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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

Pulse ribbon  June 12 2016“WHAT IT FEELS LIKE AS AN ALLY OF THE GAY COMMUNITY IN ORLANDO”

(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

 

 

 

 

ON THE DEATH OF A YOUNG WOMAN

26 Aug

ON THE DEATH OF A YOUNG WOMAN

 

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.