Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Something worth rejoicing over

I'll admit that my tendency is to put a positive spin on most situations of conflict. I know that frustrates some of my friends. They wish I were less pollyanaish, more willing to say "This is wrong!" I hear that. Honestly. And I wrestle with it too. But I also hear the words of the Apostle Paul, spoken to a church that had conflict, at least between two of its members, urging, "If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8).

So, let me say first that I understand that my description of the church as "hurting" this morning because of the action of the General Assembly on the Peace Unity and Purity Report would be an understatement for many. All day I've been talking with friends and leaders and reading blogs. Many in the church are genuinely shaken. One friend, from seminary days, came to lunch literally shaking with anger. We hadn't seen each other in at least eight years. His first words to me, after a terse hello was, "My congregation is gone." Others are saying that "everything has changed," "we've reached a point of no return," "the church is beyond reform." I'm hearing profound despair and anger, and it's not just from a few disaffected few.

But with that acknowledgement I want to offer something worthy of praise. This evening at 10:15 p.m. after an already very long day, the General Assembly approved a statement by a large majority - 77% - opposing late term abortions and, the Presbyterian News Service Article puts it, "affirms the lives of unborn babies."

This is a sea change within the public statements of the PC(USA) on abortion! There was debate, of course, but it was clear that the commissioners were moving away from the more ambiguous and more pro-choice stance of the church in previous years. One commissioner, in fact, rose and said, with a halting voice. "I'm pro-choice. But I lost a late term baby. And after seeing that little body, I can't condone any abortion after viability." This is the clearest, strongest pro-life statement the Presbyterian Church has made in recent years, and, and it was only strengthened by other actions the Assembly took on pro-life related overtures, including one that asked "that policies of the church concerning problem pregnancies and abortion be more clearly communicated to the public and to our church members."

For me, at least, these actions, which came so late in the day, when commissioners may have been tempted to rubber stamp recommendations instead of considering them carefully and prayerfully as they did, demonstrates that ears and eyes and hearts are not closed to what God wants to do in our midst. God hasn't given up on the PC(USA) yet. So, to paraphrase Philippians 4:9, let us "keep on doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen" from the Lord, "and the God of peace will be with us."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The PUP survived

It's two days later, and I still say the church is alive, but it is hurting this morning.

I've already mentioned Richard Mouw's comments Monday morning (See the article from the Presbyterian News Office for more detail). Dr. Mouw asked "What does the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) need to be like in order to align itself with what God is doing in the world?" The question is whether or not Tuesday afternoon's action of the Assembly aligned us closer or further from what God is doing. There are many people who feel we've taken a huge wrong and irreversible turn.

After nearly three hours of passionate debate (decently and in order, of course), which included a minority report and motions to amend and refer various parts of the Report of the Peace Unity and Purity Task Force, the Assembly approved by a vote of 57 to 43 percent all 7 recommendations of the Task Force, including the controversial recommendation #5 which doesn't change standards for ordination, but many believe will create a "local option" to enforce standards for ordination, resulting in less peace, unity and purity in the church. The Presbyterian News Service article, "Assembly adopts Theological Task Force report" has an excellent summary of that action and and some reactions to it. (See the TTF Primer for an overview of all 7 recommendations.)

My reaction? I'm not surprised and I'm also not dismayed (even though I don't believe it is God's will for us to allow the ordination of those in homosexual relationships); because I don't believe the matter is settled; because I don't believe the Holy Spirit is done with us. I sense that the kind of renewal and reform (I’d call it missional transformation) that many of us are longing for and working for within the PCUSA is possible and is in fact happening. The PUP report doesn't change that. But it does makes the road ahead for the PC(USA) more uncertain, and ironically, has not taken us closer to peace, unity and purity. At least not yet.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The church is still alive!

Even at 6:30 a.m. That’s when the Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) breakfast began. (Note: Throughout the Assembly there are dozens of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners hosted by various groups, caucuses, seminaries, interest groups, etc.) Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary was the scheduled speaker (more about that in a moment) and the room was packed with about 550 folks – Commissioners (people who get to vote on stuff at the official meeting) and Observers (like me). Just about everywhere I turned, I ran into people I knew (see Russell Smith’s blog on family reunion), including old friends like Gale Watkins, former pastor of Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church, and now in Phoenix.

Halfway through breakfast our new G.A. Moderator, Rev. Joan Gray stopped by to give greetings. She shared her experience when she and the other three Moderator candidates visited various groups on Thursday night (part of the “campaigning” they do), and how moved she was that PFR was the one group that gathered around all four candidates, layed hands on them and prayed for them. She specifically mentioned Elder Nancy Maffett, former President of PFR (who happened to be sitting at my table) who knelt during that prayer. She ended by asking us to embody prayer, by letting our knees actually touch the ground and raising our hands in the air.

