April 30, 2013
Yesterday I spent a good part of the day participating in an online discussion, trying to sort out what appeared to be a miscommunication through the halls of Facebook. A post appeared within a Facebook group, other members of the group reacted while others tried to ask helpful questions. The “conversation” escalated into paranoia at times, and without any more substantive information to feed it, speculation took over. I finally called the original poster (is that a word?) to clarify the genesis of the issue that had come to light, and by day’s end it appeared resolution was around the corner. But wow, it was a time-consuming and upsetting affair for some.
So this morning, I brought up the general topic of communication with the Peet’s conversation group, and noted how unusual it is for such a group to get together face-to-face on a regular basis, without an agenda, to listen and encourage one another. This is really what the gym rats are doing, and it is a beautiful thing.
So beautiful, in fact, that this morning a store patron stopped at our table and said, “I’ve seen you here two days in a row, and I just have to tell you, my mother met with a coffee shop group daily for decades.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and the group immediately pulled up a chair for her and invited her to sit with us. We drew out her story: her mother, who died just a few years ago in her mid-90’s, formed lasting and deep friendships in her small town. She sounded like quite a woman, active in her community, involved at school, encouraging of the next generation. She tapped into the social network of a town, but never did she gossip, L said. She was present and available, and her daughter misses her very much.
The two situations I have just described illustrate the complicated challenge we have as 21st century western citizens. Communication has taken new forms, increased to lightning speed, and depersonalized in some venues. Information can be passed quickly, but feelings can derail in the process of transmission. So much depends on the actual words, without the supporting evidence of gestures, inflection, or facial expressions. [And people can be particularly clumsy with their words.] The personal touch is remarkably important to getting a message across, and yet we live in an age in which “touch” has become a FB “poke,” and “personal” is masked by a User ID or fantasy-land avatar.
A recurring discussion question has arisen periodically in the Christian church: “What if Jesus’ ‘fullness of time’ had been the 21st century instead of the 1st century?” How would Jesus have communicated the arrival of the Kingdom of God and taught his lessons on discipleship if he had come this year instead of ~29 ad?
I think Jesus would have done this year exactly what he did then: he would have looked people in the eye, addressed their particular concerns, and demonstrated the good news in his actions on their behalf. I think there would be plenty of pictures posted on Facebook of healed persons, YouTube videos of the lame now walking, and perhaps wall-to-wall coverage of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. But Jesus himself would probably not be posting or tweeting, preferring to give people his full, personal attention, discern their needs, address their questions, and respond to the raised eyebrow or frowning visage. Even back then, Jesus was unconcerned with reaching “the whole world” himself. His disciples would be commissioned to do so later, instructed to “make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching them.” Jesus’ method was to exert the maximum impact in tailor-made fashion, investing in the lives of a few, and yes, talking to crowds on occasion but always following up with personal encounters.
It is for this reason that I think the Church must rethink its methods of communication. Sure, a church website is a great, efficient way to give notice of upcoming events and distribute registration forms. But for too long, the Presbyterians and Lutherans I know from personal experience have relied on a detached method of sharing the gospel, believing that attracting people to church accomplishes that. I am not so sure anymore that this is the best approach. It may be time to mingle at the coffee shop, notice the tears welling, pull up a chair, and just listen with empathy. When we interact with people at this level, the opportunities to share Christ’s love and his gospel can’t help but surface. I experience this dynamic just about every time I join my gym ladies with my decaf sugar-free mocha, non-fat, no whip: a meaty question, a significant problem, an appeal for insight comes bubbling to the surface. These are the teachable moments in which an informative conversation can make the difference between chaos and meaning, sorrow and joy, confusion and clarity, or falsehood and truth. And it is very good to be there to see their faces, to be welcomed, and to love their idiosyncrasies even while hearing all about the life they are experiencing in this bewildering 21st century.
April 24, 2013
A couple times a week I join a few fellow “gym rats” for coffee at the local Peet’s. This group of women frequents the fitness center and then gathers for a coffee klatch before heading home. They come from diverse backgrounds culturally and geographically and represent the gamut of religious views, from lapsed Christian to Sihk to Jewish to complete blank slate. Every once in awhile, one of them will turn to me for advice, knowing I am a pastor. Lately, however, there has been a communal handwringing over recent events. When the bombs went off in Boston, the questions came again:
“Why do people do what they do?” The related questions tumble out: Why can’t people show more love for one another? What moves people to do such horrible things? Why do people not value human life more than this?
