Weekly Notes from Riverside Clergy


Updated September 16th, 2021

Homecoming. Coming Home. This 91styear of our history will be like no other. Will you come to worship in the building for the first time since March 8, 2020?  I hope so.  Will you participate in the service online as you have been doing since March 8, 2020?  I hope so. One way or the other I hope you will join us for a spirited Homecoming service this coming Sunday, September 19th.  If you come to the building you’ll be greeted by our ushers, familiar faces of friends smiling with their eyes and offering their elbows in greeting.  In the Nave, we won’t be singing…out loud.  The choir, a full choir, will sing for us and we’ll sing along in our masks.  We will pass the peace among us with words and signs of peace though we won’t be able to embrace one another.  At home, you’ll pass the words of peace in the chat on YouTube and some of you will be able to embrace members of your family.

In the Nave, there will be screens for viewing those few parts of the service that will be recorded. In that way, whether in the building or at home, we all share the experience of viewing at least parts of the liturgy on a screen. Truly, hybrid worship. There may be a few visionaries among us who saw this coming—even without the pandemic. For most of us, it is a journey along a winding road and we can’t see ‘round all the twists and turns.

We have seen slightly increasing numbers of in-person worshippers since we began a “soft” return to worship in the building. I hope this Sunday many more of you will join us—as your level of comfort permits.  Your temperature will be taken and you’ll wear a mask throughout the service and sit at a sacred social distance from anyone not in your household.  And it will still be a memorable experience, like nothing before and beyond our ability to imagine where we might go from here. That would be another twist in the journey ahead.

There will also be activities…and Ice Cream outside after the service.  We have had a hard year in the world, as church members, as New Yorkers, as citizens of the world.  Let’s take a moment to celebrate our home a return to worship in our home:  The Riverside Church in the City of New York.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated September 9th, 2021

Can you believe that it’s already September? It seems like just the other day we were taking our first steps into summer, back when COVID was on the decline and the Delta variant was still an ocean away. And now here we are, a new school year beginning for families, Riverside’s Homecoming Sunday just over a week away (click here to find out more), and we continue to wear our masks and encourage everyone who is able to get the COVID vaccine as we follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

September also brings a heavy memorial: the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. As Christians, people of faith, and moral conscious, we believe that peace is not only the destination, but peace is every step of the way. Looking back twenty years we see a monumental moment of violence, followed by decades of war. We see a renewed call to work for peace in this world, where terror and violence are far too prevalent. We remember all who lost their lives in the attacks on September 11 as well as nearly 1 million people killed and 38 million people displaced as a result of this 20 year “war on terror.”

Where were you twenty years ago when you first heard the news of the attacks on 9/11? And how have you continued to work for and embody peace in the years that followed?

Just a few days after the September 11th attacks, artists and spiritual leaders joined together in a celebration of America’s diversity and unity at The Riverside Church. Dedicated to the victims of the attack, the evening included prayer, song, and dance. Click here to watch the recording of this gathering from twenty years ago.

This Sunday we will gather for worship, some of you joining us in the Nave and others joining us online from your homes. I’ll be preaching and you’ll hear more about my experience on 9/11 and the impact it had on the way I would see the world in the years that followed. However you join us – in person or online – I hope you are able to reflect on where we’ve been as a nation and as a world and where we still have yet to go.

Grace + Peace,
Rev. Jim Keat
Digital Minister


Updated August 19th, 2021

Over the last week, I’ve read about the tragic events in Haiti and in Afghanistan. In 2016, when I was serving as the Senior Pastor at a United Methodist Church in Westchester, I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with a small group. After landing in Port-au-Prince, we ventured up into the mountains in a village called Furcy. For many years the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church has been going to Haiti  under the name “Mountains of Hope for Haiti.” Our group brought over `100 water filtration buckets up into the village to provide clean water for the residents. As I  look back at my time in Haiti and now look at the new devastation there, I recognize that Mountains of Hope has been more than a mission. It has been and continues to be a heart-felt and heart-warmed relationship with a community, with people, with friends, and through the years, we have all been blessed. Over the years I have stayed connected with people I have met in Haiti. I have been blessed through WhatsApp and social media to watch the children grow and watch the community of Furcy change. We have celebrated weddings and baptisms and shared in the loss of friends and the struggles of the community. It has been a great privilege in my ministry to be have been alongside people during hurricanes, droughts, and the earthquake with the Mountains of Hope For Haiti group.

Now there is another devastating setback for the people of Haiti. It is devastating to learn of the nearly 1,300 dead in the latest massive earthquake.  I know that you will join me in prayer and action not only for the people of Haiti, but those suffering all around the world in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and others. May our prayers for Afghanistan and others be met with a willingness to welcome, protect, and fight for refugees from Afghanistan. May we work to fight against oppressive, colonial policies which make countries like Afghanistan—the stage upon which American exceptionalism gets played out.

On weekday mornings as part of our  Morning Prayer group liturgy, we often pray “May they know the deep peace of Christ.” We need the deep peace of Christ and we need each other. To this end, I offer this song “I Need You To Survive” from Hezekiah Walker as a prayer:

“I need you, you need me.
We’re all a part of God’s body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We’re all a part of God’s body.
It is God’s will that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
I pray for you, you pray for me.
I love you. I need you to survive.”

“I pray for you… You pray for me.” These are powerful words! We are ALL God’s family. We need each other.  Let us keep close to Christ and one another in prayer and action. You are invited to join the Morning Prayer Zoom Monday-Friday at 8:00 a.m. by clicking here.

Grace and peace,
Rev. Bruce Lamb
Minister of Faith Formation


Updated August 12th, 2021

Miscellaneous:

  1. Heat advisory! The stifling heat of these last few days is the mildest reminder of the catastrophic future for our planet that is arriving in our present. We are in dire straits and not doing enough to stem the tide of disaster that is here, and that awaits us in the years to come.
  2. Hospital systems in Florida and Texas, just to name two states of many, are being overwhelmed by new cases of the virus. Their governors refuse to take simple measures to protect their people. DeSantis of Florida is running campaign ads that say something like: “You can’t drink a beer while wearing a mask.”
  3. New York will have a new governor in 12 days. Kathy Hochul will become the first woman to occupy the office in the history of the state. The very circumstances that make this happen demonstrate why this “first” is so long overdue.
  4. Deadly conflicts in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, and the terrible suffering of ordinary citizens, remind us of the horrors of war and the fragility of our international community. Humanity has a problem. It is ours to address in every land. No one of us is safe as long as violence and war and the deadly and sophisticated weapons that fuel them are thought to be viable tools for resolving differences among us.

I’ll be away after service this Sunday until the end of the month. My weekly messages will become monthly when I return, beginning with a message just prior to Homecoming on September 19th. I want to leave you with this lovely poem a friend posted earlier this week.

“It’s not as if the door can decide:

Open. Closed. Locked. Unhinged.

The door is ever at the mercy

of the hand on the knob,

the shoulder that smashes it,

the wind that abruptly slams it shut,

the smile that swings it wide as noon.

Long ago, I learned every moment

has a door, and that those doors

never open themselves. That is why,

standing here, I am astonished

to see, through no effort of my own,

a door swing open. And how sweet

the surprise when I see

on the other side of the knob,

your hand.

–Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, August 2021

Grace and peace,
Michael Livingston


Updated August 5th, 2021

In financial terms “the delta” means something like “the difference between two things, or the rate of change between two states.”  In the pandemic, it means we’re in trouble again. The crisis is not over. We need to continue to care for one another by wearing masks and keeping a sacred distance between one another in public spaces.

In late June we had enough confidence in the progress of vaccinations and the decrease of new cases and in New York that we decided to have a “soft opening” and return to in-person worship for anyone who might want to come beginning this Sunday, August 8th. We are going forward with that plan while taking the necessary precautions to make it as safe as possible. We’ll take your temperature when you enter the building; we’ll wear masks in worship and won’t sing; we’ll pass the peace with non-physical signs and words of peace. There won’t be coffee hour after service in South Hall, though we’ll continue to host a virtual coffee hour.

We respect science and medical professionals or nobody wins. Of those who die of the virus in this period, almost all of them have not been vaccinated. For people of faith, the formula is simple: trust God and get vaccinated!

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated July 30th, 2021

Long ago I had a pastor who often reminded the congregation that we are “pilgrims not passengers.” Pilgrims go on journeys; passengers take rides. Pilgrims actively seek the sacred alongside other pilgrims; passengers passively get ushered along by the crowd. Pilgrims endeavor to traverse a more excellent way; passengers go along to get along, forfeiting their agency. The point is not that pilgrims never rest or release control, but that as pilgrims of faith we are collectively seeking—through prayer, worship, study, service, contemplation, acts of mercy and justice—to live “in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ”: a lifelong pursuit.

The “pilgrim-passenger” distinction strikes me as particularly timely as we watch privately-owned space rockets take off for outer space with billionaires as their passengers…passengers headed away from earth, leaving behind the mundane for more thrilling adventures. But as pilgrims of faith, our goal is not to escape the earth, but rather to plunge ourselves more deeply into it, to open ourselves to its suffering and joy, and to give ourselves to compassion, healing, and love.

In mid-August, I have the honor of serving as the guest preacher and featured author at the Chautauqua Institution, a community committed to the journey (pilgrimage!) of human development, of nurturing the mind, soul, and body. The themes for the week explore the mysteries of the brain and soul. In my preparation, I came upon this wisdom from the Irish poet John O’Donohue: “[T]he soul is the force of remembrance within us. It reminds us that we are children of the eternal and that our time on earth is meant to be a pilgrimage of growth and creativity.” I admit it’s sometimes tempting to want to be a passenger, to sit back and give up on this earthbound spiritual quest. But then the soul calls out, reminding us that we are God’s children whose time on earth is meant to be a pilgrimage!

Yours on the journey—
Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper
Minister of Older Adults


Updated July 23rd, 2021

Fires are burning in the Northwest. The worst fire in Oregon’s history. Slow-moving storms and catastrophic flooding have overwhelmed cities, towns, and villages in Germany, the Netherlands, and other European cities. Water shortages are becoming more acute in the western United States. Drought and famine are mainstays in parts of Africa, exacerbated by violent conflicts. The virus is claiming more victims in especially cities and states in the U. S. where there is adamant resistance to vaccination. India nears 3 million dead from the virus. The days of summer aren’t lazy, they are deadly.

Even as we try to find the time to rest, relax, renew, reconnect, we must be aware of the ongoing crises that do not take a break.  Jeff Bezos can drift into space on a pile of money but reentering earth’s atmosphere, little has changed on the ground below.

I’ve long thought of myself as remarkably stress-free; favorable genes, hard-won experience, durable faith. But not so much anymore.  We need each other in these times. I need you. For all who are paying attention and haven’t given up and checked out—the only way through the formidable challenges we face locally and worldwide—is together. We are all a part of that “single garment of destiny” Dr. King described everything affecting all of us.

I’m in Los Angeles, mostly at home with my parents but the little driving I’ve done has taken me down familiar streets and sights, some of them remarkably unchanged, apart from the decline of age, and others transformed by development-driven gentrification. I passed my home church yesterday and wished I had time to go inside and sit in the balcony where my friends and I congregated for worship above the proceedings below. I can still feel the sense of awe the sanctuary inspired in me.

The church is home. Our belonging together is fundamental to empowering how we show up in the world as the people of God who work for justice because God loves us all and Jesus calls us friends. Because the peril the earth faces and the struggles of people everywhere are our struggles. Because the fires and floods, the virus, come for us all and we perish or thrive, as one humanity.

Grace and peace,

Micahel Livingston

 

 

 


Updated July 16th, 2021

“For [Jesus] is our peace,” begins the text for our service tomorrow.  Bishop Yvette Flunder’s sermon title is “Unity is Holy Work.”  I’m so looking forward to her sermon and her return visit to Riverside for another—I am certain—amazing sermon and talk back in our Virtual Coffee Hour.  I’ll be in Los Angeles Sunday and worshiping virtually from another state for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. I am expecting this experience to be surreal, though I suppose it is no different from the experience we have all been having since virtual worship became the norm for us and for Congregations, Synagogues, and Mosques all over the world.

The text is about Jesus taking down the dividing wall of hostility between those who are near and those far; the sad condition of our humanity for centuries of the building of walls, borders, lines in the sand, separating the people of God.  The pandemic comes and all worship remotely.  The pandemic comes and people of every “race,” religion, and nationality suffer and die.  The pandemic comes and people on every side of every dividing wall wear masks, keep a sacred social distance, and welcome a vaccine that is effective across all the boundaries we construct to define ourselves as different from “them.” There is no “them.”  There is only “us.”

I’m in Los Angeles to be with family.  To sit among those who gave me birth. To return for a moment to the basic definition of family that defines us all.  But only for a moment. The peace I’ll find there, with all the tensions inherent in family life, is the peace I long for in the world of too many dividing walls, too many artificial differences that obscure the deep reality of our being.  In the closing words of the text, we are all: “…citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…”

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston

 


Updated July 8th, 2021

This is one of those days.  A few too many things are not going well.  Mostly small things but a few larger ones as well, surprising and unexpected. In the context of this year, and I suppose I should stop referring to the period of this pandemic as a year, even small issues seem out of proportion to the time and energy they ought to command. I am reminding myself that the gospel encourages us to keep worry at bay, to resist anxiety, to trust that God, as the old gospel song goes, “God will take care of you.” If we’re fortunate, we’ll be humming that all day long. I’m putting it on my calendar for strategic reminders to sing.

Every day is a gift.  Every breath a treasure.  Everything we see a part of the sacred whole of our life among one another on this wondrous planet. Every challenge can be met, every crisis endured, every seeming defeat mined for the hard-won lesson learned in the process. If you are listening or reading this in the morning, greet the day with joy and gladness; if in the afternoon, savor the richness of the moment; if in the evening reflect upon the small pleasures and wonders that have surely been a part of the day. I’ve already put those “things” not going well into perspective. Life is grace. God is good. All the time!

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated July 2nd, 2021

Good morning. Our Riverside Church Family celebrated this past Monday the ordination of the Rev. Amanda Meisenheimer by the United Church of Christ (UCC) to serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. The UCC affirmed Rev. Meisenheimer’s call from God as she continues to faithfully use her gifts to lovingly serve the children and families from our congregation and neighborhood. We look forward to Rev. Meisenheimer presiding over the Lord’s Table in this Sunday’s worship service.

Each of us has received gifts from God. How are you using your gifts to fulfill your call from God? In Romans 12:6, Paul talks about the various gifts that God has given us – “So we are to use our different gifts in accordance with the grace that God has given us. If our gift is to speak God’s message, we should do it according to the faith that we have;…” (Good News Bible)

In last Sunday’s New York Times, there was a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman, Dr. Alexandria Friedman, one of the few female Hasidic doctors in the country. She had to navigate numerous Hasidic issues and challenges to become a doctor. With the support of her rabbi, she overcame all of these hurdles.  Dr. Friedman believed that pursuing medicine would augment her spirituality, not distract from it.  She said, “In Judaism, there’s a belief that if you don’t use the gifts given to you by God, you’re not really honoring God.”

How are you using your gifts to honor God and to serve our brothers and sisters?

Peace,

Phil


Updated June 24, 2021

The Fight Continues is the theme of Pride Month 2021. Today, the rally, Sunday the Virtual Parade, with some in-person events. The Coronavirus claims another victim in this second year of obedience to science. We cannot celebrate as we would like. We will not be recessing from the Nave and boarding our float for a parade through the city. At the same time, we celebrate the wonderful shapes and forms of our humanity, we are reminded that our humanity is one thing we all share whatever its forms. The virus knows no distinctions, it comes for us all and demands we respect its lethal realities.

At Riverside, we are rightly proud of our early embrace of the movement and the full inclusion of LGBTQIA and non-binary friends among our membership. That’s just the beginning of the fight that continues, both here and in our society. The ACLU writes that “There is no federal law that prevents a person from being fired or refused a job on the basis of sexual orientation.” It is clear “…the U. S. Military openly discriminates and gays and lesbians.” The military as a whole is the biggest employer in the nation. There are still places where gay people may not marry and gay parents can lose their children because of who they are and love. In thirty-eight states, discrimination against gay and lesbian people is “perfectly legal.” (ACLU)

Indeed, “The Fight Continues!”  Let’s all find ways to keep fighting.  Support organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, or Sage (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders).  Speak up against prejudice.  Use appropriate pronouns.  We are one in this fight and the fight continues.

