This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The book of the prophet Joel is about bugs.  Mainly, it is centered on a plague of locusts that descends upon the land and devours every living thing in sight.  The descriptions are vivid and tragic.

What Joel describes is another manifestation of a repeated biblical pattern:

1) The people fall into idolatry, worshiping gods other than YHWH.

2) The worship of these other gods leads the people to enact systems of economic injustice in which the poor suffer and the rich increase their wealth.

3) Injustice leads to an intolerable imbalance in society, and in their relationship to nature, such that eventually an awesome and horrible catastrophe occurs.  This may be a political/military disaster, like a war.  Or it may be a “natural” disaster, like a plague of locusts.

4) YHWH restores what is left of the people with healing and forgiveness; the people turn back to YHWH.

Interpreting this pattern in Joel is not difficult.  But as I was reflecting on it this time it occurred to wonder about the locusts.  We who read the Scriptures automatically identify with the victims of such catastrophes, the one addressed by the prophet. 

But in our context, I wonder if we aren’t better identified with the locusts.  After all, one way of looking at human history, particularly over the past few centuries, is as a plague that descends upon the land and devours every living thing in sight.  Didn’t Tacitus, the Roman historian, say something like the empire makes a desert and calls it peace?  Is this not the point of “mountaintop-removal” mining, off-shore oil drilling, and clear-cutting of forests?  Is it not apparently the goal of human economies to devour every living thing on this planet?

But the text has no redemption for the locusts.  They end up crashing and burning after their gluttonous, drunken orgy.  Joel sees their dead carcasses piled up in stinking, rotting mounds.  There is no eventual good news for them, just as there is no hope for the Babylonians or any other engine of destruction that flourishes at the expense of God’s people for a time.  They all collapse in death and annihilation.   

Better to turn to God in confession, repentance, and renewed allegiance to the covenant, establishing reformed institutions promoting peace, justice, equality, and healing in society, according to God’s Word and Spirit, than to continue in the destructive ideology of the locusts.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Eco-Theology: Hosea 2.

            The book of the prophet Hosea uses an extended metaphor about marriage and adultery to talk about the relationship between God and the people.  In chapter 2, the woman (Israel) fails to recognize her true husband (God) and instead runs after and gives herself to imposters (other gods, mainly Baal). 
She mistakenly believes that these imposters are her benefactors.  “I will go after my lovers; they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” (v.5)  The problem is that she attributes her prosperity to the wrong powers.  She becomes devoted to them at the expense of the One who really gave these things to her.  This is not just a matter of religious devotion; it has to do with how one behaves and lives in every area of life.  To follow Baal is to adopt a radically different lifestyle from following God. 
But the real source of the people’s wealth is God, even though people attribute their wealth to other sources.  “She did not know that it was I (God) who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her the silver and gold that they used for Baal.”  (v.8) 
When people make the claim that our system, our economy, the Empire, or our own hard work and discipline is the source of our wealth, we are mistaken.  God is the One “from whom all blessings flow.”  These benefits carry with them a responsibility to use them in service to God by spreading them out to all, and by not using them in violence or oppression, and by not gaining wealth by unjust or destructive means in the first place. 
When we attribute our prosperity to our own prevailing economic system, even some fantasized God-blessed version of it, we are denying God’s generosity and blessing.  An economy characterized by greed, avarice, lust, and gluttony necessarily leads to all kinds of economic inequalities.  It inevitably falls into injustice and violence.
The cost of this error is severe.  Idolatry always leads to social injustice.  And social injustice always brings down upon it some kind of disaster.  “Therefore, I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season; and I will take away my wool and my flax.” (v.9)  “I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, ‘These are my pay, which my lovers have given me.’  I will make them a forest and the wild animals shall devour them.” (v.12) 

