One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:


  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture


  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world


  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?

Lest one thinks that idolatrous worship was a problem only eons ago, as illustrated in yesterday’s post, even today within the PC(USA) it is possible to find events promoted as worship experiences that are anything but. A case in point: the after-dinner “worship” on the agenda of San Francisco Presbytery’s regular meeting of September 9. The “Order of Worship” handed out to us as we entered the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland consisted of the following elements: a call to worship, opening song, Scripture exploration, Communion & Community Prayer, Announcements, Closing Song, and Benediction. The experience unfolded in this manner:

Call to Worship
In the introduction to the service, the Rev. Jeff Cheifetz, a teaching elder of The Sanctuary for the Arts new worshipping community (one of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities sponsored by the denomination), welcomed the worship team: Amy Diane Shoemaker (a spiritual director and InterPlay practitioner) and primary musician Soyinka Rahim. As the African drums (played by two Caucasian TEs) began their rhythms, Ms. Shoemaker led the presbytery in a warm-up of sorts, using practices of InterPlay to “unlock the wisdom of your body.” People were encouraged to move about playfully and demonstratively, in dance steps, large arm motions, and self-hugs.

Opening Song:
“Wiggle and Grow” was led by Ms. Rahim. The words, printed in the bulletin:

Love has the power to conjure up your light
Wrong or right, good or bad, love will make it right.
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization
‘Cause we’re fragile as the baby roots that hold the earth
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization     [Copyright 2014, Soyinka Rahim]

Scripture Exploration
The theme verse was, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13), chosen because it was the theme verse of the 2014 General Assembly. Mr. Cheifetz explained that at The Sanctuary for the Arts they do not preach, but offer a verse of Scripture experientially so that the participants can take it in and use it any way they want to. In the Presbytery context, this unfolded as an invitation to accompany many repetitions of the verse with our own body movements.

Communion & Community Prayer
The next segment of the service was an invitation to participate in a variety of options, which included the sacrament of communion, more InterPlay, or writing a prayer or wish on butcher papers at stations around the Sanctuary. No prayer was offered. The words of institution were uttered in their briefest form: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup also, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24b-25). Then the drumbeat resumed and people milled about the sanctuary toward their chosen activity. Ms. Rahim repeatedly sang the lyrics, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum . . .”

I don’t recall any, though, in my emotional state, I may not have been listening by then. I think there might have been an offering.

Closing Song
A reprise of “Wiggle and Grow”]

I do not remember the content of the closing, if there was one . . .

Think about this for a few minutes, and then compare your list of objections to mine:

  • The experience was centered on “ourselves” rather than God, who was never acknowledged or addressed in prayer. It came very close to self-worship.

  • The narration referred to our energy coming from the earth, a pagan concept if I ever heard one. I expect this language from my Buddhist-inspired personal trainer, but not from a Reformed Worship leader.

  • The song we were invited to sing, “Wiggle and Grow,” made no sense and had no worship value whatsoever.

  • The Scripture exploration was nothing more than a cheap imitation of Lectio Divina lost in a self-referential wilderness.

  • The meaning and richness of communion was diminished as one option among many. There was no ministry of the Word accompanying it, no prayer of Invitation or of Thanksgiving, nor the Lord’s Prayer; and to sing “Yum, Yum, Yum” during the distribution just rendered me speechless and offended. I could not go forward for the sacrament.

The experience was far worse than a waste of time; it conveyed a false gospel. Whether it was an anomaly or an indication of things to come, I felt betrayed by my colleagues, who seem to have jettisoned anything remotely “Reformed” or even “Christian” in designing this service. If this is where “1001 New Worshipping Communities” is going, then the PC(USA) is going to lose its biblical moorings faster than even I have predicted.

I sent a letter of complaint to our executive presbyter ten days ago, and have not received a response.

So many Scriptures come to mind as I reflect on this experience, including Isaiah 55:6-9, Job 38-39 and 1 Corinthians 11:27. With tomorrow’s post, I will try to use this as a teachable moment and review the elements of Reformed Worship and why they are important to respect, enact, and use to order our community life.


Unspeakable Sadness

September 22, 2014

Going back to my original list of reasons for not blogging this summer, today I address the experience of sadness. Several things piled on over time and rendered me still before God, downcast in spirit:

• my mother’s death after a sudden and short illness, in early April
• the developing news of my friend Steve Hayner’s pancreatic cancer
• actions of General Assembly, particularly regarding same-sex marriage
• the beheading of innocents at the hands of ISIS
• the escalating death toll due to Ebola in West Africa
• devastating wildfires in California, at or near some of my favorite places on earth
• the word “permanent” uttered by one of my doctors in reference to my breathing difficulties

I suppose everybody feels sadness in unique ways. For me, it starts in the sternum as an ache and rises to the throat, triggering tears and moaning. Such a feeling of heaviness comes with a sense of loss, a loss to me or a loss to humanity. It is often accompanied by helplessness, because sadness overwhelms after the checklist of “what can I do to fix this?” is exhausted.