Happy Pride Riverside!

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated June 16th, 2021

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” General Order No.3 issued by Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, TX, on June 19, 1865.  I wonder what Orders No.1 and 2 were? I wrote the National Archives to find the answer, but no response yet. What was more important than informing the slave owners and their enslaved that the war had ended, the Confederacy had lost, and the “freedmen” were now “…hired labor” rather than slaves? So began Juneteenth in Texas.

Tomorrow we join with Middle Collegiate Church in celebration of the 156thanniversary of Juneteenth. The event will feature music, dance, dramatic readings continuing the theme of “Juneteenth Now” begun at Middle three years ago.  Stephanie Mills will sing “Home” (from The Wiz) live in the Nave.  Children from Riverside and Middle will read excerpts of “The Hill We Climb” and members of our Inspirational Choir and their Gospel Choir will sing—directed by Nedra Neal. We’ll see and hear William Barber, Loretta Devine, and Cornelius Smith Jr. Tisha Campbell, among others, reading the words of Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, Bayard Rustin, Alice Walker. Titus Burgess will sing “Learn to Love” a song he wrote for the celebration.

 

Have I buried the lead? Friends, it’s a fundraiser. All our hearts were broken watching the Middle Collegiate Church burn in December of last year.  Middle Church is still alive and growing, but they are homeless and raising funds for a new future. Funds raised will benefit both Middle and Riverside. Please, go to our website to register and donate—buy a ticket for the event priced from $19 to $1,619, or any amount in-between. It will be a memorable evening. Six o’clock, tomorrow, Saturday, June 19th.

 

General Granger’s Order No. 3 ended by informing the newly freed people “…that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”  Hardly necessary and needlessly unkind, to say the least. Black people have been busy getting and staying free since before emancipation and after the first Juneteenth. That’s worth celebrating.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated June 11th, 2021

June means Pride Month! That’s a good thing even if the number and sizes of the parades here in New York and across the nation may be diminished by continuing concerns about the pandemic. Compared to the last year 2021 will be a full-on day of celebration. That means enjoying the progress that has been made without losing sight of the work still to be done to protect where we are and extend gay rights and protections to every state in the nation.

Tomorrow marks the largest mass killing of LGBTQIA persons in U.S. History. Five years ago on June 12th, 2016, a gunman shot and killed forty-nine people during “Latin Night” at the Pulse Club in Orlando. Fifty-three others were wounded in the predominantly Latino crowd. The gunman was a supporter of the Islamic State in Iraq and against the American-led interventions in Iraq and Syria. Guns, extremism, homophobia, mass killing of gay Latino’s—this was a horrific form of anti-intersectionality laying bare so many of our bloody hatreds and obsessions.

Here at Riverside, we join millions in the nation in celebrating Pride Month, grateful for the witness of Maranatha and the presence of LGBTQIA members among us. Friends without whom we are unrecognizable as the people of God. Friends who help to make us who we are in all the rich diversity inherent in our God-given humanity. Friends who are us. Happy Pride Month Riverside!

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated June 6th, 2021

This week a seven-year-old boy named Chase Proust made national news after he swam in a river for an hour, seeking help for his family.

Chase’s father, Steven Proust, was attempting to rescue Chase’s sister Abigail when he realized that they needed help. As he sent Chase to shore for assistance, Mr. Proust says that he “told them both I loved them because I wasn’t sure what’s going to happen. I tried to stick with [Abigail] as long as I could.”

After little Chase’s long ordeal, he made contact with people who called emergency services for help, saving his father and sister who had drifted over a mile from their boat. When asked how he was able to persevere for that long hour of swimming with no life vest, the boy said that he took breaks and floated on his back to regain energy.

This story is remarkable on many levels – from the physical endurance of a seven-year-old to the excellent safe swimming training that he exhibited. When I was a lifeguard and swim instructor, I taught children to float on their backs or stomachs if they ever felt fatigued and could not get to safety. The body can conserve the most energy in one of these prone positions. But in an emergency situation, it is difficult to remember and employ this discipline. When we are miles from safety and our lives are at risk, it feels counter-intuitive to stop, rest, conserve energy, and breathe.

But that disciplined choice can save your life.

We have been swimming, treading water, floating, and crawling to the shore for over a year now. We have made the choices we felt that we needed to make in order to survive. But as we see an end to this crisis within reach, it may be tempting to turn around and judge the moves that got us here. Have you gained some weight? Have you increased your alcohol intake? Have you ended relationships? Have you lost jobs? Lost savings? Lost time?

We are not the same people who started this journey in the spring of 2020. Some of us have experienced terrible loss, even multiple losses. Some of us have experienced our own failing physical health or mental health. Some of us are in financial distress. But no one expected to be swimming for this long, and whatever moves you made to survive are within the realm of God’s grace. We had to take breaks and float. We had to.

And as we reach the shore of safety in the next few months, we won’t know whether to celebrate, cry, laugh, or take a long nap. Every response is okay. And just as the wiser lifeguards teach the new swimmers how to survive in a crisis, we will teach our young ones how we made it through something really hard.

“Just take breaks and float.”

Amanda Meisenheimer


Updated May 27th, 2021

If I were a college graduate going to seminary in September, I hope that by now I would have been accepted at Yale Divinity School.  For one reason.  Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings.  “The cultivation of belonging should be the goal of all education—not just any kind of belonging, but a profoundly creaturely belonging that performs the returning of the creature to the creator, and a returning to an intimate and erotic energy that drives life together with God.”  And should you be uncomfortable with the word erotic, “…intimacy and eroticism speak of our birthright formed in the body of Jesus and the protocols of breaking, sharing, touching, tasting, and seeing the goodness of God.  There, at his body, the Spirit joins us in an urgent work, forming a willing spirit in us that is eager to hold and to help, to support and to speak, to touch and to listen, gaining through this work the deepest truth of creaturely belonging…”. There is “Nobody that is not a soul, no soul that is not a body, no being without touching, no touching without being.” (After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Dr. Willie Jennings)

Belonging, the desire of our hearts.  In this pandemic we have been bereft of the intimacy of gathering in person, of dancing, cheering, worshiping, in the good company of friends and extended family.  We have been deprived of the regularity of physical touch, handshakes, embraces, back rubs, the simple joy of sitting next to someone shoulder to shoulder.  Did we take these small pleasures for granted? Our need for connection has been so great that we have found, have nurtured, have enjoyed intimacy in the Hollywood Squares of our Zoom meetings and Zoom prayer groups, and Zoom worship. We have re-learned how to belong to one another and to our God under the stress of so much pain and suffering. We’re not back in person yet.  We are beginning to see light as this tunnel nears an end.  May we take the lessons learned into the gift of belonging as our journey continues.

Please do plan to be in worship this Sunday morning to hear the Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings.  Our community will be blessed.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston

Updated May 20th, 2021

Pentecost is here. The Easter-spring-to Pentecost journey is always refreshing. So much joy, so much light, so much promise. We need the hope inherent in this journey from the resurrection of one, to the coming of the Holy Spirit to many. Hope is always under attack in our world. Life is difficult enough, the rhythm of birth, through the journey of the years to death, is fraught with accidents, with tragedies, with uncertainty, with pain, suffering, and loss. With love, all can be endured. In relationships of intimacy, in the womb of community, in the warmth of the spirit, in the regularity of worship, in the spirituality of prayer, in the communion of saints—God meets us, calls our names, shows us her image in the faces all around us—inspires us to love and good works.

We can’t stop violence and war, clean up the planet, reverse centuries of oppression in a lifetime. We can trust that our work builds upon generations of progress; we can trust that we stand on the shoulders of good people who cared about the future they would not see. We can welcome the spirit of Pentecost, that showering of ecstasy upon the rainbow of humanity in the one family of God all over the earth; that new humanity that can reject the prejudices, the hatreds, and fractures of this political and social moment.

Pentecost is here. Welcome, Holy Spirit.Welcome.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated May 13th, 2021

The pandemic, the virus, infections vaccination, I’m going to set that aside, but we know it’s there. We know it hasn’t gone away. We know we have to keep safe and get vaccinated in order to move on. Shootings, guns, killings; have always been with us and will never go away whether or not reports of these horrific incidents lead the daily news. We know this has been happening in New York this week; this past Tuesday, three or four shootings across occurred across the city: scattered, unrelated beef, disputes, arguments, settled not with words, not even with fists, but with bullets fired and people wounded. Thankfully there were no deaths in these shootings. This, and police killings—a different kind of pandemic that has to be dealt with more effectively than in the past. We have to act structurally, diverting funds from weaponized police forces equipped with advanced military gear. We’ve got to redirect money from that outdated mode to addressing the underlying causes that make and keep people poor, undereducated, always running just to stay far enough behind to be frustrated, disillusioned, and angry.

We’ve got to get rid of these guns. We have to look at the second amendment and see it for what it meant then and what it means now. Then, a means for a developing nation to protect itself from real dangers it perceived in a new world order. Now, an outdated warrant for unlimited access to deadly weapons in the homes and hands of too many people who find them readily available when they are overcome with rage or hatred at inconvenient others they feel are responsible for their own unhappiness in their own twisted and hate-filled minds.

And voting. Right now, we’re watching efforts by state governments to disenfranchise voters that they, Republicans, folks on the right, let’s speak honestly here, don’t want voting. They suppress votes so they can win elections—so they can stay in power—so they can leave in place, or add to, the structural impediments to the equal justice that is long overdue in this country. And while individual states are doing that, Congress is pushing back against efforts from those on the left to pass legislation that would override what states are doing. This is the center of our democracy, the right for each person old enough and eligible to vote to express his/her/their opinion about who ought to represent us in Congress. That’s fundamental to our democracy and it is being subverted right now in plain sight and twisted language about fraudulent claims of voter fraud.

We’re voting Sunday to elect our lay leaders and that’s essential to healthy congregational life. We can’t hold a congregational meeting every time we want to do something. So, we elect people to serve us and I want to charge us with being much more attentive to who we elect and how we train and prepare our own leaders to serve. It’s so important to our common life. The folks who are on our commissions, committees implement our values as a people of faith, they help to make the gospel visible in our lives and in the life of our community. Our election is uncontested, so it might seem odd that I would even mention this about this election. We have wonderful people running who will serve us well. Our Nominating Committee has done good work in the short turnaround from an election in November, rather than last May. I’d like to thank Sam Coleman who chaired the committee last year and Abosede George who is the current chair of the committee. And I’d like for you to attend the Annual Meeting on Sunday afternoon and vote!

We have to be responsible citizens in our nation, still deeply fractured and structured to harm those most victimized by our history. And we have to be responsible members of our church, organized to do the work of the gospel here and now.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated May 6th, 2021

It would not be possible to overestimate the severity of the continuing challenges that we face in our nation and world. Watching the devastation that has fallen upon India is heartbreaking. Here, even though the number of new cases is decreasing as well as the loss of lives from the pandemic, we know we still have a long road to travel before we can say the virus has been defeated. The number of people eager to be vaccinated was encouraging in the first days after vaccines were available. Those vaccinated were disproportionately white and that reflected much more than a hesitancy on the part of some people of color to trust the efficacy of the vaccines. Historic mistrust of the medical establishment among blacks and the “jumping the line” phenomena by whites combined to skew the numbers toward a disproportionate number of whites getting available doses. Now, in many states, anyone over sixteen can be vaccinated. Sadly, the demand seems to be waning and the reasons are disheartening.

Still, I think I just exhaled. Maybe I’m just not keeping up, but I feel a sense of growing relief and hope you do as well. The end of the pandemic isn’t around the corner but we know it’s coming. However long the block is, the corner will be at its end, inevitably. At Riverside, we are now planning for a return to in-person worship—Hallelujah!—on Homecoming, this year, September 19th. We don’t know exactly what it will look like and we will very likely still be wearing masks, but we will be coming home and we will be joined, in the fresh new ways many have become a part of our community through Zoom and Livestream and YouTube. Who could have imagined that worship and Zoom and YouTube would ever be used in the same sentence?

Through all that has occurred, headline-grabbing, heart-wrenching, crazy-making, future-endangering—life; the same rhythms and patterns have been present. We are born, we live, and we die. We come together and we fall apart, and by God’s grace, we come together again. That is God’s promise. That is our hope. Until September 19thand beyond, let’s continue to gather online in the many ways possible. Let’s continue to talk with and pray for one another. Let’s do good work—take action, remotely, to heal our wounded world. God is with us, in and through one another, and in ways too mysterious to name.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated April 29th, 2021

The pandemic isn’t over yet, but a new government is bringing in a new day. You may know that Riverside is an active partner with Community Voices Heard, through the work of MSJ, Rev. VanHook, and a decades-long friendship I’ve had with Stephen Roberson (CVH Director of Organizing) who introduced me to CVH when I came to Riverside. CVH is largely led by women, many of them, residents in public housing in New York. Afua Atta Mensa is its Executive Director. CVH describes itself as “…the largest black-led community organization building multi-racial power in NY State.” They are made up of “…individuals and organizations in NYC, Westchester, Orange, and Dutchess counties, fighting for equitable policies in housing, employment, civic engagement, and criminal justice…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this week CVH invited me to join them in a meeting with Marcia Fudge, whom President Biden recently appointed as the Cabinet member to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She’s amazing. She cares about the residents of public housing. She wants to repair leaky roofs and remove mold from apartments. She wants to make the purchase of a home within the reach of people of color who never thought owning a home was a remote possibility. She wants to end redlining. This inspiring meeting reminded me that the ongoing needs for decent public housing have not gone away for some of the most vulnerable people among us. They have been less visible during this year of struggling with the pandemic, with rising fears, with illness and death, with skewed political struggles over the certainty of medical science—but they have not gone away. Grassroots activists, like the women of CVH, residents of public housing themselves, are leading the charge for systemic changes to improve their lives.  Riverside is honored to join them in their struggle.

We still need to be careful, wear masks, get vaccines, keep our distance. And…spring is here. There is a reason for hope. The scent of resurrection is still in the air, and as Sam Cooke sang, “A change is gonna come.”

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated April 23rd, 2021

I could not resist standing in the Garth this beautiful morning in this astounding week. I was drawn to return here. I passed it on my way in, as most of us do when we enter Riverside from Claremont. It’s gated and few of us ever actually go inside and walk on the grass or smell the flowers or get a close-up view of the sculpture, Madonna, and Child, sitting peacefully watching us, watching over us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The family of George Floyd got a measure of relief, of satisfaction when the murder of their son resulted in a conviction of a police officer.  They did not have to suffer the irreconcilable rage of both the loss of a loved one and the refusal of society to hold anyone accountable for the loss.

So much work remains to be done. We can’t do it—if we don’t stop now and then to smell the roses, or the tulips here in the Garth. We can’t do it well if we don’t stop to celebrate spring, resurrection, new life. We’ve got to be whole and healthy, to take care of ourselves and one another. That’s the root of the love that permeates the struggle for justice. When we gather again, the day is coming, let’s come outside and breathe the air in this space. In the meantime, stay safe, if you haven’t already—get your vaccine—join the 200,000,000 that have. Let’s finish the work of vanquishing this virus and move on together.

Grace and peace, and see you in worship this Sunday. Debra Northern has a good word for us.

Michael Livingston


Updated April 16th, 2021

Colin Kaepernick kneeled and was accused of disrespecting the flag.  He hasn’t worked in his chosen profession since. Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario, Black, and Latino, of the Virginia National Guard, was wearing his uniform and had both hands extended outside his car when he was pepper-sprayed by one police officer while another pointed a gun at him from point black range. Nazario may as well have been wearing the flag, but it did him no good.  Daunte Wright was pulled over because he had air fresheners improperly hung in his vehicle. Outstanding warrants for misdemeanors spelled his doom.  He is dead for the same reason Kaepernick was conspired against by the NFL, the same reason Caron Nazario was told he was right to be afraid:  bias, fear, and hatred of the black bodies (red, brown, yellow bodies) baked into our institutions and bred into generations of white citizens whose bodies are the standard from which all others deviate.

