Tag Archive | General Assembly

An Open Letter to a General Assembly Commissioner

IMG_3544 (571x800)A member of the congregation I serve was elected to serve as a Ruling Elder Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer.  This is my open letter to her, published here with her permission.

Dear Ruling Elder M,

Over the past few months, as you have applied to serve as the Ruling Elder Commissioner from our Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) next Summer in Detroit, I have been so pleased.  I have been pleased for you:  your election is an affirmation of all the work you do for our Presbytery.  I have been pleased for our congregation:  we will feel even more connected to the larger structures of our church for years to come because you have served.  I have been pleased for our Presbytery:  you have already demonstrated how you will use this work to enhance the connections we have with each other simply by visiting other congregations and introducing yourself as their Commissioner.  And I have been pleased for the Presbyterian Church (USA):  you bring a positive attitude and down-to-earth perspective to the work you will do with the other commissioners.  I believe God is pleased, too, and although God probably has God’s own reasons to be pleased, I like to think that some of them are the same as my reasons.

I was a bit concerned, though, when I learned you were randomly assigned to serve on the Social Justice Issues Committee of the Assembly.  As you now know, that is the committee which will study and make recommendations to the whole Assembly about how to act on overtures and other business related to many social justice issues.  You and the other members of the committee will tackle a dizzying array of subjects:  abortion, homosexual leadership in the Boy Scouts, gun violence, child abuse, poverty, and more.  None of the issues you will have to address are simple, and most of them ignite deeply-held and passionately-expressed arguments on both sides.  Your work will not be easy.

As you prepare for your work, listen to testimony, and participate in committee debates, you are likely to have a range of emotions.  You might find yourself afraid of the implications of some of the stances the Assembly is being asked to take.  You might find yourself frustrated by the work of listening and arguing.  You might find yourself saddened by the tragic situations which the overtures and referrals highlight.  You might find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of the social problems you have to deal with.  And you might become angry because people disagree with you about how the church should speak to these problems.  All of those feelings are a part of the work you have been called to undertake, and to negotiate that exhausting range of feelings, I hope you will take care of yourself through prayer, long walks, plenty of rest, and conversations with friends and colleagues.  And did I mention prayer?

As I have thought about the work of your committee, though, I hope you will not let yourself dismiss any of the work you are being asked to do as unimportant.  It will be tempting.  Many of the issues you will have to consider do not have any obvious impact on your life or the life of our congregation and presbytery.  Some of the issues might not even seem to be appropriate things for good church people to talk about.  Many of us doubt that those in power listen when the church speaks about these issues.  But if you allow yourself to say your work is unimportant, then you will do yourself and the church a tremendous disservice.

You will do a disservice to yourself because you will make it easy to convince yourself that the work of your committee is a waste of time.  You will start to resent the time you have to be in the committee and at the Assembly, and you will start to long for some excuse to get out of that work.  You will make yourself miserable with that resentment and longing.

But you will also do the church a disservice if you start to think the work is unimportant.  You will foster an attitude which is already prevalent in the culture of the church and which is literally tearing the church apart.  Recently, a large church in California voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to an article from the Religion News Service in the Christian Century magazine, one of the reasons the leaders of the church cited for leaving the denomination is that the Presbytery of which they were a member adopted resolutions on some controversial social justice issues.  The article said that the church leaders “considered the resolutions a distraction from its core mission.”  Instead of engaging in conversation about the issues being raised with their brothers and sisters in their Presbytery, they chose to consider the work unimportant.  And from there, it was easy for that church to sever their relationships with all the rest of us.