Sadness is certainly not new to the human experience. It seems every generation has its own sad history to deal with. I think of Joe Rantz of The Boys in the Boat fame, whose family packed up the household and drove off leaving 15-year-old Joe to fend for himself. What possible reaction can a reader have to such callous abandonment! Sadness, and perhaps anger, hardly do justice to the loss experienced under such conditions.

On the other hand, sadness apart from outrage can be a powerful emotion of its own. Consider the progression of the five stages of grief: upon experiencing a loss, a person goes through denial, anger, and bargaining before coming to depression, or the experience of pure sadness. When the full reality of a loss makes its way into our consciousness, after we protest loudly (to God or neighbor), and try to work out some alternative “solution,” when all of that works its way through our system, we finally arrive at a point at which we can only say, “It is sad. It is so sad.” This is the kind of sadness that silences a person. Job’s friends would have done much better ministry if they had just sat with him on the heap of ashes and bore the burden with him (Job 13:4f).

I think it is possible for a person to be very sad without becoming depressed, but if sadness hovers for a prolonged period one should be alert to the possibility that depression is setting in. In that case, get help! It happens! Tell somebody about it; talk it through!

Even our Savior waded in deep waters of sadness from time to time:

“Jesus wept,” “greatly disturbed and moved” by the show of grief at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:35). He entered into the community’s grief and felt his own fully. This deeply emotional moment was not a sign of weakness but recognition of a friend’s death and sorrow for paradise lost. I can just hear the One who was present for the Creation protesting, “This is not the way it was supposed to be!” And yet, right at this moment, even Jesus was silent.

Sadness stops speech, but it does not necessarily stop action. In his grief, Jesus may have embraced the words of the Psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b). And in that anticipated joy, Jesus realized his life-bringing purpose and called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” For us, the action may be wordless, in the form of a hug or a card sent in the mail. Simply by engaging sadness in its most genuine form, we move through it. We have to move through it—thoughtfully, prayerfully, thoroughly—and find what we can find on the other side of it.

For people of the Christian faith, the reality and promise of resurrection goes a long way toward lifting the heaviness of sadness. We can at least become functional again. Some say their sadness never leaves them, and it may not; but eventually the One who is sad with us says, “Okay, my dear one, I am carrying this one with you, but it’s time to re-engage with the world around you.” Anyone who has lost a spouse or a child knows this. The pain is unspeakable, as is the sadness; but sometimes “exercise” helps in the meantime.

For Jesus, sorting out his situation in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was “bargaining” just one last time: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). When the answer was “No, I want you to walk through the valley of death as we agreed to do,” Jesus summoned the courage available in his being to submit to the Father and face the wayward earthly authorities according to God’s plan. Yes, of course, it led to his death. Our sadness, at a much smaller level, often involves some kind of death, too: the death of a dream, of a home, of a relationship, of a plan. With that death (or loss) comes grief; after the stillness and silence of a first response, we are encouraged by the example of our Savior to exercise our faith, walk in the light, and do our duty.

For me, now, that exercise is writing. Yes, the unspeakable must now be spoken. And in the speaking, the sadness loses some of its power to devastate and gains some power to point us to the morning, and the One who has promised:

[“H]e will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)



Losing One’s Voice

September 15, 2014

One of the interesting, and somewhat disappointing, developments of this summer has been trouble with my breathing apparatus. My lungs check out very well, indeed, but the upper airways (trachea and bronchi) are stiffening. This causes me to wheeze under certain conditions, and if you really listen, you can hear a slight whistle coming from just below my voice box. My radiology oncologist suggests the possibility that last Fall’s radiation treatments are now causing some scarring in those tubes. The matter is being investigated by my medical team, and I’m hoping there might be some sort of definitive treatment to correct the problem. We’ll see!

Miraculously, I am able to sing, and in fact have joined a choir. A week ago Saturday we experienced our first all-day “retreat” with this group, which entailed a lot of vocalizing (most of the day). By the end, I was afraid my voice was going to go completely. As a voice major, I know the best remedy for laryngitis is vocal rest and hydration, so I did the drill and averted disaster. The experience, however, gave me a handle on what has been going on with me in the writing department.

