the culmination of belief, but the first step toward it. Then comes the participation; the trying on of new activities and forming of new relationships, of seeing what it feels like to ‘belong’ to something, seeing ‘if the shoe fits.’ And then, over time, spiritual formation and faith development occur as natural extensions of living in, and being accountable to, a community of faith.

The markers of Christian identity are the results of belonging and participating, not the origins.

It is child’s way into the church, in our reformed tradition. Infants are received into membership at their baptism, when they were babes-in-arms and don’t know God from the stuffed pig in their crib. They are raised in the church, singing cartoon theme songs and playing in the back garden during ‘big church’- understanding, subconsciously, that they are beloved members of the community. And then, the hope is, with nurturing and attention and the piquing of their own, innate curiosity, they may come to a faith that is all their own.

It was also the way of Jesus’ first disciples. It is what the Gospels reveal to us. The first disciples did not know Jesus from the guy next door, but they were baptized, and they started following him around. They did what Jesus told them to do… sometimes. Their faith came later- much later for some. Remember Thomas, the one unfortunately called the ‘doubting disciple’? Remember how most of the disciples fled Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion, hoping to slide back into their old lives? Belief did not come first or easily for any of them.

That’s how Peter ended up knee-deep in the Galilee, right?

He had signed up to follow, had distributed the bread crusts and fish bones to the starving hoards, but when he threw his feet overboard, he was in no way convinced that he wouldn’t end up ‘swimming with the fishes.’ He was testing Jesus, making sure that Jesus was who he said he was. Because who is going to give up their life and comfort for someone who ‘might’ be the son of God? And Jesus called his bluff, so to speak, and Peter, drowning in his own doubt, said the truest and most faithful thing he could- “Lord, save me!”

Anybody else been there? Knee deep in trouble and shouting, “Lord, save me!”

Like this: “Lord, save me!” I just jumped out of the safety of the boat into a raging storm and realized, too late, that I’m not sure I have what it takes to believe what you have promised me.

Or how about this one? “Lord, save me!” I didn’t jump; somebody pushed me, and now I’m knee deep and sinking and I have no idea if or what I believe, but the waves are roiling and I can’t swim- “Lord, save me!”

Or this one, that hits close to home for me- “Lord, save me.” I saw you walking on water, and I just assumed I could do it, too. Watch me perform a miracle. Watch me try to be all things to all people all of the time and think I can get away with it unscathed, unharmed. “Lord, save me.”

And this: “Lord, save me.” What was I thinking? I can’t walk on water on my own, any more than I can fight this addiction on my own or repair this broken relationship on my own or heal my wounded-ness all on my own or make sense of all this violence all on my own. “Lord, save me.”

Peter falters, and so do we. And we say the truest and most honest thing we can, “Lord, save me.”

And Jesus ‘immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ I don’t believe Jesus means it as an insult, although I know some Christian folks who think that rebuke is the way to genuine devotion. If Jesus needed to teach Peter a lesson about faith and doubt, he would have let Peter swim to shore. But that’s not the lesson of the story, I think. I don’t think it has to do with Peter walking or sinking. Who of us, really, would have made it all the way across to Jesus, in the pitch darkness and the high seas? I think the lesson is about identity. About who God is and who we are in relationship with the living Christ.

“As Barbara Brown Taylor said in a sermon, if there is a miracle worth savoring in this story, then it’s maybe not that Jesus could walk on water (after all, if Jesus is God, then his ability to walk on water is no more surprising than your or my ability to walk up a flight of steps). And the miracle is not that Peter managed that same trick for a moment or two. No, the miracle is that when it was all said and done- while a soggy and chagrined Peter sputtered seawater out of his lungs and as the boat continued to bob around in the dead of that rather dark night- somehow in the midst of those humble surroundings way out there in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them. So they worshiped him. They believed.”[iii]

“Lord, save me” isn’t just a plea for help. It’s a creed. It’s a statement of belief. It is the Serenity Prayer of the Gospel. Know what’s ours to change and what’s not. Take heart that we are not in control, God is, and so we need not fear. It is doubtful that any of us will ever walk on water, and we will not be lesser Christians for it. Because we are not judged by our accomplishments. We are received as we are, fearful or courageous, questioning or certain, fluent in faith’s language or tongue-tied.

