January 16, 2012
The Presbyterian world is all atwitter about the upcoming convocation of the Fellowship of Presbyterians to convene later this week in Orlando, Florida. If it accomplishes nothing else, I hope folks across the church will take seriously the fact that thousands of their kinfolk are grabbing for a life-line before they slide into a murky sea of theological accommodation. The life-line is of two strands, at least: fellowship with like-minded conservatives who can offer the reassurance that they are not going crazy, and an organization that can accommodate a transition out of the PCUSA when and if that becomes necessary.
Alas, I will not be present for the event and therefore will not have anything to say about the convocation itself in real-time. I would have gone if I could have; but when the organizers changed the date from last week to this week, I lost out. My daughter’s long-awaited dream trip to New Zealand, with her mother as companion, takes me out of the country, probably out of Internet range on many hiking days. For this reason, even though I often comment on events from a distance, I will not feel confident that I am getting a firm grip on things until I get back. By then, the dust will have settled and I will be cobbling together from many sources what happened.
For now, I will be comforted by the wisdom of Solomon, who included in his proverbs this one: “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). So I am going to be really intelligent for a couple of weeks. For once, I have nothing to say!
But my prayers are with all the many friends and colleagues who will be going, praying, listening, and deciding. May they, and you, my readers, be attentive to God’s working and obedient to God’s direction.
January 13, 2012
Presbyterians, especially those who have been tracking General Assembly with interest the last few years, are generally acquainted with a particular method of decision-making. This method relies on orderly process according to Robert’s Rules of Order so that everybody can follow along and know when their opportunities for input and commitment arrive. Robert’s Rules offer a helpful framework for discussion, consideration of alternative ideas, and are especially known for giving voice to those with a minority viewpoint. Until the final vote, folks have the opportunity to offer amendments, substitute motions, or points of information that help the body thoroughly explore the options. When the vote is taken, the majority rules and the body knows how to act as a result.
Considerable pressure is being placed on governing bodies to develop and use alternative “methods of discernment,” most especially the consensus model in ecclesiastical decision-making. The idea is that the conversation can be more free-flowing, not hung up on “rules,” and more conducive to “listening” for the Holy Spirit’s input. The hope is that the discussion will move toward a general agreement, which is adopted not by vote but by acclamation when it is felt the coalescing moment has arrived. Consensus decision-making is a natural fit for a group that knows each other well and enjoys a high level of trust. In such a case, it is perhaps the most efficient way to get things done.
However, I am not a big fan of consensus decision-making in large or contentious groups, because it tends to silence those with a differing viewpoint. It’s like a card game of “Oh, Hell.” The person who makes the opening bid has an advantage that sets the tone for that particular hand. So it is in a consensus discussion: whoever speaks first often sets the tone and direction of the discussion, and a timid (or polite) group member may not be able to introduce an idea that is based on a different premise or set of presumptions. I have seen this happen at General Assembly committee meetings with disastrous results and do not believe in the end that the exploration is as thorough (and certainly not as orderly) as a discussion governed by Robert’s Rules.
The question arises then: Can the Holy Spirit work through a Robert’s Rules-based discussion? Or do the rules preclude the Spirit from speaking and from God’s people discerning the Spirit’s leading? The church has been ordering its debate for centuries by a time-honored method, in which people prepare and deliver remarks meant to give information, share opinion, open Scripture, and otherwise debate the pros and cons of a particular action. Of course, the Spirit can work in that kind of process! It is only in very recent years that the polarization of the PCUSA has been blamed on using Robert’s Rules, where eventually there is a yes-or-no vote. It is what we do with the aftermath that displays our confidence in the Spirit’s work or our doubt about the Spirit’s presence in the process. And yes, “councils may err,” but it is not because they employed a process governed by a rule-book.
So now we come to the Fellowship of Presbyterians meeting next week. The agenda and schedule have been published and can be found here. There is a lot of presenting and discussing around tables, and even a covenanting session at the end; there does not appear to be a “moderator” or an established “voting membership” (since “it” isn’t an organization yet). Inclusion is demonstrated in the existence of many presenters and table and workshop leaders who will be guiding discussions of various sizes. This input method reflects a “level playing field” philosophy, and I applaud it. When it comes time to “decide,” though, I think the convocation should allow for a full-scale governing-body meeting according to Robert’s Rules in which the foundational documents are voted upon section by section. Though the group is huge (2100 participants, twice the size of a General Assembly), I believe there is a wide theological consensus and level of trust going in. But it is part of the Presbyterian DNA to vote, as a way of being counted. So I am praying for a magnificent unity of the Spirit freely to move among the attendees, while hoping the groundwork for robust debate and clear decision-making is laid for future meetings. The decisions to form what looks like a new denomination are of extraordinary import and deserve the reassuring, defined parameters of Spirit-led, orderly process.