In late Spring, as I was coming out of the cancer tunnel and as the PC(USA) General Assembly was looming, I began to lose my writing (blogging) voice. It takes awhile to find one’s voice, that unique point of view, writing style, even that soul of a writer expressed in words. It was a new experience for me, having nothing to say! [Take her to the hospital! Mary has run out of things to comment upon!]

So, a little history: In the last year, I have picked up some new readers drawn to my experience of lung cancer. Many of you may not know that I had a “previous life” as a Presbyterian activist. As a minister member of San Francisco Presbytery and a national leader among evangelical/orthodox Presbyterians, I reflected on the politics, theology, discipline, and governance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). My perspective was, and remains, theologically conservative, biblically anchored, and challenging to the emerging trends in my particular tribe of mainline Protestantism.

The year my tribe was ramping into the season known as “General Assembly,” held in Detroit in June 2014, I was out for the count. Undergoing rigorous treatment for lung cancer, having surgery to remove a lobe of my lung, and recovering in my recliner, my interest in denominational issues slackened under the constant effort just to stay awake. It’s amazing how an experience like this puts life in slow motion, reorganizes priorities, and takes the urgency out of some events.

During this time, however, I found my voice in reference to lung cancer and the spiritual life, and Bringing the Word to Life meant bringing the Scriptures to bear on prolonged illness, the possibility of dying, and the miracle of cure. The medications I took had one quirky side effect I wish I could have back: I was wide awake from 3 to 8 a.m. every morning, providing the perfect quiet and reflective mood for writing. But now that these drugs are completely out of my system, I am slogging away like everybody else, trying to find the time and the quiet to gather my thoughts. I can assure you, the joy of living is a daily gift now, and small pleasures are intensified. My batteries—physical and spiritual—are almost fully recharged at this point, and I’m ready to roll in the writing department.

So now the question is, should I go back to writing about denominational issues? All summer, I have felt the Lord urging me to silence on the PC(USA) topic, literally restrained from writing about the GA decisions of greatest concern to me. I watched the plenary sessions of GA on live streaming, took copious notes, stayed in touch with my colleagues on site. But when the decisions came down, it was as though I had lost my voice. I felt like I had given reasonable warning for years, as a prophet in the wilderness trying to wake people up to the disaster ahead. My warnings went unheeded; my logic was unconvincing; something “newer” and “better” was adopted. My point of view is now considered irrelevant, if not dangerous, to the thought police who are redefining “tolerance” even as they are redefining “marriage.”

My silence has not been due to fear. I am not afraid of what people think of me or my ideas. I don’t have anything to lose professionally. If there’s one thing I have learned in the last year, there is nothing to be afraid of when one is carried by the Savior.

My silence is not an indication I have given up. I do not plan to roll over and play dead while the assault upon a biblically faithful and historically orthodox theology continues.

My silence itself is not acknowledgment that I have lost a contest. I believe a contest has been decided, with erroneous teaching and an abandonment of the rules, but “losing” is not what has rendered me silent.

It is “the fear of the Lord” and his holiness and righteousness that has me standing in awe-full silence, for now. I don’t expect it to be permanent, but I do expect with vocal rest and hydration (drinking the Living Water), it won’t be long before the Lord will give me permission to bring his Word to life, be it in the PC(USA) or in other aspects of life yet to unfold.

Tomorrow, some thoughts from the Major Prophets.

The third mandate Jesus issued regarding the witness of his followers is found in John 13, right after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. His humble and socially shocking demonstration apparently got a conversation going among the men. Jesus said to them (among other things):

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34f)

Jesus knew human nature pretty well to put his finger on the Achilles heal of many a church (and denomination). To state the matter positively, “The mutually lived-out heart love of Christians for one another will be the single greatest missionary force in the world.” (Dale Bruner, Commentary on John, 796). On the negative side, a lot of damage to our Christian witness occurs when, within the life of our congregations, we are unkind, rude, argumentative, or otherwise unloving. In every church I have served, my administrative assistant has been reduced to tears by the abusive incivility of callers who are members of the church! The wail always is, “But they are Christians; they’re supposed to be kind and loving.” Right on. So it hurts the Body when some find it justifiable to be condescending or demanding—not in the Spirit of Christ!

It is interesting that John focuses on Christ’s exhortation to his followers that they love one another. Matthew lifts up Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43), and we certainly must do that. But John, in his gospel and in his letters, emphasizes the importance of loving one another as a sign of our faith’s genuineness and a requirement for our Christian witness. He is not saying, “Enjoy the love fest. Keep it to yourselves.” No, John’s Jesus is saying, “Love one another for the sake of others, so that nothing will obstruct their trust in Me.”

