The Democratic and Republican National Conventions lie ahead - one of my great joys in life since childhood - and my appetite was whetted by the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. I have been challenged to figure out why I had this reaction to GA, and it suddenly struck me today. It was the orchestration of the two sides of various issues that felt eerily familiar, yet with a twist.
The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was a chaotic extravaganza, what might have been termed theater of the absurd except that theater of the absurd rejects the whole idea of transcendent purpose. The 1968 convention exhibited multiple purposes clashing, the conflict marking competition for the soul of a nation. Since the nadir for conventions was reached that wild summer, it seems that post political parties have worked hard on presenting a good public face. More contemporary conventions run like clockwork, carefully orchestrated with the observing American public in mind.
The portions of the recent GA I observed through video streaming on my computer, mainly the same-gender and divestment conversations, demonstrated careful orchestration of presentations by the major factions on both sides of the issues: echoes of the recent iterations of political conventions. Yet at GA - call me imaginative - I heard echoes of 1968, at least the fear that clung to that convention like the August heat. We Presbyterians are riven by conflict, and our deep passions frighten us. We will not riot or tear gas one another: But we will go into equivalent of cigar-smoke filled rooms and figure out ways to use parliamentary procedure to our advantage and talk past each other, making points without actually changing minds.
I have a modest suggestion, which is that we end the current pattern of meeting as the General Assembly. For example, rather than almost 900 commissioners meeting. let's reduce the number to 50 commissioners or so, which is the size of a small congregation. Those sent would not have membership in any of the organizations splitting the church, that is, the "I am for Cephas, I am for Apollos, I am for the Presbyterian Coalition, I am for . . . etc." thinking has no place in the body of Christ and certainly would be disallowed at GA. Furthermore, the commissioners chosen should be renown for faith, intellectual acumen, and emotional intelligence. They should also understand that they are not representing anything or anybody but are open to the dialogic experience of GA through which God's Spirit speaks.
Indeed, dialogue might be the appropriate way to run the meetings, dispensing with parliamentary procedures that only serve to empower the manipulative. Rather than overtures being introduced and debated, one minute at a time, perhaps the alternative would be to allow for different perspectives on an issue to be presented in a fulsome fashion by only a few persons, including those perspectives for and against submitted overtures but not confined to them. The presentation of these perspectives could then be followed with the equivalent of small Quaker meetings. Commissioners could be divided into small groups for silent prayer, punctuated by dialogue over the matters at hand. These commissioners would meet over each issue, as long as it takes, until a consensus would be reached by all commissioners. The dialogic outcome of each issue, an overture of some sort, would then be sent on to the presbyteries with an accompanying explanation of how consensus was reached. In the presbyteries, a similar process would be followed, although full consensus to reach a conclusion might be asking too much.
I have a couple other suggestions. I would insist that pastors all meet at one time, at one place, those years that GA is not meeting. This one meeting would be compulsory, supported financially by the denomination, and for the purpose of building relationships and trust. At all of these meetings, GA and clergy get-togethers, I would outlaw the presence of divisive para-church lobby groups that have become more important than the unity of the body of Christ. Indeed, I would make membership in any lobbying group an offense for clergy and elders, a renunciation of denominational jurisdiction. This may sound harsh,, but these groups have become addictive, divisive, and contribute mistrust to the body of Christ. My suspicion is that they reflect the secular homogeneity of the DNC and the RNC, and less than what the Lord hopes for us.
What ideas do you have? My desire is to evoke a conversation, and encourage the Presbyterian family to become healthy.
The Presbyterians found much about which to quibble at the 220th General Assembly, such as divestment from Israel (as far as I can tell, we're not). We also found points of agreement (we love the Lord). Then we found things upon which we have essential agreement and we still found a way to disagree about them. Marriage falls into this last category.
The General Assembly moderator explained that the denomination had made no decision on marriage. It had not affirmed either a traditional definition of marriage or a new definition of marriage. Let me find a gentle way to say this: That is a wild and unhelpful interpretation of what happened at GA. Or put another way, using the same logic: The General Assembly also took no position on gravity. Yet my best guess is that we are all in favor it. Same with marriage: Everyone at General Assembly is in favor of marriage.
That's not the only topic on which we Presbyterians agree. We agree that the Bible needs to be taken seriously. One set of Bible thumpers emphasizes God's gift of marriage. The other set of Bible thumpers emphasizes Jesus' justice, mercy. and faith that are key to all of life, including marriage. One set emphasizes that marriage, as given, is between male and female. One set emphasizes marriage as companionship in the service of God, and that it is God's way of controlling unjust sexual urges for both genders. Neither side is willing to surrender God or marriage or the Bible. When one group says that they know the Bible and the other group doesn't, or at least doesn't take it seriously, the accusers are . . . well, at best not listening and at worst, goofy.
So in this no holds bar struggle for victory, this dysfunctional dance, in which we threaten to either walk away from - or to disobey - our covenant with one another, what do we need to hear from each other that will give us peace?
It seems to me it is pretty easy. So let me see if I can facilitate our understanding of one another.
The conservative end of the church needs to know that everyone else reads what they read, which is that according to the Bible God made humans male and female and, Biblically speaking, marriage pertains to male and female. That is a plain reading of Scripture and obvious to everyone who has looked below the belt.. Yet we are not Mormons: Jesus says that marriage is solely for this life. Furthermore, in this life marriage can be a source of companionship and impulse control, or it can be the context for injustice and the pretext for abandonment through divorce. Put simply, marriage is not an unadulterated good. Indeed, Jesus - as does the apostle Paul -believes that the preferred lifestyle for discipleship is singleness (do not repeat this to my wife of 30 years, I beg you): So a plague of Biblical proportions on all your houses. All this the Bible says too. Okay, maybe not the plague bit.
