A Thanksgiving Prayer Poem

24 Nov

Gifting God,

What shall we do to live our thanks?

The gifting season is upon us.

How shall we gift kindness and peace

in the midst of so much that threatens

our life and our love and our very humanity?

The days grow shorter.

Darkness comes early.

Ugliness is waiting.

We long for justice, for equality, for goodness, for kindness.

Our hearts are full for thanks-living

because you are a Gifting God.


Snow will come

to some

and hide that which is ugly.

Just as we hide our eyes from poverty and hurtfulness,

from hatred and threats,

our privilege lets us pull down the shade, light the lights,

hide in our churches and shut out the ugliness of hatred and war and fear and weapons and trafficking

and gun violence.


An automatic rifle targeted the young black man dressed in drag and dancing in the neighborhood night club that was his safe place, his happy place, and the shooter’s hatred tore into his flesh up one side, up the other side, piercing the night, stopping the music, ending the party, ending 49 lives,

deeply wounding many, many more.

The dancing young man in drag was the last one to be discharged from the hospital but not discharged.

Every Monday Wednesday Friday

Monday Wednesday Friday Monday

Wednesday Friday Monday Wednesday

Friday Monday Wednesday Friday

These are his days back in that hospital in dialysis, hoping for a used kidney, for a chance to dance again, some day.  Some laughing day with music and dancing and the joy of the friends who lived that night and escaped the slaughter,

but no escape from fear-memories.


Gifting God, teach me to keep my eyes open, even in the dark.

Let me see my own complicity, for each of us shares it, until the weapons are silenced, the threatened fear no more, and justice and love flow down like waters, drop by drop by drop becoming a powerful stream.


Let me stand in the light, where the cover of darkness and ignorance and fear has been torn away,

where I can see the life-giving possibilities of justice and peace, where nonviolence and intersectionality join us to the suffering and the hopeless,

and with these our brothers and sisters, we dream dreams and challenge injustice and war and violence in every form.


Gifting God, teach me how to gift kindness and peace, healing and solidarity and love.



A Thanksgiving Prayer by Peggy Howland


My Last 50th Reunion

20 Dec

Who Would I Meet at My 50th Reunion?

I attended my fourth 50th reunion in October 2016.  I had long since been to my high school 50th, my college 50th from the University of Pennsylvania, and my Princeton Theological Seminary 50th reunion, where I studied for the ministry.

This was my graduate school, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where I received a graduate theological degree, Master of Sacred Theology (STM) cum laude, in 1966,  in their Program in Psychiatry and Religion.

I wondered who I would meet at the reunion after five decades.  There was one person I most wanted to see.  Tilda had finished her three year seminary degree at the same time I completed my graduate program, and we headed off to Europe for four months that summer.

We picked up our Volkswagen beetle in London, bought a small tent, and with our sleeping bags, we traveled and camped in 15 countries north to Norway and Finland, south to France and Italy, east to the border of Poland and all the way to Moscow in the Soviet Union.   At Taize in France, I discovered George and brought him to meet Tilda.  They’ve been happily married for 48 years.  We would have so much to talk about.

But the first evening at dinner in the President’s home, I realized that Tilda had many other people to see from her three years studying with them.  Our “Camping through Europe” trip could not compete with seeing so many of her old friends.

So I settled in to the discussions we alums held in the next two days, sharing where our lives had taken us and how Union Seminary had impacted the directions we took.  I heard the stories of pioneering work and social action that the graduates had accomplished.  Much to my surprise and delight, the person I met at this reunion was myself.

The sixties had been a turbulent time in this country.  The Viet Nam War was ramping up, young men were going to war and not coming back, students were protesting and turning in their draft cards or burning them, and some were going to Canada to keep out of a war they believed was wrong.  Civil Rights marches, integrated bus trips to the South, voter registration drives in segregated states, doing ministry in East Harlem and other poverty areas in the city, boycotting banks who did business in apartheid South Africa – these were the issues that stirred activism among these students who held strong beliefs about their Christian faith and social justice.

The modern women’s movement was also just beginning.  “Women’s liberation” was about to affect my life in ways I could not have imagined.  I had been the 12th woman ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1958 and had already served several years on the staff of two large congregations, before Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” and women began gathering in “consciousness raising” groups.  One particular question that a Union professor raised for us in 1965 brought a change of heart that would be a guiding force in my life – that the scourge of illegal back-alley abortions could and must be ended by making abortion safe and legal and supporting women’s right to make reproductive health choices for themselves.  I became very pro-active in that cause, and worked with other clergy to provide all-options counseling and helped women secure safe abortions even before abortion was legalized in New York State in 1970, three years before Roe v Wade.  That was my civil disobedience, for which I would have even gone to jail if necessary.

Tilda and I had discovered and participated in life-changing experiences that summer following graduation.   Exciting ecumenical work stirred our spirits in the Iona Community in Scotland, the Taize Community in France, the Ladies of Bethany – a Dutch Roman Catholic order in Rome, Russian Orthodox churches and the Moscow Baptist Church who operated under vigorous hostility in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

I returned from Europe knowing that I was ready to become a pastor of a congregation, believing that God had work for me to do.  For the next two and a half years, I could not get an interview with a pastoral nominating committee.  I turned down some 40 jobs that were offered to me as an assistant pastor (been there, done that), and visited eleven male minister presbytery executives who were both reluctant and afraid to suggest a woman pastor to their congregations seeking pastors.

