Blog Archives

Celebrate Life; Celebrate Love

Somewhere this week, possibly tonight and if not Saturday, Amendment 14F to the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order (constitution) will secure the requisite votes to confirm the change to our definition of marriage to be between two persons. Some will celebrate and some will mourn, some will gloat and some will gnash their teeth. Many really won’t care.

I will celebrate.

I will celebrate because God’s covenants are always bigger, broader, and deeper in the promotion of life and love than we like to let them be…

I will celebrate because I believe the primary call of the Gospel is to let the oppressed go free. Oppression exists in so many ways – but none more insidious than the forcing of the other to adhere to a dominant cultural norm. Such dividing walls must be brought down.

I will celebrate because people I know and love will be embraced by the church I know and love and their love will be acknowledged as being lived in God.

I will celebrate tonight – I hope – because I am here at #nextchurch2015 with so many who worked so hard to let this justice and blessing roll down. And there is no greater gift than watching history happen with the people who made it happen… Even if just a microcosm of the larger whole.

I will celebrate because footsteps into the future should be celebrated and appreciated and marked for remembrance.

And then we will continue the work because it isn’t done. The work of listening to the anger and pain of those who do not see God in this. To the anger of pain of those who saw God in this long ago… and this is so so late. The work of loving the walls away, and building up the communities whose seems are stretched by the messy work of being transformed out of our comfort zones. The work of continued listening and openness to transformation, and setting aside oppressive norms and hurtful assimilation. The work friends are doing – and being arrested for – even now back in Idaho as we continue to seek to #addthewords and protect LGBT friends and neighbors from discrimination and oppression. The work of promoting life and love for all people.

I will celebrate, and I hope you will too:

Celebrate life; celebrate love; celebrate each other.

Preaching Good News as the Great Perhaps

I have read a LOT of articles about the actions of the recent Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.  I have read a lot, I have seen even more posted.  I hit my limit last night; I’m not clicking on them anymore.  (So yes, if I were you I would not be reading this right now.)  I made that call last night and thought to myself, “back to preaching the Good News!”

…And then I stopped short.  Because that wasn’t at all fair.

What I love about my church is that we are willing to speak out loud what we believe.  We are willing to imagine that the gospel does in fact meddle with our lives and views, be they social, political, or theological.  And we are willing to be wrong.

I love that and I have to recognize that for a great many people preaching the Good News is EXACTLY what the General Assembly was, is, and will be doing.  We are preaching liberation from injustice, and seeking to offer blessings and forgiveness and dialogue towards a worldview more God-open to the many ways God is at work.  Many would view this work as evangelism: preaching the good news of the Gospel which embraces those who have been marginalized and oppressed.

But…

Many others hear that news as bad.  Many hear it as a departure from the established patterns.  Many hear it as an affront to their faith, their politics, their attempts to love their neighbors – our neighbors.

And you know what?  That has always been true of Good News.  It sounds so easy.  Oh – preach good news.  Okay, I got that.  But it’s hardly so easy.  The Pharisees were an incredibly faithful group of people.  They helped sustain Jewish faith for centuries of tough times.  They had good news.  But they differed with Jesus about what that is, or how we live that Good News.  The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in his faith (for he was a Jew too) isn’t because one of them was unfaithful and the other was faithful, the conflict was about two radically faithful people with a different understanding of what is good, or how to live that good.

And the issues compound.  Paul preaches to Philemon that he cannot own a Christian slave and so he must free Onesimus.  Is that Good News?  I bet it was to Onesimus… not so much to Philemon.  And Paul isn’t very gentle with him; in fact he is rhetorically manipulative.

8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love… 14b in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced… 21Confident of your obedience… 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me.

I love that last part… oh yah, and I’m coming to check on you too.  Paul gets what Paul wants.  But this dilemma doesn’t just involve Paul or Jesus, the cases abound.  Look at the Biblical mandate for Jubilee.  Jubilee is radically good news to the dispossessed who will get their lands back, but not so much the people who have accumulated those lands and slaves and worth… by the work of my hands and intellect and good management I obtained these lands and now I just have to give them back???  Is Jubilee good news to most of us in Presbyterian Church which, while not exclusively so, tends to be privileged and wealthy?

