There is a piece in the New
York Magazine by Andrew Sullivan (September 18, 2016). Sullivan, who
has written broadly on politics, discusses his addiction to the internet-- its
endless information and entertaining distractions. He was one of the first bloggers and would
respond to any and almost every news item for nearly 15 years.
But it began to consume him.
There was little boundary between on
and off, work and home. And, it only
grew as the accessibility to the web grew and the speed of the news cycle
raced. His health suffered. After rounds of denial, he started to seek
places away (retreat centers, etc) and a life with more balance (no more blogging).
The article has three memorable
images. Famous paintings of intimate and
awe-inspiring moments have the human subject with a smart phone imposed on
his/her hand. They may be in a classic
bent-phone-reading pose or staging a photo rather than soaking in the moment,
and it is jarring. Just imagine a
nativity scene with Joseph taking selfies of all gathered or Mary watching a video of a
pundit raging about Caesar and Herod
By no means does my raising this
article intend to diminish or demonize technology. In itself technology is neither wholly good
nor bad. It is value neutral. So many
advances and retreats have accompanied our newly wired age. We are all seeking balance.
Especially this year after the ugliest
and longest election season in my lifetime, there is the added danger that news
and its cultural response can emotionally consume us as we seek the latest
event or commentary from our preferred news source.
This Advent season let us seek that
balance. At least for a while let us
step away from the eternal half-light of phones, televisions, and computers.
Let us gather as a community, not as
potential voters or participants in a culture war, but people of faith changed
by a baby’s birth. Let us pause and meditate
prayerfully on the depth of meaning on he who is our foundation. He who was
also born in an often hostile world of clashing politics.
That said, the church is not an escape
from the world.
Rather the community of faith and the
God, who loves all, provide our ethical bearings and the spiritual sustenance
for engagement in the world. Or in
Sullivan’s words: “The task was not to silence everything
within my addled brain, but to introduce it to quiet, to perspective, to the
fallow spaces I had once known where the mind and soul replenish.”
Sullivan hasn’t stopped caring for the
world, nor contributing his voice; he just needed to find pause and awe. While I don’t agree with everything Sullivan
has written over the years, nor would you agree with all my attempts to put
faith in action, I do think his journey is noteworthy. He doesn’t walk alone.
Let us all come together from our
different places and journey towards Bethlehem this Advent season.
pictures of a boy barely older than my own were taken 50 years ago in Madrid.
Except unlike my own children giggling through a summer adventure, the original
boy was a early teen refugee. He and his father were forced to flee a country
(Cuba) that was both all they knew and no longer safe. They left behind a mother, wife, home, job,
school, and culture. This summer it was deeply meaningful to reproduce those
pictures and feel a connection to the boy who would become my sons’ grandfather,
but walking those streets we also got a sense of how overwhelmed he must have
small rooms, no windows, minimal ventilation, a bathroom outside and down four
flights, and all this represented opportunity. An Irish immigrant family fleeing
the potato famine had moved into a tenement on the Lower East side. 150 years
ago, the Smith family gave up the only home they knew, the culture they grew up
with, and the family who nurtured them. Their story is just one in the American
tapestry, but being in their apartment at the Tenement Museum one could feel
the weight of it.
times riding past the epic monument to this city and country's best
characteristics, I was struck by Lady Liberty's words: '. . give me your tired,
your poor, your huddled masses.' I was mindful that our tourist ride through
the NY bay on the Staten Island Ferry was a far different one than those who
came without language, jobs, or security.
summer of exploration has reaffirmed a clarion call for a church in this
city--to be a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56.7). Furthermore the
necessity of this witness has been hardly ever more necessary than at such a
time as this. The undeniable truth of our world economy is that people are on
the move, and rarely by simple choice. People are immigrating and migrating because
of economic woes, war, global warming challenges, healthcare, and lack of
opportunity. The international refugee population alone would be the worlds 23rd
most populous nation with even more people than Italy.
Avenue Presbyterian was founded as a church of immigrants (The Syrian
Protestant Church) and now represents more than 20 nationalities. We can offer
a faithful model. So many are struggling with this transition in our neighborhood,
city, and world. Yet we, who are descended from Abraham, the wandering
Aramean, and Jesus, the border-crosser without a true home, have clear
teachings and a long history of hospitality and service.
continue to extend that welcome that all may know God and find a spiritual
home, even if they are far from their own shores and especially if they are
Heading home from church along 5th
Avenue, I often glance at the Alpine Cinemas Marquee. As I child, there was little in my town that
generated the same amount of excitement as a movie: popcorn, sticky floors,
candy treats, and the big screen.
It feels like every time I read the
movie titles over the past few years that there is another comic book
blockbuster. It is no secret that these
well-wrought narratives are lucrative, fast-paced action fun. In fact, these movies aren’t likely to spend much time
off the marquee. Production companies
will keep going back to the source as long as it’s profitable.
More and more though seeing the constant
stream of superhero titles has brought to mind a article that I read in a
college class. It suggested that this
genre of film is especially popular in times when society feels
vulnerable. Accordingly, it was no coincidence that
the comics were so popular during the Depression and World War II. It has been unsurprising when
superheroes cycle back into American cultural conversation.
Following that theory and accounting all
the present day comic movies, we are not surprised to hear conversations on the
subway platforms, over coffee cups after church, and next to water coolers at
work detailing peoples’ fears over job security, terrorism, pollution, racism,
hate crimes, immigration, war, and. . . .the future!?
A line from the Batman vs. Superman:
Dawn of Justice trailer says, “We as a population have been looking for a
savior.” Why not seek comfort, guidance,
and rescue from a being with superpowers?