Famine is one result of our misattributing God’s benefits to other powers.  Not because God capriciously or arbitrarily punishes, but because loyalty to other gods creates massive social inequities and imbalances which have consequences.  Resources are distributed poorly and unequally; they are wasted and exhausted irresponsibly.   
Following God’s law, and the teachings of Jesus, means putting a brake on unrestrained economic growth.  It means regulating and restricting the flow of capital.  It means redistribution of wealth. (Leviticus 25.)  It means lifting up the poor and bringing down the rich. (Luke 1.)  
All of this is the opposite of religions that worship economic growth per se, as in fertility cults and other imperial religious systems, like that of Baal.  These systems are designed not to create equality between people, not to cultivate a commonwealth, but to prop up the wealthy class and make them richer still.  They rationalized wars to go out and conquer more land to generate more wealth.  It was the system the people escaped from in Egypt where they were made slaves, and they never forgot the indignity and horror of that.  God gives them the law so they would never fall into that system of injustice again.
But they did.  Which is what Hosea is so upset about.  Throughout the Scriptures we find the same pattern repeated: idolatry leads to injustice which leads to disaster. 
Hosea also reminds us that God remains faithful.  God is always there to pick up the pieces.   “Therefore, I will now allure her and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.  From there I will give her her vineyards….  There she will respond as in the days of her youth as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.  On that day, says the Lord, you will call me ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal (which means My Master)’.” (vv.14-16)  Even God insists on not participating in the domination and inequality that characterizes Baal worship, but desires to be more of a partner! 
“I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” (v.18)  The people are brought back into natural relationships, and militarism, always the sour fruit of a domination-based economy which has spawned injustice, is eliminated.
Real prosperity in justice and balance and equality according to God’s law is restored. (vv.21-23)  
Baal worship was a religion of unrestrained economic growth which created great inequities and required increasing levels of violence, both internal and external, to sustain itself.  Sound familiar?  The answer God gives is the thorough regulatory and redistributive regime of the Torah, finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Blessing the 4 Directions.

This is the Call to Worship that was used at the PCUSA General Assembly's Communion service on Sunday, 7/4/10.  It is a version of the Native American "Blessing of the Four Directions," which has traditionally been part of the Medicine Wheel ritual.  The actual performance involved processions from each of the directions, with large figures of the respective animal-spirits.  It was very moving, in spite of the fact that it was in a very unconducive assembly hall.  The text was not available at the full service, but I was able to obtain a copy from the Committee on Local Arrangements.  I don't know who the author is, but it was given to me by someone named Elona Street-Stewart.

We begin our worship with a moment of silence.  During the silence the dancers move into place.  Blow the shofars, followed by rain sticks “played” by each of the four dancers.  When the rain sticks stop, the Call to Worship begins. 

We are called to worship this day in the tradition of my people, who, for generations, lived here, at the Big River where the prairie meets the woods.  Please rise in body or spirit, and join us as we turn to the four directions of God’s creation. 

Come, Holy Spirit, as we gather in your name. 

We turn to face East: 
We welcome the color of this direction – yellow for the morning star.
We thank you for your creation and welcome, 
for the eagle which soars ever upward in praise of God,
For your lessons calling us to balance of mind in discernment.  
We pray for your spirit of illumination and far-sighted vision.
Help us to love you and one another with all our heart, mind, and soul, as we pray together:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to face South:
We welcome the color of this direction – red, the hue of revelation.
We thank you for your creation and welcome,
For the turtle, close to the earth, and intuitive,
For your lessons calling us to balance of body in renewal.
We pray for your spirit of innocence, trust, and love.
Help us to open our eyes to the sacredness of every living thing, as we pray together:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to face West:
We welcome the color of this direction – black, still and quiet.
We thank you for your creation and welcome,
For the bear, mighty and purposeful,
For your lessons calling us to balance of emotion in wisdom and honesty.
We pray for your spirit of introspection, for seeing within.
Give us your strength and the courage to endure, as we pray together:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to face North:
We welcome the color of this direction – white of clarity and brightness.
We thank you for your creation and welcome,
For the buffalo, strong and nurturing.
For your lessons calling us to balance in harmony with brothers and sisters everywhere.
We pray for your spirit of wisdom and grace.
Give us the goodness of the ages, as we pray together:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to complete the circle and to look up:
To God who cleanses the earth with snow, wind, and rain.
To Jesus Christ who fills us with the wideness of mercy and embraces us all, 
and to the Holy Spirit who inspires us.
We pray together:
Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What the Bells Said.

While taking some time off this week Susan and I were on the balcony of our hotel only to hear the bells of the local Presbyterian church playing "God Bless America," along with "Anchors Aweigh," and "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along," hymns praising the Navy and the Army, respectively. We noticed when we walked by that the church itself was festooned with flags.

Perhaps they haven't received the memo about the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967, in which the identification of the church with a particular nation or State is thoroughly and conclusively broken. This church has a fancy carved sign over the door proclaiming "Jesus Is Lord!" But this confession is placed in question by their selection of carillon music and outdoor decorations. Which do they believe?

We can only have one ultimate loyalty. If our loyalty is to Jesus Christ, then we may have secondary and subsidiary loyalties, but they are placed in a subordinate and subservient position. If our loyalty is to Jesus Christ, then his teachings and life become the only standard by which our other loyalties are measured. If what he did and said have to do with non-violence, justice, healing, forgiveness, and inclusion, by what rationale do we celebrate institutions that perpetrate exactly the opposite values and practices?

