Posts Tagged ‘PCUSA’

sowing seeds in the desert

Last week I was part of a great tradition.  Presbyterians are pretty serious about being “connectional,” meaning that we make decisions and engage in church work as a part of networks.  In the spirit of being connectional, we ask people who want to be pastors to stand up at a presbytery meeting, and give an account of their walk with Christ.  Those who are beginning a new call must also answer some questions on Scripture, worship and/or theology.  After their petition (to accept a call or to go forward with their seminary education) is approved, people who are connected to them are asked to stand.  I got to stand for two young people who have participated in campus ministry, as well as for a nearby colleague.  It was a proud moment of seeing seeds bear fruit.

A question posed to one of the candidates got me thinking:  “What’s your favorite book of the Bible, why is it your favorite, and can you outline it for us and explain its major themes?”  (If that sounds like a big question, know that they used to be worse!  Back in the day, candidates could be called upon to outline and explain any book of the Bible, not just their favorite.)

Lately I have been captured by Genesis.  It has been in our lectionary (recommended readings for Sunday worship) this summer, and even though we’re doing a sermon series on another topic, I’ve been going back to Genesis in my personal reading.

What I never noticed before is the amount of individual interaction with God.  In the past I’ve read Genesis from a historical or even a family systems theory point of view, looking at the broad scope of what happens to the emerging people of God.

But this time I’m focusing on these encounters between fallible people and a God who has a scary amount of power to shape the future.  And most of these encounters are clothed in deep, wrenching personal struggle.

  • Of course in Genesis we have good old Abraham, who hears the call to go to a new land (12:1), and the disturbing call to sacrifice his own son (22:2).
  • Then there’s Rebekah, a woman, who had a conversation with God.  Her twins in utero kicked her until she was utterly spent.  So she asked God to explain her suffering, and God told her about his plans for these humans in the making. (25:22-23)
  • This week the lectionary tells us about Jacob, who sent his whole family ahead of him on his journey home.  During his night alone (32:24) he wrestles with “a man,” some kind of divine manifestation.
  • And later we’ll have Joseph, who spends time alone in a well (37:24), alone in prison (40:23), and alone weeping when he sees his brother Benjamin (43:30).

These are just a few examples.  What stands out to me this time around, is that none of these people receive a perfect resolution as a result of their struggle.  Jacob is left with a limp, Rebekah is left to deal with two sparring sons, and Abraham must go on raising his son after almost killing him.  Some interpreters say that Joseph, although he saved countless people from starvation, set in motion a chain of events that led his people into slavery.

What happens when we struggle?  We’re so similar to these people from a faraway time and place.  We too struggle alone. We too have sacred moments during which we are deeply connected to God in the midst of our pain, but not given magical powers to bend circumstances to our will.  We too play a part in stories larger than our own, stories that are shaped by the movement of the Spirit.

And we too leave our mark on the story.  The people of Genesis sort of sow seeds in the desert:  they build monuments, they tell their children about God, and they stand out from the other peoples they encounter.  I doubt they would have kept going had it not been for the strength they received from those long nights of prayer and wrestling with God.  They left deep wells of faith as they moved through the dry land.

What seeds will we sow as the result of our struggles? 

10-A: raising the bar?

My friend Ed Brenegar commented this morning on my last post, talking about the balance of local control and the connectional system of the PC(USA).  I appreciate how he brought up the presbyteries’ role in helping congregations, so that no congregation is stuck trying to figure out how to do ministry alone.

A lot of folks have wondered how 10-A will apply in the broader contexts, as governing bodies of the church continue their functions of calling, ordaining, and installing the officers of the church.   A lot of people are wondering — if sessions and presbyteries seek to interpret the new text faithfully, will every candidate for office be painstakingly scrutinized?  And if so, what will that mean?   (I remember speaking about this ten years ago at presbytery meetings!)

It remains to be seen how this one amendment will change (or not change) the preparation and selection of the church’s leaders.  But I do know one thing, regardless of what’s in the Book of Order:  it’s time for officers of the church to humbly kneel in awe of the sacred trust placed in our hands.