And if “Lord, save me” is all you know how to say when you cross the threshold of the church, because you are knee deep and sinking and have exhausted all other options, then you are uniquely equipped to be a disciple of Jesus. You stepped out of the boat, after all, in the dark of night, and without a life vest.

Claim your discipleship, follow as best you can (and be prepared to screw it up, just like the disciples), and don’t be surprised if you are led to belief. Begin at your hoped-for destination and work your way back to the starting line. Claim the faith you want or need, try it on, and see if it begins to fit. Then share your experience with others.

Belong. Behave. Believe. It’s not the easy way out; it’s the honest way in. It’s what makes me excited to be a part of the church, as a pastor, and as a worshipper, as one who gets to sit in these pews with you and share the journey.

The crisis of the church is real. Our crisis of faith is real. As Butler Bass has said, “I feel its sad and frustrating urgency. But I also know the hope of possibility, for every crisis bears the promise of something new. Endings are also beginnings. Indeed, without death, resurrection is impossible. Imaginative, passionate, faith-filled people are enacting a new-old faith with Jesus and are working to change wearied churches. It is the season of resurrection, and resurrections always surprise.” [iv]

So I guess there’s nothing left to do now but close our eyes, swing our legs over the edge, and jump in!

Or, if you’re Henry, sing to that faithful tank engine Thomas at the top of your lungs and shout your favorite creed: CAKE!

© Sarah McCaslin 2014

[i] Diana Butler Bass, “A resurrected Christianity?” The Huffington Post, April 7, 2012. Available online at

[ii] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion (New York: HarperOne 2013).

[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor cited by Scott Hoezee, Calvin Theological Seminary, Center for Excellence in Preaching, August 4, 2014. Available online at

[iv] Butler Bass. The Huffington Post.

Posted in Discipleship, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Primal Fear, Primal Hope

I preached this sermon on July 27, 2014, at Union Chapel in the Grove, Shelter Island, New York.


Primal Fear, Primal Hope
Romans 8:26-39
The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin

Let us pray:

You are at work in this place, O God, and you are at work in us. You call us to turn our minds and hearts to you, to direct our wills to your will, our voices to your praise. Guide us in joy, that we may worship you not only with words, but with our lives. Amen.

Let me begin by offering a word of thanks to the Trustees of Union Chapel for extending this generous invitation to me to preach this morning. Judith Winship’s call was unexpected and much-appreciated, and I am so pleased to be here today. Only last month, I completed a seven-year call as the Associate Pastor at The First Presbyterian Church in New York City, a ministry that I loved and which I already miss dearly. In the fall I will begin my Clinical Pastoral Education at the NewYork Presbyterian Hospital, but for now, I am enjoying a few months in the role of stay-at-home mom. Many of you will understand me when I say that I often think longingly of my old office, where, as Garrison Keillor might say, “the coffee is always hot and the doors always close.” There have been some, ahem, adjustments… in being around the house more often.

This week, for instance, I encountered the complexing problem of how to write a sermon with a 5 year-old and an almost 3 year-old in our small, Brooklyn apartment. Thankfully, I have a supportive, free-lancing husband, a delightful babysitter and three, yes three, coffee shops within a block of our home.

Yet, I also had to work from home, writing in the bedroom slash office slash music studio with my daughter, Claire, at my side. No matter the enticements from her babysitter or my husband, she could not be lured away from me. Or more, specifically, from my sermon. “Mommy, I want to help you write your sermon,” she said, with her characteristic sincerity.  I thanked her and gently promised to hand over my finished draft for her edits if I could have just a few more minutes of quiet. And she nodded her assent, but she pierced me with her big, brown eyes and declared, “That’s OK, Mommy. I have to go and write my sermon now.”

