Tag Archive | PC(USA)

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.


Pastor Eric


IMG_0230 (683x1024)In my line of work, I read and hear a lot about the church’s decline and what we ought to do about it.  But as I sat outside in the chilly air last night, I began to wonder if instead we can take a lesson from what happens in the garden in Spring.

Poets, balladeers, and greeting card writers talk about Spring as the season when flowers are in bloom, leaves are on the trees, and the grass is green.  But that is not the way I experience Spring in my garden.  Spring is the season when I am anxious for all of that beauty to be fully manifest.  And it is also the season when I am reminded daily that the beauty I want so desperately is not, in fact, manifest, at least not yet.

I want new leaves and branches and buds to appear on my hibiscus, assuring me that they have survived a particularly cold winter and will glare again with their flashy yellows, oranges, pinks, and fuchsias.  But all I see are stubby, brown sticks with a couple of tiny, vulnerable green leaves around the bottom.  I want the calla lilies to stick their points out of the ground so I know that soon they will unfurl their verdant swords and, later, their cups of pink and yellow and, if everything went well with the ones I just planted last year, orange and purple and white.  But only one has a few thin sticks pointing out, and the rest are nowhere to be found.  I want to know if the hosta I transplanted last fall made it through the winter, but to find out, I would have to dig under the pine straw and an inch or so of dirt to see if the roots are still there.  Even the cannas, which shot their first variegated leaves above the surface of the dirt a month or more ago seem stuck.  Each one has only one leaf showing, and I worry that at any time that one leaf will whither and rot, rather than pushing a tower above it on top of which will be the orange floozies to animate the front yard.

Everything in my yard seems stuck this time of year.  I am anxious for the plants to be grown and the flowers to be in bloom, but they aren’t ready yet.  They are starting to come back, but when it comes at all, their growth is in fits and starts, depending on the temperature of the nights and the brightness of the days.

In past spring seasons, I have let my impatience get the best of me and gone digging around in the dirt, looking for some assurance that my vegetation will, in fact, grow and bloom.  I have poked at roots.  I have fingered sprouting leaves.  I have even stuck my trowel into the soil surrounding rhizomes and tubers.  I have told myself I do this poking, fingering, and sticking because it is what the experts say I should do:  loosening dirt, pulling away last year’s decaying leaves, opening the plants to fresh gusts of air.  But really, I have simply been looking for assurances that my garden beds have a future, and more often than not, I have 0nly damaged the tiny, vulnerable, thin, singular signs of growth which have already appeared.

As I was outside this evening, I thought about my anxiety and impatience in this season.  And I thought, too, about the church and the logic of some folks in it.  The world has changed and continues to change rapidly.  Everyone knows that.  And the church has to change, too, the logic goes, at least as rapidly as the world, if not more rapidly.  If the church does not change rapidly, then it will not have a future.  I get that logic.  I don’t disagree that we have to adapt to a new world.  I want the church to embrace new ways of communicating, to build relationships with new residents of our community, to meet new needs which appear on our doorsteps, and to wrap our minds as well as we can around new ways of understanding human beings and our institutions.

But I see and hear a lot of anxiety and impatience among some church folks which mirrors my anxiety and impatience at the flora in my garden.  That impatience and anxiety compels those folks to start digging around, poking at the roots, fingering the sprouting leaves, and sticking sharp instruments into the soil.

And I cringe.  Because if we poke in the wrong places, if we press too hard on fragile things, if we disturb soil that has to remain solid right now, then we will do more damage than good.  In the name of loosening things up, we will tear things apart.  In the interest of pulling away decay, we will remove some powerful fertilizer.  As we try to open the church to fresh gusts of air, we will make everything vulnerable to an untimely, hard freeze.

Maybe the best way to lead the church in adapting to a new world is not to poke and press and stick sharp objects in.  Instead, maybe the best thing we can do is to simply notice what is happening in the natural order of the seasons with which God has always blessed the world.  And when we see new growth, maybe all we need to do is look at it and point it out to others:  to appreciate its beauty, to thank God for the hope it represents, but to tread cautiously lest we destroy it before it has a chance to develop fully.  There will be time later to fill in the gaps, to put trellises where they need to be, to train and shape the stems, and to prune the branches that don’t bear fruit.  But for now, early in this new season, we might need to hone the spiritual gifts of seeing, of wonder, of gentleness, and of patience, even as we perceive the rapid changes to the temperature and light.