I had come back to New York City from Europe homeless and unemployed.  I centered my life around the Union Seminary community, where I sought help to find employment.  I worked part-time and temporary jobs, in the Seminary library, preaching in a small church in Brooklyn, teaching confirmation classes for a couple churches, doing pastoral work for a congregation in between pastors, filling in as a secretary in a Japanese ship-building company for 7 weeks, sleeping on the sofa in the apartments of friends who took me in, including several months in a roach-infested slum apartment.

But I knew that it would surely be easier for me with great experience under my belt in those two large congregations I had served and my graduate degree cum laude from Union – surely easier for me to open up the pastorate to women, than it would be for any woman just graduating from seminary with her basic ministry degree.

This belief I had in the mid-sixties was confirmed for me at the 50th reunion.  I listened to women alums tell how they were unable to make any progress at all in getting a ministerial position in a church, and how they had to give up their plans to become a pastor and instead seek different work.  Even Tilda told how this happened to her.  I knew she had become a therapist and had developed and taught “gestalt pastoral care” over a wide area of eastern states.  I did not know that she got into this work because no pastoral position was open to her.

As sad as the situation was for these other women, it helped me to see how I had indeed been the “waypaver” that people have named me.  I did some of the hard work of opening the pastorate to women.

Those years also taught me a lot.  The Union Seminary community provided me some stability during a time of great uncertainty and the temptation to lose hope. I was there through the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the  cities burning, with the war worsening in Viet Nam and soldiers coming home in coffins, during the student uprising and police riot at Columbia University that preceded the police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  I had my head split open by a plain clothes policeman’s blackjack at the Columbia police riot, while trying to help keep the peace.  And the ongoing civil rights struggle inspired me to persevere for advancing women’s opportunities in church and society.

The first congregation that interviewed me called me to be their pastor.  I had “paid my dues” in the women’s struggle in the church.  Those two and a half years of unemployment were not easy ones, but I am thankful to God for giving me the strength and faith to continue, even through the times of despair that threatened my belief in myself.  I became the first Presbyterian woman to be the pastor of a congregation of over 200 members.  I was installed as Pastor of the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York on January 12, 1969.

I had two other pastorates in New York over the next 30 years, and served in many leadership positions in the denomination. Alongside my paid positions, my volunteer work concentrated in causes on behalf of women, and working for peace and justice in the world.

The crucible of those three years in the Union Seminary community focused and shaped my ministry and the paths I took in the decades following.  Listening to my sister and brother alums at the 50th reunion brought me back in touch with how my life had been changed and affected by the Union experience.  Searching together with these men and women committed to following Jesus had helped me find my own path in a time of great social upheaval and movements that stirred and shook our nation and world through the sixties and seventies.

Peggy Howland


A Reflection on the Pulse Massacre: Sunday, June 12, 2016

9 Aug


(written for the Westminster Towers Retirement Community where I live, just a mile down the street from the Pulse nightclub)

It’s like the huge bullets and the force of the automatic firing and the rapid volume of the cutting-into-flesh rounds were the forceful culmination of decades of violence toward gay and Latino people. The gunshots accentuated and exacerbated the hatred.

The emotions begin with grief, pain and fear.

GRIEF for the shattering of beautiful young lives and their families.

PAIN because of the decades of hatred and the personal hurt and shame that have been heaped upon gentle loving people, just because of their loving relationships.

FEAR because of the threat that hatred can still come after you, the hatred you have known before and the sad and awful memory that is palpable.

What ameliorates these negative emotions is what has been happening in Orlando in the days and weeks following June 12th.  Love, unity, and solidarity.

Expressions of LOVE have poured into Orlando from all over the world.  The Orlando Gay Chorus received many videos from gay and lesbian choruses who recorded songs of love and support for us and for Orlando.  We have seen the rainbow colors displayed from the Dr Phillips Performing Arts Center that we can see from our Westminster windows to the Eiffel Tower in France and on buildings around the world.

Orlando has stood UNITED in this sadness.  Gay and straight, Latino and Anglo, black and white, young and old, Muslim and Christian, emergency workers and health personnel and government officials, spiritual leaders and community service groups, music and arts organizations and business people.

Community-wide prayer services were held on Tuesday evening at two downtown churches, Methodist and Baptist, and a Muslim Imam was the first speaker at the DPAC vigil the night before.  Driving down South Orange Avenue, the signs and banners are displayed everywhere…Orlando United, Orlando Strong, Pray for Orlando.

SOLIDARITY.  We are not alone. We are remembered.  Millions of dollars have poured in to the Orlando One Fund and the GoFundMe established by Equality Florida for victims and their families. Orlandans stood in line for eight hours in the heat of that Sunday to give blood for the victims.  Vigils and prayer services began the very day of the shootings on Sunday afternoon at the Joy Metropolitan Community Church where our OGC chorus was asked to sing, the first of 20 memorials at which we sang before we headed to Denver July 2-6 for the GALA Festival of Choruses from around North America and as far away as Beijing, China.  We sang at Orlando Soccer and Orlando Predator games and NASA and UCF and TV and fundraiser events.  We joined 70 Orlando arts organizations for an amazing fundraising concert in the Walt Disney Theater at Dr Phillips led by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

The evening following the massacre, five to six thousand people gathered between City Hall and the DPAC, where our OGC singing began and ended the candlelight vigil.  I will never forget the hush that came over this huge crowd when the candlelighting began and the bell tolled 49 times as the names of the victims were read.  A man beside me collapsed into tears on hearing one of the names and his friends held him up and comforted him.  People beside me shed tears in the light of their candles.