January 12, 2012
[A personal note: You might notice I’m a little sporadic in my posts lately—getting used to a new job and figuring out the best time of day to write when most of my Coalition colleagues are on Eastern Time! Thanks for hanging in there with me.]
General Assembly lasts eight days, and throughout that period, the commissioners are considering all sorts of business items that have been introduced to it in an orderly manner. The equivalent of air-traffic control is needed to make sure the proposals can all land safely in the proper committee and be safely conducted to the floor of GA at the proper time. It is a massive organizational effort, and the Office of the General Assembly is already hard at work to prepare the “paper” (all online files now) so that every commissioner can have access to the material for advance reading and preparation.
Most presbyters are aware that business needing action at the General Assembly has been generated by presbyteries, in the form of overtures. One’s presbytery may have passed an overture already and sent it on, or perhaps the presbytery has registered a concurrence with another presbytery’s overture. But those who have never been to a General Assembly may be surprised to learn that business items to the GA come from other sources as well. It behooves those interested in the proceedings to keep an eye out for all these sources, as the time comes closer. PC-BIZ.org is the place to find the official listing and text of all proposals submitted to the Assembly.
Overtures from Presbyteries, sometimes numbering over 100, ask for some sort of action of the Assembly or a change to the Constitution. Those requiring a change of wording in the Book of Order must be submitted at least 120 days before the convening, so that they can be reviewed by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. If an individual presbyter has an idea for an overture, he or she can write it and submit it to the Bills & Overtures Committee of Presbytery for tracking to the Presbytery’s docket, or better yet, submit it first to one’s own Session for a review and debate to test its merit. If the Session approves it, it can be sent to Presbytery for action as well.
PCUSA Entities, standing committees of the program arm of the denomination, often generate resolutions or proposals for consideration by the Assembly. The Advisory Committees on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), Women’s Concerns (ACWC), and Presbyterian Health, Education & Welfare Association (PHEWA) are prolific contributors to the docket.
Task Forces Assigned by a Previous Assembly often work under the radar for two to four years to research an issue, conduct hearings, and/or write a proposal for consideration by the whole body. The Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (PUP) was one of those. The commission studying the translation issues related to the Heidelberg Confession is currently at work. The church also awaits a report and recommendation from the commission assigned to evaluate the precedential value of all extant Authoritative Interpretations of the Form of Government, in light of nFOG’s adoption in 2011.
Commissioners’ Resolutions are allowed by the Standing Rules of the Assembly to give voting commissioners the opportunity to introduce topics they feel need GA attention. They cannot propose changes to the Constitution, and they must be signed by at least two commissioners. It is one way an individual commissioner can bring a particular issue to a committee for consideration and possible referral to the plenary Assembly.
Tomorrow: More navigational aids and the expectations they raise for participants of the Fellowship of Presbyterians convention next week.
January 10, 2012
General Assembly may be coming up before we know it, as I intimated yesterday, but the chartering convention of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (F.O.P.) in Orlando is imminent (next week). An interesting question came up today that I would like to address very briefly. It had to do with the intentions of the F.O.P. to form the sort of Reformed Body that can receive member churches seeking dismissal from the PCUSA. It is safe to say that the polity framework for the F.O.P. is still “wet cement,” but given the polity document now available, do potential members have enough information to surmise the F.O.P.’s potential as a stand-alone “denomination”?
This question is an important one, because the PCUSA Book of Order refers to dismissal only to “another Reformed body.” The term is not otherwise defined. It has generally been understood to mean a member church of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (since June 2010 known as the World Communion of Reformed Churches). Both the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) hold this membership.
What we have from the F.O.P. is a polity statement that proposes a Book of Order and promises a Rule of Discipline in the future. No Directory for Worship is in the offing, it would seem. The F.O.P. has also proposed that its members accept the current PCUSA Book of Confessions as its doctrinal foundation. If the Fellowship of Presbyterians constitutes itself as a new Reformed Body, and then invites congregations to join either as a “union” congregation or by dismissal from the PCUSA, would the practice fall in line with the requirements of the Book of Order?
