Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advent 2007

Shadow Stomp:
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.

I grew up on a street named Yosemite Drive. In our neighborhood all the streets were named for national parks: Yellowstone, Rushmore, Everglade, Shenandoah. In the winter months, when it was too cold for our bicycles, my gang of friends would walk these streets. I remember during Christmas break we would move from one friend’s home to another begging Christmas cookies from our moms, and checking out cool, new Christmas gifts.
Of course, we were boys. We could not simply walk from house to house without some diversion, some game, some kind of alternative to boring, ordinary walking. So we played tag as we ran down the street. But this was not your ordinary game of tag which had safe bases at trees or on a lawn chair. Our game never really had a name; but as I remember it now I think Shadow Stomp would be a perfect name. Our game was a more advanced and brutal version of tag. The object was not to tag a person or anything as real and tangible as their body. The object was to tag their shadow; actually we would stomp on shadows. Our game never had a score, or rules. We never had an official start or finish. But we played all the time instead of walking. It was an activity that simply erupted in our young glee.
Shadows after dark were, of course, created by our streetlights. These were the old fashioned streetlights, attached at the top of electric poles, shining directly down. Our gang would sprint down the streets of our neighborhood trying with all the energy and speed we could muster to stomp on a friend’s shadow. We stomped, and sought to destroy our best friend’s shadow. No bodies were supposed to be touched. No one was ever hurt except the occasional fool who slipped on an untied shoelace and crashed to the asphalt. We were after shadows, and we learned to duck, and twist, and jump to make our shadows evade every attack.
The streetlights provided the light and our bodies made the shadows. But as we traveled down the street the light from the streetlight behind us would fade away, and our shadow would die into all the other darkness. Then a new streetlight from up ahead would catch us in its light now casting a shadow the opposite way. So we would race from streetlight to streetlight, casting shadows, trying to protect our own while we sought and stomped on others. Making this game even more fun is a simple fact of light and shadows. We all knew by intuition and learning that if a person stood directly, exactly, perfectly underneath a streetlight there would be no shadow. Now the game would get funny and brutal. A person was victorious, could not be defeated, could not be stomped on if they stood directly, exactly, perfectly underneath the streetlight. It was possible to be fully in the light without creating any shadow. As our game escalated, we would soon be a group of pushing, tackling, shoving boys, each trying to push the other out of that special spot. We each wanted to stand in that perfect spot beneath the streetlight where the light was complete and no shadows existed.
So it is in this season of Advent, that we ponder again Jesus Christ as a gift of light to our world. And I pray this Advent we may find ourselves standing so completely in the light of Christ that our lives will not cast any shadow. Amen!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mission opportunities in Honduras

I have been working to build a partnership with the Presbytery of Honduras where several of our congregations already have intentional mission commitments. I have gathered here a list of opportunities which may be pursued by our congregations as mission opportunities in Honduras. For more information about the Presbytery of Honduras or any of these opportunities please contact me at the Presbytery office:

Habitat for Humanity:
Habitat for Humanity is well established throughout Honduras using the same model for new home construction which is familiar to us in the United States. Kathy Wells and I have met with the staff of Habitat in Honduras several times. Their staff is very eager to work with us and also make connections directly with the Presbytery of Honduras.
We are in the initial stages of planning a mission trip in support of Habitat for Humanity in June 2008.

Relations with the Presbytery of Honduras:
This is my primary purpose with our work in Honduras. I would like to create close personal and spiritual relationships between our Presbytery and the pastors and church leaders of the Presbytery of Honduras. My overarching goal in working with the Presbytery to Honduras is to create a partnership between our church leaders and their church leaders.

Tim and Gloria Wheeler:
The Wheelers are the only Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) full time mission coworkers in Honduras. The Wheelers are funded by our international mission program and work in cooperation with Heifer Project International. Beyond the traditional Heifer Project ministry, the Wheelers are expanding their ministry in other areas including housing, nutrition, and community development. The Wheelers hosted our October 2007 mission team for dinner in their Tegucigalpa home. Our Second Presbyterian Church in Carlisle has close relations with the Wheelers. (Please see the 2007 Mission Year book (page 59) for the essay by the Wheelers.)

Sunday School in Honduras:
During our October 2007 mission trip, the Presbytery of Honduras asked me to make a presentation to them concerning Sunday School and Christian education. I used this opportunity to discuss with them the nature and function of their Sunday Schools. Kathy Wells has written a report concerning what we learned about their Sunday Schools. (Ask me for a written copy of Kathy’s report). It is not uncommon for the Honduras Presbyterian Churches to have more children in Sunday school than adults in worship. We would like to develop ways to support these Sunday schools.

Presbyterian Medical Clinics:
The Presbytery of Honduras offers free medical clinics in all of their churches. The principle clinic is in the Pena de Horeb church and operates every week. The Presbytery of Honduras has hired a Honduran medical doctor, Dr. Moreno to lead these clinics. Our Christ Church in Camp Hill has now led two medical mission trips in cooperation with the Presbytery of Honduras. (Our Christ Church would be glad to provide orientation for any churches interested in leading medical clinics in Honduras.) These medical clinics in the Presbytery of Honduras are also supported by the Presbytery of Tampa Bay.
Our Gettysburg Church also has a very effective medical mission trip in Honduras for two weeks every June. Although not associated with the Presbytery of Honduras this is very effective medical mission work in cooperation with Cure International.

The Merienda program:
At the request of the Presbytery of Honduras, the Presbytery of Tampa Bay started a program to offer a nutritious breakfast program for all the children attending Sunday school each week. Donations of whole oats and evaporated milk are necessary to keep this program going.

High School scholarships:
High school in Honduras requires tuition, thus many youth cannot attend. The Presbytery of Honduras in cooperation with the Presbytery of Tampa Bay has created a scholarship program for Presbyterian high school students. The Presbytery of Honduras administers this program including the applications, disbursement of the funds, and the evaluation of the students. The Presbytery of Tampa Bay is seeking individuals and churches to help provide the funds to make education available to Presbyterian high school students in Honduras. One high school scholarship is $300.

A new church building for the Nacaome Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Gloria Huete is the pastor of the Nacaome Church. The congregation is meeting in a home which they must rent. A $5,000 gift from a Presbyterian in Tampa Bay has purchased the land in Nacaome for a new church. The Presbytery of Honduras has requested our Presbytery of Carlisle make a commitment to build a new church for this congregation. The cost of this building is $10,000. This is a vital project for the Presbytery of Honduras but will require significant preparation and planning for us to implement.

Our Market Square Presbyterian Church has had a connection with the mission organization Waterlines which provides access to drinking water in rural village around the world. We are working to connect a Waterlines project and the Presbytery of Honduras.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) missionary
Given the generosity and strength of the mission work of the congregations within the Presbytery of Carlisle, is it time for us to ponder a bold goal? Should our Presbytery fund a new, international missionary position through our international mission program? If this new missionary was available and funded it may be possible for their position to be in partnership with the Presbytery of Honduras.

We are called to be a mission-shaped people in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Name one thing that our denomination is doing right these days? I have a new answer to this question: CREDO. I was blessed by the opportunity to participate in a weeklong CREDO program from November 12 to 19, 2007. CREDO is sponsored by our Board of Pensions. We met at a retreat and conference center outside Orlando, Florida. Thus my CREDO week was additionally blessed by this marvelous setting and the fabulous Florida sunshine. The week I attended was for Presbytery executives from across the church. Thus the CREDO faculty had to tweak the program a bit for us since it is typically offered to groups of our pastors who are serving churches.
The Bible passage which guided our week together is taken from the wonderful story in Luke 5 about the miraculous catch of fish. Jesus, surrounded by crowds of people, steps into Peter’s fishing boat and floats off from shore a bit in order to teach the people. After his teaching, Jesus asks Peter to take his boat back out into the deep water and cast down his nets again. Peter complains that he is done fishing for the day since there were no fish to catch but he agrees to Jesus’ request to try again. Of course, we know the story. The fishing nets overflow with the large catch of fish. Peter must call his friends to help him gather the burdened nets into their boats. The boats are close to capsizing from the tremendous weight of all the fish. This miraculous catch of fish is a revelatory moment for Peter. Peter falls to his knees in confession and praise. From then on Peter is next to Jesus as one of the leading disciples. Using the idea of “deep” in a spiritual and metaphorical sense, the key verse for our CREDO week was Luke 5: 4. “”Launch out into the deep” (KJV).
CREDO is about the spiritual task of casting out into the deep waters again. CREDO is an opportunity, through a wonderful rhythm of teaching, sharing and worship, to discover again the power of God’s call on our life. CREDO is an effort by our Board of Pensions to contribute to the health, vitality and effectiveness of our clergy by connecting us again with an authentic and deep call to ministry and abundant life. The program and the format which has been created for this effort are excellent.
The CREDO program systematically helps each participant to evaluate and renew their ministry by focusing on four interrelated and vital components: the spiritual, vocational, financial and health aspects of our lives. CREDO requires an enormous amount of preparation at home in advance. This preparation includes a physical examination (provided free by the Board of Pensions for those over 50 years old), an online Mayo Clinic Health Assessment (available to all Board of Pensions members at their website), a comprehensive vocational assessment including input from a group of peers whom you invite, some tools to analyze your financial situation with your spouse, and a list of reflection and writing exercises. With all of this preparation completed leading up to the program week itself, there was already a lot of energy and spiritual investment in CREDO before our week together started.
Through a very nice, relaxed schedule of plenary sessions, individual consultations, quiet time and worship my CREDO week connected me again with the powerful movement of God’s Holy Spirit in my heart, family and work. CREDO helped me bring all the disparate pieces of my life into order again, God’s order. CREDO allowed me to revisit the holy place of my call to ministry with a new freshness and a powerful sense of renewal. My CREDO plan, which is the intended result of the program, is real and concrete. My plan will have a lasting effect on my life and ministry, connecting me God’s purpose and call for my life.
Our Board of Pensions is expecting to expand the CREDO program in our church. Pastors will be randomly selected from across the denomination to participate. If you are a pastor and you receive an invitation to a CREDO program, please participate. I am confident that you will be as richly blessed as I was.
Quoted here is the CREDO mission statement taken from their website:
The mission of CREDO is to provide opportunities for clergy to examine significant areas of their lives and to discern prayerfully the future direction of their vocation as they respond to God’s call in a lifelong process of practice and transformation.

