Monday, August 28, 2017

Pastoral Letter from General Assembly Moderators

The statement is copied from Presbyterian News Service:

August 28, 2017
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Friends,
Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Reconciler.
We write to you as former Moderators of the General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor churches, as disciples of Jesus Christ committed to the Gospel’s witness and promise of reconciliation, and as agents of God’s transformative justice in the church and in the world.
The brazen march of white nationalist supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12, 2017, and President Donald Trump’s subsequent responses that equivocated on clearly identifying, denouncing and condemning those same groups as instigators of hatred and violence brought the spotlight upon the deeply embedded and pernicious poison of racism and white supremacy so endemic in society and, we dare say, in the church. We are increasingly alarmed when notions of nationalism and racial superiority are masked and clothed in terms of the Christian faith, or confused with the Gospel, or somehow supersede the clear exhortation of sacred Scripture to love your neighbor as Christ loved the Church, or when the Christian faith is used to inspire and organize hatred and bigotry.
We are wisely instructed by the struggles of our faith forebearers when fascism in the form of Nazism was on the rise in the 1930s, resulting in the Theological Declaration of Barmen, which categorically and emphatically denounced the effects of Nazism in the church and in society: “. . .we may and must speak with one voice in this matter today. Precisely because we want to be and to remain faithful to our various Confessions, we may not keep silent, since we believe that we have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation.” Then again, nearly four decades ago, our South African sisters and brothers stood courageously against the white governmental policy of apartheid and the theologies that undergirded and rationalized that sinful regime. The Belhar Confession stated: “. . .we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.”
In so doing, we join with our Stated Clerk, General Assembly Co-Moderators, and Presbyterian Mission Agency Interim Executive Director in calling the church to confess and repent of the ways in which we have been complicit and failed to disrupt, challenge, and undo white supremacy and racism. (see their pastoral letter: )
As our concerns, sadness and anger have increased over the state of affairs we find ourselves as a nation, we are also equally determined and committed to active prayer and prayerful action, as we know so many of you are doing in thousands of churches, in counter-protests in streets across the country, in letter writing to and visits with elected officials, in mobilizing through social media, in face-to-face/neighbor-to-neighbor conversations. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in summarizing the 19th century abolitionist leader Theodore Parker, exhorted: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
May we, as the present-future generation of God’s people in this time and for this time, work and pray for the reconciliation of all of God’s children, and may the Lord grant us grace and courage for the facing of this hour.
Yours in the service of Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, 214th General Assembly (2002), PC(USA)
Elder (Dr.) Thelma C. Davidson Adair, 188th General Assembly (1976), UPCUSA
The Rev. Dr. Susan R. Andrews, 215th General Assembly (2003), PC(USA)
The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Bohl, 206th General Assembly (1994), PC(USA)
Elder Patricia Brown, 209th General Assembly (1997), PC(USA)
The Rev. John M. Buchanan, 208th General Assembly (1996), PC(USA)
The Rev. David Lee Dobler, 205th General Assembly (1993), PC(USA)
The Rev. John M. Fife, 204th General Assembly (1992), PC(USA)
Elder Price Gwynn III, 202nd General Assembly (1990), PC(USA)
The Rev. Charles A. Hammond, 192nd General Assembly (1980), UPCUSA
The Rev. Robert Lamar, 186th General Assembly (1974), UPCUSA
The Rev. Harriet Nelson, 196th General Assembly (1984), PC(USA)
The Rev. Dr. Neal D. Presa, 220th General Assembly (2012), PC(USA)
Elder (Dr.) Heath Rada, 221st General Assembly (2014), PC(USA)
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, 218th General Assembly (2008), PC(USA)
Elder Rick Ufford-Chase, 216th General Assembly (2004), PC(USA)
The Rev. Dr. Herbert D. Valentine, 203rd General Assembly (1991), PC(USA)
Elder William H. Wilson, 197th General Assembly (1985), PC(USA)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Work for Justice

