(Reblog) Misrepresentations about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PC(USA) Seal (Color)I would like to write a few words this morning about the denomination in which I am ordained: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Like all mainline Protestant churches in this country, we have had no small share in controversy, conflict, and schism.  The current hot-button issues are the ordination and marriage of non-celibate LGBT members in our churches.  Partly because of these issues, but mostly because of the theological and exegetical differences that underlie their discussion, some members, pastors, and churches in the PC(USA) have felt led to separate from our denomination and align themselves with another one (i.e. the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)).

Those who know me or read this blog probably already know where I stand, but just in case there are any first-time visitors, here it is again:

  • I am a theologically liberal Christian who wholeheartedly supports the full recognition of equality in ordination and marriage for LGBT Presbyterians.
  • I wholeheartedly support the right of individual Christians and congregations to discern the will of God for themselves, even if that discernment leads them to leave the PC(USA).

As I’ve said before: It’s not my job to take anyone’s Bible (or Church) away from them; I simply desire the same right for myself.  As such, I encourage the establishment of “Gracious Dismissal” policies in our presbyteries that will allow departing congregations to maintain control over their buildings and investment accounts.  Such policies, I believe, will help us sow  seeds of reconciliation for the future and preserve the integrity of the public witness of the Church by eschewing open conflict in a court of law.  The Church is bigger than any one denomination.  We would do well to remember this part of our ecumenical heritage.

That being said, I think that some of those who are leaving have, in their anger, overstated their case against the PC(USA) and misrepresented the denomination in their literature (some of which is distributed to churches whether they want it or not).  They claim that the PC(USA) is being run by liberal heretics who care nothing for the authority of scripture, the historic faith of the church catholic, or the Reformed tradition.  I believe this is patently untrue.

Why do I believe this?  Because I am a liberal and I have just as many problems with current theological and political trends in our denomination as many of my evangelical brothers and sisters do.  I wish there was a liberal agenda in play on the General Assembly level, but there isn’t much of one that I can see.  Honestly, I think that’s probably a good thing.  The Church is bigger than any one institution or theological viewpoint (including my own).

I don’t think I’m the kind of pastor who should be forming and shaping policy for the whole denomination.  That task should be left to more conciliatory voices like that of our current Moderator: Rev. Dr. Neal Presa.  His is a job that I don’t want.  Liberals like me represent one prophetic wing of the Church, just as our evangelical colleagues represent another.  I hope that both voices will continue to be heard in the PC(USA) by those who make policy.

The document linked below has been produced by our denomination to address some of the misrepresentations currently being propagated by some.  I find it well worth reading.  Submitted for your edification:

Reblogged from pcusa.org:

The Office of the General Assembly has had an increase in the number of inquiries about printed materials from outside of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), being distributed within congregations, that ascribe to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) beliefs and standards which are meant to show that the church is no longer worthy of support. Over the past years the list of these misrepresentations have varied little and most have been answered in detail in the religious press, study papers adopted by the church or by specific action of the General Assembly. Whenever possible, the Office of the General Assembly directs those who inquire about specific conclusions drawn by these papers to resources which give a broader understanding of the issues.

Typically the materials being circulated focus on four broad areas of concern, each of which speaks to the core of who we are as a denomination and a covenant community. In response to these recent inquiries, we remind the church about who the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is both historically and in our current ministry.

Click here to read the whole article in .pdf format

Small Victories in Oklahoma

Nothing can undo or outweigh the horrible weight of what happened yesterday in Oklahoma. Please send prayers, good thoughts, and material assistance as you are able. Even so, may you find some hope as you watch this video and remember, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is a highly worthy organization to give to, even if you’re not Presbyterian, even if you’re not religious.  they have one of the best reputations worldwide for long-term disaster relief.  They keep working long after the cameras have stopped rolling.  For example, we still have teams assisting in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Click here to donate to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Click here for the PDA Situation Report on the OK, Tornado

(Reblog) A Travesty of American Governance

ImageThis comes from the Office of Public Witness, part of the denomination I serve: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I found this article on Facebook when it was shared by Bruce Reyes-Chow, former Moderator of our General Assembly.

