Rumblings above the R

Winter 2016

 

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.




Fall 2016

Four 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 felt. 

 

Three 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.

 

Two 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. 

 

One 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.

 

Fourth 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.

 

Let us 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 suffering prejudice.

 





Spring 2016

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 146:3).

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 cinema.

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




Winter 2015

 

In the season of thanks, it is with great joy and gratitude that we officially make two announcements concerning our church leadership:

 

Parish Associate

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 forward. 


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.

 

 

Music Director

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. 



Fall 2015

Where are the young people?” 

“What has happened to the young adults?”

“When 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/


Spring 2015

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, and creation.

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 people.

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 vulnerable populations.

--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).

 


Advent 2014

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 me.

 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.   


Winter 2014


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 counsel. 

 

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.

 



August 2014

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 Natasha.


Rev. David Aja-Sigmon



June 2014


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 church family. 

 

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 offer.   

 

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




April 2014

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


Spring 2014


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 Manhattan.

 

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. 

 

 Bay 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 parents. 

 

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 may be.

 

Rev. David Aja-Sigmon






Winter 2013


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.

 


Fall 2013

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 . .’ (Amos 5:24).

·      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.



Spring 2013

Grand Central

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 city:

 

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.



Winter 2012

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 affected.

 

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 balloon.

 

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.


Fall 2012

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 leaves.

 

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 church. 

 

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 fall.


Spring 2012

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 faithful—hospitality.

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 fancy robes.

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.


Winter 2011

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!

 

 

 

Fall 2011

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. 

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