After Joan Gray left, a young woman pastor with the wonderful name of Fairlight Collins-Jones came to the podium to recognize PFR’s Lydia Scholar winners, a scholarship program for women who have experienced God’s call to become ordained pastors in the PC(USA) and who have a vision of spiritual renewal within the denomination. I remembered Fairlight from the Moderator’s Conference I attended last fall. She and her husband, Scott are the young co-pastors of Woodland Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and if I could hand pick someone to take my place at North, I couldn’t make a better choice than Fairlight (and her husband would be okay too!) Then Marian McClure, Exectutive Director of the Worldwide Ministries Division, rose to introduce the winners of the Bell-MacKay award for a lifetime of service in missions. This assembly is celebrating50 years of the ordination to ministry of women, and this breakfast illustrated how much we have to celebrate. Joan, Nancy, Fairlight, Marian – these women are some of the most gifted leaders in our church, and true gifts to our church.

And so are Woody and Barabara Busse, winners of the Bell-MacKay award. The Busse’s spent 48 years in various missionary settings, including 7 years in Cincinnati when Woody co-pastored what was then a new church development – Winton Hills Presbyterian! During that time, they developed a close friendship with a young gospel musician named Todd O’Neal – now Bishop Todd O’Neal, pastor of the House of Joy. Another Cincinnati connection! (Todd has been at North Church several times, most recently leading worship at the Men’s Breakfast we hosted in April.) While Todd was with the Busse’s in Pakistan in 1980, he wrote one of his many beautiful gospel songs, and to our delight, two of the Busse’s daughters joined Barbara on the platform and sang, a capella, ending with

We will bow our heads and pray
Thanking God for all his ways
Look to the hills whence cometh our help
Our help comes from the Lord
Our help comes from the Lord

Once again, I found my eyes brimming with tears. The gifts, the faithfulness, the vital faith. And we hadn’t even gotten to Dr. Mouw’s address on “Renewing Presbyterianism.” Which was great. And funny. And hopeful. And challenged us to renew Presbyterianism through seeking a biblically grounded and pastoral theology of sexuality, through continuing the reform of the church that is coming mainly from evangelical churches, and by aligning ourselves to the worldwide church, not by splitting over differences without our denomination, but by expanding our relationships. It was especially affirming for me to hear that last admonition, because I had already decided that God was calling me to make that a theme of my year as Moderator of Cincnnati Presbtyery.

We ended in prayer, for the days ahead. Great, heartfelt, spontaneous prayer from all over the room. Prayers for God to align us with what God is already doing in the world. And then - tears again - as we sang my favorite hymn, which Dr. Mouw says best describes what distinguishes evangelicals from other expressions of Christian faith,

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part, but the whole!
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Oh my soul!
It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul!

Believe me when I say, the Presbtyerian Church is alive and well.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Worth writing home about

It's been a year since my last post. Hey, I had other stuff to do, okay? But I'm at a place that gives me a good excuse to resume my blog, albeit in a somewhat different format.

So the place is Birmingham, Alabama, and I arrived here this evening just in time to check in to my hotel, register as an observer to the 217th General Assembly, and then head over to the evening worship service. By the time we rose for the opening hymn, I was moved to tears. Don’t let anyone tell you that Presbyterians are God’s “frozen chosen,” that we don’t know how to worship – at least not when we’re all together.

Let me set the scene briefly. We were at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, where the Birmingham Steeldogs play arena footbal. The floor of the arena had been carpeted and was mostly open, except for a cross-shaped pattern of tables bedecked with patterned cloth from the Congo and 244 neatly arranged identical communion sets. On a platform on the far side of the arena, similarly decorated, sat the speakers, the orchestra, a choir from the Presbyterian Church of the Congo; behind it, in the stands, was the mass choir representing the three Presbyterian denominations that are sharing the convention center for concurrent Assemblies – ours, (the PCUSA), the Cumberland Presbtyeran Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of America.

As the brass, organ and timpani sounded the opening notes of the hymn, liturgical dancers streamed onto the floor, weaving in and out among the communion tables with silk cloths waving that gave a a visual of the Holy Spirit was filling the arena and sanctifing the elements, the space, our worship, us. And then we began to sing. There’s something about 6000 voices, filled with conviction and hope, rising to sing,

“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty the King of creation!
O my sould praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, No to His temple draw near;
Join me in glad adoration!”

This is one thing we Presbyterians do well – worship in our gatherings of the church. (See Russ Smith's June 17 blog entry for a list of other things we do well.) And this year the worship was made all the more powerful by the presence and participation of 3 sister Presbyterian denominations, and the sermon by the Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Allaince of Reformed Churches. It is in settings like this that I get a taste of the heavenly worship described in Revelation 4, and realize that it will be an experience of glory and joy and wonder that we will never want to leave.

