Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hope and History

In memory of Seamus Heaney: Hope and History

I am an avid reader of the New York Times. I have a subscription on my Kindle and I read the Times most every day. Part of my attraction to the New York Times, frankly, is their technology. On the Kindle, the Times arrives electronically everyday before 5:00 a.m. and it is very easy to read, easy to navigate, it is beautifully organized, and there are no ads. Maybe more important, I like the New York Times because of the writing. The writing of the New York Times is outstanding. I aspire to be a writer; and I deeply admire good writing. I have this fantasy that maybe if I read good writing I will be able to write good writing.
            On August 31, last Saturday, there was an obituary on the Front Page of the Times for Seamus Heaney. I had never heard of Seamus Heaney. Obviously, Mr. Heaney was Irish. He was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature. Mr. Heaney was a poet. In Ireland, Mr. Heaney, this article reported, achieved almost rock star like celebrity because of his poetry which named the Irish predicament. Mr. Heaney has been quoted in speechs by President Clinton and recently by Vice-President Biden when he spoke after the Boston Marathon bombings.
            Vice President Biden used these verses from Mr. Heaney’s poem titled The Cure of Troy:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

            Those words jumped off the page, or I should say out of my Kindle, at me. Those words sent me scurrying to my computer to google on Mr. Heaney and read more of his poetry, and find out more about his life.

            Hope and History.
            I have thought a lot about hope and history. In our Presbytery, we are really good at history. Our Great Conewago Church was a civil war hospital, and this old sanctuary carries us back in history. I rejoice at the depth of historical passion that I feel every time I come here. Our Gettysburg Church has that famous historical name “Gettysburg” front and center in its identity. History lives in our Gettysburg Church as if Presidents Lincoln and Johnson were there last week, instead of generations ago. Our Big Spring Church in Newville is one of the oldest churches with one of the oldest cemeteries in Cumberland County. The pastor there is repeatedly almost weekly called by people from all over the world asking for help with their genealogical research. Our Silver Spring and Paxton Churches have authentically maintained their colonial meetinghouses. I walk into those holy spaces and I am blessed by the power of Presbyterian heritage; but, my goodness, those old straight back, wooden pews are terribly uncomfortable. Our Derry Church, one of the oldest churches in Pennsylvania, has kept an authentic structure of an old Session house, protected under glass, and now in their parking lot. This old structure is original and dates from the 1730s. During the summer, it is visited almost daily by the tourists that are in town to visit Chocolate World and Hershey Park. Our Presbyterian Church is on the tourist circuit. In our Presbytery, we are good at history.
            But what about the other end of Mr. Heaney’s verse; what about hope. Hope, at times, seems to be a challenge for us. What are we going to do about hope? What are we going to do about the future? I imagine sadly that no new members will enthusiastically get excited about joining the Gettysburg Church because Lincoln sat there for an hour 150 years ago. I imagine sadly that no new members will enthusiastically get excited about the Great Conewago church because of the many civil war soldiers that were cared for in this space. What are we going to do about hope? What are we going to do about the future?
            It was reported that Mr. Heaney’s poetry, over his life time, helped heal the nation of Ireland. Really? Wow! How can poetry heal a nation? Is it possible for us, in these old churches, to find a new hope? Is it possible for us in these old churches, to claim our history in such a way that a glorious, bright new hope springs forth? Is it possible for hope and history to rhyme.
            Once again, Seamus Heaney:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.    

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The General Assembly of 1838

What have we learned?
Reflections on the history of division in the Presbyterian Church:
The Old School and New School Schism of 1837

In 1837, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted to “exscind” the Synods of Western Reserve, Utica, Genesee and Geneva (28 presbyteries, 509 ministers, and about 60,000 members). There were many issues which contributed to this split including the cultural and polity differences between Presbyterian and Congregational traditions. A plethora of other issues were intertwined including participation in voluntary societies which the New School promoted versus the Old School’s preference for uniquely Presbyterian church boards, the use of revival techniques in worship which were promoted by the New School, views about slavery as the New School began to give voice to an abolitionist vision, and, of course, a list of theological issues particularly around the understanding of the work of Christ and original sin. The great Old School and New School debate was mostly a northern debate roughly corresponding to disagreements between Princeton theology and New Haven theology. But because all of the churches in the southern states aligned themselves with the northern Old School, a majority bloc was formed at the 1837 General Assembly which attained enough votes to excind all the New School synods.

