Wednesday, June 29, 2016

From Polity to Pavement: Brief Reflections on the 222nd General Assembly

One of the privileges of being a General Assembly attendee versus commissioner is the chance to observe all the committees as they pour over the nearly 100 overtures requiring action. As I walked into room after room, I was blown away by the faithful conversations the church was having in regards to our local, international, ecclesial, financial, social, ecological, institutional, ecumenical, and theological witness.  

...and breathe...

While not all conversations were invigorating, "ho-hum" could be said about more than a few items of business, and disagreement was certainly present, each conversation was laced in the question- “what does this mean in light of the hope that is our calling as the church of Jesus Christ?” 

The faithful actions of the Assembly, which are too numerous to account for fully in this blogpost,* enabled the Church to bear witness to God's love and grace, near and far. The Assembly elected two women as co-moderators and an African-American Stated Clerk, both firsts for our denomination as we change the face of our leadership. We embraced the Belhar Confession, pulling into the present Belhar's call to model the same unity, justice, and reconciliation in the midst of all that separates persons from one another in our given time and place. Said differently, Belhar is now us!

Our corporate and confessional voice called for the acknowledgement of harm done to LGBTQ/Q people, expressions of apology to Native Americans dishonored at the hands of our Presbyterian ancestors, and directed our Stated Clerk to request from the United States government an apology and statement of regret sent to the Republic of Korea in light of the known killing of Korean Civilians at the battle of No Gun Ri during the Korean War (history lessons are as much a part of General Assembly as anything else).

The General Assembly affirmed and simultaneously lived into our commitment to nonviolent means to alleviate oppression and injustice as we moved to divest from (or begin the process of) corporations that profit off violence and oppression in the Middle East and the exploitation of creation.  Our polity was even an agent of God’s grace and reconciliation as, after testimony from a Presbyterian minister who was sexually abused as a child by a chaperone at a PCUSA youth event, commissioners approved a Children/Youth/Vulnerable Adult protection policy to be implemented by all mid councils and mirrored by local congregations. Following the plenary vote, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons elicited a tearful-apology and vowed to ensure the safety of all children. 

The list goes on, sure to include the recommendation to address the increasing generational gap in our denomination, approve a new Directory of Worship and related inclusive sacramental language, and call for a commission to explore the PCUSA's organizational structure as we discern a new “Way Forward.” 

After a week of committee work, thoughtful debate, pursuit of perfected motions (or substitute motions), and a crash course in Robert’s Rules of Order, there are many reasons to give thanks. But our gratitude calls not for rest from our mission. There is no time to bask in the light of our governance. Now is the time to move from polity to pavement with a sense of urgency and intentionality.

As I turned into the Presbytery office on my first day back, t-shirts with names of Philadelphians killed by illegal guns lined the intersection of Gowen and Stenton Avenues, a monument to the slain installed by our neighbor congregation. Yesterday afternoon was spent with a local ministry whose congregation consists primarily of people experiencing chronic street homelessness, a reality many of us witnessed and were overwhelmed by while traveling to and from the Oregon Convention Center.  The threat of deportation of undocumented immigrants continues to tug at the hearts and sense of call of our local pastors, whose immediate neighbors are affected by unjust legislation and Supreme Court decisions.  Yet another act of terrorism, this time in Istanbul, has resulted in all-too-familiar crafting of public prayers and hashtags of solidarity. 

In the midst of it all, we have neither the time to revel in the strength of our ecclesiastical praxis nor become wearied by tired narratives of perceived denominational death. Stated Clerk-elect, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, said it best,We are not dying. We are reforming….church is not enough in this day. We need to set our aim on higher ground.” In his familiar prophetic cadence that will now shepherd our denomination, the newly-elected Stated Clerk reminded Presbyterians the same Spirit that resurrected Christ dwells within us as agents of God’s work of reconciliation and justice.  

This is the very agency we affirmed at the 222nd General Assembly.  This is the very agency that frames our policies and procedures.  This is the very agency that moves us from polity to pavement as we embody the Good News of Jesus Christ wherever we are post #GA222.  After all, that is the hope of our calling. 

*For a full report on action taken at the 222nd General Assembly: 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On General Assembly as Pilgrimage to Portland

Several years ago I read a book that has forever changed how I travel:
No matter how short the distances and familiar the route you travel on a given day, you can do it as a pilgrim- and no matter how long the journey or how sacred its destination, it is possible to be nothing more than a tourist. Whether the journey is within your own backyard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward Christ but with him" (The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Lifexvii).
As Presbyterians from all around the country and across the globe descend upon Portland, OR this week for the 222nd General Assembly, we do so as pilgrims on a journey toward Christ. No matter the distance or if we travel by Tri-Met or Über, our movement throughout Rip City is wrapped in the possibility of the sacred. Our committee meetings and plenary sessions are fresh opportunities to discover the holy. 

What is beautiful about pilgrimage- you are certain to find familiar faces along the way. Whether discovering your seat on the plane is next to another pastor in your presbytery or bumping into an old colleague while on a morning run across one of Portland's many bridges, pilgrimage shrinks the distant destination into a local fellowship of the saints. It becomes a tabernacle for conversation, prayer, worship, and play. 

