Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Avoiding a Millstone Necktie

An Inkling
I’m offering a reason each day for why I believe the PCUSA crossed a line with its decision to drop the ordination standard “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”  Today’s reason is:  marriage is next.
It has to be.  Those who pled for the revision of our ordination standards claimed justice as their basis.  They apply the same rationale to marriage – i.e., that it’s only just that same sex couples be able to marry too.  And a civil union won’t satisfy, lest they be deemed second-class. 
This reasoning has prevailed in a number of states now.  Revisionists have persuaded some state legislatures that justice demands a redefinition of marriage.  And the defenders of traditional marriage have cited natural law, studies about optimal conditions for child-rearing (i.e., families with a mom and a dad), and the witness of hundreds of cultures across thousands of years. 
Legislators cannot simply draw upon the biblical witness as we can.  For us the scripture’s teaching is decisive, both in its account of how God created marriage for a man and a woman (Genesis 2:18-25), and in its various bans of homosexual behavior.  The scripture is very clear (see the blog for Aug. 18 for more on its clarity).  Just because our culture is confused about God’s design for the family, the church need not be.  Indeed, given the culture’s confusion, the church should make sure that its teachings are biblically based and crystal clear.
When states change their marriage laws, they don’t really change how life works.  They can’t.  That is the Creator’s prerogative.  If the states decided to repeal the law of gravity because it weighs more heavily on some than on others, that wouldn’t change the results of stepping off a cliff.  Nor can they change the long-term consequences of attempting to recast God’s design for the family. 
May it be that the church would not presume to bless what God has not blessed.  And may it be that we would not cause our own little ones to stumble with confusing teaching about something so important as marriage.  It would be better to wear a millstone necktie while swimming – so said Jesus (Luke 17:1-2).
Let’s not,

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where Flesh Meets Spirit

An Inkling
With power now restored after the hurricane, I am renewing my quest to post a daily blog on why our denomination has crossed a line toward unfaithfulness by removing our “fidelity and chastity” ordination standards.  Today’s reason seeks to address the question “why make a big deal out of sex when there are more important matters?”
Good question.  There are more important matters at risk in our larger church, such as the uniqueness of Christ, the nature of forgiveness, the authority of scripture, etc.  But such huge matters don’t lessen the impact of this large matter.  They only lend perspective.
You can make a good case that sins of the spirit are in fact more deadly than sins of the flesh.  That is, sins of the spirit (like pride, racism, and contempt) burgeon in their ruinous effects over time, whereas sins of the flesh (like drunkenness and promiscuity) eventually do us in physically, and thus are self-limiting.  You can only party hardy for a season before life collapses (think Amy Winehouse).  But the effects of hatred and egotism multiply exponentially, to the harm of untold numbers (think Moammar Gadhafi).  Reinhold Niebuhr made this case very well. 
Too often the church has majored in sins of the flesh and ignored sins of the spirit.  The old rhyme “I don’t smoke, drink, cuss, or chew, and I don’t go with girls who do” is a caricature of an all too real tendency to make piety all about avoiding sins of the flesh.  Ironically the smugness of “I don’t smoke, drink, etc,” is often exceeded by the smugness of those condemning such smugness – a sin of the spirit!  We sinners never have done very well fixing other sinners.  We need a Savior.
We have a Savior.  His intention is to save us body and soul, breaking the power of sin in our flesh and spirit.  And to tell the truth, the distinction between the two is really only for discussion.  They are inseparable.  And in our day those who would redefine various sins of the flesh rely upon spiritual justification – “we must celebrate who God made us to be.”  “We must liberate the oppressed.”
While the apostles knew that sins of the flesh were not the biggest thing, they recognized that they, too, were finally spiritual in their effect.  Recall what proscriptions the Jerusalem council preserved even as they liberated the newly Christian Gentiles from many particulars of Jewish law: abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality… (Ac 15:20).  If we mute our Christian witness in an area of great impact in people’s lives (the nature of marriage, fidelity in marriage, and chastity in singleness), an area in which a biblical ethic is increasingly counter-cultural, then we mute the impact of the gospel’s gracious and transforming effects – not only on the flesh, but on the spirit.
May our Savior give us wisdom and courage to proclaim the full gospel.  We need it all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Well Meaning McCoys

