God's grace is personal yet has communal, societal and global dimensions
We the people of Second Presbyterian Church strive to be an anchor of faith and social witness in the city of Elizabeth and metropolitan New York and New Jersey. Our congregation lives out its call through the gifts of faith, hope, and love in praxis with the community. We serve the living God as a diverse and inclusive congregation.
Through Jesus Christ we press on to love our neighbor as ourselves on the road to the City of God.
"I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
THE IONA PARADOX
Several years ago I spent the winter on a small (one by three mile) rocky island in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Scotland-- Iona. St. Columba first brought Christianity from Ireland in the 560's, which he then used as his base to evangelize Scotland and Scandanavia. Since then various monastic communities, crofters, fisherman, seagulls and presbyterians have inhabited this bleak but beautiful isle. About fifty residents and guests lived, worked and worshipped at the retreat center when I was there.
IONA contains some of the oldest black surface rock on the earth, and some of the worst weather. Huge storms with gale force winds would blow in from the north Atlantic and rage for days. I learned to walk bent over to compensate for the 50 mph gusts. Occasionally the driving sleet, snow and rain would stop and there'd be a brief period of calm and "brightness." We'd run outside to savor the weak horizontal light. Sometimes amidst our "sun dance" there were even wee glimpses of rainbow. But mostly it was absolutely the worst weather I have ever seen.
During one five day storm the ferry from the island of Mull was cancelled for the week, and we had to live off food stocks: endless tea, oatmeal (with salt not sugar), thick stale bread and old yellow pudding. When I grew weary of caffeinated tea and asked for the herbal variety the locals laughed, "The Yank wants Herb tea!" Later in the month when I came down with the inevitable flu and was bedridden, friends somehow found and brought me fresh green salad with a slice of tomato-- a miracle!
TWICE daily we trudged though the darkness and cold and gathered to worship in the abbey. There was no heat and only candlelight (my job was to light the candles, so I better not be late). There was no organ, just the sound of the wind howling outside. I remember singing with that small company, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here... Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel."
Strangely the severity of weather and life seemed to contribute to the warmth of the Spirit and community. Acknowledging the existential darkness, allowed the Light to truly shine. Why is that?
I believe the Iona Paradox can be stated as follows: the more we acknowledge our hurt and darkness the more we may receive the divine-human light. And the inverse is equally true: the less we acknowledge our hurt and darkness (and project it on to others), the less we are open to the true light of forgiveness and hope. In the very things that we ignore, reject and even despise as dirty and strange, God's incarnate light and presence is shining deep in the flesh.
IN other words, God is in the wound. The prophet was right, "The people who walked in deep darkness have seen a great light; those who have lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."
To paraphrase a poet, if I were a gazelle I'd run, if I were a nightingale I'd sing, because I am a human being I praise God. It is in our nature to transparently affirm the worth-ship of the Power by which we are. True worship is healing and, according to Paul, it is transforming. It brings us out of ourselves and our self-preoccupation. True worship is the end of our dead ends and the beginning of new possibilities.
“I appeal to you therefore, beloved, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Let us grow together in the discipleship and worship of our Triune God.
In God’s Peace,
Rev. Michael Granzen
On Good Friday and Easter
During Holy Week we remember in awe and gratitude that Jesus Christ came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, though his praise was short-lived. Through the week he will teach, cleanse, heal, and hold a last meal; then be betrayed and denied by friends and go forth to the cross to be broken for us all.
This year we are invited to follow him more closely in our lives--through new study and discipline and worship; watch him suffer and die with all that he has come to know of us and our world engraved in his heart. And we are invited more fully--or for the first time--to receive him back from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, into ourselves and our world. And we are called to let him change us--with forgiveness and joy--and teach us how to give up what is destructive and hold firm to what gives life; teach us how to love our neighbor and ourselves, to seek justice and love mercy, not in guilt but gratitude. These are challenging times we live in. But we are not alone. We are encouraged to participate in worship, meditation and true koinonia:
As Paul wrote, "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast. Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia!" God's passion is the power that can turn us at last into the persons we were meant to be, persons beginning at last a life worth living and a life that lasts forever.
Rev. Michael Granzen, Ph.D.
On Being a Skeptic of the Myths of Our Day
H. Richard Niebuhr is right when he says: This is "the great overarching myth ...the almost unconquerable picture in the mind"--the mind that reaches into us all, that we all share with our culture to some degree: in the "past forgotten, dead generations." And there is an "image of myself" and all society "coming to that future when there is no more future." Niebuhr calls this, in all its forms, our "mythology of death."
Because we have been overwhelmed by the myth of death; because our culture holds death to be THE END, the everlasting, eternal end, we cannot, many of us, sing, tenderly and vulnerably with tears streaming down our faces about the everlasting arms; we cannot sing "leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms"; we cannot sing with Martin Luther King, Jr., "Precious Lord, take my hand"; we cannot sing, "This is my story, This is my song..."
And so the church must become the skeptic--we must become the skeptics-- skeptical of the powerful myths of our day which often are at the bottom of both our beer commercials and our methods of literary criticism, our politics and our very views of human well being.
Segregating life and death--and living in a culture that holds to the myth of death as the last word--we segregate joy and sorrow. And we segregate them desperately... trying to keep the vision of nothingness out of our days and ways; trying to keep sorrow out of our joy.
Reflection on a Transforming Moment
...The most moving thing that happened was when, following one of her lectures, there was a question and answer period during the course of which a man stood and said, "Ms. Angelou, tell us something about racism. Do you find it better than it was or worse? Are you more aware of it on the East Coast than on the West Coast?"
