Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Real Business, a la Robert's Rules

An Inkling
“Madam Moderator, I move Jesus.  And if I get a second, I’d like to speak to it.”
“You've heard the motion.  Now it is time for debate.  The maker of the motion has the privilege of speaking first.”
“Madam Moderator, members of the assembly:  it is my deepest hope that you will adopt this motion.  Heaven knows we’ve got problems:  sin and sickness, poverty and hunger, war and death.  Each generation has fancied itself the one to solve these problems.  Politicians, kings, and scientists have led some amazing efforts, and at times the prospects have looked promising.  But even our best efforts of have proven to be transient in effect.  We cannot save ourselves.  Thus we need one who can break the power of sin and death, and who can usher in a new era of peace and wholeness.  There is but one who can do it:  Jesus.  Thus I urge you, for your own sake, and for the sake of the whole world, to vote for this motion.”
“Are there others who would like to speak to this motion?”
“Madam Moderator, I would like to offer a substitute motion.”
“Madam, substitute motions are usually in order, but in this case it is out of order because there is no adequate sub­stitute for the original motion.”
“Madam Moderator, I would like to offer an amendment to the motion.”
“Sir, amendments are usually in order, but in this case it is out of order because no amendment can improve upon the original motion.”
“Madam Moderator, I move that we table the motion until a more advantageous time to decide.”
“Sir, a motion to table is usually in order, but in this case it is out of order because you have no guarantee that you will have another opportunity to decide.  Members of the assembly:  are you ready to vote?  All in favor of Jesus say ‘Aye!’”
Cast your vote now,

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Perspective Via Prayer Request

An Inkling
God is never without the means to lend perspective. 
I was sitting here pondering on our larger church, and thinking about how to follow up on my last post, when into my in box popped a prayer request from a missionary doctor friend who lives in a Muslim nation.  He faithfully sends these prayers each week, requesting that we join him in prayer.  Typically they arrive Tuesday morning, and each time they provide an opportunity for me to recalculate just how “huge” my worry du jour really is.
Here’s this week’s prayer request, with place identifiers removed:
God of mercy, who forgets not the poor and oppressed, we pray for Nupur, a 14-year-old tenth-grader who lives with her family of six in a one-room slum dwelling on the _____ side of _____.  She dreams of attending college.  Her father, an unemployed drug addict, beats her mother to demand the $2 a day she earns unloading sand from boats on the _____ River.  Lord, with your mighty hand break the bonds of poverty and oppression that grip Nupur's family, ease the pain she has felt watching her mother be beaten, and help her realize her dream of higher education.  We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us that in faith all things are possible.  Amen.
Hmmm.  And I was worrying about what will become of our denomination as an institution…  Thanks be to God for his regular reminders about what matters.
Which is not to say that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) doesn’t matter.  For one thing, that’s the part of God’s larger church that supports my friend in his service.  If the church unravels, lots of important missions will get rocked.
But the basic issues in contention, sexual ethics and the uniqueness of salvation in Jesus Christ, matter for another reason too:  they impact the well-being and witness of Christians in such lands.  Many Muslims never give the gospel a chance because they associate it with the sexual chaos of western societies, which they see as Christian lands.  We would protest that our faith can’t be judged by our nation, but that is their perception.  And they are very clear that if the Koran is right about the divine, then we are not.  Historic and global Christianity would rightly want to add, “and vice versa.”  So for the gospel even to get a hearing, and then for us to have some clarity in that conversation, these basic issues matter – a lot.
But here’s what matters most:  these ongoing contentions not only threaten the institutional viability of our denomination, they threaten the possibility that we might have the privilege of bringing the best of all good news to Nupur.  So I continue to pray for our sick ol’ mother church.
And I do so with gratitude to God for the perspective he provides on what is most important – Nupur, and millions like her.
Pray for Nupur,

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Essentials, Non-essentials, and Charity Amiss

An Inkling
I’m still processing our church’s General Assembly last week.  I wrote twice from the midst of the Assembly, and now I write in reflection.  Distance is beginning to lend perspective.
It’s a well-known maxim:  In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.  I’ve seen it attributed both to St. Augustine and John Wesley.  Whoever coined it, many have found it a wise word for how to make life work in the church.
I wish it were true of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  At points in our history it has been.  But for now here is what we’re trying to make work:  In essentials, liberty; in non-essentials, unity; and in all things (except church property), charity.
Let’s start with non-essentials.  General Assembly wasn’t all business.  There were also plenty of occasions to talk shop with other pastors and elders.  We have so much in common in education and ethos.  We face many of the same organizational challenges in our congregations and presbyteries, and we try many of the same innovations.  I had several instructive and satisfying conversations about such non-essentials with people who are opponents on our most contended issues.  Camaraderie came easily on non-essentials.  It almost felt like unity.
Then there are the essentials.  We are clearly on divergent paths.  I say “clearly,” but not all would agree.  Some say there is room for liberty here, and that we can disagree and still walk together.  The matters about which we primarily contend are sexual ethics and the uniqueness of salvation in Christ.  (There is much more to say about each of these, but that will have to await additional blogs.)
Here’s the short of it:  those who want to revise the historic Christian sexual ethic say agreement is not essential.  And those who would recast salvation in Christ as being one of several salvation paths believe that even divergent paths are ultimately the same path.  Those who hold to the historic beliefs in these areas say that they are essential, along with about 99% of the global church.  I agree.  And to indulge ourselves in the fantasy that we can continue as a denomination with liberty on matters so close to the center of our faith and practice is denial on steroids.
Then there’s the matter of charity.  We’ve congratulated ourselves at length about how polite we were to each other at General Assembly, and for the most part we were.  That is to the good.  Where we seem not to be doing so well is in the presbyteries where some congregations have decided they must leave.  What is it about “who gets the property” that tilts otherwise charitable Christians toward mean-spirited actions?  Whoever gets the property, both sides lose in these cases, and the Lord is dishonored.
When the church has unity in essentials, she can handle an amazing amount of liberty in non-essentials, and charity comes as a bonus.  But right now the PCUSA is trying to live outside that pattern.  It won’t work.  It can’t work.
What will happen?  Either God will move to restore our unity in essentials, or there will be some sort of split.  I pray for the former and dread the latter.  Without a miracle, I believe the latter is inevitable.  God has done miracles in the life of his church before.  Maybe he will again.  We’ll see.
It’s a good thing Jesus saves – even the church.
Lord have mercy,

