Preaching at Advent

“And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure,
for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.”
Micah 5:4-5

This time of year is always my favorite for preaching. No, I don’t have anything scheduled! But, it brings back some memories that won’t go away: and I don’t want them to leave me.

Several years ago, through the unfortunate passing of a colleague, I received a call as what the Presbyterians call, “Temporary Pulpit Supply.” This call began in early fall of that year, and ran through the end of December. Thus, it fell to me to preach through Advent.

On another day, I’ll argue for why evangelicals (what’s left of them…) should preach from the Lectionary. But, as one who was already convinced, when early November showed up, and I cast my eyes ahead to Advent, I was delighted to discover: Every week contained a text from the Minor Prophets.

Not sure how else to explain this, other than: it was effortless study to reflect upon christological and eschatological themes (regarding the latter: it is “advent” after all…), as well as how such inform and empower a communal life that collaborates with God in mission. The ease at addressing evangelism and justice, as mutually informing responses to the anticipated coming of the Christ, really stood out as cohering well with the text of each week.

The feedback to my preaching was remarkably constructive and affirming. While all preachers admit to that being important, my overall sense was that God was drawing me into his mission, affirming my “temporary” status, preparing the local congregation well for their mission, and empowering me for service beyond the term of service. In short, God had a word for me about my anticipation of the coming of Christ.

So, for those pastors who haven’t committed themselves to an Advent series: the Revised Common Lectionary offers both the weekly texts and the resources needed for giving praise and witness to the Christ who has come and will come again.


My biannual reflections on the PCUSA



Today, I received an email from an executive presbyter (EP) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) that attempted a brief summary of the preceding General Assembly that met in Portland. Comments made celebrated the efforts of a delegate, who was also a pastor from the same presbytery, on to turn aside divestment from fossil fuel companies as a church. Continue reading

Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

My internet connection was down over the weekend so this is a delayed post.

Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is the premier contemporary missiologist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Newbigin’s passionate reflection upon the Gospel and Christian mission remain unparalleled in our time. His writings have yet to be fathomed; his preaching, lectures, and publications are regularly read by pastors, missionaries, and routinely challenge theologians and missiologists. Newbigin served 40 years in missionary service in India, and in service to the worldwide church; his subtle influence upon Vatican II is only now becoming public. Upon retirement, Newbigin began serving as a pastor in London to an inner-city church. In honor of what would have been Newbigin’s 104th birthday, I post the following:

“When we speak of finding in Jesus the clue to the meaning of the whole human story, we are not speaking of a mere cognitive exercise. We’re speaking of that act of atonement wrought in Jesus through which we are brought into a loving obedience to the will of God as it is exercised through all human and cosmic history. It is not merely a matter of illumination, of new understanding; it is a matter of reconciliation, of rescue from alienation, of obedient response to the divine initiative of love. It is illumination and new understanding only because it is first a divine action of reconciliation through which we are brought to that state in which we can say and know that God works all things together for good to those who love him. It is only through this act of atonement that Jesus becomes for us a clue to history.” (Truth and Authority in Modernity, 1996:39-40.)

Ethnic Diversity: Reality for Growth or Choice of Zip Code?

I had an interesting meeting with a vendor regarding service for the home we just moved into. This vendor, an Anglo, mentioned that his family raised him in a community adjacent to the one we just moved from. He remained in that community through marriage and child-raising, and once he and his wife became an empty-nest, they moved several miles away, because of “the changing demographic, with so many Orientals moving into [the community].” He said this with a straight face, no sense of malice, not seeking some kind of social solidarity with me: even though he had just been introduced to my wife not 5 minutes earlier.

I must admit to you that I felt very, very sad for this man. In the past, I might have felt some slight or anger. But, in his case, as far as I can discern from his story, assuming the complexity of all life narratives, part of his decision to relocate was motivated by increasing ethnic diversity, i.e., people were moving into his neighborhood who were different from him and his family. And, this vignette evoked sadness for me.

Now, in part, this sadness is also related to the neighborhood we’ve moved into! We are the Asians of the block! As yet, I’ve not seen any African-Americans living on our street, but it’s a long one, and we’ve not been here a month. We have a few Spanish-speaking people, but I’m not sure what their cultural heritage is. So, that present reality may be part of my sadness in response to the vendor’s story.

It’s a big deal for the Christian community to take stock of its ethnic identity. That Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week is a shameful blight that the NA church can faithfully arrest and reverse. That we rarely or fail to vigorously reflect theologically about ethnicity as it relates to our mission in the communities where we live, serve, work, and worship is not merely a blind spot, but a gaping black hole about which our good intentions and “we’ll-get-to-it-later” slogans are vacuumed in while the diverse people around us wonder “what’s in it for me” as we tacitly describe ourselves as Christians.