I used to think that a Reformed body was defined by two aspects: its doctrine and its polity. But according to the by-laws of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, qualification for membership as a bona fide Reformed body is dependent only upon confession of doctrine:
1. Any church shall be eligible for membership:
1.1 Which accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour;
1.2 Which holds the Word of God given in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme authority in matters of faith and life;
1.3 Which acknowledges the need for the continuing reformation of the Church catholic;
1.4 Whose position in faith and evangelism is in general agreement with that of the historic Reformed confessions;
1.5 And which recognizes that the Reformed tradition is a biblical, evangelical, and doctrinal ethos, rather than any narrow and exclusive definition of faith and order.
To bring home the point, both Congregational and Presbyterian churches can be a part of WARC/WCRC. If churches that organize themselves around a congregational form of government can be considered “Reformed,” then even the most skeptical of F.O.P. critics must acknowledge that the new Reformed body stands a chance. In light of this information, I believe the F.O.P. will qualify as a Reformed body.
The more pressing problem as I see it now is not so much whether the F.O.P. is Reformed enough, but whether the en masse departure of congregations can form it and immediately dismiss to it. Opponents of such a move would call this schism, I think. As far as I know, there is no guideline for how long the organization must exist before joining it is not viewed as schismatic. I just don’t know the answer to that question yet; if any of my readers can point me in the right direction about it, I would appreciate the input.
January 9, 2012
The WordPress.com stats keepers prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 27,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
January 9, 2012
While the rest of American culture is fixated on football trophies and political primaries, Presbyterians are ramping up to the PCUSA’s early July eight-day General Assembly (GA). This year, the Assembly will be held in Pittsburgh, PA. I have a personal interest in preparations for GA, since my name has been entered in nomination as a commissioner from San Francisco Presbytery (TBD January 31). Whether I am elected or not, I will be attending the Assembly, because that is what I do every even-year summer.
Business is starting to appear on PC-BIZ, and so far, seventeen overtures have been registered and will later be assigned to particular committees for ecclesiastical mastication. I am often asked to comment on overtures submitted to the Body, and just today was asked whether a resolution that would allow Presbyterian pastors to conduct same-sex ‘marriages’ was up for discussion this year. If you go to the PC-BIZ website, you can see that overtures 009 and 010 from East Iowa Presbytery provide two alternative means for accomplishing this goal. One would be to change the wording in the Book of Order (W-4.9000) to refer to marriage as between two persons (instead of between a man and a woman). This constitutional change would require a majority of presbyteries to ratify it before it could be enacted. The second means for allowing same-sex marriage is for the GA to issue an “authoritative interpretation” (AI) of the current Book of Order to allow pastors to marry two persons based solely on their own discretion. An AI does not require presbytery ratification, so if the GA enacted this, it would be effective immediately. The change is a subtle one, because even now, a pastor has discretion about whom he or she will join in matrimony. It is the advising pastor who becomes aware of impediments and strengths between a couple and is in the best position to ascertain whether such a marriage is in order. However, the game-changer with Overture 010, very cleverly worded, is to reinforce this general prerogative around marrying “two persons,” again avoiding the limiting vocabulary of “a man and a woman” and otherwise reinforcing the complete freedom of a pastor to marry whoever produces a valid marriage license. So PCUSA clergy in several states—Connecticut, District of Columbia, Iowa [from whence these overtures came], Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Vermont—would be allowed to conduct same-sex marriages in their churches with the blessing of the session.
These items of business will come before the Assembly, and even though the Covenant Network has indicated it will not lobby in support of a change in constitutional language, it would support an AI of the type East Iowa has submitted. Commissioners will be lobbied heavily on these matters, one can be sure.
In fact, the lobbying has already started. This fall the Office of General Assembly announced the morning worship preachers slated for the Assembly. Among them, two—Tony de la Rosa and Margaret Aymer, public proponents of gay ‘marriage’ on the Civil Union Task Force—will be adding their two-cents worth on the same-sex marriage issue as the week unfolds. It is my experience from several previous assemblies that the politics of the meeting creeps, if not bursts, into morning worship; 2012 appears to be no different.
January 6, 2012
“The whole creation has been groaning as we wait eagerly for our adoption and the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22).
Lew Smedes, in My God and I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003):
“…As I have grown old, my feelings about God have tapered down to gratitude and hope. Gratitude is the pleasure of hope come true. Hope is the pain of gratitude postponed. . . .. Hope comes harder, sometimes with our backs against the wall, laden with doubts that what we hope for will ever come. . . . Hope can feel unbearable; when we passionately long for what we do not have and it is taking too long to come, we are restless as a farmer waiting for rain after an August without a drop.