I have young friends who were there that Saturday night at the Pulse for a birthday party.  Thank God they left before the mass shooting began at 2:00 am Sunday morning.  Many of my friends, as well as people who work at our home, Westminster Towers, knew some of the victims of that horrendous massacre.  Many of them have been there to enjoy a time of fun and music and dancing at a club where it was safe and friendly for members of the gay community and their straight friends alike.

Singing with the Orlando Gay Chorus has been a marvelous experience for me, an elderly straight Presbyterian woman minister who needs to be seated while most of the chorus members stand for our performances.  My LGBTQ friends are some of the most gentle, loving and kind people I know.  I have just returned from singing with hundreds of choruses at the GALA Festival of Choruses in Denver, where the outpouring of love for Orlando and the Orlando Gay Chorus was demonstrated every day we were there.  They understand the pain and sorrow that gay and trans people experience from hatred.  They sing because making beautiful music is a way of bringing love and joy into a world in the hope that hearts and minds can be changed by song.

I have seen the power of love and solidarity that has been bringing healing for the terrible pain and grief my gay friends have been experiencing.

Peggy Howland






26 Aug



The words cry out within me,

and well up as anguish in my throat:

It is not enough!

This life is not complete…

But is it by the numbering of the years

that a life becomes complete?

I think not.


Nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime.

Nothing we do can be accomplished alone.

Nothing is true or beautiful or good in one time or place only.

But I need your life to complete mine…

Yours, and a thousand others

who feel as I feel

and love as I love

and who do together what none can do alone,

And still it is not complete,

nor would I have it so.

For the truth that comes to me today or tomorrow

Is part of the truth of yesterday.

They belong together, each depends on the other.

No power can rend them apart:

Not even death.

And the beauty I have seen yesterday and today

Is part of the beauty of tomorrow.

It is a whole, it is larger than one life or two,

And other eyes will smile tomorrow

and other hearts leap for joy

to share the ecstasy of beauty discovered:

It gives me comfort to know

That before me, beauty was,

And afterwards, beauty shall be,

And new explorers will discover it as I did,

relishing each moment with pleasure too great

for one person to have to bear alone

in one lifetime.

And that which is good also goes beyond time and place…

My share in it is like a piece of a great interlocking puzzle,

A tiny corner of the whole.

Join hands then with me…

Join heart to heart…

Join anguish with anguish…

And seek good.

Good, when it is found, cannot be hoarded.

It can only be received and passed on.

That is what it is for.

That is why I am here:

to receive and to give…

Not passively like a tunnel that merely channels unchanged whatever comes;

But actively,

Receiving truth and beauty and good from others

as raw materials, as resources,

as the basic ingredients

for the gift I have to give –

Truth shared from my own experience,

Beauty revealed through me,

Good that is not mine to keep

But only mine to give away.


I am not complete without you.

Nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime.

Nothing we do can be accomplished alone.

Nothing is true or beautiful or good in one time or place only.

But life is larger than I,

And love is larger.

And in that vast sea of life and love,

I am complete.


           ©    Margaret E. Howland

            July 22, 1976

           (with inspiration from

           some words of Reinhold Niebuhr)             



A Christmas Gift of Belonging

19 Dec

I had already been attending the White Plains Presbyterian Church for a year since my retirement in December 1998 from a congregation I loved and had served as pastor for almost 20 years.

It was at the Christmas pageant at WPPC in 1999 that I knew that this was my congregation, that I truly belonged, and that I was at home.  The whole congregation was made to feel included in the action, as a family.

I remember that Sunday, when I arrived for worship and learned that the service was not being held in the sanctuary, as we were re-directed to our auditorium in the Church House.  I was annoyed and in a bad mood, because I wanted to hear the organ music and be in our beautiful sanctuary.  I even mentioned something about my displeasure to one of the men who was an adult participant with the children that day.  I was afraid we were not going to have a “real” church service that day, which is what I selfishly thought I needed in my narrow imagination.

As the pageant began, the developing story was taking place all around us, and we were all participants.  The pastor was the innkeeper, and the lambs cavorted right next to us, and we sang with the children and the angels.  And I was part of it….  moved deeply as I discovered the joy and delight of being a member of this family of mine of all races and generations recalling together the old, old story of the love of God that comes to us at Christmas. 

Isn’t this the great blessing of Christmas in our church family and with our loved ones – being open to God’s grace as Christ comes once more to our hearts. 

Thank you, White Plains Presbyterian Church, for these fourteen years we have been together, as you have welcomed me into this family of ours.

A child’s song with her father

18 Dec

I came back this evening from running an errand, and parked in the garage of my apartment building. From the garage, I have to go through the Recycle Room to get to the lobby and elevator. As I came from my parking space at the end of the garage, all the way toward the door I could hear a child singing clearly over and over, “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas. Glad tidings we bring to you and your kin….” I could tell that they were sorting cans and bottles and plastic into the recycle bins. I opened the door and saw the child obviously having such a good time singing as she helped her father. She shyly smiled at me, maybe a bit embarrassed to have been caught singing by a stranger. I told her I could hear her song out in the garage and that it was very beautiful.
It was the first time I have heard a child singing since the tragedy at Sandy Hook School, and to see the joy and pride of parent and child together was such a blessing and gladdened my heart.

