Monday, September 17, 2012

Report to the Presbytery Sept. 25, 2012

Honoring Christ

The short statement copied here was approved by the General Assembly of our Church this year. This Action Item has not received a lot of publicity or attention. I believe this Action Item, if we can take it to heart, may be essential to the health, vitality and faithfulness of our Church today.

General Assembly (2012) Action Item: 07-17 From the Church Orders and Ministry Committee; On Honoring Christ in Our Relationships with One Another

This item was approved by the Assembly with a vote of 405 YES to 230 NO.

“The 220th General Assembly (2012) acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed, same-gender relationships. Therefore, while holding persons in ordered ministry to high standards of covenant fidelity in the exercise of their sexuality, as in all aspects of life, we acknowledge that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture in this matter. We commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error. We call on all Presbyterians to join us in this commitment.”

We are typically polite, courteous and respectful of people in the church with whom we disagree. But when those disagreements rise to questions of biblical authority and interpretation we are seldom, I believe, truly able to engage the depth of our differences. We talk past one another. We retreat into like-minded groups. We fall silent in the face of massive disagreement. We close our hearts to the other. I suspect many of us are convinced, in our heart of hearts, that there is only one way, one correct answer and one true interpretation.

Are we in the spiritual, emotional and intellectual place within our own selves to truly believe “that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture”? Is this not good news for us? This is an Action Item that may become a prayer concern. May we each “commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

Is This True?

Book Review: Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Harper One, 2012 (Kindle Edition).

            We are already in the year 2012. Diana Butler Bass offers, in her important new book Christianity After Religion, an interpretation of our recent decade which is compelling and troubling. My cultural perception of Christianity in our society remains captivated by the paradigm shifts of the 1980s and 1990s when the Religious Right was popular and had a lot of media attention, our mainline denominations continued their long pattern of disestablishment and diminishment and the mega-church movement was booming. But according Butler Bass, and with some penetrating sociological data, the place of church in culture may have shifted again, significantly, since 2001.
            She argues: “the first dozen years of the new millennium have been downright horrible for religion, leading to a sort of “participation crash” in churches of all sorts as the new millennium dawned. In particular, five major events revealed the ugly side of organized religion, challenging even the faithful to wonder if defending religion is worth the effort, and creating an environment that can rightly be called a religious recession”.

1)     2001: Butler Bass argues that the churches did not respond well to the September 11 terrorist attacks and many Christians got caught up in the base movement of religious bigotry and hatred. She writes, “It became hard to discriminate between healthy, life-giving religion and violent, life ending religion.”

2)     The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal

3)     Protestant conflict over homosexuality: Butler Bass argues that the whole, long, public debate over sexuality in almost all of the large, national churches has seriously undermined our effectiveness for ministry and our standing in our society. “Although some Christians surely felt theologically and morally uncomfortable with the idea of a gay bishop, many more were appalled by the nastiness of the controversy, the obvious politicization of their denominations, the low spiritual tone of the discussion, and the scandal of churches suing their mother denominations over property.”

4)     2004: The religious Right wins the battle, but loses the war: Butler Bass cites a popular and influential recent book on American Christianity to make her case. “In their recent book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell cautiously suggest that the real victory of the religious Rights has been to alienate an entire generation of young people.” In my mind, that is a painful conclusion but my own perception tells me this may be correct. Is this true and accurate? Butler Bass concludes: “The old religious Right may have won some cherished political battles, but in the war over the hearts of their youth they surely lost more than they gained.”

5)     2007: The Great Religious Recession: Finally, Butler Bass argues that when the great economic recession hit our nation at the end of 2008, the churches were too feeble to respond to the massive human need all around. “The economic recession arrived at a moment when churches and denominations were already in a religion recession. The national economic crisis served to weaken embattled religious organizations, further marginalizing conventional faith institutions in a chaotic cultural environment.”
I believe we need a full discussion of these themes. What is happening in church and society? What worldly events are impacting our churches? How are powerful cultural forces influencing the churches? What is the public witness of the Church in our society today? Most of all, Diana Butler Bass’ reflections help us break out of some of the stale stereotypes from the 1980s and reflect in new ways on these important questions. Diana Butler Bass’ new book is important and worthy of careful study and group discussion. Let’s talk about it!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Review