A year later, in 1838, when the General Assembly convened both the Old School and New School had rallied their supporters and showed up in strength expecting to control the meeting. We may reach back to the history written about this great schism by New School leader Dr. Ezra Gillett and published in 1864[1]. As Dr. Gillett tells the story a nasty pettiness and ugly tone fully erupted at the 1838 General Assembly which sealed the complete split of the New School and the Old School. This terrible split was not healed until 1870 after the Civil War.

The question which the Assembly first faced when it gathered in 1838 was whether the exscinded New School commissioners were to be seated. Because the Old School controlled the office of moderator and the offices of the clerks there was a determined effort not to seat the exscinded New School commissioners. We quote here Dr. Gillett’s telling of the ugly story of the 1838 General Assembly in italics:

“The Assembly of 1838 met in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in the city of Philadelphia, on the 17th of May. The first question before it was the manner in which it should be constituted. Were the exscinding acts of the previous year, which denied the right of representation to nearly thirty Presbyteries, to be considered constitutional and valid?”

The Old School majority was determined not to recognize the New School Commissioners. But the New School leaders were prepared for this and repeatedly requested to be seated.

“The moderator . . . called upon the permanent clerk to report the roll. Rev. Dr. William Patton, of the Third Presbytery of New York, rose and asked leave to offer certain resolutions which he held in his hand. The moderator declared the request as out of order at this time, and Dr. Patton appealed from the decision. The appeal was declared out of order. . . The permanent clerk . . . reported the roll. It was made out in accordance with the exscinding acts of the last Assembly. . . Dr. Erskine Mason, of the Third Presbytery of New York, rose to offer a resolution ‘to complete the roll’. Dr. Mason replied that they were from Presbyteries belonging to the Synods of Utica, Geneva, Genesee and the Western Reserve. The moderator stated the motion to be out of order at this time. Dr. Mason respectfully appealed from the decision, and the moderator declared the appeal out of order . . .

Finally, with brutal finality the Old School moderator rebukes the New School with the resounding insult, “We do not know you.”

The Rev. Miles P. Squier, a member of the Presbytery of Geneva, then rose, and stated that he had a commission from the Presbytery of Geneva which had been presented to the clerks, who refused to receive it, and that he now offered it to the Assembly and claimed his right to his seat. The moderator inquired if the Presbytery of Geneva was within the bounds of the Synod of Geneva. Mr. Squier answered that it was. “Then we do not know you, sir,” replied the moderator, and declared the application out of order.

This insult completed the full schism of the Old School and the New School. The New School commissioners, in a show of unity and strength, left the meeting and convened their own General Assembly across town.

“Upon this Mr. John P. Cleaveland of the Presbytery of Detroit, rose, and, amid much interruption and many calls to order, proceeded to read a paper which he held in his hand. The contents of it were, substantially, that whereas the rights of certain commissioners have been violated in their being refused their seats as members of the General Assembly, and the moderator has refused to do his duty, it therefore becomes necessary to organize this General Assembly at this time and this place . . . The members of the body then withdrew from the house. It was announced in a loud voice at the doors and in the body of the house that the Assembly had adjourned to the First Presbyterian Church.”

The story of the 1838 General Assembly is so bizarre as to be almost amusing today. What have we learned from this history? Given the stress and strain in our church today, I sadly wonder if this ugly tone publically spoken at the 1838 General Assembly, “We do not know you” continues to echo in our hearts today in response to brothers and sisters with whom we passionately disagree. I sadly wonder if our propensity for withdrawing into groups of like-minded colleagues and building high walls of separation is a repeating refrain in Presbyterianism. Can we do better than this?