When we shopped for a home, I recall looking around in every neighborhood, wondering who lives here? I mentioned this to my wife, and she always humored me by listening. For now, as we still get our boxes unpacked and set up, it’s not an issue. Of the neighbors we’ve met, they are the kindest and friendliest people one could ask for to be living adjacent to you: they are the real deal. But, it’s not lost on me: we’re the ethnic minorities of the street, as far as I can tell.

One of my favorite readings in the Gospel of Mark regards the invitation of Jesus to his followers in 4:35-41: “Let’s go over to the other side.” He just concluded some remarkable discourse on the Reign of God, all of which held the attention of the presumably Jewish crowd: and he invites them to head over to…the Gentile side of lake. In other words, as one of my earliest mentors paraphrased Jesus, “Let’s see if this stuff on the Kingdom makes any sense among people unlike ourselves.”
Here, Jesus welcomes his followers into an ambiguous, uncertain, short-term mission, while embedding his teaching, authority, and person within the missio Dei, and joining the two for testing and demonstrating the possibilities for God to reconcile Jew and Gentile in his reign.

Next week, my friends and colleagues from The Fellowship of Presbyterians will gather in Colorado Springs and Atlanta. I observed with some encouragement and some amusement that the pre-conference gathering will be about mission and…missions. Yet, the bulk of the ethos and philosophy of the FoP continues to be about being “missional.” Let me both cheer and chastise this posture.

Yes: the recovery of mission, even the adjective “missional”, is to be welcomed and encouraged: such a retrieval suggests not success, but an approaching day of fruitfulness. No: there cannot be any fruitful horizon for the FoP that fails to theologically account for biblical data that so explicitly directs the people of God into mission among those who are ethnically diverse and different from themselves. The “Focus on Church Planting” element of the August Gathering suggests an important corrective and development in the need for theological reflection on ethnic diversity; it’s a real bonus that it is embedded within the conversation on planting new churches.

Some of the sharpest minds and hearts among Presbyterians are within the FoP. Indeed, in private conversations, some of these people have admitted to me their desire for ethnic diversity within their own congregation. Often, they don’t know how to begin the journey of developing an ethnically-diverse congregation. But, the starting line is right in front of them daily: and I would want to reassure them that they may not get any real guidance straight away: there is no error-free instruction on beginning.

Given the history of NA and its churches, surely some of the FoP elders, both ruling and teaching, can provide leadership that fallibly and imperfectly relies upon the Word and Spirit to give witness to the Gospel among people unlike themselves: even within their own zip code.

A Mystery: While We were Watching the Vice-Moderator…

It’s one of those neurological mysteries of life that you can have your attention on one thought, or person, or piece of art, or great food, or music: and your mind drifts elsewhere…such is what happened to me over the last several days while reflecting upon the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, of which I am a Teaching Elder.

The Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe was elected Vice-Moderator after it was made public that she had officiated a wedding for two women. Suffice it to say, even the Moderator, Rev. Neal Presa- who was a personal friend- was surprised by this act, and said as much: while in the same breath announced he would keep her as Vice-Moderator. The GA elected Rev. Spuhler McCabe with a simple majority vote, but it was far from a unanimous result.

In the following days, the heat was on Rev. Spuhler McCabe from commissioners who were aghast that she had defied the polity of the church by conducing a same-sex wedding. She submitted her resignation yesterday, after a scant 4 days of service.

In her resignation letter, Rev. Spuhler McCabe made a few comments that are noteworthy, in that it was those comments that precipitated “the neurological mystery” I mentioned above.

I am a pastor. That is who God has called me to be. As I reflect on what’s happening now, I think I am embodying the reality of a growing number of pastors who find ourselves caught. We are caught between being pastors – being with couples in those sacred moments when they make their vows to one another . . . and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling – especially in states where it is legal for everyone to be married.

The tension over all of this is real, and clearly the energy and passion about this issue runs deep – and isn’t going away. I am surprised and saddened by the pervasive poisonous activity that has increased toward the overall tenor of our General Assembly and toward the Office of the Moderator. Individuals and groups with no personal relationship with me and have made no attempt to have one-on-one conversations with me or the Moderator are blogging and tweeting unhelpful and, frankly, divisive comments.

I am also saddened by the amount of energy and time that others have taken on, in the midst of their important work here, to defend what the majority has already decided, or to feel the need to protect me…

And so I am resigning as your Vice Moderator. It is my choice and my decision, and it comes from that same pastoral core that led me to be present for two women in their sacred moment in DC.

I can’t help, first off, to be impressed by her candor and transparency in her reflection. To be sure, the PCUSA really benefits from Teaching Elders who care about the church and the mission it has from the Lord.

