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.

 

 

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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 www.pc-biz.org 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:

New

  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture

Worshiping

  • 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

Community

  • 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?

Have you ever wondered what Jesus was really praying for in the High Priestly Prayer when he asked his heavenly Father to make us one with Jesus as Jesus is one with the Father? (John 17:22-23). The idea of oneness conjures up different images. I have come into contact with a distinctly Eastern religious view of “oneness with the Universe.” As I understand the concept, the goal of life and the event at death is a complete absorption of one’s personhood and personality into The One Cosmic Being. Only that Universe remains in existence, all other beings having become a part of it. Oneness in this case means the complete assimilation of persons into an all-encompassing being and the loss of their individual identities. This view is not espoused in the Christian worldview.

Oneness with God in the Christian understanding has to do with a complete and accurate alignment of one’s life to God’s. The person still exists and functions as a volitional individual, but in Christ his or her will is lovingly wrapped in and shaped by the will of God such that the person ultimately becomes “Christ-like” (1 John 3:2). The New Testament offers plenty of evidence that we each retain our unique personhood, because we were each created in the image of God. When we die, we each are judged before the throne, we each are assigned to either heaven or hell according to God’s sovereign judgment of where we belong. The Book of Revelation points (twice—Rev. 5:10 and 22:5) to the vision of God’s people “reigning with him,” suggesting rather strongly that not only do we retain our individuality but we are also given responsibilities to carry out in the New Heaven and New Earth. There will always be a “Mary” and a “Stanley,” whose sole purpose is to love God, glorify him forever, and do his bidding according to his purposes. All for God.

So as we approach the Fifth Mansion in Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” we come with a deepening desire to be so close to Jesus that we cannot be separated by circumstance, competing agendas, or spiritual forces. We do not have the ongoing experience of this ultimate unity with God (that is the hallmark of the Seventh Mansion), but we want it more than anything. Lent is a good time to cultivate this desire.

We have fallen in love with Jesus, so to speak, and will do anything to demonstrate our love and loyalty to God by submitting to his central place in our lives. In the power of this spiritual magnet, our ministry takes on new effectiveness (often without our realizing this is happening). At this stage, “Work has become prayer; prayer has become work, all loving God” (Mansions of the Heart, 134).

I remember a particular day when I took a turn in the Fifth Mansion (it is not a place I dwell in consistently, a sign of how much more work Jesus must do in my life. . .). It was the day before one of the trials in a PC(USA) remedial case, and we (my attorney and I) only knew it would be stretching and difficult, requiring a prolonged and intense spiritual, emotional, and intellectual effort. God was strongly impressing upon me that this trial was an opportunity to love him with “all [my] heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love my neighbor . . .” (Mark 12:30). I realized that the work had become my expression of love to God in the fullest sense; I brought all I had and put it at his altar as my prayer. During that day of giving testimony, I felt as one with God’s purposes as I ever have, fully used of him (in the best sense), fully alive, and in awe of what God was doing in our midst.

Prayer in the Fifth Mansion takes the form of contemplation leading to “absorption and silence” before God. This is where we become speechless before our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, simply in awe of his beauty and power and deeply grateful for his love. Rather than bringing lists of petitions, we are more apt at this point to hold a person before God for his attentive care, healing, transformation, whatever . . . God knows and loves this person and knows exactly what is needed.

Alongside these experiences of wonder before the throne of grace, we also find ourselves more in tune than ever with our failings and the sin that so easily entangles us. A holy but persistent discontent overtakes us as we long to do better, be pure of heart, and free of old hurts. During this time, God can even “disappear” for awhile, I think to set us up, along with the Psalmist (Psalm 13), to know how much we need the Lord and how bereft we are without him. God’s invisible silence also invites us to trust not in our feelings about God but in God himself, whether he shows up or not. The devil, meanwhile, is allowed to dig away at our weak spots, unearthing the places where spiritual repentance and strengthening are needed. When we see how we flop, and consider what happened in retrospect, we learn where we got off track and what would have been the remedy—for next time! These very concrete spiritual experiences of longing, lapses, and learning are what God uses to shape us ever more closely in his image. Tough? You bet. Necessary? Absolutely. Survivable? Most certainly! Because the one ushering us through this mansion is the Shepherd of our souls.

