Thoughts by New Jersey Presbyterians on the 221st General Assembly

One of the marvelous things about a General Assembly is the rich variety of things that happen around the edges of the legislative work. Presbyterian organizations of all stripes sponsor meetings, often over a hurried meal, that provide education and encouragement.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of talks I’ve heard, by two men who have been on the faculty of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where I used to serve as Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions. Neither was at the seminary during my time on the staff, but I’ve been pleased to get to know them both, mainly through their scholarship.

Both find themselves on opposite sides of the difficult debate we Presbyterians are having on the subject of same-sex marriage.

Mark Achtemeier, a former professor at Dubuque, spoke to the luncheon of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization that has long worked for full inclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians in the life and leadership of the church. Mark used to be an opponent of the ordination of gays and lesbians, but has changed his mind on that subject, and on the subject of same-sex marriage. He’s written a book, The Bible’s yes to Same-Sex Marriage, just published by Westminster John Knox Press.

As hundreds of listeners noshed on chicken salad, Mark told us a very personal story of how his mind has changed on this issue, because of both his biblical scholarship and his experience counseling people – including some ministers and seminarians – who were struggling with their sexuality. He became convinced that homosexuality is not a choice, but is simply the way God has created some people. This insight drove him back to the scriptures, where he discovered indications he’d never noticed before of a broader, more affirming view of the full variety of intimate relationships.

I’ve picked up his book, and am reading it, in the few odd moments I can catch between meetings. It’s a deeply honest and humble exploration of the biblical references he’s found so influential in his own unfolding theology.

The very next day, I attended the Presbyterian Historical Society luncheon, where the current Dean of Dubuque Seminary, Bradley Longfield, was the speaker. He offered a Power Point presentation profiling leading figures in Presbyterian history, a method of approaching history at which he has proven adept over the years.

In viewing Brad’s bullet lists, highlighting the contributions of each of these historical figures, I began to discern a common theme. Brad is vigilant about ways the larger culture influences the church. As he sketched each historical personage in turn, he was clearly raising concerns about those who advocated not only to listening to the culture, but allowing their views to be formed by it.

To him, this is not a good thing. The task of the church, in his view, is to declare – based on biblical principles – what the culture ought to be and do. When the culture evolves in ways that vary from historic church teachings, the church must work to call the culture back to a Godly way. Should some of these evangelical invitations prove unsuccessful, the church can only look on with disapproval.

For this General Assembly, of course, the most striking example of church-and-culture interchange is the debate about same-sex marriage.

Reflecting on this fraught debate, I’ve been wondering to what extent we in the church truly realize we are no longer in the position of controlling the culture’s values through our preaching and teaching. The days of “Christendom” – the establishment, official or unofficial, of Christianity (and particularly mainline Protestantism) as the lighthouse of American democracy – are over. While it was certainly true in past generations that mainline Protestantism formed the culture, we all know this is no longer the case.

Yet, even though the hordes of Eisenhower-era nuclear families no longer fill our pews, Christian values are still reflected in the predominant values of the culture, for the most part. A great many of those who have distanced themselves from the church honor at least the cultural memory of Christian faith. (How those values will continue to be transmitted to future generations is a whole other question.)

When ethical shifts occur in the culture, we can choose to view the church’s historic witness as something like a parent teaching a child to walk. It may be difficult for us to step back and let our child stumble, even fall, but that freedom is something both of us need to foster in order to fulfill our roles.

We look on that child of ours and see the family resemblance, even as he or she grows and ventures into places we never dreamed of exploring. Our task as parent is to continue to stand back, to offer the occasional word of sage advice, and to marvel at the person our child is becoming.

In this new stage of our relationship, we may even realize – to our surprise – that we are actually learning something from our offspring.

Mark Achtemeier has come to understand, through a long process of immersion in Bible study and evolution of his opinions, that this can be a good thing. Brad Longfield disagrees.