She said, "Let me tell you a story."
The story she told was this. She had been in the San Francisco area ten or fifteen years earlier for the purpose of putting on a Public Television show on African art. Before the show was to go on, she had a call from a stranger who said that he happened to have a collection of African statues of some kind which he thought might be very useful to her on this program and perhaps she would like to see them and maybe use them. Of course, she accepted the offer and saw them. They were indeed just what she wanted. He lent them to her and she used them in her program in very artful ways which were appealing to the man who lent them.
As a result of that, they started a friendship. She got to know the man and his wife. They had dinner together a number of times and got to be really good pals. When the Public Television thing was over, she went back to the East Coast.
A few years later, she returned to the Bay Area and remembering this friendship, she called up the man and said, "It is Maya Angelou. I'm back again. I would love to pick up our friendship where we left it off. I enjoyed you so much before."
He said, "Terrific. Let me tell you a little bit about what I have been doing during the interval." He had been in Europe working with the problems of the American troops stationed over there.
She said, "How did it go?"
He said, "The black troops have a particularly hard time because they are black and there aren't many blacks around. But our boys, also..."
She said, "What did you say?"
He said, "The black troops have a particularly difficult time for various reasons but our boys, also..."
She said, "What did you say?"
A third time she went through it. All of a sudden, as she described it, he, himself, heard what he said and said in effect, "This is the most awful thing I have ever done. I can't continue the conversation. I have got to hang up, to have said such a thing to you, Maya Angelou, 'the black boys, our boys.'"
She said, "No. This is just why we must talk because that is what racial prejudice is. Beneath the superficial liberal utterance, there is the deep, ingrained sense of 'black boys, our boys.'" Nonetheless, they continued the conversation and agreed to meet.
What happened then was she tried a number of times to get hold of them, to meet him and see him and his wife. Again and again, the calls didn't go through. She left messages which weren't answered and finally the whole thing just fizzled out. So that was, in a way, her answer to the question, "How about racism?"
It moved her and upset her and that was the last question she took that day.
The next day, the second set of lectures we were to give, she returned to the podium and said, "I'm sure you noticed that I was moved by what I told you yesterday in answer to your question about racism." Then she said, "A remarkable thing happened as I was leaving the hall. A man in the audience stood up and said, 'Here I am.'"
It was the man she had been talking about. As she said that, the man himself again rose up, a small, white, Episcopal clergyman as it turned out. He walked up to the platform and threw his arms around Maya Angelou and she around him. They embraced one another and they wept. It was one of the most moving moments I have ever been part of in many, many ways.
What makes it so moving? I think that what we saw was not only racial barriers but so many different kinds of barriers that separate us as human beings -- fear, mistrust, misunderstanding, anger, loneliness, the inability to communicate with each other, even those we love the most and are closest to. In so many ways, we move through our lives like lepers, the untouchable ones, the unclean ones, afraid to touch other people's lives and let our lives be touched by other people, ashamed of our own uncleanness, suspicious of other people.
What was so moving was that when that large, black woman and that small, white man embraced, we saw that no one is untouchable, not even ourselves. We saw that as Maya Angelou said, "We all do have the same story when you get right down to what life is really all about." We saw that the kingdom of God, as Jesus said, is really among us, potentially, always, as the capacity we have, as those two people at that time had, to love and to forgive and to allow one's self to be loved and to be forgiven.
When you and I fail to embody what happened at that moment in the church when Maya Angelou and the white man embraced each other, when the church fails to embody that moment, all that we do in church becomes sort of empty, a kind of ecclesiastical vaudeville and the laughter is bitter laughter.
When the church does not embody that kind of forgiveness and love, it becomes in so many ways like a dysfunctional family which consists of sort of a superficial togetherness and yet a kind of inner-loneliness, hidden agendas, ministers who are out to hide their humanness behind their sermons and parishioners who are out to hide their humanness from their ministers.
Where the church does embody what happened in that moment of grace that I have been describing to you, when it does embody that, then the laughter and the laughter room is, of all laughter, I think, the holiest, because we have not only the "good news" but in a sense we have become the good news. Like lepers, we are cleansed by the love of God working among us and within us. That is what healing is about and what wholeness is about and what the church and the kingdom of God are all about. Fred Buechner
On Advent Prayer
This Advent we do well to remember the deep words of wisdom: “tell me how you seek and I'll tell you what you are seeking.”
Prayer is the best way to seek God in new and unexpected places. Prayer is discovering the cry of Christ’s Spirit within us which freely seeks the Creator. Prayer is accepting in the depths of our being that God has freely chosen and loved us from all eternity--that we really are God's children.
God's will is that you personally discover--in your everyday life and struggle--this truth: God knows you and loves you, with a love that lasts forever!
The Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,
Dr. Michael Granzen
Improvisation on Romans 8:35, 38-39
What will separate us from the birth of Christ?
Will holiday blues or travel stress? … No.
Will overeating cookies and candy canes
trees, houses and neighborhoods
with puff-up Santas and sleighs? … No.
Will the heartbreak of family distance,
the pain of child, sister or brother estranged,
the sword of loss,
the empty place at the table or the pew? … No.
For I am convinced that
neither the craziness of Black Friday,
and Cyber Monday,
nor the trivializing of precious stories –
Scrooge and Amahl and St. Nicholas,
Polar Express and Grinch –
nor angels hanging from the ceilings
of big box stores,
nor credit card debt,
nor greeting card lists,
nor early dark, nor cold winds and snow …
nor anything we choose to do,
can’t find time to do,
anything we forget or regret or neglect –
will ever be able to separate us from
God’s love in a manger long ago
and right now, right here.