Is there anything we can do at this stage to promote the work Christ would like to accomplish within us? We continue to pray as full participants in this divine conversation. We continue to read and study the Bible, so that our experience is always checked and “grounded in the boundaries of orthodox Christianity” (Mansions, 122). We continue to meet with other Christians to experience Christ’s life in our midst. We seek spiritual counsel from a mentor or spiritual director. And we arrange our life and our world to allow for time alone in peace and quiet with God. We do not feel guilty about “wasting time with God,” because beholding him and listening, enjoying the intercession of both Jesus (Romans 8:34) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26) are very fruitful spiritual endeavors, empowering us to serve the Lord and our neighbor with pure love and joy.

Next: The Sixth Mansion, The Passion of God’s Love

 

I’m not sure why Ed Koster is still responding to PCUSA remedial cases that were completed over a year ago, but since he mentions one case I spent about three years on, I will comment on the points he makes in his recent Outlook article.

The PCUSA faces a problem of discontinuity that is messy in its consequences: Any particular presbytery ordains for the whole church, based solely on the local governing body’s discretion.

This scenario works if the presbytery reflects the doctrine represented in our Confessions, which have been agreed to by the body as our means of interpreting what the Scriptures teach.

This doesn’t work if the presbytery interprets Scripture and the Confessions out of their plain meaning and historic understanding or does what it wants despite what the Bible says. Recent cases cited by Mr. Koster confirm that presbyteries are not held accountable by higher governing bodies for their doctrinal determinations.

Another problem is created by the ordination of teaching elders for the whole church. Those “who held beliefs that many considered heresy,” once ordained are unleashed upon the church, expect acceptance (of themselves and their beliefs) and calls and offices within the church where they influence others toward that heresy. This is why we no longer have a theological consensus in the PCUSA.

Judicial strategy cannot overcome a rigged system. I agree, given Swearingen, that the PJC could decide the way it did (i.e. we don’t enforce a doctrinal standard); but I disagree that it was required to. I believe that a GAPJC must act in consideration not only of legal precedent but also on Scriptural teaching. We are now trapped in a downward spiral of error that cannot be corrected officially, since judicial precedent trumps all. This is why many are leaving over doctrinal issues; all avenues of recourse toward correction have been removed. One might counter that “A GA can change anything,” but GA is the bastion of “diversity” and doctrinal cowardice. I don’t see a mid-course correction coming any time soon.

Koster recommends that judicial cases be developed around conduct rather than doctrine. It is true that doctrinal arguments have gotten nowhere in our system, but it is not in keeping with the Rule of Discipline, which specifically makes the link between that conduct and the content of Presbyterian belief. [D-12.0100, “you have acted contrary to the Scriptures and/or the Constitution of the PCUSA.”] For instance, [hypothetical here] if a teaching elder were to erect an idol in the church sanctuary and direct the congregation to worship it, the action would signal the elder’s heresy about God, as one, spirit, living, etc. The only way to prosecute the bad action (which is not explicitly prohibited in the PCUSA Book of Order) is to go after the false belief behind the action, namely that God is of human making and resides in a thing.

In the Parnell (note the proper spelling) and Caledonia cases, the conduct of the candidate was not being tried (that would be a disciplinary case). Parnell and Caledonia were remedial cases, challenging the presbyteries’ wisdom and doctrinal teaching as demonstrated by their affirmations of candidates who believe “what many consider heresy.”

I beg to differ with Ed Koster regarding the arguments presented as being focused only on doctrine and not conduct. Janie Spahr’s repeated violations (her conducting same-sex weddings) have been subject of disciplinary action for years. In addition, the Parnell case did focus on doctrine in order to give the GAPJC the opportunity to correct the error first introduced into the PCUSA mix with Swearingen almost a century ago. The commission declined to make that correction and proved the system is rigged. As a result it is much clearer to contemporary Presbyterians what the issues are and they will act accordingly.

In the Naegeli and Parnell cases (especially the former), the Synod PJC was presented with ample evidence of the candidate’s beliefs, life choices (conduct), public commitments (conduct and beliefs), and Presbytery’s failure to respond appropriately (institutional conduct). With that considerable body of evidence, the PJCs were still unwilling to question the Presbytery’s action to affirm an unsuitable candidate. Our efforts failed in their objective, but succeeded in clarifying the take-home lesson for ordinary Presbyterians: Believe and preach and promote what you will; nobody will stop you.