I checked in with my Coffee Ladies this week about this exhortation, and yes, sure enough, they each had a story of so-called Christians who turned them off to the church because they gossiped, bickered, or bad-mouthed others. It was truly a bummer to hear this. But when we do these things, we undermine and invalidate the gospel’s message; and who wants to take a chance on that kind of group?

The Apostle Paul is helpful here for describing love for the church. The famous 1 Corinthians 13 is not a passage about love in marriage, it is a description of what love is and is not in the life of the church:

06.13.14.Love Is Grid

In summary, love is not self-centered or insecure. Love extends tenderness to others, while abiding in God’s truth in full submission.

As many of my friends travel to Detroit today and tomorrow for the General Assembly of the PC(USA), which starts on Saturday, I am painfully aware that ours is a Christian tribe having trouble demonstrating love for one another. I do not think love, as Jesus promotes it, precludes honest and respectful debate. Nor do I think it is our prerogative to define for God and others what love is. Some “insisting on their own way” are saying to the church, “You must love me, and to do that you must accept my commitment to homosexuality. More than that, in order to love me, you must celebrate my commitment to homosexuality.” I do not think this is what Jesus meant by loving. Certainly one is to show utmost kindness and courtesy to the homosexually committed. There is no justification for rudeness or arrogance, which are unloving. But we are called to be patient (waiting for something yet to come), happy in the truth (obedient to the Word of God), willing to share the burden of others in the meantime, and hopeful for the transformation Jesus promises (new Life, free from sin).

So as you pray for the members of your own congregation and presbytery or district, could you also offer a prayer for the commissioners and observers as they begin to meet this weekend? “By this everyone will know that you are [Christ’s] disciples, if you have love for one another.” Make this a reality, Lord Jesus!


I am in a unique season in my life; I have good news to share with just about anybody who will listen. My glad tidings, as my regular readers know, is that after six months of messing around with a diagnosis of lung cancer and all its treatments (chemo, radiation, and surgery), I am now cancer-free with little expectation that it will come back. Disclosing this part of my story is coming very naturally as I am welcomed back to the grocery store where I have been a regular customer for sixteen years. My hair stylist gave me my first post-chemo haircut ten days ago, and he held onto every word of my account of the past seven months. The presumably Buddhist pedicurist was genuinely blessed when I said my doctors had God’s help to heal me. The list goes on and on. The power to witness has overflowed out of the intensity with which I experienced God in my life this year.

As we bask in the afterglow of Pentecost celebrated by the church this past Sunday, I am thinking about how that experience propelled 120 disciples out into the city of Jerusalem (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit had given them the power to witness, and their good news was that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was offering new life to anyone who would believe in him. Many of these disciples were hicks from Galilee, and yet God gave them the supernatural ability to communicate with everybody, even the international crowd. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection simply rolled out of their mouths, and nothing could stop them from proclaiming and their audience from hearing.

Christians of our century, having been reminded of the mandate and power to witness by the feast of Pentecost, are urged to recognize the uniqueness of our calling. This is a good week to go over some of the aspects of our faith that make our mission not only distinct from the non-religious world but different from other religious groups world-wide. Jesus’ teaching leading up to his crucifixion pointed to his radical expectations. Particularly in the gospel of John, the last public discourses and private instructions he gave focused on how Jesus’ followers were to conduct themselves once he was gone from their sight (the “ascension” we talked about last week). I’d like to comment on three of these requirements for the missionaries Jesus sent out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

First requirement: It is to Jesus, not ourselves, that we give witness. I’ve noticed over the years that church people are more apt to extol the virtues of their worshipping community than they are to extol the virtues of God. I think the psalmist really meant it when he wrote, “One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). When God has done something really cool, it’s hard to keep quiet about it.

And yet, many Christians are very quiet about Jesus. I can see a few reasons for this: 1) people experience Jesus as a quiet presence in the background of their lives, while in the forefront they are busy with other concerns; 2) people’s faith has waned since the first time they got to know Jesus by name, perhaps in childhood long ago; 3) people are afraid that sharing what God has done in their lives will be ridiculed or dismissed; 4) people have not actually experienced the presence of God at work in their lives, and therefore have nothing to say; and 5) people are worried that if they bring up God in conversation, somebody is going to ask them a question they can’t answer.

It is so much easier and more natural, they say, to talk about what’s going on at church or to invite someone to a concert happening there this weekend, or even to wax eloquent about feeling good and blessed without giving a hint as to the Source of that blessing. Right now, in the Presbyterian tribe, it’s easier to talk about hopes and expectations for next week’s General Assembly, which is a church activity, than to talk about the Lord of the Church himself.