This is the anti-gospel.  This is the democratic ideal turned into an unpaid debt.  People of color are both charged for not being white and owed for their second-class citizenship.  Only the truth will set us all free and the truth these days is anything repeated loudly and often enough by and to people too lazy to check sources and too careless with even their own humanity to change.

This is why we gather.  This is why we pray and worship.  This is why we work, together, to be the hands and feet of a Risen Savior, of a spirit that is Holy and knows no color, that seeks the good of all. This is who we are.  This is what the world could become.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated April 9th, 2021

have heard expressions of appreciation from many of you for the experience of worship throughout Lent, from Ash Wednesday through Easter. These have been deeply affirming and heartwarming. I meet with our clergy regularly to share pastoral concerns and to work together to enhance our worship experience. Chris Johnson, our Director of Music joins in these meetings bringing his musical expertise for deeper collaboration and integration of music in worship.

This Lent was truly the inspired work of many on our staff. I want to identify the teams who worked on each service and thank them for their contributions to our services throughout Lent 2021. Revs. Northern and Keat took the lead in the Ash Wednesday service. I worked with Rev. Lamb on the Maundy Thursday and Easter services. Planning for the Good Friday service was the work of Revs. Harper and VanHook. Minister Amanda Meisenheimer wrote the children’s Easter Pageant. A special thank you to our guest preachers on Good Friday, their homilies on the Seven Last Words were profound.

Behind the scenes, Jacob Schmid leads the Tech team in the production of the services, that team includes Okera Correia and Michael Arias. Every Monday morning Jacob joins with Jim Keat, me, and Carrie Quarquesso who convenes our production team. Carrie is essential in reaching out to members of our congregation for liturgical roles in our weekly services. Thanks to all the lay liturgists throughout the season. Jones Acquah puts together our Sunday worship bulletins while collaborating with Rev. Jim Keat who designed covers for Lent/Easter as well as throughout the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We saw growing numbers of members of our choir sing to the glory of God culminating in over 20 of them filling the Nave with glorious music on Easter Sunday. Chris Johnson and Chris Creaghan played and directed throughout the season.

Carrie, Chris (Johnson), and I meet monthly with the Worship Commission, chaired by Jesse Wilkins, our partners in the worship experience here at Riverside.

I know you join me in thanking all those who work together to make our worship of God challenging, thought-provoking, and inspirational—deepening our experience of communion and community as the people of God in Riverside.

And thank you for your attendance and participation in our virtual services of worship. While we were making Livestream participation in worship available before the pandemic, few of us imagined worshipping in this manner at all—much less for over a year! God does move in mysterious ways, even over the internet.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated April 2nd, 2021

This day after April Fool’s Day is no laughing matter. Good Friday. What a name for a day of…shame. Jesus is tried and convicted, denied and abandoned, tortured, taunted, and lynched by the power of the state and the inhumanity of good citizens of the empire. He may as well have been a black woman or man, a trans or Asian person, a child or older adult languishing in isolation, or a poor person of any color in 21st century America. His body could be a stand-in for the earth in the time of fossil fuels and plastic, profit and deregulation.

Awful as the day was, there were signs of hope. Kind words and a request from a dying thief hanging from the cross on the left. Powerful words of truth and forgiveness from the lips of a dying human with divinity shining through his vulnerability and pain. The promise of a new community, a new family forged in the remnant of a movement that only appeared to die on a cross. Two days later, women on a mission of mercy, find a stone rolled away, and astonished and amazed, tell a story that changes the world to this day.

Earlier this week, a wise woman in a Zoom meeting (where else? said,) “We are not promised a trauma-free life.” There are crosses to bear for all of us. Thank God we can share our burdens. We can reach out and be reached by friends and family on this human journey, in this human family. Joy is here and, on the way, present and ever before us, now and near, unlimited in supply, born of grace and the deepest, toughest love the world has ever known—within the grasp of each one of us and all of us together. We’ll shout Easter Sunday. On this day of death we may close our eyes confident that the light of God still shines, the love of God still raises to wholeness all who dare to believe.

Grace and peace, see you Sunday morning.

Michael Livingston


Updated March 26th, 2021

Two mass killings in one week. Is this the normal to which we want to return? CNN reports there have been seven mass shootings over seven days this month. We’re having important conversations about what the new normal will look like. We’re confident that we’ll find ways to integrate new learnings from our stay-at-home patterns with a safe return to gathering together in worship, at entertainment and sporting events, in parks, and cultural experiences that are all central to what we used to know of as a full and abundant life. We want to travel again, for those who are drawn to distant places and the many wonders of our earth here and abroad.

While all those conversations are going on, plans being made, new dreams entering our sleeping and waking consciousness, we’re watching the number of vaccines grow and thirsting for the independence of walking freely in the world—even if we have to continue to wear masks for a time.

These shootings remind us that some things in our pre-pandemic world are terribly broken.  Mass shootings were rendered dormant by the virus. We weren’t gathering in masses. We were sequestered in our homes and fear of the virus at least dampened the deep and foul hatreds, urges, and illnesses that lead some to kill, en masse, with awful weapons that ought not to be available to ordinary citizens or in a civilized world at all.

A wise woman in our Grace Notes gathering on Wednesday night said, “There is no time for lethargy.” We have so much life-saving work to do.  Our text for the evening was from Haggai (2:4) where God says, “…take courage, all you people of the land…work, for I am with you.” Deep in Lent, we continue to reflect, pray, to prepare. The day, of not returning to what was, rather moving forward to what can become—is coming. We work, God with us.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated March 19th, 2021

So much to consider. We aren’t there yet, the “triumphal entry,” betrayal, abandonment, arrest, trial and desertion, crucifixion, death…those last words…and burial.  Do we even have the energy to think on these things with what we’ve had, with what we have yet to deal with: the anniversary of a pandemic, a year of lament, separation anxiety, vaccine appointments, new patterns of work—for the fortunate ones who have work?

It’s been a year that feels like a decade in a new century that has grown old before its time. Gun violence and wars disfigured the past and have evolved in terrifying ways. Killing is both intensely personal and delivered with impersonal dispatch; by legislation, drone, a byproduct of powering smartphones and accessorizing the wealthy. And now a worldwide pandemic and a dying earth whose rich resources have been unleashed against the robust balance of its creation.

Jesus lived for the justice of others and died for love. He taught, forgave, healed, spoke truth.  His disciples betrayed, abandoned, and deserted him. Not much seems to have changed for those who would follow in the way of this prophet, in whatever tradition, or the earth created by his Mother.  Just makes our work, not more desperate, rather more urgent, more necessary. Lent invites us to slow down, think deeply about our part in all of this; renew our strength, rebuild our reserves, deepen our connections with one another, look inward and outward with equal regard for our failings and the promise of the future we can build together.

We are conscious, alive, each breath of every one of us a part of the life of the world from the beginning of life through this very moment and beyond—to the wonder of the next moment, unknown and ripe with infinite possibilities. Yes, so much to consider. Let the work continue.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated March 12th, 2021

Yes, spring is coming. This hard winter is about done. We have reason to hope for better days. The virus declines, though variants are loose among us, and the vaccines administered accelerate. This doesn’t mean we rush to return to a “normal” past. The way life used to be is lost to us and we have learned what we should have known—what we knew as normal was deeply flawed, it was injustice on a bed of whiteness, privilege, income inequality. It was ignorance and willful exploitation of work and workers we now call “essential.” What were they before if not essential?

So, we welcome the soon to arrive spring, with enlightened awareness. We dare not be naïve about what is to come. The trial of the policeman who killed George Floyd will begin soon. I talked a few days ago with a clergy friend who serves in a Lutheran Church very near the burned-out police precinct that housed the several officers that watched George die while listening to him plead for his life and call out to his “Mama.” My friend is afraid for what may happen when and if this trial ends with anything less than a verdict of guilty. And, oh, the planet is still dying by our doing.

All this as we remain physically separated from one another, grateful for the technology that allows us to see our faces and hear our voices in real-time. All this as we move deeper into Lent. The season is freighted with what is worst about us: betrayal, abandonment, brutality, a government without conscience, mobs fed on lies bent on blood. Oh, how we need to think and pray, alone and in good company, to talk and reflect, and grow stronger as we learn together. Oh, how we need to emerge from these weeks wiser, righteous with love, committed to truth and justice and—what could yet become, the American Way (apologies to Super Man).

What a gift—to be in the Riverside Church community in this moment, this Lent; the life among us is full and vibrant, rich in liberating content and engaging interactions of all kinds. Lent is a gift to the alert. Be among them…and meet God.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated March 4th, 2021

Nancy just came home from receiving her second dose of the Moderna vaccine. Friends, we are living in this moment of wonderful promise and awful despair. There are three vaccines and two million of us are being vaccinated every day. And that will grow as the third vaccine becomes more available.  Estimates of when the nation will reach the tipping point, when we can say with some confidence that the worst is behind us, keep moving from a distant future that seems unbearable—sometime in 2022—back to September of 2021, to, astonishingly, May. Three months from now. Our service this Sunday, March 14, is one day short of a year from the first Sunday in-person worship service we canceled at Riverside. I preached that Sunday to the fourteen people who hadn’t received the cancellation notice.

There is some hope, perhaps even expectation, that there will be enough vaccine doses available for all adults in the United States by the end of May. That is astonishingly good news. I am planning to visit my parents in Los Angeles in April. I may preach to Riverside some Sunday morning from their home on a sunny street in the City of Angels. By the end of this month, I will have had a second dose of the vaccine. I’m hearing that is true from many of you as well.

And yet. That “wonderful promise” casts a dark shadow on today. Because over fifty- thousand people were infected two days ago.  And about a thousand people are dying every day. We know some of these people. We love them. They are us. Emerging from winter to spring, from virus to wellness, from 44 to Biden-Harris is where we are—and deep in Lent as well. It’s still cold; there may be more storms, more snow. But the days are getting longer. There is more light. We are having deep conversations at Riverside about anti-racism and breaking white supremacy. Our government, and it’s more legitimate to call it that today, though not in the voter-suppression-state-assemblies of Georgia and Florida, let’s say our national government, is showing signs of caring for the life of our people and our planet.

There is hope. Keep hope alive.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated February 25th, 2021

Be still…and go. There is an exquisite tension in the ellipsis. A delicious pause inviting a transition from the state of being still—to the call to action. Both are required for our full humanity. Without stillness, stasis, calm, we are unable to reflect, listen well, to receive the fruit of meditation, hear the voice of God, to feel Holy Spirit within our resting bodies. A good sleep offers these gifts in abundance. Sufficient time for waking stillness, meditation, and prayer multiplies these gifts by quantities that cannot be measured.

The quality and practice of being still, build reserves of energy, colors the soul with shades and depths of wisdom and develops the capacity for enlightened engagement in the world. Your best self-shows up in relationships, at work, in moments of tension, to deal with crises, and to weigh in on the issues of the day. Being still, we welcome joy. We recognize ourselves as part of the universe. We see as God sees. The image of God on every face.

Without being still, you cannot know who you are, you cannot inhabit your “be-ing,” you will not know where to go.  If you do not “go,” you cannot do anything to help your transformed self—transform the world.

We have had a year of stillness, our ability to “go” constrained by the coronavirus.  I trust you have used this time well; I’ve seen and heard evidence of it in our virtual gatherings, in phone calls, and emails. This imposed stillness hasn’t made action impossible; it has changed the shape of our engagement.  Some months from now, not too many, we pray, we will be free again to move out into the world in the good company of siblings who have matured in the stillness of home, in the solitude of self-reflection, in the grace of a God who can find us whether “still” or on the “go”.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated February 19th, 2021

Happy Chinese and Lunar New Year! At the beginning of the pandemic last year, the three Chinatowns here in NYC and across the nation suffered significant economic losses because people linked the coronavirus with the Chinese community. Since March 2020, Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have reported being targeted in 3,000 hate crimes nationwide. A man allegedly tried to kill an Asian family inside a Texas supermarket to prevent them from spreading the coronavirus. In a similar vein, in 1982, two White unemployed auto workers in Detroit murdered Vincent Chin. Even though Mr. Chin was Chinese, the two workers thought Mr. Chin was Japanese and blamed him for the Japanese auto industry’s rise. Asians and AAPI in New York City and across the country continue to face this type of racist aggression. Several months ago in Penn Station, a White man walked up to me and coughed in my face. I held back my tongue and my clenched fist and walked away. Community advocates say that more victims are not coming forth because they do not speak English or are undocumented.

 

 

 

 

 

Asians and AAPI are being scapegoated and blamed for the coronavirus because of racist innuendos in social media and Donald Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus. Scapegoating Asians and AAPI in the United States is nothing new!  The 1875 Page Act banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States. The Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first, and only law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic or national group from entering the United States. These two federal laws forced family separation for decades. These racist laws impacted my family as my mother and brother were kept apart from my father for 11 years. During World War II, Japanese Americans’ internment in the United States was the forced relocation and incarceration in concentration camps of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Sixty-two percent of the internees were United States citizens. I can cite many more examples of racist and violent acts against Asians and AAPI in the United States.

The reality is that Asians and AAPI are often considered strangers in our land. Some people think of us as foreign, strange, or exotic. We are often ignored or overlooked by Whites since we are not Black or Brown, just “other.” We are stereotyped as the Model Minority despite many Asians and AAPI are living in poverty today! The Asian and AAPI experience in the United States embodies the ongoing history of brutal and violent racist acts upon our Brown, Black, and Red brothers and sisters.

As we enter this season of Lent, it is a time to reflect, to repent, and to renew our calling to serve God, to work for peace, unity, and justice for all of God’s people.

Grace and peace,

Rev Phil Tom


Updated February 12th, 2021

“Watergate Headquarters!” This is how a precocious niece of mine, at three years old, would answer the phone in 1973 during the height of the attention of the nation to the investigation in Congress into the scandal that would bring down President Richard Nixon. That phone was a black rotary dial phone introduced to the country in about 1904. Broadcast “gavel to gavel” on PBS, nearly every television in the country was tuned in to the riveting proceedings. A conversation about the cover-up of the burglary at the Watergate Hotel by the President of the United States took place over those rotary phones (about two million of them are still in use today) and in-person everywhere people gathered: home, office, school, grocery store, bars, and restaurants, in the corridors of apartment buildings and across the backyard fence. The raw data came from newspapers and from PBS and local news reports.

Today, we are engrossed in following the proceedings in the Senate chamber; an unprecedented second impeachment trial of a president whose term has ended. While the trial is equally engrossing the manner of our engagement has radically shifted with the advance of time and technology. We get our information by cell phone, tablet, laptop, television, and we cannot gather by the water cooler or in the grocery store to compare notes and theories about what happened and how the drama ought to end.  Our “headquarters” are dispersed and solitary.  And we are still captive to a pandemic and still hopeful that a new administration can move to dismantle structures of injustice that are as lethal to our humanity and our planet as the virus we scramble to overcome, one vaccine at a time.

What do we do?  We keep working for change and building and strengthening the community. We care for one another and for those who need support to get through the day and these cold nights.  We worship and pray individually and together.  We take delight in gathering by Zoom and seeing the smiles on familiar faces, welcoming strangers who are becoming friends and keeping one another alive in these extraordinary times.  We welcome the grace and love of God with gratitude and try our best to be patient and understanding, graceful and loving with one another so that the bonds of unity that bind us to one another are not frayed by the strains of these times; we hold on to one another with greater urgency, to let go now is to give in to despair. “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.”  (Psalm 46:1)

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated February 5th, 2021

Back to normal? Not a chance. Woke up this morning and things seemed, well, normal. I could hear the steady traffic on Parkside Avenue outside my home office window. Bright sun and melting snow. The storm had passed and regular activities could be resumed.  But we know “regular activities” these days are the new normal we’re beginning to accept at a painfully high cost. Suicides among young people are rising in alarming numbers.