The Third Sunday of Advent

16 Dec

The Third Sunday in Advent is for JOY.  My father died in December 1988, three days before that 3rd Sunday in Advent.  I hurried to the hospital in Philadelphia when I learned he was very ill with pneumonia, but he was gone before I arrived.  I was grateful that his body was still warm, as I was able to give him one last hug.  I came back to New York to preach on that Sunday (before returning to Philadelphia for the funeral service on Monday).  But there I was standing in the pulpit delivering my sermon on JOY, until I shared with the congregation halfway through the sermon that my Dad had died.  This tragic weekend has brought back the memory of that 1988 Advent.  I never was able to get fully ready for the usual family Christmas festivities that year.  But one thing I remember for sure was how very much it meant to me to be with my congregation that Sunday, to allow them to be pastors and ministers and loving understanding friends for ME in my grief.  Isn’t that what we all need on a Sunday in Advent where the whole nation is in mourning for 20 little children and their six adult teachers and friends?  To be surrounded with our loving, caring understanding community of faith. 

“Give Thanks in ALL Circumstances???”

9 Dec



A sermon preached for the 105th Anniversary

of South Presbyterian Church of Yonkers, NY

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Thessalonians 5:18

What a wonderful theme you have chosen to celebrate the 105th anniversary of this congregation –

 “Give thanks in all circumstances;

       for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

                              Who could argue with that?

 ……..   I have three stories!

(1)  The first true story happened many years ago, about 1970 –

in the first congregation I served as Pastor, a relatively small church like this one…the church was about a hundred and TEN years old at the time…

I found a wonderful poster that said something much like your theme today.

I put it on a bulletin board just inside the front door of the church,

             for folks to think about as they came and went.

It read:



To me, it was an affirmation of where the church had been,

   for all that God had accomplished through its ministry, already lasting

                                                               more than a century!

and it expressed our hope and faith that God would continue to bless us and lead us and use us for God’s glory and to serve God’s people in the future.

            One of the elders of the church, whose name was ED,

                                 was actually rather horrified.

             I CAN NOT AGREE WITH THAT, he said.

             I understood his objection.

    He had had a very unhappy childhood.  His father had abandoned his mother with four small boys.   He and one other brother had been put in an orphanage, because his mother was not able to provide for them all, even though she came to visit them when she could. 

     He was very bitter.

     He was a man who loved nature and worked to preserve it, even going regularly to a park that the Nature Conservancy took care of and picking up old cans and beer bottles and cleaning up the trash that thoughtless people had left after their picnicking. 

     He shook his head at what this world was coming to, with nobody taking responsibility.

     He was a man who took responsibility.  Every week all summer long, he came and mowed the HUGE lawn at the church, a HILLSIDE lawn, a VERY LARGE hill!  People would always ask me,

                 How do you mow that lawn?

     Well, I would say, we have a man with his left leg shorter than his right, who pushes the lawn mower one way around the hill, and we have another man with his right leg shorter than his left, and he pushes the lawn mower the other way.  (And people would laugh)

     But actually, we just had ED!   (who had two short legs…)  He mowed the lawn in summer, and shoveled the snow in winter, and cleaned the church every week, and who had a heart of gold, and who took responsibility.  

     But sadly, ED was unable to be thankful for the past.


     And he could not believe in the future enough to affirm what it might hold.  His bitterness would not let him be joyful and thankful.


(2)  My second story is one that I remember telling once before

from this pulpit…  in a sermon I preached the very first Thanksgiving I was here as your Pastor, 33 years ago, in 1979. 

A TRUE Thanksgiving Story

           that happened to me back in 1967 in New York City.

I was feeling VERY SORRY for myself. 

I had no job, no home, and I was sick… and it was Thanksgiving Day. 

It was during what I call “my time of unemployment while I was seeking to open up the Pastorate of the church to women”. 

           (That just means I was trying to get a job!)

I had been ordained for 9 years already, one of the first women in the Presbyterian Church, as you probably know.  I had been blessed with two great jobs working on the staff of large churches, had gone back to graduate school for an advanced theology degree, got my STM degree from Union Seminary in New York City, CUM LAUDE: “with honors”.

I was READY for a job as a pastor, and believed God was leading me in this direction, …..  but

I could NOT get an interview with a pastoral nominating committee. 

After I graduated, I had no place to live….

The organist in a little church where I substituted as a guest preacher, invited me home to stay with her and her musician roommates, who were all studying at the Manhattan School of Music.   I slept on their living room couch…. for several months.  As Thanksgiving neared, I  made plans to bake a pumpkin pie and take it on the train with me to visit my family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving Dinner.  But I got sick a couple days before Thanksgiving.  One of my roommates let me sleep in her bed while I was sick, as she went away for the holiday.

     By Thanksgiving afternoon, I WAS REALLY FEELING SORRY FOR MYSELF, as miserable as I could be, when the phone rang.

     My friend, Chris, a former roommate of mine – was apparently having a mental breakdown.  A seminary faculty member had kindly invited her for Thanksgiving Dinner, and now he desperately needed someone who could help her.   Immediately I got out of bed, got dressed and took the bus.  It was a long and difficult afternoon, but

it was our friendship that allowed me to coax her, step by step, moment by moment, inch by inch, when each minute, in her fear, she wanted to back away…… one step at a time, step by step, I loved Chris and coaxed Chris all the way to the hospital for her to agree to admit herself.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

From this I gained a new understaning of what THANKSGIVING truly is…

I was so thankful for our friendship, our love, which is what enabled Chris to trust me enough, to let me help her, even when she was scared to death and almost out of touch with reality.

