General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Friday, part 2 and Saturday

26 06 2016

For the past week, my windows into GA have focused on all kinds of blessings – grace, love, polity, science, community, and connectionalism. Today, as I try to pull together my last 36 hours in Portland, I think the word to summarize my Friday and Saturday is gratitude! Like so many of the assemblies I’ve attended, I’m returning home to the everyday tasks ministry with a heart that is full, and a mind that continues to expand – grateful for the church that I’m proud and privileged to call my ‘home’!

On Friday morning, J. Herbert Nelson was elected Stated Clerk. Grayde Parsons had been faithfully and effectively serving in that position for the past 8 years and is now retired; and while sad to say good bye, the church remains extremely hopeful about the next chapter in our life together.

We then had what have almost become routine discussions on divestment, both from companies producing weapons used in the Middle East, as well as from the Fossil Fuel industry. Moderate stances were taken in both instances.

We made apologies to those we’ve hurt, offered thanks to mission workers around the world, took bold stances on issues related to justice and peace, and sought to continually side with those on the margins of society. In so many ways, the assembly lived up to its theme, providing at least this commissioner with great . . . hope in my calling! As always, what we have given to the church in our service can’t begin to compare to all that we have received from one another, and from God. Such gatherings push, challenge, inspire, and grow me, and for that, I am grateful to Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church for the gift of time to be here, and to National Capital Presbytery for the privilege of serving as a commissioner.

Of all that I am grateful for, at the top of the list is the growth I continue to experience in settings such as this. And for the past week, this growth has involved a deepening understanding of what it means for me to be as privileged as I know I am! But more than just knowing I am privileged . . . as a white, heterosexual, Christian man . . . I’m learning that my walk with Christ involves allowing that knowledge to truly shape and inform the person that I am becoming. And slowly, very slowly, I see this beginning to happen.

I am learning that I need to do more listening, than speaking. Anyone who knows me knows that I have opinion on everything, and I’m rarely timid about sharing those opinions. But the world has heard a lot of white, heterosexual, Christian male voices over the years, and perhaps it’s time for us to start hearing from others. That doesn’t mean that my voice isn’t important, or that it doesn’t count, or matter; rather, it simply means that chances are pretty that what I have to say, has already been said, and heard. There are no doubt, other voices that need to be heard . . . different voices, with different perspectives, and it’s time that they were honored.

I’m also learning that when I DO speak up, I need to do so in a less authoritarian manner. I need to be a little kinder, and softer, and gentler, displaying a modicum of humility, born in the realization that I don’t know everything, and that the world will continue spinning without having heard my words of wisdom.

I’m learning too that perhaps sometimes my voice needs to be added to the voices of people long silenced. When people unlike me offer perspectives, opinions, and ideas, I need to only support them, and encourage them, but I actually need to side with them . . . perhaps, even at times when I may be inclined to disagree.

And finally, I’m learning that I need to be more intentional about engaging and interacting with people who are not like me – such a basic tool of evangelism and community-building, but one that too often still escapes me.

General Assembly 2016 in Portland has ended, and one last time I will say that we Presbyterians should be proud and grateful. God is at work in a mighty way, and if we would stop focusing on numbers, we might be able to see that! In the words of a hymn that was sung over and over again, ‘the world is about to turn’. So let’s boldly proclaim that love is love is love is love; and then let’s share that love – God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ – to all creation!

General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Friday, part 1

25 06 2016

So before I offer my take on Friday at General Assembly, and without wanting to in any way neglect the election of J. Herbert Nelson as the denomination’s new Stated Clerk, I think it’s important for us to be clear about something!

On Thursday evening, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) received a report from our Committee on Social Issues, and approved an overture regarding the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ/Q community over the past . . . I don’t even know how many years! We expressed ‘regret’ for all that we have done to make them feel as though that by simply being true to who they were created to be, they somehow fell outside of God’s grace and love. And if there were any reservations in anyone’s mind about the appropriateness of such action, the events in Orlando two weeks ago should have quickly resolved such doubts.

Now there’s no question that this was kind gesture. It was nice, the way the church likes to be ‘nice’, to  display our sensitivity to having hurt their feelings. And it was sweet of us to extend our hand to try to make up. We’ve told them for years and years that they had abandoned Scripture, and that the expression of their sexuality was deviant and an abomination to God. So it was . . . sweet . . . of us to let them know we ‘regret’ that they have been so hurt by our words and behavior . . . sweet . . . like a big, glass of thick, unhealthy, southern sweet tea!