If we are able to visit family and friends at all, and most of us are not, it is from a distance, through a glass, beyond a door, in the yard; all manner of adjustments to the virus that won’t go away. Nancy and I were talking to friends more senior than we are and offering to stop by while on an errand in their nearby town. “I’ll sit in the garage and you can sit in comfort, in your kitchen,” Nancy said. “We don’t do that.” Was the reply—not at all unkind. Just a statement of the state of things at this moment. A moment that is fast approaching a year in precious time. Acting with caution is what accountability looks like these days. And if we aren’t accountable for the protocols that keep us all safe, we all suffer. Wear the mask (above the nose!), keep a safe distance apart, get the vaccine when you can. Be accountable to one another, this is what love looks like.

Accountability is under discussion in our national political life as well. Should those who incited and participated in acts that took a human life, damaged property, and put at risk people serving their community and nation be held accountable for their actions?  Of course, they should. All who can be identified, whatever their rank. The common bonds of our community and our democracy are being eroded by our willful lack of accountability to one another, to our founding principles, to our faith. Prosecute all those who did violence to our humanity. This is what justice looks like.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated January 29nd, 2021

Kindness begins at home, in the family, and community. Fairness that grows into justice, forgiveness that makes the future possible, grace that frees us to be ourselves and love ourselves: these we practice, demonstrate and live; in family and community, home and church.

We listen to one another with care, hold one another accountable in love, embrace one another, different as we are, the image of God in one and all—just as we are and are becoming.  We treasure our life together, each moment sacred, every breath a gift, a step toward eternity, experienced here and now with one another, in family and community, home and church.

Our citizenship grows from this beginning, this present, the future made possible, democratic, just, by the values we bring to our common life, the lessons we learn, the truths we practice in family, community, home, and church.

The year is still new, the virus not yet defeated, the systems that govern our life not yet reformed—so many daunting challenges.  We face them together.  God our witness.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated January 22nd, 2021

Joy, Joy, joy! President Biden. Vice President Harris. What a new day this is. We are two days into a new administration, a New Hope, a glorious day has dawned! There is so much to celebrate and I trust we will take the time to savor it and to trust that God is working to bring a new heaven and a new earth.

Moving beyond the celebration too soon will deprive us of this moment of respite, this Sabbath from what we have endured. Glory to God for the voice of the people and the hard work to raise that voice into our national conversation, and to bring so much joyful anticipation to the many people who have been harmed, left behind, exploited these last years.

God has been with us these four years as well; with us in the suffering, especially this last year, when so many have died, too many. Many more than should have.  So, as we celebrate, we also prepare for the sobering reality of the hard work to come to heal this deeply divided nation, to lift, as Reverend William Barber has said, from the bottom up so that all are raised into the abundance of God’s good earth.

We pray for Biden and Harris, for our nation, ourselves, and our church. We shout for joy for the opportunity to walk in a new light, with truth and grace, for justice, with love for all.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston

 

More from Michael…

You will receive a pledge letter this week, if you’ve already made your 2021 pledge, thank you! If you haven’t, please take the time to read the letter from our stewardship chair, Alan Bentz Letts.

I encourage you to give careful thought to a commitment to Riverside for 2021.

Everything we do depends on the generosity of members and friends. As you contemplate your pledge for 2021, I hope you will consider setting up a recurring gift. You can do this at: trcnyc.org/give

There is a delay in processing checks, as most of our staff are working remotely; but you can certainly still mail a check if you prefer.

It is an old proverb, however, it’s still true: God loves a cheerful giver!

Michael


Updated January 15th, 2021

Today would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92nd birthday. If our nation had been able to “…form a more perfect union” as envisioned in the constitution, he might be alive today to celebrate with his children and grandchildren and receive again, the good wishes of a grateful nation. But the truth is his family would not have been able to travel safely to be with him and he would have to wear a mask and there would be no blowing out of candles on a birthday cake.

A tireless advocate for justice that he was, even at 92 he would have wanted to know the state of the nation.  And with that knowledge, his and all our birthdays are tempered with the sobriety of a harsh reality. The last president he knew signed a Voting Rights bill into law. Presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II would have deeply disappointed him. Twice impeached President Trump would have rekindled the fires of righteousness, still, no doubt, burning within him.

Photo by Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS.COM.

The National Guard is sleeping in the Capitol building surrounded now by a “non-scalable fence.” The FBI has warned that “armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January…and at the US Capitol from 17 January through 20 January.”

At our Grace Notes gathering this past Wednesday, conversation in the midst of scripture, prayer, and song, we talked about whether or not we could have confidence that “God is in charge.”  We read from Ephesians (chapter 2) that God “…rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ…” has “…saved us by grace.”  And from Psalm 37 “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in [God] and [God] will act.  [God] will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”

At Riverside, we know that “commit your way” means we have to act in the world just as we know God acts on our behalf.  We believe that by grace we gather in all our rich diversity trusting that God is in our midst.  We have known our problems as a nation were unresolved, embedded in systems steeped in the genocide, racism, and misogyny of our history.  Still, none of us imagined what is happening among us today. And we don’t know where this is going. We pray no more lives will be lost in the madness of this moment when white nationalist militias saturated with the lies of our past and our present foment sedition and insurrection.

We trust in God and believe that the arc of history is bending toward the justice of God.  We work and we wait, by grace, in the light of Christ come to us this holy season, with us throughout all our years.

Grace and peace

Michael Livingston


Updated January 8th, 2021

Night and day. Two realities. Black and white. Tuesday night counting began on ballots to determine control of the Senate.  Those votes would elect and seat the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Ted Ossof as new Senators from the state of Georgia.  One black, one white, one Christian, one Jewish. One from a family raised in poverty in public housing and the only one of his siblings to graduate from college—the other a millennial who attended a private high school and whose mother immigrated from Australia as a young woman. Their opponents: privileged, wealthy, protestant, white. Kelly Loeffler became a billionaire and the wealthiest (soon to be, former) Senator in Congress a week before the election.

The victory of that historic night was made possible by a massive, grassroots organizing campaign, led principally by African American women. Voters turned out in record numbers in the Georgia runoff election. A beautiful and stunning example of democracy in action. It was a transformative mass movement that turned a red state blue and overcame decades of systemic voter suppression tactics of the Republican State Legislature aided by the governor and state attorney general (who redeemed himself by rebuking the effort of the president to coerce him into “finding” enough votes, by one, to give him the victory in the election).

Day follows night.  The very next day, thousands of supporters of the 45thPresident responded to the direct urging of the President to take action against the “…egregious assault on our democracy” and go to the Capitol. They did just that and so much more. They destroyed property, broke into the nation’s house, and desecrated the seat of our democracy, though in the truth that has happened under the veneer of antiseptic political process from the very beginning of the nation.

What was said by commentators in an analysis of that infamous and toxic day, on social media platforms, and by Riversiders in our Grace Notes gathering Wednesday night, bears repeating now—if those “protesters” had been people of color they would have been met by massive force resulting in mass arrests, injuries, and death. Only, they were not protesters, and I’m quoting now, they have been more accurately called, “rioters,” “insurrectionists,” engaged in “domestic terrorism,” “sedition,” “an attempted coup.” Even if one thinks some of these labels hyperbole, they serve to underscore the importance of this moment and the urgent need for systemic change in how we go about the business of tending to the needs of “We, the people…” All the people, especially the most vulnerable among us.

And praise God, I want you to know that a group of volunteers among our membership made thousands of calls to Georgia leading up to the election. These were non-partisan calls in partnership with “Reclaim Our Vote” to get people to register and vote (not in support of any particular candidate(s)). They are Pat Clark, Hylda Clarke (financial support to ROV), Frances Connell, Sumati Devadutt, Lissa Doddington, Alexa Donaphin, Carol Fouke-Mopyo, Irene King, Aida Montero, Carol White, Rosalyn Witter, and Shelley Annais Karlineer (not a member but very active volunteer with Riverside’s Lift Every Voice and Vote initiative). I do not hesitate to mention the leadership of Rev. Kevin VanHook, our Minister of Justice, Advocacy, and Change. I know you join me in thanking them for demonstrating and continuing Riverside’s progressive witness to the gospel in every decade of our existence.

Let us continue to worship and pray together, to gather on Zoom as long as we must, to build a beloved community among us—to witness to God’s amazing and unconditional love.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated January 1st, 2021

One-one-twenty-one. I like it! Happy New Year Riverside. It feels good to wake up in a new year. We are done with the calendar year 2020, even if we know we are not yet done with the pandemic and even if we know the racism that kills black bodies, builds walls, makes and keeps people poor will still be with us as this year begins and the months go by. While the inauguration of new liberal, if not progressive leadership, will make a huge difference in our daily lives, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will need our help to make the changes we need to transform our society. But enough of that for now. (More on Sunday when I get back in the pulpit)!

I join you in welcoming this New Year. I invite you to continue to gather, via Zoom, in worship, bible study, Grace Notes, children and families worship, and youth and young adult events of all kinds. If we have learned anything during this time of forced separation, it is that we are not alone. We can be and are present for one another in new ways, that while unusual, do not inhibit our inclination or our ability to be together as a community. While challenging and less fulfilling for some—I want to acknowledge that—many, many of us are nurtured and fed spiritually by seeing one another on-screen, hearing one another’s voices, sharing stories, learning and crying together, praying for one another, supporting and affirming and uplifting one another—by any means necessary in this extraordinary time.

We have welcomed new members and friends into our gatherings and been enriched by their stories. A small, dedicated group meets every morning for morning prayer. Our virtual coffee hours have brought together, regularly, 50 to 100 (sometimes more!) of us for rich conversation with a variety of preachers whose sermons have been deeply moving and profoundly challenging. Grace Notes on Wednesday evenings have been just what a mid-week gathering ought to be, warm and intimate, full of conversation, inspiring song (from inspired soloists), refreshing laughter—all touched by grace.

Let’s keep it going. As long as we have need. Even after a new normal is possible, some of these ways of being will, and ought to remain with us in what evolves. Praise God from whom all blessings flow! God is not done with us yet, Riverside. We are growing. We still have wounds to heal and we are not hiding from that reality. We have work to do before and in order to be able to call a new pastor and welcome her/him/they among us. I pray each of us will use some of the time we have alone to pray and meditate and practice ways of being that will enrich our coming together in person when God wills it—and science makes it possible!

I love you. Say that to someone today, and all the tomorrows that follow. God loves us all. This is no interim time, no in-between time, no time during which we wait for “normal” to return. This is our reality. God’s time. Let us continue to make good in it, to be worthy of our calling, to celebrate Jesus among us, as one of us. A new year has begun. God bless us all.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated December 25th, 2020

Merry Christmas!

I hope this is a day of light for you, a blessed day of hope, peace, and joy—in a season of love. O how hard this year has been, how difficult are the days and months to come until we are beyond this virus and the path of destruction it has carved in our communities, our cities, our nation, and the world.  We thank God for the vaccines that offer hope and immunity for the spreading of this pandemic.  May they be distributed with integrity beyond the influence of politics, rather, guided by the demands of love for those most vulnerable among us, and those who care for them.

Today, we celebrate the coming of our hope in the birth of a child—Emmanuel, God with us, among us, one of us!  In this incarnation “The hopes and fears of all the year, are met in thee tonight.” An “…everlasting light…” shines in this birth, in every birth, and in that light, we find our way through every dark moment, every crisis, the worst that may come our way.

I want to offer a gift to you about this light, shared with me by a friend:

A blessing from poet Jan Richardson

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief. 
Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith,
in stubborn hope,
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.
© Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. janrichardson.com 

May you be a light to others!

Merry Christmas! Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated December 18th, 2020

I abandoned my isolation for a short walk today, Wednesday, before the snow began to fall. My strength is beginning to return, my appetite is good, and I talk more than I cough. Oddly, throughout my COVID-19 trial, my temperature has been normal. But there remains nothing normal about this year that none of us will ever forget. God bless those too young to remember. Months ago, we were told to anticipate 300,000 deaths in the U.S. by the end of the year as a result of the pandemic. We’re already beyond that with thirteen days to go. Biden’s inauguration cannot come soon enough. It will be amazing to experience a President who will encourage mask wearing for 100 days as an act of national solidarity against this silent killer.

That’s the key, isn’t it?  All of us working together, as a congregation, as a nation, to combat disease, to make a fundamental change for social justice, to save our planet, and for many of us—to enjoy one another, to sing, and pray, and praise God for the gift of our humanity. That’s what Advent is about. Preparation for the incarnation, the incandescent reality that our humanity is of God; that our human lives are invested with divinity, that we are created in the image of God and charged with caring for one another as if our lives depended upon it. What grace, what peace, what joy it is these first three weeks of Advent to affirm the meaning of this season.

All our stories narrate this truth. There would be no vaccine without a collective effort, no delivery of services, no healing, no comfort for the bereaved without essential workers, health-care professionals, and family members to work and bear witness to the ties that bind us together.

When I started my walk along the Delaware-Raritan Canal a few steps from my home, I came across a small flock of geese annoyed by my intrusion upon their gathering. They scurried away and then all of a sudden took flight, and as their numbers grew, they honked and flew in swooping circles above me as I walked along the path.  They know better than we do that it is in the joy of encouraging and supportive community that we find the strength to live together as God intended—one people, one human family, all around the world.

Thank you for your cards, texts, calls, emails, links, prayers, and good thoughts. Along with the care of Nancy and my son Aaron—who both show no signs of illness!—you have lifted my spirits and affirmed that a loving community awaits my full recovery. I am blessed to be a part of you. Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas to you all.

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston


Updated December 11th, 2020

We move through Advent from hope to peace, to this third week, joy. It may seem foolish to be joyful in our world. The Coronavirus is in full destructive gear mode making a mockery of our arrogance and resistance to common sense and science.  Donald Trump is still in office making plans mostly just out of view with consequences we will have to bear. What we can see is him striking golf balls as if he did his best thinking with a club, rather than a smart-phone in his hands. We remain face to face with the ordinary challenges of daily living, aging, and caring for loved ones, illness, unemployment, loneliness, debt—so joy?

And speaking of the Coronavirus, I have received the news that no one wishes to hear:  I have tested positive. While I am experiencing some mild symptoms, be assured that my spirits remain high and that I am resting comfortably in isolation, assured in my faith and finding comfort – and joy – in God’s love. This is a reminder that this disease is serious and we all must continue to do our part by following safety recommendations, wearing our masks, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home whenever possible.

Still, this remains the season of “Joy to the World,” that beloved hymn confined it seems to Christmas. William Sloan Coffin reminds us that “When you sing it, remember the words do not go climbing up the octave, rather, they come tumbling down. It is not earthly, but the heavenly joy we will be celebrating on Christmas Eve.” Heavenly joy is without limit and can encompass all the deep sorrow, the evil, the suffering that dim our spirits and open the door to despair.  The Joy of “Joy to the world…” begins high on a “D” and the ‘come’ of “The Lord has come…” ends an octave below.

The downward movement is Emmanuel—God with us. God moving into our very humanity in the birth of Jesus, in every birth.  Life is infused with the presence of God, in God’s image on every face—joy!  In the sunshine and the snow—joy!  “Open your eyes and the whole world is full of God.” (Jacob Boehme, d. 1624)

Joy!

Grace and peace,

Michael Livingston

P.S. – As we reflect on the generosity and joy of God’s love, I thank you for your joyous and generous giving to Riverside this year. This season, is it possible there is a bit more treasure you can share? Your generosity supports all the work of the church, our food pantry and social services, social justice work, faith formation, worship, music, and so much more. Please consider a gift at www.trcnyc.org/give today. Thank you.


Updated December 4th, 2020

We move through Advent from hope to peace. What a delight that is for us at this chaotic moment of struggle and confusion. As confident as we are that a new day is dawning, we are yet mired in an unprecedented madness that continues to hold us in its grip. What has been ordinary throughout our history is unpredictable at this moment. Will power be transferred smoothly? We already know the answer to that question is no. Some of us remained transfixed by our favorite media outlet reinforcing our preferred narrative. We are resolute on all sides of every issue. Dialogue is impossible, reconciliation is beyond our ability to achieve.

