October 28, 2018
from Ed Hurley: We are invited to gather with Temple Beth El Tuesday evening. South Highland church parking lot is available for those who might like to attend the 6:30 PM service of prayer and solidarity on the front steps of Temple Beth El. The temple is two blocks up from South Highland. Parking there would be very difficult but our lots are available.
A Word from Rabbi Jonathan Miller:
How can I describe to you the heaviness in my heart? As a nation, we will once again bury worshippers. This time we turn our attention to Jewish people who went to celebrate the Sabbath and name a baby at the venerable Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. How can we as a nation comfort the families of the dead and wounded police who came to rescue those people pinned inside the synagogue? Again we exclaim that we are shocked. But after all the shootings in the temples and churches, the nightclubs, the high schools, the concert venues and movie theaters, how can we pretend to be shocked? In today’s America, what exactly is shocking about the murder of worshippers in a synagogue?
The shock of this latest assault on America is that it is no longer shocking. We are numbed, somehow accepting the fact that all of us are vulnerable.
President Trump’s campaign slogan is to “Make America Great Again.” Oh, how I wish it were so simple. The America I grew up in was also a divided country. We were divided by civil rights and the Vietnam War. But we did not need to have police guarding every synagogue and church. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama shook the nation and changed the course of our history, for the better. But that was a singular earth-shattering moment.
Today, we cannot recall all the people who have been killed in churches, synagogues, and temples. The extraordinary evil has become commonplace.
As school children, we might have been afraid of lunchroom bullies or communists very far away, but we did not dream of needing to pass through metal detectors to get to our homerooms or armed guards in our elementary schools. No one gave a thought about being shot up at a concert or movie theater.
President Trump found fault with the security at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Are we expected to live in armed camps to protect ourselves and our children, even when we wish to approach God with joy in our heart? Are armed guards and surveillance cameras what makes America great?
What has happened to us?
The words we use define our reality. And hateful words lead to hateful actions. The killer in Pittsburgh did not enter the synagogue quietly. He first screamed, “All Jews must die!” and then he opened with his deadly fire. If he hadn’t been taught by words that it was good to “All Jews must die,” the community in Pittsburgh would have had a joyous Sabbath celebrating new life. The words we use shape the reality of the world in which we live.
The Bible tells us that God’s very first action was the act of speech. God created light and darkness. All that followed came into being by the power of God’s speech. Speech, our own uttered and intentional thoughts, define the way we see the world and react to it. People who say “I love you” act with love. People who say, “I hate you” act with hate. Speech comes first. Speech creates reality.
The Gospel of John in the Christian Bible echoes the book of Genesis. It opens by declaring that in the beginning was the word. The word was with God. The word was God. And then later in the chapter, the word becomes flesh.
The Gospel writer was all too wise. Flesh grows around the words we use. And we are seeing the incarnation of hate in the hateful speech which permeates America.
What we are living through is more horrible than we could have imagined.
In the Jewish liturgy, when we come to our silent devotion, we begin by asking God to guard our speech and keep us from evil thoughts. The sages who came before me knew that our thoughts and our speech could become tangible in our lives, in our flesh, and in the way we see and treat others.
As hatred expands in our country, violence will inevitably follow. We should all pray that God will guard our speech and guide our thoughts. This should be a moment when we turn away from the hate filled speech which divides us and deadens our country. And we should hold accountable our leaders and our friends and our community when their speech becomes ugly.
Ugly speech hurts. Ugly speech kills. And ugly speech keeps America from being as great as it ought to be.
September 3, 2018
Some Vacation Reading — A House United: How the Church Can Save the World
I usually avoid books that make such claims as in this title. God in Christ, not the church, is what can save the world! Yet, several people I respect recommended this book by Allen Hilton, so I carried it with me to the beach as I vacationed with family.
The world of the author is the same one most of us experience in the United States now – divisive, angry, identity stereotyped politics, extremists both in the church and in our culture. How can the church save this world? Hilton challenges Christians to remember Jesus’ prayer and commandment in the Gospel of John. Jesus prayed that his disciples might all be one, and that the world knows it.