I bite my tongue a lot, until I get the divine go-ahead to offer an answer. It’s all part of the missional teaching (or informative conversation) ministry I am practicing and writing about. When “total depravity” is the answer that first pops into my mind, it takes a bit of skill and courage to ease into those churning waters with something meaningful and helpful.
People in the Reformed Tradition attribute the concept of total depravity to John Calvin’s followers in the 16th century. The idea is that human beings are thoroughly tainted by sin; that is, there is no part of human life that has not in some way been marred by the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 6:5). I think it was Augustine who spoke of this inherited trait in terms we would now refer to as gene mutation. So every human being has a gene called “sin” which, if dominant, urges that person on to all manner of evils. We should not be surprised that people are capable of terrorist acts. Along with C. S. Lewis, we should probably be asking why there isn’t more unmasked evil in the world than there is.
Let’s see how far we can go with the genetic analogy. What if we were to see salvation in Jesus Christ as the first step in divine gene therapy? Acknowledging there is still “the flesh” to contend with in this life (Romans 7), wouldn’t our new situation in Christ be like a dominant sin gene engineered into a recessive gene (still there, but not overtly expressed in everyday life)? And our final sanctification/ glorification—once this body has died—is represented by a gene transplant? [I know my readers will hack away at the analogy, but stay with me for a minute.]
For those in whom Sin is still the dominant gene, anything is possible, according to Calvin. Living according to the flesh brings death; living in the Spirit brings life. Society can make laws, remain vigilant to restrain evil, and educate people; but none of these laudable activities addresses the root problem, which is the condition of the human soul without Jesus Christ. Any solution to the problems our society faces are going to have to include a genuine grappling with God’s salvation offered in Jesus Christ. This prophetic and pastoral role is the unique and essential activity of the Church. If we seek to know Christ and to make him known and to submit as the Body of Christ to the will and way of the Head, we will have a transforming effect in the world.
However, in a post-Christian western world, I have seen signs that the Presbyterian Church has loosened its grip on the transforming gospel. Many Presbyterians see salvation not as a life-and-death matter, but only one of preference. If we really believed that Jesus Christ has the power to change what people do (and why) and if we personally experienced that transforming power in daily life, I think the situation would be different. But our witness to the world is weak and ineffective, precisely because we have traded in God’s Word and Way for an ear-tickling false gospel that says “Do what you want; God will bless it.” We should not be surprised at all, in that environment, if radical _____ists do anything extreme, for it is the same spiritual condition working itself out into behavior contrary to God’s will and ultimately destructive of human life.
April 11, 2013
Friends of “Bringing the Word to Life,” I submitted the following letter to Presbyweb in response to a letter to the editor by Mike Garrett. I believe the fray is going to start up again, and commend to you as a catalyst a very thoughtful and well-written “prophetic word” by Jim Goodloe, found here.
In response to Mike Garrett’s letter which observed the “deafening silence of disengagement,” I want to agree and to explain further.
As one who has contributed to the debates in the last several years and lately by blog, I can acknowledge the truth of his observation in my own experience. There are a few factors contributing to, for instance, my rather sporadic blog coverage of PCUSA matters lately:
1. The Presbyterian decision-making process is rigged, and thoughtful discourse has nowhere to go to make a difference. I have read the most reasoned and helpfully clarifying pieces by colleagues, directed both to GAPJC and the General Assembly, but they get nowhere because decision-makers choose to remain so open-minded that their brains fall out. What we have going now is not debate based on Scripture and reason but on emotion, experience, and a worldly view of unlimited personal rights. Interjecting a voice of common sense and Scriptural sanity, for the moment, is an exercise in repetitive head-banging with no appreciable result.
2. I struggle with soul-care in the midst of the fray. Topics and discussions that have the ongoing effect of raised blood-pressure, sleep deprivation, and a constantly critical attitude are not good for my spirit. I am still learning how to stay in the discussion with eyes on Jesus without sinking into Galilee’s waters.
3. Who is the audience? Those a theological conservative like myself might encourage to action are opting for alternative ways of being Presbyterian, either by sheltering in place or dismissing to other denominations. Those to whom truth must be spoken are not listening, or if they are, they are patronizing and even, at times, abusive in response. The role of the prophet within and to the PCUSA is not acknowledged or respected because the church has lost sight of what constitutes the Word of God. So what else is new?
4. So the question of engagement, for me, boils down to call and empowerment by God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is a costly business to put oneself out there with a counter-cultural view, and there have been times and seasons when I have given this service willingly and even joyfully. But now more than ever there is little personal support holding up the arms of a prophet. To answer this challenge, I have tried to balance draining “engagement” work with projects that are spiritually uplifting. In the last few months, I have collaborated on a curriculum for study of the Essential Tenets, reviewed the five-part The Bible series, and now am preparing to speak at a congregation’s all-church retreat. Three books await the daily discipline of personal engagement. This all takes time, which I have in only finite quantity, and the choice about how to spend it is sometimes torture. If, in those daily dilemmas, comments 1, 2, and 3 above seem particularly strong, then “Presbyterian stuff” goes to the bottom of my things-to-do list.