I was so thankful for getting sick, and NOT being away with my family, so that I could be there for my friend in her need.

I am even thankful for those three years of unemployment, and all the lessons I learned in them, as hard as they were, on the path where God was leading me all the time, although I did NOT always know it!  

What I learned about THANKFULNESS on that Thanksgiving Day in 1967 is just ONE of the MANY lessons God taught me through those very difficult times.

Friends, in the most difficult of circumstances, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for, and it changes totally how you see the world and yourself and your church and your future.  When you are having a tough day (and we ALL have them), or a difficult month, or even a horrendous year, STOP and let yourself consider what there is for you to be thankful for!  Make a list! of what you’re thankful for!   Being thankful can change everything.  You cannot be angry or miserable or negative while you are being thankful.


(3)  The 3rd story is much older still.  It is a story that Jesus told in Luke chapter 18. 

Jesus pointed out a prayer of thanksgiving that is WRONG.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, (a)

  it is the prayer that the Pharisee prayed in the temple:

       “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”.

Luke tells us:  Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” 

What an indictment on the current discourse in our society… the hateful words of superiority and arrogance that we hear from those who condemn others FOR WHO THEY ARE.   Whether they are Muslim, or Gay, or speak a language other than English…..

Whole groups of people are despised, demeaned and judged …because of their religion or race,

their age or class,

their illness or physical ability,

their sexual identity or marital status, or for whom they love,

their nationality, language or accent,

their sex or marital status,

their poverty or their work,

their previous mistakes, alcoholism or addiction,

who their parents were or where they were born,

the color of their skin, how much they weigh, fat or thin,

and the list goes on and on,

here in our own country and around the world.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” said Jesus, “ one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 

    The Pharisees of course were regarded as the upstanding righteous

          spiritually correct religious leaders of their day.

     While tax collectors were generally despised, not just for greediness or lack of compassion, but also because they were considered traitors, working for the Romans who had occupied their country by military conquest.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray to God, said Jesus…. a pharisee and a tax collector…

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying proudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people:  thieves, scoundrels, adulterers, unjust, or even like this tax collector.

(I am so good.)  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

Thank you God, for making me better than others, so that I am deserving of your blessings

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’   I tell you,” said Jesus, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee; for allwho exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The WRONG thanksgiving (says Jesus)

   is the arrogance of feeling superior: 

whether it’s spiritual or religious superiority,

the arrogance of “privilege” and “entitlement”,

or some mistaken notion of racial superiority

       or ethnic superiority

            or class superiority

               or moral superiority,

                  anything that says, I AM BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE.  

                  Thank you, God, that I am not like them.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the New Testament speaks to a situation in the early church where some thought they were superior to others,  and St. Paul wrote to them,

     In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, for ALL of you are ONE in Christ Jesus. 

                           You are ALL God’s people. (b)

Lest any of you see YOURSELVES as LESS THAN other people.

The church’s message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is just as real today for those who have allowed themselves to be demeaned,

  who give in to thinking, “I guess I’m not good enough”.  If I’ve been treated with such disrespect, and told I’m inferior, maybe I’m not as good as other people.

Do we church people today “trust in ourselves that we are righteous and regard others with contempt”? 

    Yes, that is what Jesus was warning against in the thanksgiving prayer  of the Pharisee.

But Jesus’ whole life and ministry carry the message on the other side of this:  YOU who others think are undeserving:  I have come to let you know that God loves YOU.  God created you.  Black, brown, white, and every shade in between.  You are all beautiful.

God created you, Gay, straight, no matter whom you love. The wonderful thing is that God created you to love.

God created you, and your past mistakes, or your present reality, or your economic situation does not make you LESS than anyone else!

In God’s eyes you are precious and wonderful, with your own uniqueness, God loves you just the way you are.

In Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, (c) he gives Timothy good advice:

“Let no one despise your youth.”  That’s what Timothy was – young.

And Paul was his mentor. 

          Let no one despise you for being who you are.

  Let no one tell you – you are less than God has created you to be.

   Let no one tell you that WHO YOU ARE means you cannot be a leader in the church, a helper, a teacher of others, one who shows the love of God in your life.

I am thankful today.

I am thankful today for what this congregation taught me in the 20 years I was with you.

As the pastor to a church full of people from many nationalities and cultures and various economic situations, of many colors and sizes and shapes, immigrants to this country and the children of other cultures…  I saw what was happening in your lives.  I learned much about white privilege, about racism and classism, and the arrogance of power….

You have a unique opportunity in this church to be a welcoming congregation, because God has welcomed you….to show the love of God to everyone, of every class and race and nationality and situation. l

(4)  ONE MORE STORY…. About the power of those whom others think are powerless…  in other words, for those who may be treated as inferior, the power they DO have.

All four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell us that WOMEN, who were not in that day qualified to be witnesses in court, were the ones God chose to be witnesses of what for us Christians is the central great fact of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (d)

    Have you thought about why it was the women who were at the crucifixion, while Jesus’ disciples ran away and went into hiding?  We’re told that one disciple, John, was at the cross for a while.  But it was the women who stayed at the cross.  And it was the women who saw where they laid Jesus in the tomb, so they could come back (after the Sabbath was past) to lovingly prepare Jesus body for a proper burial.