Our families have been torn apart by blind loyalty to one side or the other and no desire or ability to listen to what we know are lies on the other side of this divide. The truth does not matter. It holds no power to persuade or enlighten. There are no universal sources of objectivity, no facts that can be agreed upon by all. There does not seem to be a path to some middle ground where we could meet, listen, and learn. Trust is a victim of intolerance. So, hope. At Riverside, we gather in small groups to pray and to support one another because whatever the larger narrative at any given moment, we continue to experience the stresses and strains of daily living and we need clarity, silence, and the confidence that comes from the stillness of meditation and prayer and the words of comfort we offer one another.

From this nurtured hope, peace grows among us. We are thankful for the constancy of prayer and worship, Bible study, acts of service, and activism for justice. We are thankful for the smiles and the good humor we share in online gathering after online gathering. We thank you, God, for this new way of being a community in these impossible times. We wait in patient anticipation of the fullness of our humanity come to us in the birth of a child.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated November 27th, 2020

Happy and blessed day after Thanksgiving! I trust your day was like mine, peaceful, quiet, small, with family (and perhaps a friend or two).  Tired as we are of Zoom, I hope there was a time for connecting with those far away by this technology that creates a kind of intimacy we never imagined we needed. Perhaps you joined in on our Thanksgiving service Thursday morning, sharing your thanks, joining in communion, seeing more faces by Zoom than might have come to visit under what used to be normal.

Yesterday was a giving of thanks more fitting for the chaotic time engulfing us all. The pandemic spreading, swelling, herding us into our homes, forcing us to find comfort in the familiar, giving us more time to see and talk to those with whom we live, rekindling love from the drift of ordinary time.

Somehow, a table with a turkey fattened by hormones and more side dishes and desserts than a chow line in a mess hall seems out of touch with a season characterized by illness and death—for months now—and still front-page news. “What’s the count, the toll?” we want to know, “Did we break another record?”  “What’s the latest on the availability and distribution of the virus.”

And if that weren’t enough, “Has he moved out yet?” “Has he admitted he just lost?” “How’s public land in Alaska doing?” “Is there any left?” I suppose we can be thankful there are only fifty-four days left until January 20thand the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.  That is something. O Happy Day!

The truth is I’m writing this a week in advance.  We have to accelerate our schedule so that the good folks in Communications can have time off for Thanksgiving. Thanks to them for their good work. And thanks to you, members and friends, for your commitment to Riverside, your belonging makes us who we are.  And thanks be to God for the gift of life. Let’s give thanks all the way to Advent, then surrender ourselves to hope, joy, peace, and love.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated November 20th, 2020

On days I’m at the church and in my office, I’m kept company by a variety of Schlumbergera.  No worries, it isn’t dangerous.  It’s armed these early winter months with a brilliant bloom of rose and white flowers. Most of us know it as a Christmas Cactus.  I see a few other people during the course of the day, isolated on the 19thfloor of the tower above the Nave.

If I move to the empty room past the waiting room, I can look west over the Hudson River to New Jersey. From my desk, two gorgeous tall soldered windows look north past Grant’s Tomb and the George Washington Bridge. Directly behind me, the view is east toward the upper east side with a bit of the Bronx to the left and Queens straight ahead. Below me a development company digs relentlessly, through the northern quarter of Union Seminary’s lovely quad, laying the foundation for a high rise that will partly block this view to the east once completed. Throughout the day I hear the carillon ringing announcing the hours as they pass.

I am not alone. None of us are. The Christmas Cactus always reminds me of Miss Vera (Smith). She gave it to me five or six years ago, caring for it until she felt confident I could keep it alive. Each flowering bud is a bloom grace, a burst of color affirming the hope of the cycle of life and the Communion of Saints.  I know the Nave will one day be occupied by members and friends even more appreciative of the simple ability to gather, to see face to face, to embrace old friends and make new ones in person, to sing together, a hymn, or hear sung a glorious anthem, a roaring gospel song.

Our work now is to be safe and stay safe, to gather by Zoom, to call and write one another, to engage in social justice as conditions permit, and now and then taking calculated risks to stand among those who stand for justice. With vaccines on the horizon, we know COVID-19 will be conquered and the ’19 relegated to a past whose lessons we dare not forget.

In the meantime, friends, Advent is coming. Let us keep our hope alive. There is beauty in life all around us.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated November 13th, 2020

Have you voted yet? It’s not too late. I don’t mean in the election for President of the United States, that election is over. Well, for most of us anyway. I mean in the Riverside Lay Leader elections. All Riverside members are invited to vote for the congregants who will be leading our commissions and committees. You might have received an email (or more than one) or maybe even a paper ballot in the mail. If you are a member and you haven’t yet received your ballot, paper or electronic, contact the church at communications@trcnyc.org to receive an electronic ballot and cast your vote before the close of the Annual Meeting happening this Sunday after worship.

Why? Elections matter. Leaders matter.Voting matters. Your voice is important. In every environment where selecting leaders occurs it is essential that members participate in this most fundamental of methods—by casting a ballot. In a democracy, voting is a kind of sacrament, an act of faith in a system of government that promises fidelity to “We the people…”

In a congregation of God’s people, a vote for a lay leader is a participation in the call of a person, in the words of our Bylaws: “…committed to church ministry that meets people’s needs, exhibits Christian character and good works that gain the respect of Church members, understands and accepts a covenant relationship with God and among the Congregation, seeks to relate well with Church staff…and accepts the importance of confidentiality and transparency.”

We’ve had an extraordinary season of preparation for this Riverside election. I’d like to express my appreciation to our Nominating Committee for its long hours of inspired work and to all those who offered themselves for service to Riverside. Please, do now express your will by voting in our Lay Leader elections. These next several years are so very important to our future. A new permanent pastor will be called. A plan for the development of our campus for mission and sustainability will be put forward for consideration. Our community will thrive with the addition of new members even as we grieve the loss of those whose work on earth will be done. Riverside will continue to contribute to the well-being of our society through its work of social service and for social justice. Those you elect today will help lead the way, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the love of God in Christ.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated November 5th, 2020

I tried to wait. I’m writing very early Thursday morning and we still don’t know who the President will be for the next four years. I wanted to know and write with some assurance of whether or not we would continue on the tortured path that has been our collective lot since Donald Trump became president. We have experienced three tense days and nights of uncomfortable uncertainty, waiting and watching our democracy work even while our president subverts it with assertions of his own self-interest.

Reading this now, you know if we have a forty-sixth President, Joe Biden, or if Trump has been re-elected, a reality of unbearable import for some, a cause for celebration for others. Is it resurrection or purgatory? And right there is our dilemma, our challenge, our opportunity. How do we continue to live in the two nations that are the United States of America? Our divisions are stark and seemingly irreconcilable. You know these are not questions for me or anyone person to answer. Community is our invaluable resource here, the ground of our being as people of faith.

Our lay leader election is a week away. We’ll also approve a budget for 2021. The pandemic is spreading again with heightened intensity. The threats to our planet continue unabated. What does this mean for us?

We need each other. In work, in play, in prayer, and worship. In conversation, for comfort, in community. In resistance, in relationship, in hope.

At this moment I don’t know who the next president will be. I do know that whoever it is our work remains the same. To live by faith, to speak the truth, to love unconditionally. We are up to this. Together, we can do great work and the future requires our very best collective effort. Let us begin by continuing to heal ourselves of our small divisions so that we can help to heal the divisions of the society in which we live.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated October 29th, 2020

“Who knows how many black people line the bottom of the Mississippi River simply because they wanted to exercise their right to vote.” (Begin Again, Eddie Glaude)

It is that essential. The right to vote was hard-won and “suppression” is an accurate description but hardly comprehensive enough for the assault levied against the franchise in our racist history. This history is alive and well in our present moment. “I voted” was once a simple affirmation of proud participation. Today it is an act of revolution.

I am amused, and weary of the hundreds of emails a day I get from the party fundraisers of both parties, though mostly Democratic operators:

“Shock Poll: Biden Collapses”

“Drowning: Jaime Harrison”

“Electoral College Update”

“Lindsey’s Disgusting Attacks”

“Obama Alert”

“Susan Collins is Weeping”

“Trouble in Florida”

“Blue Georgia”

“The DeVos family is trying to buy this seat!”

What is happening is unprecedented. We all know this is a turning point in our history. This election is about who we are and who we can become. We all know why. We are voting in record numbers. Meanwhile: another hurricane, the 27thof the season has battered Louisiana and Mississippi. Record-breaking fires are still burning in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Five million acres burned, nearly 11,000 homes destroyed in California alone. The virus is surging again as the President declares the crisis over to cheering, mask-less crowds.

I beg you not to despair. Rather, to have the confidence of Paul who wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”

Hope and Vote!

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated October 23rd, 2020

We are meeting the challenges of this pandemic by refusing to let go of one another, by meeting together on Zoom, the evolution of “Hollywood Squares” to the current moment. We are putting names to new faces and hearing familiar voices and new voices from Manhattan, north to Canada, west to Arizona and Texas, and south to Florida. We are praying, gathering in worship, and small groups as diverse as anti-racism, the history of Riverside, COVID in the African Diaspora, bible study, and social entrepreneurship. We are going on, even as the devastation of the virus would pressure us to give up. Our work continues.

We’ve all know that with the purchase of McGiffert Hall last year we are now engaged in the work of determining what our future can look like as we merge sustainability with mission. How do we develop our property in ways that both respond to the gospel to love our neighbor as we love ourselves—and sustain our common life, including the buildings that are our physical home—into the future?

The Riverside Development Committee, a committee of the Church Council has been hard at work on this major strategic concern.  We now want your views and experiences, ideas, and visions for the future of Riverside. A congregational survey, with the input of many of you, has been developed by a team of skilled volunteers and will be launched very soon—lookout for it.  You will be able to complete the survey by mail or online. The team will then tabulate our responses and report back to us via meetings and events where we can come together to discuss the results.

The survey asks for your views and experiences regarding the spiritual life, justice ministry, and sustainability of the Riverside Church. I hope you will enjoy answering the questions. They will give you pause and arouse your imagination. They could become a part of your daily devotions. In the process, your voice will become part of Riverside’s voice and the good news we proclaim.

I invite you to share your thoughts and concerns as you reflect on the survey questions. We are on this journey together, through the pandemic and beyond to better days and new ways to be together and to serve our community. Please engage the survey with your prayerful attention!  Let us hear your voice…and thank you for your participation!


Updated October 15th, 2020

We are in an election season like no other in our lifetime.  On November 3rd, as many have said, our democracy will be on the ballot.  Access to healthcare for tens of millions of our citizens will be on the ballot. A fundamental commitment to racial and economic justice will be on the ballot. Completing “The Wall” will be on the ballot. The future of our planet will be on the ballot. At Riverside, we know we have to VOTE—in caps!

When we had a first and then a second opportunity to elect an African American, I was filled with pride and an exhilarating sense of anticipation casting my vote for Barack Obama, an extraordinary candidate who lived up to the promise of hope he embodied. I mailed my ballot in today, for this election, with trepidation and a greater sense of urgency than I have ever felt.  Let America say to ourselves and to the world who we really are at this moment.

With less far-reaching consequences than the quality of our democracy and the well-being of the earth, is our election of lay leaders for Riverside.  Election day is November 15 and members will be receiving either an electronic ballot or a mail-in ballot very soon. If you have any reason to think we do not have a correct email or home address for you let us know as soon as possible. Email to nomcom@trcnyc.org  or to the Church Council at ChurchCouncil@trcnyc.org.

Your Nominating Committee, chaired by Samuel Coleman has done remarkable work interviewing every candidate.  You’ll be able to read statements from the candidates on our website and hear from them in forums after worship services—the first forum took place last Sunday with two more to come this Sunday, October 18 with Church Council candidates and on November 18 with MSJ and Worship Commission candidates. You will see the work of discernment done by the committee on the ballot. As always, you will vote as your conscience guides you. I anticipate action by the Council to authorize voting by electronic balloting in these unusual circumstances. State authorities have already acted to make this possible.

We need volunteers to help count votes in our Riverside election.  COVID-19 will make tabulating votes more time consuming than ever before—and under normal circumstances, it is a long process.  Help us, please!  Let the Nominating Committee know you are willing and able to help, again:  nomcom@trcnyc.org.

Your vote matters.  I pray we will vote in record numbers in our local, state, and national elections. I pray we will vote in record numbers in our Riverside election. Speak your mind. Vote your values.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated October 9th, 2020

We heard last Sunday from Elinor Fosdick Downs and Emogene (don’t forget the B.) Stamper. Elinor at 107 and Emogene north of 90. Elinor said, “When difficult events occurred, I tried to solve them or see them as adventures…I kept a community of colleagues that I could count on.” Emogene reminded us that “It doesn’t work without love,” and admonished us, with a heavenly laugh right here on earth, to show our love by giving, because “…we cannot do the good works we do and want to do without the means to do it.”

I can’t think of better messages for this election-coronavirus season in our nation and here at Riverside than what these two wise women have shared. This pandemic, our national crisis, are events of a magnitude that we have not seen in our lifetime. As the World Wars, the pandemic is worldwide and the unmooring of our democracy is, likewise, an event felt around the world.

We cannot succumb to despair as our unbelief at what we see and hear from and about the White House grows more troubling every day. We must continue to care for one another by wearing masks and keeping distance as the cases begin to mount as colder weather returns. I love seeing the decorative masks and the clever words that are displayed—that’s turning a problem into an adventure. We may not see one another smiling behind the masks but we can see happily raised eyebrows and eyes that twinkle with delight.

We are more than a community of colleagues; we are members and friends of the body of Christ. Let’s love one another, demonstrably, and give to support our common work—the good work of personal and social transformation. The work of love.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated October 1st, 2020

I am writing between the first “debate” of our current President, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden and our celebration of the 90thAnniversary of our beloved Riverside Church. There is by now no need to characterize the event, we’ve all either seen it, read about it, or viewed excerpts with commentary by our preferred media outlets. I watched it, heard every word with the possible exception of the words that could not be heard when the two were speaking at the same time. I say “speaking” but you know I mean shouting.

I have avoided most of the campaign season because for me it begins too early and runs too long. This debate I wanted to hear beginning to end. The time for a decision is near and while I have known since the inauguration of our 45thPresident in January of 2017 that I would be voting for the other candidate in this election, I wanted to see and hear them engage one another on the issues we face. I was deeply saddened by what I saw and heard and incredulous, all over again, that we elected someone so fundamentally unfit to be the leader of this nation. I’ll watch the Vice-Presidential debate next week and hope for a better result.

Our Grace Notes, mid-week, a gathering of members and friends held Wednesday night was hosted by Amanda Meisenheimer. Conversation, scripture, prayer was punctuated by resistance to evil; for some embodied in our flawed humanity and for others, evil resident in the Devil—other-worldly, not human. For ninety years Riverside has existed to tend to the needs of God’s people in every circumstance and against every force. We don’t have to think or believe the same about the nature of the evil against which we contend. We do have to give ourselves to the love that conquers all.  And we have and can be proud, though humble. God knows we have not always acted like the beloved community we aspire to be.

Before she closed our time in prayer, Amanda asked us to offer concerns. We responded:  “victims of COVID-19, children returning to school, their parents, our pastoral staff, Riverside members and staff of every kind, the fellowship of saints, and one person said—three times—life, life, life.” Russell St. John sang, asking us to “…trust in God…” and to “…seek first the Kingdom of God’s love.”

Riverside, for 90 years, has been praying and working for the Kingdom of God’s love, all-encompassing, justice-seeking, international, interracial, open, and affirming. We thank God for the grace of all these past years, and the promise of what is to come.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated September 24, 2020

Mistakes I’ve made (recently): In my sermon on Sunday, September 13thI kept referring to the “90thAnniversary of women’s suffrage.” Well everyone who can count knows that if the amendment granting women the right to vote was passed in 1920, 2020 would mark the 100thanniversary of that milestone event. And to call it “granting…the right…” would be affording the all-male Congress that passed the amendment too much credit.  The right was won by the decades of protest, the brilliant organizing, the tireless advocacy, the great sacrifices, made by generations of women dedicated to justice. Perhaps my mind was secretly churning fueled by the approaching 90thAnniversary of The Riverside Church in the City of New York, our formal name. We’ll celebrate that day on Sunday, October 4th.