I think there is a reason the early church named this season before Good Friday and Easter after the season of Spring.  In the liturgical world, Lent is the 40 days (not including the six Sundays) before the celebrations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Festival of Easter.  But the word “lent” really just means Spring in older forms of English (the Old English version is “lencten”).  And that make sense to me because Spring is not the time when new life has been fully manifest.  The flowers are in their full glory, the leaves are filling the trees, and the grass is most verdant in Summer.  New life has been fully manifest only in the time of Easter; the time of Lent, or Spring, is a time for seeing, for wonder, for grace, and for patience.

Fighting Anoles

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

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On Easter Sunday, as we were trying to find the last of the eggs which a mischievous Bunny had so hidden in the shrubbery of our front yard, we spotted two green anoles on one of the posts of our front porch.  Anoles are small lizards native to the southeastern U. S. which change color from bright green to dull brown, depending on their level of stress.  The variety we have around here are Carolina anoles.  We are glad to share our yard with them because they are fascinating in their behavior, they are kind of cute, and they eat bugs.  In fact, one time I became worried my wife was being tempted to commit adultery in her heart when I told her I saw an anole in the back yard eating a palmetto bug (which is the classy name for the really big cockroaches which have also made themselves at home here in the south).

I was glad I had my camera handy, because we all knew what was going to IMG_5447 (535x800)happen when we saw the two anoles.  They are territorial creatures, living their lives mostly as loners in the small realms they inhabit.  So, these two could not share the post; they were about to get into a fight.  They circled each other for a few minutes.  They stared intently at one another.  Then, one launched his body at the other, and the other responded.  They pushed, they jumped, they sparred, and they attacked each other with their broad jaws open.  I don’t think they have much in the way of teeth, so I am not sure exactly what they were trying to accomplish with the open mouth thing.  But clearly, they were in a fight.  IMG_5453 (532x800)And the whole time, they were completely vertical, clinging with their fascinating toes to the post on our front porch.

One was on top, facing the ground, and the other was looking up at him.  Then, they switched places.  Finally, one of them lost his footing, grasped helplessly for something to hold, then slipped to the concrete floor.  He scurried away, uninjured, to find another territory to claim for his own.  The other remained on the post.  I swear he was gloating over his victory:  his skin turned just a little more green, he puffed up the muscles on his tiny neck, and he looked mighty satisfied with himself as I snapped a few more photos of him.  “No, no, come around here and get my good side,” he seemed to be saying proudly.IMG_5460 (533x800)

I recognize that what we witnessed was nothing remarkable.  All manner of creatures struggle with each other for territory all over the world all the time.  In fact, such behavior just seems natural.  Many very smart people in many different disciplines have said over many years that behavior like we saw on our front porch on Easter Sunday is simply the way the world works.  Survival of the fittest.  There can only be one superpower.  There have to be winners and losers.  A man (or woman, I suppose, though that’s not the way most people have said it) has to stake his claim, to stand his ground, and to be willing to defend it.

The thing is, I don’t buy it.  It might work for the anoles staking a claim on our porch post; it doesn’t work for me.  I have come of age during the culture wars.  Ever since I have been an adult, folks have fought over gay rights, abortion, fair ways to rectify racism and sexism, the role of government in providing social services, and tax p0licy.  Since I was a young boy, we have invaded, bombed, or otherwise intervened militarily in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and any number of other places.  Each time, there have been hot arguments between anti-war liberals and pro-war conservatives.  In the church which I love, we have fought for decades not only over these social and political issues, but also over other theological issues.  A lot of energy, money, time, and other resources have been spent debating the mechanics of how we are saved in Jesus Christ, interfaith relations, and how to interpret the Bible.  When I was examined by a church council to be ordained, the questions I was asked included whether or not I think homosexuality is a sin and what I believe about substitutionary atonement.