The first step is for the church to address and be healed of our divisiveness; then, we might model ways for the culture to be healed of its polarized politics. The only way the church can be healed is to bring our differences into the church, to celebrate and respect those differences as God’s gift to us. Hilton takes us back to Paul and the Corinthians where, in the midst of their conflicts over food, worship, and sex, Paul calls us to celebrate the gifts of the Spirit for the common good. Now is the time for us to include our different perspectives on God and Christ and humanity as gifts of the Spirit for the common good.
One important gift of diversity is to welcome our different ways of reading and honoring the authority of the Bible. Hilton agrees with Pew research that suggests “liberals” do have different ways of reading the Bible. The deeper and more divisive issue is that liberals do not read the Bible enough. The model he recommends comes from the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai – they disagreed on most everything, but their debates over issues stayed in community, and were “a disagreement for heaven’s sake.”
Hilton’s summarizes his book: “God gives us our difference as a gift – an asset rather than a threat. I believe God gave the American church and the whole republic both liberals and conservatives, and by our elective segregation we ungratefully leave that gift unopened.” The challenge is to recognize that being together with our differences make us better as we stay in community, engage in conversations so that we may listen and learn from our differenct perspectives. When the church welcomes God’s gift of difference, then, we may have a graceful word for our culture.
Grace & peace,
July 3, 2018
So, What Happened at the General Assembly?
A good answer to that question I heard: “Some wise decisions were made.”
Many different summaries of what happened can be read. I like the brief summary by Jerry Van Marter which can be found at https://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/6/29/highlights-actions-223rd-general-assembly-2018-150/ Other organizations offer their summary. I recommend the Presbyterian Outlook summary also (https://pres-outlook.org/2018/03/2018-ga-bulletin-inserts/. I confess my bias for this publication since it has published some thoughts of mine over the years.
Some of the wise decisions made at GA?
(1) I have been following the work of “The Way Forward” Commission formed in 2016 to address substantive issues in the culture of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. Some actions taken give me hope:
- Restructured PC(USA) A Corp to be representative of five of the six agencies of the PC(USA)—previously the A Corp board was identical to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. The new A Corp board is composed of eleven members, representing each agency, with the exception of the Board of Pensions, plus at-large members.
- Authorized a “financial sustainability review” to examine “per capita” and mission giving.
- Reported an administrative action issued by the commission calling for greater transparency, particularly in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and freedom for national staff employees to speak their minds in addressing the culture without retribution or retaliation.
(2) Fossil Fuel Divestment continues to be a passionate topic as well as divisive. The committee presented a motion that would declare divestment, yet by 332-178, the assembly voted in favor of a minority report that called for the PC(USA) to continue its corporate engagement with fossil fuel companies—through its Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee—rather than divest from those companies. After the minority report became the main motion, it was approved by the assembly 409-106. I was surprised by the swing towards support of the minority report, and think the reality of how we can make a difference for the healing of God’s creation became clearer.
(3) Per Capita is increasing, but not nearly as much as had been announced months ago. The concerns expressed by my colleagues across the country were heard. The 2019 & 2020 General Assembly per capita was set at $8.95 per member—an increase of $1.25 (or 15.8 percent) per member over 2018. The assembly established a team of twelve to fifteen persons to “review the current per capita-based system of funding the ministry of councils higher than the session, for financial sustainability into the next ten years.” The request was also made to explore ways of reducing the cost of future General Assemblies.
(4) Racism and Poverty were addressed in a variety of ways.
- Stillman College was included in a document that addressed and seeks to improve the relationship between the General Assembly and Historically Racial Ethnic Institutions
- Acts of public witness sought to engage issues of racism, poverty, and violence in St. Louis in Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson’s “Hands and Feet” initiative. After a dramatic march by nearly 1,000 Presbyterians to the City Justice Center, the offering from the opening worship service of more than $54,000 was given to ArchDefenders, a faith-based group that bails low-level offenders out of jail. Nearly three dozen people, victims of St. Louis’ cash bail system, were released from custody with the money.