Sweet or not, our actions fell woefully short of both the intent of the original overture from the Presbytery of New York, as well as any attempt to be faithful to call of Jesus. And we need to be clear about that!

The title of the overture was “On the Admission of, and Apology for, Harms Done to the LGBTQ/Q Members of the PC(USA), Family and Friends.” However, there was no apology in the motion, and more importantly, there was absolutely no confession of sin on our part.

Expressing ‘regret’ over having hurt someone, is not apologizing. And I know, because I’ve weaseled out of making real apologies with just such language . . . on more occasions than I’d care to admit.

“I regret that I made you feel that way.” “I regret than you are so upset my words.” “I regret that you have been so offended by my actions.”

Some may have thought I was apologizing to them with those kinds of statements, but I was not. What I was doing, was avoiding responsibility for my actions. I was refusing to admit that I had done anything wrong; and instead, simply recognizing the others persons’ pain, while at the same time putting responsibility for that pain, on them! And that is what we have done with this motion. We’ve basically blamed the LGBTQ/Q community for their own alienation, rather than taking responsibility for it ourselves. And that is not what an apology or a confession are all about.

An apology, a genuine and authentic apology, involves the one making the apology taking responsibility for the offense. It is me, admitting that I have done something wrong. It is me, saying I am sorry. It is me, asking for forgiveness.

And confession? Confession involves me actually repenting! It’s about ME, admitting that I have acted in ways that deny the Gospel, and acknowledging the error of my ways. When we offer prayers of confession to God, we don’t say “Hey God, I regret that I’ve offended you and your Spirit!” We don’t just say “We regret we’ve done things that we should not have done”; or that “we regret leaving undone the things we should have done.” Repentance is so much more than mere regret. It is important, but it is only a part of the larger acts of confession and repentance!

Further, not only does the first paragraph of the overture fail to truly apologize and confess the sin of our church; in the second paragraph, in an attempt to be ‘inclusive’ of all people and churches, the overture expresses “deep sorrow” over the number of individuals and congregations who have left our fellowship as a result of recent decisions to fully include the LGBTQ community in our church.

Deep sorrow? Really? What exactly does that mean?

Am I sorry that there are still people in the Church who are unwilling to allow people with a different sexual orientation to live their lives as they believe God desires? Well yes; I have deep sorrow over that! Am I sorry that there are people in the Church who are unwilling to accept that there is more than one way to read and interpret Scripture? Of course, I have deep sorrow over that as well? Am I sorry that there are people in the Church who would choose to separate over a matter that we in the church believe to be vital matter of justice? Most definitely – deep, deep sorrow over that!

But do I want to express deep sorrow that those people who think there is only one way to understand sexual expression, one way to read the Bible, or who want to single out one specific group of people in the church and claim that they are unworthy of the justice demanded in the Gospel. . . do I want to express deep sorrow that they have chosen to move on?

Well, I don’t know! Do I? Do you?

Fifty years from now, will the Church look back on this decision, and scratch their head, puzzled? Will they ask themselves, why did the Church never express ‘deep sorrow’ for those who left the church when we first began ordaining women, or when we first began taking a stance on integration? Will the Church of the future say to themselves, “wasn’t that overture kinda’ like Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressing ‘deep sorrow’ over those who left the church because of it’s opposition to Nazism!”

I don’t mean to be harsh here . . . honestly, I don’t! But it’s taken us 400 years to understand what we did to Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Hawaiians, and to then offer an apology. It’s taken over 60 years to apologize for our actions in No Gun Ri, during the Korean War.  And I just don’t want to take that long this time around. When it comes to issues related to the treatment of the LGBTQ by the Church of Jesus Christ, they deserve a REAL apology; and any feelings of ‘deep sorrow’ should be directed to them, and only them!

General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Thursday

24 06 2016

The window into Thursday’s focus at General Assembly is all about connectionalism! As Presbyterians, we throw around that word all the time; but today it was as evident as ever, and very much at work in our plenary sessions. Moving us beyond community, a connectional church is one that acknowledges we are all in this together. None of us succeeds unless all of us succeed; and what hurts or injures you, hurts and injures me! We are not just sisters and brothers in Christ who work hard to care for one another; we are one! We are connected!

As I reflect on all that has been accomplished today, signs of our connectedness were everywhere. One of the first items of business involved acknowledging our support of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s “We Choose Welcome.” This ministry is all about recognizing that there are 60 million displaced people in the world today, 20 million of whom are refugees, and they are the ‘strangers and aliens’ that Scripture calls us to love and care for! Rather than building walls to shut them out, or voting to separate ourselves from people who welcome them in, we in the PC(USA) desire to live in a land that welcomes and embraces these who are the margins of society. 60,000 children arrived in the United States from Central America in 2014, alone! And we are connected to them.