The purpose of those questions was not to get to know me or my training or skills in theological thinking; the purpose was to figure out which side I was going to fight for.  And to many people in that room that night, the questions made sense because that is simply the way the world works.  Each time these debates come up, everyone lines up, with the conservatives on one side and the liberals on another, or the Republicans and the Democrats, or the hawks and the doves, or the 47% and all the rest.  And the activists from one side and the activists from the other side start circling around each other, and pushing and shoving, and lunging and leaping, and attacking each other with their broad mouths open.  Then the vote is taken, and someone is thrown to the floor while the other one gloats and preens and feels mighty satisfied with himself.

No one ever says that there is something wrong with the process.  No one ever asks if the porch post is really worth fighting for.  No one ever wonders why there is no way once the fight starts for either side to back off and save face.  And no one would dare to assert that we do not have to be territorial; everyone anticipates the that the label of “naive” will be thrown at the person who claims that we might all be more satisfied if we cooperate  and share resources rather than living as loners.  After all, you are supposed to claim your territory, stand your ground, and defend it; wise people know that is just the way the world works, right?

Several years ago, I was in a conversation with someone I know who has spent her career studying and honing her skills in political rhetoric.  If you were to ask both of us where we stand on a variety of political and social issues, we would probably agree on many of them.  But I was talking with her about strategies which I had learned and used in my work in community organizing.  Finally, I said that I was not comfortable with rhetorical argument as a way to solve the kinds of problems we both would like to solve because it doesn’t build community.  And she admitted:  she wasn’t interested in building community; she wanted to win arguments.  That was where our conversation stopped.

I am interested in building community.  I am interested in questions of process:  of how to respect and preserve dignity, of how to live satisfying lives together, of how to find shared goals that are really worth working for.  That may not be the way things work among the wild beasts on my front porch.  But I don’t want to be an anole.

Trampled Flowers and the Board of Pensions

IMG_1649 (800x533)As a Presbyterian minister, my pension and medical insurance is administered by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Board of Pensions.  The medical insurance which the Board provides is paid for through dues paid by congregations.  The dues for each congregation have always been calculated as a percentage of the pastor’s salary, and the same percentage of salary is assessed of all congregations who have a pastor.  Currently, the dues for medical insurance are 21%.  The congregations of pastors who have no spouses or children pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.  The congregations with pastors who are married, have children, and have no other medical insurance for their families pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.

This system is insurance the way it ought to be. It is based on values of shared resources, community support, and fairness. It means that both wealthy and poor congregations can provide good health insurance.  It means that both single pastors and pastors who have three or four or more children are able to serve where God calls them, rather than only where they can make enough money to pay for their health insurance.  But there is a problem:  the 21% dues are not enough to pay for this system.

Last fall, I received this announcement by e-mail from the Board of Pensions. Their Board of Directors had made a decision.  They considered the option of raising the dues which congregations pay to 25% of their pastors’ salaries, but they decided that such a dues rate is too high.  Instead, they decided to change the way the whole system operates, effective January 1, 2014.  Dues for congregations would be cut to 19% of their pastors’ salaries, but that amount would not provide medical insurance for the pastors’ spouses and children.  If pastors want their spouses covered, that would be extra.  And if they want their children covered, too, that would be even more.  As they have done all the calculations, we have learned that, while the congregation I serve will only save about $83 per month next year because of the lower dues, either the congregation or my family will have to come up with an extra $475 per month if my wife and son are going to continue to have medical insurance after January 1.

There have been plenty of responses to this proposal from all over the church.  In December, I sent my own letter to the Board of Directors expressing the reasons I think this is a horrible idea.  But the more I reflect on how I feel about the whole kerfluffle, the more I think about what happened in my front yard a year or two ago.

Near our mailbox, not far from the driveway, is one of those hard, plastic columns set up by the utility companies to tie all the houses in an average suburban neighborhood like ours into the systems for telephones, cable TV, and other such modern conveniences.  It is a light green color, about two and a half feet high, and between it and the mailbox, mowing out there was more of a chore than it needed to be. So one fall, I smothered the grass with cow manure, newspaper, and mulch, and by spring, I had a new bed ready for some flowers.  It is in the full sun all day, so I was ready to go all out:  some Black-Eyed-Susans to remind us of the bouquet my wife carried in our wedding; some Oriental Lilies, Calla Lilies, and Gerbera Daisies just because they are interesting and colorful and beautiful; some Hibiscus and Cannas to add a tropical flair; a “Cemetery Lily” which a friend gave to us; and other plants to add variety and texture.  These were all flowers I had wanted to grow ever since we moved here, but which had not found a place in the more established beds.  Now, they would all have a home.