1) Jesus nowhere suggests that a particular nation is more blessed than any other. His ministry and that of the church was a radical inclusion of all nations in God's family. Any affirmation to the contrary is a rejection of Jesus' lordship.
2) Jesus nowhere suggests that the best way to solve disagreements is through threats, force, and extreme violence, which is the whole purpose of the military. In fact, he explicitly says just the opposite. He rejects State power when it is offered to him by the Devil in Luke 4:5-8; and he offers non-violence as the only response to violence in Matthew 5:39-41, 44. Any affirmation to the contrary is a rejection of Jesus' lordship.

Maybe this is all a harmless, trivial, and inconsequential instance of affirming people's cultural interests, like celebrating in church the victory of the local sports team, or recognizing something on a favorite TV show. But a) nationalists would never allow that this is trivial at all but a matter of essential allegiance, and b) this is not so trivial when it is a matter of sinking monumental amounts of public resources in administering lethal violence all over the world.
But don't believe me. Don't listen to me. What do I know? What authority or wisdom do I have? None! I am wrong most of the time! Listen instead to Jesus, the One whom we call our Lord and our only comfort, in whom we trust, in life and in death. Read his words. Discuss them in the faith community, listening to the Holy Spirit. TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY AS IF WHAT HE SAYS MATTERS!

Then decide what your bells should be saying.

Monday, July 12, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Seven.2

The Holy Spirit.

For me, the Holy Spirit has become an issue at this General Assembly. From Tickle's words about Azuza Street and the influence of Pentacostalism on Emergence Christianity, to Father Hardun's words which depicted a more static view of the Spirit on Orthodoxy, I see different perspectives on the Holy Spirit coming up.

I asked Hardun about it. He agreed that Orthodoxy does not have much regard for "progressive revelation," btw, and sees it as a Western propensity to add extraneous stuff to the gospel for gratuitous and expedient reasons. For him, the primary example of this is the filioque, a phrase unilaterally added to the Nicene Creed by the Pope in the tenth century. For him such changes are only to be made by a full-blown ecumenical council.

I am wondering what relationship the filioque might have to the idea of progressive revelation. It seems to me that firmly attaching the Holy Spirit to Christ would have the opposite effect. It would diminish our understanding that the Spirit would do things contrary or in addition to what has already been done in Christ.

Otoh, does seeing that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father make the Spirit more dynamic? For Barth, the Spirit's role is giving us access to the Word. Jesus talks about the wildness and untamed, undomesticated nature of the Spirit in John 3.

I don't think we need the filioque to protect against a Spirit that is so uncontained as to be contrary to God's will... the Spirit is God, for crying out loud! Jesus is pretty undomesticated himself. Anything that attempts to domesticate, control, define, box, or otherwise stifle God is foolishness. God is bigger than all our definitions.

The Spirit can also do different things in different times and places. She is not one-size-fits-all. She can move the American church in one direction, and the Russian church in another, because that is they way each needs to go in order to grow. She can restructure different presbyteries in different ways because of different contexts and potential for mission. (Hence the NFOG.) She can even delight in our arguments and passionate disagreements like a mother delights in the fiery life of her children in their glorious individuality. She can love conservatives for their conservatism, liberals for their liberalism, Gays and straight, African, and Latino, and Asian, and European, and American, Eastern and Western, Roman and Protestant, for their particular, bright energy. And she can also coax and prod them to listen to each other and to grow out of their own boxes and into an even more glorious wholeness.

But her heart is broken when this sours into exclusion, hatred, and violence, which she deals with by bearing and absorbing it, as Jesus does on the cross.


This debate is the same of stuff I have heard ad nauseum, generation after generation. Remember J. P. Stevens? Remember Nestle? Would we not be having the same idiotic discussion if we were debating a boycott of BP? Would we not be hearing about how their innocent employees, clients, and stockholders would be adversely affected? Does it really all come down to whether my pile of money is jeopardized?

The assembly voted 2-1 to "denounce" Caterpillar for selling armored bulldozers to Israel to use in demolishing Palestinian homes. That will teach them... and we still get to profit. Everybody wins! Except the people whose houses are getting destroyed....

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Seven.1

The State of Israel.

“Monks have guns? There is a prison in the Potala?”

--- The young Dalai Lama in the film, Kundun

Being connected to a State, that is, having an organic, wedded relationship to a particular political-economic order, corrupts the spiritual community. Necessarily.

Under the Christendom system, the church was bound to defend, excuse, rationalize, and support the projects, policies, and agenda of those in secular power. This alliance has been catastrophic in draining the spiritual institutions of their integrity, authenticity, and faithfulness. Because the church was wedded to Rome, Christian missionaries were suppressed and persecuted in countries that were Rome’s enemies, like Persia, or, later, the Islamic world. From the crusades to slavery, from the Inquisition to the Iraq War to squeamishness about offending business interests we see in this General Assembly, the identification of the faith with a particular economic-political order has been a disaster for the church.