When we are overwhelmed, the idea of some thing or person greater than
us restoring order and that vital sense of security sounds wonderful.
A fair critique could be offered here
that this city and country is in a much better position than the collective
sentiment so often voiced.
But, people seem more nervous than in
many other eras. Not only does the comic
book hero theory tell us that, but also the rhetoric of the political
candidates for president.
They are right that so much needs to be
done, but they seem to be preying on everyone’s vulnerability. Maybe that is the nature of political
campaigning—speaking to a weakness one feels they can change.
What surprises me is how often they use ‘I’ language. Listening to them, one would think they are
going to be made king or queen or superhero.
One can almost imagine them unilaterally fixing things with capes on
their backs, crowns on their heads, and fiery rhetoric on their tongues. Apparently, they will not be slowed by congress,
other countries, or the Supreme Court.
My strong hope is that in this year, we
do listen seriously to the politicians and prayerfully consider our
choices. And, that goes not just for the
national but also the local races. Much
can and needs to be done within our communities.
That said, we are assured that no
candidate will be perfect, after all none of the candidates is a savior (Psalm
Easter reminds us we have a savior, who came for us and taught us what needs saving. We must be mindful that while we do feel
vulnerable, we can’t expect a superhuman to politically fix everything and rid
us of fear. We leave that idea at the
Through Easter we also remember that we are part
of Jesus’ plan. Jesus taught us the way.
Transforming fear into love, Jesus calls us to live the Gospel and with the
help of the Holy Spirit to share his Kingdom values in word and deed with all peoples; not only
that all may know, but also that all may thrive.
Rev. David Aja-Sigmon
In the season of thanks, it is with great joy and gratitude
that we officially make two announcements concerning our church leadership:
The Rev. Jane Donnelly will continue her relationship with
Bay Ridge United and Fourth Avenue. The
Presbytery of New York City has recently approved the pastoral covenant between
Rev. Donnelly and the church. While she
was already known as the Pastor Emerita of Bay Ridge United, she is now
officially a Parish Associate for Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church going
Essentially this call will be two fold. First, we will have
the pleasure of being Jane’s home church. Second, when Jane is able, she will
be offering her gifts, especially if there is need for more support. Thus, you will definitely continue to see
Jane preaching on occasions in the foreseeable future, and you may see her in
pastoral care settings as well, including baptisms, weddings, funerals.
Also, our new music director is Jody Schum. A committee began the search in early
summer. Over the course of the last five
months, the committee has posted the job in various places, has taken counsel
of entrusted musicians, and interviewed candidates. After it all, we happily ended where we
started. The committee was convinced
that Jody was the best choice going forward to lead our two choirs and the congregation
in song. Jody was a music
director previously at a church in Binghamton for 7 years, has a relevant undergraduate and
graduate degree, and is employed during the week in musical theater.
are the young people?”
has happened to the young adults?”
I was younger, we used to gather together as a group after church; how can
create another group like that?”
These have been some of the most
commonly asked questions for at least the last 50 years. And, I am here to tell you that many answers
have been given, many programs have been created, many careers built on ‘revolutionary’
ideas, many others constructed on traditional responses, but nothing has made the
questions stop coming.
What can be said, though is that
several initiatives have proven to be worthwhile both for the young adults and
the greater church. One of those programs within our denomination is the Young
Adult Volunteer Program (YAV).
In some ways, it may seem similar to
Peace Corps or Americorps, as it is a year volunteering in service for young
adults between the ages of 19 and 30. A
participant could find themselves volunteering in a Mayan Social Service Agency
in Guatemala or with a Food Bank in Tucson or a Refugee Center in
South London. There are both national sites and international
sites. And, one of the goals of the
program is not only for the young men and women to offer a service wherever
they are, but also for them to interact with brothers and sisters in a very
different context: one in which their faith may be challenged and
developed. All of the sites have a site
coordinator that supports the volunteer’s various journeys and guides them
through questions of call/vocation.
Now that the program has existed for around
20 years, much is certain. Former alums
of this program remain committed to the church and leaders within it. There are many elders, deacons and pastors
that were part of this program, but also they are people that are still
committed to the shaping of the community and world in line with Jesus’ vision.
Actually four people in our church were
part of this program: Sara Thompson, Vanessa Aja-Sigmon, Alan Aja, and me. For all of us it was a time of great
learning, a year writ large on our lives and in our faith.
It is has been my great honor to serve
as the chair of the Presbytery of New York City’s Commission to start a YAV
program here in the city. And, after
much scrambling and effort, the commission was delighted to have four young
adults move here in September. They are living in Morningside Gardens and are
part of various ministries in the city: Presbyterian Senior Services ministry
to Grandparents taking care of grandkids in Harlem, the Presbyterian Ministry
to the United Nations, the homeless outreach ministry of Jan Hus Presbyterian
Church, and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
We will be hosting these Young Adults
on October 18th at Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church. It will be a time in which we can pray with
them and for them, listen to them and share with them, and be energized by the
spirit moving in them as they see it in us.
Please come out to support
them. And, if you have more questions,
please visit the program’s website: presbyterianmission.org/ministries/yav/
In the northern hemisphere Christians practicing Lent
parallel the movement of nature, especially the growth of flowers. We start on our knees in prayer opening
ourselves to God, that by the end of the season we may stand blossoming in the
rays of our God.
In particular, Lent inspires us to engage our faith with
more intention and engagement. Certainly,
we believe God is ever-present and our faith should demonstrate that 365 days a
year, yet, the church has traditionally carved out this space in the
liturgically calendar to take our actions seriously.