Jesus made it quite clear that the outcome of our testimony would be God’s glory. Our job is to point people to what God is doing and to show gratitude for that. Of course it is possible that God is doing something in and through your church, and it is fair game to share that with others. But rather than praise the church, are we not called to praise God from whom the blessings flow and make know the mighty acts of God?

So, the first hallmark of Christian mission is that it is about Jesus, not about us. No other religious body lifts up the name of Jesus as Lord of all, head of the church, or shepherd of our souls. Some may acknowledge his teaching ability, his role as a prophet, or even his good and pure life. But nobody but the Christian bows and worships Jesus Christ as God-come-in-the-flesh to redeem the world. The power of the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to acknowledge the truth of biblical proclamation a d the mighty acts of God testified to therein. Given this first unique aspect of Christian mission, how are you doing talking about Jesus instead of yourself? What would equip you to do this better? Whom can you ask for help to develop skills or summon the courage for giving witness? Food for thought, and then power for action!

Next post: the second unique requirement for Christian mission, sacrificial servanthood.

The study of history was never my strong suit in high school, and though I had a couple of world-renowned history professors at Stanford, the discipline did not capture my imagination. I was at the time much better suited as a mathematical sciences major (first) and ultimately music major. Problem sets and musical analyses were more my forte in these formative years. I’ve been on a remedial course ever since.

What turned me around was Church History in seminary. I took three courses: Early Church, Reformation History, and American Church History to fulfill my requirements. For the first time (with the possible exception of Music History in college), I could attach ancient events to my own life and see the relevance of history as something important to my life’s work. Through the lens of church history, I have been able to circle back and appreciate biblical history, political history, art history, and even music history.

It also helps to have lived through several decades of personal history. To this day I am an avid reader of the daily newspaper, a habit I started in grade school at the suggestion of my mother. This accumulation of knowledge and experience contributes to a long-view perspective on the shake-up we are now experiencing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This week I would like to ponder the dynamics of dismissal from the PC(USA). There is a long view (version 1), and local view (San Francisco Presbytery), and another long view (version 2) that I would like to describe eventually. But my starting point is this observation: most departing churches I know have come to their decision as the result of a gradual accumulation of concerns rather than any one precipitating event.  For many, it has and is a slow-motion process of waking up and realizing something is terribly wrong. For others, there was perhaps one piece of bad news coming from a GAPJC or a GA; but because Presbyterians rarely do anything quickly, a process of discernment has revealed a spiritual and ecclesiastical osteoporosis that is only now causing pain.

Taking the long view, from an evangelical perspective, I see two movements in particular that have sent the PC(USA) off the orthodox path. In each case, there was a precipitating event, unrecognized for its import at the time, but a decision that changed the course of history within our tribe (if not the world).

The first trajectory is a distinctly Presbyterian one, and it focused primarily on the American Church. It was the outcome of the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate in the 1920s. The issue boiled down to whether one’s identification as Presbyterian rested on subscription to basic fundamentals of Christian faith. I have written about this before (here, and here), and only remind us today that an unwillingness to define ourselves doctrinally has allowed Presbyterian leaders to believe and preach whatever they want. “Whatever they want” has crossed the line of orthodoxy in practice, if not in our books. The fact that our Confessions and Book of Order remain as orthodox statements of our faith is irrelevant to people who want to do what they want to do. Freedom of conscience has been enshrined as the only truly meaningful (that is, universally applied) principle of our governance. There is no such thing now as doctrinal purity, because there is no belief standard by which that can be measured. This alone is enough to drive evangelical churches crazy.

The second movement—relevant to our consideration of why conservative churches leave the denomination—is the sexual revolution, and specifically the invention of the birth control pill. What has become a reliable means for family planning in the marriage context has also been permission-giving to sexually active folks regardless of their relational context. It is obvious that over the last fifty years, there has been a significant upsurge in promiscuity (sex without any anchoring commitment), sexual exploitation of women (without the commensurate commitment to raise a family together), and so-called advanced reproductive technologies that have made possible the creation of babies without a relationship at all (sort of a reproductive Tower of Babel). For challenging and insightful reading on this dynamic, read What Is Marriage? by Girgis, Anderson, and George, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.  

The pressures that result from these trends have all come to bear on the Presbyterian Church, culminating now in its debate about what constitutes marriage.  For the evangelicals who remain in the PC(USA), a redefinition of marriage, possibly (though not inevitably) next summer, would be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Tomorrow: A case study from my Presbytery

Following and Leading

September 11, 2013

San Francisco Presbytery passed two of three overtures related to Israel/Palestine last night. Its decisions (by fairly close margins) reflected a particular view of the PCUSA’s place in the world and the realms in which it is called to lead. That whole Middle East issue is incendiary and difficult and not my area of expertise, so I defer to friends Viola Larson and Alan Wisdom for any detailed discussion. But the question of whether the PCUSA has standing to insert its political solutions into the international mix is a real one, and germane to my current topic: the church and its relationship to the world and its culture.