We pastors, elders, and deacons ask a lot of church members and visitors.  We ask them to conform their lives to a standard that is totally foreign to some cultural contexts.  We ask them to give their hard-earned money.  We ask them to give the precious time that seems to slip away faster with each day. 

When church members do those things, they expect to have something back, and rightly so.  Sometimes the expectations get mixed up, as in, “I gave a lot of money and you won’t put my name on a window,” or “I worked hard to pick out pretty carpet for the sanctuary and the pastor’s baby crawled on it!”  But on average, those who commit their lives to Christ and his church expect that the leaders will make serious commitments too.

When our sermons turn into rants, or when we fail to provide quality Christian Education programs, or when we brush people off when they express fears and doubts, or when we treat our own bodies as throwaway commodities, we, the leaders of the church, are in deep trouble.  It’s not just that these failures could result in poor church attendance or low giving.  If we ask people to make commitments on a certain level, and we fail to keep our commitments at that same level, we have turned into snake oil salesmen:  exchanging people’s trust for slick and meaningless promises.

Again, I have no idea what 10-A will bring in terms of the preparation for ministry process, examination of elders-elect, and so on.  But I do hope that those of us who are currently called to office (or seeking office) will take this opportunity to re-commit to high standards and best practices.  The world is desperate for leaders who walk the walk.

Amendment 10-A: I predict … ?

So we’ve had the Big Vote in the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Amendment 10-A.  I’ll spare you an explanation, since I think most of my readers are Presbyterians!  But please let me know if you need more information.

In the days and weeks and months leading up to this vote, scores of people have predicted how its passage would either liberate or obliterate the Church.  I think a lot of people view this moment as a prophetic one, as it will reveal the moment we did something awfully heretical, or awfully faithful.

You might have an occasion to think about prophecy this Sunday morning.  One of the Scripture readings for this Sunday, May 15, is Acts 2:42-47.*  This is one of “those” passages that can raise uncomfortable questions about one’s lifestyle.  In a weird way, it is exactly what I needed to hear at this moment.

The early Christians depicted in this passage participated in a shared act of prophecy.  Theirs was prophecy in the true Biblical sense:  a statement of God’s intentions for the world, not necessarily a prediction of the future.

When a believer “does” prophecy, the Spirit speaks a word against human self-absorption and self-indulgence through her.   The believer conveys a godly word of challenge, guidance, and a reminder of who is in charge (and if you need a hint, prophecy reminds us that we are not the ones in charge!)

The early church, filled with elation over the saving act of Jesus Christ,  decided on a prophetic act of self-reliance. They emerged from a socioeconomic system based on legalized inequality and decided to take care of all their members’ needs.  Slavery, usury, and debt — the things that gave the ancient nobles power and  kept the rest of the population from fully prospering — were banished from the early community of believers, as a way of stating that God wishes to banish those things from creation.

The debate continues over the various forms of human bondage and oppression experienced today. In fact, just this evening, the Presbyterian Church (USA) website featured an article on how we can act to eliminate modern-day slavery.  Many American Christians feel that they are theologically oppressed, but there are widely divergent views of what the theological oppression is.  Some will see tonight’s passage of 10-A as a release from the bondage of homophobia in the church, and others will see this event as a descent into the bondage of theological relativism.

The problem for me is, that in the midst of all this, I still feel bound.  From time to time students have asked me about 10-A, and I have almost felt unable to speak.  I’m silent not because I can’t think, but because of what I have witnessed as a campus minister.  Among today’s emerging adults there is a gnawing need to perform, to be accepted, and to be excited — and it’s all combined with true confusion over where they fit in the world.  In the ministry I direct, students have been all over the map in regard to sexuality and intimacy.  Some have come out, others have retracted their coming-out, some have gone too far with a date, and others have been totally unable to find a date.   And no matter what the circumstance, they are incredibly anxious, confused, and desperate for guidance.  Some days I feel like Job’s friends, who, before they smothered him with long speeches, simply sat with him in silence because his suffering was so great.