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bring on the Coal

An Inkling
Woe is me.  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.
So prayed Isaiah when he found himself in the very presence of Almighty God (Is. 6:5).  It was and is a good prayer for a person like me who lives in the midst of a people like us.
I did today what I have done most years when I’ve been at General Assembly on Sunday – I skipped the official General Assembly worship service and found another.
Back in 1990, when I started going to Assemblies, I attended these services.  Their size is always impressive, for most of the Presbyterian congregations in the area join in the service.  You can also be sure that the service and its music will be planned with great care.  But after four or five years of this, and realizing that I left the service depressed each time, I decided for the sake of my own weak spirit that I had better find an alternative. 
Most often I have found a local congregation where I knew the worship would be distinct from the Assembly worship, i.e., one where I knew that the preaching would not likely denature the gospel, where the liturgy would not be more concerned with the odd standards for non-sexist language* than it was with honoring God, and where we would not spend the whole service congratulating ourselves on how diverse we are.**
Usually I’ve found a local congregation of Presbyterian flavor that was having its own service.  Once I attended an Orthodox Church across the street from the convention center.  This time I could find no ready local church option, so I went to a gathering of about forty friends in a hotel meeting room, all of whom had decided for reasons similar to my own, that they would do better to have their own service.
It was both wonderful and sad.  It was a wonderfully unself-conscious time of worship.  Language was unguarded, natural, and affectionate toward God.  Prayers for each other and the larger church flowed from the heart.  The songs were mostly a capella, but they were heart-felt and God-honoring.
I didn’t leave depressed, as I often have from the Assembly services.  Nonetheless, there was a sadness too, as I realized that I was in a part of the body of Christ that felt the need to worship separately from the larger part of that body.  We thereby gave expression in our worship to the very sort of divisions that mark us as a church these days.  Lord have mercy.
Or better yet, Woe is me.  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.  Lord, bring on the coal (Is. 6:6-7).
And start with me,
* For those unacquainted with these “standards,” they are such things as: 
  • It’s better to jump through all sorts of grammar hoops, thereby rendering the liturgy into clownish English, than it is to use the common biblical pronoun for God, “he.”
  • It’s okay to make rare use of the name by which Jesus frequently addressed God, “Father,” so long as it is “balanced” with a parallel reference to “Mother.”
  • But it is better to avoid “Father” altogether lest someone think that the one who wrote the prayer is ignorant of the “standards.”
  • Etc.  (Lots of etc’s.)
** This one is even harder to explain than the “standards.”  God’s Kingdom is diverse, and the less diverse a church, the paler it’s representation of the Kingdom.  But when the church in worship is more focused on its own diversity than it is on the One whose gracious presence can gather an amazing diversity, which is what I’ve found in most Assembly worship services, then worship devolves into mere corporate religious narcissism – not a pretty sight. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Sign for Presbyterians?

An Inkling
Will God give a sign?
He did the last time.  When the Lutherans had their Assembly here in Minneapolis last August, they had debates similar to some we’ll have this week, around this question:
Does God want the church to revise her understanding of homosexual practice from being one of the many sexual practices that God would redeem, into being one that God would have the church affirm?  (Note – Among the sexual practices God would redeem, the vast majority are heterosexual, but homosexual practice is at the center of debates because advocates for revision have specified it and not adultery, fornication, etc.)  That question underlies the specific debates about who is to be married to whom, who qualifies for ordination, etc.
The Lutheran debates were scheduled for August 19, at 2:00 p.m.  On a day when no severe weather was expected, a funnel cloud moved across downtown Minneapolis, damaged the roof of the Convention Center, and broke the cross off the steeple of Central Lutheran Church, across the street (see the picture).  Then the tornado lifted.  The time?  2:00 p.m.  (Google “Lutherans and tornado” for multiple news accounts from that day.)
A coincidence?  Hmmm.  In this case I think it takes less faith to affirm God’s providential work than it does to affirm a random event.  But apparently the Lutherans thought it was random.  They voted to celebrate what God would redeem, distancing themselves from the global and historic church, and confusing the gospel word that brings hope to both homosexuals and heterosexuals whose sexual practices hinder God’s blessings in their lives.  
The cross atop Central Lutheran Church has been restored.  I can see it right outside my hotel window.  But the sign God sent to the Lutherans is still playing out, and it will until something more than the steeple cross is repaired.  
"Lord have mercy – on them and on us!  And if you see fit, a sign would be fine!"  
I’ve got one eye on the weather….   And thanks for your prayers,