People often take on new practices such as fasting
(particular items or meals), more scriptural study, etc. One of the ironies of the season, which always makes Lillian
and me laugh, happens on Ash Wednesday. Liturgists
read this passage from Matthew: “Beware of practicing your piety before
others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your
Father in heaven. 2So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet
before you, . .”(Matthew 6:1-2a). In
other words, people are asked in one service to both be quiet about the
practices of their faith, while a few minutes later also asked to emblazon a
large visible mark of their faith.
Sometimes, people spin in indecision at the apparent mixed messages.
Instead what needs to be reflected upon
are the motivations behind our actions.
Why is it you are doing this? For
whom are you doing this? It is this way that Lenten practices are
different from New Year’s Resolutions.
New Year’s Resolutions are intended to make a better you. Lenten practices aren’t just about you. They are about you, your God, your neighbors,
Practices of our faith, like mitzvah
from which they derive, are intended to connect us to God. The highest value is not to make us more
righteous or more publicly appreciated.
In an age, when we are so easily
distracted and consumed with things to do, the season pushes for pause. That amidst it all, we may hear God’s gentle
words: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46). Therefore, the particular practice you choose
only matters in that it opens you to God that you may be refreshed, reoriented,
and allowed to reprioritize your life.
I recommend that you do pick a practice
for these 40 days. Further, I would ask
you to join me.
Water, that essential of life and
central character in our biblical story, is not easily available to all God’s
children. Especially as the world gets
hotter and the streams more polluted, the availability of clean drinking water
is a matter of life and death. Over 12%
of the world’s population lacks this basic building block of life. For this reason, Bay Ridge United has been
supporting water ministries around the world for years.
My suggestion is that we steer our Lenten practices towards
water. Therefore, prayerfully consider
what you may do over Lent, so that you may reconnect to God and help God’s
Here are some suggestions:
--pray for the thirsty and those who have non-potable water.
--fast on a particular day and set aside what you would
normally pay for that meal.
--reflect on how some of the actions of your daily life may
abuse this increasingly scarce resource.
--give up that special coffee drink or soda, instead putting
that money aside. If doing that for all
of Lent is too much then do it one day a week.
--read and prayerfully study about some of the world’s
--give a percentage of your water bill.
--do a biblical study on water (there are even Lenten series
that I can show you).
-- or be creative and come up with your own.
By Easter, we will know it was a faithful venture, if we
opened our hearts to God, God’s people, and the created world around us. And, maybe as an added bonus, we can have a
practical consequence in mission by supporting the digging of new wells (which
can happen with less than $40).
Time’s very essence is consistency
and precision. We count on 60 being 60,
24 being 24, and 7 being 7.
Yet for the bedrock conception of time,
I defy the pendulum and its supposedly regular swing.
There are times in our life when the
clock goes wonky. John Leguizamo once
said in an interview, “Time with an infant is long days and short years”
(1/19-2007 Centerstage, YES Network). For
this very reason, I am certain that a universal smalltalk topic expressed in
different languages for all time has been—kids, they grow up fast.
Of course, time’s varied nature does
not just apply to young people. Another
example of time’s mysterious quality happens with older adults: one clumsy fall
can make an independent person’s kitchen clock play haunting games. All of the sudden the slow ticking of the
second hand badgers someone no longer able to be out and about, caring for
others, and doing what he/she has always done.
The other night my boys and I
were reading a book of Calvin and Hobbes
Comics that spoke to modern time. And,
it struck them so differently than it did me.
Calvin and Hobbes are lying there
bloated and disheartened. Halloween is now over. Calvin says,
“Another Halloween come and
gone, it is always such a letdown after a holiday.” Then, they head outside and Calvin says, “Well,
we might as well go into town and look at the Christmas decorations”
(11-1-1986, Watterson). Gorged on
Halloween candy and freed from their costumes, they, like most children, are
dejected on November 1st and in search of something else to await
with longing. While I grant that
Watterson is making a satirical punch at the ever-growing consumer Christmas
season, the last quarter of the calendar year has started to feel that way for
As I write this on November
25, I can almost smell the heartwarming and belly stirring scents of
Thanksgiving. I can almost feel the
mostly joyous chaos of extended family smooshed into a NYC apartment. I can almost hear the familiar cacophony of
another feast day attempt. We will
finally make time for gratitude, thank God.
Yet, the point of writing the
newsletter was to present the important dates of our advent season. The beginning of the church’s calendar is
again upon us. We are again being
reminded of the need to be prepared for the kingdom to come as we remember the
birth of an infant that changed our world.
As we speed into another
advent season, I encourage you to be conscious of time. Whether it moves slower because someone is
missing or it is speeding with some distracting elements, make choices
consistent with what you find faithful and valuable (e.g., family gatherings,
healthy grieving, volunteering, healing, prayer-filled silence, etc.).
In the end, I concede--time
is regular; it doesn’t always seem that way though because life is not.
Recently, I have found myself in a surprising
situation. Somehow, I have been humbled
to find myself sitting alongside gifted new pastors and pastors-to-be with
questions about the church.
In such moments, my interior voice is filled with the insecurities
befitting my relative youthfulness and reservations concerning my relative
wisdom. At the same time, to steal the
words of the 12 century scholar Abelard, I stand on the shoulders of giants. So
many mentors (pastors, lay persons, and those outside the church) have richly
blessed my path that it would disrespectful to run from this temporary role as
You may suspect that my contribution is peppered with
stories of tornados, integrating churches, fires, and floods. All those things have happened in bigger and
smaller ways, but I rarely speak to those moments.
