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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

View from South of the Border

In an excerpt from a blog posting, below, a PC(USA) woman minister tells of an oddly troubling experience she had. She was visiting a Mexican presbytery meeting for the day, at which a guest speaker from the Presbyterian Church of America made an hour-long presentation on why women should not be ordained to the ministry.

I don't expect that everyone reading this will draw the same theological conclusions she does, with respect to the current debate in our denomination about the ordination of GLBT people. I do think it's worthwhile, though, to reflect on the feelings she so eloquently puts into words:

"Unfortunately my Spanish is good enough that I caught pretty much all of the presentation, about how the speaker did not hate women – 'I love my wife and my daughters' – but that he was simply trying to obey the Bible, which 'clearly states that there are different roles for men and for women' and that was all he was asking of the men gathered....

But what struck me almost immediately and stayed with me throughout the duration of his presentation was how much it reminded me of something I had heard recently in my own presbytery, only there it was the ‘Biblical case against the ordination of homosexuals’ rather than the ‘Biblical case against the ordination of women.’ As I sat in that Baja church (called 'Dios es Amor' or 'God is Love') listening, I couldn’t help but feel that I was in some sort of odd time/space warp between their presbytery meeting and my own recent presbytery meeting.

During that February gathering in Los Ranchos, Richard Mouw, who has had a key role as a reconciler between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ in the ongoing debate/conversation regarding homosexuality, similarly made the point that he was not against homosexuals – 'I love homosexuals' – but that, at the end of the day, he had to be true to Scripture which makes the clear case against the ordination of homosexuals.

He spoke of his desire not to put down gay people or to hate them, but the greater conviction to uphold the authority of the Scripture. It was almost apologetic, in the 'I’m sorry' kind of way, as in 'I’m really sorry I have to believe this, but I just can’t do anything else and be true to who I am, who God is, and who God calls me to be'....

But sitting in that Baja church, listening, in Spanish, to an hour long presentation of why I, as a woman, was unworthy to be called by God as a minister, what I was struck by, in addition to how similar these arguments seemed to those used regarding ordination of homosexuals, was how painful it was to be the subject and focus of that argument being discussed around me....

In the distance, beyond the variety of dwelling structures, one can see the ‘border fence’ between the US and Mexico, cutting its path through the hills. One of the Mexican pastors saw me looking at it and said 'Otro lado esta muy cerca pero muy lejo' – more or less, 'the other side is so close and yet so far.'

The other side is so close, but yet so far....

The morning’s debate really had nothing directly to do with me, and yet it was still painful and uncomfortable to be, in a sense, its focus. As I was driving through the hills of northern Baja, along the Blvd 2000, I picked up my phone (while using my headset, of course) and called a gay minister friend of mine, apologizing to her for not really ever realizing how much she had to sit through as other people discussed whether or not God might call someone like her."

In these tender times, may we take to heart these words from The Presbyterian Hymnal:

Help us accept each other
As Christ accepted us;
Teach us as sister, brother,
Each person to embrace.
Be present, Lord, among us
And bring us to believe
We are ourselves accepted
And meant to love and live.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Doomsday? Not Likely

This item is a bit far afield from what I usually post here, but with the thought that it may be of general interest, I'm sending it along.

The other day, Christine Scheller, a reporter from Jersey Shore Patch, an online local news site, asked me to comment on the current news story about Family Radio owner Harold Camping's prediction that Jesus Christ will return this Saturday. Here's what I sent to her, some of which she excerpts in her article:


When Jesus’ own disciples ask him to slip them some insider information on when he will return, his first response is to sternly warn them about false prophets who traffic in just that sort of hot tip: “Beware that no one leads you astray” (Matthew 24:4). Rather astoundingly to our ears, Jesus goes on to admit that not even he is privy to that information (“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” - v. 36).

In light of Jesus’ firm and unequivocal instruction to lay off the end-times prognosticating, it continues to amaze me how many Christian leaders down through the centuries cave in to the temptation to do precisely that.

Harold Camping is but one in a long line of hopeful aspirants to the position of person-who-knows-more-than-Jesus-and-the-angels. He’s a civil engineer and religious-broadcasting entrepreneur who’s lacking any formal theological training. In recent years, Mr. Camping has distanced himself from any denominational affiliation, which means he’s also shed all accountability to any religious authority larger than himself, who might restrain his wild imaginings.

A self-taught Bible “expert,” Mr. Camping specializes in the obscure interpretative method known as numerology – a field without standards or discipline, that sets aside the main message of the scriptures to concentrate on otherwise-insignificant peripheral details, such as numbers. It’s rather like throwing away the popsicle to chew on the stick. Did God inspire ancient authors of scripture to embed within their message a nearly-invisible trail of numerical breadcrumbs, for the sole purpose of warning people yet unborn – and who wouldn’t be born for thousands of years – that Jesus is coming soon? What sort of God would do that, anyway: burying the good news of salvation, instead of proclaiming it (as Jesus himself instructs his disciples to do)?