Here’s another recent mistake I’ve made. In the Virtual Coffee Hour that followed worship last Sunday, September 20th, I said that Nancy and I were in the 45thyear of our marriage. Nope. Forty-sixth. Next July we celebrate our 47thanniversary. How’d I miss that? Let’s chalk it up to Coronavirus time, this warp in the passage of time that has us seemingly standing in place. Or carelessness, or bad math. I do seem to be having trouble with math facts these days.  Nine, multiplied by seven is what?

Mistakes are made every day. We all make them. We misinterpret or misjudge. We make erroneous judgments. We pass incorrect information, whether accidental or deliberate. We speak when we should be silent or say nothing when we should speak. Some of our mistakes are laughable. Others are small and insignificant, though perhaps irritating. Some have consequences that harm relationships or lead to bad decisions that are costly and irreversible. We all make mistakes, individuals, institutions, governments. Under the best of circumstances we make mistakes and in a time like this, Coronavirus time, the pressures can incubate more mistakes as risks and tensions rise and consequences are shadowed by illness and death.

When we make those inevitable mistakes, though we try to avoid them, let’s be kind to ourselves and one another—forgiving. Let’s try to remain calm and resist resentment or irritability, or arrogance at the fallibility of others. Let’s remember the grace in which we live, the unconditional love of God in every breath, in light and darkness, in the space, we give each other to stumble and fall and pick up and go on—together. In such ways are communities strengthened to grow together from one anniversary to the next and individuals encouraged and supported to live grace-filled lives of hope and joy.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update September 17, 2020

How God works: Josh Frank is the owner and operator of the Expat restaurant on Tiemann Place, just a short walk down Claremont from the church. On August 30, Josh wrote our member Clarence Anderson, a frequent diner at the Expat, to let him know that he and his Expat partners Andrew Ding and Nana Mameuda-Frank were recipients of a grant from the organization, High Road Kitchen. With the grant, they could donate 500 meals to their local community to help fight food insecurity. Josh wanted to know from Clarence if Riverside Church might want to be one of two neighborhood partners willing to partner with the Expat to distribute delicious hot meals to deserving members of our Harlem and Upper Westside community. Riverside would identify people in need and serve as a distribution point for the meals.

Clarence wrote to me, and Reverends Northern and VanHook, seeking to know if we would be interested in this opportunity.  You know we were.  Clarence arranged for Rev. Northern to connect with Josh and talk through the logistics of a plan.  Wednesday, September 16th, barely two weeks later, delicious hot meals were being distributed by our social service team to grateful deserving residents of our community.  Personal relationships, collaboration, generosity, service, helping hands, open hearts, faith into action; all are on display in this demonstration of the answer to the basic questions of our existence: from the Hebrew text, “Am I my brother/sister’s keeper?”  And from the New Testament, “Who is my neighbor?”

Thanks to Clarence Anderson, to Debra Northern, and the Social Service staff and volunteers.  Thanks to Josh Frank, the Expat Restaurant, and the High Road Kitchen—whose mission is to “create a universal minimum wage for all restaurant employees, including front of house workers, and…a tip-sharing model for all restaurant workers, including cooks.”

God’s ways can sometimes be mysterious, and sometimes they are as visible as individuals and organizations reaching out to one another to meet human needs.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update September 11, 2020

Good news, please. God knows there is enough bad news.

I’m working on a sermon based on the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. Creation myths were rampant in the time of ancient Israel. Multiple deities at many levels of power and with mostly limited expertise were common and they were worthy of belonging among beings with powers and images as terrible and haunting as anything we see today in the vivid world of science fiction that populates the great range of cultural platforms on regular display today. Marduk, Osiris, Seth, and Horus were among the deities that were created to explain the conditions of human existence and set in some context the fortunes, good and bad, that operated in human experience. They were unpredictable, fickle, they fought with one another for domination and humans were often in the middle, if in the picture at all.

The authors and editors, the great thinkers, the people of faith who gave us the creation stories, the prehistory of Israel, did something completely different. They understood the world and our place in it from a radically altered and altogether new way of looking at who we are and how we got here from the fantastical, polytheistic myths common at the time. God is one. God is sovereign.  God is powerful. The creation is good. Human beings are at the summit of the good work of God’s creation—made in the image of God. To ancient Israel that was good news. Small, vulnerable, struggling to survive in the midst of giant and powerful civilizations, the people also had to face the ordinary challenges of living and thriving from day-to-day. It was a comfort to be known and loved by the creator of the universe, to trust that all was created good and for a good purpose.

For all the power of our nation, we are nonetheless vulnerable because of our own sins, our own abuse of the gifts of creation, and the sacred image of God on every face among us. The invisible and untamed virus robs us of our security and claims new victims every day right alongside the fragility baked into ordinary everyday existence. We lost Ronald Lonesome last week, as fine a human being as God has ever made, and Carrie Quarquesso, our worship coordinator, lost her brother so suddenly and too soon. What a hard year this continues to be…and far from over.

Friends, take some comfort in the grace of what we continue to believe is true: God is one, creation is good, and we are made in God’s image, every one of us. Our hope will not fail us, our faith will keep us. God is love.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update September 3, 2020

This weekend we honor Labor Day. It’s a different Labor Day weekend than we’ve experienced before with millions of people out of work and a pandemic that continues. It’s a day to lift up workers, celebrate their contributions, and support their struggles. It is also a day to commit ourselves to improve jobs so that all workers have wages, benefits, and work hours that allow them to be self-sufficient and live lives of wholeness. Every worker deserves a living wage.

Some will make this a long weekend at home, or maybe a  road trip getaway, and others of us will be working and getting ready to go back to school. Jesus presents a  counter-cultural message that it doesn’t matter what one does for a living, how many academic degrees a person has, or how big your bank account is: that’s not how we should measure our worth. In God’s eye, we all are called to humble ourselves so that God can exalt us. This Labor Day weekend let’s take some time to work on our spiritual selves and examine and see what God is calling us to do to make this world a better place.

As students start a new school year, as we get closer to election day and as we work to keep each other safe during this pandemic, let us come together in prayer that we will grow together this Fall in wisdom and grace in the program year ahead. One way to do this is to join us Sundays at 9:30 am on Zoom for Open Bible Study. OBS is back after a summer hiatus! This season of Open Bible Study is dedicated by the Adult Christian Education Committee in honor and memory of Dr. Ronald Lonesome. Dr. Lonesome was a long-time member of the Adult Christian Education Committee and facilitator of Open Bible Study. Join us at Open Bible Study as we honor his memory and celebrate his life.

However you decide to spend your Labor Day this year, I hope your day will include prayer and action among other things. To this end, I offer a prayer from  The United Methodist Book of Worship: 

O God, you have bound us together in this life.

Give us grace to understand how our lives depend

                   on the courage, the industry, the honesty,

                   and the integrity of all who labor.

May we be mindful of their needs, grateful for their faithfulness,

                   and faithful in our responsibilities to them;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Peace and love,

Rev. Bruce Lamb


Update August 27, 2020

 

Isaiah 43:2 (NRSV)

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Where is God?

Police shootings. A global pandemic. Hurricanes with the potential to cause catastrophic damage. Amidst it all, how often have you found yourself asking, “Where is God?” Where is God when millions face unemployment and lack any clear answers concerning a broader economic stimulus package? Where is God when wildfires cannot be contained and displace thousands from their homes? Where is God when an unarmed man from one side of the tracks, is repeatedly shot in the back for walking away from law enforcement officers while one from another is peacefully apprehended after firing an illegal, semi-automatic weapon into a crowd of peaceful protesters? Where is God when so much seems wrong with the world?

We’re not the first to experience troubling times. In a time long ago and a land far away, Isaiah, the Eighth-century BC Israelite prophet, reminds us of God’s faithful promise. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:2).” Here, God is giving God’s track record. Whether it was crossing the Red Sea or stepping into a fiery furnace, no matter how difficult the circumstance or impossible the task, God has never left us alone.

Whether it was liberating the slaves in Egypt or refusing to adhere to the prescribed rituals during the playing of Nebuchadnezzar’s anthem, Moses, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were each invited by God to help bend the arc of the moral universe closer towards justice by defying the status quo, even in troubling times. Likewise, we too are called to act boldly despite our constant wrestling with uncertainty. We too have a charge to fight for justice and, even when it seems as if the odds are stacked against us, Isaiah offers us the blessed assurance of knowing God is always with us.

However, Isaiah does not stop there. Instead, he also gives us an imperative from God: “Fear not.” In this same chapter of the Book of Isaiah, God repeatedly told the Israelites to “fear not” because the Lord’s presence would empower them to overcome any hardship or obstacle. This should serve as a reminder to us as well. We must “fear not,” even as we lean on the countless other promises of God.

Fear not! “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

Fear not! “[Those] who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).”

Fear not! “For nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:37).”

Therefore, start the petition. Make the phone call. Lead the charge. Demand justice. Fight for change. And remember, “Fear not!”

Sincerely,
Rev. Kevin Van Hook


Update August 13, 2020

Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to the Lord, and the Lord will make your paths straight.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a six-year veteran guard, helped his Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl earlier this year. Instead of returning for his seventh season, he walked away from football and his multi-million-dollar contract to work at a long-term care facility in his native Quebec, Canada. Laurent had graduated from medical school but had not yet fulfilled his residency requirements. At the beginning of the pandemic, Canada’s health ministry announced it needed the help of additional health-care professionals– even students or those without fulfilled residency requirements like Duvernay-Tardif. Duvernay-Tardiff responded to the call and was happy to contribute, even if his presence raised his new coworkers’ eyebrows. One of his coworkers said to him, “You’re the football player, right?” Duvernay-Tardif said. “When I answered yes, he said, ‘Bro, you just won the Super Bowl.’ ‘Indeed,’ I told him, and now I just want to help.”

The pandemic created a clarifying moment for Duvernay-Tardif. He chose to serve his brother and sister Canadians rather than seek more fame and fortune as a Super Bowl winner. The pandemic has turned our world upside down. Over 160,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. People have lost loved ones, their jobs, businesses, homes, and any sense of normal. The pandemic has created a dark and challenging time for many people, locally and globally. Sometimes, it takes a crisis to stop us in our tracks, step back, and reassess our life priorities. The death of several folks dear to me to COVID-19 reminds me that tomorrow is not promised! I remind myself to continue to live life to its fullest, one day at a time, and to give God all the glory in all I say and do!

I invite you to take some time to step back and to reflect on your life and ministry! Are you living the path that God has been calling you? Are you entirely using your gifts to glorify God? What personal priorities do you need to change so that you can fully serve God and our neighbors? As you wrestle with these questions, may you trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding!

Peace,
Rev. Phil Tom
Riverside Development Committee


Update August 6, 2020

Isaiah 30: 20-21

Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity
and the water of affliction,
yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore,
but your eyes shall see your Teacher.
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left,
your ears shall hear a word behind you,
saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

This is a time of impossible choices. This week thousands of families are expected to inform the New York Department of Education of their decision to send their children to school in-person or online. As a parent, this feels like an impossible choice.

God, would you just whisper in my ear, “This is the way; walk in it?

As I have pondered this burden placed upon the families and the other impossible questions facing our government, our communities, and our churches, I am moved to ask God for some clarity. It feels like there are no good answers. I wrote a prayer asking God for some help for all of our hard choices. In support of folks making hard decisions every day, please pray with me:

A Prayer When There are No Good Answers.
God, Every path is broken.
If I send my child to school, there is danger.
If I keep my child home, there is disarray.
Every path is broken.
If I go back to work, there is no more homeschooling. No more childcare. And I might get sick.
If I stay home, the bills pile up. The rent goes unpaid.
Every path is broken.
We are lonely and we miss our people, our loved ones.
But when we gather, people suffer.
Every path is broken.
Every cancellation lands on the mound of disappointment alongside the graduations, proms, vacations, and visits to Grandma.
Every shuttered small business melts into the sewage of old dreams.
How can we follow you if there are no good paths?
Where are your “footprints” if the sand gives way beneath us?
Every path is broken.
Even those who would promise to serve us and create structures to save us, fail us.
What will you do? Where are you now?
If you are the Way, which Way is it?
God, when every path is broken, and there are no good answers,
help us to find hope.
To find life.
To find community.
Amen.

Friends, God promises to help us make these tough choices for ourselves and for our children. Let us draw near to God and each other to hear the wisdom of God’s voice. We can find the way together.

With love,
Amanda Meisenheimer
Minister of Children & Families


Update July 30, 2020

I celebrated two anniversaries this past week.  On the same day.  Monday the 27thof July was the 46thanniversary of my wedding day to Nancy Claire Rucker.  No idea where I’d be without the love of this wonderful woman, just no idea at all.  I have no interest in thinking about it because I’m so invested in the life we’ve built together, children and grandchildren, extended family—her side a gift to me, exquisite experiences of love and loss, joy and grief, sickness and health, delight and disappointment—all shared, enjoyed, endured together with whatever was required by love to keep the promise, “from this day on…” With Nancy’s permission, I’m sharing the text of the card she gave me.  On it was pictured a crab and a squirrel, the card read: “Sometimes you make me crabby. Sometimes you drive me nuts.” And inside, “But we still belong together, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Love, Nancy #46.” I know this anniversary is a gift and I am grateful.  Thank you, Nancy. Thank you, God.

Monday the 27thof July was also the 45thanniversary of my ordination to “word and sacrament,” to the ministry of the gospel to the whole people of God.  No idea where I’d be or what I’d be doing without this call to ministry (Division II basketball coach?  Clarinet player?  Attorney?). My life has been immeasurably enriched by service in the church, the body of Christ.  I’ve had a rich and full experience of life in congregational settings, graduate theological education, ecumenical and interfaith work, immersion in worker justice issues, and anti-poverty initiatives in the political crucible of the nation’s capital.  I’ve sat by the bedside of a church member dying of brain cancer, counseled young couples in marital trouble, walked the streets of Beirut after whole blocks were reduced to rubble by the bombs of war.

And now a pandemic.  None of us has seen it all.

It is my joy and God’s grace to be in community with you at Riverside, and I hope you, like me, are spending precious time with people you love, however you are able in this unprecedented time.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update July 23, 2020

The losses pile higher as the days lengthen in this hot summer.  The number of new cases rises, the death toll climbs and we know that the numbers mean that many more families are suffering.  And all that suffering magnified by the sure knowledge that it did not have to be as bad as it has become, that mismanagement, ill-equipped leadership, vanity in the presidency is a multiplier in this ongoing nightmare.  As if, under the best of circumstances, this virus would not have been an enormous challenge.

And now, as all but the willfully ignorant know, the systemic, centuries-old structures of racism have exposed the gaping inequities we are experiencing, as a by-product of our disregard for the truth of our history. Slavery didn’t end, it evolved—we have come to know as ordinary truth.  In the midst of this suffering and this broadening awareness of the price we continue to pay today for the sins of our unreconciled past, we have lost C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis. Their lifelong struggles against racism, poverty, and injustice bear witness to the work that must go on until the statues and the structures of injustice are buried in museums for study by generations to come and all the children of God are truly free.

We bear losses in our own life here at Riverside. This week we have begun to reduce our staff because of the deep financial pressures of this moment.  Our buildings and grounds and engineering staff will be least affected by this.  Most other areas will experience some decrease in staff and those at higher levels of management will share in the pain of this moment, myself among them.  And on we go, grateful for the contributions of all, confident in the future God will provide.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update July 16, 2020

Paul, says emphatically, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” “Again,” he says, and “Rejoice” is capitalized for emphasis as if there are some divine and joy-filled imperative insisting upon satisfaction. He doesn’t seem to want us to have a choice—Rejoice! And how, precisely, is rejoicing remotely possible in our circumstance? COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. Deaths are spiraling upward. For many, it is still too early to safely bury loved ones and mourn their loss and celebrate the lives they lived in the good and necessary company of family and friends.