Instead, what often pours out are words of wonder about the
church. A pastor has such a humbling vantage
point participating in the lives of God’s people.
In our present world people are often at odds with each
other, projecting images of themselves to the outside world, and holing up in the comfort of their home; yet at
church I see people of all ages gathering and participating in community:
--Where else do young and old share hugs, stories, and tears
with people they aren’t related to?
-- Where else do people from different incomes, politics,
and ethnicities gather voluntarily for a common cause?
-- Where else are voices raised together in the harmony of
song and hearts melded in the silence of prayer?
--Where else do people choose to gather in response to
tragedies abroad and at home trying to be part of transformation?
--Where else does hope rule over cynicism and fear?
--Where else is comfort and support offered so freely?
--Where else are questions welcomed so openly and truth
sought so vigorously?
There is so much I don’t know, but one thing I do is that
the world needs God’s church. Together
we learn to cope. Together we learn to live.
Together we dare to love.
The clothing has changed in Fourth Avenue Presbyterian
Church’s 110 years. The numbers have
gone up and down. The neighborhood has even changed. And, sadly, different people that have passed
through the doors have passed through life.
But our need for God and God’s church is the same.
In the end, I’m not sure my story-filled awe is what these
inquirers are looking for, but I can’t help it. Instead of offering an insight
about a new social media perfect for church, a method to quickly grow a church,
or a frustration with a challenging climate for faith, I feel the deep need to
share my wonder with these inquirers.
Thanks be to God and God’s church.
The enduring theme of A
Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that amidst the grit and the hustle of the dense
city, beauty can and will flourish despite perceived poor odds. Through the course of the novel Francie, a
bookish and sickly child of exhausting poverty and an alcoholic father, grows
into a young woman of strength and character.
Similarly, several years ago
the NYTimes featured a photographer who found beauty in unexpected, urban
places. Every time I opened my old computer, one of those images engaged
me. The particular shot was of a
butterfly sitting perched upon a purple blossom audacious enough to grow among
weeds at the foot of a warehouse’s graffitied wall.
We at Fourth Avenue
Presbyterian Church may not have the most picturesque location between the gas
station and the auto repair shop, but I love the notion that we offer some
beauty and character in an unexpected place.
The church has endured over many years, and even thrived in the changing
times of the city.
Last week, a high school teacher,
who has come to our church garden to receive summer vegetables for years, reminded me of a
mutual vision we shared. He was
wondering if he could now put a small
mural on the garden wall that separates us from the auto repair shop. The particular spot he picked would cover up
some graffiti that is decades old.
So often people in the CSA
along with guests to our food pantry, the seniors gathering, and the Healing
Center workshops have asked me if there is a way to offer gratitude to the
church for its commitment to the neighborhood.
In this case, the session was
asked for permission. Their excited
approval allowed the painters to start working this week. Following a style of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the
artist has begun to paint some vegetables in a circular form. For me, it weds perfectly the beauty of God’s
creation and its astounding sustenance of the world.
The project also demonstrates
to me the vital role a church can play in the fast-moving and challenging city,
as a faithful gathering place of peace, enlightenment, sustenance, and beauty.
Special thanks to Andy and
Rev. David Aja-Sigmon
Millions of dollars in studies done by credible academia
nuts have confirmed what pastors have been experiencing for the longest of
time-- pastors need other pastors. I consider it a blessing that when my term of
service started in Brooklyn nine years ago one of the first local pastors I met
was the Reverend Jane Donnelly. She
began her pastorate at Bay Ridge United Church that same summer of 2005.
While 9 years may seem a significantly smaller term of
service than the distinguished men on walls of 4th Avenue who served
the church for 30 and 40 years, I assure you so much valuable labor has been
done by Rev. Donnelly in that time.
Moreover, it is my deep belief that she has been leading not only Bay
Ridge United Church, but also the greater church in her quiet, unassuming way
at a time when others are mostly overwhelmed.
Jane’s email moniker is 1stof9 because she was born the
first child of nine. Born into a large family
like that the first has no choice but to be an in-between-kid, the child
parent: someone who is both responsive to the parents, but also tasked with
parenting the other children as well.
No other kid has gone before that child, so they must find a way because
the others depend on them.
Jane’s unique pastoral authority reflects that child fully
matured. She is clearly open to God’s call, but also willing to lead a
church uncertain of the path before it.
Just as when she filled that role as a child, Pastor Jane may not have had
all the answers but she had to try and. . . do something faithful
At the presbytery level (our local regional church body)
Jane has led a committee called the Committee for Preparation to Ministry
(CPM). No longer are all the candidates
from ministry young adults from similar ethnic backyards and able to attend
graduate school full-time. The church is
now blessed differently having candidates considering a call as a second (or
third, etc) career, from all over the world, and with diverse experiences. In some ways, the church’s structure,
theology, and polity have not always been ready to support the changing
realities of its candidates. Under
Jane’s leadership the committee has shepherded people discerning their call no
matter their age, language, culture, background, sexual orientation, income,
family history, or color. Prayerfully
and creatively Jane, as chair of CPM, has been leading us forward in often
uncharted areas for the glory of God, the betterment of the church, and the
particular candidates’ vocations.
At the local church level, Rev. Donnelly has been leading us
in the process of integration. What you
may not know is that the presbytery is giddy with excitement and anxious with confusion
because churches coming together is good conversation fodder but rarely
reality. The particular way in which our
process of integration is being done was lifted up at our last meeting of the
Presbytery of New York City as brave, new, and collaborative. In the midst of our years of meetings Jane
has not been a coercive force or quiet passenger, she has been unfailingly
positive and open to the spirit trying to come to solutions, even if they were
yet to be fully imagined.