A few months later, after the Oriental Lilies and Callas had bloomed their hearts out and taken their summer rest, and just when the Hibiscus and Cannas were coming into their prime, after a long week of negligence while something had come up at work, I went out to check on things in the new bed one weekend afternoon.  And I was horrified.  There were big boot prints in the middle of the flower bed.  The lily stems had been trampled.  The Cannas were bent and broken.  There was dirt scattered all over the place:  on the plants, on the mulch, on the driveway, and if I recall right, even on the mailbox.

It seems that a contractor had been sent by Comcast to do something with the wires in the plastic column in the middle of my flower bed. And he had made a decision to simply trample the flowers, scatter the dirt, and do what he needed to do without regard for what I might think.  He didn’t have to make that decision. I had always known that the utility companies would need to have access to the plastic column, and I had tried to keep things clear from behind. As plants had grown up around it, I knew some would even have to be removed for the utility workers to do their job. That contractor could have made the decision to knock on my door, explain his need to access the wires in the plastic column, and given us a chance to work together.  He would have been able to get his work done, and I could preserve as much of my flower bed as was reasonable. And at the end of it all, I would have been able to trust the utility companies to come on my property to do their work in the future.

And that is what I wish the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions had done, too.  I understand that the medical plan is spending more than it is taking in. I understand that some things will have to change, and those changes may mean more costs have to be shifted to our family or the congregation I serve. But they made this decision on their own instead of asking for ideas and preferences from the people most affected by the problems as well as the proposed solutions. And, as a result, I believe they have made a very bad decision. More importantly, I will have a hard time trusting them to make good decisions in the future.

I do not want to feel about the Board of Pensions the same way I feel about Comcast.  I do not want to believe that the Board of Pensions is only looking at their bottom line. I do not want to believe that they look at me as an object in a system they control, who will simply go along with their decisions, pay what they tell me to pay, and be grateful for their charity for offering medical insurance for me at all.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will work with the whole church to make good decisions.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will protect my interests as much as possible as they deal with the conundrums of rising medical costs. I want to believe they will seek to manage well a system of medical insurance the way medical insurance ought to be. I want to believe they will continue to live by the values of shared resources, of community support, and of fairness. I want to trust them.

But right now, that is not how I feel. In early March, the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions will meet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, and at that meeting, they are scheduled to take a final vote on the proposed changes. I pray that their need for the trust of the church will be a part of their conversations. In other words, I pray that they think about knocking on my door before they just trample over the flowers.

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!”

My Lawn

In my church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), congregations are organized into presbyteries, for mutual support and accountability.  Historically, presbyteries have organized geographically.  For instance, the congregation I serve is a member of Savannah Presbytery, which includes all of the PC(USA) congregations within certain geographic boundaries in Southeast Georgia.

This summer, our church’s national General Assembly is considering a proposal to allow congregations to experiment by forming new presbyteries which cross those geographical boundaries.  These presbyteries could include congregations which decide to constitute a presbytery because of what they have in common.  The impetus for the proposed change came from people who identify as conservative; they want to be able to associate with other congregations who share their perspective on theological and social issues.

This proposal has me thinking a lot about my lawn.  I think the majority of the square footage in my front yard is still covered by centipede grass.  But I also have a significant and growing patch of Bermuda grass and even some small, shady places where some of the more delicate St. Augustine grass took root long before I moved into this place.  As you look closer at my lawn, you see a lot of other stuff, too:  some dichondra; some dandelions; a few sandburs, which have been the object of some graphic language as I walked barefoot this spring; and a bunch of other, unidentified greenery.  A few places, especially where it is shady and you can see the thick tree roots, there is plain dirt where nothing will grow.  A week or so after I mow, my lawn has all manner of spikes sticking up, flowers budding, and broad-leafed vines trying to creep all over the place.

