My biannual reflections on the PCUSA

June 28, 2016



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. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Birthday, Martin Niemöller

January 14, 2013

Today is the 121st anniversary of the birth of Martin Niemöller. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, and lived richly ambiguous life during the reign of Hitler. Initially, Niemöller was a supporter of the Nazis, and made many anti-Semitic remarks in the early days of The Nazis. His comments were of the kind that were made of fear.

Niemöller came to his senses, and began to preach and speak out against Hitler. The consequences were swift: Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1938-1945. He narrowly missed execution, and was liberated by the US Army after the Nazis abandoned the concentration camp.

After leaving Dachau, Niemöller admitted his guilt, and became a pacifist. The following quote is attributed to Niemöller, which has contributed to his renown and ill fame:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I’m mindful that Niemöller underwent the kind of conversion in prison that few of us will ever experience. If hindsight is indeed 20-20, he received an acuity coupled to his repentance that focused his being a recipient of grace and his share in humanity.

It’s an interesting season, in that you’re probably aware that Louie Giglio removed himself from the upcoming presidential inauguration, as the news made the rounds that he voiced his objections to the organizing efforts by various LGBQT groups to influence the government. It’s not his objections or the supposed objections of PIC to Giglio’s remarks I’m concerned with here.

It’s the responses of the evangelical leaders of various ministries and institutions that I’d draw your attention to. Google Andrew Marin, and you’ll find in his blog a list of names with links. The responses are the kind Niemöller made before he was imprisoned. Lots of fear expressed about what the world is coming to.

Parenthetically, I’m in favor people speaking up, and Giglio’s comments weren’t, as far I can discern, made out of fear: but commended practices of organization and policy to other Christians. Even if you disagree with him, the practice of making those comments needs to be endorsed by everyone.

The remarks of the evangelical leaders were from a different tone. It’s too bad, as these responses represent a bunker mentality, that somehow our evangelical identity has separated our humanity from the rest of the human race and that our experience with the human condition privileges us from the rest of the people on the planet.

It’s part of our evangelical heritage of late to presume we’re the stewards of culture and morality, and instead of perceiving circumstances as these as an opportunity for mission, fears get expressed as the prevailing motivation of at least one segment of the church.

It’s the later Niemöller that these leaders need to consider and emulate: as do all of us from the church.

Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

December 10, 2012

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.)

New Discoveries on Personal Power: New Students Coming to Campus & Our Response

August 21, 2012

Last week and this week, thousands of first-year students are getting dropped off by their parents at their new dormitory, in anticipation of beginning classes that will lead to earning a bachelor’s degree. Having served as a campus minister, I’ve observed my fair share of tearful good-byes, most of which are shed by the parents, and the students feign sincere comfort for their parents during the farewell. Once the parents depart/drive away, the students turn a 180, and in some cases, sprint, toward their new companions in the dormitory: and the dream of and the question of what to do with their new and unrestrained power is now realized…

So, if you’re a parent, an auntie, an uncle, a grandparent, a youth worker, a pastor, or an affectionate lay leader who knows a young woman or young man heading off to the university: perhaps you’ll be surprised by what follows, but know that I won’t diminish the realities that exist on campus. So, let’s get to those first.

Everything you’ve heard about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll is true. Also true: professors with an axe to grind against Christianity and Christian students. (Although, it should be quickly added: those faculty have, at best, limited influence, and I will explain why below.) Unrestrained access to degrading pornography and divergent politics: also true. Late nights wasted and late nights wasted: both true. Discovery of new truths that contradict and confront “what we’ve been taught”: true. Also true: Cute, attractive, and intelligent women and men who are repugnant. Unattractive, intelligent women and men who are friendly. Women and men of different ethnicities, different cultures, different religions, and different political nations: who are unexpectedly cute, attractive, and intelligent: and civil, peaceable people. People who think differently from “us”: but turn out to be civil and friendly. People who think just like “us” but repel everyone with their lack of civility and abundance of antagonism. All true: and more. And I haven’t even cited reading lists, expected classes, and degree requirements.

And, I would suggest that rather than fear such social phenomena, you routinely peform at least three actions:

1) Pray for your student to increasingly know that they are loved by Jesus. Plenty of the above can be and is threatening to you and me: imagine what it must be like for your student, who perhaps has less life experience than we do, less experience in making mistakes and even less accumulated wisdom from such mistakes…that they would go about their days, in a decidedly cross-cultural context, without others they know and trust, knowing that they are loved by Jesus: that is perhaps the greatest experience they can have- one of the Holy Spirit- while becoming responsible students and adults simultaneously in the university.

2) Practice listening in an open-ended fashion to your student. This is where you may need some prayer and some need to call upon the strength and wisdom of the Holy Spirit!!! The first time you hear about some words/thoughts/activities you do not approve of that your student reports to you- often they are testing you, by the way- the immediate, unfiltered response can be one of criticism…no?