From the article by J. Herbert Nelson:

“Our mission is not to make the poor become rich; nor is it to demonize the rich. Our mission is to ensure that the playing field is leveled. Every human being deserves to have enough.”

Click here to read the full article

The Great Ends of the Church: The Preservation of the Truth

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

These are the words that rattled around inside Peter’s head.  They were troubling, even disturbing.  The implications of these words would shape the future of Christianity and the world for millennia.

These words came to Peter in a vision he had while meditating one morning on the roof of a house.  The Bible records his vision as a very clear and vivid experience, but I tend to think it was probably more fluid and subtle when it first happened.  I bet it started with a hunch, a nagging feeling in the back of Peter’s head that just wouldn’t leave him alone.  In time, this hunch gave way to a particular mental image, which was then summed up in this single phrase, arising from the depths of Peter’s subconscious mind.

Peter’s vision, as the Bible records it, went like this:

He was meditating on the roof of his friend’s house when he saw a sheet come down out of heaven with several ritually unclean animals on it.  Then a voice came from the sky saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

This was a big deal for him.  This voice, which Peter identified with the voice of God, was telling him to go against the cultural traditions of his people.  There were certain animals they just weren’t supposed to eat.  It wasn’t “the way they’d always done things.”  Even more than that, the vision went against everything Peter had been taught from the Bible in his youth.  According to Jewish dietary laws in the Torah, known as Kashrut, there were certain animals that God had commanded the Jews not to eat.  So, from Peter’s perspective, the voice of God in this vision was asking him to do something that went against everything he’d read in the Bible.  This was a problem for a good Jewish boy.

Just think about that: even today, we continue to look to the Bible as the primary source of inspiration for our faith.  The Bible holds an honored place in our churches and our worship services.  Its authority was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and continues to sit at the center of our Presbyterian tradition.  What would we say if some preacher showed up denouncing the Bible’s authority on a Sunday morning?  We’d be pretty upset.  So you can imagine how Peter must have felt when he heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

As it turns out, the vision wasn’t actually about food at all.  Coincidentally, just as Peter was having this vision, there was a knock at the door.  A group of people arrived who would take Peter to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, not a Jew, who wanted to convert to Christianity.  Cornelius’ conversion turned out to be the tip of an iceberg that would transform Christianity into a truly multicultural religious movement in the early centuries of the Church’s existence.

Peter determined pretty quickly that his vision wasn’t really about kosher food at all, but kosher people.  The message he took from his experience is that the kingdom of heaven is a community where all people are welcome, regardless of their ethnic origins or adherence to Jewish ritual laws.  This welcoming event, far from being accepted by all, became the Christian Church’s first controversial debate in history.  Church leaders back then were as divided over the issue of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together as current church leaders are now divided over the issue of same-sex marriage.  After two thousand years, the issues have changed but the process remains the same.

I made us of Peter’s vision this week because this is the fourth week in our series on the six Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve already looked at the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, and the maintenance of divine worship as three Great Ends of the Church.  This week, we’re looking at a fourth one: the preservation of the truth.

Now, this is an aspect of church life that Presbyterians have specialized in over the centuries.  We’ve always been an intellectual bunch.  We like to bring our brains to church.  So, you can imagine that questions of truth tend to factor rather highly in the Presbyterian mind.

In the past (and sometimes in the present), we’ve done such a good job at caring about the truth that our theological debates have led to fights, which have in turn led to church schisms.  At one point, there were so many different Presbyterian denominations in the United States that people started jokingly referring to our tradition as the “Split P Soup” (P is for Presbyterian).  Each and every one of these separate denominations claimed to be the one true Presbyterian Church while all the others were simply heretics.