In my own convictions, I stand with Mark, for similar reasons. This is a new role for the church, with respect to the culture. It’s one of the hardest things in the world for a parent to stand back and let a child take those first, hesitant steps – and it is certainly no shame for a parent to do so. On the contrary, it is a mark of good parenting to step back in this way. It is by no means an abandonment of our responsibilities to nurture and guide; rather, it marks a new stage in the mutual relationship.

Could it be that God sometimes uses the culture to send a message to the church, just as Cyrus of Persia was the agent of God’s will in setting the captive Israelites on a new course?

Tradition has it that presbyteries get together sometime on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.  This is the time between committee meetings and the plenary.  The docket is being finalized, reports are being written, other strategies are being set.  The presbyteries of Monmouth and New Brunswick got together this morning for a late breakfast.  There were twelve of us:

  • Charissa Mikoski (REC)
  • David Wall (REC)
  • Jim Pruner (TEC)
  • Liz Zupp (YAAD)
  • Jonathan Seitz (MAD)
  • Paul LaMontagne (Stated Clerk)
  • Carl Wilton (Stated Clerk)
  • Jim McGuire (REC)
  • Bev Marsh (REC)
  • Barbara Hicks (TEC)
  • Doug Chase (TEC)
  • and me

It’s good to get together, share stories of our most embarrassing moments of GA … like when I got the turnstile for the People Mover stuck between my legs the other night … share our frustrations … like how late the committee on Mid Councils went yesterday … and ask questions about each other’s committee work.

We had commissioners on the Middle East committee, General Assembly Procedures, Immigration Issues, Theological Education, Mid Councils, Board of Pensions and PILP, Immigration and Environmental Issues, Social Justice Issues, Mission Coordination and Peacemaking and International Issues.  We were able to share the main issues in each committee and what to expect as each makes its report over the next few days.  

I liked having a relaxed breakfast together … even though some were off immediately after to attend special luncheons.  Princeton’s luncheon is today.  We laughed together … and commiserated together.  The commissioners, though, for the most part are always very positive about their experience so far.  The way our GA is organized, and prepared for almost any possibility; the commitment of our staff and their dedication to work all hours to make this week run smoothly; the process we have for hearing the voice of the minority and to pray together … our church is a good church.  We may make decisions that make some at home wonder what happens here … but the Spirit of God is what happens here … we have dedicated commissioners to do their best to hear, to respond, to question, to follow procedures, to be patient with the process, and to meet with committees all night if they have to.  

The Voice of Youth

It’s often been observed that, despite the preponderance of gray hair at the commissioners’ tables in the Assembly, youth have a voice at the General Assembly that is more influential than in many local churches. Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs), one from each presbytery, have voice and vote in committees. Although those same YAADs only have an advisory vote in the plenary (all-Assembly) debate, their contributions at the microphones are often so eloquent that they give the voting commissioners something to think about, even though they can’t directly sway the outcome.

In my wanderings through the Exhibit Hall and elsewhere, talking to all sorts of people, I’m hearing a consensus that three of the four most difficult issues being debated at this Assembly are ones of great concern to the Millennial generation. Those four issues are:

1) Marriage equality
2) Divestment from fossil-fuel companies
3) Divestment from companies enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine
4) Structural reform of the PCUSA’s system of “mid-councils” (presbyteries and synods)

Of those four issues, you can probably guess which one is of minimal concern to the Millennials. It’s the fourth. Many of them couldn’t care less about this quintessential Presbyterian insider issue.

When it comes to the first three, though, the voice of youth is already being heard in very significant ways. As concerned as church leaders are with winning and keeping the younger generations, they can’t help but pay attention when large numbers of young adults are extremely passionate about promoting these issues.

With respect to marriage equality, for most young adults today this is a done deal. They’re just waiting for their elders (and by that I mean elders in age, not in ecclesiastical leadership) to wake up and realize that our world has already changed. A phrase I’ve heard a lot these past few days is “tipping point – as in, we’ve already passed it. Many here are observing that the marriage equality issue just isn’t generating the heat it once did. Lots of commissioners seem to be assuming that critical mass has already been achieved for a very big change of some sort.