An Inkling
Riding the horse of this Hatfields and McCoys metaphor a bit farther, let me offer another reason why I believe our denomination has crossed a line with its decision to change our ordination standards:  the primary motive of the revisionists.  They have said that it’s for the sake of justice.
What does that mean?  It means that however well-intentioned the McCoys (who won this round) were in offering to stand by the Hatfields, who for conscience’s sake cannot abide this change, the McCoys’ sentiment won’t stand for long in the PCUSA.  It can’t.  Why?  Because if it is really a matter of justice, then forbearance with those who don’t agree can only go so far.  The pull of justice is just too strong.
We’ve seen this before.  Back in the 70s the McCoys were trumpeting the importance of justice for women who were being excluded from ordination.  A Hatfield (named Kenyon) said that he could not affirm that mandate by the Assembly.  Presbytery said that he had to if he were to be ordained.  So the contention worked its way up through the church courts, and finally the ruling was that yes, he had to affirm women’s ordinations if he were to be ordained.  Why?  Because it was a matter of justice, and justice trumped room for conscience.  That was one of the issues that led to the creation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Many of the McCoys, who wanted this change in standards, don’t want the church to split.  They say they want us Hatfields to be a part of the church, and that the church will be less without us.  They even took out a full page ad in The Presbyterian Outlook to tell us that they would stand by us.  Bless ‘em.  They know that many of us Hatfields believe that we would be disobedient to God if we affirmed the ordinations that they believe are a matter of justice.
I trust that the McCoys are sincere in telling us that they want us to stay, and that they will advocate for us to have room for conscience.  I just don’t think that their sincerity and good intentions will finally carry the day.  Justice for those “excluded” trumps room of conscience for “excluders” every time – if not immediately, then eventually.
I myself believe that the Kenyon decision was right.  Women’s ordination is a matter of justice, and it is biblically founded.  And while I believe others can make a decent case for a different reading of scripture regarding women, I do not believe that there is really room for both positions in the same fellowship over time.  At some point one of the clans needs to find a different room in the household of faith.  Why?  Justice trumps room for conscience.
So maybe this time the denomination will find a way to offer genuine protection to the Hatfields for their freedom of conscience – non-geographic presbyteries, or some such.  But I’m not betting on it for the long haul.  Having made their claims on the basis of justice, eventually the McCoys won’t be able to tolerate exceptions, and we Hatfields will be run off the mountain.
May the God of the Hatfields and the McCoys have mercy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Life Among the Hatfields and McCoys

An Inkling
I’m offering a reason each day for why I believe the PCUSA decision to change ordination standards has pushed us across a line.  Yesterday’s reason was that this change, far from bringing peace, will only ramp up our conflict.  Today I’ll not add another reason, but seek to add some nuance to yesterday’s reason.
Simply saying conflict will increase doesn’t quite describe how it works.  Actually some presbyteries are peaceful in the sense that they have a clear voting majority around sexual ethics issues (ordinations, blessing unions, and in some states, weddings).  In Hatfield presbyteries, where there are only a few McCoys, every time “the issue” comes up, a few of the more vocal McCoys will make pro forma speeches, but the vote is known before it is ever taken.  And there is peace, of sorts.  Ditto in McCoy presbyteries with a few Hatfields.
The leadership patterns are predictable in such clearly defined Hatfield and McCoy presbyteries.  When it’s time to choose people to serve in the real decision making positions (COM, Coordinating Council, etc), a Hatfield presbytery will include some McCoys for the sake of being inclusive.  A particularly polite McCoy may even be chosen as Moderator.  But the McCoys will never be allowed a voting majority.  Ditto with the choosing of General Assembly commissioners.  The elephant of “the issue” dictates that unspoken quotas be preserved.  You won’t find these operating procedures in the presbytery manual, but you can be sure that they do hold sway.  And it works the same way in McCoy presbyteries, preserving a peace, of sorts.
Then there are presbyteries like where I serve:  the Presbytery of the James.  Here the Hatfields and McCoys are closely divided.  We actually had a tie vote on 10-A.  That means that every time “the issue” comes up, we have something more than pro forma speeches.  We maneuver and turn out the votes, and we try to persuade the dozen people who haven’t already made up their minds to vote with our side.  Gratefully, here in the James, the Hatfields and McCoys are cordial.  But cordial and peaceful are not the same thing.
But hasn’t it always been so?  In some measure, yes.  Across the 200+ years of our denomination (for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep “denomination” singular and ignore the various divisions and reunions along the way), the issues have changed, but there have always been Hatfield and McCoy and mixed presbyteries.   Sometimes, despite the differences, a meaningful common life could be preserved.  There was a substantial unity on essentials, which allowed a freedom on non-essentials, and charity all around.  But now the Hatfields and McCoys disagree even about what’s essential, which doesn’t bode well for unity, freedom, or charity.
It’s a good thing Jesus is Lord of this mess, and that the Lord of this mess is merciful.  Tomorrow another reason…