And so, at dinner the other night, we compared notes. She let me go first. I told Claire that I was writing a sermon about a story in the Bible that tells us how God loves us so much that there is nothing in the entire world that can separate us from God’s love, not even death. Claire, you see, has been talking a lot about death and dying recently, a common developmental enterprise for children her age. An elderly woman in our building died a few days ago; and though we did not see the body leave the building, we saw the police cars and ambulance gathered outside, their lights silently flashing. As we walked away, she told me that she never wants to die, and she told me how she sometimes worries that Donny, my husband and her father, is going to die soon because he is so tall (height, according to Claire’s logic, is associated with advanced age- the taller you are, the older you must be).

Even my three year-old gets it, leaning over in his car seat to tell us, as if from nowhere ‘I don’t want to die.’ How does he even know what that means? He doesn’t know, but the fear is instinctive, primal. The fear of being separated from the ones we love; the fear of death as the ultimate separation.

I make the promise to Claire and Henry that every loving parent makes to their child, ‘No one is going to die for a very long time and nothing is going to take me away from you.’ And I know that my promise is not really a promise but a hope- for love to be stronger than any fears that attach themselves to our mortal frames. Our fears are founded. Our hopes, too. And we are pulled between them, between the fear that we will, some way and somehow, be separated and left alone. Deprived of those we love; deprived of God. And the hope that the Spirit will, as Paul promises, help us in our weakness and intercede for us with sighs too deep for words, guiding our prayers and ourselves to God, when we cannot know how to do it for ourselves.

Now, I didn’t share all of this with Claire, not because I didn’t think she would understand but because there is no greater critic than a skeptical 5 year-old. But I shared enough, and I know this because Claire… looked at me, and she thought about what I had said for a long minute, and then she said, “Mommy, I understand. It’s just like the sisters Elsa and Anna in the movie Frozen. Even though Elsa runs away to the North Mountain and builds an ice palace to hide in because she can’t control her powers and keeps turning everything into eternal winter… and even makes a snow monster- Elsa and Anna love each other more than all those scary things and love is the answer. That’s what my sermon is about.” And I said, “Claire- that is a great sermon.”

I conceded victory to my daughter and walked away, chastened by the reminder of how wise children can be, and chastened again for forgetting momentarily that Jesus was the first one to teach me that lesson. And I walked away, wishing that I could just snatch those fears straight out of Claire’s beautiful little head and bury them deep beneath the ground, to shield and protect her from life’s inevitable anguish. Or take a soft cloth and wipe the unspeakable cruelties of the world beaded upon her tender brow.

But, as the theologian Mick Jagger once wrote, We can’t always get what we want.

Or, as the other famous 20th century theologian, Karl Barth[i], once wrote, softening the sharp edges of my grief just a little.

There [can be] …no overlooking or toning down of human suffering in order to offer some more solid consolation. [In his letter to the Romans] Paul does not redress the tribulation of the world by fixing our attention upon the compensating harmony of another world. No careless attitude to present tribulation can stand even before the aching of a tooth, and still less before the brutal realities of birth, sickness, and death, before the iron reality which governs the broad motions of our lives.

And yet,

[Paul] undertakes to console the Christians who are set in the midst of so great [a] tribulation: he speaks as one who has himself suffered and is confident of what he has to say… [H]e turns his back on this world and confronts the coming revelation, beholding the earth, rid of all misery and disappointment, filled with radiant happiness… He contracts the suffering of the world into a single drop and a tiny spark, [while] expanding its glory into a mighty ocean and a blaze of fire…

Denying suffering and running from our fears are tactics both careless and insufficient. Hope, we learn, does not disappear our suffering. But it can free us from our fear with its vision of God’s promise.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her most recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark[ii], would describe our task thusly… facing the dark and learning to walk in it, not toward the goal of finding light necessarily, but to uncover the gifts that the dark has to offer. Like a spiritual spelunker, or a theological Indiana Jones, Taylor spends endless nights under the moonlit and moonless sky above her North Georgia farm. She dines at a restaurant that serves its meal in complete darkness. She follows a retired pastor and his wife into the caves of West Virginia. She contemplates John of the Cross and other Christian mystics, for whom darkness and suffering offered vital access to the heart of God. She plumbs the depths of theology, psychology, and medicine, seeking to discover the key to her own fear of the dark and uncover its secret gifts.