We also heard from a Native American representative from the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, who reminded us that we are connected to her, and her people. Her people, are our people; for we too are connected. We are one! She offered us a powerful reminder that contrary to all that we’ve been hearing the past 10 days, the worst mass-killing of Americans was NOT in Orlando, last weekend. Rather, it was in places like Wounded Knee, on December 29, 1890, where almost 200 native men, women, and children were massacred. And when we acknowledge that, and become aware of how incomplete America’s ‘doctrine of discovery’ really is, we have no choice but to heed the call to work to do a better job of seasoning the earth with justice.

Following our dinner break, we heard the report of the Committee on Social Justice, and several other important overtures were approved, all intimately related our understanding of what it means to be ‘connected.’ We approved an overture addressing the worsening plight of the African American male – targeting Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, New York, and Pittsburgh! Not in any way wanting to pat ourselves on the back for the adoption of Belhar, we affirmed our desire to engage, study, and actively remain involved in the process of racial reconciliation. And repudiating the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ the assembly also decided to apologize not only to Native Americans, but to Alaska natives and Hawaiians as well!

Finally, the overture that kept the assembly in session to well past 11:00 pm, was the Social Justice Committee’s recommendation that we apologize to all those who have been hurt as the church has struggled through issues related to LGBTQ/Q ordination and marriage. We expressed great regret that our attitudes and behavior led a certain group of people to feel as though they stood “outside the grace of God,” and that they found “cause to doubt being loved by God.” Further, we expressed sorrow over those who felt the need to leave our fellowship; and sincere appreciation for those who have maintained faithfulness to God’s call be one, by remaining inrelationship with our church despite profound disagreement on this issue.

The Mid Councils Committee’s report to NOT make any changes to the boundaries of our Synods was approved after a great deal of discussion and debate; and The Way Forward Committee’s report rejected most of the overtures from the Foothills Presbytery. While attempting to honor their concerns and recommendations, the committee recommended and the assembly approved the creation of “Way Forward Commission” to continue to explore how our church continues to adapt to the changing nature of our community of faith in the coming years.

On Friday, we will elect our new Stated Clerk, and receive a variety of additional committee reports, including those from the Committee on Middle East Issues and the Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues – all of which, I expect, will continue to reveal our sense of connectedness, particularly with those suffering from injustice at home, and abroad.

General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Wednesday

23 06 2016

Thus far, the ‘windows’ of GA have revealed an abundance of hope and love, and a focus on polity and science. If I had to summarize my Wednesday experiences with one word, that word would be “community”; for as we leave committees and come together as an assembly, that is what we are about. Community!

Community is at the heart of the Church; and the polity of the Presbyterian Church is rooted in the idea that when two or three are gathered together, God is present, and God’s Spirit is at work. So when an assembly such as this convenes to discuss, wrestle, explore, dream, plan, process, and yes . . . vote, we believe that God is moving in us . . . not just in me, but in US! And the implications of such a belief are profound.

What is so important about our church’s polity, and I would contend our theology as well, is that when it comes to discerning the will of God, ‘us’ is always better than ‘me.’ Each of us is indeed created in the image of God, and we all bear the holy mark of the Divine. However we are NOT, the Divine. We are broken, sinful, and all too often, a people falling short of all that we’ve been created to be.

‘Us,’ helps us see this. ‘Us’ help us accept this reality. And ‘us’ helps us to correct the brokenness that abounds in ‘me.’ We are better, together. For when we are together, we are more able to discern what God is doing in the world, as well as what God would have us do in the world. Because . . . “it is not good for us to be alone”, God has gifted us with one another – with a ‘beloved community,’ so that our faithfulness might be deepened, and our obedience might be strengthened!

All this is to say that the mere act of voting at GA deeply moves me. It’s not all that different from the voting in any of the other governing bodies of the church, except that the General Assembly is much larger, and far more diverse. Here, the only thing many of us have in common is that we love Jesus, and are passionate about the portion of his Church known as the PC(USA). But that is enough. We are still, ‘us.’ And so when we act, our actions, while they remain flawed, are better! Because we are making the decisions together, they are closer to what God desires for God’s Church, and they allow our community to function in a manner that moves us, our church, and our world, closer to the ‘kin-dom’ of God.

So . . . as a community seeking to be faithful to God this day, several actions occurred. The revised Directory for Worship was approved, as well as the other overtures recommended by the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions referenced in yesterday’s blog. We spent time praying for the persecuted portion of the church around the world, as well as the persecuted of every faith. And then finally, in what can be described as nothing short of historic, we amended our Book of Confessions by adding the Confession of Belhar!

