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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2013 Fall Polity Conference + Day One.



            This year’s conference is in Detroit, a city under a dictatorship imposed by the Governor.  Why is it that when a city goes broke it is the banks, not the people who actually did the work, who get reimbursed?  As I write this a story comes on the news about retired city workers having their health care benefits slashed as part of the austerity that is supposed to save the city.  It is, of course, only the poor and the workers who get this dubious “salvation”.    
            None of this is at all apparent when one arrives here at the spectacular Renaissance Center, where stands the luxury hotel hosting this event.  For a denomination with such breathtaking money problems we still manage routinely to install ourselves into places Jesus wouldn’t be caught dead in, facilities where Herod or Pilate or Caesar would be more at home than the Lord.

            Anyway, we began with worship, and a sermon by Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.  Gradye chose an odd selection of texts, starting with Isaiah 7, where the prophet encourages King Ahaz to stand firm while under attack by two other kings, Reza and Pekah.  “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’  But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’”
            (Gradye began by recounting the larger context of how the kingdom of David and Solomon got split into two.  I’m not sure why.  We all know the story.  Was he trying to advise is to listen to the wise elders as opposed to the hot-headed young men?  I hardly think we got where we are as a denomination because we listened too much to young people.)
            Gradye concentrated on Ahaz’ refusal to ask the Lord for a sign.  Ahaz was probably justifiably afraid of what the Lord might say.  But Isaiah wanted to share a hopeful and positive word from the Lord.  (Eventually, the prophet shares the sign from God anyway: it is the famous “Behold, a virgin will conceive” passage, predicting the defeat and disappearance of the two threatening powers.)
            Then he moved to Revelation 21, where John of Patmos recounts part of his vision: “Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’”  God says, “It is done.”  But Gradye wondered if our sign is precisely that it is not done.  That is, presumably, given the context of his remarks, the ministry of this denomination.  It is not done.
            This is what Isaiah had to say to Ahaz.  Judah is not done.  Someday it will be done, as John foresaw.  But we have to “live into” Isaiah’s vision as it is being fulfilled. 
            I get his point.  This is a time in our history when Presbyterians need to hear that we are not finished, irrelevant, washed-up, and over.  Instead of living in a fear of the future based the recent past, like Ahaz, let’s remember what God is building and see ourselves as part of that.

            After worship, Gradye gave a brief State of the Church message, reporting that 62 congregations have left our communion so far in 2013.  Frankly, I thought this would be much worse, given the hype.  Then he accentuated the positive: the Youth Triennium last summer was a triumph.  He is finding that people are hungry to be challenged to do more than attend meetings.  We have sold an amazing 240K copies of the new hymnal.  We are serving many people beyond ourselves.
            He asked, “What does it mean to be in covenantal relationship with each other?”  We have to think of our connectedness as “more symbiotic than transactional.”  In other words, we should cultivate relationships built on mutual support and nourishment, rather than the cold calculus of exchange.

            The keynote presentation was given by Corey Schlosser-Hall, the Executive in the North Puget Sound Presbytery.  Corey started by proclaiming this an exciting time to be in mid-Council ministry, and proposing that we shape the emotional climate to make this time fruitful.  He used the image of a “convergence zone” where two or more different streams are coming together.  It is like the meeting of two weather systems or the confluence of rivers.  We have to choose which flow to go with.  What kind of leadership will shape and guide our mid-Councils?
            We need to shape an ecosystem for aspiration.  In other words, we need to shape our life together according to where we want to go…
            …As opposed to where we have been, which is a major distraction for Presbyterians.  Rather than wallow in grief for what we once were, how about realizing that what we have now is worth choosing.  Corey quoted someone to the effect that “complaining is stupid; either act or forget.”  Reminds me of Yoda. 
            Corey favors cultivating the “big, pragmatic, moderate middle” of the church.  “We can be a beacon of hope if we could only get over ourselves.”
            He has a different experience of the middle than I do; my perception of the middle is a very depressed and recalcitrant place, where everyone is keeping their head down, cherishing memories of the good old days.  But maybe that’s unique to me.
            Corey wants us to intentionally choose a different stream than that of stress.  We should get together and throw a party to celebrate those who are taking risks for mission.  I think he’s right.  But more often we throw the book at such people.  I’m just saying.
            The theme of building mid-Councils into aspirational ecosystems was central to Corey’s remarks.  His talk was punctuated by the music of U2.  One song says “what you don’t have you don’t need it now.”  We should not be waiting for the answer to come form somewhere else.  Rather there is a posture, an attitude, an orientation – habits of mind and heart – that we would do well to develop and feed.  It is about facing the future.  Aspiration is imitation-worthy, he said, touching on a mimetic note.  We have to be a part of whatever God is calling us into.  Decline and negativity only create more decline and negativity.
            Corey asked about how often we are “playing offense,” meaning taking the good news to the world, as contrasted with sitting deep in our own territory and withstanding the world’s assault.
            After the break he got on even more of a roll.  Often the shoots of new growth don’t fit.  Innovation, by definition, doesn’t fit.  Listen to what is happening on the fringes. 
            Okay, we were in the broad middle, now we’re on the fringes.  I agree with him on the latter; our answers are going to come from unlikely places and people; that’s the gospel; that’s where positive change comes from in the New Testament.  Corey rhetorically asked if anything generative can come out of a committee – and he actually got a few people to say yes to this.  But most such initiatives do not grow out of our present structures, which are more designed to preserve and maintain (verbs pervading the Great Ends of the Church, btw). 
            Rather, exciting stuff emerges from individuals and unstructured gatherings and friendships.  Often they break in from the outside.  And we try to make it fit, which can kill them.
            Somehow we have to nurture a “mixed economy” of ministry.  Our present “congregational” model is only about 150 years old; different forms of the church have to be cultivated today.  He gave the example of the “Fresh Expressions” movement in the UK.  We can’t assume that the inherited forms are the only forms for he future.  We need more experimentation.  “How courageous does your presbytery encourage people to be?”
            A good question.  Having attended this meeting for 14 years, I can say that  a presentation like Corey’s would have been unthinkable not too long ago.  Presbyteries encouraged people and churches to be anything but courageous.  It was always more about fitting into the inherited box, defined by our polity, bureaucracy, and theology.  Fortunately, this has changed.  But how much has it changed back home?  Are there actually presbyteries that encourage courage?  Where courageous innovators don’t have to keep their heads down, stay under the radar, and keep out of the sight of the rules guys?  Maybe.
            What keeps us from aspiring?  Corey focused on shame, which I thought was interesting.  Is there something about us that just isn’t worthy?  What if we don’t get it “right”?  What if we fail?  Failure is shameful.
            Corey quoted a writer named Bernay Brown.  “The whole-hearted believe they are worthy of living that way.”  It is like the willingness of a person to say “I love you” first, not knowing the response or how it is going to turn out.  God is telling us, “I got this.”
            All in all, Corey is telling us a lot of what we have heard before about getting the church out of its Titanic mode.               

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