I found myself moved to tears again, sitting next to my new friend Mary McKey, the Associate Executive of the Tampa Bay Presbytery, as we joined the choirs in the last stanza of the beautiful communion hymn,

“Then hear, O gracious Savior, accept the love we bring,
that we who know your favor may serve you as our King;
and whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill,
we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to praise you still:
to marvel at your beauty and glor in your ways,
and make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise.”

Tomorrow begins the hard business of making decisions, and as we left the arena, I ran into my friend Chris Roth, Moderator Elect of Pittsburgh Presbytery (we graduated from the same High School ages ago) who is on the committee charged with dealing with the Peace Unity and Purity report. She was on her way back to her committee meeting, because after three solid days of meeting, they had not come to agreement on what they will recommend to the Assembly. No peace, unity or purity yet. But there’s hope, because we worshipped before the throne of grace together.

Monday, June 20, 2005

God in a Box

I know its been several weeks since I last wrote something here. Guess what? Sometimes life gets in the way of the best laid plans of mice and ministers! I haven't abandoned my project; and I've been mostly faithful in my daily readings from the daily lectionary, although it hasn't always been easy to discern any sort of intersection between these ancient bucolic stories that take a generation or two to play out and my modern (becoming more postmodern) instant-access, urban-sprawl, global-village world. Okay – sometimes its been impossible to see any intersection. Probably, that's mostly because I was too preoccupied to figure it out.

But this morning's Old Testament text was different. When I read 1 Samuel 5:1-12, I immediately thought of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the bad guys finally secure possession of the lost Ark of the Covenant (or so they think). Believing it will give them ultimate power, they ceremoniously open the box, which unleashes thunderbolts and tornadoes of God's awesome wrath and consumes those who foolishly thought they could control divine forces.

In 1 Samuel, the Philistines have gotten hold of the ark of the covenant, and they set it up in the temple of their own half-fish, crop-fertility god Dagon, no doubt thinking they too can control divine forces. The next morning, they discover Dagon “fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord” (v.4). They set him back up, but the next morning, when they entered the temple, they found Dagon on the ground again, this time broken in pieces, with only his fish body intact. (At this point, they must have exclaimed, “Daggone!”) Despite the rocky start, the Philistines were not ready to give up on the god-in-a-box they captured from the Israelites. So they ship it off to another town, where everybody suddenly gets cancer. In a panic, they in turn send it to the next town, whose people are already terrified before it arrives, and try to get rid of it before they all die. But it's too late, God was no longer in his box.

It's always a big mistake to think we can keep God in a box, and having God conveniently in a box, therefore control God, or at least control our interaction with God. Postmodernism is, it seems to me, at least partially about getting God out of the boxes we've put him in. Pretty much everybody under 35 sees that as a very positive and promising development for the church and for the gospel and I'm inclined to agree in most respects. Postmodernism has pulled the rug out from under a very comfortable and compromised institutional Church (at least in America) that is probably God's way of making sure that the church not only survives the 21st century, but is in any way faithful to its calling. There's tons of great reading and discussion on that front.

But at least part of the postmodern tendency is to set up the god-box of Christianity alongside other gods in the boxes we build for them. As Jill Hudson points out, “One can hold multiple truths, even when they are contradictory. Someone can be a devout Methodist and still participate regularly in Native American spiritual practices; one can attend an Episcopal church and have a Buddhist altar in her home . . . A huge mark of the postmodern world is that one size does not fit all. Multiple stories coexist in the rligious world; all of them may be viewed as having value.” (When Better Isn't Enough: 10). It makes perfect sense for George Lucas to describe himself as a “Buddhist Methodist.” But as the story in 1 Samuel suggests, that may be a problem for the other gods and everybody else in a three city radius. And what if the “box” God is in is of God's own design, like the ark of the covenant? Or the Church?

Seeking the Kingdom with you,


Friday, June 03, 2005

On God's Terms

I was talking to a Professor of Peace yesterday (actually, he's a Professor of Social Work at U.C., but his passion and focus since 9/11 has been peace studies). We were talking about what makes for genuine peace and I made reference to the Paris peace negotions in the 1970s, and the ridiculous months-long debate between North and South Vietnam over the shape of the table where participants would sit. (If you need to refresh your memory about it, go to: Paris Peace Accord.) "That was very important, acually," said the professor. "It determined whether or not the participants would start the negotiations on equal footing."