In her words,

A few months into studying the dark, I found a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist with thirty years’ experience. Ten years into her vocation, Greenspan says, her first child, Aaron, died two months after he was born without ever leaving the hospital. Like any parent struck down by such loss, she woke up every morning in the salt sea of grief and went to bed in it every night, doing her best to keep her head above water in between. This went on for weeks, then months, during which time she could not help but notice how uncomfortable her grief was making those around her, especially when it did not dry up on schedule…

        Some of us, Taylor writes, have… gotten the message that if we cannot [grieve] on schedule, we may not have enough faith in God. If we had enough, we would be able to banish the dark angels from our beds, replacing them with the light angels of belief, trust, and praise.

Our faith cannot banish these things, just like we cannot flip a switch to dispel the dark if there is no bulb. And purity of faith does not translate into ease of life. Jesus taught us that. So did his disciples, when they ran away after his crucifixion and returned to lives of relative comfort at the cost of their soul’s longing. Pain hurts; danger is real. Suffering cares not for piety and righteousness. There is no overlooking or toning down suffering- not the death of a child or the end of a job or divorce or cancer or unaccompanied minors fleeing violence or passenger jets shot down by missiles.

But! Paul says. But… We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. We, as the early church in Rome, struggling against persecution and perils both concrete and spiritual. We, now, in these pews, struggling with our own indices of individual and collective suffering. We believe, we trust, we set our heart upon the promise that God’s divine purpose for Creation cannot be derailed.

How? Because God transforms suffering- not by making suffering a lesson or the means to an end, but by revealing Christ in the midst of it. “If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point,” Barth says, there we will find Christ Jesus our Lord. That Christ is there, in our wounded-ness, means that God is for us. God transforms our suffering by staking a claim in the blue-black darkness and promising to never stand down or walk away. And if God is with us, who, then, can be against us?


I want Claire to understand this about God. Not only that God is at her side at all times and under all circumstances. But that God has given her the gift of freedom from her fear. Like her heroines, Elsa and Anna, who refused to let snow or ice or evil princes or ugly snow monsters stand in the way of the hope that was theirs to claim, I want Claire to be bold, to know herself as a conqueror, heroine, princess, disciple, standing beside God in the sure promise that she is not alone and never will be. I don’t want her to know peril, but that’s not mine to grant. But I can, at least, hope she knows that the tribulations of this world have already experienced defeat. And maybe, maybe if we have all done our jobs well as a community of faith in fulfilling our baptismal vows to teach the newly baptized about the God who is for us, through Christ and with the Spirit’s intercession, Claire and Henry and every child of this congregation, and ourselves, too, because we were once children, might be bold to stand against the powers and principalities, because our fear, though founded, is already conquered.

Paul’s words are words to live by- words to set beside the baptismal font when we make promises for ourselves and promises on behalf of our children. And Paul’s words are words to die by- words to claim when we bear witness to the resurrection on behalf of ones we love, and even for ourselves.

The great uncle of a dear friend passed away last week, peacefully, in his sleep, less than a year after his longtime partner. My friend wrote to those of us who love her,

Many thanks to everyone who has been in touch since we got the news that my great-uncle Don had passed away, or as we say down here [in the South], been promoted to the church triumphant. A memorial service will be held on Sunday. All are welcome in body or spirit as we sing him to heaven.

