Monday, December 5, 2016

Our Presbytery welcomes Moderator Denise Anderson

Some Moderators of the General Assembly north and south

We are delighted to have Co-Moderator of the General Assembly, the Rev. Denise Anderson, with us today. Of course, Denise is not the first Moderator of the General Assembly. That honor belongs to Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was the Moderator of the First General Assembly in 1789. He was also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He became the first President of the College of New Jersey which became Princeton Seminary.

In 1861, the Rev. Benjamin Palmer was the first Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Rev. Palmer was a gifted preacher and served as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church on New Orleans. With his preaching, he helped convince 47 southern presbyteries to break away from the northern Presbyterians and form their own southern church.

In 1870 Robert Lewis Dabney served as Moderator of the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. Dabney served as a Chaplain in the Confederate Army, and as Chief of Staff of General Stonewall Jackson. After the Civil War, Dabney had a distinguished teaching career at Union Seminary in Richmond.

In 1879 the Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson served as Moderator of the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. Rev. Wilson was the father of President Woodrow Wilson.

William Jennings Bryan never served as Moderator of the General Assembly. Bryan has been called the greatest loser in American history. Three times – in 1896, 1900 and 1908 – he ran for President of the United States. Three times he lost. In 1923 he ran for Moderator of the northern Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. He lost. But God is good. In 1924 the arch-conservative, Philadelphia pastor Clarence Macartney was elected Moderator. He named Bryan as his vice-Moderator.

In 1971 Ruling Elder Lois Stair was the first woman elected as Moderator of the northern United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

In 1976 Ruling Elder Thelma Adair was the first African American woman elected as Moderator of the northern United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Elder Adair was a professor in City University of New York. She spent many years in ecumenical and social justice work in Harlem.

In 1978 Sara Bernice Moseley was the first woman Moderator elected in the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. Elder Moseley was a strong advocate of the reunion of the northern and southern churches. Beginning in 1983, she served as the first Chair of the General Assembly Council in our, reunited Presbyterian Church (USA).

In 1986 the Rev. Benjamin Weir was elected as Moderator of our Presbyterian Church (USA). Ben and Carol Weir served from 1953 to 1984 as mission co-workers from our church to Lebanon. In 1984 Ben Weir was kidnapped off the street in Beirut. After his long captivity, he was honored to be elected Moderator. Ben Weir passed away this October 2016.

In 1992 the Rev. John Fife was elected Moderator of our Church. Fife was the pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Along with colleagues from several denominations, Fife was a leader of what was called the Sanctuary Movement. These church leaders opened their church buildings to undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Their ministry pushed a very public conflict with the Department of Justice under President Ronald Reagan.

In 2008 Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow visited our Presbytery, and taught a class at our Saturday Seminar. That is the only other Moderator visit we have had since I have been in this Presbytery.

And today in 2016 we are honored to have Co-Moderator Denise Anderson with us. Denise is a blogger. Her blog is better than mine. The title of her blog is SOULa Scriptura. SOULa is a constructed word: SOULa. The sub-title of her blog is even better: “to be young, gifted and Reformed.” I was very pleased to have dinner with Denise last evening. She is indeed, young, gifted and Reformed. Please stand and greet the Moderator of our General Assembly.