Models of Mission

Models of Mission

Consider these two models of mission. These are actual descriptions of mission work which Presbyterians are doing today in Honduras. Comparing these two models helps us articulate some foundational questions for the church today.

Model A:
A group of six Presbyterian congregations have formed a Foundation for the purpose of building and sustaining a medical clinic in rural Honduras. The leaders of this effort have begun a fundraising campaign to raise $500,000. Thus far they have recruited a Honduran medical doctor who is now employed by their Foundation. The Foundation has also purchased a piece of property in rural Honduras on which they intend to build their medical clinic. When the building is finished and with the medical doctor and medical staff on site, comprehensive medical care will be provided for a large, rural area. This medical mission does not have a relationship with any Honduran churches.

Model B:
A group of about thirty Presbyterian congregations, in three different presbyteries, have formed a partnership with the Presbytery of Honduras. An important purpose behind this mission is to encourage the twenty congregations in the Presbytery of Honduras to function together as a presbytery. In this mission the American Presbyterians only respond to needs in Honduras which are articulated and prioritized by the Presbytery of Honduras. The Presbytery of Honduras has proposed several different avenues of ministry which our American churches can support. These include support for medical clinics which are provided in each of their congregations with a Honduran medical doctor who is employed by the Presbytery of Honduras. This partnership also includes construction projects which are defined and proposed by the Presbytery of Honduras. The construction of church buildings and Sunday school buildings within the Presbytery of Honduras are always carried out with both Americans and Hondurans working together. The Honduran and American Presbyterians are also exploring plans to build a cooperative relationship with Habitat for Humanity Honduras, provide youth conferences for American and Honduran youth together and provide a scholarship program for Presbyterian high school students in Honduras.

In this new era of Christianity in America, the difference between these two models of mission is important. Which model for mission is appropriate for times like these? Of these two models, I am very involved with Model B. I am working to create a partnership between our Presbytery and the Presbytery of Honduras. My hope is to create a mutual relationship between our presbyteries which is beneficial to both. Most of all I hope to create close, personal relationships between American church leaders and Honduran church leaders so that we are both equipped for ministry. Eventually, I hope this partnership will lead to sister-to-sister church relationships within our presbyteries. While I was in Honduras recently, the leaders of the Foundation I described as Model A were also staying in the hotel with us. Thus I learned about their important ministry during informal conversation during our stay at the hotel.

In my mind the difference between these two models of mission is striking. Model A may be described as doing mission by helping others. Model B may be described as doing mission by building relationships. It is vital for us who are called to build mission-shaped and mission-driven churches to ground our work in serious theological reflection. Listed here are some of the questions I have pondered as I respond to the call of Christ to do mission:

Should we be engaged in any mission work which is not boldly and directly evangelical? Are efforts to help people and improve society appropriate expressions of mission if they do not intentionally include the proclamation of Jesus Christ?

Should we be creating expressions of mission service which will always depend on American resources – money and people – for continuation? What are the long term consequences of creating mission projects that are completely dependent on American money?

Should we be engaged in any mission work that is not intentionally connected with local churches in the host country as partners and colleagues?

How do we solve the dilemma of mission as vacation? Many of the American Presbyterians who are actively involved in mission work today do so as expressions of their personal vacation time. Of course, this is a noble contribution of time and money. But what is the difference between tourism and mission work? Should we encourage or discourage mission trips as tourism?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Report to the Presbytery: September 25, 2007

Am I allowed to lead? In this era when we have clearly defined the purpose of the Presbytery as supporting, resourcing and encouraging the ministry of our congregations, what does it mean for me to lead? Am I allowed to lead?

In my opinion, leadership from my office means three things: First, to understand our congregations and see where the Holy Spirit is inspiring good ministry. Second, to name and celebrate that good ministry. Third, connect the good ministry of individual congregations to one another and thus help move it to a higher level of energy and commitment. Leadership from the Presbytery means finding out what we do best and helping us to do it better, together. Am I allowed to lead?

Clearly, in my experience so far with this presbytery, what our congregations do very, very well is mission work. Our Mission Committee, under the leadership of Elder Skip Becker, has done a comprehensive telephone survey of our congregations. The picture that develops is beautiful. We have across our congregations a truly remarkable commitment to mission work.
Am I allowed to lead? If I am allowed to name a vision and direction for our Presbytery and for our Churches it would be this: an intentional and robust commitment to mission. This is my vision:

Every congregation will move toward an intentional, defined mission budget of at least 10% of total income every year.
Every congregation will devote at least half of their mission budget to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission work in both designated and undesignated expressions.
Every congregation will make a significant financial commitment to undesignated Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission giving. We will work harder to understand, celebrate and interpret our church’s mission work.
Every congregation will connect with opportunities for active, hands on mission service for their members, including mission trips. We will work harder at connecting congregations together for mission service and mission trips. Lend a Hand is a stellar example of this kind of cooperation.
Every congregation will have an international component to their mission commitment. Every congregation will seek to understand and celebrate the amazing things God is doing in Churches all around the world, outside of the United States.
Every congregation will make a significant and active, hands-on commitment to at least one of the mission agencies which we support within the presbytery bounds. For example, Skip Becker and I recently visited the Check-up Center, a remarkable medical mission right in the heart of the one of the most oppressed and dangerous, urban areas in Harrisburg. The Check up Center is remarkably good ministry, providing free medical care for extremely underprivileged children. But only two congregations in our Presbytery actively support the Check up Center.
Every congregation will make a gift to our Funding the Future capital campaign in support of Camp Krislund.
I ask for permission to lead mission trips as part of my position. I requested and the Administration approved, and you will vote on today, adding two weeks per year for mission work, including funding, into my 2008 terms of call. I hope to create the relationships and infrastructure for mission trips so that every pastor and church leader will have the opportunity to participate.

Am I allowed to lead? Let me be bold:
We can support the General Assembly’s Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts and Hands. Our Presbytery can create and fund a new international mission co-worker position. Our Presbytery can commit to growing Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) international mission work.
We can begin a conversation to ponder a Mission Coordinator staff position at the Presbytery level. The responsibilities of this person will be our disaster response ministry through Lend a Hand, connecting congregations together in active mission service and mission trips, and connecting us as a Presbytery with the beautiful work that Presbyterian missionaries are doing around the world.

Am I allowed to lead? What does that mean? To me it means identifying and naming what we do best, and helping us do it better together. Let’s do mission in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Conversations with the General Assembly Council

There is a lot of new conversation and discernment going on at the national level of our church. I want with this report to share some reflections from my perspective as a new Executive Presbyter.

First, when I was a pastor I never knew that there is a para-church organization in our church called the Association of Executive Presbyters. This is a support group for Executive and General Presbyters across the church. This past week, September 18-20, 2007, I participated again in our annual meeting. For my first two years as your Executive Presbyter, I participated in the new executive training provided by Association of Executive Presbyters for first year and then again for second year Executives. This training and orientation has been a valuable and important experience for me. The value of these orientation sessions was not necessarily in the skills I learned, but in the relationships with other new Executives which were forged, and continue to be important relationships for me in the church. Thus for three consecutive years I have participated in the annual meeting of the Association of Executive Presbyters. This is a remarkable group of people, with deep passion for the work we face to build a new church for a new day.