Today the Jewish faith is beginning to experience the same ambiguities: they too have to choose now between keeping the moral stance of their faith, and supporting the policies of their State. For the first time in two millennia, Jews relate to a sovereign, political-economic entity. And they have, unfortunately, developed the same self-righteous blindness that afflicted the Christian church for much of that time. Now they are in the habit of overlooking, defending, rationalizing, justifying, down-playing, and supporting the actions and policies of their military. They have lost the relative moral purity and integrity that accompanied independence from a particular economic-political power.

The unutterable tragedy here is that this community has endured the most horrific act of genocide in history, the Shoah or Holocaust, now chooses to horribly oppress their own neighbors. They are becoming as blind to the atrocities of their own State as we Christians have historically been to the atrocities of ours. They have ignored important parts of their own Torah almost as completely as Christians ignored the explicit teachings of Jesus. For the sake of the security of the State.

Meanwhile, the Christian church has been moving in the opposite direction. We are becoming a post-Christendom church, meaning that the marriage between church and State is deteriorating and disintegrating. One of the more miraculous and prophetic lines in The Confession of 1967 is: “the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.” That simply could not have been confessed by any Reformed church prior to the middle of the 20th century, and hasn’t been totally embraced even now.

The weaker this connection grows, the more conscious the church becomes of the excesses and weaknesses of the economic-political order in which it finds itself. A generation or two ago, the church was enthusiastic and uncritical about both Capitalism and the policies of the American government. Fortunately, over the past few decades we have decided to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus, means, among other things, standing with the oppressed of the world, no matter who they are. When Jews are victimized, we stand with them. When it is Buddhists or Hindus or atheists, we stand with them. Indigenous peoples, Gays, women, children, or whomever, we stand with them. And when it is Palestinians, we stand with them. We don't care whether the victimizers are Christians, Presbyterians, Americans, or Israelis. We still stand with the victims. Just as Jesus did. When he healed people he NEVER, in the end, cared about their politics, ethnicity, religion, social standing, or moral life. All he cared about was the suffering person before him. That is our example. That is why the church's heart goes out to the Palestinians.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Six

At the beginning of the Assembly, the then Vice-Moderator, Byron Wade, made the comment: “We are in a strange and foreign land,” and that we cannot look back. This was basically Phyllis Tickle’s point as well. Whether the assembly gets this or not I can’t tell. There are signs….

Christian Universalism.

“The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation.”

This is the opening paragraph of the Proposed New Form of Government, which got approved last night. It drew some fire at the plenary for its “universalism,” especially in the first sentence. One commissioner expressed disappointment that the proposal does not explicitly allow for an affirmation of hell. I’m serious.

Is the first paragraph “universalistic”? If so, is universalism necessarily contrary to the Christian faith?

Christian universalism is not something dreamed up by liberals in contradiction to Scripture. It is a strong current within Scripture and which has always had a place in Christian tradition. Granted, its place has usually been in the minority. But it has been there. It maintains a continual presence in Christian tradition because it shows up in Scripture, and is a result of theological logic. For example: Romans 5:18, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” If “all” means, well, all, then we have universalism. Furthermore, accepting the theological propositions that God is both good and omnipotent, then nothing can ultimately stand in the way of God’s will, which is the redemption of all creation.

The church has not yet formally and explicitly affirmed this as a basic principle of orthodox faith, preferring to balance such passages with other passages that talk about things like the separation of “the sheep from the goats,” meaning that only some are saved. (The nadir of that view was in the “double predestination” of classical Calvinism, which basically has God creating bad people simply for the fun of torturing them for all eternity.)

But Christian universalism has a long and venerable history, and includes theologians as prominent as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Karl Barth.

It may be that the theologies being developed now in the Great Emergence are going to have more use for universalistic sources and readings of Scripture, than for the more exclusive passages that have held sway since the inception of Christendom in the 4th century. Not just because people today find the hellfire-and-damnation thing hard to swallow. But because, with Christendom finished, there is no pressing reason to have hell to hold over people’s heads to inspire them to conform to the social order.
Hopeful Signs.

Hopeful signs from the Assembly today:

1) Presbyteries are urged to “establish maximum terms of call, with the proviso that congregations providing calls that exceed the maximum would contribute an amount that matched the overage to a presbytery fund to be used to support pastors in congregations of that presbytery unable to afford its minimum terms of call.” The imbalance between what ministers get paid in large churches and what they get paid in small churches is an obscenity. This starts to redress this problem.

2) A related travesty was the cap on pension dues payments that has been given to ministers making large amounts of money. This basically shifted pension and medical premiums from large, rich churches, and adding to the burden of small, poor churches. Today, this cap was finally repealed. Now wealthy churches have to pay the same 31.5% of TES into the pension/medical plan as everyone else.