Report to the Presbytery December 6, 2016

Report to the Presbytery of Carlisle
Dismissal of the Hawley Memorial Church

Today I encourage you to approve the dismissal of the Hawley Memorial Church. Our Commission on Ministry has already acted to dismiss their Pastor Carl Batzel pending our action today.
Once again today, in official meeting, we consider the dismissal of one of our congregations to the new denomination, the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). We have done this before. We dismissed the Upper Path Valley Church and their Pastor Meagan Boozer; we dismissed the Lower Path Valley and Burnt Cabins Churches and their Pastor Donna Ryan; we dismissed the Port Royal and Mexico Churches and their Pastor Crystal Lyde; we dismissed the Shippensburg Church and their Pastor Mike Miller
            Many of you will also remember that we did NOT dismiss our Faith Church, despite the request of the session at the time. In seeking to leave our Church, the Session at Faith Church caused enormous conflict, and more than half of the congregation left with their Pastor Wayne Lowe to form what is now a new ECO congregation. Our Faith Church today, although smaller, is thriving with remarkable energy and enthusiasm. I am grateful to their Interim Pastor Steve Lytch and their new session members.
            My friends, I believe we have reached the end of an era. My belief is confirmed in conversation with my colleagues in presbyteries all around Pennsylvania. There are still several dismissal conversations in process in neighboring presbyteries, but generally, I believe, the era of church dismissals is behind us. After today’s action we will not have any active Conversation Teams, and we have not received any official requests from any other session to begin our dismissal process. I am not aware of any of our congregations that are discussing dismissal at this time.
            My friends, I believe we have done this right. I believe we should be proud and grateful for the way we have acted through this season of deep conflict and turmoil. We wrote, we debated, we approved, and we acted on repeatedly a policy, and a spiritual stance, of gracious dismissal. This was and is the right thing to do in Christ Jesus. Like many of you, I know all the arguments for a different path, a different tone in these conversations. In many sleepless nights, I have played out those arguments in my mind. Today, without any doubt, I am convinced that we have done the right thing with our policy and our practice of gracious dismissal. And I am very grateful to almost countless numbers of leaders in this presbytery who have participated in this discernment and these practices, and especially the members of all the Conversation Teams we have had over these years.
            Now I see three great challenges before us:
            Our first challenge is to live into this very new language in our Book of Order: Nothing shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session  believes  is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.
            Our second challenge is live into this very old language in our Book of Order; one of the historic principles of our church: “We also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which (believers) of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of both private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
            Third, if I am correct that we are now moving into a new era, we need to ask ourselves as a Presbytery in a very deep and thoughtful way, “What are we going to do now?”
            I ask you to support the recommendation of our Conversation Team and our Council and approve the dismissal of the Hawley Memorial Church.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ten Years of Partnership in Honduras (2006 - 2016)

Carmen’s Place, Part 1:

As I begin writing this, it seems impossible to describe Carmen’s home with words. Truly its very existence seems almost impossible to believe. If I had not been there, worked there, and seen it for myself I would doubt that a home could be built, and a family can live in this place. 

After twisting and turning on the narrow, bumpy, often steep, unpaved local streets of a small neighborhood in the middle of Tegucigalpa, our van backed into an open spot between two homes. We unloaded and were pointed in the proper direction, “Down”. The hillside simply dropped off into a sheer cliff. This ravine was much too steep to walk down, but not too steep for plants, wild grass and small bushes. My view, standing at the top, went steeply down and the bottom was a lush, thick forest of wild, tropical plants with the large leaves and tangle of vines, maybe 100 yards down from the top edge where I stood. The sound of a rushing stream at the very bottom was loud but invisible. The water obviously fed the lush green everywhere at the bottom of the ravine. Coming up out of the ravine, presumably on the other side of the rushing stream, was a steeper cliff, bare rock too steep for plants to grow. I could see homes perched on the top of the other side of the ravine. My view went straight down this ravine, and it caught my attention.  I wondered, “Where are we going? How could there be a house down here?”

It is impossible to walk straight over the edge of the ravine, and quickly I realized a well-worn path hugged the side of the ravine off to the right and dropped down very steep directly behind and beneath the home which was next to our parked van.  With only several steps down the path, the back wall of this home was straight up above my right shoulder. The path dropped precipitously, so much so that I checked my traction, making sure each step was planted solidly and I was not going to start sliding. The path dropped, then flattened out a bit and continued down to where I could see two homes perched below, one sort of above the other. But our direction switched back fully, and started down several, precarious steps which were carved into the hillside. Now, because of the switchback, the steep hillside rose up on my left, the ravine fell downward to my right side. And there is Carmen’s place. A carefully constructed, new, concrete landing welcomed us and we arrived at her front door.

I still do not have any idea how a previous generation of Carmen’s family had acquired this property and this home was built on the side of this very steep ravine. But there it was, and the contribution from our Presbytery and our work for the week was a major renovation and remodeling of her home. Welcome to Carmen’s place.  

Ten Years of Partnership in Honduras (2006 - 2016)

Carmen’s Place, Part 2.