As for the fossil-fuel issue, there seems to be an extraordinary amount of youthful energy (no pun intended) coalescing around a series of overtures calling for complete divestment from all fossil fuel companies. This is, of course, because of nearly incontrovertible scientific evidence declaring that the products of these industries have already severely altered global climate. The world the Millennials are going to inherit from Baby Boomers like me is almost certainly going to be poorer, hungrier and more dangerous than the world we’ve come to know, and fossil fuels are the principal culprit. Young adults don’t like it one bit, and are demanding change – not tomorrow, but today.

Finally, there are overtures calling for divestment from several companies who have been supplying the heavyhanded Israeli occupation forces with essential supplies for years, and who have shown no willingness to change their business model in response to human-rights concerns. Many of my generation seem unwilling to take such a drastic step all at once. For the large numbers of Millennial activists who are here, however, it’s apparent that this is a very, very important issue for them and their fellows.

It’s hard for commissioners, whatever opinions they’ve brought with them to the Assembly, to ignore such testimony. We’ll see in a few days whether or not that concern for the younger generations will be embodied in the actual voting.

My first assembly was in Cincinnati in 1995. I was a commissioner of the presbytery of Detroit. I was overwhelmed by the amount of paper, the organization, the scope of our church, and the aisles of mail slots. At the time, I was ordained for nearly eight years, I was in my second call, and I wasn’t sure the denomination was going to survive more than a decade.

Now, nearly twenty years later we’re still having issues with the voting and we’re still discussing many of the same issues. And now it is no longer the young visionary who is wondering if the denomination will survive another decade.

Since that first meeting, I have served in the presbyteries of of New
Covenant, New Brunswick and Monmouth. I have worked with colleagues in the Synod of the Covenant, Synod of the Sun and the Synod of the Northeast. I have witnessed pastoral colleagues come and go from all parts of the country. I have attended an additional five GA meetings (Fort Worth, Birmingham, San Jose, Pittsburgh, and, now Detroit). I had heard of others referring to GA as a great Presbyterian reunion, but I still felt like a newbie or outsider. This year I am experiencing reunion in the best sense of the word. I know it’s because I’m returning to Detroit, but it’s also because of the collegial relationships I have developed over the past 28 years of ministry.

This morning the reunion was much more personal and a time for reconciliation. You may not know that my first call was difficult to say the least. This morning, though, I decided to return to the Allen Park Presbyterian Church, the church in which I was ordained in 1987. It is the congregation that shared my infertility, a difficult pregnancy, and the birth of my daughter. It is the congregation to which Kate was baptized in February 1990.

The difficulties I experienced in that congregation were mostly in the staff relationship, specifically with the head of staff. Soon after I left for my second call to St. Paul in Livonia (1991) the pastor spiraled into a chasm of mental illness and he took his life unexpectedly. I credit the presbytery … my colleagues and friends … for helping me through that situation. I also give thanks for the families there that adopted me and Dwayne as brother and sister, daughter and son.

This morning I witnessed a congregation that was as gracious as it had been when the women of the church visited me every day for the thirteen weeks I was bedridden during my pregnancy. I saw the work and unity of the congregation involved in the youth mission trip running in conjunction with the general assembly. I witnessed the excellence in music we had always experienced there. I heard great preaching by guest preacher, Rev. Gregory Allen-Pickett of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

I was welcomed with kindness and partnership by the pastors, Rev. Douglas Blaikie and Rev. Michelle James. And I was met with shrieks of joy as people recognized me. I never realized that a mere 3 1/2 years of ministry (six months of which I was on medical disability) would be remembered by so many. As I hugged the members, I felt the love. I heard the spoken and unspoken confessions and recognition of a difficult start to my ministry.

What I didn’t realize was that my mere presence was a challenge to the congregation, not just the head of staff, but the members. I was their first. I was told this over and over this morning. I was their first woman pastor. What I was totally un-expecting was the wave of young women who have entered ordained ministry from that congregation. I was the first of a string of women pastors on staff … And the young girls of the 1990s had role models of women in ministry. Today I heard of a half dozen or more of young women who were raised in that congregation and who were now ordained or seeking ordination.