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Elephant Just Got Bigger

An Inkling
With a new week I’m renewing my quest to offer a daily blog on why I believe our denomination has crossed a line toward unfaithfulness by removing our “fidelity and chastity” ordination standards.  I’m bearing down on this, doing a daily blog rather than a weekly blog, because I want to get on to other topics.  I don’t want to stretch this matter out to two months!  There is so much ministry to do, and so many other matters to address.  But, given the power of these changes to undermine how the gospel finds expression in our denomination, I’m pressing on with this topic until I run out of reasons!
For today I want to think about part of the rationale offered by the revisionists for dropping “fidelity and chastity” – namely, fatigue with the fight.  We’ve been fighting about this for over 30 years.  I’ve been ordained 30 years this month, and I’ve never been part of a presbytery in which this was not the elephant in the room.  We’re all tired of it.  And so a winning vote margin was gained for dropping the standard largely through the well-meaning but na├»ve rationale that we’ll just kick the discussion from the national level down to presbyteries and sessions, where we all know each other well, and we can give each other space, and voila – finally, peace in the church.  (Forgive me the caricature of that rationale, but it is only a slight caricature.)
With that line of thought in mind, a bunch of former General Assembly Moderators wrote the church immediately after the vote saying, “Ok, we’ve had our debate and vote.  Now let’s get on with the mission and work of the church.”  Would that we could.
In different context my brother, Kirby, and I have been able to bring that off.  He’s a Presbyterian Minister too, and has been on the other side of this debate from me.  When we were in the same presbytery, we found ourselves standing in opposite lines at microphones for the endless debates.  But for the family’s sake, we decided some years ago to leave such topics aside.  That means that our family conversations don’t have the depth they once did, lest we somehow pull the bell string of “the issue.”  But all in all we’ve been able to get on with being family.
We could do that in the family because we don’t have to vote.  Not so with presbyteries and sessions.  We have to vote, over and over.  And now, not on a clearly stated denominational standard to be applied graciously in a particular situation, but on a fuzzy standard to be applied one way in one place and another way in another place, depending on who has the vote margin.  The elephant in the room just doubled in size.  And oh, the shoveling to come!
Tomorrow another reason…

Friday, August 19, 2011

Torn Apart

An Inkling
Jesus prayed that the church would be one.  Agreed.
Given a choice, Luther and Calvin wouldn’t have left the church, bad as it was.  Agreed.
Schism is wrong.  Agreed.
If a congregation cannot agree with the new ordination standards (and the consequent changes coming in how our church embodies the grace, forgiveness, and transformation of the gospel) and leaves the PCUSA for another denomination they are schismatic.  Agreed.
Ergo, it is better for a congregation to stay put in the PCUSA, even if they cannot abide this change, lest they be schismatic.  Disagreed.
Why?  Because we’re already in schism, simply by being a part of the PCUSA.  Our denomination has taken us into schism with the global and historic church.  Our choice is no longer between schism and no schism, only between which form of schism.  That’s hellish, but that’s where we are.
The members of the PCUSA comprise a little over ½ of 1% of the population of the United States, which holds about 5% of the global population.  We are tiny.  The path apart that we have chosen will hardly register in the global church.  One billion Catholics and 300 million Orthodox will hardly notice.  Nor would the burgeoning churches of the global south, except that we were the mother church to many of them.  Because of our history they at least notice that we’re leaving them, and they grieve.  And they are commencing with the severance of our much treasured mission partnerships.  Alas.
But wait – haven’t we already been out of synch with many such churches through our readiness to affirm the leadership gifts of women?  True.  Many churches have chosen a similar course, but many have not.  Yet even those who disagree with us on women’s roles have not rejected us outright as a faithful church, for they recognize that we have made the case from scripture, even if they interpret the scripture differently.  They rightly recognize no such justification for the changes we are making in our sexual ethics.  Thus they are deciding if this is a departure of sufficient magnitude to break fellowship with us.  Many already have.  We will see many more if the PCUSA does what the revisionists hope it will at the next General Assembly, namely redefine marriage.
In these blogs I am offering reasons why I believe the PCUSA has crossed a line toward biblical unfaithfulness with its ordination standard changes.  To that list add schism – not if some congregations leave.  We’re already there.  God may guide some congregations to leave and others to stay.  But he has not given us an option for avoiding schism altogether.  It’s a good thing he’s merciful!
With this, I’ll pause the daily blogs until Monday, and then another reason…