There is a struggle with this word good.  Part of why I am always hesitant to use it for God (read that here).  Good news rocks the boat.  Good news unsettles established tradition.  Good News breaks the rod of the oppressor, the yoke we carry, but also the structure and institutions we are invested and empowered by.  This is hardly Good News for all people.

Did the General Assembly do Good News work this week?  Will time tell us that we were out in front on justice, or off the path?  I do not know.  I have my passionate thoughts on the subject but that wasn’t was this line of thought is about.  What this is about is recognizing that our call to preach Good News is rarely comfortable, and if it feels comfortable to you (or me) – we are probably doing it wrong.  It wasn’t comfortable to Jesus.  It wasn’t comfortable to God.  It wasn’t comfortable to Paul.  It wasn’t ever meant to be comfortable… it was meant to liberate us from the structures that comfort some at the expense of others.  Maybe we acted rightly.  Maybe we acted errantly.  What I am grateful for is a church that is willing to be wrong.  I am grateful for a church that will to go on record for justice at the risk of its own life.  I am grateful for willingness to stand in the tradition of prophets, apostles, and reformers.  And I am grateful for the humility to understand that we will yet need reform.

Yesterday I learned a phrase for the first time, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (attributed with some dispute to the last will of writer François Rabelais.)  I think there is something very reformed about this.  I think as we preach good news we are always (as those who see through a glass dimly) at best those who are seeking something of a great perhaps.  Those willing to dare that we might just be approximating God’s will and God’s good news for the world.  But are also doing so through human understanding, with limited language, social baggage, and our interpretational lenses seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear.  We dare to act, because otherwise what good are we?  We act with humility, because we know we have erred and will err again. We seek a great perhaps endeavoring to be Good News.

So… preach the Good News?  I’m trying.  You are trying.  We are trying together – thanks be to God.

Working Together for Peace?

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith.  Today’s installment:

“To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace”

Doesn’t that sound so nice?  It’s almost like the combination of a group project in school with the wishes of the stereotypical Miss USA, “I wish for world peace.”

But when the rubber meets the road we struggle to play well with each other, and peace isn’t any easier.  What is peace?  What gets us toward peace?  And what do we do when two or more groups are at odds with each other cannot agree on who gets peace and at whose expense?

These are timely questions as right now the 221st General Assembly is happening in Detroit as the Presbyterian Church (USA) discerns matters of policy and polity.  The elected commissioners are quite literally trying to work together for justice, freedom, and peace.  But there are some very challenging questions before them: particularly the matters of the definition of marriage and justice for same gender peoples who have been denied the right to marry, and in the matter of potential divestment of three companies deemed to be have no interest in being in dialogue with us about their continued profit from the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by the state of Israel.

On both these subjects we have strong disagreements about what is justice and what is peace.  We struggle with freedom in the midst of unity, and how to work together with such strongly held and opposing views.

And then I went today to my preachers bible study where we read about Hagar having a covenant from God (Genesis 21) to be God’s people also: none of us has unique status in the eyes of God, or maybe it’s that we aren’t uniquely chosen by virtue of the fact that we all are uniquely chosen.  So how do we check our privilege at the door?  A question made harder by the fact that most of us get defensive at the suggestion that we even have privilege.  And how do we help our neighbors check their privilege at the door… particularly when that is an offensive enterprise.

Then Jesus walked in for the Gospel text in Matthew and announced that he comes not to bring peace but a sword… to set us against each other… and that to gain our life we must lose it. (Matthew 10)

How do we work together for justice, freedom, and peace?

I don’t know… but I have some ideas.

We have to let go of our life.  We have to let go of our self-interest both as individuals and as corporate entities.  We have to let go of the idea that we should secure our safety and well-being at the expense of others.

We have to be humble.  We need (I think I heard this somewhere) to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves… and vice-versa.  And… we have to have the humility to imagine that we are at least as wrong in some of our ideas as the people we disagree with.  No-one is really setting out to be mean.  No-one is seeking the badwill of all other people.  Our disagreements are heated exactly because we each think we are seeking what is good and right.  For a moment… let’s imagine that about half of what we think is wrong, and about half of what “the other” is saying is right.

We have to be willing to be offensive.  This is hard because I don’t think that means offending people for the sake of it.  We ought not to SEEK to be offensive, but we cannot be afraid of it either.  Seeking peace as a ‘not rocking the boat’ is not in fact peace, it is asking those who are not currently protected by the dominant narrative to be quiet so we can pretend that all is well.