But the pilgrimage also dares us as travelers to move about with eyes wide open to both the holy and brokenness of place. As we gather this week in Portland, we embrace the beauty of the landscape while also aware that around nearly every city street corner are tent cities and persons experiencing homelessness for who knows how long. We sip fair-trade coffee at locally owned cafes while also walking past businesses that profit off addiction and the objectification of those stamped with the imago Dei. We celebrate a city committed to ecology and the environment, while also aware our travel from Philadelphia to Portland came at a cost to the creation. 

And as we discern and decide in community this week, we do so as fellow pilgrims committed to bearing witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ that is for both Portland and the whole world. We come here as those looking for the thin places where the ordinary and the holy collide, daring us to work towards the new creation that is our shared and collective hope and calling (Ephesians 1:18). We are nudged by the Spirit who has invited us to do more than speak about our polity and procedures, but also and especially embody them as the gathered and scattered saints drenched in the waters of our baptism. 

As our opening worship's Assurance of Forgiveness and Reconciliation reminded each of us:

Now turn to the cascading waters of baptism and toward one another:
God’s grace is overflowing,
Christ’s mercy is as endless as the rain,
Spirit’s power ensures deliverance.
Know that in Christ God was reconciling the world.
Be people of the water! Travel wet!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don’t Stop Dancing: What My Daughter and Lin-Manuel Miranda Taught Me About Orlando

Just over two years ago, our daughter was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile arthritis. This past weekend, several days after her last T-Ball game of the season, she performed in her first dance recital.

And she danced her little heart out. 

Prior to Sunday’s performance, we took this picture for the Arthritis Foundation- “I am stronger than JA because it doesn’t stop me from dancing.” 

Thanks be to God for the miracles of medicine, brilliant and compassionate doctors, and the will, courage, and strength of our beautiful child who dances in the face of her diagnosis. 

Indeed, JA does not stop her from dancing. 

But this past Sunday morning, the music stopped in Orlando around 2 a.m.

Dancing was replaced by running. The rhythm of community interrupted by the hatred of a killer.

There are few words able to capture what took place at the Pulse Nightclub. There may, in fact, be no words at all. 

Prayers, while still the best place to begin, are not to be the final stop for all of us who are beyond wearied by the frequency of mass shootings, brokenness of legislation related to the purchase of firearms (especially the AR-15), rise of terrorism through religious extremists, and the grotesque and hate-laced phobias of LGBTQ persons and other minority groups, which spawn these sorts of killing sprees. 

We can and must be better. 

More guns- not the answer.

Higher walls- not the answer. 

Ban of immigrants and refugees- not the answer. 

Religious intolerance- not the answer. 

But what is the answer? 

As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminded us last night:
"We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger / We rise and fall and light from dying embers / Remembrances that hope and love lasts longer / And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love / Cannot be killed or swept aside..."
Love is the only thing stronger than human confusion wrapped in the nothingness of hate. And when love frames our witness in the public realms of both religion and politics, we just may begin to see the change we all dream to be possible.

We may be able to keep dancing. 

“In every age and place throughout world history, there has always been also the laughter of children, the scent of flowers and the song of birds and similar things which cannot be affected by any confusion with nothingness. Nor have there been lacking poets and musicians and other noble spirits who have been able to look past or through the creation confused with nothingness and thus to perceive, and to make perceptible to others, its form as untouched by this confusion…” 
-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV 3.2 p. 398.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Head Full of Dreams: Chris Martin's Lyric for Church Planting

Maybe that’s a bit of an overreach and hyperbole, but Coldplay’s title track off their recent album does provide brilliant imagery for the church and the birth of creative faith-based initiatives. 

There is much that could be said about each line and stanza as we consider what it can, and in many places does, look like for ordinary saints and community leaders to form their conferences of birds, leave their broken windows open to new possibilities, and let the light of God’s Spirit stream in and through their communities.

The imagination is quite possibly the greatest attestation to people being made in the imago Dei; to dream is to participate in the divine life. If we allow our heads to be full of dreams versus perceived limitations, nurtured by Christ's call to love and bless our neighborhoods and the world God so loves, miracles can and will happen. 

As God's people imagine alternatives to cultural narratives, oppressive systems, and unjust institutions that infringe upon God’s longing for human flourishing near and far, we bear witness to the presence of the Spirit in the midst of a despairing world. When we dream of peace in war-torn nations and cities, equal opportunity for people regardless of their race, class, gender, or orientation, and quality education available to all children, we plant the seeds of holistic change and social transformation. When we imagine the call of the church to be about more than organizational preservation and risk acting upon these dreams and more, collaborating with others who share similar visions, these seeds take root and grow into new realities of shalom.

And this is God’s dream for us and the whole world.

So while there are many great hymns and modern worship songs, maybe the lyrics of Coldplay would do well to fill our sanctuaries this Pentecost season. After all, our sanctuaries are to be places where heads and hearts become full of dreams for how we can embody the Good News of Jesus Christ wherever we have landed. 

Listen to this song alongside John 21:1-14.