“We wait,” Barth says, “but, because we wait upon God, our waiting is not in vain. We look out: but, because we have first been observed, we do not look out into the void. We speak: but, because there emerges in our speech that which cannot be uttered, we do not idly prattle. And so also we pray: because the Spirit makes intercession for us with [sighs too deep for words]…”

And the sufferings of the world will contract into a single drop and a tiny spark, and the glory of Creation, fulfilled through God’s good purpose, will expand into a mighty ocean and a blaze of fire.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,

nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God

in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And so even at the grave we will make our song: Alleluia alleluia, alleluia. Amen.


© Sarah McCaslin, 2014


[i] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014).



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The Winter Solstice

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months as the shadows have lengthened, this blessing has been gathering itself, making ready, preparing for this night.

It has practiced walking in the dark, traveling with its eyes closed, feeling its way by memory by touch by the pull of the moon even as it wanes.

So believe me when I tell you this blessing will reach you even if you have not light enough to read it; it will find you even though you cannot see it coming.

You will know the moment of its arriving by your release of the breath you have held so long; a loosening of the clenching in your hands, of the clutch around your heart; a thinning of the darkness that had drawn itself around you.

This blessing does not mean to take the night away but it knows its hidden roads, knows the resting spots along the path, knows what it means to travel in the company of a friend.

So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see.

This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.

© Jan L. Richardson.


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Advent Overdrive

It takes very little to get very overwhelmed in the lead up to Advent season. Last week, I explored the theme of preparation in my sermon, based on Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 3:1-6.

Preached by The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
December 9, 2012
The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

You know you might be overextended this season if any of these apply to you…

1) If you promised to make three dozen gluten-free, nut-free, vegan cupcakes for your children’s non-sectarian winter holiday party at school with only 36 hours notice.

2) In order to save time, you have just given your apartment key to the UPS guy.

3) If you have fallen asleep in line at Trader Joes.

4) If you keep trying to cozy up to your co-worker with the stomach flu, hoping for a few days of bed rest.

5) If approach these days and nights with a mix of dread, anxiety, and weariness.

If any of these are true for you, you might in fact be overextended.

Many of us begin after Thanksgiving with the best and most sincere intentions, that this will be the year when we don’t do so much, when we reflect more on the meaning of Christmas, when we choose to give to others who are in need, not simply in want, when we devote ourselves to creating more quality time with loved ones, when we won’t drink so much, eat so much, stay out so late, sleep in so long, miss church so often. We will fill out our pledge cards for the church’s stewardship campaign and put them in the offering plates (AHEM!). We will call an ailing aunt or uncle and promise to visit this year. We will collect gently-used winter coats to donate, and we will respond to at least one of the year-end pleas for financial support from the pile in our mailboxes.

But almost inevitably, the slip-sliding begins and our plans to do less become as burdensome as the plans we are trying to avoid. The worst of it is not the extra money spent, or the weight gained, or the calls not made. The worst of it is the sense of guilt that we have failed again at the task of Christmas. We have failed to sit expectantly within Advent’s season of waiting; we have grown preoccupied with the concerns of the world and missed the cracking open of heaven that is happening right in front of us. We are tense, keyed-up, worried, bilious, and tired.

I read a blog post earlier this week from a colleague who, in past years, had become so completely exasperated by the amount of things that she tried to achieve before Christmas, that she realized that she had inadvertently added to her to-do list- give birth to the Savior of the world ALL BY MYSELF! That’s what we’re doing, spinning our wheels and trying to be Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Santa all at the same time.

Can we all agree to stop the crazy bus right here, right now, and get off?!?!  Please!?! Can we stop trying to live up to some unwritten code of expectations that is neither biblical, nor healthy, nor even possible? Can we begin a practice of what my daughter and I call Peaceful Piggy Yoga Breathing? When you notice your blood pressure rising or your worry-muscle twitching, stop what you are doing and take three long breaths, in and out. It won’t matter if you don’t make it to your neighbor’s party; it won’t matter if the presents don’t get wrapped; it won’t matter if your house is cluttered when the guests arrive. It won’t, and it doesn’t.

Instead, let’s be preoccupied with the promise of heaven breaking open, shattering the darkness that has wrapped itself around us in these days of winter. Let’s be preoccupied with the task of getting ready for God’s arrival.

