In anticipation of a stellar 80° day, Andy and I headed out Saturday morning to explore the John Muir Historic Site. We toured a visitor’s center and the Martinez home where the famous “wilderness tramp” John Muir lived and raised a family for 24 years.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 to strict Presbyterian parents, who immigrated to Wisconsin when John was still a boy. He showed promise as an inventor, an interest that motivated him to study at university. But before graduating—he dropped out in 1863—he made a tour on foot of Iowa, Illinois, and Canada and acquired a taste for the wilderness.

Later at age 29, employed by an Indianapolis carriage parts manufacturer, a factory mishap changed his life forever. A metal file broke in his hand, and a piece of it jabbed his right eye, blinding him. A doctor bandaged the wound and prescribed quiet rest in a dark room for four weeks.

During this recovery period, Muir began to evaluate his life and loves, and realized that there was a lot of world he wanted to see. He set out to discover the riches and lessons nature could teach him, first with a 1000-mile walk to Florida and then to California where he fell in love with what we now call Yosemite Valley. He lived in the High Sierra, tending sheep or operating a sawmill, but mostly exploring, for four continuous years. During this time, he began to journal his findings and to publish magazine articles extolling the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite. His writings drew attention to its vast natural resources, the necessity of its preservation, and his own exploits off the grid.

Muir’s remarkable story goes on, but I want to reflect on the fact that a brilliant man went off the grid at least twice: from 1863 to 1866 and from 1869 through 1873. In both instances, he came back refreshed and resolved to secure and preserve natural wonders. His most potent methods were to write about his wilderness observations and experiences and to relate to influential people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Teddy Roosevelt. He is known as the Father of the National Park System and was the first president of the Sierra Club.

Four years off the grid in Yosemite, but writing and taking notes, became the seedbed for great ideas and a significant impact on American life. As I pondered the correlation between social withdrawal and public impact, I realized that Muir’s life runs somewhat in parallel to the Apostle Paul and to Jesus.

The Apostle Paul was confronted by the risen Christ (Acts 9) and brought into Damascus to be instructed by Ananias. After this dramatic conversion, he withdrew from public life for at least three years. When he emerged from this quiet learning period, he itinerated all over the Mediterranean region to proclaim the gospel, establish churches, and write letters comprising a good part of the New Testament.

Jesus lived an obscure life for thirty years before changing the water into wine in Cana and becoming a locally known figure. After his baptism, he was sent by God’s Spirit into the wilderness for forty days. He returned to civilization and began calling disciples to himself and launching his ministry. His public life was punctuated by forays to quiet places for contemplation. His creative “product,” unlike Muir and Paul’s writings, was relationships and public teaching. He never wrote a book, leaving that task to the four gospel writers, but established his earthly legacy through the development of many disciples as preachers, teachers, and church planters.

For several years, based on what I still think was “a word from the Lord,” I expected that my contribution as a Christian leader to the church would be more prominent and influential than it has turned out to be. What form that leadership would have taken was never fully revealed, though I felt I was inching closer a couple of times. I felt the Lord preparing me for a leadership role of some impact.

But like Jesus’ Messiah-ship, which turned out looking a lot different than Jewish leaders of his day expected, the path God set for me has involved hardship and ridicule and failure (especially the 2012 PCUSA legal defeats that led to the sea change in that denomination). It has included life-threatening illness that took me out of full-time work, and academic forces beyond my control that truncated a future as a seminary teacher. These setbacks and redirections have channeled my energies into part-time hospital chaplaincy and into writing a memoir about my experiences. It is not easy for me to say this: I was disappointed and even shaken that I misunderstood God’s appointment.

Nevertheless I affirm that God knows what he is doing with my life. I am at peace now with the call to live as faithfully and excellently as I can within my present context and to remain open to his continued direction. Power and influence take many forms, some of which I may not actually want anymore. But writing something true, worthy, and thought-provoking may become my means of leading people to Jesus’ calling in their lives. As my dad used to say, “The one who has the pen has the power” (Naegeli’s Law #3).

The stories I have shared today—of John Muir, the Apostle Paul, and our Savior Jesus Christ—remind me that good things come out of quiet obscurity. I can expect to thrive and be joyful and do some good as long as I stay closely in tune with the one singing the melody in my life. For now, that means (in part) transcribing the music I hear onto the written page, from which others perhaps can sing the lead and be heard.

