Weekly Notes from 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 life long 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 is 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 a 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 bring 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