The Assembly voted to send to the presbyteries for ratification a replacement of the controversial paragraph that inserted "chastity and fidelity" into the Book of Order as part of the ordination standards. But the vote was surprisingly close, given how the committee went. Now we limp into the ratification phase with an uninspiring 53-46% vote.

I have heard that some who actually supported the measure voted against it because they were afraid it was too much for presbyteries to deal with at one time, what with Belhar and the new Form of Government already approved. Whatever.


The Assembly then wandered into dementia by refusing, sort of, to face the issue of same-sex marriage. They chose instead to give us two documents to "study" for two years, I think.

The Archpriest.

I have this minor supporting role at the Assembly this year of being an "ecumenical host." This means I am supposed to keep an eye out for two Ecumenical Advisory Delegates. One is a priest from Minsk named Father Hardun. He was asked to bring greetings from his church to the Assembly tonight. In the course of his remarks he gave some mildly critical commentary on the Assembly's actions on moral issues.

Father Hardun’s remarks show one really significant difference between the Eastern and Western church. What we call “progressive revelation” is not part of their understanding as it is for us. The Orthodox are more interested in maintaining, keeping, and guarding the “deposit” of faith intact and unchanged. He even expressed the view that the Holy Spirit a) never changes, and b) is always consistent, and that goes for our moral life as well. The idea of God "doing a new thing" is pretty foreign to many Orthodox, if I understand them right.

It remains to be seen how the Orthodox deal with the issues of the Great Emergence. At the same time, Emergence Christianity incorporates much that derives from Orthodoxy. I have found a lot in Orthodoxy that has provided a creative yet authentic way out of the impasses we face in the theology of the Western church. But an understanding of the Holy Spirit as static, completed, changeless, and always consistent is probably not going to fly with Emergence Christians.

Indeed, it is this progressive revelation thing, leading to periodic paradigm shifts almost by design, that keeps the Western church engaged with its social context. This may be the reason why, as Tickle observes, these 500-year "rummage sales" seem to be a particularly Western/Latin phenomenon.


Today's preacher at Morning Worship referred in passing to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico as a “natural disaster.” Hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tornadoes are natural disasters. What we have in the Gulf is NOT a natural disaster. It is a corporate crime and atrocity of the first degree.

It is good that Bruce Reyes-Chow chose young people as preachers for Morning Worship. But what we have received so far has been mostly safe and predictable sermons that don't really address either the texts or the crisis we face, let alone what to do about it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Five

The Ecumenical Breakfast this morning featured a discussion centered on the Accra Confession. This is a very "prophetic" document -- "prophetic" here meaning extremely critical of the status quo. It was written in 2004 at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meeting in Accra, and is largely a meditation on the "slave castles" that remain as a monument to the slave trade that dominated that part of the world for several centuries. One of these horrible places has a chapel where slave owners and traders who happened to be Reformed Christians would worship. It apparently didn't occur to them at the time that there was anything at all incongruous about worshiping Jesus and selling other fellow humans into inhumane servitude.

The Accra Confession is a wall-to-wall critique of Capitalism and all it has done to wreck the lives of billions of people around the world.

It is also somewhat incongruous to analyze this document... while sitting comfortably in a luxury hotel in Minneapolis. We criticize the evil system, while at the same time casually enjoying its benefits. I don't know what to do about that, but it just doesn't feel right.

One of the speakers was a Rabbi named Barry Cytron. He made the cogent point that the document gives nothing for us to do in the way of resistance to the system it so profoundly criticizes. Then he brought up the elephant in the room, as it were, which is the suspicious connections between Calvinism, and by extension Presbyterianism, and Capitalism. Does the moral indignation of the Accra Confession lead to any kind of moral action? Or is it just talk?

For me this is the Phyllis Tickle Assembly, and she said something that may give an answer here, or at least reframe the question. She talks about the Great Reformation as something that was a vast cultural phenomenon/movement, which included many dimensions including the technological (the invention of the printing press), the opening of Africa and the Western Hemisphere to European colonization, the rise of economic Capitalism, the spread of political democracy, and the rise of Protestantism and the reaction of the Counterreformation. They were all parts of a larger movement. It is not the case that Protestantism emerged and then gave birth to Capitalism (as perhaps Max Weber would have it). There was no causal relationship; there were simply different expressions of a larger tectonic shift.

That being said we Protestants are only partially off the hook, for there remains a relationship between these dimensions. Certainly they came to influence in inform each other. And even more certainly did Protestantism embrace and rationalize economic injustice, and often continues to do so.