The Assembly’s work of responding to the overtures and other requests to take stances and actions on social issues is pastoral work as much as it is anything else.  It is the work of listening to people who are passionate about particular causes.  It is the work of allowing people to tell their stories which have led them to take stances on those issues.  It is the work of affirming those people, their experiences, and their passions as God-given gifts which can help us discover new truth, goodness, and beauty in God’s emerging kingdom.  You will not agree with everything people say about the issues with which your committee will be presented, and you do not have to vote the way the advocates want you to vote.  In fact, that would be impossible; you will discover quickly, if you haven’t already, that the passions run deep and hot in our church on all sides of the issues you will talk about.  Some overtures should be voted down, and some issues should not be acted on.  If your committee is really willing to do the best work, you will be able to get away from the yes-or-no, up-or-down stances you will be asked to take and come up with ways to speak to the social issues before you with a new grace which will bring a greater peace to the church and the world.

But to dismiss the work as unimportant would be to say to the people who are passionate about all sides of the issues that the things which are important to them are irrelevant to you and to the church. That is not what people who are trying to be in relationships say to each other, and it is antithetical to the way Christ commanded his followers to work.  You were with us as we worshiped on Maundy Thursday last month, and you heard me read Christ’s new commandment to his disciples:  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  People who love each other do not dismiss each other’s passions as unimportant.  In the church, when we are at our best, we may not agree about what stance to take on these issues.  But we seek to understand others’ stances and the experiences and stories which motivate them because the people who hold them are a part of our fellowship, and so the passions which drive those people are a part of our fellowship, too.

Please know that  I will be praying for you while you prepare and serve as a General Assembly Commissioner, and I will encourage the other members of our congregation and Presbytery to pray for you, too.  I will pray for you and your fellow commissioners to have wisdom and compassion, to show good judgment and better grace, and mostly to be open to God’s Holy Spirit to guide you and, through you, the church into whatever future God desires for us.  And I will be praying that you do not become so afraid, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or otherwise exhausted by your work that you can’t engage it well.  But especially, I will be praying that you do not allow yourself to dismiss any of the work you are called to do as unimportant.

Peace,

Pastor Eric

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General Assembly & My Flower Bed

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly ended today after being in session since last Saturday.  In eight days of meetings, over eight hundred of us have taken on the impossible task of wrestling together with issues like the definition of marriage, the best ways to promote peace in the Middle East, the complexities of the ethics of immigration, corporal punishment with children, solitary confinement in prisons, shifts in attitudes about charitable giving, and a whole host of technical questions about how we are going to operate as a church.  And no one in the room was ignorant of our church’s decline:  in number of members, in amount of money, and in power in our culture.

Particularly in the last couple of days, I heard a lot of my fellow commissioners expressing in one way or another a fear I shared:  that we hadn’t actually done anything.  Some came here with an issue or set of issues which they feel passionate about, and their feelings came when those issues were not addressed in the way they wanted them to be addressed.  Others became baffled as we spent hour after hour on procedural votes and policy debates while the fog of all that decline in numbers, in money, and in power hovered all around.  Why do we spend so much time, money, and energy on these statements and procedures which assume that someone beyond the convention center cares about anything we are doing? And why do we not spend that same time, money, and energy on work that would more obviously address all of that decline?  My own fears about the waste of this week are probably more with the folks who became baffled, but I share some of the frustration of the folks whose passionate hopes were not realized.

But in my own exhaustion and fear, this evening, I am remembering the flower bed in front of my house.  Last summer, I realized that the flower bed just wasn’t working.  The lantana had grown too close to the azaleas.  One of the clematis had died and I never replaced it, so the balance was a little off.  The daylillies barely hung on, mostly because I never really did anything with the soil before I threw them in the ground.  Crabgrass was everywhere.  And the shape of the bed was such that it was hard to mow the lawn in front of it.  As they say where I live, the whole thing was just a hot mess.