Exactly at the same time as I started my service as your Executive Presbyter, the national church started a serious of conversations intended to build bridges and discern a way forward in these chaotic times. This started one year ago when the Office of the General Assembly, which sponsors an annual polity conference for all our Presbytery Stated Clerks, met simultaneously with our Association of Executive Presbyters. That meeting in Tucson in October 2006 was an exhilarating week for me. I was there for two days of orientation with new Executives starting their second year; participated in the Office of the General Assembly’s polity conference, participated in the meetings to build communication between the Office of the General Assembly and the Association of Executive Presbyters, and also participated in the meetings of the Executive Presbyters. I fully understand the challenges which face our church. But the more I meet with and work with church leaders in other presbyteries and at the General Assembly, the more impressed I am with the vision, commitment and devotion they bring to our common work.

These national consultations have become required when the 2006 General Assembly mandated annual consultations. Now the General Assembly Council meets with the Association of Executive Presbyters annually, an event which took place last week in Louisville. Aside from our meeting, I was delighted to have the opportunity to tour Presbyterian Center. All the General Assembly staff were available to us for conversations and questions while we toured their offices. We also had a meaningful worship service in the Presbyterian Center chapel with a brilliant sermon by Rev. Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Church and a Presbyterian leader from Ghana.

Our discussions with the General Assembly Council last week were focused on the “adaptive change” issues facing the church. In other words, we were looking at the big picture questions facing our church. I believe the distinction between adaptive change and technical change is very important in the church today. Technical change is about problem solving, and finding solutions. Adaptive change is about changing the culture of the church. The conversations were rich, perceptive and challenging. The truth of the matter is that we are faced with the challenge of creating a new church for a new day.

I want to share here some of the questions which we articulated as important in the church today. These are all huge questions of adaptive change. Answers to these questions are complex, multi-dimensional and will require sweeping spiritual and cultural change in our church.

Can the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), in this particular time, find a common vision?
In a purpose-driven world, what is the purpose of the PC(USA)?
Who nurtures the relationships and honors the connections that are at the heart of this network of congregations, pastors, educators, and presbyteries?
Facing the realities of our 21st century context and respecting our historic polity, what can and should leaders do?
In a post-Christendom world where each congregation is a mission post and every member a missionary, can we make disciples through one hour of worship and fifteen minutes of coffee fellowship on Sunday morning?
How do we address the congregational dilemma of moving from a 1950s fellowship/membership model for doing church to a missional/outward model for being the church?
Does the PC(USA) have a fundraising problem, a stewardship problem, or a spiritual problem? If, as the Book of Order states, “We believe that Christ calls and gives the church all that is necessary for its mission in the world,” what are the current funding issues saying to us?
Is the PC(USA)’s communication network effective in an internet age? Who’s talking, who’s listening and who is telling our story?
If the world is becoming flat, what does it mean organizationally for the PC(USA)? How and where can we begin having a conversation about structure, leadership, accountability, decision making and partnership for the 21st century PC(USA)?
What does a healthy denomination look like? How do we get there?
Without constraining the movement of the Holy Spirit, how can a better process be put in place to help each General Assembly focus on what is vital and important to our long-term health and faithfulness?
By the Spirit of Christ we are called to create a new church for new day.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What is the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?


Across the church, in conversations, classes and session meetings, I regularly hear reference to the General Assembly. But what exactly is the General Assembly? I wonder, as I hear reference to the General Assembly, if we understand the fullness of it work and ministry.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is made up of six different organizations referred to by the acronyms listed above.

OGA: The Office of the General Assembly.
I suspect that this is the one aspect of the work of the General Assembly which people are referring to when they speak of the General Assembly. The OGA is responsible for the biennial meetings of the General Assembly. The OGA includes the office of the Stated Clerk, now headed by Cliff Kirkpatrick, who has recently announced his retirement. The OGA is responsible for the constitution – the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions – of the Presbyterian Church.

GAC: The General Assembly Council
The General Assembly Council is the program and ministry arm of the General Assembly, now headed by newly selected Elder Linda Valentine. All of our national and international mission work falls under the rubric of the GAC. All the educational, evangelism, new church development, transformation and youth ministry resources created by the General Assembly are within the GAC. In addition the Office of Theology and Worship and our Church Leadership Connection is within the GAC.

BOP: Board of Pensions
The Board of Pensions is a very, very large piece of the work of the General Assembly but generally non-controversial. The BOP is not typically in mind when we consider the work of the General Assembly. But in fact, every congregation with an installed pastor has a direct and significant relationship with the BOP. The BOP is responsible for the major medical plan, the pension plan, and disability insurance plan for all our pastors and many professional church workers. The BOP also does significant work across the church with their shared, emergency, educational grants and housing supplement grants.

PILP: The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program
The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program is one of the shining lights in the ministry of the General Assembly. This program, which many people do not know about, makes loans and grants to congregations for new construction and capital improvements. Using funds invested with them by individuals and congregations across the church, the PILP is able to use investment proceeds from those funds to provide loans to churches. When your congregation begins exploring any kind of construction project you should contact PILP.

PF: The Presbyterian Foundation
The Presbyterian Foundation is the autonomous investment arm of the General Assembly. By that I mean that the Foundation does not receive any mission or per capita funds. With a stellar record of investment earning, the Presbyterian Foundation deserves its impeccable reputation for its ability to make money available to the church. Individuals across the church have millions of dollars invested with the Presbyterian Foundation. Most of the accumulated funds of the Presbytery of Carlisle are invested with the Presbyterian Foundation. Every congregation should use Presbyterian Foundation resources to raise awareness about the importance of planned giving and estate giving with your members.

PPH: Presbyterian Publishing House
Obviously, the Presbyterian Publishing House is the publishing arm of the General Assembly. “The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) is the denominational publisher for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the materials it issues under its Westminster John Knox Press imprint cover the spectrum of modern religious thought and represent the work of scholarly and popular authors of many different religious affiliations. PPC's Geneva Press imprint is for a specifically Presbyterian audience.”

Monday, September 3, 2007

Book Review: Craig Van Gelder

Craig Van Gelder. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Baker Books, 2007.

I have become immersed in the new movement in contemporary, American theological reflection which may appropriately be named “missional theology”. Missional theology has become a very comprehensive genre of theological reflection which strives to understand the sweeping changes that are moving the church into a new era. Craig Van Gelder, professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, offers an important new book in missional theology. His overarching thesis is a vision of the Church as Spirit-led.

After an introduction in Chapter One, Van Gelder offers a nice Bible study on the work of the Spirit through both the Old and New Testaments in Chapter Two. In Chapter Three, Van Gelder considers a theme that is common in missional theology: the contextuality of the church. The church must be intentional today to understand where it is, its spiritual and theological location in the world. In response to the constantly changing context of the church, Van Gelder suggests that “the church is always both forming and reforming. This reinforces the logic that the church always needs to be both confessional (claiming and reclaiming its identity in relation to the historic Christian faith) and missional (engaging its context and continuously recontextualizing its ministry)” (Page 54).

In Chapter Four, Van Gelder focuses on the American church, in a perceptive analysis of our history, by tracking the movement of the church in American context from an established church to a corporate church to the missional church (Page 73). This understanding of American church history is very helpful, and precisely defines the change and trauma of our church today as we are in the midst of a transformation from a corporate church to a missional church.

It is Chapter Five which makes this book a valuable contribution to the Presbyterian Church today. In light of the discussions across our church motivated by the Peace, Unity and Purity report, there is now a new appreciation and a renewed interest in “spiritual discernment.” The call to communal spiritual discernment is one of the central propositions of the Peace, Unity and Purity report. Van Gelder also calls for a renewed commitment to spiritual discernment in the church and offers the theological, social and historical rationale for it. Van Gelder offers the idea of “hermeneutical turn” as a way to describe the situation we are in which includes a “diversity of interpretations of reality.” Van Gelder is exactly correct, and I have experienced this repeatedly, that “the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality.” I will quote here at length Van Gelder’s description of the hermeneutical turn because, I believe, it accurately describes the challenge before the church and the opportunity for becoming a truly missional church:

“In light of the hermeneutical turn that has developed over the past century, there is no going back to a world that can be framed in seemingly black-and-white categories. The diversity of interpretations of reality, which are manifest both in the multiperspectival character of biblical studies and the different methods used by the social sciences, makes this impossible. This means that part of the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality by drawing on a variety of methods that can inform discernment and decision-making process. Relying primarily on one method, whether it is in relation to biblical teaching or scientific explanation, is no longer viable, if it ever was. Diverse perspectives, rooted in different methods and the particulars of social location, bring a multiperspectival dynamic into any discussion. Rather than playing out these differences around power dynamics related to personalities, roles, or the vote of the majority, which is so often the case in congregations, a more redemptive approach is to engage such differences through a process of mutual discernment. This requires leadership. This requires time. This requires a mutual commitment among those who are around the table. And this requires being Spirit-led. Reflected in this approach is the important theoretical insight that we need to develop a practice of ‘communicative reason’ within diverse communities in order to come to shared conclusions” (Page 97).