The PCUSA would do well, I think, to review its true position and to take the opportunity for a mid-course correction in its trajectory toward the world. In these posts of late we have been reflecting on the term “counter-cultural” in reference to our calling, after John Stott’s book title Christian Counter-Culture on the Sermon on the Mount. But before we can discern where we are to lead in the world without being of the world, it is imperative that we understand, as a prerequisite, whom we are to follow and which culture is ours.

When Jesus invited his new disciples to follow him (Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21), he was committing himself to apprentice them, equip them, empower them, and direct them to “the fields white unto harvest” (John 4:35; Matthew 9:36ff). In the course of his ministry, Jesus described to them the environment in which they would find abundant life, the Kingdom of God. The realm in which they would flourish and the vision of God for all humanity was described and demonstrated throughout the gospels through parables, Q & A sessions, healings, and preaching. Even Jesus’ tussles with the Pharisees were intended to clarify what is God’s way and what was the world’s way of relating to God and the world.

Our first task is to learn how to follow Jesus Christ, savior of the world, Lord of all, and shepherd of our souls. It is vitally important for us to be aware of those ideas, worldviews, and gods that continuously woo us into thinking we are following a good cause for a good reason to empower good people. What we must be very clear about is that we are bid to follow Christ, to believe God and align ourselves with God’s purposes for us, to breathe the air of the Kingdom of God, and to live within its life-giving parameters. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). This requires of us a deep trust that what Jesus has said and claimed is true and a life-changing conviction that if we align ourselves to Christ we will be in a solid position to do God’s will in the world.

Faithful followers of Jesus Christ are the ones qualified then to lead God’s people into the corridors of culture and society, to make God’s Kingdom visible in genuine, humble witness to Jesus’ salvation. We are not in a position to force the world to conform to a biblical way of life but to invite people to “come and see” (John 1:39). Our first power of persuasion, in the direction of true and lasting change, is to live the life that Jesus empowers and invite people to watch and learn. How can we expect any element of the world to adopt the Way of Jesus unless people can see what the Kingdom of God looks like, recognize its goodness, and be taught its meaning?

In its decision-making, the PCUSA would do well to reaffirm the Lordship of Christ, which gets us knee-deep into the discussion of Jesus Christ, his person, his work, his power, and his goals. The debates within our denomination are derivative of incomplete or inaccurate views of our Savior and the faulty theologies that emerge as a result. What would it look like if we were to stop out for a time, away from debates about how to pressure government and business into a particular policy and aside from word-smithing to redefine social norms, and instead abide in the One without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). This is a basic response to our calling to follow Jesus. Who is Jesus and what does it look like to follow him? My experience in my own presbytery is that there is not a true consensus on Jesus’ person and work, and I know we differ greatly on what it looks like to follow him. It all gets back to the meaning of Lordship, about which the PCUSA has claimed to: “ . . . desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life” (BOO, G-2.0104b).

Yesterday’s blog post gave rise to some interesting comments on Facebook (not here, regrettably), suggesting that a nerve was hit on this question of just what the church is supposed to be and do in relation to “the culture.” I am aware that many books have been written on the subject of the church and culture (or Christ and Culture by Niebuhr and D. A. Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited). I closed my reflection yesterday with the statement that, despite the fact we possess true freedom and righteousness in Christ, believing and acting on this truth is a sticking point for the church and its members.

Why does the church (and the saints who comprise it) choke on the idea that we can, must, and are empowered to act differently from the world? Here are some reasons for the difficulty we have differentiating ourselves from the prevailing winds of our time:

1. Ignorance. Many of us honestly do not know enough about God and God’s purposes for us to recognize, much less live, the godly life. This may be a chosen ignorance, among those who are happily indifferent to the things of God. But I have also observed newcomers to our church, for instance, who exhibit a spiritual knowledge deficit and unfamiliarity with the basics of biblical and moral ideas. This gap limits one’s ability to practice the Christian faith as a way of life.

2. Intractability. It is a feature of human nature that our prideful hearts do not want the fundamental transformation that Jesus empowers. In the flesh, we like what we like when we like it, and we do what we want to do when we want to do it. [This is another of Naegeli’s Laws.] The idea that Jesus might change our ways of thinking and doing, particularly when it goes against the grain with which we feel so comfortable…? Unbelievable!