What I think Mr. Koster is saying is that we were wrong to approach these cases the way we did. What is more accurate to say is that our efforts were unsuccessful in achieving the goal we had in mind, namely an ownership of our authorities. We complainants followed our conscience and pleaded the cases based on the authority of Scripture and the reliability of the Confessions to interpret it. We were following a Reformed pattern of argument but were disappointed that Swearingen and the downward spiral it started was considered more Reformed than our approach. This engendered the greatest sadness for me and is a deep hurt for evangelicals in the PCUSA.

 

I have lost my singing/speaking voice only once in my life. I had just completed a Palm Sunday performance of the Brahms Requiem, in which I was the soprano soloist. Some time during the reception to follow, my voice suddenly closed down. And so it remained for a full six days. I was advised to drink a lot of water, rest as much as a church worker can during Holy Week, and stop trying to talk. My greatest anxiety came with the awareness that I was scheduled to lead the musical worship at a large Easter sunrise service the following Sunday. I went to bed Saturday night unable to sustain a tone, but in faith I set my alarm for 4 a.m.—the service began at 5:30—not knowing what else to do, frankly. I got up, took a hot, steamy shower, and started to warm up vocally. It was all there, well-rested and ready to go, and a very grateful musician drove into the foggy morning eager to sing God’s praises and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scary? You bet! A faith-stretcher? Unmistakably! Putting God to the test? I don’t think so; more likely God was putting me to the test.

In the last several years, there has been a lot of talk in the PC(USA) about “voices at the table.” People and groups have complained that their voices have been silenced. Others have felt their voices have been drowned out. I would go so far as to say, in some church environments, that the voice of God has been taken off the air, which should be the most concerning thing of all. A high value has been placed on giving voice to the voiceless, as a matter of justice. The voice of a small minority is given equal time to that of the majority as though it has equal value, truth, or reasonableness. In Christian circles, this extends to the implicit belief that all opinions are biblical and faithful and must be included in our consultation with each other. The unintended consequence of the equal time rule, paralleled in 21st century journalism, is the perception that the house is far more equally divided than it might actually be. This offers the minority the advantage of more air time; we all know, the more times we hear an assertion, the more likely we are to believe it to be true. The church has undergone a major shift in its thinking and practice, precisely because a very vocal minority convinced the majority that theirs in the prevailing and right view.

Unfortunately now, in the PC(USA), the minority view—that persons committed to homosexuality are not barred from ordination and that “marriage” can include same-sex couples—is being adopted in practice and the majority doesn’t know what to do about it. An extension of that minority view is that anyone who differs from it is adorned with a new label: bigot or hater or un-Presbyterian (as the Parnell case implied in March 2012). After being railed against in successive presbytery meetings, evangelical members of my presbytery feel the tension in the room if they rise to ask questions. Murmuring, calls to sit down, and moderatorial gavel falls cutting off questioning all are sending the message that air time is only open to those who agree with the new way of doing things. During Open Space meetings, evangelicals’ comments are not passed on at the reporting phase, as if they never spoke up around the table. This reality stands in sharp contrast to the insistence by presbytery leadership that “we need your voice at the table.” Really? In one instance when the evangelical caucus provided twenty-one names to the mission council, at its request, for inclusion in presbytery/congregational discernment teams, only one was included in the final appointments. The message is clear, “We say we want you at the table, but we really don’t.”

So the question for evangelicals is this: what voice do we have in the church? Is that voice more likely to be heard from within or from without? Will it be a voice of teaching the flock from within, or prophesying to the Body from without? Will it be one voice speaking for many, or many voices speaking in concert? Or will it be a voice that goes underground, silenced for a time, until the prevailing winds of false doctrine eventually implode? These are serious questions we must ask ourselves and ask God, because we don’t know what to do.

My hope is that during this time of evangelical voice loss, we can be nourished in our souls, strengthened in our faith, and prepared for the Zechariah moment with God’s praises on our lips. We may be quiet for a time, but that doesn’t stop us from writing and praying and remaining faithful. We may not be heard by fellow presbyters for awhile— in fact, we may be shunned—but God can overcome the most impossible obstacles when the time is right. And then, will we be ready to speak?