I believe this beautifully names an important challenge of ministry today. Church leaders must be able to engage diverse perceptions of reality in ways that are Spirit-led and grace-filled. This engagement need not confrontational but must be conversational and discerning. This engagement must not be a power-play or an effort to promote my own agenda, but must be truly discerning, seeking to understand the will of God. I believe that pastors today who are able to create mature, open, mutual, Spirit-led patterns of spiritual discernment will help us move toward the kind of church to which God is calling us.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Writings Selected with an Introduction by Robert Coles. Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Orbis Books, 2003.

This newly published collection of some of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer gathers together pieces from most of his popular writings. But I was drawn to this volume, not for the Bonhoeffer texts most of which I have already read, but for the introduction by Robert Coles. Indeed, Coles, a professor of social ethics at Harvard, has written a brilliant introduction to Bonhoeffer. If you do not know the story of Bonhoeffer’s life and death, this introduction will quickly educate you. For those of us, probably most Presbyterian pastors, who are very familiar with Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Cole’s introduction is a brilliant theological interpretation and perceptive analysis.

I have always, like most people familiar with the Bonhoeffer story, appreciated and struggled with the profound depth of his calling. It was a calling that he clearly understood as coming directly from Christ. It was a calling that led, almost inevitably, to his imprisonment and death at the hands of the Gestapo, only days before Hitler’s own suicide. If we desire, and I believe we must, to consider the power of the calling of Christ in our own lives then we may ponder the calling of Christ in other people as testimony and witness. But we speak of being called by Christ to give up our lives as a metaphor, a manner of speaking. Bonhoeffer understand such a calling literally. Like others in that terrible era, Bonhoeffer had options. He could have saved himself, and ride out the war safely within America enjoying the opportunity to teach at Union Theological Seminary surrounded by other, brilliant German theologians who did just that. We must ask ourselves the deeply haunting question which emerges from the Bonhoeffer story: Why did he choose to leave the safety of America and return to Nazi Germany, when he fully understood the consequences which probably would result? Coles reflects on this question brilliantly and sees it as central to the Bonhoeffer legacy. It was for Bonhoeffer the fulfillment of the call of Christ. I quote at length from Robert Cole’s introduction:

“In this regard I remember well a conversation with Reinhold and Ursala Niebuhr in the summer of 1963 and their polite but candid wish to convey not only the concern so many at Union Seminary felt for Bonhoeffer, but an interesting and all too instructive variant of that concern. Why did he want so badly to go back to Germany? What did the “homesickness” of which frequently spoke “really” mean? Was he not, perhaps, “depressed”? Might not he have been helped by some “conversations” with a “professional” person? Wouldn’t it have been “wiser” for him to stay in America and help rouse a significantly isolationist nation to an awareness of what was at stake in Europe? By then Paul Tillich and Karl Barth had gone into exile; hadn’t Bonhoeffer already struggled harder against the Nazis that just about anyone throughout the German universities, throughout Christendom?” (Page 24).

“The heart of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual legacy to us is not be found in his words, his books, but in the way he spent his time on this earth, in his decision to live as if the Lord were a neighbor and friend, a constant source of courage and inspiration, a presence amid travail and joy alike, a reminder of love’s obligations and affirmations and also of death’s decisive meaning (how we die as a measure of how we have lived, of who we are). Bonhoeffer abandoned cleverness with language, brilliance at abstract formulations; he forsook denominational argument, oaths and pledges and avowals. In the end he reached out to all of us who crave, in hunger and in thirst, God’s grace. And, one believes, unwittingly, unself-consciously, he became its witness, its recipient. His spiritual gift to us, especially, is his life.” (page 41).

Thanks be to God for the words and witness, the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Back to School

The Presbyterian Church in American history has always expressed a strong commitment to public education. It is a rich discussion to consider the differing theological foundations of the Roman Catholic Church in America which has adamantly fought for and maintained a strong system of parochial schools and the Presbyterian Church which has always advocated and supported a strong system of public education and schools. Which system is better for the church? Which system is better for our society?

In the churches I have served as a pastor there have always been in the congregation teachers and school administrators who were very active, committed, leading church members. One of the great blessings for our family was the educational experience that our oldest son had in the town of Morris, Illinois where I served as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Kyle started school while we lived in Morris, and his first grade teacher was Mrs. Joan Smith. Mrs. Smith is a very active member of First Presbyterian Church. Moreover, our church started an after school program on Wednesdays, named the After School Special. Mrs. Smith was one of the original, driving forces behind this program and taught its first grade class. So during his first grade, our son Kyle had Mrs. Smith as his first grade teacher and on Wednesdays came to the church and had Mrs. Smith as his After School Special teacher. Kyle learned how to read and how to do arithmetic with Mrs. Smith. He also learned about Jesus with Mrs. Smith. This has been a deep and lasting blessing for Kyle and our family.

I was invited to participate in Sunday School and worship at our First Presbyterian Church in Newville on the Sunday before school started this year. Here again I saw a marvelous expression of the deep connection between the Presbyterian Church and public education. First Newville has started a creative, little program which they call, “Blessing the Backpacks.” All the children are invited to bring their school backpacks to worship. And the congregation was packed full with families and young children with their new school clothes on and their school backpacks still clean and new. For the children’s sermon all these children were called forward with their backpacks; and Pastor Vern, in his message to them, encouraged them to remember that God is always with them especially when they go to school. In addition, there was recognition of all the professional educators in the congregation, and a special responsive litany asking God’s blessing at the start of another school year.

In your church, please ask God’s blessing upon our schools, students, teachers and school professionals. Presbyterians have always believed that through public education God is praised.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Are we the Church?

A headline in the Harrisburg Patriot-News on Thursday July 12 caught my attention: “Pope criticizes other churches.” The first paragraph of this Associated Press article stunned me: “Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released yesterday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.”

From experience I have learned never to trust newspaper stories about the church. Newspaper articles, and even more TV news stories, need conflict, tension, and high emotional to attract attention and discussion. Stories about the church in such public media typically lose nuance, depth of meaning and serious theological reflection. So this newspaper article sent me scurrying to find what the Pope’s paper actually said.

In this internet age, it was not hard to find. The Vatican released a statement on July 10, 2007 titled “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.” Indeed the “Fifth Question” in this document refers directly to us Presbyterians. That is, it responds to “those Christian communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century.” From my perspective and worldview as a life-long Presbyterian, I find this “response” from the Vatican breathtaking in it arrogance:

“According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities (born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century) do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.”

I soon discovered that I am not the only Protestant stunned by the Pope’s recent declaration. The Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, wrote a scathing letter in response, from which I quote in part:

“An exclusive claim that identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Jesus Christ, as we read in the statement released today, goes against the spirit of our Christian calling towards oneness in Christ. In makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the Reformed family and other families of the church. It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity.”

Finally, I ponder a different question. Does it make any difference? For the pastors and congregations in our Presbytery carrying on with wonderful faithfulness and devotion to Jesus Christ does the Pope’s statement make any difference? When we have a friendly chat with the Roman Catholic neighbor who lives on our street, does the Pope’s statement make any difference?

Who is the Church? Where is the Church? What is the Church? These are vital questions. But is the Pope’s answer to these questions, or my answer to these questions some how more important than the answers which all the good folks express with their lives when they sit in our pews again this week?

When I think about the Church, with a capital “C”, the invisible Church as our Book of Confessions proclaims, I see in my mind something universal, beautiful and holy scattered all around the globe and through the ages. That vision causes my heart to rejoice. When I think of the Church, with a capital “C”, I also see in my mind our fragmented, divided, separated, sinful reality. That vision breaks my heart.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Per Capita: What is the future?

How do you think about 150 years? The two track funding system which is now established in our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was created in 1857, exactly 150 years ago this year. In one sense 150 years is forever, since it is longer than any of us are old. Thus none of us have ever known anything else in the Church. In another sense, 150 years is not long at all compared to all of Church history, and 150 years is only half as long as our Presbyterian heritage in America.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is funded by a cumbersome, sometimes confusing, often controversial two track funding system for all the governing bodies beyond the session. On one track we have our Per Capita assessment which is the responsibility of the Presbytery to pay and to which almost all of our congregations contribute directly. The amount of Per Capita is defined individually by each Presbytery, each Synod and by the General Assembly and is calculated using total active membership.

The second track of funding is our general mission giving. Most of your congregations also contribute to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) general mission work. You make a decision about the amount of general mission you would like to contribute and you, we hope, forward your contributions to us regularly. Thus for 150 years our church has functioned using this two track funding mechanism: per capita and general mission giving. For us, of course, this is all that we have ever known.