 

 

As we anticipate our 40th wedding anniversary in June, Andy and I recall one story we would just as soon forget. But because it holds a good lesson, we share it:

About three years into our marriage, Andy and I decided to take our first backpack trip together. It was a trail to Stanford Lakes in the Sierra Nevada. It must have been in the 8,000 to 9,000 ft. elevation range. What I remember is how out-of-breath I was and so tired I could not make it up this one hill. Andy, up ahead, was getting frustrated that my pace wasn’t faster. And when I insisted, in tears, that I was having a really hard time and needed to rest, he thought I was giving up (not an option) and giving in to something less than the mettle required as a backpacker. It was not a good day.

After one or two other experiences like this one, again at high altitude, and again through bouts of frustration on both our parts, I decided that the sport was not fun, not safe (for me), and I did not want to go anymore. Yes, I was “embittered” (to use Paul’s word in Colossians 3:19), enough that my hiatus from backpacking lasted about ten years. During that time, Andy went with buddies on some terrific and challenging trips. But he missed having me along.

My beloved later realized that in those early days he had not acted out of compassion, kindness, meekness, and humility (remember Paul’s list from Colossians 3:12-15). He also realized that it had been unfair to expect high performance in high altitude without enough training, and that it was no fun for me to be left behind.

Out of all this came Andy’s First Rule for hiking with your wife: your wife goes first. And his Second Rule: If you want to go ahead anyway, remember the first rule. Ever since then, even after I became fit and more experienced, he has hiked behind me on the trail instead of in front of me. He has adapted to my pace. Since it was slower than his normal pace, he took up bird watching. [Another Naegeli Law: If you can’t fix it, feature it!] He knows that I will never climb Mt. Whitney, but it is still okay. He is bearing with me and my limitations. All in all, Andy has found ways to love his wife and not make her bitter.

I share this story, with Andy’s permission, because it seems to capture the essence of what Paul was describing about husbands in relation to their wives:

19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.”

The Hebrew here for “treat them harshly” is pikros, “to make bitter.”

Husbands, love your wives—agape them. Love them unconditionally for their sakes. Love them, bear with them, forgive them (from the previous paragraph in Colossians); in other words, do not exploit them, treat them as objects, apply unattainable standards to them, nor be unfair or unjust.

The parallel from Ephesians 5 puts it this way:

25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church
and gave himself up for her, . . .

In order for a husband to love his wife, he is called upon to “give himself up” for her. What would that look like? Meekness, kindness, compassion, humility, taking up the rear rather than forging on ahead. Does this sound familiar?

My take on the marriage issue is that both husband and wife are called to put the other first, to align their lives with the other, to submit together to the Lordship of Christ, to love each other despite faults and failings, to give themselves up for each other. Whether these actions come out of wifely submission or husbandly headship (a rationale not used in Colossians but in the Ephesians parallel) does not really matter. It ends up that two people are instructed to show mutual respect, tenderness, obedience, and cooperation in all aspects of life. In Christ, wife and husband are called to the same standard of behavior and attitude toward one another.

Any woman who has been told (by Paul) that now, in Christ, it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, you have equal standing before God (Galatians 3:28), is going to expect to be treated like a full-fledged human being. The balance of power between husband and wife is based on common humanity and the imago Dei. When power becomes unbalanced (which happens sometimes even without a couple realizing it), conscious mutual submission to the power of Jesus Christ is sought, and followed. One may not dominate or control the other (and believe me, in today’s world this applies both ways). One may not hide behind the authority/power/wishes of another nor assert authority/power/wishes merely on any assumption of superiority or priority. Two people come together not to blame or shame or demand, but to help each other live into the grace and mercy of God. They do that by appreciating the gifts the other brings, by solving problems together or deferring to the one with more expertise/knowledge or more at stake.

For twenty years, before I came down with lung cancer, Andy and I—with kids and friends usually—had many redeeming, wonderful backpack trips together. But the lessons learned in the late 1970s are needed once again, due to my new post-cancer limitations (missing a lung lobe and dealing with pronounced asthma). And to be honest—remember, this is mutual submission we are talking about—Andy has his own issues that come with creaky knees. So we have the opportunity to practice patience with each other and find new ways to enjoy this good earth and God’s creation. And we are still married!