 

Looking ahead to the coming year, my sense is that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will see an accelerated decline in “the measurables,” and the spiritual gains will be harder and harder to discern. It is customary in some circles to predict the trends of the coming year, so I will take a stab at a list for the PC(USA). By mentioning these things I am not saying I want them to happen, or that I am certain they will, but I feel confident asserting that the trends are a real threat to Presbyterian covenant life. I believe that we will see the following developments continue in 2013:

• Court rulings that promote reinvention of the wheel with every examination and every dismissal—This trend is based on the false assumption that “the Spirit will say something different each time we come back to the same question.” Congregations and church leaders will gradually opt out of the decision-making process because of its seeming futility.

• Increasing difficulty for evangelical pastors to get or keep pastoral positions—pastoral calls will favor those who have not taken positions on anything controversial for fear of dividing a congregation. Evangelicals in particular will be scrutinized more carefully for indications that they might lead a congregation out of the denomination. This trend is based on the false assumption that evangelicals with more conservative worldviews are unable to lead a pluralistic congregation.

• Continued exodus of church members, whether or not their congregations dismiss to another Reformed body—While presbyteries and Sessions undertake the slow (and slowing process) of discernment, ordinary church members will lose faith and seek to resolve their own cognitive and spiritual dissonance with a move elsewhere. Where I live, this is a major factor in the congregational osteoporosis I have named previously.

• Increasing pressure on Presbyterian pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and to overlook moral deviations among church officers—peer pressure, pure and simple.

• A new, corporate “conscience” formed by the holy trinity of “inclusivity, relativism, and denominational loyalty,” rather than by Scripture and the confessions—This trend is based on making unity the highest value, at the expense of purity, and we have seen its expression in Parnell v. San Francisco and in the machinations of the General Assembly. The tipping point has already occurred, but in 2013 we will see those decisions filter down into presbyteries and processes throughout the church.

• A blatant disassociation between what is written and what is practiced—Due to the developments cited above, it is now possible to have perfectly good “books” (constitution and creeds, for example) that are meaningless in the life of the church because “freedom of conscience” reigns as the highest personal value, not “captive to the Word of God.”

• An emphasis on process at the expense of decision-making—that is to say, practice will snowball in certain (liberal) directions without changing anything in writing (constitution, minutes, judicial rulings). Presbyterians will outdo the Pharisees in hypocrisy.

• Transfer of material wealth from congregations to middle-governing bodies and the Foundation—as congregations disband or dismiss rather than continue association with the PC(USA), their assets will be seized to secure the future of a shell organization. Previously, I had privately predicted the demise of the denomination within ten years, but now I think an institutional fountain of youth has been discovered. Presbyteries will increasingly demand property and assets as congregations follow their consciences and seek dismissal to another Reformed body.

• Loss of the evangelical voice in denominational conversation at all levels, despite efforts to open up discussion. In an effort to appear collegial and relational, and employing methods of rule by consensus, evangelicals in the minority will find themselves out-shared, if not outright dismissed in ordinary conversation. We are noting in San Francisco Presbytery that spoken evangelical points of view at round-table discussions never get reported to the whole group or appear in the summaries.

• Tolerance requiring intolerance for doctrinal confidence and definition—an irony noted in the past will only get worse as the situation morphs from a fluid transition to a new hard line.

• The fracturing of covenant groups and pastoral fellowships—the collateral damage of divergent ideological views are blowing groups apart, while forming other alliances aimed at codifying a new liberal position on social issues before the church.

• Growing shyness to include evangelism in church mission—evident in the presentations by Louisville staff to the General Assembly last summer, I observed through note-taking that the mention of “mission” only once included proclamation of the gospel for spiritual conversion and transformation.

• Increasing pressure to preach a so-called gospel shaped by our culture, less from the Bible, and more from psychology and “human wisdom”—as an example, a church in my presbytery has indicated that because fewer than half its members feel the Bible should be the primary text for pastoral sermons, they are looking for a new pastor who will inspire them with diverse texts other than the Bible.