Starting in the mid-twentieth century,  the largest group of American Presbyterians, then called the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, came up with a new way of expressing its relationship to the idea of theological truth: they adopted a Book of Confessions in place of a single statement of faith.

Before the 1960s, American Presbyterians had almost uniformly looked to a series of documents called the Westminster Standards as the summary of what they believed and taught.  The Westminster Standards included a confession of faith, two catechisms for teaching theology to young people in Q&A format, and a directory for planning and leading worship.

These documents, so it was said, presented the summary of Presbyterian teaching in a single voice.  But the problem is that Presbyterians, going all the way back to John Calvin himself, have always acknowledged that there are other legitimate believers in other churches around the world who don’t necessarily know about or follow the Westminster Confession.  In fact, John Calvin himself never read the Westminster Confession or called himself a Presbyterian.  In recognition of this fact, American Presbyterians in the twentieth century adopted a collection of multiple statements of faith from various times and places around the world.  Taken together, these documents present a composite picture of what we value and believe.  All have equal authority as confessions of the church.  No single statement perfectly summarizes what we think.  Many of these statements even disagree with one another.  Moreover, our Book of Confessions is not a closed book; it can be added to.  The last document to be added was the Brief Statement of Faith, which was added in 1991.  As recently as 2010, our denomination has contemplated adding yet another document: the Belhar Confession from South Africa, although this document failed to achieve the 2/3rds majority vote to be included in the book.

The many documents that now comprise our Book of Confessions are taken together as “subordinate standards” and “expositions” of what the Bible teaches.  We acknowledge that these documents are not perfect, they can be mistaken in their interpretations.  Nevertheless, we include them in our book because we feel they are important.  They are the first, outer layer of church tradition that we embrace and honor as our own.

The next level down from the Book of Confessions in our preservation of the truth is the Bible itself.  This is the big one for most Protestants.  We view the Bible as the inspired and authoritative witness to the Living Word of God revealed in Jesus.  Some have supposed this means that the Bible itself contains no errors of a doctrinal or historical nature.

While I respect such folks’ reverence for the biblical text, I’m not inclined to agree with them about the Bible being inerrant or infallible.  These folks claim that the Bible speaks with a single voice on all matters and serves as the final, debate-ending source to quote in a theological argument.

However, reality is much more complicated than that.  First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice about anything because it’s not a single document.  The Bible is a library.  Like the Book of Confessions, the Bible is a collection of many different documents produced by different people in different places and different times for different reasons.  Parts of it contradict one another.  Most of the documents are stories, poems, and letters that have been preserved over millennia.  This collection is much more central and important to our identity than the Book of Confessions, but it too falls short of the modern ideal of a once-and-for-all source of accurate information.

What we have in the Bible and the Book of Confessions is conversations within conversations about conversations.  Like late-arrivals to a cocktail party, we present-day believers walk into the room, pick up on the nearest conversation, and try to get involved while catching up on what’s already been said.  Chances are, the party and the conversations will still being going on when it’s time for us to leave.  The best we can hope for is to contribute meaningfully to the best of our ability and bond closely with our conversation partners in the time we have available to us.  At no point does anyone seem to have the last word on any part of this conversation.

How then can we be preservers of the truth?  By admitting that we don’t hold all of the answers.  Truth is not a commodity that can be owned, bought, or sold in the open market.  The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is something that is known only to God.  The rest of us are obliged to listen to one another if we are to enlarge our understanding of truth.

Preserving the truth, for Presbyterians, means continuing the conversation about God, the church, the Bible, and morality.  We often disagree about what the truth is about any given matter.  I would dare to say that it’s okay.  Faith is not about having all the answers.  Faith is about reaching out beyond what we know in order to touch the mystery of existence.  Faith is the trust that transforms our lives to look more like Jesus’ life.

In Peter’s case, faith meant trusting the voice in his heart that said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  For him, faith meant opening the doors of the church to welcome those who were not previously welcome due to someone’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible and religious doctrine.  Preserving the truth, for Peter, meant keeping an open mind toward the new thing that God might be doing in the world, in spite of the fact that it went against what felt familiar and sounded orthodox to him.  Preserving the truth and possessing the truth are mutually exclusive of one another.