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In Spite of the Scripture

An Inkling
I am continuing this series of daily blogs on why I believe our larger church has crossed a line toward biblical unfaithfulness in its decision to revise our ordination standards.  Here’s the next reason:  this time the church has changed its standards in spite of the Bible and not because of it.
Those supporting the standard change don’t appreciate being tagged as unbiblical.  They say they read their Bibles as intently as those opposing these changes, and that they have simply come to different conclusions.  I understand that they value the Bible, but I believe their different conclusions are based upon an intellectual sleight of hand.
When we revisit the church’s teaching on some contested matter, we go back to the scripture, we look again at why our forebears concluded what they did, and we consider whether the proponents of change have a good case.  That’s what happened when the church changed her views on slavery, divorce, and the role of women in leadership.  In each of those cases the church concluded that the proponents of change made their case, and so the church changed her standards – not in spite of the scripture, but because of it.
Not so this time.  Here’s where the intellectual sleight of hand comes in.  We entrust our presbyters (elders and ministers) to make these decisions.  As they search the scripture they rightly consider the insights of biblical scholars, and particularly when some passages seem pitted against others (a la slavery, divorce, and the roles of women).
In the 1970s, when our church began to revisit teachings on sexual ethics, Bible scholars went to work.  Cases were made for and against the proposed revisions.  In 2001 Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, made a definitive case in favor of the traditional Christian sexual ethic, including clearly reasoned distinctions between this matter and the previously contested areas of slavery, divorce, and the roles of women.  And none of the proponents of change have been able to answer him.  There have been a few notable efforts (e.g., Jack Rogers’ Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality), but they are notable in part because they have pretended to make the case while totally bypassing many of Gagnon’s key arguments. 
Given how the scholarly underpinnings of this debate have worked out, I believe it is intellectually dishonest for the revisionists to claim a biblical basis for their argument.  They simply have not made their case.  Even so, they have persuaded the church to make these changes – not because of the scripture, but in spite of it. 
We have crossed a line.  Alas.  May the Lord of the church and the scripture have mercy on us all.  Tomorrow another reason…
Blessings, Keith

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lessons from the Unitarians

An Inkling
As I wrote yesterday, I am writing a daily series of blogs on why I believe our larger church has crossed a line toward biblical unfaithfulness in its decision to revise our ordination standards.  Here’s the first reason, chosen as first because it also serves as a caveat:  this decision destabilizes foundational doctrines of the church, and will, in time, lead to a broader crumbling of those foundational doctrines.  Among those foundational doctrines I would include our understanding of God’s grace, the nature of sin, and the meaning of repentance, forgiveness, transformation, and sanctification.  This is not simply about sexual ethics.  That’s the arena in which we’ve had this debate, but what’s at stake is much, much more.  I’ll return to some of these in posts yet to come.
But first an historical example.  When the early Unitarians decided that the Congregational Church was wrong about the Trinity, and went their own way in 1825, it resulted in the tearing of many congregations and relationships – painfully so.  (Sound familiar?)  Here’s the caveat part of the example:  those who went with the Unitarians did not immediately become non-Christian.  Indeed, many of them showed a greater resemblance to the character of Christ than did many of the Trinitarians who remained in the Congregational Church.  They continued in a personal relationship with the Lord, and looked to Jesus as Savior.  That sounds Christian to me.
Nonetheless, in setting aside the Trinity, a foundational doctrine inextricably joined to other foundational doctrines, they made a choice that so destabilized their overall Christian teaching that it put them on the course toward what they have now become – something quite apart from Christianity.  Check out the Unitarian-Universalist website if you want to see just how far apart.
Some of those affirming the change in our standards are good friends of mine, and some are family.  We love each other.  I can look at their lives and see that they display the character of Christ much more broadly in their lives than I do.  That does not change the fact that they are embarking on a course that will, over time, inevitably lead their congregations quite apart from anything recognizably Christian.
Thankfully, the One who is judge is also our Savior.  We all need his mercy.  Tomorrow another reason…