 If you feel called to remain in the PC(USA), are you ready to be a part of a church in which these dynamics will increasingly shape the reality? By making this list, I am not saying an evangelical within the PC(USA) must leave the denomination. I’m not planning to do so any time soon, so this is the question I feel challenges me at the moment. Am I ready to stand faithful to Jesus Christ amidst organizational pressure, blacklisting, ridicule, interminably repetitious discussions in presbytery, and dismissal of what I share in supposedly open round table discussions?

One of the most liberating thoughts I have ever had in the midst of trying times as a pastor was this one: Jesus did not need people to like him in order for him to be effective at what he did. He didn’t need ministry to be easy, either, because he had an inexhaustible supply of divine power with which to act.

Lord, in 2013, I repent of the need to win the approval of my presbytery colleagues and to have an easy life as a pastor. I relinquish both and simply ask that you would empower me to stand. Wherever. Whenever. Whatever it takes.

Overnight I have had a chance to read not only the Final Decision and Order of the GAPJC in Larson v. Los Ranchos, but also the briefs submitted by the Complainants/Appellants and the Respondents/Appellees (the Presbytery). My initial summary of this case appeared in yesterday’s blog; today I’d like to share my impressions of what this decision means. Folks who believe a manner of life suitable for ordination in the PCUSA includes fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness are going to find it difficult to apply their reasonable biblical standard in ordination/installation decisions. Here’s what I observe to be the effect and fall-out from the GAPJC decision:

1. Presbyteries as a whole are not afforded the right to hold a corporate conscience, which is reserved only for individuals and must be “respected” by the ordaining body. The potential here is that one dissenter of a presbytery’s corporate conscience can tyrannize the rest, giving to one individual the power to override the conscience of the whole. Presbyteries do not have the right to state or enforce any requirement upon all candidates, but only to examine and make a determination of suitability for ordination on a case-by-case basis. The only basis now is “case-by-case,” not Scripture or the Confessions, because, after all, the PCUSA cannot agree on what the Scriptures and Confessions teach (Parnell). Situational ethics in full bloom.

2. The appeal to conscience has now flipped sides, but the door is shut behind those who were granted freedom for their consciences earlier this year. In previous cases, including the ones I argued before the GAPJC (Naegeli v San Francisco; Parnell v San Francisco), liberal progressives were demanding freedom to exercise their conscience and redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. They were granted that freedom by Parnell. Now that it is evangelical conservatives asking for and acting on the same principle—Los Ranchos Presbytery declaring its conscience to apply the fidelity/chastity standard as a matter of biblical obedience—the door to freedom of conscience is slammed shut and its logical implication must not be allowed. Because— don’t we all know now— the Church has adopted a new and better standard of inclusion, and it is just plain wrong to think or do differently.

3. The removal of “fidelity and chastity” from the Form of Government disallows presbyteries the option of applying it in their ordination decisions, but instead requires  an ordaining body not to use it as an ordination standard. This despite the fact that the language that replaced “fidelity and chastity” in the Book of Order offered no replacement standard at all but simply removed the explicit provision. [This argument was used to gather support in presbyteries during the ratification process.] The illogical leap that has been made with Larson is to equate an omission with a prohibition: fidelity/chastity is now omitted and therefore its application is prohibited in all cases as a standard for ordination. The ‘new normal’ is that fidelity and chastity cannot be applied to candidates ever anywhere.

4. Despite its emphasis on case-by-case basis determinations, the GAPJC has twisted itself in a knot of presbydoublespeak. In a former case, in which a specific ordination decision was challenged by members of San Francisco, the GAPJC basically said, Who are we do circumvent an ordination decision rendered by a council that knew the candidate and determined that her interpretation of Scripture and manner of life were acceptable? In other words, we are not in a position to overrule a specific case regarding a specific candidate, despite ample evidence of her violation of Scripture and Confessions. But in the Larson case, the GAPJC did not hesitate to void the action of a presbytery that took its ordination responsibility seriously and was transparent about its obedience to Scripture and Confessions. So on the one hand, a presbytery ordaining on a case-by-case basis can make decisions that  are not—for all practical purposes— reviewable by a higher governing body even if they depart from scriptural standards; but a presbytery concluding and recording its understanding of biblical and confession requirements as a Resolution, and acting consistently in light of that belief, is ruled out of order. So much for a presbytery’s right and obligation to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and “to nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ . . . includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members . . .” (G-3.0301c). Keeping the door open on a case-by-case basis doesn’t resolve anything or counsel anybody in matters of conscience.