3. Fear of isolation. Bottom line, we’re afraid we’ll lose our friends if we stand against the prevailing mores they exhibit. The recovering alcoholic, as an example, has some big decisions to make about where and with whom he will spend his time. If “bar” and “drinking buddies” have to be avoided in order to stay sober, he has a painful redirection ahead. It takes a special kind of courage to adopt a new social circle, to learn a new conceptual language characterized by freedom instead of addiction, and to embrace a God-centered worldview. But these are essential movements that go with conversion, and too many of us have gotten stuck somewhere along that process such that our turning is incomplete and we fear the consequences of a total surrender to God.

4. Inertia. It is just plain hard to make the effort (to which grace is not opposed, as Dallas Willard said often) to change a long-standing thought or behavior. It is difficult to swim upstream against the current of prevailing culture and there are risks in doing so. [For those counting my top 20 sermon illustrations, here’s one of my favorites:  At the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, tens of thousands of runners wend their way on 7.5 miles of city streets between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. But there is one runner who dares to be different and, costumed as a salmon, starts at the ocean and runs in the opposite direction, upstream to spawn as it were. Imagine how intimidating it is to come against a wall of runners moving en masse towards you, and the difficulty of navigating through the boisterous crowd going that way in order to go this way toward the Bay. And so it is as we swim against culture’s godless currents.]

So far, my comments have been directed toward the individual, but let’s take a look at the PCUSA for a minute.  What are its reasons for experiencing difficulty in obeying Jesus and the Word Written in areas where biblical and societal norms collide?

PCUSA Ignorant? To get at this, we can point to the occasionally atrocious theology we hear spouted from various microphones at General Assembly and to the biblically vacuous decisions of GAPJCs in the last two years. There are some wonderful and faithful biblical interpreters in the Presbyterian tribe, but the application of biblical instruction to everyday life is left to everyone’s own opinion. The teaching office of the church has abdicated its responsibility to make disciples by teaching them to do everything that Jesus told them (Matthew 28:19ff).  Our confessional heritage has been squandered in the process.

PCUSA Intractable? The outright rejection of Scripture and the Confessions by some who have prominent authority and influence in the PCUSA and the embrace of a false teaching that the male-female union is not a prerequisite for marriage is evidence enough. But the “testimony” of some in the LGBTQ tribe says outright, “My experience is this, and I don’t want to change it.” In light of Hebrews 12:3ff, we have to say that the folks that insist on pursuing same-sex attraction are not willing to undergo discipline and, yes, make the sacrifices that would align their thinking and their behavior to God’s revealed will regarding sexual expression.

PCUSA Isolation? In preparation for the last Assembly, I heard pro-gay-marriage folks saying that to be missional the church had to meet its potential members (LGBTQ people) where they are, affirm their lifestyle, and demonstrate that they are welcome and affirmed in their same-sex attraction. I’ve heard others say, “Our neighbors think Christians are gay-bashing homophobes and on the basis of that opinion have rejected the church. We can reverse their opinion of us by being welcoming and affirming of gays in our congregations.” In other words, folks won’t like us if we hold to a [biblical] position on sexuality; our membership is dropping, but we can reverse this trend by adopting the values our society is trending toward. [Oh, but some of the same people say we are being counter-cultural by being welcoming and affirming long before our culture is! Can’t speak for the proverbial Peoria, but here in the San Francisco area, a pro-gay culture is pervasive, as it is in other large coastal cities in the U.S. Here, the church is “catching up,” on the road to perdition, I would add.]

PCUSA Inertia? A Presbyterian legal system built on precedent, dating to actions and decisions as far back as 1729, is stuck in a mode of decision-making that is veering it away from definitive biblical norms. The momentum (yes, something different from inertia) is moving in the direction of granting such freedom of conscience to every individual Presbyterian that no Presbyterian body can properly administer discipline. What is in a state of paralysis (getting back to inertia) is our inability to see our position in the world as truly prophetic—not hip and ‘on the right side of history’— and reaching it with the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. The sheer effort required to learn the Great Story of God and God’s Creation and translate it into living, breathing examples of the Kingdom of God at work has proven to be Herculean for our predominately white, aging, and cocooned constituency.  

After this critique, please note that I am still a PCUSA pastor and have no plans to seek dismissal any time soon. Why not? Because I believe that there are still a few ears that hear what Jesus is saying to the churches, and I’d like to help them bring the Word to life. Tomorrow, on the suggestion of one of my commenters yesterday, I’m going to ponder the choices we have in relation to the culture: the church moving with the culture? The church moving counter to the culture? Or is there another alternative?

Naegeli’s Law: Making something legal does not necessarily make it moral.