 

 

 

 

 

As I dig down in earnest to write a book about my lung cancer experience of the past year, the dreaded “book proposal” has me delving into stuff I have studiously avoided so far: statistics. As part of my research, I attended last night’s Shine a Light on Lung Cancer presentation in my area. The sponsoring organization, Lung Cancer Alliance,  is an advocacy group raising awareness about its prevalence, promoting screening, and lobbying for more funds to go into research of its causes. Almost 200 Shine a Light events took place yesterday, as part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

The reason why I have avoided survivor-statistics is because they are so bad in the realm of lung cancer, especially for Stage III (mine was III-A) and IV. A year ago, I knew they were bad but it was easier to hold onto that amorphous concept than to hear how bad. My dear medical-scientist husband read the studies and confirmed my preference not to see them. Focusing on only one number—one— enabled me to concentrate on receiving God’s healing and participate in the plan for cure. After last night, I hold that my avoidance decision was a good call, and I highly recommend it.

But I do not recommend rolling over and playing dead, either. Somehow, today, after reeling a bit from the shock, my thoughts range somewhere between “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” and “Bring ’Em On!” As the event MC—himself a seven-year survivor—said, “When I was diagnosed, the statistical chance of survival was 15%. I looked my doctor in the eye and said, ‘Tell me how I can be one of those 15%.’” My sentiments exactly! Especially for my readers who have never had cancer, becoming aware of the uphill battle (not to mention your own lung health) will enable you to be better citizens, better pastors, better neighbors and friends to those who must walk down this road. That could be 207,000 Americans in the next year, according to the CDC.

Last night’s speaking panel included my own surgeon and medical oncologist, plus an oncology nurse and a lung cancer survivor. How grateful I was all this year to have the interpretive skills and medical optimism of these two physicians—surgeon and oncologist, joined by equally positive radiology oncologist—to keep me focused on what turned out to be very effective treatment. But the contrast between their demeanor in the examining room and the seriousness of their numeric reports last night was shocking. Imagine working optimistically, creatively, wholeheartedly, and skillfully with statistics like those hanging over your head. But it was their courage that became my own, and I will be forever grateful for each one of them.

The oncology nurse brought me back to the chemo chair experience, where over time I was blessed by the caring ministrations of several nurses just like her. In the familiar intimacies of side-effect control, I realized again how safe these women made me feel. And despite the physical danger of the disease I was fighting, I was safe: safe emotionally, safe spiritually, even safe (in the shorter term) physically. All because they said, “We are here to help you get through this as comfortably as possible.” Mission accomplished, ladies!

Erik, the survivor on the panel, told stories that illustrated the importance of hope. Believe it or not, his surgeon not twenty minutes before the trip into the OR, told Erik, “We’re going to try get all those lymph nodes out; if we miss one, then you’re terminal.”

Why don’t you just shoot me? Good grief.

Erik spoke sincerely about the power of hope, and why we must follow the signs of hope with courage and persistence. We must keep doing medical research, because we do not know why 17.5% of all lung cancers occur in people who never smoked. We must celebrate a milestone this week, a recommendation by Medicare to cover lung cancer screening of high-risk people, starting in 2015.  We must keep working on surgical techniques that make the procedure safer and recovery quicker. We must keep researching targeted therapies. There are exciting signs of hope in all these areas, and we are emboldened to pursue the Beast and slay it once and for all.

So add this to “Naegeli’s Laws”: Statistics do not predict what happens to me!

 

Suicides, particularly by those of celebrity status, make the headlines. In Robin Williams’ case this summer, the world mourned the loss of a man tormented but treated for mental illness and addiction. We will never know what drove him to his final act, but we suspect that deep psychic pain was at its root. The inelegance of his method suggests that he was as improvisational in death as he was on stage. For this we wept and wondered.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian helped approximately 130 people end their lives. Under Michigan law he was convicted for second-degree homicide and served over eight years in prison. At the present time, only three states in the Union permit physician-assisted suicide, or “death with dignity,” as proponents prefer to call it.

In one of those states, Oregon, Brittany Maynard has set a deadline for her own death after learning that she has an untreatable, aggressive brain cancer. She now possesses prescription drugs, prescribed by a doctor, that will take her life “on her terms.” The date for this final act is November 1, or “when the pain becomes unbearable,” whichever comes first. Meanwhile, Ms. Maynard appears on a YouTube video to explain her decision and advocate for “death with dignity” laws in more states.

Naegeli’s law number 13: Just because something is legal does not make it moral or right.