It’s the kind of lawn that probably makes some of my neighbors crazy.  A few people on my street have lawns that are all uniform.  Most of those lawns are made of the strong, thick-bladed bermuda grass, but whatever the variety, there are certainly no “weeds” growing in those lawns.  As the blades of grass get longer, the whole thing is still uniform in height.  There is no dirt exposed to the potentially critical eye of someone who might stop by long enough to, perhaps, let his dog pee on the perfectionist’s mailbox.

I do not refuse to keep a monoculture lawn because I am lazy.  If I wanted to, I could get my lawn to look like the uniform ones on my street.  I keep my lawn the way it is by choice.  I have made that choice because I think it is healthier for my lawn, for myself and my family, and for the ecosystem I am a part of.

Suburban streets like mine were developed to fulfill a vision of houses dotting an otherwise peaceful, open meadow at regular intervals.  But what I realized a long time ago is that meadows are always made up of a whole bunch of different plants.  Nowhere in nature is there an open, green meadow which is uniform in species, much less in height.  Sometimes the plants in a meadow complement each other, with one species providing extra minerals for the soil or a certain amount of shade which helps the other plants around it.  Other times, some plants try to push all the other plants out of their way.  Sometimes new species find their way in.  But eventually, everything settles out so that the meadow can flourish together with all of its variety.

So why should my lawn be any different?  Why should I work against what is natural and healthy to create a uniform height, color, and texture in my front yard?  The person who owned this little piece of land before me tried.  Soon after we moved in, my neighbor looked at a big brown spot in my front yard with a chuckle.  He told me about the time that the previous owner had one of those nationally franchised lawn services come out and spray all kinds of chemicals on the lawn to get rid of the weeds.  But he didn’t think the lawn service did an adequate job, so he bought his own weed killer and applied it to the lawn the next day.  That night, it rained enough to make puddles in the lawn, and within a few days, the lowest spots began to turn brown and die.  I have been trying to coax something, anything, to live in those low spots ever since.

Meadows are not monocultures, and churches are not uniform, either.  Some people have a hard time when all the members of a church do not agree on the answers to questions that are significant to some members of that church.  But I don’t.  I think that it is only natural that there are different people, with a whole bunch of different views, in any community.  I have never been a part of any congregation that can speak with one voice on significant issues; when pressed to make a decision, some people always disagree with the majority, and those people have to decide whether they will quietly submit to the will of the others or withdraw from that congregation.  This is not good or bad; it is just the way churches are.

So why fight against the nature of the church?  I worry that any attempt to create uniformity might be toxic:  some people in the congregations which associate only with other congregations with a particular perspective on theological or social issues will be less likely to find a place in their church.  Whether the congregations shrink or thrive in a monoculture presbytery, over time, maintaining that appearance of agreement will take a lot of work, use a lot of resources, and may still fail because nature has a way of throwing weeds into the mix despite our best efforts to suppress them.

There is something healthy about taking whatever happens to grow in certain geographic bounds and doing what we can with it.  It is not uniform in any way.  The neighbors don’t always understand it, and they might even be aggravated by it.  We might curse at the burrs that come up in it and poke our bare feet now and then.  But accepting variety means that we don’t have to fight so hard against what is natural, and we might discover ways of living together that are healthier for the church, for ourselves, for our sisters and brothers, and for the ecosystem around us.

Jesus spoke about the farmer who woke up one morning and found that a whole bunch of weeds had grown up among his carefully tended wheat.  Everyone thought that he should pull the weeds right then and there.  But he said no.  He realized that, like it or not, the weeds were intertwined with the wheat, and pulling the one would harm the other.  So he let it go until someone could sort it out at the end of it all.  And Jesus said that the kingdom of God is just like that farmer.

The Experts

(c) 2012, Eric Beene

Last week, I found out that a committee of our denomination was meeting in our city.  This particular committee is charged with writing and administering the exams which all Presbyterian ministers must pass to be ordained.  The members of the committee came here from all over the country for their meeting.  Wanting to be hospitable to these travelers, and knowing that the congregation I serve as pastor would likewise want to be welcoming to people who were a long way from home, I invited the committee members to worship with us.  In fact, I offered to have a member of my congregation pick them up from their hotel in the church van to make sure they could get to worship.

