ON THE SCENE: Keene Valley church takes a sabbatical

Aaron Mair (Provided photo)

This fall, both the Rev. John Sampson and the congregation of the Keene Valley Congregational Church are on sabbatical.

For Rev. Sampson, his sabbatical includes studying Plato at Westminster College, Cambridge University in England, and taking in such experiences as participating in a retreat of witness with Zen Peacemakers International at the Auschwitz/Birkenau extermination camps, as well as visiting the Oskar Schindler Factory in Krakow, Poland.

While Sampson is away, the KVCC’s congregation has been on a sabbatical of its own through hearing new voices and engaging in new experiences. Come January, after Sampson’s return, both he and the congregation will share what they learned and, as a result, consider some potential new forms of reflection and events during the 2023 year.

The congregation’s sabbatical theme is New Voices/New Perspectives. Over the summer, they sought people willing to share what forms the core of their spiritual lives, their “Spiritual toolbox.” The speakers were invited to either plan a full service or provide the theme and reflection for a service. Some who agreed, such as Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, and Carol Blakeslee-Collin, formerly executive producer at Mountain Lakes PBS and producer for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, are members of the KVCC congregation who had never given a reflection before.

Most came from farther afield and included Paul Smith’s College professor and environmental scientist Curt Stager, along with North Country Community College professor of math and co-founder of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative Pete Nelson. Others included international climbing guide and photographer RL Stoltz; Terri Morse, director of community services for Essex County Mental Health; and recently returned from COP27, Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club and now director of the Adirondack Council’s “Forever Adirondacks” program.

Carol Blakeslee-Collin (Provided photo)

Two had strong faith-based bona fides: the Rev. Byron Bond, who led an inner-city urban Presbyterian church in Kansas City, Missouri; and SUNY professor Dr. Dexter L. Criss, leader of Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir, who, joined by the choir, delivered a Southern Missionary Baptist service.

“In Philippians 447, Paul was talking about people being anxious, having anxiety, and worried about everything all the time,” said Criss. “Paul said it’s necessary to clear your mind and be thankful for everything so we can commune with God.”

Criss shared that three years ago, his wife and son were in an automobile accident where he died — the most horrific experience of his life. Criss said nothing was more challenging than telling his wife, who had been in a coma for nearly two weeks following the accident, that their son had died.

“Do you know how conflicted I was?” said Criss. “I wanted to lash out against God and gave all my anger to God. I am probably hanging on to some of it because I am not happy about God’s decision. But I am thankful that my boy accepted Christ and came to know Jesus. I know he is with God, which is a blessing. Through Paul, Jesus said to apply thankfulness to our lives, and by doing all we can to support others can help us through the darkest moments in our lives.”

Illustrating his point, Criss said while the accident that nearly cost the life of his wife, and did of his son, which was and is painful to bear, he is grateful that the skills of the paramedics were such that they were able to use his son’s organs and skin tissues to help over fifty people.

Pete Nelson (Provided photo)

“Take hold of the life that really is life,” said Blakeslee-Collin, selecting a phrase from Paul’s letter to Timothy during her reflection. “It’s a wonderful phrase, but what does it mean to us in our 21st century world? I believe Paul was saying, say yes to God and saying yes to opening up our hearts. That means taking a risk. It means committing ourselves to the possibility that God is for us. Risk is tough. It implies change.”

Following Blakeslee-Collin a few weeks later, Nelson described how our quest for the right answer, an answer that’s more right than anyone else’s, is resulting in the strident polarization that’s blocking our ability to address the challenges and opportunities before us. He went on to say that we all know that religion can divide, in his mind, one of the significant weaknesses of religious practice.

Nelson then asked, “How can religion divide if we gather with humility and ponder deep questions, learn something about inhabiting each other’s skin, and maybe accept even more mystery than when we started? Is that not lifting each other to the heights of empathy, enlightenment and an ethical life? I am most assuredly not here to tell you what or how to think. I call upon all of us to help restore curiosity, inquiry and uncertainty to its proper place in the human condition, the very foundation of spirituality and ethics.”

“At COP27, you hear nations’ leaders arguing about the existential threat of climate change that we are all facing,” said Mair on Sunday, Nov. 20. “But it is also a conflict in our role that God gave us in the Book of Genesis as stewards of creation. It is the battle of stewardship and dominion for all things; the consumption of the Earth.”

“One of the things that’s interesting when we talk of our indigenous brothers and sisters is their speaking of the spirit within trees and other aspects of nature,” continued Mair. “It has taken until now for scientists, as revealed in the book, ‘The Hidden Lives of Trees,’ to understand that trees do talk, that all things have their spirit, and that God’s spirit carries forth that communication. The trees were here long before us and will be here long after. In this, the power of creation is being manifested before us as we struggle not to save the planet, but the existential crisis of humanity from our own peril, from our failure to be stewards of the land.”

Nancy MacArthur (Provided photo)

“I thought it was an enlightening experience to have so many speakers coming from so many different viewpoints,” said Pam Gothner. “We had everyone from someone who doesn’t have a very religious background to a more fundamentalist gospel group.”

“I loved having so many different voices because there is no voice that can’t be heard in this denomination,” said Nancy MacArthur. “I feel that it will help us all grow. We are on a journey, and there is nothing anyone can say that isn’t a part of what we can become, at least in a small way. Do for me; it was an incredibly positive experience.”

Going forward through advent, the services are being planned and led by Rev. Susie Allen and Rev. Laurin MacArthur, with different voices continuing through mission moments led, starting Nov. 27 by Pat Hickey, then Doug Meyer of the Mental Health Association, Lauren Crowl of the Keene Youth Commission, and concluding with Kristen Klingenberg of the Neighborhood House.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)

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