And lest we think that the job of preparation will be easy, here comes John the Baptist in today’s readings to remind us otherwise. As someone else has put it, even without the description of John in his camel’s hair and leather, you can smell John before you see him. He is an acquired taste, like Roquefort. Whatever John is, he’s not easy to put on a cracker.[1]

He muscles his way, loud and smelly, into our Advent reverie and demands that we get up, and get to work. Charged with the prophetic task of preparing the world for the messiah’s arrival, he echoes the prophet Isaiah’s message that to prepare for God means nothing less than filling every valley, leveling every hill and mountain, straightening every crooked path, and making the rough ways smooth.

But unlike the prophet Isaiah, who foretells a God-made and God-led path for the people from their figurative and literal exile, in Luke’s rendering, we are the laborers, building a path back to God from whatever wayward destination we have arrived at. John’s message isn’t as much about consolation as it is about exhortation (or, as I keep reading it when I’m tired- extortion).

John is multi-vocational voice in the wilderness- a prophet AND a civil engineer. What he is asking us to do is clear the debris and clutter in our hearts and in the world that are obstacles to the path of peace that Jesus will inaugurate.

One of my absolute favorite children’s books, and also a favorite of Claire and Hank, is ‘Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.’[2] It is the story of a gang of anthropomorphized heavy machinery, coming to the end of another busy day. Let me read a little of it to you:

Down in the big construction site, the tough trucks work with all their might, to build a building, make a road, to get the job done- load by load!

The sun has set, the work is done; It’s time for trucks to end their fun. So one by one they’ll go to bed, to yawn and rest their sleepy heads, then wake up to another day, of rough and tough construction play!

Pushing with his mighty blade, Bulldozer works to smooth the grade. He clears the way to level ground, and fills the air with thunderous sound.

No one’s as tough and strong as he, but now he’s sleepy as can be.

He puffs some smoke out of his stack, turns off his engine, stops his track.

He curls into his soft dirt bed, and dreams of busy days ahead. Shh… goodnight, Bulldozer, goodnight.

Scooping gravel, dirt, and sand, Excavator shapes the land.

He digs and lifts throughout the day, but now it’s time to end his play.

A few more holes to dig and soon, he’ll roll to bed beneath the moon.

He twirls upon his bumpy track, pulls up his boom, stretches his back.

He sets his scoop down on the ground, and snuggles up without a sound. Shh… goodnight, Excavator, goodnight.

This is what John the Civil Engineer demands from us. Not joyless toil, but the purposeful work and play of preparing for God’s arrival. We will clear away the piles of rocks and fill the gaping potholes that disguise the beautiful world as something crass and damaged. We will excavate and bulldoze the landscapes of our life, creating access to a pathway that leads to one who promises us peace and abundance.

We won’t run ourselves into the ground. We will rest when we are weary and the work becomes difficult, because that is our job, too- it’s called the Sabbath. Our rest might include a little bit of well-deserved laziness, and it will definitely include breathing, and probably eating (but it won’t include counting calories). Then we’ll get back to work and play when we are rested.

When we get distracted, we will not throw up our hands and concede the ground; we will start again on a new day. We will endeavor to recognize our limits as human beings. We will consider the possibility that we aren’t the savior of the world, and so we shouldn’t be acting like it. We might acknowledge that some unexpected situation of heartache and burden is a crooked mess and might require the help of others to level that mountain and straighten out that path.[3]

About a week after Hurricane Sandy slammed against the eastern seaboard, I drove a car full of donations from First Presbyterian to the headquarters of Occupy Sandy- located within a small Episcopal parish in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The sanctuary had been converted into a warehouse of supplies and a nerve center for volunteers. It was the paradigmatic beehive of activity. A young woman in skinny jeans and dark-rimmed eyeglasses worked alongside an older man with a ZZ top beard and a large rain boot worn as a headpiece. Dozens of other volunteers loaded trucks, sipped hot coffee, sorted through mountains of garbage bags filled with the accumulations of affluence.