Michael Jinkins. The Church Transforming: What’s Next for the Reformed Project?. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

The phrase, “Reformed Project”, caught my eye when I first pondered Michael Jinkins’ new book.  It is a good phrase which I had never heard before, but a phrase that immediately resonated with me. The Reformed Project sounds open ended, forward thinking, experimental and innovative. The Reformed Project should be what we are about in the Presbyterian Church. Like all projects there will be false starts and bad choices. Like all projects things may be provisional, and filled with a sort of experimental, ‘Let’s try this attitude’ that is liberating. A project is not obsessed with success. I guessed that Jinkins was onto something very interesting with his phrase “Reformed Project.” And I was right. “When we say we are Reformed Christians, we are simply saying that we are Christians committed to a particular project, the project of reforming the church” (page 12). That is a project we should be about!
Jinkins and I are, in part, preaching the same sermon. I am gratified that someone of Jinkins stature in the church today is saying these things. This sermon that I have been preaching for years, and which I believe Jinkins is also preaching, is about how our church is good and blessed. I want to preach from the highest Presbyterian pulpit, I want to shout from the highest Presbyterian mountaintop: “Can we please stop whining! Can we please stop complaining! Can we put away the “Woe is me!” litany! Do we know how rich our heritage is! Do we know how great our Church is! This Church belongs to Jesus Christ!” I am encouraged that Jinkins is standing with me. He says it better: “When we are mindful of our legacy, however – when we remember the good news of Jesus Christ that fuels our lives and gives us hope as persons – we stop worrying about our survival. And when we stop worrying about our survival, we, as a church, become powerfully attractive to those around us” (page 108). Jinkins preaches: “We really do need to stop whining about the losses we have suffered in numbers and prestige and influence as a mainline church. No one else cares, including (I suspect) God” (page 117).
Michael Jinkin’s Reformed Project includes some compelling components. He offers a rousing call to a “thinking faith.” This is our heritage. This is the air we breathe. Chapter Three which calls us again to a thinking faith is a powerful source of encouragement for every harried pastor and over scheduled church leader who wonders again about the value of theological education and who struggles to find time to read the hard books. We need a thinking faith. My worry is all caught up with Jinkins: “I worry about  what will become of Christian faith – indeed, I worry what will become of the world we live in – if Christians fail to ask the tough, deep, critical sometimes intractable questions about life.”
Jinkins also offers a fresh, creative image of the task of ministry today with his description of becoming a “docent in the house of wonder.” This is a fabulous image for ministry today, and Jinkins develops it with compelling description. What if ministry was truly about helping our people imagine again, dream again, walk again into the rushing stream of God’s grace? “Their vocation is to deliver people into an awareness of the presence of God, in which they will know themselves to be creatures created for God’s own gracious, good and just ends” (page 88).
As a Presbytery staff person, I have a unique perch from which I view our Church. My view sees a lot of conflict and confusion. Jinkins sees the same things but does not shy away from our ugly heritage of schism. In what I consider a brilliant theological reflection, Jinkins dissects for us John Calvin’s theology on schism and unity in the church. For people like me who are working every day with issues of schism, separation, unity and our profound polarization, Jinkins Chapter Four, Schism, the Unintended Consequence of the Reformed Project, is important. The Reformed Project has always struggled with these issues, and our struggle with these same things today may be painful and personal but it is all not new. Our age is not special. These issues lie “at the root of the Reformed Project . . . But, potentially, the seeds for understanding our unity in Jesus Christ also lie in Calvin’s theology, and they may yet render in us a more ‘charitable judgment’ of those with whom we differ (page 67).
Thank you, Professor Jinkins, for a bold call to hope. Thank you for helping us not be ashamed and afraid. Thank you for a lifting our pride and reminding us again of the good gifts we have all received in this Reformed Tradition. Indeed, I would like to print your last sentences as a poster to hang inside the front door of our Presbytery office: “If we can remember who we are and who we are called to be in Jesus Christ, the best days of the Reformed Project are still ahead of us. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (page 121).