Of course, as a fellow pastor, it is only recently that I
have been able to see Jane actively serving her congregation. I have tremendously enjoyed our all-too-brief
co-pastorate. She is an active and
engaging colleague with a deep faithfulness and pastoral touch evident in the
worship services, through her pastoral care, and in her dynamic vision for the
In the end, 9 years after her ordination, the 1st
of 9, the Reverend Jane Donnelly is retiring.
Undoubtedly, Pastor Jane will continue to discern God’s call for her in
a new reality. In the meantime it is
abundantly clear, we have been shepherded and nurtured in ways only she could
We are celebrating her in a service at 4pm on June 29th. Please come to express your gratitude as Bay
Ridge United worshipfully and honorably dissolves the call of Jane Donnelly at
Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church. The
Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of New York City will be preaching, the choir is
preparing, and a reception will follow the joyful service.
Rev. David Aja-Sigmon
For anyone coming up the red carpeted steps of Fourth Avenue
Presbyterian Church, one of their first impressions of our sanctuary is the new
banner: A Great Cloud of Witnesses. On a
gentle field of blue felt, multicolored people of faith seem to float above and
around a church.
The banner was completed last year for the service honoring
Bay Ridge United Church. In a way, the representation captures what a modern
pew on a average Sunday cannot fully—the true church family: all the grandmothers, grandfathers, children,
visitors, members, deacons, teachers, elders, and pastors. Just as there is but
one female pastor depicted (a memorable affirmation of their present-day shepherd,
the Rev. Jane Donnelly), this pastor and all the people around her intended as
representations of the great multitude of God’s children through time.
The clause, ‘we are surrounded by a great cloud of
witnesses’, comes from the Book of Hebrews and poetically connotes the abiding
presence in our lives of those who have come before us (Hebrews 12:1). It also
speaks to the gathering of God’s community beyond the confines of walls,
geography, or even time. We are all united in faith as God’s children Maybe it
was lessons such as these that encouraged and emboldened Bay Ridge United to
leave their beloved worship space at 636 Bay Ridge
Parkway and move to 6753 4th Avenue. The banner visibly
reminds the combined congregation every time we come to worship that we are all
part of the same family, whether our surnames are Bergen or Katen, whether our
pastor’s name was Rev. Ashley or Rev. Dyson, or whether our countries of origin
are Trinidad or Nigeria.
There are other visible items speaking to the mutual actions
and works of integration between the churches. Besides the banner, there are
communion dishes, a baby grand piano, and now more permanent nametags. The actual coming together of the community
necessitates more than a ‘hello’ and ‘welcome.’
It is worshipping together, serving together, and caring for each other.
This obviously is easier when your neighbor’s name is more than a faint memory
or subject to subtly avoid in the greeting exchange, so keep wearing them and
leaving them at church.
The other day Denise Salvesen and I were discussing how to best
and most simply display the nametags for people arriving at church. We decided
that our chosen first attempt would be a basket system with the first letters
of names in corresponding wicker baskets.
Arriving at this decision, Denise said, ‘So people will come to church
and find themselves in worship.’ How
right she was.
In one breath, yes, that is our great aspiration and charge. In this world, which can at times seem so discombobulating,
there is a community where people can gather to find their place in the continuum
of God’s time as part of God’s plan remembering our past saints, worshipping
wit the present ones, and preparing the world for the future ones.
Rev. David Aja-Sigmon
Al, the esteemed former
Clerk of Session for over 50 years, repeatedly tells me that one of his goals
is to teach me ‘to talk good.’ While I am far from fluent in Brooklynese, one
need go no further than your local school playground to learn its
dynamism. One of my favorite places is
that space in-between kid-dom and adult-dom.
Exhausted, wide-eyed kids barrel through that zone speaking a newly
revised version of Al’s favored tongue, then promptly communicate with their
parents in the appropriate language of home: English, Spanish, Arabic,
Mandurin, Cantonese, Hebrew, etc.
Which brings me to another of my
favorite conversations with Al, we find this aphorism to be definitive and
instructive about our favored borough: ‘The only thing in Brooklyn that stays
the same is that it is always changing.’
Yet we find there to be a common thread that connects the generations in
this immigrant’s home, this cosmopolitan conglomeration of neighborhoods, this
city in disguise, this more interesting even if less elegant brother of
In keeping with that spirit, our church
finds itself in a place in which we are to hold to the truth of our being and
message, while recognizing the world is changing around us.
While I was told 8 years ago that this
is ‘The Borough of Churches,’ one of the heartrending parts of my time here
has been watching colleagues and friends close some of those churches.
Ridge United decided over a year ago that they did not feel God was confined to
their facility off 7th Avenue which they were struggling to
sustain. Rather than journey through a
long process of draining the human and financial resources of that truly
historic and still vibrant church, they made the bold decision to reach out to
Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
After more than a year of meetings,
reports to the session, presentations to congregational meetings, a hopeful
plan has been created for Bay Ridge United to begin worship with Fourth Avenue
in late February. If the way is made clear, we may jointly worship through the
Lenten season leading into Easter.
On February 2nd, you are strongly
encouraged to attend the Annual Congregational Meeting. The agenda is set so that we can consider not
only our year that has passed, but also what the most faithful course for the
future may be. Further details
developing after our last meetings will be shared, including the presbytery’s
role in the process, worship leadership in the transition, and fellowship
events. Questions and ideas are welcome.