I’m oddly comforted by the prophetic witness of the early Christians with their shared resources.  There is a way out of bondage!  There is a way to challenge the things that we happily accept because we’re unaware of the chains tightening around us.

And even though prophecy doesn’t always equal telling the future, my big prediction (drum roll) is that we aren’t done yet with larger issues of sexuality.  Until we who call ourselves followers of Christ can free ourselves from the bondage of:

  • the “me-first” approach to relationships;
  • our fear of discussing sex within our homes;
  • our aversion to commitment;
  • our belief that momentary pleasure equals deep spiritual meaning; and
  • a sex-saturated media environment,

we will not be done with this conversation.

I’m ready for a prophetic word on how God wants us to live out the matters of the heart.  If God can challenge the entrenched financial realities of the Roman Empire, surely God can help us learn to be together in a way that God could call good.

I love the church that raised me and I pray for her every day.  May the Holy Spirit continue to speak the needed word to my dear church and to the surrounding world.

* at First Presbyterian we’re actually doing a sermon series, so this week’s Scripture will be from John.

now is the time to worship

For the first time in a while, someone approached me after the 8:30 am service at First Presbyterian, and instead of complimenting my sermon, she complimented the entire worship service.

That was the best thing I’ve heard all week!  I know the Reformed tradition(s) put  a lot of emphasis on reading and teaching the Word, but hey, worship should be important to us too.

The Sunday before, the importance of worship came rushing in upon me like a gale-force wind.  I was attending the opening worship of the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Minneapolis.  At the beginning of the service, as I saw Commissioned Lay Pastor Fern Cloud ascend to the pulpit, and as we were surrounded by sights and sounds invoking a Native American spiritual experience, it was almost impossible for me to hold back tears.  The service went on to include other musical traditions, and the great feeling just continued.

Why?  Am I just sentimental, swimming in romantic nostalgia for a people and way of life to which I don’t belong?  It’s possible, but I don’t think so.  What I felt was more like relief.

worship by the Bogue Sound, with borrowed communion set

Many times I have experienced worship as if it were a package, neatly wrapped and delivered to my lap.  I’ve been to churches that delivered me a fire-and-brimstone package, or an intellectual sermon-and-classical music package, or a fun and inspirational package, complete with scruffy-looking young men playing electric guitars.

Problem is, when I have received those packages, I have found that all the work has been done for me.  I’ve been told what to think, what to feel, and how to express myself.  And after a while I feel stifled, jittery, and far removed from God’s presence.

But things were a little different at the General Assembly service, and at our 8:30 am service here in eastern NC.  In both these situations, the worship incorporated what local people had to offer, instead of fitting themselves into a pre-packaged mold, and I think that makes all the difference.

It makes perfect sense when you have a big church conference to honor the resources and traditions of all the local churches.  And it is a breath of fresh air here in Greenville to see what kinds of musicians might show up at the 8:30 service.  We have a great school of music at ECU, and lots of local people have musical talent.  So we might have a piano, guitar, bass, flute, mandolin, trumpet, or who knows what to lead us in worship.

In seminary we learned that the original “offering” in Christian worship consisted of people bringing communion bread, wine, flowers, oil for anointing, or whatever was needed for the service that day.  Read 1 Corinthians 12 and you’ll learn more about the emerging tradition of people offering various spiritual gifts.  The early Christians had no one they could hire, or anyone they could fully copy.  There was no package they could wrap up for their members–they were creating worship as they went along.

So I can understand why the church member was inspired by the early service.  The music was authentic, and it came from within our community.  It didn’t have a brand name or particular style.

Worship that incorporates what the community has to offer takes me out of my little bubble and into a wider world–and then it challenges me to do something with what I’ve been given.  So now I’m challenged to think beyond the music here in our congregation, and to think more about worship experiences our campus ministry will have.  I’ve been given the gift of great people all around me.  Instead of trying to deliver them a package, how can I help them bring their gifts to the table?