About the same time I realized the troubles of my flower bed, my wife announced that she wanted to take my son to spend a week with her parents.  I didn’t have vacation time, so I couldn’t go along.  But with them out of the house, I realized I could throw myself, morning and night, into my flower bed.  I worked hard that week.  Sunday afternoon, as soon as I got home from worship, I started tearing up the grass and weeds to draw new lines around my beds.  Monday, I put those pitiful daylillies in flower pots, headed to the big box (please don’t judge me) to buy some pine bark nuggets and manure, and started turning over the soil.  Tuesday, I dug some more; Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday had me working the soil, uprooting and re-planting azaleas, leveling trellises for the clematis, and lifting up valleys and making the mountains a smooth plain.  All of this work was done in the heat of a Georgia August, which is about the worst time to do such work, not only because of the distress the heat puts on the plants, but more significantly because of the distress the heat puts on the planter.  But by the time my beloved family came home on Sunday, I was all finished.

And it looked awful. The grass in front of the flower bed had been crushed and muddied.  The soil hadn’t settled, so the surface was uneven.  The wilted leaves of the plants were covered in dirt.  The daylillies had been hacked to stubs in the process of transplanting.  The new lantana, which I got on a good sale, was pitifully tiny, and there were big holes which could not be filled in until the plants which would go there could be purchased in the spring.  I was disappointed and frustrated.  It had not turned out like I wanted.  I feared I had wasted my time, money, and energy.

The metaphor is obvious at this point.  I felt about my flower bed project the way some of us feel about the General Assembly meeting.  And this is the part of the script when I am supposed to say that things in my flower bed got better over time:  the soil settled, the grass grew back, the perennials filled in, and the springtime brought not only a beautiful display of flowers, but a renewed joy for all of my hard work.

But it didn’t.  One of the azaleas didn’t make the transition well, which throws off the whole balance of the design.  I don’t think a single one of the daffodils bloomed.  The crepe myrtle will take years to get big enough for the space it is in.  And the lantana I got on that great sale fell victim to a late-February freeze which a more established plant would have survived.  There were some bright spots of beauty.  The daylillies were gorgeous this spring, blooming large and long, just like they were designed to do.  The clematis all came back, which was a pleasant surprise given their condition last fall, although the tops of the trellises their leaves and flowers are supposed to cover are still exposed for the whole world to see. But the bed as a whole still doesn’t look that great.

The comparison between the frustrations and fears that accompany the work we have done at General Assembly and the frustration of my work on the flower bed in my front yard does not have an unequivocally happy ending, at least not this side of the new heaven and new earth.  We spend our time, our money, and our energy doing work which is frustrating, disappointing, and baffling in its tedium and seeming waste.  Sometimes we have to wait for anything beautiful to happen.  Sometimes we have to realize the beauty we expect won’t ever come to pass.  Sometimes we have to look hard to see anything beautiful at all.

But I don’t give up.  I spread mulch this spring, and I keep on watering it all when it starts to wilt.  I replaced the lantana.  I am gently training the clematis to fill in their trellises.  And the dying azalea remains where it is, simply because I can’t figure out what on earth to do with it.

And I am going to keep working, patiently and expectantly, with the church.  I expect that some of the things I came here wanting to happen will happen in a couple years.  I know that invites a Comment from a Birmingham Jail; I understand that justice delayed is justice denied.  But there is not much to be done about it now; nothing is going to grow in that place.  I expect that some other things I want to see happen will happen sooner than that, but will happen in a different way:  through the actions of people I trust to cajole anything out of even the most barren soil.  And I will look for the beauty that does come from the work we did this past week, even if, in all my exhaustion, everything I can see around me right now looks wilted and dirty and awful.

Some things we did will have to be watered.  Some things will have to be replanted or rearranged.  In some places, mulch will have to be spread to smother the weeds and cover up the bare spots.  Some things will die, even things which seem essential to the whole design.  Some things will just sit there looking ugly because we don’t know what else to do with them.  That’s just the nature of the work we do in God’s front yard:  we plant, we water, we tend, we even design, but at some point we have to stand back and trust God to give the growth.