The idea of the Per Capita assessment started in 1857 very small and very focused. It was intended to spread out and share across all the presbyteries the costs of the annual meeting of the General Assembly. Per Capita was created to pay for the meeting of the General Assembly each year; that is all. But in the first decades of the 1900s the church followed the values of our society in the conviction that larger, hierarchical, centralized organizations are best. The bureaucracy and institutional size of our denomination grew enormously as the church adopted the values of our society. We created the ecclesiastical equivalent of the public corporation. The church became a huge, efficient, organized, sprawling, national organization. Thus in 1923, following the massive reorganization and expansion of the General Assembly, Per Capita funding was expanded to include four new departments: Christian Life and Work, Publicity, Vacancy and Supply, and Church Cooperation and Union. Today when we try creating budgets within our governing bodies we must debate the confusing question of what should be funded from Per Capita and what should be funded from Mission.

Per Capita: what is the future? You will see in your papers a report from our Administration Committee, which I initiated, and which our Administration Committee and our Coordinating Council both endorsed. We are asking that beginning in 2008 the Presbytery will contribute 100% of our Per Capita Assessment. If approved this will be a significant change in practice. Our current practice is for us only to forward the amount of Per Capita which we actually receive from our congregations. This is important to me because I am interested in being part of the conversation about what the future financial system of the church will look like.

I believe that the two track funding system is no longer viable for the church today. From a financial perspective it is cumbersome and confusing. More importantly, from a theological perspective this system is obsolete. The Per Capita system is rooted in an establishment model of the church in society, which presumes that all active Presbyterians expect, enjoy and are connected to our large, multi- governing body, institutional, church structure. That is simply no longer true; the era of unquestioned institutional commitment and loyalty is long gone. Now the larger governing bodies – presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly – must deserve the loyalty and support of the people in your pews by expressing a ministry and mission that is faithful to Christ and fully supportive and responsive to our congregations. I believe that our Per Capita assessment, with its tone of obligation, is no longer financially viable in this new era.

A new mission shaped theology is beginning to take hold of our church and our thinking. In this sense, we are returning to our New Testament roots. The church is a people called out. The word itself, “ecclesia” means “a people called out”. When we are at our best, when we allow theological commitments to guide our financial practices, we understand that the church itself, in all its parts and expressions, is a mission. We are, first of all, an expression of God’s mission in Christ into our world. Thus, it follows, that everything the church does is mission. The mission of God in our world shapes, defines and calls the church. We are a mission-shaped and mission- charged people. Thus there is nothing the church does that should be aside from or apart from our mission in Christ. If we push out the implications of this kind of theology into the realms of organization, administration and finance you will soon share my conviction that everything is mission, and everything we need financially must then be provided by mission giving.

I believe we are moving toward a future that will see a streamlined, single track funding system that reflects this kind of missional theology. But how do we get from here to there? Now that is a very difficult and complex problem. How do you fix an airplane while it is flying? One vital, preliminary step is for us to make a full commitment to the funding system we have received and which is currently in place. Thus we have this action item before us to fully commit to the Per Capita system. And then when we are fully committed, we can begin to discern the way forward. My deepest convictions are reflected here. I do not believe we fix a problem or find a way forward by abandoning and neglecting the structure which we have received. Rather, we should make a full commitment to the system and structure which we have in place, and then devote our energy and creativity, together, to discerning our future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Baseball in Nicaragua

The crisp, hot, late afternoon sunshine in Nicaragua creates perfect conditions for playing baseball. We noticed that the construction crews seemed to finish up the day’s work with a bit more energy and gusto; several of them asked me as the work for the day wound down, “Baseball?” Just that one word, with their deep Spanish language accent, and the interrogative lilt rolling up at the end, turned a word into a question. “Si,” I would readily reply, wondering what I was getting myself into.

David, our host and translator, had organized the game the evening before. He told me that there are two things that the guys on the construction crews really love: work and baseball. They play all the time in the field next to the school. The schedule was set. Baseball after work today!

This was truly a multi-purpose field. It is huge, easily the size of a full soccer field, with the main road of the village running along the long side of it. A few scrub trees line the edge of the field next to the road. There is a makeshift soccer goal set up at one end. Three long sticks: two sticking in the ground vertically, with Y notches at their tops, and one mounted horizontally in those Ys. No net in this soccer goal. I guess if you score a goal you must also chase the ball. The field also served as pasture, and we enjoyed watching the mama horse and her day’s old colt quietly grazing.

The baseball field is evident only because of its use. There is no backstop, no chalk lines, and no outfield fence. But the base paths were clearly evident from their heavy use. The area around home plate is smooth and clean. Home plate is imaginary; but obvious. First base is a now empty, paper concrete bag. Second base is a rag. Third base was imaginary; a spot in the dirt. What interested me about this field was the accuracy of its size. Despite the lack of real bases or a backstop this was, my measuring eye told me, really close to a full size baseball field. The spots in the dirt where the bases were supposed to be were in their perfect place; 90 feet apart in American measure. Baseball fields express beauty with their straight lines, angles, and symmetry. This field in the Nicaraguan dirt was beautiful.

David divided the teams, Americans and Nicaraguans all mixed up. This process took a while, with some thoughtfulness and discussion which was not translated into English for us. I guessed there was an effort to balance the teams, with some mysterious assessment made of our American ability. Indeed, we had two full teams. None of the Americans had gloves. So after three outs each player simply dropped their glove on the field at their position for the other team to pick up and use. The glove at my second base spot was gloriously well used, it flexed precisely like part of my hand, its leather was smooth and worn. This was an excellent baseball glove. It has been many, many years since I played real baseball, but as this glove fit over my hand I heard my heart whisper, “I can play this game!” A lifetime of baseball memories rushed through my mind: the feel of the glove, the grip on a hardball, the polished grain of a wooden bat, pick up teams, sweat and dust, grimy cap pulled down tight, kick the stones out of the way which may bounce up a hard grounder. Baseball is meant to be played; not watched. Baseball is poetry enacted.

We played fast pitch, regular baseball. The only difference is that each batter got ONE swing, not three strikes and unlimited foul balls; but one swing. “This will be a challenge,” I pondered. David instructed me, “They will pitch easy to you; wait for a good pitch and hit. If you strike, you’re out; if you foul off; you’re out, one swing per batter. Wait for your pitch.” This style made the game real fast, three outs came and went quickly. We settled into a very nice game; I found my rhythm and comfort. The memory of how to play this game came up out of my bones.

I played second base. I handled a few, routine ground balls, making the easy throw to first base. Innings went by quickly. Now we were back in the field, Carlos led off and drilled a hard grounder past the shortstop for a single. Jerry, a small, terrifically strong and always smiling construction worker, was playing shortstop. He yelled over to me; there was no need for translation. I knew instinctually that he said, “Be ready; double play.”

Instincts were correct. The next batter hit a hard ground ball to Jerry at short stop. As soon as I saw its direction, I started my move to cover second base. Jerry fielded the grounder clean and fast, turning to throw to me as I arrived at second base. His throw came hard, fast and perfect. I caught it while in full stride, stepping on the rag that was second base. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Carlos coming down the base line hard. He knew he was dead at second, so he started waving his arms and yelling to disrupt my turn toward first. I ran through second base and well past it to avoid his rush at me, stopped fast, and fired on a string to first base. My throw was also perfect, the first baseman ready and waiting. A cheer went up from all around. Double Play. Baseball glory.

On a Nicaraguan baseball field, of all places, I had this moment of true joy and blessing. Such moments are the stuff of real faith, exhilarating and thrilling and all grace. Why do we adults in America never play pick up baseball anymore? Why do we so seldom run and play, sweat and laugh? Why are our lives so structured and organized and professional? Why do a bunch of people from Derry Presbyterian Church – doctors, professionals, computer geeks, teenagers, executives – want to go to Nicaragua?

After a hot day building a concrete block house, while standing on a Nicaraguan baseball field I received a glimpse of an answer. We are called back to something deeper and more meaningful. We are called back to something that we often lose in our sophisticated, air-conditioned, sanitized, modern lives. We are called back to the dirt where we learn again the basic truth of all truth. We are not as good and proper as we think. The dirt makes us clean. We are called back again to the joy of life itself revealed, maybe, in a game of pick up baseball or the quiet contentment of helping to lay the block for a new home for a quiet, deserving family. We are called back again to a deeper joy by the boisterous fun of men who can laugh together while laboring for a weekly wage that would not buy a round of drinks in our town. We are pulled back again into a deeper respect for others by the dignity of the women who sweep the dirt outside their shacks, and hang their crisp, hand-scrubbed, clean clothes on barbed-wire clothes lines. We are inspired by the faith we see in people who have no reason to have faith. We go to Nicaragua because we need to face the mystery again of seeing people who are happy and content when they have no reason to be, while we are seldom happy and content when we have every reason to be. I learned about Jesus again mixing concrete and playing baseball in the bright Nicaraguan sun. I am very grateful. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Evangelism: One on One

I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday morning with the Falling Spring Presbyterian Church. Brad Hill, their full time youth minister, was the preacher for the day. He preached an excellent sermon about the importance of paying deep, spiritual and emotional attention to one person at a time. Too often in the church we are overly concerned with efficiency and attracting large numbers of people to our carefully planned programs, that we forget the gift of the one, individual person who may be standing in front of us. This sermon was a nice interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep. The word that really spoke to me was the short conclusion to Brad’s sermon in which he defined a clear and precise method of doing personal evangelism.