When Jesus’ ministry was coming to an end, he said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Even Jesus admitted that there are truths that could and should be spoken but didn’t pass through his lips.  He entrusted that ongoing work to the Spirit of God living in the hearts of his followers.  He told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, [that Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.

A church that preserves the truth is a community of people who continually listen for the still, small whisper of that Spirit in their hearts, who keep open minds toward the mystery of truths they do not yet know, and who welcome the presence of outsiders in their midst as potential messengers of truth, insight, and discovery.  May we be such a church and may we preserve the truth to the best of our ability.

The Immigrant Apostles’ Creed

Rio Grande on the USA-Mexico Border. Image by Bob Palin. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Rio Grande on the USA-Mexico Border. Image by Bob Palin. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

This was posted to Facebook by Neal Presa, the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I’m told it was originally written by Rev. Jose Luis Casal.  Fruitful theological food for thought for anyone who cares about USA immigration policies.

Also worth reading on this subject is this sample chapter from Reading the Bible With the Damned by Bob Ekblad:

FOLLOWING JESUS, EL BUEN COYOTE: READING PAUL WITH UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS

And here is the Immigrant Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home, who fled
his country with his parents when his life was in danger.
When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power. Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.
I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Out of Order

Hell has frozen over. Someone outside the Presbyterian Church has shone an interest in our polity. Apparently, they’ve now made movies on every other conceivable subject known to humankind. We’re down at the very bottom of the list, right after that thrilling expose on the mating habits of slugs.

Seriously though, this is a documentary, made by a non-Presbyterian, about LGBTQ people pursuing ordained ministry in our denomination. My wife tells me that one of the subjects was a seminary classmate of a friend of ours. Small world? Nah, just a small denomination.

They’re looking for financial help to complete post-production. You can learn more about supporting the film by clicking here:
http://www.outoforderdoc.com/

Discipline in Faith, Discipline of Self, Discipline with Church: How a pastor learned from a same-sex marriage and what came after – Tara Spuhler McCabe

This is a reblog from ecclesio.com

It’s a reflection written by a pastor in my denomination who I have come to deeply respect.  On two very public occasions, she went beyond the letter of the law in order to incarnate the spirit behind it:

  • The first was when she officiated at the wedding of two women, even though our denomination’s polity does not yet provide for that function.
  • The second was when she willingly stepped down as Vice Moderator of our General Assembly, even though she had been duly nominated and elected to that position.

Tara has earned my admiration.

This is her story in her own words:

Here is the rub and the theological bankruptcy I feel I am “pastoring” in.  I am not permitted to order worship and celebrate the love of God in the covenant of marriage for the same folk whom I have baptized, confirmed, served communion, and even ordained as pastors.  There is a gross error in how we as pastors and congregations are then honoring the whole child of God whom we have started with in baptism.

Click here to read the full article…

A Priest Forever

This is the card my bishop gave me at my ordination. I keep it hanging in my office as a reminder.

Four years ago today, I became a priest.

It was a big step in a long journey.  It wasn’t the first step, for years of prayer and hard work had led me to that moment.  It wasn’t the last step either, for things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d planned.

I served the denomination that ordained me for a grand total of three and a half years: first as a lay chaplain, then as a deacon, and eventually as a priest.  I wish I could say that I was still serving there.  That church’s commitment to servant ministry among marginalized people is amazing.  It’s what first drew me to pursue my calling with them.

Unfortunately, there were problems as well.  In a group that small with a hierarchical structure, there was no accountability for people at the top of the chain of command.  Church policy was determined by the bishop’s bad temper.  My bishop was particularly prone to manipulative and abusive behavior.  When that behavior was eventually directed at my wife, I decided that I’d had enough.  I left my position in that denomination on the ides of September 2010.