We have done this before with several of our home construction projects. Because homes in the poorest neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa are packed close together, the walls of the home itself are often the property lines. There are no yards, very little outside space, and, of course, the families are living in the homes during reconstruction. Thus in a remarkable exercise of flexibility and creativity, we are often systematically deconstructing an old, dilapidated home while at the same time building a new home on the same spot, at the same time. Each situation, each family’s needs, and each home moves through the delicate process of destruction and construction in different ways.       

At Carmen’s place, the powerful, tropical deluges, which they call rain in Honduras, was most of the problem. Because she lives on the side of the steep ravine, the force of the water rolling down on her home was powerful and destructive. With funding from our Presbytery and a lot of expertise from her church, a construction team created an amazing, concrete waterway which funnels all the rushing storm water away from a direct hit onto the side wall of her home, and into a new, concrete channel which carries it safely around her home, and directs it down a safe path, and ultimately into the stream far below. This new storm water system which now protects her home is the most remarkable concrete construction project I have ever seen, in a place where construction is done without any power tools or equipment. This storm water system was made in a way that also created a new, open landing which offers a small outside space in front of her home. Previously, Carmen, in the worst downpours, needed to keep her front door closed and sealed to prevent the rushing water from entering her home. When we arrived that remarkable concrete work was complete, and I spent some time standing on her new, front porch chatting with the lead mason on this job, Alejandro, about how this project was conceived and built.

These are poor people. Statistically these are some of the poorest people on earth, living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa. Despite being poor, these people are resilient, creative, resourceful, smart and hard working. The concrete, storm water system which a small, group of volunteers from a small Presbyterian church in their neighborhood designed and built at Carmen’s place is a profound testament to the fact that our perceptions about “poor people” are probably all wrong. 

Ten Years of Partnership in Honduras (2006 - 2016)

Carmen’s Place; Part 3:

Carmen is a warm, energetic, athletic woman who never stopped working in support of this project in her home the whole time we were there. When she was not directly supporting the construction work, or cleaning up, she was maneuvering all her household belongings to keep the way clear. Her two daughters and her three, young grandsons live in this home with Carmen. 

Prior to our adopting this project, this home was one room. Part of our construction project is to add additional inside walls which will divide the space into two, tiny bedrooms and a small kitchen area. These new inside walls are being built with concrete block because they will be load-bearing walls for the new rafters and steel roof that is also part of this project. For Carmen’s place, the four outside walls of her home will remain in place. Our project includes the addition of significant concrete and block support around the foundation of this home (remember that this home sits precariously on the side of a steep ravine), the storm water system which will prevent the erosion of her foundation in the future, the construction of the new inside walls, and the complete replacement of her roof which includes replacing rotten wooden rafters with new steel rafters and a new steel roof. From within the four walls that already existed at Carmen’s place, a completely new home will rise.

This description of Carmen’s place gives a hint at the way we have developed our home construction ministry in partnership with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras these past ten years. Carmen’s place is the eleventh home we have built or remodeled as part of this partnership. The congregations we work with in their Presbytery truly own this mission work. Their mission committees recruit and identify families for new projects. They interview and carefully vet each family and proposal. The family is consulted concerning exactly what they want the project to include. Each home is truly a custom construction job. No two projects are alike. Our Presbytery has contributed to this ministry by providing the financial support. We budget from our Honduras Designated Fund $3,000 for each new home project. We support the organizational, administrative and accounting efforts which must be the basis for a sustainable mission program. We send mission teams to contribute to the construction of each home. The Hondurans do not need us to do construction, but we believe our presence at each home for a week puts a face on our commitment and enhances our partnership. After all these years working together, while we are there the construction sites take on the tone of festive, family reunions. 

Ten Years of Partnership in Honduras (2006 - 2016)

Carmen’s Place, Part 4.

Bienvenidos a Tegucigalpa! Welcome to Tegucigulpa! This is a huge, sprawling city set among steep mountains. In the States now the issue of the vast distinction between the very rich and the working class is a public discussion. Here in Honduras, the distance between the rich and the poor is glaring and blatant.  The high walls, razor wire and security guards keep the upper class protected and cocooned. 