This may be the most clear and beautiful expression of the task of personal evangelism that I have ever heard. It is simple in its clarity but very sophisticated in its understanding of the dynamics of personal evangelism. So here it is: my retelling of Brad Hill’s formula for personal evangelism

Imagine yourself one-on-one in a spiritual conversation with a friend or neighbor. It is a friendly, cordial conversation and you sense a real opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with this friend, and, moreover, you sense that your friend is really open to hearing a new word about Christian faith and Jesus Christ. What do you do? How do you act? What do you say?

Be Silent: Before you rush to express a bunch of words, take a moment to be silent within yourself. Try to move beyond a concern with your own thoughts, feelings and words and open yourself to what God is doing and saying in the moment. Be still and be silent within yourself in order to open your heart and mind to the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Stand on Holy Ground: If you are feeling that this time with your friend is a special moment in which you may be able to talk about Jesus, realize that this place is holy ground. This special, spiritual openness that you and your friend are sharing is, in itself, a gift from God. This place or moment when you may be able to share deep spiritual conversation is a place itself created and given to you by God. Like Moses taking off his shoes before the burning bush, recognize the gift of holy ground. How do you act when you are standing on holy ground?

Be the Gospel: Before you can talk about the Gospel or share any words about the Gospel you must be committed to being the Gospel. Of course, we are always growing and maturing in our spiritual commitment, but we need to live authentic lives in Christ which truly struggle with the calling toward Christian discipleship and obedience. Only if we are being the Gospel will we be in a place to truly speak a word about the Gospel.

Invite with Words: And the moment arrives when you truly sense a desire to share a spiritual word about Christ with your friend. What should you say? Invite your friend to join you in wanting to learn more about Jesus by gathering regularly, preferably weekly, to read together one of the New Testament Gospels. We do not need to be Bible scholars or prepared to communicate sophisticated theological doctrines. Rather we need to be willing and prepared to invite our friends to join us on a journey toward Jesus. The words you share need not be brilliant or sophisticated; they need to be invitational. Invite your friend to join you on the fabulous journey of Christian faithfulness.

Throw better parties: This short scheme of personal evangelism could end at this point. But Brad added a marvelous final point, “Throw better parties.” This was his way of saying that we in the church need to have more fun. Too often there is an austere coldness about our faith. Too often we do not fully grasp or communicate the profound joy which we have as believers. ‘Throw better parties’ means that we need to have fun in Christ, with Christ and with one another in the church.

Imagine what a church we would become if we each practiced, in serious and committed ways, these patterns of personal evangelism one person at a time; one lost sheep at a time. May it be so in Christ.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Form of Government task force

Although it is still too early to be certain, nonetheless, it is quite possible that the report of the Form of Government task force will be one of the most important topics to be decided by next year’s (2008) General Assembly. This task force was created by the 2006 General Assembly for the purpose of proposing viable revisions to our Form of Government. The Form of Government is, of course, that large part of our Book of Order (indicated by the letter “G”) which defines much of the polity of our Presbyterian Church. Our Book of Order also includes the Rules of Discipline (marked by the letter “D”) and the Directory for Worship (marked by the letter “W”). You may find the webpage of the Form of Government task force at http://www.pcusa.org/formofgovernment/.

The task force has now drafted a full revision of Chapters one through four of our Book of Order. These are foundational, theologically oriented chapters which claim and articulate many of the sacred aspects of Presbyterian belief and practice. The proposed revision of chapters one through four maintains this foundational quality, and reiterates many of our cherished, political ideals. But the revision is reorganized and written in fresh, direct new prose.

The task force’s proposed, new opening chapters of the Form of Government are titled Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and is available for review at: http://www.pcusa.org/formofgovernment/pdfs/foundations-of-polity.pdf.

For example, compare the opening sentences of the current Book of Order with this proposed revision titled “God’s Activity”:

"The Church bears witness to the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We bear witness to this one God’s sovereign activity in the world as told in the Bible and received by faith. The Church proclaims that in the one God’s three-fold work it finds blessing and hope for itself and for the world."

For example, consider this proposed revision of our classic affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

1.0201 The Authority of Christ
God has given to Jesus Christ all authority in heaven and on earth, not only in this age but also in the age to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body.
1.0202 Christ Calls and Equips the Church
Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its strength, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. Christ alone rules, teaches, calls, and uses the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of God’s new reality.
1.0203 Christ Gives the Church Its Life
Christ gives to the Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

For example, consider the new proposal discussing the marks of the true church under four headings: "the apostolicity of the church, the universality of the church, the holiness of the church and the unity of the church".

For example, consider this rewriting of our famous and foundational theological commitment that truth is in order to goodness:

"Truth and goodness cannot be separated, and that which is holy springs from that which is true. It is for this reason that we seek to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and for this reason also what we believe is no less important than what we do. Indeed, there is a direct and inseparable connection between faith and action, truth and duty."

The Form of Government task force is approaching this task in a very creative way. Although they have written a full revision of Book of Order chapters one through four, they are not simply recommending the revisions to the General Assembly. Instead the task force is asking the General Assembly to decide between their proposed revision of chapters one through four or simply keeping our existing chapters one through four. The General Assembly will decide. How would you vote?

This whole discussion presents us with a wonderful educational moment. We can use this question to open up conversation and learning around our foundational, theological principles. Please read again chapters one through four of our Book of Order and please read the newly proposed Foundations of Presbyterian Polity. In either the current form or in the revised form, the rich and sacred convictions of our Presbyterian Church shine forth. We have received a good and faithful heritage. Thanks be to God.

A news report on the Form of Government task force may be found in the Presbyterian Outlook (Vol. 189 No. 16; May 7, 2007; page 6).

Church Discipline

I would like in this space to bring to your attention an important, little theological essay provided to the church by our Office of Theology and Worship. Paul K. Hooker, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of St. Augustine, has written a short paper, Identity – Polity – Praxis: Ecclesiology and the Presbytery (Occasional Paper Series No. 2; Re-Forming Ministry; Office of Theology and Worship; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). You may find more information about the Re-forming Ministry program, including copies of this paper in .pdf format, at http://www.pcusa.org/re-formingministry/.

How do we do church discipline? Many Presbyterians are aware that a deep commitment to moral and righteous living has always been an expectation for our church members. In our tradition this expectation has a dominant, and at times, oppressive place. Theologically, Presbyterians have always believed that we are called to live holy and righteous lives in response to the abundant grace which God has given us in Jesus Christ. But in recent years, this high concern for church discipline and moral order has fallen into the quagmire of judicial process.

Paul Hooker has precisely articulated what may be one of the truly pressing concerns in our church. How can we reclaim proper church discipline, out of our rich tradition, while avoiding the temptations of creating a punitive and vindictive judicial process out to prosecute wrongdoers? I quote here from Hooker’s paper:

“The practice of ecclesiastical discipline has come to be synonymous with judicial process. In truth, the equation of the two is at the heart of the problem. Ecclesiastical discipline actually has a quite different purpose, as the Preamble to the Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order makes clear.

The intention behind the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline is the desire to strengthen the membership of the church, to reconcile disputing parties, and to restore the peace, harmony, and concerted witness of the church. In practice in too many situations, however, the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline has led to an atmosphere of mistrust, anxiety, and apprehension in the church; hardly the sort of system likely to bring members to repentance and restoration.