While the world around us may be
changing, both diverse churches have demonstrated a commitment to mission and
the belief that God is and always will be here in the city. It indeed saddens
all parties that Bay Ridge United Church would chose to close its doors, but it
has been made clear that while the doors of one church building may close, the
greater Church will be strengthened and doors opened more broadly as brothers
and sisters in Christ unite. The
agreement is intended to ensure that both congregations are nurtured into one
future and the presence of the Church is enhanced locally.
In no way should this be seen as a heart-heavy fuggehdaboutit to the colorful religious
past of our beloved Brooklyn, instead it intends to further strengthen the
potential of our church to have a transformational and hospitable presence for
all those incredible youts and their
In the end despite all of Al’s fine teaching, I have
resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never be able to pull off the celebrated
accent or words of Brooklyn, but together as a growing church family, we can
ensure that Christ’s words are spoken and embodied in our part of the borough
for years to come. No matter what the accent of the person walking through the doors
Rev. David Aja-Sigmon
There are so many iconic places in New
York City. I pity a tourist visiting for
the weekend. Guidebooks can look like
the handiwork of Tolstoy. Living within
the five boroughs, we have the luxury of exploring the city in our time.
One of the places tourists don’t visit
enough is a personal favorite: Green-Wood Cemetery [You may be cringing or
thinking me morbid, but stay with me].
Green-Wood dates back to 1838. Then as
now, the city was constantly building on a fixed amount of land, so cemeteries
were changing addresses more than a modern 25 year old. One of the main rationales for its creation
in Brooklyn was to create a beautiful place for all time that wouldn’t be
pushed out by the city.
175 years later, New York and the United
States of America’s history can be read through the tombstones and stories
buried in those hills in Sunset Park.
There are musicians, soldiers, and politicians of repute. . . . and sometimes
disrepute. There are also countless
mothers, fathers, and children, who never made a newspaper but are heroes to
their families and friends. Of course,
after eight years in Brooklyn I have been humbled to bury many of the saints of
Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church in those same confines.
All this is reason enough to catch the
B63 up 5th avenue to the 25th street Gothic entrance. But
at this time of year there is the additional allure of spectacular colors in
this park-like setting.
Walking the paths and avenues between
the lakes and monuments, one is overwhelmed with the life and vitality of the
place. It instills a reverence for our
precious part in this grand story of God’s creation.
In a recent visit it occurred to me
while standing at Louis Comfort Tiffany’s headstone, that even the famed
stained glass artist couldn’t create a piece so spectacular in its color and
depth as his grave’s present surroundings.
I encourage you to make a visit to
Greenwood Cemetery; learn some history on a grassy hillside, grieve a friend whose
grave you haven’t visited in too long, enjoy the peacefulness in an oasis from
the city’s noise and bustle, reflect on the eternal questions of life and death,
or just walk with clarity knowing that you are one awe-filled blade of grass in
the fertile field of God’s creation.
Water is as integral to our faith story
as it is to human life. Imagining even
the most mundane thing like your morning routine (shower, making tea/coffee,
brushing teeth, etc.) without water is like Noah’s ark without the flood or
Moses leading the Exodus from slavery without the crossing of the Red Sea. It is unfathomable.
Before the science could explain the how questions of life, our ancestors
knew water was a basic element of life.
They understood their beginnings intertwined with the whole of God’s
handiwork, teaching their children the Genesis story of how God created life. Water was present from the beginning, then
humanity was the last part of creation. Humans were given the grace-filled joy
of living in natural order, but also the responsibility to care for it.
The profound connection in God’s
creation between water and people continues through both testaments of our
Bible. A few notable examples are below:
Sustaining the people in the
wilderness, God makes the bitter water sweet (Exodus 16)
Evoking water in powerful metaphors
prophets brought home their message: ‘May justice roll down like waters . .’
Breaking down human barriers, Jesus
meets the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4)
Welcoming all who spiritually thirst,
Jesus says faith is like a flowing river (John 7)
Witnessing to God’s power with
creation, Jesus walked on water (Matthew 14)
Ultimately, the sacramental truth was illuminated
through baptism in water (Mark 1)
This year we will explore water’s role
in the faith story. There will be adult
education classes, bible studies, presentations by speakers, documentaries
followed by discussions, and opportunities to apply our newfound knowledge.
The objective behind this exploration
of water in Christian faith is that we may gain a deeper respect for God’s
glorious theater—creation, but also that we may consider what can be done to
protect our global neighbors and the environment in a world warming up and
growing ever more thirsty.
The City orbits around eight million
centers of the Universe.
And turns around the golden clock at the still point of this place.
Lift up your eyes from the moving hive and you will see time circling under a
vault of stars and know just when and where you are.
Billy Collins b. 1941
I came across this poem riding on a train that could
ultimately have taken me to 100 year old Grand Central. The former national
poet laureate’s work has stayed with me, not only because of my fascination
with New York City’s public transportation system but also because of its
potential parallel relevance for people of faith in the city.
One never forgets his/her wonder upon entering the terminal for
the first time. The process repeated so many times is that entering through
some tunnel each person floats with the masses into the vaulted center room
with its classic lines, inspiring height, and mind-blowing function. Somehow
this teeming busy place evokes pause. It speaks to the grandness of the city
and is a stable fulcrum of a fast-paced world.
Native New Yorker, Collins, speaks to all those sensations
in fewer and more poignant words, but I would like to push that further
suggesting his poem can speak to faith life in the city:
We are blessed to be in a city overwhelming in its beauty,
whether its in Prospect Park or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We are blessed
to be in a city with millions of people striving to live days filled with
meaning and love, whether on Wall St or a back alley. We are challenged to be
in a city with so much happening so fast we can feel lost, exhausted or
overwhelmed, whether it is due to finance, loneliness, or the pace.