A light bulb went on for me with that comment about a phrase I've been chewing over in the Old Testament readings for the last few days, and again this morning in Deuternomy 26:1-11.
"The place the Lord your God will choose" (26:2).
Eleven times, until it nearly becomes a refrain, God's people are reminded that when they want to worship God, it must be at "the place the LORD your God will choose" (Deut. 12:5, 11, 18, 21; 14:24f, 16:6f, 11; 17:8; 26:2). "I mean it!" God seems to be saying.
You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways (with idols, on "mountain heights, hills and under every leafy tree"). But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there . . . (Deut. 12:3, 4, 5)
It's clear that God insists on defining the turf and setting the terms for when and where Israel was to meet God to keep pagan influence and ideas from corrupting their own worship practice and relationship with God. But there's another reasonGod makes such a big deal about "the shape of the table" at which we sit down with him.
You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires. (Deut. 12:8)
Our tendency, no less than the stubborn tribe of Israel, is to try to set our own terms for meeting with God. Decide where we want to worship. Decide what style of worship suits us best. Decide what kind of message we want to hear. Decide what's really practical in the teaching of Jesus. Decide what we want to do, and then ask God to bless it. Consumer mindset toward spirituality was no less a problem in Moses' time than it is in ours.

But here's the problem: We don't negotiate our relationship with God! We don't start off, or end up, on equal footing with God!

Our congregation is about to start a twelve week study called "Experiencing God." Week One, Day One of week begins with the story of the call of Abram - "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land will show you" (Genesis 12:1) - and then asks, "Are you ready to follow God's will that way? Check your response." The responses are:
[] "NO, I don't think God will ever ask me to go anywhere that He doesn't show me ahead of time where I am going."
[] "I'm not sure."
[] "YES, I am willing to follow Him by faith and not by sight."
The gist of the study is this: If we want to experience God, it will be on God's terms, not ours. And that's good news, because it means that our "spiritual journey" is not our search after God, even though our father was "a wandering Aramean" (Deut 26:5); it's us following God where God leads. That's what makes for real peace.

Yearning for the Kingdom with you,

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Blog Purgatory

Much of the Christian life is lived between memory and promise, and faithfulness in that near purgatory requires a whole lot of self-discipline. Which is why, maybe, for me, it is a kind of purgatory. I’ve never been very good at self discipline, and, quite honestly, resent the need for it.

I know it’s been over a week since my last post here, and in the meantime, Ruth has been gleaning in Boaz’s field, coming closer and closer to him until one night she crawled under his blanket. And Timothy has been receiving instructions about how to order church life and what to include in his teaching curriculum. Both sets of readings from last week (Ruth 1-4 and 1 Timothy 1 -6) provide a wealth of material to consider what Reinhold Neibhur called “the enduring problem” of Christ and culture; or to expand it somewhat, gospel and culture; or even more, God’s purposes and culture. Just to mention a few examples, besides Ruth’s brazen offering of herself to Boaz, which the story teller takes in stride without a hint of judgment, there is the practice of “kinsman redeemers” (3:13, 4:1-6) and the curious custom of exchanging a sandal to seal a deal (4:7). In Timothy, Paul’s prohibitions and prescriptions, especially around the role of women in the church (2:9-15; 5:3-16) suggest a clash of cultures that was then and is still being negotiated today. Reading these two sets of texts side by side, I’d have a pretty hard time arguing that “no woman is to teach a man” (1 Timothy 2:12) or that only widows over 60 and married once qualify for the church’s pension plan (1 Timothy 5:9-11), is any more a requirement of the gospel than that property cannot be inherited by women or that the nearest male relative has both a right and responsibility to marry a childless widow, as it was in Ruth’s time. And yet somehow, Paul is able to claim that the church (the household or assembly of God) is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). That’s the interesting and tricky intersection of gospel and culture that has occupied so much of my thinking over the last few years, and maybe the reason I didn’t write anything about that this past week is that it’s such a huge subject.* That’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. But the fact that I haven’t written daily — a discipline I’m trying to impose on myself — has also been a huge monkey on my back.

This morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures ( Deuteronomy 4:9-14) brings me face to face with this business of self-discipline. God’s people are still “beyond the Jordan” (Deut.1:1), close to entering the promised land, but not yet there, and the great events of God’s fiery and thunderous self-revelation are forty years in the past. This place between the remembered experience of God’s presence (“you once stood before the Lord your God at Horeb”) and the not-yet reached fulfillment of God’s promises (“the land you are about to cross into”) is one of great danger, where it is easy to “forget what eyes have seen.” And so, the call to self discipline.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” (4:9, NRSV).

The discipline that is called for is the maintenance of the memory of what God has done and what God has said, and the continuance of walking in the light and the direction of that revelation, until God is experienced again.

I don’t like watching myself closely. Watching my cholesterol, watching my diet, watching my TV viewing habits, watching my tongue, watching my manners, paying attention to my personal study habits, taking care to get regular exercise and proper sleep — they all seem like such chores to me, and I take no delight in them at all. But I understand they are all threads of a larger and more consequential faithfulness. And that’s why I just spent 4 hours thinking about and writing this blog, such as it is.

Seeking the Kingdom with you,

* (Check out the several hundred articles on the Gospel and Our Culture Network site.)