Keeping Time/Life Passages
ISM and YDS students attended the sessions of the Congregations Project Summer Seminar in June. Some were designated student reporters, and have contributed their reflections on their experience with particular congregations, and aspects of the theme.
Part II: Sabbath-Keeping
Sabbath in the City that Never Sleeps: Second Presbyterian Church, NYC
by Kyle Brooks
As the biblical passage goes, one day is as a thousand years to the Creator. One cannot say the same for time on earth. These modern times have produced all manner of timesaving technological advances, but our lives only seem busier, and free time is scarce. Rest and relaxation have been reduced to little more than a pregnant pause before resuming activity at a breakneck speed. A day hardly feels as long as it should.
Imagine, then, setting aside time for restoration amid the hustle of city life. Such is the challenge that faces Second Presbyterian Church in New York City. This Upper West Side congregation has committed itself to creating a time and space to embrace the Sabbath, not only as a day of worship, but also as a concept of rest and freedom. It is a daunting, but necessary task, one that the energetic staff has taken up wholeheartedly.
Second Presbyterian NYC has a vibrant and diverse community, whose children can be seen here celebrating an intercultural, interreligious holiday service. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)
Founded in 1756, Second Presbyterian Church stands out in part by not standing out at all. Many people walk past it without realizing it is a church. It is nestled in an apartment building adjacent to Central Park West. Leslie Merlin, the pastor, says you practically have to stand across the street and stare at the façade to recognize that it’s a church. It seems fitting that it blends into the surroundings. It is a powerful visual metaphor for the seamless integration of a journey of faith with the daily pursuits of work and play. Indeed, the lives of the parish staff reflect just this sort of blending. Rev. Merlin serves not only as pastor, but also as headmaster for the Alexander Robinson School, the oldest coeducational elementary school in New York City, which was founded by the church in 1789. Paul Sanner, the church’s musical director, is a music teacher there, and Elaine Song, a deacon at the church, is also an editor for a legal publication.
Second Presbyterian NYC is home to the first coeducational elementary school in New York City, the Alexander Robertson School, founded in 1789. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)
This group of three came to the Congregations Project with the goal of bringing their congregation and community into a Sabbath time of togetherness and joy. In their presentation, Paul mentioned the struggle to “stay alive in the present” and be engaged with what is before them, rather than solely focused on what happens next. As Leslie puts it, their lives (and those of the parishioners) are very scheduled. In all of their coming and going, it is a challenge to find a moment of stillness. Their plan is straightforward: sharing of food, song, and fellowship. Parishioners would rotate duties for each gathering, spreading the load of work and allowing for weeks when people can just come and enjoy themselves with no responsibilities.
Leslie shared how her own family life comes together around the dinner table. When she, her husband, and their children are gathered for an evening meal, something delightful happens. It is as though something about Sabbath, in the intentionality of being with each other, changes everyone involved. This sort of family dynamic is what the staff of Second Presbyterian hopes to bring about in their congregation.
Second Presbyterian Church's Pastor Leslie Merlin converses with ISM Friend Don Saliers during a coffee break.
(Photo by Amanda Weber)
Making this a reality for a parish of around six hundred members is a much different task, though, from making dinner for a single family. Although it is a church-sponsored event, they do not want it to be doctrinal or proselytizing in its intent. It is meant to be a space in which ego can be set aside and community can be embraced. Furthermore, there is the concern for how to bring this vital time to those who are unable to be physically present, whether because of schedules or other obstacles.
Fittingly, it was during our lunchtime gathering that Elaine and I were able to sit and discuss this project in greater depth. At the heart of the Sabbath project helping people reconfigure calendars around what allows them to reflect and feel whole. Elaine echoed the concerns of her two colleagues; this should not be a worship service, but it should still have spiritual importance. We pondered together how this goal might come to fruition, asking a crucial question: what’s our starting point? We found our answer in the words of the Creator spoken to the prophet Jeremiah: by lovingkindness have I drawn thee. What Second Presbyterian is offering is an invitation, an open-ended welcome. And when people are welcomed, there is no need to “control” the experience. Rather, there is an opportunity for the church and its members to be themselves. It is an opportunity to realize that when people feel cared for, they respond.