My mind and heart ache for someone way too young to die. I hate cancer and, as a survivor myself, I hate the collateral damage it is wreaking in our midst. People have been dying since Adam and Eve, so that is nothing new and to be expected, but we fear its processes no less. Except for cases of sudden, accidental death, it is quite possible to diagnose sickness unto death or, after death, to find out what happened. As data are gathered, we even know how disease progresses in many cases. The availability of such knowledge may be helpful for discussing treatment options, but in cases such as Ms. Maynard’s, that same knowledge can raise the level of anxiety and fear to intolerable levels.

The common word used by Ms. Maynard, her husband, and her mother to describe how they felt about her decision to end her life on her terms was “relief.” Relief from what? we ask. Relief from physical pain. Relief from loss of control. Relief from a diminished self. Even relief of other’s pain, as Ms. Maynard put it, “I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself through less pain, and reduce the pain of my family.” What she is looking for is a beautiful, peaceful, painless, dignified death.

As a pastor having attended the bedside of many dying patients over the years, I insist that death, in general, is rude and outrageous. Having said that, the most beautiful deaths I have witnessed are the ones around which a loving family has sacrificed, and served, and lovingly attended. These deaths have followed nature’s course in a final submission to the ways of God, which entail finishing this life in order to move into eternity. One person’s process of dying is an invitation to family and friends to live selflessly, even nobly, and is one universal means by which people can grow in grace and character.

What I am most concerned about, however, is the fear we might be carrying that in our dying state we become dependent, unlovable, or ugly. This is a fear of the diminished self, and its basis, I think, is disbelief that anyone could ever love me in that state or condition. It would be a very frightening thing to believe that no one in my life loves me unconditionally, for that is what fear of the diminished self is all about. We all enjoy a certain amount of love from others, but what if we fear that it is conditional love dependent on me being strong, beautiful, or healthy? And what if we simply do not want anyone to see us diminished by the ravages of disease because we fear rejection?

As an aside, I remember hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, and thinking several thoughts: We will never see Diana grow old; we will forever remember her has the young and beautiful princess. The public never saw pictures of her injured body (and it would have been incredibly bad taste to have published them). Do you not think that this is a secret wish we all have? To be remembered in our heroic youth, undiminished and still beautiful?

That would work, except that it is a colossal denial of death. Ms. Maynard desires to “enjoy [her] days, surrounded by those [she] loves,” but by choosing death she is removing herself from them and cutting short their opportunity to love her back. And she is assuming that by taking death into her own hands, she can mitigate its rudeness and outrage. She may be gone by then, but those left behind will still have to deal with death’s reality. As we all do, whether it is “beautiful” or not.

This is only the first installment on my thoughts . . . there are ethical implications, societal trends, and theological reflections to share. But once again, tomorrow I have been called back for another round of jury selection, so I don’t know if I will be able to write. I promise, my next blog will bring the Word to life and death.

 

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

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.

 

Hundreds of decisions were made in the course of this week’s General Assembly. Tracking the business is a little like maintaining a baseball scorecard. Some runners may get on base but never make it to home plate. The weather may delay the game. An error may be offset by a brilliant field catch. The final score is only one indication of what happened during the game; but the routine plays, the hand signals, and the errors throughout the game reveal the true condition of the team. To carry this analogy into the PCUSA, the Big Decision not to change the definition of marriage is an indicator of something, but throughout the week, there were other less-publicized decisions that demonstrated where we really are as a church. What I would like to do today is list the actions and moments that may not have made the news but which indicate, to me at least, that our denomination is in a serious slump and suffering from injuries.

1. The false start by the Moderator, Neal Presa, who originally supported the candidacy of his Vice-Moderator Tara McCabe, despite her conducting a same-sex wedding on April 28 in Washington, D.C. She resigned on Wednesday in anger but not repentance, and was replaced by Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs. The Moderator of the Assembly apparently did not believe that violation of one’s ordination vows disqualifies one from high denominational office.

2. In our polity, proposals were made that would have strengthened top-down governance and control of the church through the

• elimination of elected synods and appointment of regional administrative commissions to replace them. This part of the Mid-Councils Commission (MCC) report (05-12) did not pass.

• requirement that presbyteries pay all per capita due to synods and GA even if their congregation do not. This measure (03-02) passed.

• severe limitation of business coming to the assembly from presbyteries and commissioners, but not from GA entities. 03-01, Rec. 3, did not pass.