Instead, do your best to recapitulate what you heard to your student, and such includes trying to keep from yelling into the phone. (Trust me: I’ve been there.) In this complex movement from adolescence to adulthood, listening will empower your student in ways that often in the university they are not receiving. And such ways I am thinking of here regard the gracious love of Jesus.

3) I want you to reflect upon the resurrection with me for a moment. Is the resurrection only about God’s victory over death for you and me, that proves we are forgiven of our sins through the death of God’s Son? Or is it the unique event in history, of which there is no other parallel except the creation of the world, and further confirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ? God addresses us in such a unique event so as to welcome our participation into his reign, and participate in a new life- yes, with our sins forgiven- that contributes to God’s mission throughout creation: a new creation. And this is where your student comes in.

There’s nothing special per se about the university. However, it is a unique social context in which students begin making decisions with real, unrestrained power. To be sure, they likely depend upon Mom and Dad (and others); but that experience of dependency becomes inverted and diminished. It’s not lost on me that many college graduates do move back home: but the experience of making one’s own decisions, to pursue what Margaret Archer calls “personal projects of ultimate concern”, and enacting such decisions into some kind of mission will continue to happen in some continuity with the college experience. So, we need to be aware of this fresh, inexperienced use of power. And, be wise about when you jump in with advice about how to use such power: it’s not just the university that is new, but all of creation.

Which brings me to the caricatures of “flaming, Marxist professors who eat Christian freshmen for snacks in their lectures.” As is true of so many people, students will decide how much power from the above faculty member will constrain and enable them. It’s not about the power of the faculty member, draping his/her will over the student, even if they ultimately report course grades to the registrar. It’s really about the student deciding to what degree their power will activate the power of the faculty member. Ditto sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and all of the other items I listed above.

Plenty of people will argue against that perspective: but, there’s too much experience and reporting by college freshmen building up for that perspective: that in the midst of seeking fulfillment of their personal projects of ultimate concern, students will make choices about how to appropriate the powers of others and social structures (like coursework) as constraints and enablements. This also includes decisions regarding dating, friendships, selection of a major for a degree, voluntary student organizations, and more.

And what we can pray for is that our students will increasingly know they are loved, listened to, and begin the life-long exploration of participating within the new creation that has Jesus as Lord. Such an exploration will be performed imperfectly and fallibly; such an exploration will include decisions made faithfully and with the endowed power that God grants to all of his creatures made in his image. And, for so many of the freshmen students arriving this week on campuses throughout the US, this exploration begins in earnest with the fresh discovery of new and unrestrained power. Pray that they will follow Jesus as they use such power in coordination with his mission throughout the new creation: the same Jesus…

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil. 2:6-11

Bad Egalitarians, and The Gospel Coalition

July 19, 2012

The recent post by the The Gospel Coalition has, as usual, generated more heat than light. Like all of my other brothers and sisters who are like me, bad egalitarians, I was similarly repelled by the content of a recent post. I have intentionally left the link out to the offending post so as not to distract and also to warn you: the material within that post is incredibly offensive. A few quick observations on the backstory to this conflagration.

One: the blog author, Jared Wilson, was attempting to criticize the current popularity and the underlying ethos related to the series of books partially titled “50 Shades of…” In part, the major themes of the book esteem male domination and erotica. The blog author attempted to demonstrate how such literature was antagonistic to the Gospel, and to healthy male-female relationships.

Two: the blog author also cited another Christian author to marshall support for his argument: both of them share a similar complimentarian perspective on male-female relationships.

Three: Unfortunately, the rhetoric employed by the blog author was far too close to the very material that he was criticizing. This is why I caution you about reading the original post: it’s ugly, and even the author knows this.

Four: The posting of the blog and the follow-up post elicited a groundswell of angry responses from egalitarian perspectives.

Unfortunately, for these complimentarians, they are-at least- guilty by association.

There are, no doubt, people who are similarly repelled by the “50 Shades” series. And some of those people also share the complimentarian perspective on male-female relationships. None of that latter group would ever endorse violence against women. Saying this as a bad egalitarian does not mean that I am in favor of or would endorse the complimentarian position. And I won’t.

As egalitarians, though, we often ascribe to our complimentarian-Christian brothers and sisters a commitment to abuse, oppression, and injustice directed at women: because their reading of the Gospel. I don’t have some Pollyanna view of people that would exclude violence against women coming from people with the complimentarian perspective. But, I also want to trust that when the authors respond with indignation to allegations and labels made of them that they promote violence against women, they really have been misunderstood.

Wilson made a huge rhetorical mistake in selecting the material to counter the “50 Shades” series: It’s just way too close in proximity to the very material he wants to warn his readers about. In his indignation, he hasn’t been able to wrap his brain around this reality: that his selection of readings to counter the sick and idolatrous perspectives within “50 Shades” inadvertently aligned him with the position he aimed to repudiate. Here, my sense is that Wilson has a blind spot. But, that does not mean that he has a conscious commitment to violence against women.