       The reason they could be there is that women were “nobody”.  They didn’t matter.  They were powerless, they were what we call “marginalized”, unimportant.  Nobody saw them as dangerous.  BUT GOD GAVE THEM A VOICE AND A MESSAGE.  God gave them a message to tell.  And we’re told they left the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples!  Yes, they were afraid.  But their fear was mixed with great joy!  And they RAN!  They ran to tell his disciples. 

Some accounts say that the women were afraid and didn’t tell anybody, or that they told them but nobody believed them.  How could such a preposterous thing be true?!

    But Matthew doesn’t say whether anybody believed them or not, just that they RAN to tell the disciples!  (e)  God had given them a voice! 

    Have you got your voice?  Do you recall when you got it?  Is there a message so important that you have to tell, that you are no longer shy, and you are not trying to fade into the background.  But God has given you a voice to say what you believe needs to be said!

     This is not just about women, but about all ordinary people.  Poor people, working class people, minority groups, people nobody considers important enough to listen to, powerless people.  But God can give them a voice, when there is a message that needs to be said.

            BELIEVE that YOU can have a voice, too!

        And while those women that first Easter were running to do what God had called them to do, the risen Christ appeared to them.  They were not alone. 

        And the presence of the risen Christ is with US as we are doing what God has called us to do.  As you are being the welcoming congregation who says to EVERYONE:  GOD LOVES YOU!  Christ is with you.

        As we approach Christmas, we hear once more that the Christ child’s name will be “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us”.  (f)

The Easter story tells us the same message, that God is with us.

        The proof – the evidence – that GOD IS WITH US is not just the baby in the manger.  It is not just the empty tomb, nor his resurrection appearances to the women and to his disciples long ago.

        YOU are the evidence of THAT GOD IS WITH US, as God gives YOU new life.  YOU are the evidence of the living presence of Christ as God gives YOU a voice to tell to others the good news of God’s grace and love and forgiveness, of God’s power to give new life, of GOD’S WELCOME FOR ALL PEOPLE.  NO ONE EXCLUDED

YOU as a welcoming congregation

        are the evidence of the love of God that WELCOMES everyone of every class and race and station in life, black and brown and white, gay and straight, fat and thin, old and young, male and female.

God loves you.  Thank you, South Presbyterian Church, for the way in which you show that love of God in this community.

Give thanks to God in ALL circumstances, FOR THIS IS THE WILL OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS FOR YOU.


+ + + +


(a)  Luke 18:9-14

(b)  Galatians 3:28

(c)  I Timothy 4:12

(d)  Matthew 27:55-61; 28:1-10, Mark 15:40 – 16:11, Luke 23:49 – 24:12,22-24,   John 19:25-27;20:1-18

(e)  Matthew 18:8-10

(f)   Matthew 1:21-23



A Love Letter for June Fifteenth

15 Jun

       A June fifteenth love letter

             By Peggy Howland


You are my mother and my father.

You taught me how to grow up.

You led me through the fears and shame

that paralyzed me, and you watched in amazement

as recovering fellow sufferers,

to whom you sent me, worked a miracle

of insight and acceptance and finally serenity

in me.  You let me see

your humanness.  You let me learn,

step by faltering step, to begin to trust.

You patiently explained, again and again,

when my anger masked the hurt

from the one whose love I longed for,

but could never receive,

because it was not freely hers to freely give.

She could not see me or know my need.

You know my need.  You let me see

myself.  You almost gave up on this

Slow Learner.  You will always have me with you,

you said.  And it is true.

A hundred times a day I recall

some lesson learned, some word spoken,

assurance of hope, some step to take.

My gorilla is tamer now, not as fierce

or fearful as in the days of despair.

What a long journey we have come together.

There is only one way I know to thank you.

It is to live the gift you gave me.

It is to trust you, to trust myself,

to trust in life and trust in people.

The road is still not easy all the way.

But it is not so difficult as it once was

to trust…  You will always be with me.

Thanks, dear friend.  A thousand thanks. 

                      Love, Peggy



“Doctrine, Shmoctrine…Where’s the Love?”

6 Jun

                     “Doctrine, Shmoctrine…. Where’s the Love?”

A sermon preached at White Plains Presbyterian Church

on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8

John 3:1-17



Our beautiful chancel window always reminds me of the story from Isaiah.  Are you able to see the words?  For those of you who sit in the back, the words tell the story:  “To thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy!  Holy!   Holy!   Lord God Almighty!”    (1)


The One in THIS window who is “high and holy and lifted up” is Jesus.

The angels you see at either side of Jesus in the window are clearly SERAPHS (or SERAPHIM in Hebrew), because you can see that each has six wings, like the description of the seraphs in our Reading from Isaiah this morning. 



We can only TRY to imagine what that experience of God’s presence was like for him!  That’s why Lynn carried the smoking incense down the aisle this morning – to get us thinking about what the young Isaiah, who was not yet a prophet – what he experienced:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; the hem of God’s robe filled the temple.”   In his vision of God there were Seraphs (who were not like these angels in our beautiful window), but we think they were great creatures, huge sacred beasts, with wings …calling to one another: “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory!”   The sound was so magnified, that the pivots on the thresholds of the great temple SHOOK at the sound of the voices calling like thunder, and the house of God was filled with smoke!  We can only imagine what it was like….

