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

Thursday, July 26, 2018

National Missions.

The church remains subject on many levels to confusion about what it’s mission is.  In the past few decades in the Presbyterian Church, we have seen a division between two understandings.  
One is based on Matthew 28:18-20: “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and win souls for Jesus.”

The other focuses on Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ long parable of the Last Judgment when nations are assessed according to their service to the needy.  Here’s how it ends:  “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and serve the needy.”

In spite of the obvious fact that the same man says both of these things within a few days, the church has managed to completely miss the point and choose up sides over which one to follow to the exclusion of the other.

But maybe, just maybe, Jesus intends for his church to do both.  Maybe we are to make disciples and serve the needy.  Maybe they are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.  Maybe we get people to follow Jesus by serving the needy; maybe we serve the needy by getting people to follow Jesus.  

One of the things both passages have in common is that they concern “the nations.”  In Matthew 28 the nations are the target of Jesus’ mission; in Matthew 25 it is the nations that are judged by their ministry to the needy.  “Nations” (in Greek, ethne) is a term used in the New Testament to refer to the various peoples who had been conquered, subjugated, and colonized by Rome: regional ethnic groups which were repressed by the reigning superpower of the time.   

This undercuts the view that Jesus is not about “politics,” that he was only talking to individuals, which means we have no business extending his teachings into national policy.  Jesus, of course, did not live in a context in which the people had a formal say in government.  Nobody got to vote for the Emperor; Rome was not a democracy.  And certainly he did not start by addressing imperial policy, which would have been pointless and ridiculous.  Yet he is always talking about politics in the sense of how we live and make decisions together.  Jesus gathers communities with specific characteristics like equality, sharing, compassion, welcoming, forgiveness, and healing.  In other words, Jesus advocates the opposite of Roman policy, which was inequality, division, exploitation, and repression. 

So, in Matthew 28 Jesus is saying, in effect, “Go to all these oppressed and exploited peoples and teach them to gather together in alternative communities, to follow my way of service, sharing, and equality.”  And in Matthew 25 he is saying, “In the end, nations will be judged according to how well they implemented my way of service, sharing, and equality towards the needy.”  

In other words, oppressed nations had first to accept their humiliated, conquered, defeated status, and minister then to the victimized and destitute in their own midst.  They had to identify, not with Rome in envy and denial, but they had to see themselves in the needy losers among them.  In this Jesus is just extrapolating on the basic fact of the Hebrew Scriptures, that they were written by and for escaped slaves.  The Bible gives a voice to the lynched, defeated, bereft, and diseased.  If the nations received and adopted Jesus’ teachings and practices, they would thrive and endure.  If they reversed course and sought not to be as strong and violent as Rome, but ministered instead to their own broken siblings, they would have God’s life.  If not, they would burn, as is the sad fate of all societies that do not live by God’s justice.

In light of all this, the mission of the church is focused on discipleship that welcomes and serves, heals and forgives, gathers and sends.  I do not believe we have to choose between conversion to Christianity and merely doing social welfare work.  We have to do both simultaneously.  “Making disciples” does not mean merely getting people to join the church or become Christians; it is to bring people to participate in our work of serving others.  Neither is attending to the needy a spiritually neutral responsibility; it is an expression and reflection of faith in Jesus.  

Finally, it is important to note that the “others” with whom Jesus is most concerned are those who are not regularly served by social institutions.  The nations must have been ignoring “the least of these,” or Jesus would not have brought them up.  Some hurting folks are well-served by our civil institutions already.  We pray for and sympathize with them.  But Jesus calls us to give most of our attention to those others who are not getting help elsewhere.  


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

PCUSA GA 223 + The Last Days.

This Assembly reminds me of the movie, Awakenings.  In that film we see a group of people so mentally ill as to be catatonic and unresponsive.  But due to some new medication, they all wake up and lead normal happy engaged lives… for a short time.  Eventually the medicine stops working and the sink back into their original vegetative state.
The debate on “The Way Forward” was mind-numbingly oppressive, in spite of attempts to make it seem like The Answer to Everything.  As if turning our money over to the purported adults in the room to administer wisely is going to renew and invigorate the whole denomination.  The Way Forward does little more than rearrange the corporate bureaucracy, adding another layer in the process, while taking toys away from the PMA and its board.  (They have still to explain their flushing $2M down the toilet of high priced lawyers for no apparent reason, in the “1001” debacle of 3 years ago, a circumstance which probably more than anything else brought them to this imposition of an ecclesiastical time-out.)
Had there been a real alternative the discussion might have been interesting.  But in a choice between the incompetent PMA and the “new idea” of giving them corporate overlords, the assembly went along with the latter, at least in part out of universal cluelessness and confusion over how this denomination really works.  Or not.