If we can but slow down, as Collins suggests in Grand Central, and look about, we’ll
see--God is here. Life has meaning. Time viewed through faith gives its true perspective.
Another NYer Abraham Heschel, rabbi, professor and
theologian, invited the modern person to reconsider God especially on a Sabbath
Day that we may recognize all times as holy. . . even and especially in the
On the Sabbath we try to become attuned to
holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is
eternal in time, to turn form the results of creation to the mystery of
creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
This spring and summer, let us look together for God in our city.
Most of my days working at church the heartbeat of the city
is easily definable with the regular rumbling of the R train’s passing. The
subway induced tremors have become so much a part of my life that when
Hurricane Sandy clogged the arteries, the suddenly silent stillness gave me a
haunting regular reminder of the city’s latest affliction and all who were/are
Frankly, it seemed odd to be writing a newsletter about the
coming season of joy, as our city seems so different after the storm. In a
clear move of procrastination for this Christmas newsletter, I took the now
restored train on an errand yesterday.
Once down among the stained walls of the BayRidge Avenue station, akin
to a congregant seeking the comfort of his/her regular pew, I walked over to my
customary place to await my ride. Across from me where one would usually see a
colleague in travel bobbing to the music wired into his ears or stilled by the
other world of her book, there was instead a floating half-inflated red helium
This unexpected bit of levity took me out of my fog and
brought a little scarlet whimsy to the dark, functional underworld of our city.
As it danced, I couldn’t help but look around at the balloon’s effect on
others: some were smiling as if childhood peeked into a grownup world, some were studying it
as if trying to record the wind patterns, and some were completely oblivious.
I think this is the way of Advent and Christmas. Christians have multiple responses to the
season. Some are filled with the giddy
anticipation of an 8 year old, others feel out of sorts because they are keenly
missing someone who has always been there, some are overwhelmed with stress
wondering how they can afford the festivities and gifts, some have raised hope
in a dark time, some feel frustrated by the consumerization and re-messaging of
a Holy season, some are flooded with memories flowing in with all the smells
and songs, and some. . . .especially this year, may be looking for deeper meaning
after an event, like the storm, has changed their lives dramatically.
So, yes, it was just a silly balloon in a subway
station, but it really brought home for me the idea that we see Jesus’ coming
in so many different ways. And somehow,
for all of us in our different places there is a central truth—Emmanuel [God
with us]. Whether subways are silent or
raucous with children’s laughter, whether winds are blowing or it is a still
winter day, whether we are alone or together, there is Good News on Christmas.
What should I do?
In a country where our labor so often defines us, the
question above can be haunting. I hear it from middle schoolers, who have long
since graduated from the whimsy of the answers--racecar driver and actress, and
are now burdened by looming high school pressure to pick a lifelong
occupation. I have heard it from
collegiate students, who seem to dread their graduation because finding a job
in this economic climate will be hard. I
have heard it from recently laid-off people, who wonder who they are without a
job to mark them. I have heard it from employed persons, who feel their jobs
make them numb to life or stressed to every new day. I have heard it from recent retirees, who
struggle to fill a calendar and personal identity without employment. And most heartbreaking, I have heard it from
people who are no longer mobile and mostly homebound, wondering why they are
living if they can’t ‘do’ anything.
The PCUSA’s theological roots in the Reformed Tradition have
long held a strong emphasis on living out our faith. Whether intentionally or unintentionally,
this has helped perpetuate the anxiety.
Some of the muddle may originate with slopping of the terms
vocation and occupation into the same puddle. While on the surface it may appear differently, theologically these terms are definitely not
the same. Occupation is trade in which someone works for payment. Vocation is using the gifts God has endowed a
person to spread God’s love. Sure, these two terms can overlap, but
they are definitely not synonymous.
A counter-cultural pillar of our faith is that God’s grace
is our basic characteristic. In the city
that never sleeps one can achieve love, adulation and income resulting from
your activity between the hours of the punch clock—your occupation, while God’s
love marks us before even our first breath. God’s love is neither earned nor
lost according to income returns. It is
as intrinsic to us as our very DNA.
Culture-at-large teaches us that what you do says who you
are, but for a Christian it is something exactly opposite, who you are (God’s
children) says what you do (your vocation).
And all that you do is: “In gratitude to God, empowered by the
Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and
joyful lives” (PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith).
So yes, we try to do,
but all that we do is to say thank
you and spread God’s vision. An elderly
person stuck to her bed may not be earning a paycheck or leading a movement,
but she is just as valued in God’s eyes as anyone and contributes to us in ways
of wisdom, expressed love, etc. When a
middle-aged person loses a job, it has nothing to do with his personal worth in
God’s eyes, though it can be economically traumatic.
Consider a tree this autumn. In each cycle of life there is
a usefulness and beauty to the leaves; whether it is the spreading of seed, the
cleaning of our air, the creation of shade, the glory of the fall colors, the
piled leaves for jumping in, or the decomposition which enriches the soil. The worth of those leaves never changes,
every stage of its life matters, and has its glory. Furthermore, those leaves need the life-giving
properties of the tree and benefit from the company of the other individual
Living as leaves on the Tree of Life, you may not always feel
significant and flowering, but you are a vital part of God’s creation and the
What should you do?
Well, that may be the wrong question.
The first question for us to explore this fall is who are we. . .until
we believe that we are God’s children. I
pray that we may manifest our sundry truths and unique beauty together this
Information exchange is now
instantaneous. Just at this moment, the myriad methods of communication connect
us to the atrocities in Syria, financier’s glee at the
Greek debt deal, the unending struggles in Afghanistan, and the African Cup of
Nations soccer tournament. But, its not
just people in the news, the average person on Facebook has 120 friends. So many people are accessible at our very fingertips.