My friends, if you are in a presbytery where the question of sexual ethics is not disputed, count your blessings. For those of you who are in contested presbyteries, life is going to get harder and peaceful sleep will be elusive. Do not in any way diminish or mute your witness against error in doctrine and immorality in life and ministry. Take seriously your calling to teach and to admonish, according to the Scriptures. Your position may in fact lose support or even be ridiculed, but is it not better to suffer for having done the right thing than to suffer the consequences of going along with the wrong thing? (1 Peter 4:12-17).  Courage for the journey . . .

 

The charge given to the PCUSA by the General Assembly is to “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.” Implicit in this assignment is the exploration of Christian marriage, which gets its definition from Scripture and the history of Scripture’s application within the church. Discernment is necessary when a particular teaching requires a particular doing. Since as Presbyterians we hold fast to the principle that learning is pursued so that we can behave rightly (“truth unto goodness”), the process must aid us in making decisions about what we do regarding marriage. So far, so good. Everything I have contributed to the discussion so far has moved in this direction.

Today I would like to take a step back and regard this task from another vantage point. My reason for doing so is perhaps a fatigue about the many complications brought up when we begin talking about marriage. In my weeks of silence (due to vacation as well as reading and consultation with others), I have come to believe that the various approaches to a curriculum on marriage fall somewhere between overly simplistic and very complicated. In Q & A before the GAPJC, the team arguing for Parnell was told that our understanding of Scripture prohibiting all homosexual practice was “too simple,” that life is more complicated than that. I do not concede the point, but note that on the other hand, justifications for gay marriage are based on overwrought biblical exegesis, arguments from silence, and a perceived superiority of personal experience over God’s Word.

And so, as I have been traveling through the gospel of Matthew this month (in my ‘other life’ as a teaching pastor), Jesus’ comments in the first few verses of chapter 18 jumped out at me. These suggest that a curriculum for adults should be judged on the impact its teaching would have on children’s faith.

Matt. 18:1-7
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

I rely heavily on Dale Bruner[1] for insight into these verses. I trust Bruner, a Presbyterian layman and retired Whitworth professor, because he gathers input from early church fathers and contemporary theologians, works well with the Greek, and considers all the angles. He is no simpleton when it comes to biblical exegesis. And yet, when the meaning becomes clear, his commitment to God’s Word is refreshing and challenging. He is a good tutor.

Bruner puts these two paragraphs into a larger section on the nature of Christ-like love. Matt 17:24-27 declares that “Love Limits Its Freedom (Flexibility).” Matt 18:1-5 demonstrates that “Love Redirects Its Ambition (Humility).” And Matt 18:6-9 observes that “Love Doesn’t Want to Hurt Anyone’s Faith (Sensitivity).” In all three segments, Jesus addresses the loving nurture of others’ faith, and the avoidance of making faith difficult for others. In particular, he repeatedly mentions the spiritual welfare of children.

Without going through the entire exegetical chain here, one conclusion I draw from Christ’s teaching is that we must test the purity and propriety of our teaching based on how it will lead children in the faith. Jesus refers to children, and Bruner expands this to mean “little people” or those who are dependent or of low status.

From an educational standpoint, there is a developmental aspect to this, of course. When we teach children about marriage and sexuality at an early age, the terms and scope of our discussion are limited to the concrete (because that is how small children process things—they are not conceptual thinkers yet) and on the need to know. They also need to know what is appropriate behavior and what is not, even before they know the reasons why. (This despite the frequency of the question, “But why, Mommy?”). Have you ever noticed that the person who is more acquainted with the complexities of a subject is in a better position to summarize and “simplify” it so that a child can understand the basics? Children make us check our work; if our rendition doesn’t make sense to them, it may not make sense.

But Jesus seems particularly concerned that nothing would deter or scandalize the faith of children, so it is incumbent upon us adults to point them (and ourselves!) in the right direction. The worldview basic to all teaching, and particularly in the area of sexuality, focuses on the object of our faith: the existence of God, God’s role and sovereignty as Creator; God’s goodness, love, and benevolent nature; and God’s order in creation. This is the basis for Paul’s description of faith’s foundation in Romans 1: showing gratitude to God and giving God the glory. Even adults must cultivate the discipline of remembering  the Creator and not worshiping God’s creation, and hold the attitude and position in Christ as grateful recipient and responder.