I was pleased when they accepted.  Then, I figured out what I had done.  The committee includes several people with advanced degrees in theology, the Bible, and worship and the sacraments.  They teach this stuff in seminaries and colleges.  They supervise doctoral candidates, they go to conferences, and they publish papers.  I cyberstalked one person on the committee and found out he can read and teach Ugaritic.  The committee also includes pastors with a whole lot more experience than I have and lay people who undoubtedly have experience with some clergy who do their work well and others who do their work poorly.  And they were all going to attend the worship service which I would be leading, listen to the sermon which I would be preaching, and receive the sacrament of communion as I administered it.

I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night.  The members of my congregation noticed on Sunday morning that I was pacing around the sanctuary and my office, talking with them with a rare urgency in my voice, and fidgeting with details like the precise placement of the pitcher and chalice on the communion table.  Well, o.k., so that fidgeting with details is normal for me, but I was more obsessive than usual.

To continue with the gardening theme of this blog, I realized it would be like preparing to welcome a committee of people to look at your flower beds which included people with advanced degrees in botany, soil science, and landscape design.  The group would include people who had written some of those books and articles on gardening, both from a scientific and an aesthetic perspective, as well as people who had successfully tended their own gardens since long before you took up the craft.  And it would even include people who could tell you precisely the correct way to hold your hand rake or trowel as you till the soil.

And over the past two days, I have thought about this metaphor.  If I had such a group of people visiting my flower beds and vegetable garden, would I really care how they evaluate my work?  Frankly, I probably would not, because my purpose in gardening has little to do with them.  I tend my flower beds because I appreciate beauty, and I want to witness beauty, and even participate in it, as it grows and changes through the seasons.  I grow vegetables and herbs because my family and I can learn from them about our dependence on basic yet mysterious things:  the unseen complexities of microbes in the soil, for instance, and the unpredictable providence of sun and storms.  I mow my lawn because the work itself is good for my body and my spirit; the act gives my muscles a chance to work, and my mind a chance to wander for a while, and my heart a chance to beat a little bit faster.

Of course, I am aware that people walk by on the street and neighbors look out their windows.  If I were to win the garden club’s “Yard of the Month” award, I would be pleased.  Sometimes I will tell my wife I have to go work in the yard because I am embarrassed by our unmowed grass and weed-filled flower beds.  But really, I don’t do the work because I covet anyone’s favorable evaluation or fear anyone’s negative judgement.  The value of the work is intrinsic to the work itself; the most beautiful things I produce in my yard work have little to do with what other people can see.

And I think that, ideally, the work of worship in the church is similar.  When it is done well, worship does not accomplish anything that can be evaluated.  Public worship allows the communities of people who do it to bear witness to and even participate in the beauty which is all over the world God created, and it allows people to see growth and change with the seasons of the life God has given us.  It allows us to confess that our lives depend on things that we cannot see and do not understand which are provided beyond our own efforts.  It gives our bodies, minds, and hearts a chance to do work they would not otherwise not do: to stretch farther, wander deeper, and beat faster.

The experts in gardening as well as worship are helpful because they can provide knowledge and advice.  They can point out how to arrange the plants to best take advantage of the light, water, and soil I have, and they can point out how to best order the words and music and silence to express the praise we feel.  Even the neighbors and strangers who walk by on the street can help.  They make me aware that I can help others by sharing with them things which I think are beautiful, and they make us aware that we can help the world by sharing the gifts which lead us to be grateful to God.  But neither the experts nor the neighbors are the audience of our worship; I think it was Kierkegaard who pointed out that God is our audience as we enact our worship.  And so, just as I do not plant my garden so it can be evaluated, worship cannot be evaluated by anyone other than the God whom we praise.

When I explained on Sunday to one of the church members that I did not need to be nervous because of who would be worshiping with us that day, she sympathetically reminded me that I was nervous because I am human.  I know in my mind what worship is all about, but my mind cannot control my feelings.  But I wonder if instead I should seek to be nervous like that every time I lead worship.  I only pray that God appreciated what we all did together on Sunday morning.