We’ve seen false prophets like Mr. Camping before. Christian history is rife with sad stories of magnetic but narcissistic personalities, who gather a crowd of hopeful believers around themselves to await the Lord’s coming. It always ends badly. When the sun rises not only on the appointed day, but on the following day as well, their followers shrink away in embarrassment. Mr. Camping can deploy some additional marketing assets that would have been the envy of his predecessors in the questionable trade of end-time prediction: a chain of radio stations and plenty of cash to rent billboards. How else could he continue to command headlines, when this is in fact not the first, but the second time he has attempted such a stunt (he last predicted Christ would return in September, 1994)?

Could Mr. Camping be right in seeing the 21st of May as the day of Jesus Christ’s return? Of course he could. Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour. If I claimed to know otherwise, I’d be just as guilty of narcissism as he.

I prefer to take my stand with Martin Luther. When asked by a student what he would do, were he to learn the world was going to end the next day, the great Reformer and Bible scholar is said to have replied with a smile: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”


The PCUS General Assembly (the Southern Presbyterian church that reunited with us Yankees to form the PCUSA in 1983) adopted a study paper on eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) in 1978. It's a great resource, for anyone who'd like to delve deeper into this subject.

This statement, one of 12 "Theses" on eschatology included on the paper, pretty well sums up the Presbyterian take on attempts to predict the date of Christ's return:

"Following the Westminster Standards, we insist that God holds the time of the Consummation unknown in order to preserve in us a sense of immediacy and urgent watchfulness, and we refuse to tame that hope into a set of speculative predictions."

So, let's not "tame our hope." I like that turn of phrase.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Disorganized Religion?

Somebody sent me a link to a web page today that includes a snappy comeback to that comment we've all heard umpteen times: "I don't believe in organized religion." It's written from the Roman Catholic perspective, but it could easily be adapted to the Presbyterian Church:


"I'm very spiritual. But I'm not comfortable with 'organized' religion."

Ever heard this gem? I've been listening to it for decades. It's pretty incoherent, but—inexplicably—it sends religious people into a hasty, blushing retreat. That should never be the case.

Here's my smiling response: "Yes, well, I like organized religion. I'm a Catholic. And the Catholic church is so organized that we advocate for, educate, clothe, house, rescue, and heal more people worldwide than any other single organization on earth. You have to be organized to do that."


Ever take a look at some of the things Presbyterian Disaster Assistance does in tornado and flood relief? Or Church World Service, helping sustain the millions around the world who live in refugee camps?

Guess what, folks? That's ORGANIZED RELIGION that does that.

I suppose another way of putting it would be... "Oh, is that so? Do you think you'd still feel that way if you were a Haitian earthquake victim, waiting for a shipment of Church World Service food and medicine?"

Sometimes we Presbyterians sell ourselves short. The mission work we accomplish together, through organized religion, is pretty awesome.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ordination Standards Have Changed

It's official. A news bulletin from the Office of the General Assembly reports:

"It appears that a majority of the 173 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have approved a change in PC(USA) ordination standards.

At its meeting on Tuesday, May 10, 2011, the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area became the 87th presbytery to approve an amendment that will remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders, and deacons live in 'fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness' (G-6.0106b in the church’s Book of Order)."

Those who read the new constitutional language carefully will discover it's really an affirmation of the historic freedom of local congregations (in the case of deacons and elders) and presbyteries (in the case of ministers) to seek to discern God's will as they choose their own leaders.

Now we'll see if the media is capable of reporting that nuance.

Hold onto the FAQ list related to this issue, that I posted in the previous blog entry. It just may come in handy.

We may be in for a rough ride. Or not. Some in the church will be predictably outraged by this decision, while others - especially a large majority of the younger generation of Presbyterians - will likely say: "What's the big deal? We just hope the church is finally done fighting over this change, which just seems like common sense to us."

Here's the perspective of the General Assembly Moderator, Elder Cynthia Bolbach:

Wherever on the theological spectrum readers of this blog may find themselves, let's all pray for the peace, unity and purity of the church. The prayer offered by our denominational leadership in their pastoral letter (cited in the OGA's article) puts it beautifully:

Almighty God, we give thanks for a rich heritage of faithful witnesses to the gospel throughout the ages. We offer gratitude not only for those who have gone before us, but for General Assembly commissioners and presbyters across the church who have sought diligently to discern the mind of Christ for the church in every time and place, and especially in this present time.

May your Spirit of peace be present with us in difficult decisions, especially where relationships are strained and the future is unclear. Open our ears and our hearts to listen to and hear those with whom we differ. Most of all, we give thanks for Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord, who called the Church into being and who continues to call us to follow his example of loving our neighbor and working for the reconciliation of the world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.