Dr. Allen Boesak, Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa in 1986 when the confession was first adopted, spoke about the journey, and gave thanks for “the things we did not know, but are now blessed to see.” Thirty years ago he never would have imagined that he would see churches literally, around the world, embrace a confession grounded in a theology that rejects racism in any form or function.

Tonight, this reality has become part of the DNA of our church. We are affirming what science began telling us years ago: that is that there is only one race in this world – the human race. And anything that seeks to divide people, that threatens our oneness or prevents us from actually living into our unity, or that in any way fosters alienation, hatred, or enmity, is not acceptable in the Body of Christ. Privilege for some means injustice for all, and the Church must fight this reality wherever it exists.

And friends, as a community, we can do this! We can do this, because of Jesus. In the words of Boesak, we SHALL overcome. Whatever we face, whatever the race, whatever befalls us, and whatever confronts us . . . we CAN overcome. We SHALL overcome.

Thanks be to God!

General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Tuesday

22 06 2016

Tuesday’s window into the 222nd meeting of the General Assembly shifted from polity, to science: the science of creation, the science of death and dying, and the science of sexuality. The Theological Issues and Institutions Committee dealt with two of these important subjects, first, by wrestling with two overtures acknowledging that “the truths of the Bible and the discoveries of science with regard to creation, may comfortably coexist.” And considering the fact that one of the primary reasons so many people see the church as irrelevant and out of touch today is because of our anti-intellectual approach to life, both motions were enthusiastically approved.

A third overture involved approving a new pastoral guidebook titled “Abiding Presence: Living Faithfully in End-of-Life Decision.” The piece is declared to be a “theologically and ethically grounded resource for pastoral care in light new medical and legal choices involving the prolongation or cessation of life” – something essential for the church, as countless families continues to struggle with ethical decisions surrounding the end of life. Death is just as much a part of living as birth is, and too often, being an advocate for ‘death with dignity’ has been regarded as being anti-life. This document clearly proclaims that “while sharing in the historical Christian opposition to suicide, we do not find it condemned in Scripture nor see ourselves called to judge others, particularly those facing irreversible deterioration of awareness and bodily function.” Medical science is not the only determining factor in the when, where, and how death comes; and the Church must continue to address the ethics involved with both living, and dying.

Science was also on display in another committee, and the only reason I raise it here is because I was confronted with it on Monday morning as I entered the Convention Center. Flyers were being distributed touting what has become known as a ‘reparative therapy’ for gays and lesbians, and I was both saddened and angered! Men who were clearly uninformed with regard to the science of sexuality were seeking to perpetuate what can be described as nothing less than nonsense.

Fortunately, this afternoon, the GA committee on Social Justice Issues approved a motion that “expressed disapproval of sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts . . . (and that encourages) congregations to equip themselves to provide accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Yes, the Presbyterian Tent is large. We work hard to be inclusive and are always willing to make room for those with whom we may disagree. We can, and will, debate everything from the theology of the incarnation and the meaning of resurrection, to Biblical interpretation and how to balance the unity and purity of the Church. And we will no doubt deliberate and discuss the implications of the Christian faith upon American politics, and our understanding of justice.

But the world is longing for an intellectually credible faith – one that does not deny the theory of evolution, reject climate change, or claim that the earth is no more than 6000 years old. So if you bring such ideas into the tent, know you’ll be welcomed, but you’ll also be challenged. You’ll be cared for, but you will also be held to a higher standard. You’ll be embraced, but you’ll also be encouraged to experience the transformation that comes with the renewing of your mind. For science is not the enemy of God.

Tonight, committee meetings have ended.  Tomorrow, plenary meetings begin.

General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Monday

21 06 2016

For the next five days, business at GA will begin as it should – with Bible Study. The material created for our time here in Portland is titled “Messy Tables, Messy Mission,” and will focus on the duplicity of our walks with God.  Like David, a despicably broken man, who at the same time was a person after God’s own heart, so too do we seek to balance our identity as both sinner and saint.

Following Bible Study, committee meetings begin! And for those not familiar with the work of the assembly, Monday and Tuesday are always about the work of the various GA committees. Each is considering a variety of recommendations to be discussed in plenary meetings that will begin again on Wednesday. Committees will make their recommendations at that time, and commissioners will then vote.

Since I was assigned to Theological Issues and Institutions, this is where my focus will be; and after two days of nothing but ‘hope’ and ‘love,’ today was all about polity – more specifically, our Directory for Worship.