God is good. This work of the PCUSA is not just about the business of the assembly. In fact, I would argue, the official business may be only a good reason for the real gift of the gathering of Presbyterians from all across our nation and around the world. It is to connect and reconnect. To reconcile, to forgive, to celebrate, to grieve, to praise God, and to be renewed.

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Last night we elected a new moderator, Heath Rada. With Larissa as vice-moderator, there was some special excitement from those of us on the east coast. As Wendy writes, we tried three forms of voting: computer-based, clicker, and then finally paper. I think the take-away for many is that we need more tech-saavy, but I was also struck by the resourcefulness and relative ease with which leadership adapted. Here’s hoping it’s the end of our tech worries…

Today’s plenary included a “Celebration of PCUSA Mission Personnel.” Our director, Hunter Farrell, highlighted a campaign to help with the education of a million children by 2020. We also celebrated more than 359 years of service from about a dozen veteran mission workers, and commissioned new mission workers. One of the special surpsies for me was the prayer for new mission workers, given by Presbyterian Church of Taiwan moderator Rev. Loh in Taiwanese. Check out PCUSA World Mission online.

As I write this, there’s a presentation on adding the Belhar confession to our Book of Confessions. Cliff Kirkpatrick spoke to the MADs and TSADs earlier on this. It’s not particularly controversial, but the presbyteries had failed to pass it by the super-majority it requires earlier and asked for more education and time to better understand the confession. Many years ago I was a preceptor/TA for Presbyterian Church History, and remember that there was a 200+ year stretch where Presbyterians largely stopped writing confessions. With Barmen and then later the independence of churches throughout the world after World War 2, Reformed churches began to make new confessions, statements, and public witnesses. My partner denomination, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, had also written a confession that was a response to the martial law era in Taiwan, and I often struck when church members confess it. I’m excited about Belhar, and by the international flavor of this afternoon.

Every assembly, it seems, there are technical glitches with the technology.  This year it was with the voting.  The numbers weren’t adding up, and it just wasn’t reliable.  When the moderator asked the advisory delegates to vote on the three moderatorial candidates, the computer showed that the YAADS et al had voted for the candidates of the 220th assembly … no more electronic voting for this assembly tonight.  Instead it was a show of “hands” … well, actually, red cards and then 1001 posters for advisory votes and an old-fashioned paper ballot for the commissioners’ votes.  At least one of my colleagues suggested that they may have had an inkling that this would happen because we, the presbytery leaders, had received a late email last week asking for volunteers to count ballots if the need arose.

After the typical opening statements and 45 minutes of questions, the candidates left the platform.  All three candidates had done a good solid job in presentation.  According to my perusal of the twitter verse, it appeared as if all candidates had been well received and Kelly Allen was rising to the top.  The advisory delegate “advice” however told a very different story.  There was a swell of support appearing for Heath Rada.  This trend was born out in the paper ballot election.  He not only won the election, but he won on the first vote with 52% of the vote.  If it had been a more even dispersal, the vote would be repeated until there was a candidate with over 50%.

You can read more about Heath here.  I want to introduce you to our new vice moderator, Larissa Kwong Abazia.  Larissa, as some of you may remember, had done some work in Monmouth Presbytery last summer.  She was the director of the Sandy Youth Mission Trip for the presbytery as she was serving in an interim youth/christian education position at Manasquan during Rob Morrison’s interim.  Larissa is an intelligent, creative thinker.  She has a strong faith and is innovative.  She is delightful to engage in conversation about the church or just life.  She is currently serving a church in Queens.  But I am hoping she will be able to visit us in Monmouth and New Brunswick sometime during her time as vice-moderator.

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Tell Me About Jesus

Here’s something to try while we’re in Detroit and when we’re at home .. doing church work or just getting our groceries …

Poiesis Theou

It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women…

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