Yet, somehow we still struggle
to connect, truly connect. Marvelous as
they are, the instant information and vast networks alone don’t end loneliness,
fill our lives with meaning, and/or teach us to love our neighbor.
This Lenten journey we at
Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church are called
back under the Oaks of Mamre with Abraham, to the feet of Jesus with Mary, and
in the homes of the early church to consider an eternal mandate of the
The church is called to be
different than the world.
Whereas, it can feel that
daily life is a process of being reminded who or what you are not. When someone
comes through our doors, they are always welcomed for who they are. We are followers of a man who touched the
untouchables, dined with sinners, and also shared fellowship with those in
Our faith is modeled by our
generosity to the stranger, not just because we benefit--“by doing that some have entertained angels
without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2), but more accurately because Jesus was
always making people feel at home, loved and valued. . .even and especially when
they had never felt those spiritual feelings before.
Whether we grew up tweeting or
asking the operator to put us through to our friends, we are supposed to be affirmed,
challenged, and guided in the church community. People aren’t de-friended and no one will
vote you off the island because of how you look, how much you earn, what
mistakes you’ve made, or who you love. All are welcome to follow the one we
call the Christ.
In the church, our vocation is
to help people connect, truly connect. . . .to God and then each other.
Sometimes we forget how
radical and significant this message really was in 33 and is in 2012.
Every December I start getting one particular question from neighbors and church folks. People see me and then all of a sudden . . . . their other thoughts fade, and this long-held question must be freed. Afterall, they have been waiting and waiting to ask me.
It comes in many forms, but the basic question is: Can you believe people are trying to take the Christ out of Christmas?
Usually, the catalyst for the thought was either: A) an encounter at a business, when someone says--Happy Holidays, or B) a consequence of listening to some fired-up pundit in the media.
My answer usually startles people a bit.
Actually, I have no problem with people in business or governmental positions saying, Happy Holidays. In one moment they are honoring three things: 1) the amazing and unique multi-faith nature of our country, 2) the separation of Church and State—a necessary and revolutionary concept, and 3) they are making an effort to honor a joyous moment in my life.
Besides, no matter what they say to me, I will worship God coming to live with us. No one has the power in a phrase to steal Jesus from me, my family, or my church.
Truth be told, I think the whole argument as presently constructed is an entertaining but ultimately trivial distraction.
In the meantime, we, Christians, are the only ones that can actually leave the Christ out of Christmas.
When Christmas becomes about what we buy, how we decorate, and our superficial warm fuzzies, then we have betrayed the Christ, especially now in a time when we live . . . .
in a world that is filled with war and anger between peoples, we must venerate the Prince of Peace;
in a world in which so many people are struggling to survive, we must remind the world that a light shines in the darkness;
in a world in which so many people feel alone and alienated, we must trumpet that Jesus’ birth confirms God’s indisputable and wondrous love for all people;
and in a world in which so many people are looking for meaning, we must imitate through the living of our lives the love of God who came to live with us in a broken and fearful world.
This is what we celebrate in Christmas. If our season is about something else, then WE are the ones responsible for leaving the Christ out of Christmas.
So come, gather, and worship. It is the mystery and power of that baby’s birth which transforms our hearts and minds. Indeed, Christmas is worthy of our children’s delight and every adults tears. Return home to have the message restored in your heart. . . .
O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
Can you tell? My brain is balancing 42 things. I find myself considering how long this task might take before I can cross it out on my list. At each pause in the sentence, my thoughts are ranging from Lucas’ and Jesse’s first day at school, to the pastoral visits/calls I want to make, to the CSA core group meeting tonight, to considering the latest congregant’s troubles, to the movie I watched last night, to all those natural catastrophes, etc. It is a marvel that I can write any one thing, while I think of so many things.
What’s my problem? My diagnosis?. . . nothing that medicine need fix. I am merely an average soul in the Global West in the 21st century. We are scattered. We are exhausted. We are overwhelmed.
Whether we are working many hours because we are worried about the security of our job in a bad economy, or we are out of work due to age or downsizing, much of our physical and emotional energy is consumed getting it all done or soothing ourselves because we are anxious that nothing more can be done.
While the increased technologies of our age and the fragile economy have helped to create this situation, some of it is our own doing.
Our ancient faith speaks to the modern predicament in which we feel ourselves a falling leaf blown in the wind. Psalm 46 comes to mind with the imperative voice of God, “Be still and know that I am God.”
While the pre-electronic past and the strict Sabbath rules need not be forced upon anyone, there is tremendous power in choosing to pause. From the earliest pages of the Bible, we see God imploring us to take a moment.
God was not giving us one more thing to do, rather in being still we are able to find perspective on the trail behind, the present under our feet, and the journey ahead. Moreover, we are able to see God and the supportive others in our story, when we had previously thought we were alone.
Ironically, filling this ancient prescription for the modern malady doesn’t add more, it helps us see we need less. And, significantly, it helps us get out of our own heads and allows us to see others. It is then that we can be present in the present.
Finding stillness before God takes constant attentiveness and humility. The process is fed by many traditional practices—daily prayer in one of its many forms, Bible reading, singing, exercise, quiet contemplation, time with a supportive community, going to a church service, volunteering, journaling, speaking out for justice, simply turning things off, etc.
Before you put this newsletter down to start the next thing, take a moment off the spinning hamster wheel to 1)recognize you have been running on it and 2)consider how you might pause this autumn as the world gets inevitably busier and/or more confining.