For the past several years a group in the church has been working on re-writing the guidelines for how we worship as Presbyterians. The goal was to shorten the Directory, while at the same time making it easier to understand and giving church leaders a greater degree of flexibility in planning and leading. The result is a beautiful document that reduces the number of “shalls” (things we MUST do!) from over 100, to less than 25.

One of the most important changes we’ve been asked to consider involves access to the Lord’s Supper.  Recognizing that Jesus broke bread with sinners and saints alike, the recommendation is that the church formally open the table to anyone seeking the opportunity to commune with Christ and with one another. Continuing to affirm that “eating and drinking with Christ is not a right bestowed upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love,” our committee has been asked to affirm that “all who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding.” No longer is the invitation to ‘taste and see’ given only to those who have been baptized in the Christian faith; but rather, in the spirit of the inclusiveness of Jesus, the invitation is to all! Jesus invites everyone to commune, and “if some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended.” But there will be no . . . fencing of the table!

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the long and tedious discussions that were had today is the role of the Young Adult Advisory Delegates, and the number of Elders from 1001 Worshipping Communities. These millennials, and Church leaders intentionally seeking to minister to younger generations, bring a perspective to the work of our committee that is invaluable. On several occasions we were cautioned about being tied to old ways of thinking and ‘doing’ church, as well as our allowing our commitment to our traditions to blind us to the need for relevance as we seek to reach the growing number of NONES in America today.

Polity is NOT a dirty word! And this is particularly true when it comes to the worship life of the PC(USA). Like the old directory, the one currently being proposed makes it clear that the goal of polity in worship is not about creating a rigidly fixed way of gathering for corporate worship, but rather to suggest possibilities, invite development, and encourage ongoing reform. The proposed revision of the Directory for Worship will serve the church well in the coming years, and once again, I remain excited about the conversations that are taking place.

General Assembly – Portland 2016 – Sunday

20 06 2016

The Sunday of GA is like the calm before a storm! Orientation and elections have all occurred, and now things are settling down for the work- week that lies ahead.

This morning, commissioners scattered throughout the Portland area for Sunday worship in local congregations, where the hospitality of our denomination was on grand display, and visitors were fed both spiritually, and often physically!

My new friend J.C. Cadwallander preached at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church and powerfully and eloquently encouraged us to find strength in our common humanity, and to then take the message of God’s love to a world that is in desperate need of it. Her message was followed by Tara Wilkins proclaiming that “Sunday morning is incidental” – her way of reminding worshippers that faithful living is about so much more than what we do between 11 and 12 on Sunday! Both women were bold to say that we are not alone in this world, and that nothing can discourage us from action. Prayer is not enough. Sympathy is not enough. Compassion is not enough. None of those things are going to change the broken structures of society or stop the violence that plagues our world. Only love in action will do that; and that is the call of the church today!

The challenges were particularly meaningful because they came from two clergy who 60 years ago would have not been permitted to be in a position of leadership in the Presbyterian Church because they were women. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the ordination of women, and their gifts to the church can no longer be minimized or underestimated.

This weekend is also significant because of two more sobering anniversaries. One week has passed since the massacre of 49 of our Brown and Black LGBTQ sisters and brothers in Orlando. And one year has passed since the attack on a Black Bible Study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Both events serve are reminders that while the ‘Kin-dom’ of God is indeed at hand, much work remains to be done.

The afternoon plenary saw the names of J. Herbert Nelson – former Director of the Washington Office of Public Witness and a member of National Capital Presbytery – and David Baker – Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, placed in nomination to be the next Stated Clerk of our church. Voting will occur on Friday.

Following a variety of dinner options, Assembly Committees had their first meeting. I will be serving on the “Theological Issues and Institutions” Committee, and we will be dealing with several important recommendations over the next two days. Revising our Directory for Worship by adding language regarding who can access the Lord’s Supper, and approving a “Pastoral Guidebook” that deals with end of life issues, are just two of the more difficult items on our agenda, and I look forward to working with the 70 plus members of my committee.

Where ‘hope’ was the word of the day on Saturday, my word for Sunday is ‘love.’ Again and again I heard “Love is love is love is love!” And love was everywhere today. I saw it in worship at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. I heard it in the messages from leaders of Portland’s Muslim and Jewish communities who brought greetings to our assembly. And I felt it from the commissioners of National Capital Presbytery, and the other commissioners I am working with from presbyteries around this great country. If God really is love, then God was all over Portland today. And I remain honored to be here, and excited about the work that lies ahead.