“Still, living by hope can get awfully wearying.”
I am getting weary in hope that God will do something amazing to turn the PCUSA right-side up. The progress God is making within our denomination is often invisible to me, but I know that in congregations throughout the nation, people are coming to Christ, disciples are growing spiritually, the gospel is rightly preached, and the sacraments administered faithfully. But as Lewis Smedes wrote, holding on to hope can get wearying.
When I first thought about hope, I was perhaps influenced by the dictionary definition, which says, “Hope is a desire accompanied by expectation of fulfillment.” We think of hope as a thing, a destination or a resolution. If we just keep our eyes on that, then we are keeping hope alive. But Paul seems to speak of hope as a process of waiting, waiting even accompanied by pain and discomfort. But as we keep our hearts attached to this hope, somehow God brings us into the joyful freedom he promised his creation. If we know that eventually everything will turn out alright, does that not help us in the present moment of suffering? Paul asks.
When Paul uses the word “hope,” he has in his mind the inevitability of God’s final resolution of all that is wrong with humanity and creation. Hope is the belief that yes, indeed, God will provide, God will resolve, God will remedy, and God will reconcile everything in himself. In the meantime, we wait for it patiently.
It was on one overwhelming day (actually, the middle of the night when sleep was impossible) that God helped me see a personal, difficult situation from an entirely different vantage point. I saw vividly, because I was experiencing it, the anguish that God felt toward his children. The torment I felt in this situation was only a shadow of the grief God is feeling toward the world’s waywardness, and even more specifically toward my pride and ingratitude, my disobedience over my lifetime. Remember in Genesis, after Cain kills Abel and wickedness overtakes humanity? It says in chapter 6, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6). God felt hopeless, or at least extremely disappointed! So, I asked myself, if God has gotten that discouraged about his creation, what keeps him going? What enables God to continue relating to us, loving us, and wooing us to himself? It is hope!
Then it struck me that hope is God’s basic outlook. What motivated God’s creation of the world and of humanity was hope! He made us in great hope that we would relate to him and receive what he had to offer. He anticipated a mutual, loving relationship that would be deeply satisfying to us and fulfilling of God’s loving nature. So, even though Adam and Eve decided against trusting in God and putting their hope in him alone, God continued to hope that they would be reconciled to him. It was an act of hope on God’s part to evict them from the Garden of Eden—why? Because if they had been allowed to stay there, now knowing both good and evil, they could have eaten from the tree of life and been forever trapped in an alienated state, out of God’s reach and fellowship. This would have been hopeless, so God sent them out of the Garden and set in motion the hopeful strategy for redeeming them and bringing them back to him.
The psalmists repeatedly encouraged us to “put our hope in God.” That is, to yearn for what God desires, to have faith that what can’t be seen yet is still a future reality. The point is, hope resides in God: the very feeling, the very outlook, the very faith God wants us to experience is found in him! He embodies this hope and he invites us to identify with his hope.
So when we feel hope is gone, we are called upon to turn again to God and hitch our hopeless wagon to his. He is the one who is hoping the PCUSA will turn around. He, even more than we, is anxious for the church to discover its life and to put its trust in him. When we put our hope in God, we are hoping for what God is hoping for, which is nothing short of repentance, reorientation, and restoration of our relationship with him. As long as we insist that we know better than God about things like sexuality, we are going to be burdened in hopelessness and frustration. We were not created to live apart from God’s design for us. As Paul says in Romans 8, God hopes for our liberation from bondage. God hopes for the day when we experience the true freedom that comes with being his children.
As long as God is hopeful, God is still acting. And as long as God is still at work, there’s still a remedy available to the Presbyterian Church. And if the remedy is offered and God’s grace is irresistible, then the Church—with an undivided mind and heart—will someday be able to find unity in him again. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are expressing our hope that God will make his presence known to all who need to see him.
So, Paul’s benediction seems particularly appropriate on this Feast of the Epiphany:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). Amen.
January 5, 2012
Yesterday, offline, I received a caution from a ministry colleague about the tone of my last post, “How to Preserve an Institution,” exhorting me to share my insights around PCUSA concerns without adding to the cynicism prevalent among us Presbyterians and more widely in American culture. The brother who wrote could not have been kinder or more patient with me while raising some important questions, and for this I rejoice as a part of a supportive and discerning faith community.