What we DO know is the profound effect Isaiah’s experience of God had on him.  In the presence of God’s majesty and holiness and power, he feels utterly unworthy and sinful.

 “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”   Then one of the seraphs flew to him, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched his mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

DO YOU REMEMBER THE first time that YOU felt utterly unworthy and sinful, and what it was like to be forgiven?  

Was it like a huge weight rolling off your shoulders?

Was it like the amazing sunshine of morning after a long and terribly difficult and dark night?

Was it like a nightmare that is OVER?

Was it like EVERYTHING had at last become new, and beautiful?

Did it seem like a NEW DAY for YOU?

Isaiah, now that he understands his sinfulness and unworthiness is gone, tells us:    Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”


And I said, “Here am I; send me!”



Have you had an experience with God that changed YOUR life?

Some life-changing experience, when you found a new direction that affected where you were headed and what you were going to do… ordering your life in a new way?  Has God touched YOU like that?  



Our second story is very different.  Quiet, intimate, at night time. Probably at night so that it could be a private meeting, and nobody else would know that the esteemed Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, NICODEMUS, was coming to talk to Jesus, to the young upstart teacher who was disturbing things around Jerusalem.  The way John tells the story, in his Gospel… he starts right out at the beginning helping us see the confrontation developing between Jesus and the recognized religious leaders.  This is the beginning of his 3rd chapter, and John has just told us at the end of chapter 2 how Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, and when he saw the moneychangers in the Temple, he took a whip of cords, overturned their tables, poured out their money on the floor, told them to get out of his Father’s house, and stop making it a marketplace, and drove them all out, along with the sheep and oxen and doves they were selling there.  AND… he also predicted the that the temple would be destroyed.

It is immediately following the account of this confrontation, that John tells us of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus.  Nicodemus has seen Jesus at work, and he speaks respectfully to Jesus, calling him Rabbi, Teacher.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
We’re heard this story many times – how Jesus zeroes right in, and says to Nicodemus,

 “No one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above, without being born anew.”  Here these two men are discussing a life-changing experience with God, a spiritual experience with which Nicodemus seems unfamiliar but interested to learn more.  How can these things be? asks Nicodemus.  And they keep talking about it, with Nicodemus continuing to ask questions…

John never finishes the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus here in the 3rd chapter.  Instead the story launches into that discourse we love about God’s purpose in sending Jesus…. GOD LOVED THE WORLD SO MUCH THAT HE GAVE HIS SON TO BRING THIS NEW LIFE, this change of life, this eternal life… to all who believe, to everyone.

We DO see glimpses of what happened to Nicodemus, indeed, the new life that was beginning in him, in two other places… in the 7th chapter of John, where Jesus is back in Jerusalem again, this time for the Festival of Sukkoth, and again he is teaching in the temple.  The people are astonished at his teaching and love to listen to him, but the chief priests and the Pharisees want the temple police to arrest Jesus, because, unlike most of the people, they do NOT approve of his teachings.  But Nicodemus speaks up on Jesus’ behalf, defending him, and the Pharisees ridicule Nicodemus for that. 

We hear of Nicodemus just once more in the 19th chapter of John…  after the crucifixion.

 AFTER Jesus has died on the cross, and Jesus’ close friends have run away in fear, it is Nicodemus who comes with Joseph of Arimathea.  Joseph has asked Pilate for permission to take the body of Jesus, and they wrap it with linen cloths, with myrrh and spices that Nicodemus has brought, and they lay his body in a new tomb in a nearby garden, which was all there was time to do before the Sabbath.

What a difference from the Call of Isaiah!

Meeting Jesus was such a much slower, more gradual life-changing experience for Nicodemus than the overwhelming and powerful vision of God that Isaiah had.  Nicodemus came questioning, seeing Jesus at work, hearing teachings that intrigued him, disturbed him, and left him hungering for more.  But it also CHANGED HIM.  From someone who did not want to be seen, coming to Jesus under cover of night, he became bold enough to speak in Jesus’ defense, when the chief priests and other Pharisees were saying, “What are you, crazy?  Nobody pays any attention to this itinerant preacher, Jesus, … he’s from Galilee, of all places”.  And they mocked Nicodemus for speaking up for Jesus.  But cautious Nicodemus became sure enough and brave enough to lovingly care for the body of Jesus after his fellow Pharisees on the Council had demanded Jesus’ execution, and had him killed as a blasphemer and dangerous criminal.   A powerful huge change in Nicodemus’ life and his loyalties.   Yes, I think Nicodemus in his life discovered what it meant to be born anew, to be born from above.

Do YOU remember the journey of your own faith?

Do you recall the first stirrings of discovering God and God’s truth that spoke to you and began to change your life, to see things in a new way?

To discover God’s Spirit speaking to YOU, and your life and faith EVOLVING, your perspective on life taking you in new directions, challenging old beliefs, changing YOU and your loyalties.  Making you no longer afraid of what others might think, as you came to know in WHOM YOU BELIEVE?

There are so many ways of meeting God, so many ways in which God comes to us. 


I remember what I said when I came under care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a candidate for the ministry.  It seemed such a BOLD thing to me to say that God was calling ME to be a minister.  I had three reasons, which are STILL TRUE.  The first is the overwhelming conviction of GOD’S LOVE FOR ME AND FOR ALL PEOPLE.  The second is the desire to share that love with others.  The third is the belief that God was leading me in that direction.