The liberal end of the church needs to know that everyone hears in the Bible that our highest priorities are eternal ones, expressed in both testaments. They are passionate love of God and love for neighbor. Furthermore, love looks like what Jesus calls the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.
A few more Biblical facts stand out for the liberal end of the church, and surely they do not create too much cognitive dissonance for any Presbyterian who has actually read the Bible and stands in the Reformed tradition. Indeed, the following five standards might be considered ways to discern our adherence to the Reformed tradition.
First, we are saved by God's grace through Jesus Christ, and God's saving grace comes prior to our faith. It precedes and trumps the good works of the law. We symbolize this truth by baptizing babies. The need for grace also tells us that we are all sinners, and our sinfulness means we are bound to read the Scriptures selectively and to some degree, erroneously. For this reason we need to be accountable to one another and be very careful about our judgments. Please duck while I swing this beam around so I can get the speck out of your eye.
Second, we want the evangelical mission of the church to go forward, and that means giving each part of the church some latitude to bear witness to its respective "natives". Each limb of the body of Christ requires some flexibility while still honoring the whole body.
Third, Jesus proclaimed the Realm of God first and foremost. The church is secondary to his proclamation. Marriage is embedded in God's creation, but is secondary to the church, putting it at best in a tertiary position (which is why it is not a sacrament in the Presbyterian Church - weren't you listening?). Priorities (remember that plague on your house?)!
Fourth, the Scriptures bear unique witness to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; yet they are not equal to Jesus Christ and they cannot be equated to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, our interpretation of the Scriptures is less authoritative than the Scriptures, and certainly less authoritative than Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Check the opening chapters of Calvin's Institutes very carefully on these points, and please don't listen to what the average professor or pastor tells you those chapters mean if they disagree with this aforementioned point. They don't know Jack :-), so flee.
Fifth, as we are gripped by Calvin's emphasis on both ardor and order, we must engage the culture, including the state, for the sake of Jesus Christ. We do so knowing that hiding from the culture does not lead to moral perfection, and that following Jesus into the world will only dirty our hands further. Yet the failure to follow Christ into the world means the failure of our own sense of moral responsibility for God's world. Dare I use the S word here: Stewardship? Stewardship is not just about money, although it is also about money. I say this for those who are so married to their money they would never consider tithing or casting their ballot in favor of economic justice, but still feel free to cast judgment on gender issues.
If these standards make sense to us, I submit it is because we are Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition. And if this is so, the following overture likewise makes sense:
"The plain sense of Scripture is that marriage is for male and female and serves particular purposes. As a steward of marriage called by God, the church is convicted that marriage
is temporary and limited to this life only, although to be taken seriously as a call from God that empowers mutual service to God and the world;
intended to provide a helpmate and put boundaries around sexual behavior;
the foundation for the creation and nurture of family;
a vocation from God as is singleness;
built around a perpetual need for confession, forgiveness, and repentance; and
a covenant that only ends in death or - in cases of lovelessness or abuse - in divorce.
In those states wherein
a legal contract for same-gender couples is permitted, regardless of the nomenclature chosen by the state; and
Jesus' ultimately important commandments of love, justice, mercy and faith are discerned to be served by the creation of a faithful covenant between the couple;
teaching elders and congregations may, but not be compelled by an ecclesiastical or civil authority to, participate in the establishment of the legal contract and the worship celebration of the covenant."
Why this overture? Because in principle, everybody except the most highly controlling or the most gleeful about fighting gets his or her way. So let me have your feedback on the overture above. Give me your rewrites if you wish. Come up with your own overture! Heck,we have a year or so. Think we can come up with something compelling between us?
I love my brother, but I can't say I understand his work. He is a physician, a gastroenterologist by title. People depend on him and his skill, making his life meaningful. He has also enjoyed a level of financial success that some might envy, me included. Yet at key moments he has been generous with me, so I have no complaints. I can tell you I wouldn't want his job: too many difficult people (and I don't mean his patients), and the triple threat of government regulation, insurance, and lawsuits. I don't know what health reform will mean for him exactly, but I can hardly believe that it will be welcome.
In fact, I am not altogether clear what the new health initiative upheld by the Supreme Court will mean for any of us. I know that I have been very ill before, and I have gone to the doctor. I have had tests, I have been examined, and I have received treatment. I am here because I got well. For these privileges the church has paid a large sum of money, an amount that not only covers my expense but shares also the financial burden being carried by smaller congregations. Increasingly these small congregations cannot afford medical costs, so they cannot afford pastors. 44% of all Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations have no pastor, and for many of them it is a matter of money. Pastors cannot afford to serve churches if it means they cannot keep food on the table, save for retirement, and have their medical costs covered. Sadly, this is the choice that too many people face in this country, that is, between such basics as food and medicine.
Reform that makes health care affordable and accessible to everyone is consistent with Jesus' command that we practice justice, mercy, and faith. Whether the current formula for providing universal health care is the right one, I do not know. That we pay too much for health care in this country and get too little is problematic. That we tolerate the poorer among us to live without health care is intolerably unChristian.
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