The General Assembly & Weeds

I am at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly meeting as a voting commissioner.  On Sunday, our newly-elected Moderator exercised his privilege to nominate a Vice-Moderator who lives in Washington, DC.  It was widely known and acknowledged that the Vice-Moderator candidate officiated at a service last April when two women were married.  In DC, their marriage is legal, but in our church, clergy are prohibited from officiating at services of marriage of same-sex couples.  There will likely be charges pressed against her through church processes.  Knowing all of this, the commissioners to the assembly nonetheless voted, with 60% in favor, to confirm her appointment.

This afternoon, the Vice-Moderator addressed the assembly.  She talked about her pastoral heart which led her to officiate the service of marriage last spring.  She talked about receiving hateful e-mails and other messages over the past several days.  She talked about blog posts and other media which publicly attacked her personal and professional integrity.  She talked about the rumors she had heard:  that other commissioners to the meeting were going to try to use formal procedures to disrupt the assembly meeting to attempt to have her removed.  She talked about her care and love of the denomination and her desire that the meetings proceed smoothly.  And she announced her resignation.

I was not surprised to learn she had been the subject of vitriolic blog posts and articles, nor that she had received hate-filled direct communication. After her announcement, over dinner, I heard several other commissioners say they were surprised, and even disappointed, that she resigned.  After all, we have come to expect that anyone in a public role, even in the church, has to expect some “pernicious poison,” as the Moderator called it today, lobbed in his or her direction.  The assumption was that she should simply have taken it in, or ignored it, or otherwise resisted its ability to affect her feelings or her work.

All of this makes me think of weeds.  Last summer, I wrote an article in my church newsletter talking about the weeds in my flower beds (you can go here and scroll down to the article from August, 2011, titled “Weeds” to read it if you really want to).  At that point, I said in the article, I had once again surrendered my flower and vegetable beds to the weeds, and I tried to make some philosophical and spiritual sense of their presence.  I waxed poetic about the weeds as signs that the soil, light, water, and other conditions were right for plants of all kinds, desirable as well as ugly, to survive.  I even drew upon biblical images to talk about weeds, pointing out that Jesus most often used them to evoke sin and evil.  Putting those two truths together seemed to me like a masterful stroke of pastoral verbiage.

A member of my congregation came into my office before Sunday School the next weekend.  This man is an avid gardener, and he has that grace which some of my favorite church people show of being brutally honest and faithfully kind at the same time.  He said, “Pastor, I read your article in the newsletter.  But I told my wife, ‘he’s got to get rid of those weeds or nothing’s ever going to grow.’”  I worried that he missed the whole point of the article:  to accept the weeds is to accept what their presence means.  Later, though, I realized his reflection was a profound gift.

Our former Vice-Moderator did not choose to ignore, absorb, or otherwise resist the effects of the hateful things spoken to and about her.  In doing so, she might have given us a great gift like the gift of that church member.  If she had not stood in front of the assembly, spoken the truth to us of what she had been through, and taken the dramatic step of resigning, then we would have just gone about business as we always have.  We would have continued to assume that people in public roles, even in the church, should just expect to be the target of poisonous hate.  We could find good reasons to justify that acceptance, based on sound biblical and historical principles of unity in the midst of diversity from our theological tradition.

But to continue in that vein, as we have in the past, would be a form of surrender.  It would be to allow the noxious weeds continue to steal the water, nutrients, and sunlight from our garden.  It would mean that we would continue to justify to ourselves that it is acceptable to allow the things about our church which are useful and beautiful to be choked, smothered, and starved of what they need to thrive.

A high-level committee responsible for the procedures of the assembly took the rare action of standing before us tonight to say they want to examine deeply the problems which led to the former Vice-Moderator’s resignation.  Their clear statement that what led to the resignation of a duly confirmed Vice-Moderator is a problem which is unacceptable gives me hope that they can follow the simple advice the member of my congregation gave to me:  “Pastor, you’ve got to get rid of those weeds, or nothing’s ever going to grow!”