But don’t worry; I’ll be back soon enough. And others will be right there alongside me to try again to help our denomination listen to Scripture and reason. Until then, I remain
Christ’s servant and your friend,
(The Rev. Dr.) Mary Holder Naegeli
Walnut Creek, California
March 29, 2013
Today I gave blood. I do this each year as an intentional expression of my Christian faith and gratitude for what Jesus did for me. I sat in a comfy chair in a clean, safe environment. The procedure did not hurt. The company was congenial. And when I had deposited my pint, I was bandaged, fed, and sent home to take it easy for a few hours.
I give blood on Good Friday as a spiritual discipline and an opportunity for contemplation. I was quite conscious of the fact that the conditions under which Jesus gave his blood for all of humanity were completely unlike mine.
Jesus’ own spiritual discipline and contemplation prior to the Passion had reinforced his security in the care of his heavenly Father. Though he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to Judas’ betrayal, he chose to give blood for the salvation of all humankind as the fulfillment of the Father’s promised care for us. In the process, he was abused physically and psychologically. He was not fed during his ordeal; betrayed by a friend and falsely accused by his countrymen, he was whipped and spat upon, crowned with thorns and mocked by Roman soldiers. No one offered solace, according to biblical accounts, though the fourteen Stations of the Cross imagine the ministrations of comforting women along the way. When Jesus faltered on the Via Dolorosa, Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to relieve him of the cross for a short respite. By the time the actual crucifixion took place, Jesus was a physical wreck.
But only then was his blood fully spilled. And he did this for us, offering himself willingly as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
The nurses today at the blood donation center were quite eager for me to donate, for the need is great. Their attitude reminded me of the urgency the Church should maintain in sharing the story of Christ with the unchurched and the unreached. Presbyterians rarely articulate the urgency of evangelism, and certainly not in terms of Christ’s shed blood, more along the line of “new congregations.” Our responsibility is so much more than programmatic. When will we feel the urgency to pour ourselves out for the lost and independent people around us, so that they, too, can live in the security of the Father’s love and care? At what level must we encounter people in order to appreciate the darkness they walk in or the confusion that disorients them? How willing are we to enter their world with the urgent grace of Christ’s gospel?
These are the things I thought about as I gave blood today.
March 14, 2013
When a friend posted on Facebook “White smoke!” I turned on the television today and wrapped myself in the NBC coverage of the announcement of the new Catholic pope. As a cradle Catholic (who changed lanes into the Presbyterian church at age 22), I have witnessed the election of five popes in my lifetime. Experience as a Presbyterian pastor, leadership of a session, and organizational executive roles have given me only an inkling of the burden this man will bear as leader of over 1 billion souls worldwide. If that thought is staggering to lowly me, imagine how the question of “Who is up to the task?” burned in the corporate soul of those 115 cardinals called to discern God’s will in the matter.
Their announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Buenos Aires, as the next pope sent several electrifying messages to the world:
• Age—76. Pope Francis, as he will be known, was not bypassed because of his age, though the predictors gave him no chance. Some think Pope Francis is too old to make much of an impact on world Catholicism. But hear this: All the 76-year-old pope has to do is call a Third Vatican Council, and the door is wide open for a transparent dialogue and true reformation of the global church, in authentic Franciscan tradition. I for one will pray for just such an invitation.
• Nationality—Argentinian. Son of Italian immigrants to South America, his background offers a reassuring link to Italy (for traditionalists) but a distance from the Roman mess (for reformers). His humor was apparent as he greeted the crowd today: “They [the cardinals] had to go to the ends of the world to find the new bishop of Rome.” The first pope from Latin America celebrates the reality that 37% of the world’s Catholics are Latino. He may be an outsider to Rome, but there is great potential for a global embrace of his papacy simply from ethnic affinity.
• His Name—Francis. After the twelfth-century saint from Assisi, Pope Francis is no doubt signaling a desire to live a simple life, which he has demonstrated as an archbishop and cardinal. But I think even more significant is an affinity with God’s specific call in St. Francis’ life. Abuses of power, off-center theology, and material excesses were already in evidence in northern Italy by his time. In prayer one day, Francis heard God speak to him unmistakably: “Rebuild/reform my church.” And that is what he set out to do. You may consider Francis socially inept or psychologically wacko—he most certainly was unusual in his methods—but there is no doubt in my mind that Francis sparked an authentic and influential renewal movement in the Late Middle Ages. The new pope may well surprise us with his bold initiative to think outside the Vatican box and spark a revival and much needed reform within the institutional church.