I am energized by the latest “The Edwards Epistle”—sent out to friends of Dr. Jim Edwards of Whitworth University—which focuses on the topic “The Difference between Legal and Moral.” Every quarter or so, Jim (with the help of Rev. Phil Olson and team) sends out a two- to four-page essay on a particular topic. This missive is always worth reading, pondering, appreciating, and passing along. Yes, it is the snail-mail equivalent of a blog; I have a big fat file folder collected, treasured, and consulted over the years. So Jim, if you are reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks for your effort, intellectual gifts, spiritual passion, and good biblical and historical sense. The church should be very grateful for your clear reasoning and insight.

Jim has provided me with a great launch pad for blog discussion in preparation for the 221st General Assembly.  Yes, it is that time of year. Vacations are over, presbyteries are meeting again, and organizations are making their plans for PCUSA’s next biennial decision-making meeting scheduled for next June 14-21 in Detroit. After summarizing his essay, I would like to address the questions the essay raises for us Presbyterians relating to our identity as a church body, our mission in the world, and our moral authority.

Jim Edwards reflects on his summer tour of Reformation and German Church Struggle sites in Germany. In particular, he describes the villa in Wannsee, where on January 20, 1942, fifteen German leaders determined “a total solution to the Jewish question.” Some of the most notorious figures in Nazi Germany (like Adolf Eichmann) were present at this meeting, but noteworthy was the inclusion of the unassuming Dr. Gerhard Klopfer, “Permanent Secretary, Department III, State Affairs.” He was a lawyer who drafted the legislation that made the Holocaust legal, opening the door to a transformation of German infrastructure to facilitate the extermination of millions of people. Jim observes:

The presence of a man like Klopfer at the Wannsee Conference makes it much more terrifying than it would be if only Eichmanns were present. Not many of us are like Eichmann, but it is easy to be like Klopfer. Indeed, it is hard not to be like him. We do not know to what degree he was aware—or whether aware at all—of the gap between legality and morality. From our perspective, the gap was catastrophic. In this respect . . . he is a graphic reminder that the question of legality cannot be properly answered apart from the larger and ultimate question of morality.

The PCUSA is under terrific pressure, now that marriage laws have changed in thirteen states, to declare same-sex marriage morally acceptable, even something to be celebrated by the church. [A reminder is in order here: gay marriage is explicitly banned in thirty-five states.] Overtures to change our Directory for Worship to refer to marriage “between two persons” are expected in June’s debates. But I am hoping that a sufficient number of commissioners will be equipped to argue that “making something legal does not necessarily make it moral,” and in the case of same-sex marriage, its legality in some states simple calls the church to rise to its prophetic calling and declare gay marriage inconsistent with God’s intention for humankind.

As a Theology Matters email points out this week, history has demonstrated that even those social movements that seem inevitably successful have been turned back by the moral resistance of people who believe God’s Word has more authority than permissive laws. Take the abortion issue as an example. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, many states have availed themselves of the opening SCOTUS gave them to regulate the practice after the point of viability and certainly after 28 weeks gestation.  The still-staggering abortion rate nevertheless has decreased to its lowest rate ever (through 2009, as far as CDC data go), and Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project continues to show that approximately half the U.S. population views abortion as morally wrong (and only 15% consider it morally acceptable). Support for the legality of abortion before the 28th week remains strong, but its practice evokes a moral dilemma. Even the Democratic Party platform has reflected this dilemma by promoting the legality of abortion but also reducing the need for it: “Safe, legal, and rare.”

While the trends nationally seem to be shifting slowly, what has been the responsibility of the church in this debate and other social issues all along? It is the church’s calling—whether or not we have actually done it— to believe and proclaim what is right in the eyes of God, instructed by the Scriptures. Our job is not to be relevant or to tickle people’s ears with messages they want to hear. Our mission is to demonstrate and proclaim the grace and truth of the gospel to this generation (F-1.0304). The only way the PCUSA can minister with moral authority is by acting in obedience to Scripture, our only rule of faith and practice, regardless of the prevailing winds of the world (F-3.0107). Doing so puts the PCUSA in a counter-cultural position, but isn’t that where we are supposed to be? We must let God define for us what love is, what marriage is, what is expected of human beings, what is important in life, and what is moral. We’re the church and God is God. We’re about furthering his agenda, not our own. The world has legalized all sorts of activities that are not morally clean, ostensibly under the protections of the U.S. Constitution.

The job of the church is to hold out to folks—otherwise confused, conflicted, addicted, or enslaved—an alternative, biblical worldview. In Christ we possess true freedom and the power to live rightly, but believing this and acting on its truth is where we get stuck. Why this is so is tomorrow’s subject.