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Line in the Sand

An Inkling
Has a line been crossed?  This summer our larger church decided to remove the “fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness” language from our ordination standards.  Although it’s complicated to explain the history of our sexual ethics debates and how that impacts ordination, suffice it to say that the effect of removing this language is to open the door to ordination for those sexually active outside of marriage between a man and a woman, be they heterosexual or homosexual.  The advocates for this change have been telling us all along that this is no big deal, and that we’ll either learn to like it, or learn to live together with this as just-one-more-difference in the great range of diversity in our church – i.e., no line has been crossed.
Next week there will be a gathering of those who disagree.  About 2000 elders and ministers, from hundreds of congregations, will gather in Minneapolis to discuss the change.  During August the thermometer in Minneapolis is certainly to be preferred over points south, but not enough to justify the days and dinero necessary to get there.  So the five of us going from St. Giles are making this effort for another reason:  we do believe a line has been crossed, and we need some partners in trying to discern how God would have us respond. 
After the Minneapolis gathering we’ll have a congregational forum to discuss what we learned about emerging options.  But for now it’s important to know why we’re going to all this trouble.  It’s not as if we couldn’t find many more appealing ministry options for the days and dinero this will take.  So it’s well to think through why this is important.  I usually try to blog once a week.  But for the next few days I’ll blog a reason each day for why I believe a line has been crossed, for however many days that takes.
Pray for the five of us going to Minneapolis.  Pray for all 2000.  And pray for those who say no line has been crossed.  May God’s mercy be apparent for all.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How One Preacher Does It

An Inkling
Sometimes people ask how I write sermons and how long it takes.  There are some pretty good sermons available on the internet with a few clicks.  But over time the Lord has guided me into the following pattern.
Preparation for no sermon in particular:  Whenever I read whatever, my mind is asking, “might I someday use this in a sermon?”  So I tag interesting stories in Time or Christianity Today, or the book I’m reading.  Then I enter these tags with a title and page number in an excel file, so that I can search by theme or scripture passage.  My illustration file is now up over 6000 entries.  Most of my sermons use one or more of these entries, be they from ten years ago or ten days ago.  That’s part of what makes it hard to figure exactly how long a sermon takes.
Preparation for a season of sermons:  Mostly I preach series of sermons, lasting anywhere from several weeks to a whole year.  This summer we’ve focused on Exodus, and this fall we’ll center on the opening chapters of Revelation.  Next year we’ll spend the whole year in the gospel of John.  And then there are special days, such as the tenth anniversary of 9-11, which falls on Sunday, for which we’ll focus on Psalm 90.  We also give attention to the emphases of the church year – Advent, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
Preparation for a particular sermon:  I begin studying the particular scripture passage a week and a half out, in order to prepare the Marinate guide for small groups and individual study.  More study comes during the week of the sermon, including commentaries, theological works, and possible illustrations.  Sometimes old sermons on the same passage, though typically not helpful in the particulars, will have a story or image that is useful.  Next I brainstorm on paper until an overall idea becomes apparent.  Then I write a detailed outline and put it on my iPad to use in the pulpit.  On Saturday and early Sunday I read through it multiple times.  I can’t really memorize it, but by worship time I have a general idea of where it’s going, and then use my notes as needed.
That description is as long winded as a sermon!  Sorry.  But that’s how it works, except for one more piece, which you supply.  God’s Word has its effect as it is heard.  And it is best heard (either through me or in spite of me) as we prepare through praise, confession, and so on during the first part of the service.  I’ve preached in lots of churches, and I can tell you that you saints of St. Giles do your part marvelously well.  Your eagerness to hear from God covers a whole multitude of preaching sins!  Thanks for the partnership.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

With Cigars to Follow

An Inkling
Today as I write I have joined with many here at St. Giles in answering our Session’s call to fast and pray on Tuesdays this month.  This call is in response to our denomination’s recent decision to change our ordination practices in ways that both put us on a track toward schism with the global church, and render our church councils as caricatures of biblical leadership.  And the call is in anticipation of a Gathering in Minneapolis at the end of August, at which hundreds of leaders from concerned congregations will consider our options.  The seriousness of such matters certainly warrants a call to fasting and prayer.
But to what end?  Isn’t God going to do what he’s going to do whether we pray or not?  No.  Sovereign though he is, our prayers count – they actually affect the outcome.  And are more pray-ers actually more effective than a few?  Though it’s certainly not magic, that’s what the scriptural promises affirm about agreement in prayer.  I can cite chapter and verse for those and many other affirmations about prayer.  And yet much mystery remains.
Gratefully we can serve God in prayer even with our limited understanding.  Indeed our grasp of some aspects of prayer deepens more in practice than analysis.  A season of urgent fasting and prayer will deepen our understanding of prayer’s mysteries in ways that theological discussions cannot.
That’s how it works, too, with one of the scriptural metaphors for prayer – travail.  By “travail” I mean the old sense – the struggle to birth new life.  A woman who has travailed appreciates birthing in ways beyond what birthing classes can teach.  Classes and discussions have their place, both in prayer and in birthing.  But the deepest understanding comes in the travail.
What new life might God call forth through this season of travail in his church, and in its focused expressions of fasting and prayer?  I don’t know.  But we can be sure that in God’s good time we’ll be lighting up some celebratory cigars.  And it can’t come too soon!