Lay member of the Second Presbyterian NYC team, Elaine Song
(Photo by Amanda Weber)
Perhaps, then, the way forward is to bring together the basic elements, to offer the call and await the response. The best-laid plans often do not go just as we expect, but is that always such a bad thing? It could be that the soul-stirring need for a transformative Sabbath experience is lying dormant in people’s hearts and merely waiting for a place to break forth. Second Presbyterian Church is laying the groundwork for a constructive way of putting time in service of its parish, instead of the other way around. It has the potential to produce a deeper, expansive joy through communal connection. In a city of small apartments, cramped schedules, and high stress, a creative approach to Sabbath might be just the way to slow down the day and realize a peace and quietness that lasts longer than a New York minute.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Denton, TX: Living the Sabbath
By Katharine Arnold
I have to admit, I didn’t know quite what to expect during the Congregations Project summer seminar, but I knew from the start that it was going to be an exciting week. I had made my way through a torrential downpour and accompanying dazzling lightning display to the Congregations Project opening session–tested by water and fire, just like the Israelites!. What else lay ahead?! Even now, I keep coming back to the sense of electric energy that filled every individual in the room that week, keeping our eyes rapt with attention, and our words and songs earnest with excitement.
During the Congregations Project summer seminar, I got to spend some time with members of Trinity Presbyterian Church, from Denton, TX. For those wondering, Denton is in a small town of about 10,000 in North Central Texas. Founded in 1960, Trinity Presbyterian describes itself as an educated congregation that has worked toward social justice throughout its history. This concern for justice also informs their current work for interreligious dialogue in their community. Trinity has a wide range of age groups in its congregation, and an incredible variety of demographic perspectives that informs its ministry. Trinity Presbyterian has an equally diverse arts ministry, with youth and adult choirs, specially commissioned cantata compositions, and a visual arts program that supports local artists and displays their work in the church. In their evening prayer service, Trinity used a hymn commissioned for their church, entitled Drawn by the Myst’ry of Faith. One line in particular seemed to encompass the scope of their mission: “Nurtured in hope and in love, we then are bold to say: ‘Seeking yet found, broken yet blessed, called to action,’ we confess that we are the body of Christ, the dwelling place of God.”
The Sanctuary of Trinity Presbyterian Church incorporates a variety of visual art into its liturgical programming. (Photo courtesy of Trinity Presbyterian, Denton)
Trinity Presbyterian’s project aims at appropriating the idea of “Keeping Time” as exploring the principles of Sabbath-keeping. Trinity’s pastor, Craig Hunter, spoke of developing a Sabbath practice that involved play, and restoration. Noting people’s increasingly busy lives, he sought ways that his congregation could define Sabbath as something more than simply “taking time” to rest, but rather as a principal avenue of prayer, discernment and growth. Similarly, Lenora McCroskey, organist and music director, saw Sabbath observance as beginning with one’s individual, daily practices, but also voiced concern about the older, retired members in her congregation who still needed activity and stimulation in their lives. Kerol Harrod, Trinity’s lay participant, had an eye toward the younger, adult members of the congregation, many of whom work one or more full-time jobs and who are accustomed to a schedule that is just too busy. Kerol articulated a desire to think about ways for congregants to prioritize their time, and not fall victim to a deeply rooted addiction to stress. The question of “What are you doing with your time?” seemed, for Kerol, a mentality that valued productivity as the highest goal, at the expense of all else. He also voiced a discomfort with the thought of Sabbath-keeping as reinforcing our obsession with scheduling every moment of our lives, and even controlling our times of “rest.”
Pastor Craig Hunter ciscusses the need for his congregation to take on Sabbath-keeping principles as a way of being, rather than a task to fulfill. (Photo by Amanda Weber)
This cultural obsession with efficiency, success, and progress can often thwart our best attempts at understanding how to take time for rest and nourishment. But the intensity of the Sabbath discussion throughout the week emphasized that for many, if not most congregations, the need for Sabbath is great. The question around our breakfast table on Monday centered around possible connections between Sabbath and ritual—little ways that the principles of Sabbath can be lived out in our daily lives that could become habituated, unconscious ways of restoring our relationship with time, and ultimately reflect God’s time on earth: a time of peace, justice, and mercy.
The 2012 CP summer seminar participants were bound together in worship througout the week, symbolized by this colorful woven banner. (Photo by Amanda Weber)
In describing these observations about Sabbath-keeping, Trinity Presbyterian also laid out the practices it hopes to adopt as a congregation, along the themes of worship, rest and play, art, community involvement, and social justice. As these themes developed throughout the week, it became clear that such an understanding of Sabbath would be nuanced, complex, and yet could become an all-encompassing principle that could nourish and invigorate their entire community.