[1] Ezra E. H. Gillett, D.D. History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Volume II. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1864, p. 529. Digital Presentation in the Theological Commons, Princeton Theological Seminary Library,

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Yale - Edinburgh Group

Continuing Education with Lamin Sanneh

Last week I participated in an academic conference with the Yale – Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and World Christianity. This is an annual conference sponsored by Professor Lamin Sanneh of Yale Divinity School, Professors Andrew Walls and Brian Stanley of the Centre for the study of World Christianity at Edinburgh University, Scotland. The conference was a fascinating and eclectic mix of world renowned scholars in the area of world Christianity, graduate students, and church leaders from around the world. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to get outside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) conversations, and connect with the growth, vitality and energy of Christianity all around the world.

It was a particular delight for me to have the opportunity to listen to and have some conversation with Professor Lamin Sanneh. I have been reading his academic work in the area of world Christianity for some time. Most recently, his amazing autobiography, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African tells his remarkable life story from his upbringing in a scholarly, aristocratic Moslem home in impoverished Gambia, West Africa to his journey into the Christian faith and now his status as one the leading scholars in World Christianity. His professional career has included teaching positions in Nigeria, Aberdeen, Harvard, and now Yale.

For sure, one of the most influential books for me in the past decade is Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message. This is one of the unique, powerful and truly transformative books that has the power to change one’s whole perspective which it did for me. This book changed my understanding of world Christianity and, most of all, helped me appreciate the amazing contribution which the classic missionary movement, including our Presbyterian contributions, made to the vitality of the Christianity in the world today. At the Yale Divinity School website, Sanneh’s biography describes the thesis of Translating the Message this way: “One influential book, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, argues that Christianity’s success and proliferation, ancient or modern, have hinged on the faith’s ability to translate the gospel from culture to culture, adopting and adapting in local languages and idioms, refusing to enshrine any particular civilization as the exclusive or normative expression of the faith.”

The Yale- Edinburgh group is essentially a collection of scholars and students who seek to follow in the important theological trail blazed by Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls in understanding and celebrating world Christianity. Listening to the many papers presented, the discussions, and, maybe most of all, chatting informally with Christians from around the world convinced me again that we must, in our little expression of the church where we are, make an intentional effort to live in a larger, global Church and connect ourselves with the remarkable vitality of Christian faith in our world today.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Report to the Presbytery May 28, 2013

A Theology of Hospitality

Is it possible for all the congregations of our Presbytery to agree on a common goal and objective? I believe there is a common focus we all may share. I believe we all need to reorient and refocus towards membership growth.  There are many, complex reasons why many of our churches do not have any growth in membership. There are cultural and demographic issues involved, there are leadership issues involved, there theological issues involved and there are questions of priority and purpose within our congregations. If you look at the statistics that I included in our packet, you will see that 2012 was a terrible year for our membership statistics.

I would like to say that we should all, every one of our churches, make a commitment to membership growth. This is a worthy goal. I would like to say that, at least, every one of our congregations should make a commitment to stop the membership decline. This is a worthy goal. But given the culture and context where many of our congregations are located, many are not going to grow. I propose something more modest. There is something every one of our congregations can do. We can create a spirit of hospitality. We can, as a starting point, create a spiritual attitude that every person who walks through the door on Sunday morning to worship with us is a blessing and a gift. We can, as a starting point, be more intentional about helping every person who walks through our doors to know they are a beloved, blessed and welcome child of God.

Our congregations like to think of themselves as friendly and welcoming. I am sorry to report that most of time this is simply not true. I am typically in a different church every week. Of course, the few people that know me speak to me. Except for the official greeter who says “Good morning” but never asks me my name, it is very common when I come in to a church that no one comes up to me and no one speaks to me. It simply does not happen. Very few of our people, usually no one, will get up out of the pew where they are sitting to initiate a conversation with someone they have never met before. But this is exactly a skill which we must cultivate and learn.