We work with the poorest. I am proud and blessed by the fact that the Presbyterian Church of Honduras is immersed among the poor both in the city and in the rural areas. This, of course, is not true of our PCUSA. When we come here the spiritual and theological lessons about being the church among the poor and for the poor often challenges our comfortable worldviews. 

I had a quiet, personal conversation with Pastor Juan last year. We visited his congregation to distribute food to their community in response to the devastating drought. He needed to ask me a question; I could see the pain in his eyes. He humbly asked if it was okay if his own family could receive a food packet or should he give theirs away also. I assured him that he should indeed take one of the packets to his own family. I remember Pastor Enrique sharing a miracle story with our group. His family, which includes three young children, had run out of food and was, at last, sharing one egg for their whole family dinner. Before they ate it together they prayed, and their children prayed. The next day members of their congregation arrived with some basic food supplies to carry them through. Enrique tells this story with a tone of powerful rejoicing in the providence of God. I hear his story and my heart aches with sadness. While working at Carmen’s place which had taken on the feeling of a construction site – concrete being mixed on the kitchen floor, bags of mortar piled in the corner, a pile of sand on the front porch, blocks piled high in the living area – I asked if she was going to sleep there that night. She responded, “Yes, of course”, and pointed to the roof. I interpreted her sign as meaning that the roof over her head was most important, despite the construction mess within. This is not a family who has the option of staying at the local Hampton Inn for a night while their kitchen is being remodeled. 

I was theologically educated in the  era which included Liberation Theology as part of the conversation. I studied the idea, and I truly believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has a “preferential commitment to  the poor." I do not fully understand what this means. I wish our church conversations today were more interested in the exploring this idea together. What are the great gifts which  the poor offer to the church today?         

Ten Years of Partnership in Honduras (2006 - 2016)

Carmen’s Place, Part 5.

Members of the church always drive for us in Tegucigalpa. The road system is awful, traffic is horrendous, and finding your way around seems like some strange magic. I am too intimidated to drive here. The few large modern highways, often paid for by American grants, are clogged with traffic. These highways teem with tractor trailer trucks of every variety, many of which belch ugly, black clouds of exhaust. The city streets are filled with old school buses which serve as the principle means of public transportation. It is ironic to see the name of some American school district still printed on the sides of these re-purposed buses. As far as I can tell, there are no marked bus stops and no indication anywhere of the bus routes. I have no idea how one would learn to use this bus system. But most times of the day, the buses are packed to standing room only. (I know about this bus system from chatting with Herbert, a successful businessman who owns of a large bus company in the city and also serves as a leading Elder and Treasurer in the Presbytery. Herbert pays enormous “fees” to the gangs which allow his buses to keep running. This is a cost of doing business.)

In addition to the trucks and buses which are pervasive in the city, there is also a deep, ubiquitous ethos of crime, violence and gangs. It is important to say that I have never, in ten years of visits to Honduras, ever been the victim of a crime; I have never seen any crime; I have never witnessed any violence. I believe to the bottom of my heart that when we are in Honduras our church friends keep us safe. They keep us safe with their powerful commitment to prayer. They keep us safe by very practically watching out for us, surrounding us with their presence, and protecting us. Of course, safety cannot be guaranteed or promised but my experience here thus far has been safe. This is a gift from God; this also includes a careful attention to all the details of personal safety and security. But there is everywhere an uncomfortable sense that this is a dangerous place. The way buildings, stores, and homes are locked up tight with metal gates, razor wire, fencing or high walls is a sign. The presence of security guards, usually carrying shotguns, at most stores, businesses, banks, gas stations and office buildings is a sign. The statistics of gang violence and murder are signs. This may be one of the troubling and nagging spiritual issues for Christians here. We know the reports we hear in the States about Honduras being one of the most dangerous nations in the world; we know about the flow of drugs through these small Central American nations into the States which have gorged streets gangs with money and power. We feel the stressful obsession everyone has to be safe and stay safe. In such a context what does it mean to trust God? What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to pray for protection and safety? As North Americans we do not live with this daily ethos of crime in our society. Should we avoid the risk and stay home? No, we will keep coming here. But it is essential for anyone considering one of our mission trips to understand that this is a dangerous place.