We have to trust each other.  We have to trust each other enough to stick in relationship long enough to get past the offense, the defensiveness, and the monologue-slinging to actually listen, hear, and relate to each other… for it is only if we can stay in conversation this long that we begin to actually do the work together towards peace part.

We have to admit that we won’t succeed.  We are seeing through a glass dimly.  We all are.  We will not achieve peace, or perfect justice, or grant pure freedom to all people.  We just won’t.  These are guiding lights – like the North Star.  We pursue them, not in the idea that we are capable of reaching them, but in the hope that we move ever towards them… and that in our fractious discernment and yearning for goodness the Spirit of the Lord is actually present.

“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage… to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

Thanks be to God.

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This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: see below
  • In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive: forthcoming
  • To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Unmasking, if not Smashing, Idols in the Church

Today I am glad to have two guest bloggers, John Wilkinson and MaryAnn McKibben Dana.  I have known MaryAnn since we were seminary classmates and John by name when he was in Chicago Presbytery before that, and then through mutual acquaintance (okay my dad) over the last several years.  John and MaryAnn are candidates for Moderator and Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA).

Selecting our next Moderator and Vice-Moderator will be at the top of the agenda of the General Assembly when it meets in Detroit in June.  All our candidates are capable leaders and voices for our church but I personally hope John and MaryAnn’s candidacy is advanced. I cannot sum them up in any tight phrase but their voices will be good leadership and vision for our church at this time: passion and patience, conviction and wonderful deep listening skills, pervade all their work.I am grateful they took time from their busy pre-Assembly writing and speaking, not to mention pastoring and parenting their particular worlds, to write this follow up to my last post in my series on the Holy Spirit section of the Brief Statement of Faith.

Stay tuned following their post for more ways to connect with their work.  And without any more of my babbling, John and MaryAnn:


“to unmask idolatries in church and culture…”

Did you know that the original language in the Brief Statement of Faith was different than the final version? It’s true! According to theology professor George Stroup, the committee suggested this language to the church for use in its new confession:

“to smash idols in church and culture”

The church balked at the word “smash.” We Presbyterians are a polite and peaceable folk, it would seem—even when it comes to idolatry! However, the active word takes seriously the destructive potential of idols in our lives. Idols are those things that we construct or place our ultimate trust in, thinking they will bring us wholeness or security. But as Christians, we know that our only hope, joy, and comfort are in Jesus Christ, our Lord. (And Jesus does not promise us security, but abundant life, which is sometimes risky for the sake of the gospel.)

Still, the verb “unmask” is an intriguing compromise. We all wear masks from time to time, hiding our true selves from one another and from God. Perhaps part of this invitation is not only for us to remove masks in others – church AND culture – but to remove our own, so that we all appear as honestly and openly before God who already sees us as we are and as we are becoming.

Unmasking is both a pastoral and prophetic calling. It requires care, mindfulness, and tenderness. It also requires clarity, fierceness, and tenacity. Some masks go easily. Some don’t.

Andrew asked us to consider: what are some of the idols in the church? The fact is, anything can be an idol if we put our ultimate trust in it.

Consider this list:

  • appealing to young families
  • organ music
  • praise bands
  • the latest ministry fad
  • the denomination itself
  • stability—not wanting things to change
  • change for novelty’s sake or to appear “relevant”
  • growth in dollars, members and programs

Nothing on the preceding list is harmful in itself. In fact, God can and does work through them all. But all of them can become idols if we think they will save us.

We recently ran across this phrase: The foolish one says, “Not allowed,” The wise one asks, “Why am I uncomfortable?” Yes, sometimes in the midst of change, we’re uncomfortable because something essential to us is being threatened. But other times—probably more times than we’d care to admit—our discomfort is a signal that our idols are being threatened.

In the midst of these questions, we go back to the opening phrase of the Brief Statement of Faith: “In life and in death we belong to God.” What a comfort! The core idolatry is in believing that we don’t belong to God. Or, that we belong to something or someone else. Or, that we belong to ourselves. That unfolds in a million different ways, and is both cultural and social as well as intensely personal. And it’s the church’s job to help unmask those idolatries.

Find more vision from John and MaryAnn about the PC(USA), the calling of the Church, and the challenges and possibilities for those who follow in the way of Jesus Christ in these places:

John’s website

MaryAnn’s website

Our Facebook page