Essential workers are exhausted. Being essential is hard work and while the recognition and adoration is gratifying, if long-delayed, the pay for most is still a society shaming injustice; low pay plus high risk is an equation whose elements defy convincing proof. It is easier to get out of jail by presidential pardon than by posting an exorbitant bail or proven innocence. The ordinary challenges of living remain layered upon concerns piled high by the virus—altered patterns, new phobias, a creeping dread about our uncertain future.

And yet, “Rejoice…the Lord is near. Do not worry…” My friends in our weekly Wednesday evening Grace Notes affirm this is possible. Not as a denial of reality but an affirmation of hope, an expression of faith in the grace that daily comes to surprise us. Too many Zoom meetings? Maybe. Yet the sight of familiar faces in those digital squares brings warmth and relief from time alone in an empty apartment. The gift is listening to hard-earned lessons, redeeming stories, grace-filled moments, small delights magnified by a heightened appreciation of each breath. Inhale joy, exhale anxiety. Inhale joy, exhale anxiety. Keep breathing, every breath a gift, every sight a revelation, every sound an alert—more to come!

Wednesday evening one of those little boxes was labeled with the name, Ellen. We could not believe what we were seeing—who we were seeing—Ellen Robison! I hardly need to tell you she was our Minister of Worship and the Arts—much-beloved—too soon gone. Our loss, gain for Charlotte, North Carolina. At any moment, we can hear notes of grace, we can see God in the simple gift and grace of community, in the face of a friend, come by to say hello.

Ellen prayed at the end of our time together, a refreshing half an hour (well maybe 40 minutes!) of scripture, conversation, and song—thank you Shari Gill from our Inspirational Choir. Remember Ellen’s prayers? Literate, spontaneous, of the moment, inspiring as they capture the tensions of the present and proclaim the good news that can transform any circumstance. Rejoice! And Paul goes on “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update July 9, 2020

“Within two weeks, he had tested positive for the virus. Charles was 82 and lived alone these last several months, understanding it was the wise and safe thing to do. His daughter brought him groceries and stayed in regular contact with him by phone. But Charles was lonely and missed worship and the good company of his church family. The Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, W.Va., had resumed Sunday services, with masks optional, just ten days earlier when congregants began to fall ill in early June. There have been at least 51 confirmed cases and three deaths tied to the church.” Charles went right back to church when it reopened. He was the first of three more parishioners to die.

It’s too soon, friends. It is too soon to go back. As much as we may miss in-person worship, the beautiful serenity of the Nave, the organ and choirs, the communion we enjoy with friends, now is not the time to return to conditions we know with certainty will harm us. The coronavirus has no respect for our sacred space, it will deliver sickness and death wherever one of us goes who either carries or has this invisible and unwelcome intruder. Careless, negligent, to say the least, is the denomination, or the pastor, or the president who encourages gathering for worship in these perilous times and conditions.

Now is the time for introspection and reflection, for prayer and solitude, for cultivating a richer inner life as the basis for engaging family, neighbors, and the church community, online, or one inbox to another, or phone calls made and received. In these ways, hearts and minds are touched by the sharing of old stories and the creation of new memories. In our community, there are multiple gatherings for Bible study, conversation, and prayer, vigorous engagement in anti-racism planning and work. And of course, Sunday morning worship including the lively and enriching Virtual Coffee Hour that follows each service. If you haven’t joined in on one of these—you don’t know what you’re missing! (And I just broke my rule of not using trite time-worn phrases—that how good these conversations have been).

This time at home—for those who have the luxury—is a gift. Let’s use it well, including praying for and supporting those who do not have the luxury and will find in their service an encounter with the living God of life.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update July 2, 2020

“Stop, turn around, look and see, how you been living in the world,” Bishop Flunder preached last Sunday—quoting a line from a song from her Pentecostal youth. Well, we’ve got the “Stop…” part covered. We have stopped what we were doing—most of us, dating back to around March 15th earlier this year. We stopped what we were doing, completely some of us, and mostly, for most of the rest of us. We went home and we’ve been here ever since.

But not all of us. We will never be able to repay those essential workers who not only did not stop, but increased their activity, their work, and in dangerous and heart-wrenching conditions. They are risking their good health and some have gotten ill, and some have died. Saluting the living with cheers and celebratory greetings at 7:00 pm each evening is a warm and loving show of support. What they need even more is better pay. Let’s not forget that, as the pandemic surges out of control while our national and too many of our state governments fail us over and over again.

Looking at “how you been living in the world,” is an invitation for self-examination, a “look and see” at who we are and how we show up at home and in the world. It’s an invitation, to be honest with ourselves, and with others—especially those with whom we share home and those we can reach out to by phone and in the Hollywood Squares of our Zoom meetings. We have this unique opportunity to re-set, as Bishop Flunder preached, as our old routines are simply not available to us, our South Hall coffee hour cliques disrupted by a virus that commands disciplined living.

Let’s take advantage of this time for deep reflection, for meditation, prayer, and concern for others. Let’s work harder at staying connected to each other by resisting the temptation to withdraw out of touch from the nourishment of the community. Because we cannot touch physically, all the more reason to see our faces and hear our voices and read our words in the many safe ways that are available to us despite these distances. And by the grace of God, the distances are collapsed by conversation, plans laid, decisions made, work accomplished, smiles, feelings shared and felt, laughter erupting spontaneously—electronically. Electronically. Physically separated, it is ironic that we cannot ignore one another. We can all be in the room where it happens. All we have to do is enter. The windows are small but the door is wide. All are welcome.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update June 25, 2020

The last decade brought us 50thanniversaries of some of the most momentous events in modern U.S. history—the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.,  the March on Washington, historic Civil Rights legislation, the moon landing, Woodstock, the battle for Hamburger Hill in Vietnam—the strategically insignificant and deadly battle that was a watershed event turning public support away from the war.  Nixon’s resignation.

2019, was the 50thAnniversary of Stonewall. If you weren’t alive or conscious in 1969 you can relive it here and now. The Mafia pays the police to look the other way…so they can charge higher prices for watered-down drinks at the Stonewall Inn. That doesn’t keep the police from raiding anyway, anytime they felt like it. And if you weren’t wearing “gender appropriate” clothes you could be arrested and roughed up—that’s a euphemism for getting beaten down. You may as well have been black, well, some were. But this was indiscriminate gay battering. This was fear, hatred and privilege, male privilege, pure and simple. Heterosexual privilege. This was ignorance, bad religion, the application of a warped and selective fundamentalism ingrained in uncritical minds from dangerous Sunday Schools, and centuries of bad preaching.

Still, Stonewall was the place to be who you were and feel good about it—in a country wherein 49 states it was illegal to be gay. Arrested for homosexuality meant you paid a fine or you went to jail. Everywhere except Illinois where they repealed the law in 1961. Though I’d bet things weren’t much better there either. I’ll never forget Jennifer Boylan’s sermon at Riverside last year on PRIDE Sunday. “What’s going to happen to me if I don’t stop needing to be a woman?” Can you imagine feeling, knowing yourself to be a girl in a boy’s body? I cannot. Can you relate to feeling like an unwelcome stranger at home, at school, in your city and state, and longing for a place to feel free, to be free, a place that may not exist? Or maybe it does in a city far away, San Francisco, or New York.

Up north for the enslaved blacks in the south. China for the men who built the western railroads and endured a bottomless existence. A shrinking west for the native peoples of this once free earth cornered, slaughtered, confined on reservations—one of the early forms of internment our nation seems ever to invent. Let us thank God for the courage it still takes to be LGBTQIA+, the indignities still endured, the insults and beatings still administered by those whose vision of the creativity of God’s creation and the grace of God’s nature is limited by ignorance and intolerance.

So, we salute the thousands who will not line the streets of Manhattan and other cities in our nation. For over forty years Riverside’s Marantha has had a place in the PRIDE parade. We can take pride in that. Let’s be a part of a parade that will not be happening in whatever way we can: in prayer, in our homes, by continued diligent advocacy for the rights of him/her/they until those rights are finally won in every aspect of our lives and their bodies are safe from harm.

Happy Pride, Riverside,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update June 18, 2020

Juneteenth is today. I think of it as “Oh, by the way, you’re free” day. I don’t mean to diminish what the day meant when it came to enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The confederate Capitol in Richmond had fallen, Abraham Lincoln was dead, the 13th Amendment was well on its way to passage but slave-owning whites in Texas ignored the fact that people they kept in slavery were entitled to freedom. Many of them fled to Texas with their “property” because it was beyond the reach of the union army as the Civil War raged and losses mounted for the south. The fall of New Orleans ignited what Henry Louis Gates called “a re-enactment of the Middle Passage”, this time on land and estimates are that 150,000 slaves went from Louisiana, Mississippi, and even further east—to Texas. “It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas,” one enslaved man said, reports historian Leon Litwack in Been in the Storm Too Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

Harriet Willis was almost certainly forced to move to Texas, Houston, by her slave owner as a part of this landed Middle Passage. Jack Yates, who loved her, followed. He was born into slavery in 1828. They had 11 children. (Well, she had them!) Jack became Rev. Yates, pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Houston. He and three others raised money, about $800, to purchase land in 1872 that became Emancipation Park. Its sole original purpose was to celebrate Juneteenth. It was the first park in Houston and the state of Texas. Jack Yates High School was named after the former slave, Baptist preacher, college founder, devoted husband, father of 12 (the 12th born of a second marriage after Harriet’s death), Juneteenth barbecue pitmaster—I might be making that part up, the Rev. John Henry “Jack” Yates. But stay with me…

Blacks from Houston spread Juneteenth to Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle. Forty-six states now recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. The four who don’t are Hawaii, North and South Dakota, and Montana. I grew up every summer attending a “Houstonian Picnic” in Griffith Park, around Juneteenth—a celebration of family and friends. My Mom went to Jack Yates. So did sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, the journalist Roland Martin, rapper, Big Moe, Dexter Manley, Super Bowl Champion football player with the Washington Redskins (they should change their name). And George Floyd. George Floyd went to Jack Yates High School. My cousin Mickey McGill graduated with “Big Floyd” from Yates where George was a Tight End on the football team. He lived in Cuney Homes, a government project in Houston’s Third Ward, where my mother and several of her siblings lived with their parents. Our world has collapsed. There are no degrees of separation. We are all connected. Always have been.

We are a few weeks beyond the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. Trump chose, then under pressure moved his campaign rally from Juneteenth to the day after—still in Tulsa, still amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. November 3rd can’t come soon enough. The work of emancipation, of freedom, is not done. We celebrate the distance we’ve come, and we go on, with faith, and hope, and love. In honor of Juneteenth, I have given all our staff a day off today so they, and all of Riverside, may hold this day’s significance and meaning close.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update June 11, 2020

“Make yourself look…” wrote Margaret Renkl in her NY Times Opinion piece last week, “An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians.” She went on, “Study the air of perfect nonchalance on Derek Chauvin’s face as he kneels on the neck of George Floyd. Register the blithe indifference in his posture, the way he puts his hand in his pocket as though he were just walking along the street on a sunny summer day. Nothing in his whole body suggests concern. He is not the least bit troubled by taking another human life.”

How did we get here? This place where the taking of human life is not so big a thing. Do not misunderstand me to imply we’ve just arrived. We’ve been here for too long. It happens within racial and ethnic communities and between them. It happens by the hands of police in killing encounters with black men and women; by whites killing blacks in “self-defense.” It happens because guns are commonplace and violence is entertainment. It happens because what matters in the corridors of power in this country is profit, wealth, immunity from accountability for the wreckage of global capitalism.

It isn’t enough that we have to live individual lives coping with the ordinary challenges and traumas of our ordinary days; work, food, idleness, illness, tragedy, suffering, and death. We have to make ourselves look at what the legacy of slavery has wrought, the surrender of government to the demand for wealth creation and protection in the hands of an elite few. For the rest of us, there is endless entertainment to distract us from engagement in the work of building a truly civil and democratic society. There is too, work and life of real integrity and substance, meaning, fulfillment, and joy.

A friend sent me a statement from Dr. Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College. Dr. Pelton wrote, “As my wise friend reminded me, quoting James Baldwin, ‘Any real change implies the breaking of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.’ So, I have no words of comfort today because they would be inauthentic. They would absolve so many from coming to terms with their silent complicity in the world in which we live.”
The world as we know it is being broken. This can and should be a good thing, painful as this moment is, we must look at these images in the bright light of the day. Any comfort we derive now is intrinsic in the God-given gift of life, the miracle of waking to a new day in the beauty of even a troubled world. We have each other to know, to pray with, to live in community, to work together to build a new identity as a nation redeemed by facing the truth of our history for the glory of what is yet to come.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update June 4, 2020:

Yes, the number of new infections is diminishing and fewer people are dying. Yes, with every day we move closer to a vaccine even if we remain months away.  Yes, cautious re-opening is happening in some states across the country. Yes, some businesses are opening their doors and some workers are or will soon be able to return to jobs and earn salaries again.  Yes, summer is really here in most parts of the country and we may have some confidence that with warm weather coming away with it will go the coronavirus—at least for a time. And…

…protests are spreading, growing, and intensifying. Signs, shouts, prayers, and marches by peaceful protestors are the order of this day.  Our hearts are broken by senseless violence and death, by the callous disregard for human life.  Our patience is tried beyond reason by leadership that grows more dangerous with each vain demonstration of power, each utterance of dismissal or incitement of intolerance and reprisal.  Our desire for change cannot be satisfied soon enough.  This “Yes” is resounding and feels like so much more than the release of energies and frustrations built up by confinement and fear from a microscopic danger re-ordering life as we know it.  This feels like the inevitability of transformation of the kind that can at last give birth to a democracy in our land that is truly inclusive of the great diversity of peoples who have come to make this nation home.

Let us, each one, give all that we have to support, nurture, and sustain the enormous energy and courage of this moment. George Floyd is brother to us all. His death will not be the last at the bloody hands of a system that feeds racism and starves justice so that a few individuals and corporations can accumulate unimaginable wealth.  We can and must seize this moment, and transform it into a movement that leads to a victory for which too many have already given their lives.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


 

Update June 2, 2020:

You think it can’t get any worse. And then it gets worse. I’m as horrified as you are, as determined as I know you must be to make the kind of changes that we have to make to get beyond this moment, to be the people that God created us to be. We’re going to have to hold on to one another. We’re going to have to keep worshiping and praying together. We’re going to have to be dedicated and vigilant about the changes that have to take place if we’re going to pull ourselves out of this spiral and death.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update May 31, 2020:

Racism kills. Racism is not personal, it is systemic. It is low wages and food stamps. High rents in dilapidated apartment buildings. Poor or no health care. Underfunded and ill-equipped public schools. High infant mortality rates and shortened life spans. Gerrymandered congressional districts and voter suppression. A criminal in-justice system that is little more than a modern-day web of plantations.

It is Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and now George Floyd, killed by police officers, or in Ahmaud’s case, a former police officer. George Floyd and the officer who killed him worked together in a nightclub in Minneapolis “…both part of the team responsible for keeping rowdy customers under control,” reports the NY Times.

The systemic becomes personal. Racism kills. And we must root it out of our systems which infect individuals with consequences as deadly as the COVID-19. The killing of black people by police officers must stop. Our attention from this essential work must not be diverted by the rage that erupts from black communities when the deaths mount and tepid official responses ensure that no change will come. Black lives matter.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update May 27, 2020:

“Consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:18-25

We can’t minimize the suffering that is going on now or the depth and severity of COVID-19 to humanity. No one wants to, except those invested in the appearance of victory over the reality of ongoing struggle. Or those frightened into believing that re-opening is the untested vaccine for the virus and its trail worldwide trail of death. Over 100,000 deaths now in the United States. No state spared has been spared, from 10 in Alaska to 29,000 in NY. New York and New Jersey are still leading other states in a category for which there will be no claim for fame. We can only trust that other states do not overtake us even as the rates of infection decline here and increase elsewhere.

While the coronavirus threatens human lives, climate change threatens all life. Greenhouse gases are to the planet what the virus is to human life in this precarious moment. We will develop a vaccine and effective medicines to treat this scourge, just as we did with HIV-AIDS. Can the same be said for climate change? The “…whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…” just as we “…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.” Will our struggle to reverse the destructive effects of our oil-stained footprint upon the planet result in the birth of a new earth? Will we emerge from the toils of this virus to adoption in a new world order where all are essential and treated just so?