Just as the Lord Jesus says that we may not serve two masters, but must necessarily choose to follow either God or money, this General Assembly is trying to choose between two mutually exclusive “New Ways Forward.”  
One of these ways was in evidence on Tuesday, with the amazing and powerful movement of the Spirit in the march to the jail.  I really thought the new PCUSA was being born there and then.  
But there was always this other putative way “forward,” which is really backward.  That was the drag of gravity and inertia back into a constricted, constipated, complacent, and corporate institution, concerned mainly with nostalgia, quantitative gain, and self-preservation.  
On Thursday, we apparently turned the management of the denomination over to a corporate board of trustees.  This seemed like the only way to solve a protracted and debilitating mess at the top of the bureaucracy.  We are assured that they are only going to allocate resources more efficiently, and that this will set us free to do mission better.  We’ll see.  Fiduciaries tend to focus on profit, in my experience. 
On Friday, however, the Old Way Backward was resoundingly affirmed as the assembly kept a firm grip on its “seat at the table” by retaining its support of, and continuing to profit from, the worst industry on the planet.  Thus it remains the case that the thousands of deaths, the extensive degradation of land, air, and water, the acceleration of destructive climate change, and the radical inequalities, injustices, and disorder that is the essence of the fossil fuel industry’s business plan, remain on us.  
As glorious as it was to be a Presbyterian on Tuesday, it is shameful to be one on Friday.
When this denomination finally folds up and withers with a confused whimper and vanishes into an obscure footnote in church history, let it be known that its ignominious end was guaranteed at 2 pm on June 22, 2018.  For that is when we had the opportunity to turn and follow the Creator, and chose instead to give Jesus the finger and follow the money instead.  We chose the way of the Sadducees, selling our birthright for a seat at their table, and giving a lie to all the now mostly meaningless verbiage of the rest of the meeting.
A lot more ended today.  The once hopeful initiatives like the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and especially the group called Mission Responsibility Through Investment, have lost all credibility.  I remember when these groups were imaginative and radical efforts to bring silenced voices into the conversation.  But now their legacy is the craven and cowardly selling-out to power we saw today.  If it occurs to our new corporate leadership that “adaptive change” means terminating the expensive existence of these impotent entities, that will be fine with me.
In choosing a seat at the table soaked in blood, tears, glacier-melt, and petrochemicals, we have chosen the ideology of lies and scarcity, extraction and colonialism, inequality and extinction over the truth of the gospel.  We have embraced and invested in the Doctrine of Discovery with an enthusiastic vengeance.  
At this point, why should we stop here?  The same arguments we heard today about the fossil fuel industry could be — and indeed once were — made about the tobacco, firearms, and alcohol industries, and companies profiting from the oppression and murder of Palestinians and South Africans.  Why not get ourselves back at those tables while we’re at it?  Indeed, why not invest in pornography, which is apparently really profitable?  Imagine that table!  Since it’s all about the money, why not figure out a way to invest in illegal drug cartels?  
If MRTI et al deign to finally recommend divestment in 2020, it won’t matter.  Their gig is over.
This week we’re talking a lot about “Kindom.”  Apparently, it’s just talk.  In reality we’re with the Empire: Pharaoh, Caesar, and ExxonMobil.

One little but bright light at the General Assembly is that we are now firmly with the Palestinians.  Even something that could be controversial, like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was affirmed with such a large majority in committee that it was passed in plenary on the Consent Agenda.  When many on the committee departed for the march on Tuesday, the remaining members managed to insert words critical of Hamas in a resolution on Gaza.  On Friday the plenary resoundingly removed them and made it clear that the massacres of civilians in the permanent siege of Gaza are entirely Israel’s responsibility.  The pro-Israeli lobby doesn’t even bother with us anymore.  
Four short years ago in Detroit this was armageddon.  Today, it’s over.  It was not easy to get here.  MRTI stood in the way for years on this as well, defending the profitability of check-points and the torturing of children.  But we can, apparently, oppose colonialism and apartheid.  So there is that hope.  That we can on occasion follow Jesus, eventually.