• His Order—Jesuit. The Jesuits are as close to an autonomous organization within the Catholic Church as they come: noted for placing a high value on education, theological boldness, and independence, the Jesuits have never produced a pope until now. Doctrinally orthodox—no wandering Jesuit is Borgoglio—yet part of an order that sometimes pushes the envelope in theological discourse, Francis brings something new to the table. I would imagine a few Curia types (institutional preservationists) might be wondering if he is going to be a bull in a china shop. But everybody says he is “gentle.”
• His Spirit—Humble. His reaction during the announcing ceremony today was astonishing for its serenity, gentle humor, deep humility, and reference to his new role as “bishop of Rome,” not “pope.” I know they are one and the same thing, but he referred to himself only as “the bishop,” bowed low to receive the prayers of the crowd for him, and wanted to express his commitment to the flock right there in the Eternal City. There was not one ounce of grandiosity or ego evident today.
• His Vision—Think Global, Act Local. Francis expressed the desire to evangelize the city of Rome. This guy is firmly planted and passionate about the gospel. He understands that in order for the Vatican to reach the world, it must reach its neighborhood first. If that isn’t “missional,” I don’t know what is.
The over-80 cardinal Edward Egan offered NBC commentary prior to the pope’s election, on five qualities this person would need in order to be effective:
A deep, abiding life of prayer, both in private and in public.
A passion to articulate the gospel in an uncomplicated manner.
Leadership in the worldwide quest for justice, compassion, and peace.
The ability to govern firmly and manage a complex organization.
A thick skin, an ability to hear and handle criticism without losing his confidence or vision.
These qualities ring true to me and represent a very tall order only God can fill. So we must all pray for this pope, regardless of our denominational affiliation, simply because he is one of the most visible Christians in the world today. May God grant Pope Francis favor with his people, spiritual protection, ongoing virtue, and a bold gospel witness. For the global church, let us plead, “Lord, clean our house and reform our ways!” Beyond the church, let us pray, “Lord, may the world hear the gospel through this man and turn to Jesus Christ!” All things are possible with God, even a new Reformation led by a pope.
February 21, 2013
Last Sunday night, my husband and I hosted a black-tie five-course dinner for eleven other friends in our home. The occasion was the finale of Season Three of Downton Abbey, giving us the opportunity to live a brief fantasy of British aristocracy. The purpose of the evening was to enjoy the company of friends, have a luscious meal served to us (the thirteenth person, by prior arrangement, was our footman—and a fine one he was indeed), and discuss the characters and plot lines of the British television series. [May I just say, in a moment of personal privilege, that the program’s tragic ending ruined the mood of my dinner party…but I digress.]
A couple of the guests were barely conversant on the arc of the story, so we reviewed Seasons One, Two, and Three in the sort of detail only a group brainstorming session can conjure. Then we asked, “What secrets were held by whom?” which gave us an opportunity to delve into the motivations of each character, starting with the Crawleys upstairs and concluding with the servants downstairs. We had to ask, “Where is the vicar when he is needed?” and “What role is faith playing in the life and plot of these people?” and the Jesus question, “With whom are you willing to have dinner?”
But the most important question, in my mind, was whether or not a person who had fallen from grace could experience personal transformation and be restored socially. Though applied unevenly, it turns out, the operating principle at Downton Abbey seemed to be, “Once a sinner, always shunned.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter comes to mind. And yet, the hopelessness of that answer chafed at least a couple of the characters into giving Ethyl another chance at a respectable life and Thomas a compassionate reprieve.
It is a matter of Christian faith that the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful and able to reach the hearts and minds of the wayward, turn them around, and save them from the consequences of their sin. We profess this, though I think our culture is cautious about certain types of sinners and would seem to prefer cities of refuge to a return to respectable society. That topic, though interesting, is beyond my pay-grade today.
But what about the church itself? I have intimated many times in the last eighteen months that the PC(USA) has gone a bit haywire theologically and ethically and is losing its way. Is it possible for the organization, the institution, to repent corporately and receive as a body the forgiveness, demonstrate the repentance, and live a new life as a result of the saving work of Christ on the Cross? Is it necessary for its members to do the same individually in order for the body to experience the transforming power of our Savior? Evangelicals probably feel more comfortable with the second, individualized, movement taking priority, but the first, corporate, movement should not be discounted in value or dismissed as unrealistic. There have been seasons, perhaps even in your congregation, where under the leadership of a new pastor or executive director or pope, when a body changed its tone and refocused its attention on the essentials of faith and practice.