Even as we mourn for those whose lives have been taken by the virus, we cannot forget the much larger number of those who have recovered, over 480,000 nationwide at this time. The virus is not a death sentence for every infected person. There is, more often, hope for recovery than the inevitability of death. Hope is always present, always possible, always renewing. Hope saves, “For, in hope, we are saved,” writes Paul. We can’t see it yet, the virus that will lead us from this darkness, or the multi-layered strategies that will save our planet. We can believe that hope will not disappoint us. Not ever. So we mourn with those who have lost loved ones and for those few, but too many, who have died alone and without family. And we rejoice in hope that a better future will come and we will be among those who build it.

Grace, peace, and love,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update May 21, 2020:

“While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father… When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘[People] of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
 Acts 1:41, 9-11

This is what Jesus told his people after the resurrection and as he was ascended into heaven in a cloud. For a beat too long the disciples were standing and looking up in the sky when two men in white robes accused them of standing and looking up in the sky. This set them to thinking and then to becoming evangelists, then conquering the world, finally creating the United States, and here we are at home with this virus trying to figure out what to do—looking up to the sky, to heaven—again. Forgive me for this altogether inaccurate and too condensed version of the history of the world that ignores peoples and continents, faith traditions, and epochal events within and outside our history. A typically elitist Western perspective. If you’ve forgiven me, this far, also typically, I’ll sin some more.

If the two clothed in white were women, they would have advised figuring out what needed to be done and getting to work. Or maybe just doing it without a word. All I want to do during these coronavirus days is lay around re-watching the westerns from the Saturday mornings of my childhood. Or, watching the historic matchups between the Lakers and the Celtics with a decided preference for the series’ won by the Lakers. I still can’t bear the sight of Baylor and West losing, over and over, to Russell and Cousy, or Russell and Jones, or Russell and Havlicek or Russell and anybody. Nancy tackles project after project and looks at me with that, “Don’t you have a sermon to write, a Zoom meeting to attend, emails to read, calls to make, something to do?” expression on her face. I want to argue that healing the wounds of my childhood and revisiting the morality plays on display in classic westerns (Paladin, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and three cheers for Paul Newman in Hombre) is essential to…something.

The truth we all know is that this corona-time opens the medicine cabinet to healing old wounds, yes, but not with the systemic prescriptions of the old world—violence, and profit-making at all costs. With thoughtful care rather than restless churning, we can thrive in this time by keeping in touch with one another as we take of ourselves. We can pray for one another and continue to support our church, and as we are able, other organizations doing good work to heal our wounds and make us whole.
Now is not yet the time to be together again, but we are working on when that can happen and what it could look like. I continue to keep you in my prayers and to work with our lay leadership and staff to keep our ministry vibrant and nurturing in the new ways of being and working together that are our present reality.

Let’s continue to worship together online, to meet for daily prayer and midweek renewal through Grace Notes at 7 PM on Wednesday evenings, and to work for justice through opportunities provided by our Mission and Social Justice Commission. It will be a great joy to be together again in our Nave when that day comes. With patience and hope and the continued practice of physical distancing, that day will come. And just think, our hands will be as clean as our hearts are warm when that day comes, and even if we are wearing masks—we’ll still be smiling.

Grace, peace, and love,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update May 14, 2020:

Not yet. Some of us are thinking it’s time to go back to our regular routines; back to work, back to the gym, back to the nail salon, the barbershop, to school, to church, in church. But it isn’t. Plans are being made for a return to something resembling what used to be, though we know what used to be has moved to a past that cannot be recovered. It makes sense to plan, to think carefully and deeply about what it will look like to open parts of our lives that the coronavirus has taken from us. It is in our nature to hope for change after changes have come that wipe the slate clean and force us to start over. This corona-change came swiftly and silently, unseen, bringing illness and death, uncertainty, and fear. The impulse to “go back” is a form of resistance, a need to exercise initiative, to feel in control, again.

It’s just that we weren’t “in control.” The view the virus has opened has given sobering clarity to the underbelly of our society, the shadows, crevices, and hidden places where our stated values are buried beneath the weight of our still unexamined collective history. There is a revolution yet to come. The structures built by our democracy create wealth for a few, the illusion of freedom for many, and the reality of captivity for those at the very bottom of a ladder leaning against a wall attached to nothing. This sounds harsh, I know. There are pleasures available to all of us that cannot be taken away by any structure or system.

So we wait, actively, in this imposed physical separation. We grow new muscles, make new connections, gain new insights, heal our wounds, care for one another over the phone, and through technologies that draw us together in fresh configurations—while being careful of the deceptions and schemes used by some to exploit us in this vulnerable moment. We read, write, and think for ourselves and with others—about what is true and necessary. We walk and treasure the beauty of God’s earth, resolving to protect it from further harm. We deepen our spiritual lives practicing disciplines that have sustained mystics for centuries; meditation, prayer, breathing in and out the breath of God. This is no need for hurry, no rush to return. The time will come. But, not yet. Missing your physical presence in our lovely space, wishing you grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update May 08, 2020:

Dear Members and Friends,

Did April past by as quickly for you as it did for me? While the last two weeks of March were a slow crawl, the month of April was an Acela train whizzing by empty stations on its way to chaos. As fast as the days may seem to go by for those of us who are keeping a distance from one another whether in the city or out of it, they pass painfully slowly for those lying in hospital beds or quarantined in apartments across the boroughs of our city and the surrounding towns and cities in our metropolitan area.

As I know you do, I continue to grieve the illness and death all around us. We don’t have to imagine the pain of having lost a loved one, compounded by being unable to mourn the death and celebrate the life of the family member, friend, neighbor, or co-worker gone from us, in a funeral or memorial service. These are not the times for such otherwise normal services. While the numbers of people affected seem to be leveling off, those numbers are still chilling.

That means that we need to continue to be vigilant in practicing effective forms of physical distancing to keep the trend lines not just leveling, but moving downward so that fewer of us grow ill and more of us live to the fullest all the time the breath of God in us can provide. Meanwhile, there is some comfort in establishing new patterns and rhythms in our daily routines, some comfort in finding ways to support others even from greater distances, some comfort in knowing that better days will come and we will be better equipped to make the most of them.

I trust we will all remain full of hope, even if it is, under these circumstances, as theologian Ellen Davis once described it, “…tenacious and severely challenged hope.” Yes, a tenacious hope is what these times require of us and I pray you have it in abundance!

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update April 30, 2020:

Dear Members and Friends,

“I guess I’m trying to get everything done before I leave the Earth,” wrote the architect Frank Gehry, 91, from his home in Santa Monica, CA. Just like all the rest of us, he is at home living into this Coronavirus reality. He’s keenly aware of his mortality, like all the rest of us.  He lived through World War II and polio and so he believes “You can’t get yourself cornered into fear about things.” Yet he described what is happening now as “scary” and especially as a parent and grandparent.

And “scary” it is. It is possible to be at home with occasional trips to the grocery store and walks in the park and feel disconnected from this uncomfortable time.  It’s happening to others, other families, not to me and mine. To do this you have to get used to the masks you wear and the masks you see on others—and the discomfort you feel when someone isn’t wearing a mask and gets too close. To do this you have to avoid print and social media, and all the news outlets broadcasting the grim reality of the spread of the Coronavirus and the illness and death that follows in its wake. That’s possible and even wise at times. We can take in too much information about what is happening and become depressed and lethargic, convinced we are powerless to do anything to fix this problem that won’t go away soon enough.

We know though, that you and I can’t do that. We are connected to what is going on, we are a part of the valor of essential workers, the sorrow and grief of the infected and their families, the profound inequities—glaring and heightened by the crisis. Our faith opens our eyes and our hearts. We see and we feel the pain of others as our own, the capacity for compassion and heroism is ours. We suffer and triumph with all God’s people.

More days, more infections, and we pray the spread is slowing and that we are wise enough and patient enough to stay home, even as the rush to return to normal increases. Home is a refuge of small delights. “…Nobody can cancel spring,” David Hockney, another artist wrote from his seclusion. Let the embrace of spring, in the glory of the season of resurrection, cradle your hope for what we can learn within this moment as we look forward to what will surely follow.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update April 23, 2020:

        This good news begins at home, among us. I trust you know that we have continued to open our Food Pantry two days a week during this pandemic. We have been regularly serving 50-70 individuals and families each day and have seen the need increase in the period since the order to shelter in place began. We’re able to do this because of your continuing support of our Social Service ministry under the direction of Rev. Debra Northern and the daily work of social services staff, Julio Quirindngo and Reyita Rodriguez as well as faithful volunteers; Daisy Keepler, Millie Hayes, and Oveida Diaz. These good people have come to the church every week since the crisis began to serve the needs of others in the name of the Riverside Church.

 

I also want you to know about and to express appreciation to the Underground Church. This is a wonderful group of TRC members who practice discipleship in wonderful ways. Wednesday of this week driven by Rev. Bruce Lamb, our Minister of Faith Formation, delivered food ordered from Sylvia’s Restaurant to “medical personnel at Harlem Hospital to thank them for their extraordinary work during this COVID-19 time.” The Underground Church isn’t just a prophetic name, it’s committed Riverside members doing thoughtful and considerate work. They are Nora Campbell, Una Tapper, Hylda Clarke, Vera Holloway, Evelyn Tamarin, Emogene B. Stamper, Louise Glover, Alice Easley, and Ruby Sprott.

 

Ministering among us with our older adults, (I am proudly in that number!) is Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper. Lynn’s first book has just been released to widespread critical acclaim. The book is titled On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear. The reviewer in the NY Times described it as “…a searching, poetic inquiry into dementia…In her beautifully unconventional book, Harper examines the porousness of the borders, the power of imagination and language to grant better futures to our loved ones and ourselves.” A casualty of the Coronavirus crisis has been an April 14 event to celebrate the release of the book with a book signing and discussion with Rev. Harper. When we can return to Riverside and gather in person, we will have the opportunity to have read the book for a richer conversation with Lynn.

 

This is who we are friends, dedicated, talented, faith-centered people of God, laity, and clergy responding to God’s call and claim upon our lives to care for all. What a joy it is to serve among you and to call you friends. Be safe. Be well. Stay home. Join in for worship, prayer, and service as you are able.  

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update April 17, 2020:

Is it too much to say, or perhaps too early to even suggest, that some sense of normalcy is creeping into our stay at home, work at home, live at home, experience?

There is nothing normal about the rate of sickness and death, still rising in some places while it becomes a precarious plateau in others; nothing normal about funerals and memorial services held in absentia.  There is still nothing normal about the head of our government asserting absolute authority over conditions well beyond his control while opposing rather than applauding, the efforts of governors to coordinate their efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 and think together about what next steps look like.

There is nothing normal about transit workers, health care workers, farmworkers, retail clerks, first responders, delivery persons of groceries and mail and packages of every kind—lifelines in these times—all continuing to risk their health and well-being to serve others.  There is nothing normal about empty office building for weeks without a concrete end in sight; empty churches on Sunday mornings when normally they would be teeming with members, holy spirit moving in myriad ways among God’s people everywhere.

And yet, about six weeks in, for most in our Riverside family, is there a faint sense of normalcy about this new routine seeping into our consciousness? I sense it in the patterns that are emerging in my work and world, and I both welcome it and want to be cautious about it, at the same time. The caution is about accepting a new reality that keeps us separate and apart from one another—accessible only on small screens and smart devices.  This is not a future I want for us beyond the continuing necessity to respect the distances required to end this crisis.  The welcome is for the new way of being in community and in the world that will emerge from what we learn during this so very unusual time and experience.

In this moment, we are denied the basic need and joy of human touch beyond the few who may be sharing home. In this moment, we are denied the need and joy of the pleasures of earth, beyond the route to the grocery store and restricted access to a nearby park or neighborhood walk. In this moment we can grow and learn more about ourselves, we can renew relationships by reaching out to friends and loved ones we (say we) haven’t had time for in our busy lives.  We can plan to use the new tools and skills we are acquiring to be better stewards of our resources in the world of church and work to which we will return, in the providence of God.

Be still, be safe, keep praying, be present—as you are able—with friends and family, church members and neighbors, and be grateful for the sacrifices of others as well as your own.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


Update April 9, 2020:

Dear Members and Friends,

Good Friday and Easter Saturday arrive in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and our vibrant city and state are suffering from extremely high rates of infection and mortality.  Broadway is shuttered, Madison Square Garden, Citifield, Yankee Stadium, our great museums, art galleries, and library are empty, as are our streets, subways and buses, and restaurants.  Fresh air is abundant and spring is making a bold effort to drive the blues away in parks all over the city, yet even the great Central Park looks lonely, its vast expanses empty of the crowds that would normally grace its inviting terrain.  The bright lights of Times Square do not have the audience of curious tourists that would be taking pictures and enjoying the energy of this great city.

Tuesday, New York City registered the highest number of deaths to date, an astounding 779 people died on that one day.  Together, more people have died in New York and New Jersey than in all the other states of the nation combined.  We are citizens of New York, and some of us, New Jersey.  We are also people of faith.  We know suffering and death.  We know the uncertainty of Holy Saturday, when despair saps our energy and the day seems endless.  We greet this time of stillness with a mature awareness that it cannot last beyond our patient confidence that death never has the last word, that we can overcome, that joy will come in the morning.

In neighborhoods all across the city, residents are honking their horns and showering appreciation on “essential” workers who must go into work while most of us, work from home and take far fewer risks than those who have no choice, except to keep the buildings open and the bills paid, meals distributed, those who’ve fallen ill cared for and nursed to health or laid to eternal rest.

At Riverside a small crew of staff and security personnel keep our work going in a place of stunning beauty rarely glimpsed these days, the organ silenced, the MLK, Jr. building emptied of happy children and the tower elevator resting on “C” level with nowhere to go.  But Irene Delgado is there, in the Property office doing essential work.  Richard Gregg, our head of security and Mindy Foster (member and security staff) and a few others in our engineering and building and grounds staff rotate through the days keeping watch over the building until we may all return. Let us remember them and give thanks for their service as we go about our new routines.

Let us keep silent this weekend, remembering the forgiving and loving sacrifice of Jesus on Good Friday, and the pain and despair of all those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Saturday does not last forever. In the meantime, we have each other.

Grace and peace, until the morning comes.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston


Updated April 3, 2020:

Dear Members and Friends,

I know precisely what led me to the Heidelberg Catechism early, very early today, April 1st.  It was not a fool’s errand.  I read Richard Rohr’s meditation for the day in which he wrote: “My life is not about me. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger mystery. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it.”  So few words, so much truth.  Truth echoed in the first question and answer of the 1863 Catechism that my friend Warren will quote now and then and especially at times of enormous stress or difficulty.  Question:  “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Answer: “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…”

We belong to God.  Our lives are about life and the gift of our loving God.  The great mystery of the moment is this Coronavirus, part uncertainty, anxiety, fear, suffering, and death—and part sacrifice, sharing, healing, humor, and service that is happening among us and all around us.  The virus is new to us, and what it is compelling us to do—stay at home! is new as well—for almost everyone alive.

I miss you!  I miss our gathered life at Riverside; worship in the Nave, conversation in South Hall, meetings in the MLK Jr. building, Christ Chapel where wonderful events take place, 9T—I think of it as the home of the Tower League—lively bible studies, great company, and good lunches.  When will we gather again?  No one can say.  It will not be soon.  There’s a post on FaceBook that says “January—31 days, February—28 days, March—8,000 days!”

The twenty-eighth question of the Heidelberg Catechism is this:  “What does it profit us to know that God created, and by His providence upholds, all things?”  And the answer: “That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity…”.  Some days it feels like we’re thousands of days away from normalcy.  We can’t “reject or run from what is happening…”. We have to ask “God to be with us in it.”   Thankful when all is well, we have to be patient in this adversity, grateful for each day, doing our part to stay safe and by so doing, keep others safe as well.

Grace and peace,

Michael

Rev. Michael Livingston