A month later, I pulled up again, with another delivery from the donations that have continued to pour through our doors unsolicited. But this time, I was met with less than a dozen volunteers. The warehouse had been decimated; the worn old pews empty of supplies. I talked with one of the pastors and one of the volunteer coordinators about the decline in goods and labor. “Volunteer fatigue,” they said. “FEMA has left us alone out there in the Rockaways, patting us on the back and telling us to keep doing what we’re doing,” they continued. “But we don’t have the money; we don’t have the machinery; we don’t have labor force that we did a few weeks ago.” Speechless to respond, I thanked them for their perseverance, encouraged them to take my card with our church’s contact information, and then rolled away in my empty Volvo, back to my warm and safe little apartment.

Volunteer fatigue is to be expected after any disaster. There is even a chart I can show you that maps our collective emotional response to any disaster- the honeymoon period after something awful has happened, when everyone pitches in to help, feeling the euphoria of a common cause and task. But the euphoria is always followed by disillusionment, when the enormity of recovery’s work becomes crystal clear, and when the idea of spending entire days calf-deep in toxic muck does not seem quite so heroic or sexy.

And then there are the Presbyterians! Presbyterian Disaster Assistance[4], the relief agency of our denomination, focuses almost all of its energies and resources on long-term recovery efforts, like setting up volunteer housing for out-of-state groups, working with local government and ecumenical partners to rebuild damaged infrastructure. They never made it on the national news; they were behind the scenes, preparing- not in a manic frenzy of activity, but with deliberate care and the objective to stay as long as it takes. Down in the big construction site, the volunteers work with all their might, to clean debris and clear a road, and get the job done load by load.

John has set before us task of gargantuan proportion- to level mountains and fill valleys, to do the work that only God and the icebergs have done before. It makes sense to be strategic. Like the bulldozer and the excavator in the children’s story, who understand that a good night’s sleep both rejuvenates the body and preserves the joy of the work; like our partners in relief and recovery, who activate personnel and resources once comprehensive assessments have been made, we might conclude that our Advent preparation needs some tweaking.

We have choices to make. Advent is a season in which we are invited to contemplate future possibilities and how we might live faithfully in this time-between… between Christ’s first and second comings, between the already and the not yet of God’s new creation. But we cannot accomplish the task of Advent in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We should be Advent people all year round, assessing the needs of the world and our hearts, and building the path of peace load-by-load. We will suffer prophetic fatigue if we think we can do it in four weeks, or four months, or even four years. This is a long-range construction project that will take a lifetime.

We can choose how to occupy our time, and we can choose how to occupy our minds.

You have already made one choice this morning, to come into this place and enter into a spirit of prayer and a conversation with God. You have made another choice, entering a community of faith who bear the marks of the prophet John’s blueprint for humanity. And you have made the choice to enter into the mystery of God’s incarnation, welcoming the Christ child as Emmanuel, God-with-us.

If this all seems overwhelming, remember the humble beginnings of Luke’s story. Two unexpected babies- one born to a childless couple in old age; another born to a young, unwed mother. Two unprivileged babies- born under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Two unlikely prophets- one wandering the wilderness, on the edge of civilization; the other traversing the hill towns of farmers and fishermen. Two earth-shattering messages- one that the Messiah’s arrival is imminent; the other that God’s love will prevail over all, including death.

If this all seems overwhelming, and the idea of prophetic labor sounds a lot like a chain-gang to you, remember that the children already preached my sermon this morning, and did a much better job, and seemed to be having a grand old time together. “Prepare the Way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”

The expectation of God’s arrival “with us” is not an abstract platitude, but a real, tangible livable understanding that “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace…”

And if all this seems a lot like trying to birth the Savior of the world all by ourselves, remember that God-with-us, Emmanuel, was and is and ever shall be. We are not alone.

[1] Emily Gillespie, Living the Word: Christian Century, 11.27.12-

[3] Gillespie.

[4] For more information, visit

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