That is the message – GOD LOVES YOU.

God loves you and God loves me, NOT because we are good, but because GOD IS GOOD. 

And our response is to love God and love our neighbors, and love one another.  By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, said Jesus, because you have love for one another.  Old and young, male and female, fat and thin, black and white, rich and poor, sinner and saint, wise and foolish, gay and straight.   We are loved by God, and therefore we are to show love to all and seek justice for everyone.

This is Trinity Sunday.  The Trinity is a doctrine.  Words.  (We are surrounded by the Banners of the Confessions on our walls.  One of those banners is for the Nicene Creed in the 4th century, where the doctrine of the Trinity was put into words.)  Words that are our inadequate human way of describing the God we know.  God is our loving Father/Mother.  God is our Creator.  We have met God in the person of Jesus, as Nicodemus did. We have found God’s Spirit teaching us, refreshing our spirits, leading us through the dark valleys and the long nights, sustaining us and strengthening us.

But it is all the same God.  One God.  The doctrine of the Trinity tells that we do not have three Gods.  We have ONE GOD, whom we meet and discover in so many different ways.  God who bursts in upon us. God who sometimes overwhelms us.  God who meets us in the silence. 

Sometime, read through the Book of Isaiah, and realize what kind of prophet of God Isaiah became, after God encountered him and called him, saying “Whom shall I send?”  and Isaiah answered “Here I am, Send me”.   After he became God’s prophet, he still needed encounters with God, to see that God was with him.  There’s a very passionate prayer in Isaiah Chapter 64, expressing this need that is shared by so many people:   He cries out to God, “OH THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS and come down!” 


I want to tell you a love story.  Because when you truly know that God loves you, you can live a life of sharing God’s love with others.  This is a story about a minister, but anyone who knows the love of God in his or her own life, can love people into knowing that God loves them, too.

Today happens to be Gay Pride Sunday.  More and more churches are observing it as a way of letting Gays and Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgender people know that they are welcome, and loved for who they are.  And that GOD loves them.

This is the story of a queer hospital chaplain. (2)  Her name is Laura.  She calls herself QUEER, as many gay people do. She does not normally tell people she is gay unless there is some reason to, but she does not hide it.  She knows from bitter experience the pain and hurt that hatred and condemnation bring to gay people.  These are her own words:

“While I live with a perceived and real threat about living as an openly queer chaplain, I also live with an incredible gift. I live as a chaplain in a profoundly different way than my straight colleagues. I am a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven. I have the privilege of conveying and testifying of God’s love in a way that no straight chaplain can.”

And then Laura tells us this story:

“I entered the small family conference room where Stephen sat, alongside a pair of doctors and a nurse. Introductions were made and then as gently as possible Stephen was told that his partner, James, had inexplicably gone into cardiac arrest and that, despite every effort, he could not be resuscitated. The sudden outpouring of grief made the medical staff retreat, leaving Stephen and me together. We sat for a long time letting the news sink in. When I asked Stephen if he would like to spend time with James, he pulled himself together enough to walk to the room. I offered him some private time, but he insisted that I stay and then asked if I would offer a prayer. Trying to sculpt a meaningful prayer, I asked what religious tradition Stephen and James came from. More tears streamed down his cheeks as Stephen told me that he was a Baptist and that James believed in God but hadn’t been to church in a long time. With prayers offered, I again asked Stephen if he wanted some private time but he insisted I stay. So I stayed silently by Stephen’s side until the coroner came to pick up James’s body.

With Stephen unable to think clearly and unwilling to call any of his friends, we decided to call a cab for him. As I helped him outside, Stephen asked me what denomination I came from. A perfectly good question but given the circumstances, I wanted to be careful of how I answered it.  My denomination’s name is often confused for a very conservative, very anti-gay denomination. “I’m a part of the United Church of Christ,” I said, “But my wife is a Unitarian Universalist, so I tend to be pretty ecumenical.”  He stared at me like I had twelve heads. “Did you say ‘your wife’?”  I nodded yes, though found myself questioning my choice of outing myself.  Out of nowhere he grabbed me and dropped his weight into my arms. “Do you think James is in heaven?” Stephen barely got the words out as he began to sob, “They say he won’t go to heaven. But does God love him?”

“The only thing I’m sure of,” I said, “Is that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God.”  In those moments, standing on the sidewalk waiting for the taxi, I was so deeply thankful to be queer. I thought about how my straight colleagues could have offered Stephen just as good if not better pastoral care, but I could stand with him, as another queer person, in a much different way and assure him that both he and James are loved by God.”


Trinity Sunday is a day to celebrate God.  We do this by loving others as God first loved us.


(PRAYER by Dom Helder Camara of Brazil)

Come, Lord: do not smile and say you are already with us.
Millions do not know you,
and to us who do, what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter our complacency.
Make your word flesh of our flesh and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus that other peace is made, your peace.  Amen.

+       +       +       +       +       +

Rev. Peggy Howland

White Plains Presbyterian Church

June 3, 2012


+       +       +       +       +       +


(1) from the ancient hymn “Te Deum Laudamus”  (“We Praise You, O God”)

(2) “Life as a Queer Chaplain” by Laura.  In Kimberly Knight’s blog, “Coming out Christian” (Conversations about being Christian and gay in America), May 31, 2012

(3) Dom Helder Camara, in “The Desert Is Fertile”(poems), 1974