To some of my readers I may be considered a thought-leader. Maybe. But at the very least I hope that how I handle myself in this blogging context can model repentant effort, knowing full well my blog is not perfectly executed. So having “slept on it” overnight, I would like to consider cynicism itself today, and tomorrow respond to the second implied question from my colleague, “Where are the hopeful signs in the PCUSA?”
Cynicism is a generalized negativity or mistrust of others’ motives. In other words, to be cynical is to carry a chronic negative view of life or an organization (in this case), a view that might be justified by some evidence or could just be prejudiced and unresponsive to contrary evidence. I think either can be the case, and I have seen it happen that a person turns against a group or loses joie de vivre and nothing can get him or her in a positive frame of mind again. The well is poisoned. The second half of the definition, a mistrust of others’ motives, generally develops out of past experience. A person (or organization) fails you somehow or is not forthcoming about their reasons for saying or doing, and you figure they cannot be coming from a good place. All future behavior is suspect. I sat on a jury once where the accused was an off-duty police officer. One of the jurors believed that no police officer could be trusted. He was cynical about law-enforcement and brought this as “evidence” into the jury room. We had our hands full to convince him that the only evidence we could consider in rendering a judgment was the evidence produced at trial.
In the Presbyterian context, my observations have picked up a considerable cynicism among evangelicals, along the lines of “nothing good can come out of Louisville,” or “they are out to neutralize us conservatives.” Candidly here, I think some bad ideas have come out of Louisville, and in some presbyteries I see evidence of heartless power-plays over evangelicals; by saying so I am trying to speak the truth so that we can do something about it and respond appropriately. But I do not believe that everything that comes out of Louisville is bad or error-ridden (that would indeed be cynical). I do confess, however, that my 24 years of experience in my own and neighboring presbyteries has provided enough evidence of intentional liberal dominance to make me wary of my colleagues’ motives. A sad, but true confession.
Having admitted my cynicism, I realize that as a blogger and as a leader, I have a responsibility to use words carefully and to stay aware of other people’s perspective. Doing this well does not require me to agree with everybody, but it does require me to appreciate the power of what I (or my readers) say and keep a tight hold on my integrity. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A cynic can chill and dishearten with a single word.” It is a writer’s responsibility to pick those single words judiciously, if chilling is in fact required; but it is not my intent to dishearten the saints with negativity or doubt about what God can do. I desire that we turn these matters of genuine concern over to God, knowing full well what we are dealing with, because redemption of our situation can come only as we acknowledge how broken it is and how great our need.
Of all people, Leon Trotsky said, “Life is not an easy matter… You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.” Our Great Idea is God, and tomorrow I will reflect on the hope that God provides and expects us to embrace, even in the difficulties prevalent in our Presbyterian relationships and processes.
January 3, 2012
As anticipation mounts for the “Orlando Meeting” of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, some interesting pressure points are turning up. A remark made by a ministry colleague got me thinking about how “institutionalist” Presbyterians may try to undermine Orlando’s agenda. What sort of strategy might be employed to derail the efforts to establish either a New Reformed Body or some back-porch waiting room for those who need to differentiate from their presbyteries? Here are some scenarios, some based on “deep background” information, others purely speculative. If I were a person committed to preserving the structure and institution of the PCUSA:
1. I would look around and identify the organizations that make the denomination look good to the world and with our global partners and pressure them to stay in the fold. These organizations might be global-mission-oriented or perhaps providers of education and/or medical care to underserved populations. The idea is to find the appealing poster-child that will influence the uninitiated that the PCUSA hasn’t changed its message or its mission.
2. Despite the fact that our so-called Presbyterian seminaries have a very thin attachment to the denomination (no doctrinal accountability and little, if any, direct financial support), now would be a good time to strengthen any ties that do exist, and get those professors and academics on board with the “let us enjoy our diversity” message. One way to do this would be to enlist as many seminarians as possible for committee vacancies at all levels of the church. Opening PCUSA pockets for increased support would work, too. The PCUSA will need these future scholars later, when what passes for Christian doctrine under the guise of “always Reforming” needs fresh faces and young voices to argue its relevance.
3. I would make promises about parity and a level playing field, enticing evangelicals to try one more time to dialogue for the purpose of demonstrating unity in Christ.
4. I would identify the PCUSA very closely with “the true Church,” from which any movement to separate would be considered schism and therefore reprehensible.