My bishop made the process as difficult as possible.  In spite of the fact that their church constitution recognized the indelible mark of ordination (i.e. “once a priest, always a priest”) and the validity of holy orders without apostolic succession (a rare belief among sacramental churches), my bishop insisted that I wouldn’t be given my walking papers unless I officially renounced my holy orders.  In other words, I could only leave once I had declared that I was no longer a priest.

This was not strictly necessary, as the Presbyterian Church had already stated their willingness to receive me as one of their own.  Asking me to do this was my bishop’s way of twisting the knife into my back one last time.  In terms of my career, this was not a tremendous setback.  The Presbyterians told me, “Just give [the bishop] what [the bishop] wants.  We’ll ordain you again, if we have to.”  And that’s exactly what happened.  I started serving one of their congregations immediately and was eventually ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament on Pentecost 2011.

I’m glad to have found a home in my new denomination, but I have missed being a priest.  Liturgical and sacramental worship feeds my soul in ways that few things do.  Being disconnected from it feels like spiritual suffocation.  I continue to be a voice for high church renewal in the reformed tradition, but many Presbyterians still resist liturgical worship and weekly Eucharist on the grounds that such practices are “too catholic” or “too much work”.  Ugh.  It’s just not the same.

When I last met with my spiritual director, I mentioned that I have now been an “ex-priest” for as long as I was a priest.  My director (a progressive Roman Catholic) gave me a confused look and reminded me of the “once a priest, always a priest” theology.  My bishop had no right to ask that of me.  In ordering me to un-ordain myself, my bishop was asking the impossible.  I might as well have written a letter stating that I would no longer submit to the law of gravity.  A priest can resign (or be removed) from actively functioning in an official capacity within the organization, but one cannot be un-0rdained anymore than one can be un-baptized.

It is as my bishop said to me at my ordination: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

Something funny happened at church on the very Sunday after I met with my spiritual director.  During the Prayers of the People, there is a spot where the layperson leading the litany offers prayer for “Barrett our pastor”.  But on this particular Sunday, the liturgist misspoke and accidentally prayed for “Barrett our priest”.  John Calvin must have rolled over in his grave.

It was an accident, but I think it was a holy one.  I take it as God’s way of reminding me about who I really am and what I am called to be:

A priest forever.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Wise words reblogged from my denomination’s website:

With the fall election campaign heating up, a group of religious leaders has released a “Better Angels Statement,” pledging their commitment to a ministry of reconciliation in a shared effort to promote civility and peaceful conversation, according to a press release from The Faith & Politics Institute (FPI).

Click here to continue reading…

 

 

 

Vancouver’s Best Kept Secret

Waking up early on a Monday to do lecture prep for my Ethics course.

I found this image on Facebook.  For me, it’s not only cute, it’s also a little nostalgic.  My pastor in Vancouver, Rev. Dr. Sylvia Cleland at West Point Grey Presbyterian Church, used to have this photo up on her office door.

That was the last church I attended where I was not either the pastor or the pastor’s spouse.

I often call it “Vancouver’s Best Kept Secret” for several reasons:

  • It’s the only Presbyterian church I knew of where Koreans and Anglos worshiped together (they have separate presbyteries and usually keep apart).

  • It’s the only church I knew of where students from Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology would worship and serve their internships together.  In spite of the fact that they are only two blocks away from each other, these two seminaries usually keep separate.  The Regent folks generally assume that the VST folks are godless heretics while the VST folks assume that the Regent folks are fundamentalist fanatics.  They’re both wrong.

  • The church’s small size made it possible for ministerial interns to actually do real ministry, like preaching, pastoral care, and education.  At the bigger, more popular churches in town, student interns would end up answering phones and making coffee.  We actually got to find out what being a pastor was really like.

So, if you’re thinking of going to seminary in Vancouver, BC (at Regent College or Vancouver School of Theology), check out West Point Grey Presbyterian Church at the corner of 11th & Trimble.  Thank me later.