While we may produce stinging documents like Accra, these tend to be somewhat hollow until we find a way to more comprehensively reject these atrocities in our actual behavior, ie. by not benefiting from or perpetrating such evils today. This is very hard to do, as I noticed when I went to the Princeton Seminary luncheon and heard the talk about "endowed chairs." An endowed chair, as I understand it, is when someone gives a pile of money to be invested so the interest gained on the investment can support a faculty position. What that money is doing to deliver such a return is rarely even considered. In other words, it's hard to point the finger at our forebears who profited from slavery, when we are profiting from God-knows-what atrocities ourselves.

Is Reformed Christianity so thoroughly enmeshed in the Modern Age as to preclude it having anything intelligible to say in the 21st century? Without transformation into some almost unrecognizable form?

Later in the afternoon the Assembly approved sending the Belhar Confession to the presbyteries for approval and inclusion in the Book of Confessions. Belhar was written in South Africa as a response to Apartheid. It's good to get these challenging documents into our Constitution; it would be better to have their Spirit infuse us with energy to act in new and transformed ways. We still think we can think -- and talk -- our way into acting. This is Modernist approach in itself. Emergence Christianity I think is more interested in acting our way into new ways of thinking and talking.

The Assembly's final action for tonight was approving a new Form of Government, for approval by the presbyteries. It is a trimmed-down, streamlined, deregulated polity intended to give presbyteries and sessions more flexibility in doing mission in different contexts. As opposed to the regulatory, litigious approach that often characterizes the way our current polity is used, this new model does intentionally try to get in line with Emergence Christianity, usually under the term "missional."

One may ask why deregulation is bad when we allow it for banks and oil companies, and okay for the church. It is a good question. The only answer I can come up with right now is that the church relates to the Holy Spirit and the mission of Jesus Christ, while commercial interests are inspired and guided by the demands of money, the love of which is the root of all evil.

Checks and balances are rooted in a definite theological commitment to a specific understanding of original sin. The idea is that humans are inherently sinful. Capitalist theory is that human sinfulness will somehow cancel itself out when given free reign in the market. Regulation is necessary when the market fails. But the central idea of "total depravity" remains. People are so irredeemably bad that the best we can hope for is that we can somehow force them into a social order that allows them to do as little damage as possible.

Instead of controlling people, we need to be about healing them/us. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is based on an understanding of original sin not being so pervasive as to obliterate the image of God in humanity. The image remains and is capable of being liberated/restored by the Spirit.

The new Form of Government is a courageous attempt to move in this direction. I expect it will be very challenging and messy, if it finally passes. But it is either that or remain locked in this death-spiral into oblivion.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Four.1

I stopped in to the Presbyterians for Earth Care luncheon. Rick Ufford-Chase was the featured speaker. His talk was very loosely based on Leviticus 26:3-6.

Eco-justice and peace are the big issues of the future, he predicts. (Even Southern Baptists are getting on board.) We are in the beginnings of a movement. Social movements are like waves: they build their energy during the down times, getting ready for the wave to crest. Now the wave is about to crest, and we are ready. We've done our homework.

The approach now is to see that the local is entirely global. Now we intensify our work in local communities and churches. Rick gave several examples of churches addressing eco-justice in very concrete ways: one church is going geo-thermal, another features a new array of solar panels, another is organizing community gardens, and so on. (I am reminded of the work of GreenFaith with churches, including Christ Church in Martinsville.)

Rick put forward four principles to keep in mind in the coming days: 1) commit to a specific place and community; 2) do some bold, imaginative dreaming; 3) break every taboo about crossing barriers; and 4) defy all conventional wisdom about what is possible.

Reflection: It occurs to me that the conventional wisdom is bankrupt, the barriers are coming down, and that God might actually be waiting for us to catch up to a radical vision of what the church could be. We need to move beyond being caught, domesticated, boxed-in, locked-up, and sewn shut in our procedures, traditions, habits, and thinking. The Spirit is wild and uncontrolled (John 3:8), and so are God's people.

At this lunch I sat with someone who shared the story of a church which had been quite literally destroyed by a member (and a session that must have gone along with this) who decided to make it a memorial to his father, bankrupting the congregation in the process of restoring the building to its look in the "glory days." In attempting to build a lasting memorial to the past, the result is a building literally falling down into uselessness. Which is a fitting parable for what is going on in too many of our churches.

Reflection: What we need are feral Christians, and a Christianity that has rediscovered the wildness of the Spirit who gave it birth.

Can this happen in huge convention centers, fancy hotels, under Roberts' Rules? The Holy Spirit can do anything.

This luncheon and the PHEWA awards reception last night reminded me of how many wonderful, Spirit-filled, powerful, amazing, and transformative things are happening in our midst... almost all under the radar, along the margins, and out of institutional control, often in spite of institutional resistance.