The Catholic Church is presented with such a moment in the unusual transition of leadership in its immediate future. I have greatly admired Pope Benedict XVI, and appreciate the courage of his choice of downward mobility. TIME Magazine, in this week’s cover story entitled “Second Act: How Benedict XVI may become more influential after his resignation,” reflects on what Benedict was able and not able to accomplish during his tenure:
Benedict’s successor will inherit a long list of problems. The wounds from the priest sexual-molestation scandals are deep, and it may take generations to win back once fervently Catholic nations like Ireland. While Benedict did more than John Paul II to try to make amends for the crimes, he was too much a part of the compromised bureaucracy to truly cleanse the organization. (Vol. 181, No. 7, p. 21).
The Catholic Church is not unique among religious institutions in its suffering from corruption, immorality, and power-brokering. If one with as much authority as the Pope is unable to transform one church, we must all throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and plead for his transforming power to work miracles in and among us. Our only recourse is to cooperate with the refining fire of God’s Spirit and submit to the discipline required to set us on the right track again. We must pray for our leaders to make this submission visible, and pray that God would start with us. The PC(USA) can change, but only if we truly repent individually and corporately of our disobedience, recommit ourselves to God’s Word in faith and action, and take the painful steps of repentance to unlink our structures from worldly ways and means. And then perhaps we can hope that our witness to a hurting world can be strengthened and those like myself—who have been scandalized by the behavior and message of so many within our tribe—can rejoice and welcome a transformed PC(USA) into our hearts and around our table again.
February 20, 2013
The WQ (“women’s question”) remains one of the most elusive and baffling aspects of ministry, even within a mainline denomination such as the PC(USA). The WQ has been a part of my life-long learning process since the 1970’s, when I felt a strong call to the ministry but believed the Bible prevented me from aspiring to pastoral leadership. Since then, and with the help of marvelous evangelical scholars, I’ve explored the WQ biblically, theologically, organizationally, and personally. And now, as a PC(USA) teaching elder ordained for over 25 years, I face the WQ from a different angle. The current question revolves around whether women can make good, even great, senior ministers of larger-than-average congregations.
Last August I posted a few essays on what the New Testament has to say about women in the ministry. In a post last week I stated that factors having nothing to do with my gifts were preventing me from getting a pastoral call in the PC(USA). Based on conversations since then, I believe it is time to reveal the skeleton in the PC(USA) closet: well-qualified women are not being called to senior pastor positions in multi-staff churches.
I have no statistics at hand, and I know there are a few exceptions, most notably the Rev. Christine Chakoian at Lake Forest and the recent call of the Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet to a 2600 member church in Bryn Mawr, PA. But by and large, what I have experienced and observed in the last ten years is this:
The “golden demographic” for senior leaders, pastors of large churches, is male, age 45 or under, and married with school-age kids at home. These guys seem able to move from call to call without any trouble, and sometimes with multiple options to choose from. Large churches are willing to take huge risks calling a relatively inexperienced, but young and energetic, male as a first-time senior pastor.
If you are female, being an associate at a large church, even being executive pastor of a large church, does not seem to “count” as qualifying experience for a senior pastor position. But it does if you are a man.
Even in a system that might favor pastors with previous senior-pastor experience in a similarly sized church, that system automatically eliminates female pastors from serious consideration because of the Catch-22 involved.
Nevertheless, in order to satisfy presbytery EOE guidelines, Pastor Nominating Committees (PNC) continue to interview female candidates without ever seriously considering them. I have been tempted to charge churches for my time and effort in preparation for these for-show-only interviews.
For evangelical women, the situation is even more one-sided. “Evangelical/conservative clergy woman” is often an oxymoron for those churches in which I, for one, would otherwise feel the theological fit is perfect. And I am too conservative for the so-called progressive churches that would be more likely to call a woman.
The denominational structures and policies of the PC(USA) have given women every chance, and for this reason I do not think it is the PC(USA) itself that is the roadblock to female senior leadership. In my experience, it is the male elders on PNCs who approach their pastor-seeking task as a business executive search. A disproportionately large number of older, often retired, businessmen populate PNCs, and my experience of them is a latent sexism typical of their generation, and they would never overtly admit it exists. But it stacks the deck as to the questions they ask, how they perceive one’s ministry track record, and what they think is required for the job of senior pastor. To call it out into the open is to close the door of opportunity with that church.