Today people in our culture do not know how to do hospitality. In our culture, we do not welcome and talk with people we do not know; we avoid strangers. Avoiding strangers is the way children are raised today. We must teach our people about hospitality and cultivate a spiritual attitude of welcoming the stranger.

I propose a simple hospitality program which, if we had the leadership and desire, could easily be implemented in all of our churches. The pastors must lead the way. Let’s call the fifteen minutes prior to the start of worship a time of hospitality and welcome:

1) Pastor, what are you doing in the fifteen minutes before worship? I propose that the pastor should be out in the congregation, greeting, welcoming, and talking, individually and personally, with everyone who arrives for worship. Pastors, as a test, I suggest you should know the name of every person who worships with you. If someone is there who you do not know, you have an opportunity before worship to greet them. At the start of worship I like the image of the pastor, not showing up through some hidden door, but actually coming up out of the congregation.

2) I am going to engage the worship wars with this proposal. I suggest that we should encourage conversation and active fellowship in the sanctuary before worship. We should encourage our people to meet and greet one another during this time. This should not be a time for silence. We do not know what to do with silence. If we want a period of silence we should include it intentionally after the service begins and give clear instructions of what to do in the midst of the silence. Before worship our people should be encouraged to talk and to greet everyone by name. We teach this by example.

3) The ‘friendship pads’ which most of our churches use are not working. No one understands these as an expression of hospitality and welcome. They are simply a chore, a sign-in sheet which many people skip. I suggest we intentionally train teams of people to join the pastor out in the midst of the congregation for 15 minutes before worship. These people could intentionally pass those friendship pads among the people, study the names, and introduce themselves to everyone they do not know on the spot.

4) We all know that attending worship is optional for our people today. We know that the worship attendance of even our most active members is dropping in frequency. We must create organizational systems so that we know who is in worship with us. We should regularly, personally thank them for participating so that they know that we know. Most of all we must become aggressive about reaching out to the many, many people who are slipping out the back door of our churches unnoticed and unnamed.

We can create an attitude of hospitality in the name of Jesus. We can make sure that every person who walks in the door is blessed, cared for and known by name. We can teach ourselves and our people to care for one another which, of course, begins with knowing one another. That to me sounds like church.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity

Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity: What it is, Where it is Going, and Why it Matters. (Baker Books, 2012; available for Kindle.)

Phyllis Tickle’s earlier book, The Great Emergence, was an important conversation starter all around our Presbyterian Church. This conversation was encouraged when Tickle was the keynote speaker for the theological reflection seminars offered by our Office of the General Assembly along side of the 2010 meeting of the General Assembly. The thesis of the Great Emergence is now well known. The Christian Church has cycled through a series of huge transformations every five hundred years. The last one, the 1500s, was, of course, the Protestant Reformation. Now we are in the midst of a new Great Emergence which is shaking the foundations of the established church and ushering in a very new expression of church in our culture.

In her new book, Tickle picks up again her historical theme but this time focuses specifically on American Church history. This is the good book which carefully tracks the history of the new, emerging Christianity in American history. Tickle pulls together some history and the many different pieces of the current, diverse practices into a good story and a compelling thesis that Emergence Christianity is here to stay.

Here is, in my opinion, her thesis statement about the characteristics of this new Emergence Christianity. She unpacks each of these characteristics in a full and clear way:

“Of the several general characteristics that the Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity hold in common, these of deinstitutionalization; nonhierarchal organization; a comfortable and informed interface with physical science; dialogical and contextual habits of thoughts; almost universal technological savvy; triple citizenship with its triple loyalties and obligations; a deeply embedded commitment to social justice with an accompanying, though largely unpremeditated, assumption of all forms of human diversity as the norm; and a vocation toward greenness – these undoubtedly are among the most characterizing.”