Tomorrow, with “children” in mind, I will demonstrate the necessity of teaching what God has said in his Word (“Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” in the Great Commission, Matt 28:19-21), rather than starting with what we wish to be true on the basis of our experience.

 


[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 207-216.

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.

 

A Complaint was filed with the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii in response to the action of Santa Barbara Presbytery on June 2 to identify itself as a union presbytery (co-membership in PCUSA and ECO). This “local matter” may seem a bit off-topic as I reflect on General Assembly here in Pittsburgh, but the Complaint is germane because it reveals a strategy for attempting to make the ordination of practicing GLBTQ people mandatory across the church. I am quite sure we will see these arguments come forward in discussions and debates in the coming week.

The Complaint cites “reforms,” that is, the accumulation of actions in recent years that the Complainants categorize as “restoring freedom of conscience.” Hold that thought, for I will demonstrate that this case seeks to replace one conscience for another just as definitively as evangelicals have sought obedience to the Word of God in sexuality matters. The question will be, “Do not ordained officers of the PCUSA voluntarily bind their consciences to the Word of God?”

A cascade of bad decisions started with the passage of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report (PUP) in 2006, the dismantling of our church-wide definitive guidance on sexuality (by means of the Knox Overture) in 2008, the passage of Amendment 10-A which removed the fidelity/chastity standard from the Book of Order, the extension of medical and pension coverage to gay partners, and the Parnell v. San Francisco GAPJC decision that said the Bible cannot guide us in ordination decisions because we can’t agree on how to interpret the biblical witness on sexuality.

Complainants charge that Santa Barbara Presbytery, by virtue of its consistent opposition to the above-mentioned changes, has “resisted corporate judgment of the whole church and denied mutual accountability. . .” The Complaint’s opening statement of the issues:

“The presbytery has adopted measures that undermine its connectional responsibilities to the whole church, frustrate the church’s discernment in the establishment of ordination standards, and are antithetical to our identity as a Reformed body of faith.”

So now the tables are turned. For decades, people like the complainants have been undermining connectional responsibilities by openly defying ordination standards properly affirmed by the church and promoting the concept of “local option by presbytery.” In those days, they were appealing to freedom of conscience to justify their disorderly and illegal resistance to the church’s rule. They did not wait for the rules to change; they openly defied church law in protest to apply pressure on the church to change. So now, when a presbytery conducts an orderly process (yes, St. Andrew’s has contested its orderliness) to accomplish a relief of conscience by constitutional means, it is “resisting.” Bad, bad Presbytery! Sort of reminds me of the old sci-fi movies: the disembodied voice of a cosmic enemy declares, “We have you in our clutches; it is futile to resist.”

Regarding “frustrating the church’s discernment,” all I can say is this: by disobeying God over the years, factions of the PCUSA have frustrated the church’s discernment of God’s will for decades, and our current reality does not demonstrate obedience to God’s Word. The story of wise Solomon’s gradual drift away from God (1 Kings 10-11) is an example of what happens when a person is in open defiance against God: his or her moral authority is completely undermined and God’s blessing is lost.

What is emerging here is the Left’s attempt to make the ordination of GLBTQ people mandatory in every presbytery. St. Andrew’s v Santa Barbara begins the legal process toward this end, along with the remedial case pending in another conservative presbytery, Los Ranchos. It is a real shame, under the current conditions, that those who have cried, “Honor our consciences!” are the very same folks who would deny a creative relief of conscience measure that is intended to enable folks to remain in PCUSA fellowship while achieving a differentiation that takes them out of the day-to-day fray. These folks may want us to believe that resistance is futile, but in this case, it’s their turn to honor the consciences of the vast majority of their presbytery colleagues and support the other creative measures (like porous-bordered presbyteries) to allow congregations to transfer presbyteries. If they deny evangelical/conservative congregations any differentiation, which I believe is their intent, then they are acting like bullies to chase those congregations out. What is orderly, connectional, and Presbyterian about that?