Finally, after arguing and fighting over sex for half a century, this denomination has also reached a consensus on that.  Two years ago, when support for same-sex marriage blew through the plenary with a substantial majority, it was clear that we were in a new place.  Votes on these issues used to be hard-fought and razor-thin.
Of course, this happened because the right wing largely departed in many local property battles.  
The question is now what?  In Detroit and Portland it seemed like the next fault line was going to be Israel-Palestine, an issue that split the left.  This year, not so much.
We are a denomination in which most churches are small, but most members are in large churches.  Look for the corporate leadership to ally with bigger, richer congregations.  (Frank Spencer, the President of the Board of Pensions, referencing his preface to the new book by former Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, practically proclaimed this strategy as he channelled Steve Jobs in his talk early in the week, after we all dined on steak and salmon.)  
So, I anticipate a wave of small church closures, with the assets going to support the already rich ones.  Expect a wave of mergers, making churches and presbyteries large enough to support corporate staffing models and make hefty per capita payments.  The vision (I guess) is of vibrant large churches as regional hubs of mission.
My fear is that this vision is another manifestation of The Old Way Backward, as we try to resuscitate the corpse of the Christendom model.  For some of us this was exemplified by the Big Presbyterian Church on the Green we still see situated in many towns.  Spencer draws a broad swath from Washington DC to Dallas, insisting that this is the region we need to cultivate since it is growing and people there still go to church.  If this is anything more faithful than mindless and sterile nostalgia for the glory days of the PCUS I will be surprised.
  What this model will do to our diversity is anyone’s guess.  But there is no alternative vision right now.  And we have seen at this assembly what happens when only one solution is presented to a problem.
(But then perhaps there is hope in the multicultural stew that may be beginning to bubble in the Northeast….)              

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Jesus Prayer Finally Shows Up in a Presbyterian Resource.

The new edition of the Book of Common Worship came out a few weeks ago.  On page 448 of the “Daily Prayer” edition is a paragraph called “Contemplative Prayer.”  Here we find the brief text of the classic Jesus Prayer, followed by a succinct history and explanation.

Thus finally emerges, more or less officially, into the Reformed tradition a core practice of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, one that has the power to transform individuals and the whole church.

The Jesus Prayer, in its most common form, has 12 words (in English):  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

I have personally used this prayer regularly in my own spiritual life since I discovered it about 40 years ago.  It has been my mantra, my refuge, my lifeline, and my bedrock.  It is the home in which I rest, especially when everything around me is disintegrating.  It is my castle.

There are times now that my mind will clear of the extraneous detritus and chatter, and I will discover the prayer already there, flowing on in some subterranean level of my soul, like a clear stream.  Its flow reassures me of its, and therefore my, ultimate connection to the Sea of God’s infinite compassion.

The prayer is not magic.  It will not protect and preserve one from all confusion or harm.  It hasn’t done that for me, at any rate.  My mortal existence still has many characteristics of a train wreck.  But the prayer sort of functions like the reminder and hope that Jesus gives in the second phrase of each beatitude.  That is where we hear, balancing and blessing the losses and the offerings, about the comforts and rewards of God’s Kingdom.

The prayer is ultimately about mercy.  Not in the sense of a retribution withheld, though there is that, God knows.  But this is more the mercy that spreads like a safety net beneath us all, the outflow of compassion that holds the world in a strong embrace, the divine love at the heart of all things.  

Most importantly, it is not a prayer of lack or scarcity.  It does not ask for something we do not have.  But it asks that I rest in the Truth of a love that is already here and everywhere, but which I usually don’t see.

Finally, the prayer is a repetition of the Name of Jesus.  The shortest version of the prayer is simply that, “Jesus.”  He is the One who embodies and expresses God’s love, pouring it into our hearts by the Spirit.  We are praying for his Presence to awaken within us as our true selves.  We are praying to become who we really and most deeply are, finding our True Humanity in him by his Name.

So, here it is, Presbyterians.  The Jesus Prayer.  It’s the almost absurdly uncomplicated doorway to Life.  Use it.