Now, I’ve mentioned in this post that I describe myself as a bad egalitarian, and that deserves some explanation here. I’m using the rhetoric of “bad” in a way to acknowledge several matters that I, my wife, my mother, my daughter, my sister, the female members of my extended family, and my female friends and colleagues already know and can confirm for you: I am an imperfect and highly-fallible egalitarian.

At the risk of this post running interminably, I will just recognize that “walking the talk” for egalitarians is much like the coveted “daily quiet time”: it takes regular, habitual practice to integrate into one’s relationship with the Lord and with one’s spouse/mother/daughter/sister. No one ever arrives as an egalitarian, and there’s no moral or theological high ground with which to confront our fellow Christian complimentarians who assume much of the same posture we do in attempting to fulfill their theological commitment to complimentarian perspectives.

As to the “50 Shades” series itself, much to my surprise, I received an email from Amazon about its pending publication-good grief: what did I purchase that prompted that email?- and happened to pass through an airport at nearly the same time: and there were stacks of “50 Shades of Grey.” Not long after that, I read a review in the LA Times about it as well. In brief, as then, so now: I wondered…well, several questions all popped up simultaneously: How does erotica suddenly become mainstream, airport and Amazon best-selling, literature? How is this series riding the coattails of the Twilight series? What’s up with this popular esteeming of male domination of women? And connecting it to erotica? Am I missing something here? Why does this series feel threatening?

Then, I came in contact with a friend from years and years ago through Facebook, and later spotted a post from her: she had concluded reading the series, and wanted to pray for a “Christian”, which I believe is the main male character of the series. I wonder if she was making an attempt at humor.  “Astonishment” does not quite capture my reaction. Why any woman would welcome that kind of relationship- and clearly I am straining the connotative possibilities to “relationship”- into her life leaves me incredulous.

My growing concern is that, in all of glad-handing and back-slapping that all of us bad egalitarians are performing, dismissing our complimentarian Christians- some of whom share the same cup with us on this coming Sunday, we are not anticipating nor praying for what will follow and exceed the “50 Shades” series. God help us, for we are not only bad egalitarians: we are simply bad at understanding our culture and how to serve it in the name of Christ.

On Leaders Learning with Passion

July 13, 2012

I read this news of a meeting of Nobel Laureates (all in Physics), and there’s some observations I made about learning that I could generalize to just about anything. But, for my purposes, and quite likely yours, there’s some salience here for the mission we’re in with Christ.

The piece begins and ends with a concern for passion: or as my good friend, Jovin, once told me before I was about to preach, “You better bring it!” Even physicists love their research; not only do they have a driving interest in “how things work”, they also remain doggedly committed to their particular patch of the physical world by keeping and developing skills to fulfilling that commitment.

I love my days of student ministry, and I love the students I’ve gotten to follow Jesus with over the years: it’s just that, now, I have a different patch to fulfill that love. Like so many of my colleagues, I am eager for the students I serve to deepen their discipleship with Jesus, and to take on his mission and intent for creation with a joy and zeal that comes from His Spirit. But, in this season of life, the skills and the tools I need to sustain and deepen that commitment are, of course, more of the academic kind. For me, those investigations into the kinds of decisions students are making require different sets of inquiries and approaches that most of my previous experience did not host. Yet, the passion for Jesus and his Gospel is what keeps my engines fired and directed toward the development of those tools.

The article goes on to identify the need for mentors- even Nobel Laureates have them!- and risk-taking and humility. The best, though, I saved for last: It’s the item that I would re-label as “You can’t do it all by yourself.” The quote that follows is the best:

“The first time I heard a Mars geologist talk about their results, I thought, ‘I wish I was a geologist,'” says John Mather (2006 Laureate). “I guess, even having a Nobel prize, I still wish I were really familiar with what they do, and was able to participate.”

I love that passion: For one thing, Mather loved both the topic and the learning. But, the other thing is: he knew had his own patch to work in, and do well at, even as his passion for physics splashed over into other areas of science and caught his eagerness for learning in its wake.

When I read and hear about research in systematic theology, I’m a bit envious and excited. I’m sure that we under-utilize the fruits of so many women and men in systematics: the whole discipline has improved in quantum ways from 25 years ago, it’s hard to believe the wholesale changes, such as taking context and culture with a seriousness and a rigor that was formerly held for only philosophy in service of the theologian. Yeah, well, that gets me excited for what the Lord might do in the church’s mission.

No regrets here: I’m delighted to be and become a missiologist: it’s where the action is with Jesus (I know: self-serving comment), and it’s research that is desperately needed in the West and within the Western church. And, while my learning continues within my discipline, I also am aware, much like Mather, I get excited reading systematics, and wish I “was able to participate.”

That leads to an all-important matter: Mather and I need others with passions for Martian geology and systematic theology. No, I won’t achieve any parallels in awards that Mather has! But, we need others to learn from and collaborate with as we continue within our respective missions: We can’t do it all by ourselves, especially on just our own passions. Leaders all learn this last lesson: typically the hard way!!! 🙂

(HT: Daniel Pink)

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

July 5, 2012

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.”