Dear Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters,

God sends the Church to work for justice in the world: exercising its power for the common good; dealing honestly in personal and public spheres; seeking dignity and freedom for all people; welcoming strangers in the land; promoting justice and fairness in the law; overcoming disparities between rich and poor; bearing witness against systems of violence and oppression; and redressing wrongs against individuals, groups, and peoples. God also sends the Church to seek peace: in the Church universal, within denominations, and at the congregational level; in the world, where nations and religious or ethnic groups make war against one another; and in local communities, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and homes. These acts of peacemaking and justice are established upon God’s gracious act of reconciliation with us in Jesus Christ, and are a way of participating in Christ’s priestly intercession or advocacy for the world (Directory for Worship W-5.0304).

          These beautiful words are copied from our new Directory for Worship which we recently approved. After the last General Assembly when I was studying and discussing this proposed new Directory for Worship, I remember appreciating these words. In discussing the proposed new Directory of Worship, I remember highlighting this glorious language about God sending the Church to do the work of justice. Isn’t it beautiful that this proclamation is part of our understanding of worship! Amen and Amen!

          In recent days, this beautiful language and this high calling to work for justice have flooded my heart and mind with a new urgency. And I wonder today, given how fragile and meek we Presbyterians have become in the public sphere, whether we can truly claim this calling. Can we work for justice? Can we exercise power for the common good? Can we bear witness against systems of violence and oppression?

          Today is the day for this witness. There have been recent, active expressions of Klu Klux Klan activity within the bounds of our Presbytery. They have gathered outside Churches to insult and intimidate Church people as they leave worship services. They smeared the windshields in church parking lots with their messages of hate. Maybe we want to duck our head, and sigh with relief, that it happened at a Church down the street, not my Church. Maybe we want to close our eyes grateful that it happened in a town on the other side of our Presbytery, not my town.

God sends the Church to work for justice in the world.

Every time that evil thoughts, and evil people and evil groups crawl out of their dark places where they typically stay hidden and make an appearance in the light of day, the Church must respond. Of course, we know this has happened in every era and in every generation. Now it is happening in ours.

Please organize a vigil, stand in the streets, invite every church and all your friends, light candles, read Scripture, sing hymns, say prayers and claim the calling to work for justice. At the vigil organized and gathered on the square in Chambersburg in front of our Central Presbyterian Church, our colleague Pastor Scott Bowerman said it well, “The darkness is not strong enough to put out even one candle.”

Now is the time for the Church to shine the light of Christ into the darkness of this world.

In the name of Jesus!

Monday, August 21, 2017

An excellent article from Tim Cargal

I copy here a very helpful theological reflection from Tim Cargal, our Assitant Stated Clerk in the General Assembly:

“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage … to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” (“A Brief Statement of Faith,” 11.65-71)

The recent events in Charlottesville and the reactions to them have had me thinking once again about idols. There are two broad ways of thinking about idols in the Christian tradition, already clearly delineated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:19-21. One is that “no idol in the world really exists” because “there is no God but one” (8:4), and the other is that idols are the very real demonic powers that exercise destructive control over people’s lives (cf. 10:20). As the years go by, I find myself more and more in the second camp.

My thinking about these matters was greatly shaped during the years of my post-graduate theological training by two individuals. From reading Walter Wink’s books on the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” (see Ephesians 6:12), I learned not to demythologize the language of the demonic in the New Testament but rather to remythologize it as the animating spirits within those institutions and structures that run counter to and actively oppose God’s justice. From my studies of Pauline theology with Daniel Patte, I learned to distinguish between two frames through which people have viewed God’s response to the demonic. One is an apocalyptic view that sees God as destroying from without both the idols and those under their sway, and the other a view that sees God unmasking and thereby destroying the power of idols from within so that those under their sway are liberated rather than destroyed. There is an ethical and moral choice we must all make in deciding whether we will view the world through the apocalyptic or the liberating frame.