5. I would continue to picture in PCUSA brochures the diversity of race and ethnicity that does not truly exist within our denomination as a way of keeping racial, ethnic, and language specific congregations from leaving. [The percentage of non-White, non-Hispanic Presbyterians in the U.S. is 9%, compared to 34% in the overall U.S. population.] In my neck of the woods, many, if not most, of our racial/ethnic congregations fall more to the conservative side of the theological spectrum and are more likely to seek refuge in a language-specific non-geographic presbytery or leave altogether. Their departure would be a particular tragedy for a denomination that has tried patiently for decades to attract racial diversity to church membership.
6. I would promote the agenda at every level of church governance to acquire church property from departing congregations, no matter the cost in souls, in order to assure (through sale of said properties) the financial viability of an otherwise shrinking denomination. Evangelicals do not really need church buildings anyway, do they? Let them meet in tents.
Beloved church, please take heed to the prophetic word through Jeremiah (chapter 7):
1The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, . . . 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you [break the Ten Commandments] 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:1-11, NRSV)
By quoting Jeremiah, I am saying that we must examine what we are doing when we insist on calling our church property the property of “the true Church,” and go about assigning it through unjust means to those who, more accurately, are interested in preserving the institution of the PCUSA. The true church is the one that “amends its ways and its doings,” that is, aligns its life to God’s commands in a spirit of humble repentance. The true church is not a den of robbers. The true church does not take refuge in buildings. The true church meets, gives, breaks bread, proclaims the transforming gospel, and worships not a god of human making but the LORD. All Presbyterians involved in the painful process of separation from each other must examine their motives regarding property, regarding differentiation, regarding the “trueness” of Church. The folks gathering in Orlando in three weeks, I believe, are trying to find and align with the true Church and to become a vital part of its message and mission in the world. Those who do not agree that this movement is necessary or wise must also examine their motives for making differentiation difficult. “I too am watching, says the LORD.”
January 2, 2012
Yesterday, on New Year’s Day, I preached on Isaiah 61:11–62:3, “That Is a Name-Changer!” After a brief “State of the World” message—to demonstrate some parallels between beat-up Israel in Isaiah’s time and the current day—I reflected on the role Christians have to play both waiting for and anticipating the Second Coming of Christ. [You can find the audio of this sermon at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church’s website.] In this passage, the idea of being given a new name is beautifully introduced:
Is. 62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
2 The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give. . . .
4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
5 For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
Name-changing is a common and highly significant occurrence in the Scriptures. Several times in the biblical accounts, God gives a new name to a key player: Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Cephas became Peter, Saul became Paul. These name-changes represented a new character, a new identity. There was a strong association between the name and the person. God’s name YWHW was never uttered out loud by Jews, because to do so would be to contain it and therefore dishonor God. Even today in Jewish literature, the deity is referred to as G_d for the same reason.
Our name is “Presbyterian,” which to different people might mean Liberal, Frozen Chosen, or Argumentative. Some have taken “Presbyterian” out of their congregation’s name, in favor of Christ Community Church or some other non-denominationally affiliated title, simply to avoid the embarrassment many conservatives feel at being associated with a wayward body. A woman I know changed her surname back to her maiden name after her (ex)husband was convicted of a very public crime, to avoid the pain of association with a front-page news figure. This is the sort of defensive action human beings are apt to take when their names no longer stand for their being.
But what would happen if God were to change our name, from Presbyterian to something else? What sort of new identity would God endow upon our tribe? The question gets to the heart of our denominational aspirations, unless of course “denominationalism” is an expendable concept as many believe. Taking my cue from the seven letters to the churches (Revelation 1–3), perhaps one of these name-changes would be appropriate:
Fallen to Repentant
Bound to Released
Syncretistic to Whole-Hearted
Adulterous to Faithful
Asleep to Awake
Powerless to Vindicated
Lukewarm to Passionate
My prayer for the PCUSA in 2012 is that we would accept the transforming name God wants to give us and to live into the reality of his Kingdom. I understand that we are so contentious as to dispute what that Kingdom involves, but at the very least, we are called to radical, humble, and joyful obedience to the Lord of all. This obedience is characterized by repentance from sin, true freedom that accompanies the acceptance of limits, single-mindedness and a pure heart, fidelity to God, alertness, ultimate vindication, and passion. What would the Presbyterian Church look like if these seven characteristics were palpable and visible among us? Lord, make it so among us! Maranatha!