If we are to be true to the vision of the church as the provisional demonstration of the new reality of God, this situation simply has to change. If it does not change, we will lose altogether the distinction between an ecclesiastical discipline motivated by the eschatological virtue of reconciliation and a secular judicial system dedicated to the adjudication of guilt and the assessment of punishment.” (Paul K. Hooker, Identity – Polity – Praxis: Ecclesiology and the Presbytery, pages 28-29).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Virginia Tech

I stood at the microphone in front of the congregation watching the screen. As each new face flashed up from the PowerPoint projector onto the screen, I leaned closer to the microphone and slowly read the name. I read the names clear and loud, not hesitating and not pausing to correct what was probably a wrong pronunciation of some of the difficult names. I simply read each name as clear and correct as possible; the PowerPoint program creating long pauses between each one. The congregation was silent in the candle light of this memorial service. Many of the pictures were obviously, posed, professional senior pictures from high school. Some of the pictures were spontaneous and funny, one girl with a giggling smile and her tongue sticking out, one of a young man in his band uniform hamming it up for the camera, another a casual photograph with a baseball cap and bright smile, another of a man in a military uniform probably from a high school prep school showing a broad, wide smile. Name after name after name; the instructors and faculty were gathered at the end, a gifted group of talented, educated people whose different names reflect our world community. Names, names and names, all different, all unique, all bright and beautiful faces, all Virginia Tech, and now all dead. I pray to the Lord.
My wife, Kris, carried the phone out to me in the yard where I was cutting the grass, encouraging me to take this call. I let the lawnmower shut down, and chatted for a moment with the Rev. Song Kang. I was very pleased and honored to be invited to the Memorial Service for the Virginia Tech shooting victims that very evening at our Harrisburg Korean Presbyterian Church. I had heard that there were some incidents of harassment against their community since the shooter was Korean American. Kris and I quickly decided that we would go to this service as a family. We prepared ourselves for the argument we knew we would get from our sons, when they got home from school on a sunny Friday afternoon, and were immediately told that we were going to church together on Friday evening. But we spent our dinner time talking about Virginia Tech. We talked about the fact that our son Kyle had been accepted into the honors program at VT, and Kyle and I had visited and toured there last year. Kyle could be a student at VT. I described the beautiful campus and the gorgeous mountains of Virginia which nestle the little university town of Blacksburg. So Kris and I insisted that we had to pay our respect, to pray for these families, and we were going together to this memorial service at the Korean Harrisburg Presbyterian Church that Friday evening; (and as a concession to our boys we agreed to go out for ice cream after the service.)
I preached at the service. My message was a brief, heartfelt reflection on Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The congregation then all lit candles, the PowerPoint of photographs was started, and there was an extended time of prayer. These Korean American Presbyterians pray deeply and fervently and at great length. I was blessed by the depth of their prayers. Their perseverance in prayer was much longer than mine.
One particular prayer concern that came from a member of the congregation touched me. Prayers were being requested for the shooter’s family and also for all our children. The children of immigrants to the United States live with unique burdens and stress. They live between two cultures, wanting in some ways to remember and claim their heritage from Korea but also wanting to become full and complete members of America. Living in these two different worlds creates terrible pressure for these children. Combine that pressure with serious mental illness and an incomprehensible tragedy results.
In the midst of an awful, evil tragedy a very small touch of grace happened for our family. As we pulled into the parking lot at the Harrisburg Korean Church, another family pulled into the parking spot next to us only a moment later, so that we were all getting out of our cars and walking to the church building together. This other family included a mother, father and a teenage son. Our son Michael, who is in ninth grade, immediately called out to the other boy. They are classmates together in Derry High School and sit next to one another in one of their classes. I know how high school boys behave at school. My son and this Korean American young man may have been close school friends, and may have talked about many different subjects and topics together, and may have worked on school work together. But in the context of their high school time together they would probably never have shared the fact that they are each very devout Christians and very active in Presbyterian Churches. But this evening, walking across the parking lot at the Harrisburg Korean Church, these two high school boys shared a new bond and a new relationship created by a shared worship experience in memory of Virginia Tech. I pray these two young men moved a bit closer to each as friends across the cultural barriers and closer to the church which calls us all together in the name of Jesus Christ.
I pray to the Lord.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Scots-Irish and Honduran Presbyterians: Fighting the Established Church.

We have in the Presbytery office a beautiful, first printing, edition of the Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle which was published in Harrisburg in 1889. This work, published in two volumes, offers a fascinating glimpse at both the early history of our Presbytery and our congregations. I was especially drawn to an essay by Rev. W. A. West which discussed the political and religious landscape in Scotland, Ireland and England. What first motivated the Presbyterian migration across the ocean to the wilderness of Penn’s Land in the early 1700s? If one summary statement is possible to capture such a complex and rich history it may be this: The Presbyterians who left Scotland and Ireland for this new world were seeking to escape from the established church with a vision of creating a truly disestablished church. For example, consider this history which reflects the oppressive power of the established church in Scotland and Ireland.

“In 1661, at the re-establishment of Episcopacy in Ireland, the newly appointed bishops, with Jeremy Taylor as their leader, turned all the Presbyterian ministers out of their charges upon the ground that they had never been ordained. This ignoring of Presbyterian ordination carried with it a denial of the validity of any official act performed by a Presbyterian minister. For instance, the validity of marriage, involving the questions of legitimacy and inheritance. This wrong was not corrected until 1782. Second, In 1704 the Sacramental Test Act was passed, which required all persons holding any office, civil or military, or receiving any pay from the sovereign to take sacraments in the established church within three months after their appointment. This, of course, excluded all Presbyterians from civil and military offices of every kind.” (Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle, (Harrisburg: Meyers Printing and Publishing House, 1889), Vol. I, pages 49 and 50.)

The Presbyterians in Scotland and Ireland, our infamous Scots-Irish, responded to an oppressive, established church by moving to a new world, starting new lives and building new churches. Our American Presbyterian tradition was created by their vision and faithfulness, and their adamant rejection of establishment Christianity.

I was recently on a mission trip in Honduras visiting the congregations of the Presbytery of Honduras. As you may know, Honduras is a dominantly Roman Catholic nation. Statistics report that over 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, although there is serious debate about the value and meaning of that statistic. The Roman Catholic Church is a very established Church in Honduras. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church still today has enormous political and economic power. The Moderator of the Presbytery of Honduras told me a fascinating story. In the 1990s the Presbyterian Churches wanted to formally and legally consolidate their connection to one another by creating the Presbytery of Honduras. This required an application to the government for the Presbytery to acquire official standing as a church body within the nation of Honduras. (This is similar to our Presbytery’s legal standing as a religious organization in the eyes of the United States’ government.) But this application was held up for many years within the bureaucracy of the government. The Presbyterian minister who told me this story is convinced that the Roman Catholic archbishop in Honduras intentionally prevented the legal recognition of the Presbytery of Honduras. Over time, government officials changed, the Presbytery continually reapplied for recognition, some American Presbyterians advocated with the government on their behalf and now, indeed, the Presbytery of Honduras is officially and legally recognized as a church body in Honduras. But the Presbyterians in Honduras have an adamant disdain for establishment Christianity, not unlike our Scots-Irish ancestors. (Presbyterian leaders in Honduras were quite aghast when I described the often cordial and cooperative relationship between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in America. The Protestant and Roman Catholic divide in Honduras continues to be very wide and deep.)

Both the story of the Scots-Irish rebellion against the established church in their day and the story of the Presbytery of Honduras’ fight for recognition against the established church in their nation encourage an important theological thesis which I have been pondering and researching: (1) The political, social or economic establishment of the church in any society compromises the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Establishment is a very slippery slope. (2) We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are living through a traumatic era during which our church is being radically disestablished. (3) This may be the best thing that can happen to our church if; indeed, our goal is to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I believe this may be one of the most important theological discussions we can have in our church. Consider these questions: In what ways do you believe our church has acted as if we are an established church in American society? In what ways has our establishment functioned to compromise the truth of the Gospel? In what ways is our church now being actively disestablished from American society? Are there ways in which this is good for the church?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Transformations in Worship

Transformations in Worship
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church: Pastors Steve Gribble and Kristal Smith
Shippensburg Presbyterian Church: Pastor Denny Finnegan

I had the opportunity in recent weeks to worship at both our St. Andrews and Shippensburg Churches, and on reflection, it amazes me how these two churches reflect some of the creative energy that is happening in our worship today. The worship services in these congregations are very different, and in comparing them, we see some of the vital and sweeping changes that have been blowing through our Church.
St. Andrews had adopted a model of two very different worship experiences. It requires a very gifted pastor and preacher in Steve Gribble to pull this off every week. The St. Andrews early service is fully contemporary with a praise band, and a very informal kind of ethos. An excellent PowerPoint display helps guide the congregation for the whole service. Their large screen hangs prominently above the choir loft. The sermon is preached informally from the aisle of the sanctuary with a more relaxed and engaging presentation which Steve delivers with convincing power and warmth. This service also includes a drama team was presented a beautiful enacted-parable of the Bible text for the day. With their full praise band, and drama team St. Andrews does an excellent job of contemporary worship.
And then it all is transformed for their later service. The screen disappears, and a full, robed choir uses the choir loft, the organist leads the service, and the pastors wear their formal clerical robes. Steve preaches from the pulpit with a more serious but still very engaging style. This is classic, traditional worship and it is done very well.
The thinking behind all of this is, of course, to offer different options and styles of worship for different people. It is a common model but St Andrews does it particularly well since their two services are truly unique and different. The contemporary service is unabashedly contemporary in every detail; the traditional service is fully traditional without apology or hesitation. Both services are very well done, well planned, and carefully expressed. The worship services are very strong at St. Andrews.