There is something new happening in the church. What is it? What is the relationship between the new, emerging thing and our established church? In what ways can the emerging church and the established church touch and support one another? In what ways can they learn from one another? For those of us immersed in and committed to the established church I believe this is an important conversation. Tickle’s overview of the new thing that is happening in our midst is informative and helpful. There is a deep tone of courage and hopefulness in her writing. There is nothing to be afraid of; God is doing a new thing in our midst.

I will cherish the opportunity to have more conversation around Tickle’s new book with other church leaders. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Charge to the Market Square Church

"Long and Slow"             

My wife, Kris, and I have three boys; Kyle is 24, Michael is 21 and Eric is 13. On a Tuesday evening this past September, Kris and I were driving to Eric’s eighth grade back-to-school night. Kris said to me, “This is our 35th back-to-school night.” I said, “What!?” Kris answered, “This is our 35th back to school night. We have never missed a back to school night. If you count all three boys this is the 35th." Only a Mom could possibly remember and calculate such a thing.
My friends, how long does it take to raise a child? How long does it take to form a Christian? How long does it take to build a church? How long does it take to create a more just society? How long does it take to bring peace?
My charge to you, the congregation and friends of the Market Square Presbyterian Church, is to continue the long and slow journey of faith you have been on since 1794. Continue this long and slow journey of faith. These words “long and slow” are important. I am borrowing them from a classic book: Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Eugene Peterson is a Presbyterian minister, now retired and a prolific author writing in the area of biblical spirituality and Christian formation. I never met Peterson; Tom did during their days together long ago in Baltimore. Peterson’s book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is an old book that has become a classic for pastors and church leaders. The book is a beautifully written reflection of biblical spirituality for ministry today. The outline of the book is taken from the fifteen Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120 to 134. This collection of Psalms are all pilgrimage Psalms, probably originally used by the Hebrew people as part of their daily prayers while they were making pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. Peterson develops this image of pilgrimage for us, for our Christian journey in the Church. The task of ministry today, the task of being the church today is a long and slow task. This to me seems to be a vitally important word as you turn the page to a new chapter and begin a new relationship with a new pastor. The task ahead of you should be a long and slow journey together which builds each one’s individual life in Christ, which builds up slowly and authentically a new pastoral relationship and which continues your long journey building the church. I might add, of course, that this long and slow journey should also continue your abundant and generous participation in the ministry of our presbytery.   
I am not going to develop it now, but it would a fruitful discussion to consider the many ways that this Christian commitment to long and slow is deeply counter-cultural today. Our culture is obsessed with speed, what Peterson calls “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.” In the face of all of that, I am asking you to be long and slow together, building up one another, building up the church, and slowly ushering in a more just world. Thanks be to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

            Mark J. Englund-Krieger
            Tom Sweet Installation Service
Market Square Church

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Rendle. Journey in the Wilderness

Purposeful Relationships

Book Review: Gil Rendle. Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for the Mainline Churches. Abingdon Press, 2010. (Available for Kindle).

This quote is the first paragraph of Rendle’s reflection on the mainline churches today:

“People no longer join congregations because they want relationships or because they want to “belong.” As far as relationships that serve as social friendships, increasingly people already have as many as their time and lifestyle allow. Rather than simply seeking social relationships for which there is less room in a harried contemporary lifestyle, people now come to congregations because they want a purposeful relationship with others who are seeking a purpose and meaning in response to the questions they feel in their lives. For many the function of relationships in congregations has now shifted from being only social to being also purposeful. This shift that removes the congregation from its position as a central institution that provides friendships out of which members then shape a personal identity is difficult news to many congregations, which continue to think of their only strength as being warm and friendly relationship providers.”

I believe the simple idea presented here is stunning if we ponder what Rendle is truly saying. How many of our churches are still motivated by the desire to be friendly and attractive while not truly being about a “purposeful relationship” with Christ?

What is the purpose of your congregation? Is that clear when people walk in the door? Is your congregation excited about that purpose? These are hard questions. These are difficult questions. But the answers to these questions may define whether or not your congregation will survive this wilderness time.