But, it is in that first paragraph that everyone everywhere observes a subtle, even innocent-appearing, argument being made: my pastoral calling possesses a greater authority than the polity that emerged from the community who contributed to making and authorizing that pastoral calling.

If her conscience now prompts her to a different polity: say so, and demit. For all of her wonderful candor and transparency, it is right here that her gentle tone camouflages her robust commitment to”sacred moments” and to receiving important authorization for her calling from the state.

Just to keep our eyes on the ball here, I am deeply concerned by attention to mission informed and authorized by the state that supersedes the missio Dei.

And that action, of officiating a wedding, is really what prompted the calls for her resignation: it was action that is in defiance of the polity. For if one asks the couple, “Did Rev Spuhler McCabe conduct your wedding?”, we would expect an affirmative answer. For the record: there are photos of Rev. Spuhler McCabe in the wedding ceremony. Why she fails to explicitly state that she performed the wedding is unknown: that she conducted a same-sex wedding is well known.

As far as her expressions of disappointment with social media, that is understandable. And, if I can stand with her for a moment, there is a sense that even if she were transparent regarding her actions and her novel labeling of a wedding she officiated, I doubt the blogosphere or Twitter would become more generous or sparing in its comments and demands for her resignation. I hope that I am not among those contributing to the offense.

And I would state my disappointment straight up for everyone: Rev. Spuhler McCabe should not have conducted the wedding. I wish she would have followed her understanding of her “pastoral calling”, demit from her presbytery, and then moved on. It is agonizing for me to read of colleagues- for that is what we are- who flagrantly disregard the polity of the church. Yes: Follow your conscience, but, No: Don’t defy the polity.

For what are we to make of this decision? She wants to fulfill her pastoral calling, but set aside the polity when it conflicts with that calling. I mean no malice toward Rev. Spuhler McCabe when I suggest she demit: otherwise, the logic of her conscience will continue to set her at odds with the polity. Even in my disappointment, I would not want that for her or anyone else. This calling we share is hard enough work already.

Some might say Rev. Spuhler McCabe is disingenuous regarding her disappointment. I do not believe it: naive, yes, but disingenuous: no. And, no, I haven’t attempted to host a one-on-one conversation with Rev. Spuhler McCabe. If you’re reading, Tara, look me up on your next visit with the family to SoCal: I mean it.

But: About that “neurological mystery” I mentioned. Because, while I’m reading the resignation letter, out of the blue, the question popped into my head: “What else is happening at the GA?” Believe me when I say: most of my emotional energies and focus was upon this incredible whipsawing of events and persons in Pittsburgh. But, there was the question, arising out of that experience.

And, in part, that question was prompted by a prayer request from Eric Hoey, Director of Evangelism and Church Growth, for a proposal being made to the GA for 1001 Worshiping Communities to be started. So, I set a daily timer for 10:01 AM as requested, and have taken a few moments each day for the last two weeks to pray the Lord of the harvest will send out workers into the harvest to start these new communities.

Sure enough: buried in the GA news is a brief report- in the Outlook!!!– of the report made by Eric and his colleagues to the Committee on Church Growth, as well as the response, and here’s a hopeful comment recorded: “One committee member remarked that the purpose of this initiative is ‘missional’ and will help ‘to get us outside of ourselves.’” Awesome, just awesome. This is the kind work and initiative that the church needs to attend to: it keeps us focused upon the Lord of the church.

I was glad for that “neurological mystery.”

Spinning Early on the GA?

Today I received my weekly email blast from the Presbyterian Outlook, and, perhaps, for those who are Presbyterians of the PCUSA flavor, you attend to emails offering to be and become a reliable news source during the meetings of the General Assembly.

The text, however, attempted to make at least two contrasts that undermined that intention. One version proposed to grab the low-hanging fruit, trading upon common- and accurate- understandings of news sources such as Fox, presuming that such media will articulate its understanding of the GA in fashion coherent with its typical rendering of news.

The notion advanced, of course, is that the Outlook will provide accurate reporting, “right down the middle” as they say in sports journalism, without obvious ecclesiastical commitments in filtering the news. This is not to say that the Outlook can provide an unfiltered transmission of the events, communications, and decisions made in the GA.

And the Outlook confirms as much in the second contrast they make: “So what will your fellow church members hear about the GA? Will it be accurate or inflammatory?”

Say again?

So…”accurate” reporting will not incite or elicit anger, disappointment, pain, or grief? And “inflammatory” reporting will not illuminate, or authentically represent the commissioners, or clearly articulate contested theological and ecclesial decisions? Obviously: This binary doesn’t function as a polarity.

Yes, yes: spin has always been part of the onramp to every GA. This level of marketing generates the nausea alert for the upcoming spin, err… reporting of the GA.