Now the St. Andrews model came to mind when I worshiped at Shippensburg which has adopted a very different model for worship. Their one service is truly blended. There are many touches of a contemporary style blended into a traditional order of worship and ethos. There is a full choir in robes but their offering was a contemporary praise song accompanied by guitars. The sermon is traditional, from the pulpit, and very biblical. Denny’s preaching was biblical in a classic, traditional sense which is almost rare today. This was almost a verse by verse commentary on the Bible passage. I found this to be a refreshing and very spiritually fulfilling, deep encounter with the scriptures. I found myself during the sermon reaching for the pew Bible to check out this or that verse which was being preached. In my mind, the best preaching always pushes me back into the scripture for study and prayer. This was preaching as it should be in a classic sense; this deep engagement with the scriptures.
But after this traditional biblical sermon, the Shippensburg congregation moved together into one of most creative expressions of worship that I have experienced in any of our churches. This was an extended time of shared prayer. But this was very different. Members of the congregation shared their prayer concerns at great length, much more than simply shouting out a name and a disease. And Pastor Denny, instead of waiting until everyone was finished sharing, prayed after each person shared. Moreover, as he prayed for each prayer concern, he encouraged the congregation to physically and spiritually turn and reach out to the person being prayed for. This was one of the most powerful expressions of public prayer that I have ever shared. It was truly beautiful. Because each prayer concern was shared at length and then prayed for at length, this time of prayer went on for many minutes. But it was obvious to me that this was an expected and important expression of their worship. The Shippensburg Church is a praying church!
Given all the changes and transformations which are happening in our Church, and indeed within the whole culture of religion in modern America, I believe these transformations in worship are most vital. On one hand there are exciting new expressions of creativity and imagination in our worship services. On the other hand our services of worship are becoming incredibly diverse and different. The good old days when worship in one Presbyterian Church was pretty much like worship in every Presbyterian Church are gone. Worship is the heart and soul of the Church. We need to think, pray and ponder about these transformations. There are exciting things happening in our congregations.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Statistical Interpretation

Statistics are very interesting. It seems as if statistics prove facts. But actually statistics can be used selectively in different ways in support of many different kinds of conclusions. Statistics in some form or another can be brought to bear on whatever conviction we would like to argue. So what do we do with our denomination’s statistics? We are a church that keeps very precise statistics. These are published annually, or more easily are available online at the Office of Research Services of the General Assembly. I have studied and pondered the most recent statistical report, from the year 2005, which has recently been published. To confess my ignorance in this matter, I am not at all sure what all these numbers tell us. I see two very important statistical measurements that truly support opposite conclusions. So what do all these numbers mean? This question is a wonderful discussion starter.

Statistic 1, Total Membership: For the past forty consecutive years the total membership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has decreased. Statistically, the year 2005 saw one of the largest membership decreases. In 2005 our total active membership decreased by 2.1%. Thus in 2005, we lost 48,474 active members bringing our total active membership as of December 31, 2005 down to 2,313,662. This means that in the ten year period from 1995 to 2005 the Presbyterian Church’s total active membership decreased from 2,665,276 to 2,313,662.
As is very common throughout our church, particularly in the Presbyterian Layman, this statistic is often used to argue that our Church is in wholesale decline. Moreover, this statistic is cited as evidence that there is something wrong with our church, that we headed in the wrong direction. This statistic is regularly cited as evidence for the conclusion that there is something theologically wrong with the church.

Statistic 2, Per Member Giving: For every one of the last forty consecutive years there has been an adjusted-for-inflation increase in per member giving. This is a remarkable statistic; giving per member has increased every year for the past forty years, even when the rate of inflation is factored in. In the year 2005 our statistics report giving per member of $900.37. This is a noteworthy 5.59% increase from 2004 when the giving per member was $852.72.
It seems to me that, particularly in America where money has enormous cultural power, this statistic may be used to argue for the health and vitality of our church. Certainly there are sweeping changes in the way this money is being used in the church. Much more of it is kept at home for work within the local congregation; and less of it is forwarded to the higher governing bodies of the church. This changing pattern of allocation is also evidenced in the statistics. But, it seems to me, the changing patterns allocating our money and the continuing increase in total giving are different issues all together. The annual increase in per member giving is remarkable good news which may indeed support an argument about the continuing health and vitality of our church, even as we get smaller. In our consumer, money dominated society is there not a significant theological interpretation possible here which is exactly the opposite of that which is often associated with our membership numbers? Increased per member giving indicates a deeper and growing commitment to the work of the church and, thus, a theological conviction that the church is healthy. If our members are moving into deeper levels of stewardship commitment, does it not follow that we must be doing something right for the Kingdom?

Finally, which statistic and which conclusion do you want to hold on to? I am not sure what the numbers tell us.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Two Different Conversations

Within our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) there are two different conversations happening simultaneously. But these conversations are not talking with each other. The reality of these two different conversations popped up in my mind as I read through the March 5, 2007 Presbyterian Outlook.
One may be called the orthodox conversation. This has a lot to do with the institutional disease of our Church. In the Presbyterian Outlook, this conversation was highlighted in the article, A time to act: NW vote begins movement toward EPC. The New Wineskins is a consortium of about 150 congregations working together for the renewal of the Church with a specific ideal of theological orthodoxy in view. Several of the New Wineskins congregations are negotiating with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The E.P.C. is a small Presbyterian denomination – about 200 congregations and 70,000 members - which was formed in 1981 when a number of our congregations broke with the northern stream of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The New Wineskins folks are so disgruntled with our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they are either (1) advocating for comprehensive reform within our church or (2) expecting to leave our denomination and possibly join the E.P.C. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church is recruiting our congregations for this potential switch by creating a non-geographic presbytery into which our congregations may transfer.
This orthodox conversation is part of a long history of theological controversy in American Presbyterianism and, indeed, in American Protestantism generally. The New Wineskins Initiative is a new expression of an old concern. This concern was expressed in the Confessing Church Movement in the 1990s, goes back to the Fundamentalist and Modernist controversy in the 1920s, and before that to the Old School and New School debates.
The orthodox conversation is about the authority of the Bible, the unique power of Jesus Christ, and the correct polity of the institutional Church, including, of course, the question of qualifications for ordination. There are wild differences of opinion on all of these vital theological issues.
I suggest that the heart of the matter for the orthodox conversation is the question of the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition. As mandated in our Book of Order, all officers ordained in our church must affirm this ordination question: Do you affirm the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition? This ordination vow, of course, begs the question: What are the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition? In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) there is not a definitive answer. I believe that if anyone is going to find a home in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one must understand why we do not, and will not, have a precise, defined answer listing our central tenets. Compare the long history of conversation around the question of central tenets in the P.C.(U.S.A.) with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. On the E.P.C. homepage you will find a precise list of their central tenets. To understand the difference between the P.C.(U.S.A.) and the E.P.C. on this point is to begin to grasp all the complexity of the orthodox conversation.
I believe most of the work in our church is part of the orthodox conversation. For example, this includes all of the work and discussion around the Peace, Unity and Purity report. Most of my work as an Executive Presbyter, most of the work of our Presbytery, and particularly the work of our Committee on Ministry, happens within the orthodox conversation. It is a rich, noble and continuing conversation that is filled with complexity and nuance.
But, alas, there is a very different conversation happening. I call this the emerging conversation. This was reflected in the Outlook article, Emergent church conference explores what movement is, isn’t. The emerging conversation blurs across all the stark battlelines of liberal versus conservative. The emerging conversation dismisses the orthodox conversation as irrelevant. There is a deep irony at work in the emerging conversation. On one hand this conversation is inspired by a deep anti-institutional, anti-structure, anti-bureaucracy ethos. But many of the conversation partners are immersed in established institutional positions. For example, I have been blessed by the emerging conversation which flows naturally when our Synod wide group of Executive Presbyters gathers.
I have also participated in this conversation through my involvement in the Gospel and Our Culture Network. The emerging conversation talks about missional theology which is pushing a new worldview for the church, a new way of thinking about the role of the church in our society. But this new way of talking is in reality a very old, biblical way of thinking. The church and the culture are now completely separated. Thus the church is called to bring the Good News of the Gospel into the strange and foreign culture that surrounds us. The church is missional. This means, in the emerging conversation, that mission is much more than a program, an emphasis or an activity. The missional church means that the church is God’s mission into the world. The church is the means by which God reaches out and into our world. Thinking and talking this was is part of the emerging conversation today.
Our Presbytery’s New Church Development committee is talking within the emerging conversation. We are creating a new position as Evangelist who will be responsible for planting a new faith community among the unchurched and dechurched. We must talk about a new faith community, not a new church, because the concept of church carries so much baggage for so many people; baggage that keeps them far away from ever sitting in our pews. A new faith community is about creating authentic spiritual relationships among and between people who are discerning a call to respond to Jesus Christ. It is a very different conversation, an emerging conversation. I have a nagging suspicion that the people we may attract into our new faith community are not interested in our orthodox conversation.
With which conversation are you involved? In which are you most interested? Which is more important for our Church? How may we possibly bring these two conversations together in service to Jesus Christ?