Monday, July 5, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Three

Phyllis Tickle spoke early in the morning to practically the whole assembly. I am so glad that such a wide representation is getting exposed to her perspective.

Emergence Christianity is here. It doesn't matter whether we like or agree with it or not. It is now our context and we will have to either join or adapt.

The Emergence Christianity perspective was summed up for Tickle by a 17 year old who, upon hearing her talk about the Virgin Birth, made the comment: "The story is so beautiful it has to be true, whether it happened or not." (Which reminds me of Karl Barth's comment that the fact of the talking snake in Genesis is not important... what is important is what the snake said.) Emergence Christianity is not interested in dogma, especially "systematic" dogma; it is interested in narratives.

She talked about the Jerusalem/Antioch friction in Acts (which is a focus of Ray Anderson's book on emergent theology. These two churches did not agree on theology or practice, but they maintained their connection. It is always incumbent upon the established church to be open to the new expression.

The new form of church is described as hubs, nodes, pods, cells.

Brian McLaren's book, A Generous Orthodoxy, is "the 95 theses of Emergence Christianity." Rowan Williams: "We are not here to save the church; we are here to serve the Kingdom of God."

Tickle says that 20 million Americans experience church entirely on the web.

Things like "church membership" are a product of Protestantism. But in a web membership doesn't matter. Participants are bound to each other in different ways. Community replaces membership. Membership assumes an institution.

She didn't go into the whole "sola scriptura is over" thing at this session, which is just as well since it was a room full of Presbyterians sitting at tables full of cutlery.

Tickle spoke again later to a room packed with middle governing body staff.

Emergence theory says that organizations are flattening; they're becoming all horizontal, with no hierarchy. Emergence is by definition lateral and communal.

Emergence Christianity wants to get back to the sensibility of the 1st century, before Christendom.

Tickle talked about the history and pre-history of Emergence Christianity. There is a draw to Anglicanism. There is an original rootedness in evangelicalism, but this is now severed and becoming increasingly antagonistic. Then she told a story I am somewhat ashamed I never heard before, about the birth of Pentacostalism in Los Angeles in 1906. An African-American preacher named William Seymour moved to LA from Mississippi and started preaching in an abandoned Methodist church on Azuza Street. It was in this place that, Tickle says, "the Spirit descended," with documented cases of glossolalia, xenolalia, and healing miracles. Pentacostalism was gender inclusive and equal, had racial diversity, and was egalitarian.

She mentioned Joachim of Flora, the 13th century mystic who predicted three stages of the church. 2000 years of the Father (the Old Testament), 2000 years of the Son (the period since Jesus), and 2000 years of the Spirit (now beginning).

Anyway, who knew that I would come to General Assembly and have a chance to blog about Joachim of Flora?

Seminaries are over. So is ordination.

Tickle kind of places in a way wider perspective everything else happening around here at this big meeting. On to Tuesday....

Sunday, July 4, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Two.1

This morning I went to something called "Being Church Leaders In a Time of re-Formation" with Phyllis Tickle as the featured speaker. When I got there I was surprised to see that it was sponsored by The Presbyterian Foundation, of all things, and included a free breakfast. My assessment of the Foundation was elevated a couple of notches.
Tickle spoke without notes on ideas based on her book The Great Emergence. She started by rattling off a long list of circumstances indicating the kind of enormous, wall-to-wall shift we are going through right now culturally. Her point was that this is not just a church or Christianity thing; these changes, which are the Great Emergence she is talking about, are happening across the board to everyone. From technology to the family to geo-politics to (and she didn't even mention this) ecological crises, we are in a time when everything is being disrupted.
Tickle points out that, for some reason, this kind of thing tends to happen almost like clockwork in places where Latin/Western culture has had an impact, every 500 years. The last such period was the Reformation/Enlightenment. What she calls "emergence Christianity" is part of this transformation as its Christian, ecclesiological dimension.
Tickle points to the work of Walter Rauschenbusch as the beginning of the ticks towards emergence (I add that of Kierkegaard, around the same time), in the mid-1800's). The movement is not unified but already splintering. One of these splinters is the "hyphenateds," that is, groups of Christians doing emergent things while remaining loyal to their old denominations.
She gave 8 broad and uncomprehensive characteristics of emergence Christianity: deinstutitionalized, non-hierarchical, "allergic to real estate," missional, obedient, Trinitarian (learning from Eastern Orthodoxy, she says), and concerned about social justice. On this last point, she went on a bit, describing emergence Christians as critical of the "inhumane kindness" approach of many Christians to mission as a kind of paternalistic, charitable, one-way generosity, which preserves power inequalities. Emergence Christians are more interested in identifying with and building relationships between people.
Her main point, perhaps, was about authority. Each one of these cultural transformations is a crisis of authority. Our authority in Protestantism since the Reformation has been sola scriptura. Tickle broke it to us as gently as she could, but she insisted that sola scriptura no longer holds. It has been breaking down for at least a century under the weight of contradictory experience. The gift to the world we received with sola scriptura was education; the liability was extreme divisiveness. The authority question is one that emergence Christians will have to answer. She maintains that Scripture will always be part of the mix. Another part is shaping up to be the community. (See my blog post on Wiki-theology.) A third leg of the authority stool has yet to be determined. (I think it's going to have something to do with practice.) (This is based on "Hooker's stool" which informs historical Anglicanism: scripture, tradition, and reason, the last two categories being now inadequate.)
If authority is the big question, Tickle identifies 3 not quite so big questions: 1. we need a post-Christendom theology of religion which can be authentically Christian, accepting of other faiths, and not wedded to the State and its politics. 2. We need a theological anthropology which allows us to talk intelligibly about what a human being, and in particular what the soul, is. 3. We need a way of talking about the Atonement that makes sense, now that penal- substitution is bankrupt. The Atonement "is how and where we live."
Tickle identifies the following theologians as among those whose work reflects this emergence sensibility: Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Cox, Moltmann, Volf, and McLaren. I didn't get the impression it was an exhaustive list.
I hope people heard her. Judging from the discussion with moderatorial candidates the evening before, much of the church is out of the loop on this, the most important and comprehensive "elephant in the room" right now. We're still trying to resuscitate the corpse of the old paradigm.