Let there be no equivocation: racism, sexism, (neo-)fascism, and all other “isms” that dehumanize others who have all been created in God’s “image, according to [God’s] likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27) are demonic oppositions to God’s desire for creation, and those who parade with their flags in defense of their monuments are under the power of these idols. There can be no choice for those awakened by the Holy Spirit as to whether they will oppose these idolatrous ideologies. But we do have a choice as to whether that opposition will take apocalyptic or liberating forms. To dehumanize those under the sway of the idols only perpetuates the idols’ continuing sway over us. “If I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor” (so Galatians 2:18).

In “hear[ing] the voices of those long silenced” we can begin to unmask the idols and break their control over us. May “the Spirit give us courage” to “unmask idolatries in Church and culture” by naming the demonic without dehumanizing those still under its power until all “others [work] for justice, freedom, and peace.” 

Reverend Timothy B. Cargal, Ph.D.
Assistant Stated Clerk

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Big Questions: Part 1

Institutional Church versus Emerging Church

            I am a fan of the books of Phyllis Tickle, especially The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity. (Phyllis Tickle died in 2015 but her publisher is maintaining her website at and there is also a nice Wikipedia about her.) These books discuss the idea of a new, emerging Christianity. My Big Question: What is the relationship between this emerging Christianity and our institutional Church?

            When I heard her speak at our 2010 General Assembly, Tickle discussed this point. She argued, (in part, I expect, because she was speaking to a large room of Presbyterians) the Presbyterian Church was especially poised to adopt and adapt to some the sweeping changes which emerging Christianity was introducing.

So my big question: What is the relationship between emerging Christianity and our institutional Church? Are these strands and styles of Christianity on completely separate tracks never to touch? Will the new emerging Christianity grow up into expressions and forms completely separate from our institutional Church? As an institutional church person, this answer is not adequate. I believe there are enough people in the institutional Church, like me and those younger than me, who are paying attention to emergent themes that we will bring these themes and ideas and directions into our institutions. On the other hand, I understand the institutional Church enough to know that we are not, by and large, nimble, flexible and quickly creative. Given the sheer weight of institutional inertia our institutions will not suddenly become emergent Christian communities. Thus I believe we will have, for a long time, a sometimes gentle and a sometimes clashing interaction between our institutional Church and emergent Christianity.

These interactions will inspire a host of auxiliary questions. If the institutional Church will adopt some of the important and meaningful practices of emergent Christianity, what are they? And, conversely, what practices and wisdom from the long heritage of the institutional Church will emergent Christianity need as is flourishes?

Another related, big question is how long will it take for emergent Christianity to fully emerge? We can do a little bit of fun math on this question. Let us use Tickle’s thesis that our emerging Christianity today is a reformation in the Church as significant as the great Protestant Reformation. We can date the Protestant Reformation as starting in 1517 (500 years ago this year) with Martin Luther’s 95 thesis nailing in Wittenberg. The first generation of the Protestant Reformation we can roughly count from 1517 to the death of John Calvin in 1564 which is 47 years, from the death Calvin to the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646 is another 82 years, and from 1646 to the first meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly in America in 1789 is another 143 years. This is very artificial but we may date the Protestant Reformation from Luther’s 95 to the advent of the Presbyterian General Assembly in America, a total of 272 years. Similarly we can date the birth of emergent Christianity in the year 1960, generally the year when our institutional Churches started our unceasing decline. Using the Protestant Reformation as our model we may guess that emergent Christianity will also take 272 to fully emerge. Thus the emerging Christian faith which was birthed in 1960 will be fully grown and mature in the year of our Lord 2232!

Big Questions in the PC(USA)

Big Questions:

We had a wonderful conversation at our Presbytery’s Education Committee last week about, what we called, the “Big Questions” in the Church today. These are questions that are best described as discussion starters. These are long term, conceptual, future-oriented questions for which there are not now clear answers. These questions generally emerge in conversations about the massive, transformative changes we are living through in church and society. At our Committee meeting we pondered places and formats in which we might discuss such Big Questions. We are not sure exactly how to ask, and nurture discussion around these questions. But the conversation we had interested me. So I started a list of Big Questions for myself. I hope to write about them now again here in this blog space. Of course, I hope you will join the conversation.