Certain issues however, still remained: how does one teach and implement Sabbath principles without adding yet another “thing” on the to-do list? How do we move in the spirit of having “enough” and cease our striving for “more and more?” How can we remove and prevent burdens of cumulative stress from our shoulders, a stress that threatens our very health and well-being? Developing a Sabbath practice must involve reprogramming these addictive stress pathways, changing our source of nourishment, away from adrenaline and toward the energy of excitement and hope in God, and seeing the Body of Christ as an indispensable avenue toward a restorative time with the Lord.
Lay member, Kerol Herrod, articulated the challenges facing his notions of Sabbath, as a full-time working parent with many conflicting responsibilities. (Photo by Amanda Weber)
Dorothy Bass, Trinity’s assigned faculty member, addressed these Sabbath principles in her plenary session, speaking of the mystery of living our transient, impermanent lives “in time”—through rhythms and patterns that embrace our life passages with grace. She also brought our attention to the ways in which our overwork (or lack of work) can dominate our relationship with time, in often complicated and frustrating ways. In addition, technology threatens to infringe on our time in ever increasing ways, consuming it, distorting our perception of it, and disconnecting us (at times) from the rhythms of time we find in nature.
ISM Friend Dorothy Bass led the afternoon plenary session on Sabbath-Keeping.
(Photo by Amanda Weber)
Bass laid out different ways of constructing meaning in abstract time as a way to re-inhabit time itself: through music, discernment, and language. These three examples proved to be an effective way of grouping the ever-emerging ideas Trinity Presbyterian put forth for congregational Sabbath-keeping: a) strengthening a sense of Sabbath through aesthetics, music, and artistic production; b) incorporating Sabbath principles as objects and rituals for daily life; and c) utilizing language (and silence) in worship—prayer and Scripture reading—as a means of cultivating an aesthetic of simplicity, focus and rest.
Practically speaking, Trinity’s team members emerged from their plenary session equipped with new ways to widen their ritual repertoire, both inside and outside the sanctuary. To re-inhabit time through music and art, plans were made to emphasize spiritual reflection through music (through Taize services, for example); experiment with sermons interspersed with music, to conceive of the Word in nonverbal ways; and even create handheld icons or tactile objects to encourage everyday Sabbath-keeping principles.
Trinity Presbyterian's music director, Lenora McCroskey, composes contemporary cantatas for the congregation, drawing upon themes of social justice found in Scripture. (Photo courtesy of Trinity Presbyterian, Denton)
Re-inhabiting time through discernment proved to be an exciting challenge, and Trinity offered plans to focus on ecological justice and community engagement through creation care—re-thinking our modes of being in order to care for the earth—as one way of incorporating social justice into Sabbath-keeping. Discerning how to incorporate aspects of Jubilee* such as debt forgiveness, resting farmed land, and freedom for the oppressed, seemed to map very well onto Denton’s community situation, which faces issues of racism, immigration, militarism, and Muslim-Christian interaction. Celebrating God’s gift of creation through shared community meals offered a simple, yet radical way of incorporating Sabbath-keeping into the fabric of Trinity life.
Times of worship offered ways to re-inhabit language, through the use of spoken word as well as silence, or rest from the cacophony of noise that permeates much of our everyday lives. Intentional speech and prayer, juxtaposed with times of silence, helps congregants get accustomed to periods of rest, meditation and reflection. Within moments of speech, articulated in varying moments throughout the Church year—prayer, sermon, creed, communion—congregants could inhabit God’s time in a way that offered peace, rest, imagination and fullness, without separating themselves from “ordinary” time. Don Saliers named the Church year as the way that we “keep time” with Jesus, day by day, week by week, in our rhythms of meeting, feeding, praying and singing. Imagining every moment as now for God allows us to think about our lives as God does, as ever-present and entirely full, a perfect mode of keeping Sabbath.
*This concept, found in Leviticus 25, articulates a Israel’s orientation to the land in multiples of seven years, with each 50th year celebrated as a year of Jubilee. During this year, the land was to lie fallow, debts were forgiven, land was returned to its original tribe, and slaves were returned to their families “This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families. "