From there we went to worship. I found worship to be wonderful, on the whole. It began with some Native American elements: blessing the Four Directions. There was colorful liturgical dance and a procession. The music was excellent: a mixture of many different styles. Bruce Reyes-Chow preached a stirring if somewhat unfocused sermon. Great images, memorable stories, sobering facts... but not much gospel. It is hard to worship authentically in these cavernous conference spaces sitting in cramped straight rows of folding chairs.

We do try hard to be multi-cultural, to our credit... but we remain aging and overwhelmingly white. Still I imagine this worship was light-years from what my father and grandfather experienced in the General Assemblies they attended.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day One

One of the Young Adult Advisory Delegates was giving a prayer opening the evening session of the assembly. I think she misspoke when she said "help us to learn from the future." Whether she meant to say it or not I think it was the Voice of the Holy Spirit breaking through. Learning from the future is what we need to do. There isn't much we can learn from our past, besides a lot of what not to do. Our situation today is breaking in ways that make a lot of the past irrelevant. And the present is confused and disintegrated. The future is where Jesus is calling us from, as always. I think we need to pay attention to what kind of a church we will be tomorrow.

The commissioners to this assembly are 96% white. This after two generations of trying intentionally to become more diverse and multi-cultural. One moderatorial candidate pointed this out, noting that whites will be a minority in America in about a decade. As long as we retain our Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, rationalist, Modern, institutional, Christendom framework, our denomination is fated to decline. It's almost a demographic necessity.

That candidate, Jin S. Kim, is the Pastor at the Church of All Nations here in Minneapolis. He also gave one of the most powerful and courageous sermons I ever heard, at General Assembly two years ago. It is interesting that he gave a complicated response to one of the few questions of any substance that were raised during the question-and-answer period, on same-sex-marriage. He tried to speak globally, out of his experience in a wildly multi-cultural congregation, noting that in Africa the controversy is over cultural polygamy. I think he was trying to say that if we don't uphold traditional (ie. one-man/one-woman) marriage here, we will have less integrity upholding it in places like Africa. Or something like that.

Actually, of all the Moderatorial candidates, Kim's presentation was by far the most acute and thoughtful analysis of the current situation in the church. He made a critique along the lines of others in terms of our need to get out of the Eurocentric mindset. I wonder if he includes the issue of full-inclusion of GLBT Christians as part of that. In the end, he may have come across as too challenging and even negative. The assembly also may simply not care how their decisions are going over with Africans.

This little exchange confirmed my view that the future of the church is probably not in the room at assemblies like this. Not even among the young adults. The future of the church is outside the building, outside the institution, outside the tradition, outside the comfort zone of our current demographic. If the denomination has a future it is probably not with white, middle-class people.

But GLBT inclusion is not just a hobby of white liberals; it is an implementation of the love we see in Jesus. Kim is too smart not to realize that polygamy is contrary to Christian values because it is an unequal dispensation of power.

Anyway, the new Moderator of our church is Cynthia Bolbach, from Arlington VA. She was probably the most liberal of the candidates. She was the only non-minister. And she made the best jokes. What this predicts about how the assembly will go is anyone's guess.