Except for the per capita decision, which was expected, the proposals to reorganize and redirect business upward did not prevail. Presbyterians value their representative form of governance and desire the initiative for business to come from below, not from above.  By turning back the MCC Recommendation 6 to form new (provisional) non-geographic presbyteries, however, the Assembly demonstrated not a unified vision of bottom-up innovation but an allegiance to the status quo.

3. On the sexuality issue, we averted immediate disaster as reported on Friday, but this vote to retain the traditional definition of marriage did not represent a resounding affirmation of Scripture’s witness nor the authority of our Confessions, but the political reality that a constitutional amendment could not muster presbytery ratification. As one retired PCUSA official said privately, “When it comes to the moment of truth—pressing the button on the keypad—commissioners vote on the side of unity in the church.” But with this action comes more Presbyterian double-speak:

• Postponement of “The Decision” for two years of study, as if the denomination has not been hashing over this topic for decades. This “solution” creates a limbo period for those on both sides of the aisle, for those who desire an immediate affirmation of gay marriage and for those who consider a change in the marriage definition to be the deal-breaker. Without a definitive decision on this matter this year, churches are prone to ambivalence about their relationship with the PCUSA.

• The implication (or desire) that non-compliance will be permitted in the meantime. A few commissioners admitted that they have not waited for the church to complete its discernment on gay marriage to start conducting same-sex weddings. Their admission is either a dare or an implicit dogma: the left can defy the constitution, but the right can’t prosecute while the subject is under scrutiny. For scofflaws, it does not matter what the constitution says. “People are going to do what they’re going to do” (Naegeli Law No. 137). But historically, in a time of discernment, churches have been courteous and patient with the process and declined to defy the standing rule until the Body has decided the matter. No more, it seems.

4. Cutting loose the Confessions from ecclesiastical decision-making. The Stated Clerk advised, and the Moderator ruled, that the proposed constitutional amendment to change W-4.9000, the definition of marriage, did not contradict the Confessions because “the confessions themselves do not agree with each other, but are rather a progressive representation of what the church has believed through history.” This ruling is based on false information (i.e. that the confessions disagree on the matter of marriage between and man and a woman, which they most certainly do not). But by saying what he did, the Clerk perpetuated the myth that our conduct is not based on what we believe (i.e. the confessional part of our Constitution) but on the rules we set (i.e. the Book of Order). This official ruling (of the Moderator, concurring with the Clerk’s opinion) was a second “official” statement rendering the Confessions irrelevant to everyday Presbyterian life (the first being the GAPJC’s decision in Parnell v. San Francisco). To me, this was the low point of the Assembly and a cowardly failure on the part of the Clerk to fulfill his office at a moment when it really counted.

Having said this, isn’t it ironic that liberals before the 2010 Committee on Confessions demanded a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism in order to remove the reference to “homosexual perversion” in Q. 87? Why would they feel this was important, if the Confessions really do not order our life together doctrinally? The church is not of one mind about where our authorities lie, and frankly, these erroneous rulings are causing ecclesiastical osteoporosis. Ultimately, and perhaps very soon, we will not be able to stand without breaking weakened bones.

5. Withholding all means of ‘relief of conscience’. I outlined this outcome in a previous post but it is worth saying again that if the church is going to depart from its historic faith and Presbyterian ethos to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of GLBT persons, in all fairness it must provide relief of conscience for those they insist must stay in the denomination. To differentiate from the denomination at large a congregation and/or presbytery needs to be able to cease participation in the Board of Pension benefits plan, have freedom to form new presbyteries or to adopt presbytery-wide ordination standards, withhold of per capita, or ultimately leave the denomination with property. All of these avenues were closed off at this Assembly, leaving evangelicals with huge dilemmas on how to differentiate from a wayward denomination.

6. The Q factor, raised when a commissioner asked what the Q in LGBTQ meant, and the moderator of Committee 13 said, “queer.” The commissioner thought it meant “questioning,” which she as a youth appreciated, because she wasn’t sure about the orientation of her sexuality just yet. Later the Moderator talked about the queue for the microphone, which he had to spell in order to differentiate from the Q everybody else had in mind. But going back to the youth commissioner’s comment, it seemed to me that YAADs were getting a pretty heavy dose of the gay agenda, based on the number of rainbow stoles they were wearing and their microphone comments. What I find sad and appalling is that youth, who are still learning and easily confused about sexuality anyway, now are confronted by a political advocacy group inviting them to explore the possibility they might be gay, or worse, urging them to experiment with homosexual practice as part of their “sex education.” [I’m not saying that is what is happening with the YAADs at GA, but homosexual education is required at junior high schools and, in some states, grades schools, according to Linda Harvey, who addressed the OneByOne lunch on Tuesday.]

So the GA game was not the PCUSA’s finest hour, and the team is dealing with injuries that may not heal. Not to say spiritual disciplines and training in godliness wouldn’t help avert the looming crisis. But now that the GA All-Star break is over, it is time for coaches across the country to go back to teaching the fundamentals of discipleship, promoting obedience to Jesus Christ and God’s way revealed in the Scriptures, and retraining theologically. The Coalition will do its part to provide materials for study, bibliographies for referral, and other helps for Presbyterian decision-makers learning to choose the Way of Life.

This was my last post for presbycoalition.wordpress.com, uploaded here also to make the transition to my personal blog. I am not dropping the subject of GA—believe me, I’m just getting started!—but exercising my freedom to delve into topics of my choosing as time goes on and things happen. Thank you for your interest and encouragement through the week; and again, I apologize for promising to write everyday and then not carrying through as consistently as I had hoped.

 

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now must deal with the first situation anyone can remember of a presbytery directly refusing to act on the decision and order of a General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). The question is, what recourse is there for dealing with such a flagrant disregard of their ordination vows and the basic understanding of Presbyterian governance (found, for instance, at F-3.0206, “Review and Control” by a higher council)?  

Understand that the drafters of the motion believed that they were acting consistent with their vows, that they are applying the love ethic of Jesus accurately, and that they have a right to defy a judicial ruling. The questionable biblical hermeneutic and theological error is the first problem, of course. The WHEREASes of the motion represent sloppy doctrine, disconnected “points” that actually do not follow one after the other, and therefore yield an illogical conclusion. Nothing new here; this is what we have been working with, and tolerating it as we have for decades is now yielding bitter fruit.

Illogic notwithstanding, the bottom line is this, “We, the Presbytery of Redwoods, refuse to carry out the PJC’s Order.” Naegeli’s Law No. 137 kicks in: “People are gonna do what they’re gonna do.” When they set their course, nothing will stop them: not a sense of covenant, not biblical obedience, not the knowledge that their actions will crumble the church, nothing. In San Francisco Presbytery a year or two ago, our interim executive presbyter actually said in a presbytery sermon before a controversial vote, “we should do the right thing [in the context, meaning ordaining gays], even if it destroys the church.” So how is that not a violation of a vow to preserve the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

If this were a civil situation and a party refused to perform according to the court’s directive, a law enforcement representative would haul them in to court, they would be ruled in contempt and levied a fine or jailed. Unfortunately, we have no “law enforcement” arm of church governance (I presume God’s judgment at the right time will have to do).  It is a serious question I am sure was calculated in the defiers’ strategy: is there anything anybody can do to stop them? The hubris is breathtaking.

But let us engage in the question for a moment. What could be done? Various ideas are proposed, among them:

1. The Synod installs an Administrative Commission in the Presbytery, and            

            a) orchestrates a reconsideration of the action; OR

            b) presumes renunciation of jurisdiction and remove the staff, replace the council, and issue the rebuke as directed; OR

            c) dismantles the Presbytery and redistribute its members to existing, surrounding presbyteries; OR

            d) enacts other ideas my readers will come up with

2. Ask the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to issue an advisory opinion on what has happened.

3. File a remedial complaint against Redwoods Presbytery. This puts us on course for an infinite loop, since the presbytery clearly has rejected judicial authority. So what if the GAPJC rules that the presbytery has acted in error? Without any sort of enforcement other than the untried, untested ideas outlined above, this presbytery thinks it can get away with open defiance. This is fodder for anarchy, folks, and a major humiliation to the historic church that was characterized by “decency and order” since its inception.

Our system of governance works only if peace, unity, and purity—all three—are held together without compromise by theological consensus, even agreement, on essential tenets of the Reformed faith (belief); unwavering obedience to Jesus Christ and the will of God as revealed in Scripture (behavior); and true covenant in community with one another. Redwoods Presbytery, with its Tuesday resolution, has broken covenant with the denomination, promoted a false gospel, and promoted disobedience. Who has the standing to call them out and declare them a rogue faction of the PCUSA?