- The “challenge of being black”, black men and black women, was addressed with calls to raise awareness and develop action plans to heal the sin of racism.
- Approved “The Gospel from St. Louis” which tells the stories of congregations engaging the systemic issues of racism, poverty, and violence.
- Initiated a process to study Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
(5) Paid Family Leave was the focus of long debates. No one was “against” it. The issues are cost, consistent standards, and financial support. This was a learning moment for some in that the assembly was reminded that one council (the GA) cannot tell another council (the Presbytery) what must be required, other than by changing the Book of Order. Nor can the GA tell the Board of Pensions what it must do. As good Presbyterians, the assembly referred the matter to a task force to report back to the next GA actions to develop denomination-wide standards and financial support for paid family leave for church workers.
So, what happened at GA? God’s people were yearning to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the 21st century: seeking justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God.
Grace and peace,
June 7, 2018
Per Capita? Effective Witness!
“Per capita” is something many Presbyterians talk about in derogatory terms. The “head tax” is seldom discussed in a spiritually inspiring manner. It has gotten a lot of publicity the last few months in response to the Office of the General Assembly and Stated Clerk’s recommendation for increasing the OGA’s per capita some 47% over the next two years. Many of my colleagues, including myself, objected in print to the way this proposal was presented. Now, the Stated Clerk has reported that he will seek to amend the original proposal so that the OGA’s per capita is increased 10% for 2019 and 10% for 2020.
The issue for me has always been connecting the identity and mission focus of the OGA to the per capita. I attended a meeting earlier this week and heard that the Stated Clerk sees this connection to be the key issue. He is hopeful that an overture to the GA and reports from special committees and commissions will provoke the conversation needed now and for the next two years. Who are we, the PC(USA), called to be and do as followers of Christ in the 21st century? How do we focus on that sense of God’s calling, and fund it?
“Per capita” is one way we live out our connectional nature as Presbyterian followers of Jesus. This is what our Book of Order says: “The funding of mission similarly demonstrates the unity and interdependence of the church. The failure of any part of the church to participate in the stewardship of the mission of the whole church diminishes that unity and interdependence. All mission funding should enable the church to give effective witness in the world to God’s new creation in Jesus Christ, and should strengthen the church’s witness to the mission of God. Each council above the session shall prepare and adopt a budget for its operating expenses, including administrative personnel, and may fund it with a per capita apportionment among the particular congregations within its bounds. Presbyteries are responsible for raising their own funds and for raising and timely transmission of per capita funds to their respective synods and the General Assembly. Presbyteries may direct per capita apportionments to sessions within their bounds, but in no case shall the authority of the session to direct its benevolences be compromised.” (G-3.0106)
At this time in the life of the PC(USA), I see the key expression to be “effective witness in the world to God’s new creation in Jesus Christ.” The original proposal from the Stated Clerk reflected the cost of the OGA to do the work that the office has been asked to do by previous General Assemblies. Many recognize that “effective witness” should not be that expensive when priorities for mission are made clear. The revised proposal of a 20% increase reflects the cost of doing the work that has been asked and using financial reserves.
I encourage the “per capita discussion” to become an avenue now for the church to clarify what we are called to be and do to provide an effective witness to God in this 21st century. This Presbytery has gone through that process to clarify who we are and what we do …. partner with and equip . . . and shaped our organization and budget to reflect that calling. Let us now support and encourage the Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, in leading the General Assembly in that same work.
Please keep in your prayers J. Herbert Nelson and our commissioners (Leeann Scarbrough, Ed Hurley, Deborah Thomas, Mark Hopkins), and our Young Adult Advisory Delegate (Julie Potts) as they meet in St. Louis on June 16.
Grace and Peace,
May 25, 2018
Installed? Permanent? The General Presbyter is now installed?!
I am not the first to wonder about the “installed” image — washing machines, refrigerators, appliances are installed. Maybe, as one colleague preferred, “plugged in” is a better image. Yet, I have been getting “plugged in” for three years, and will continue to seek to be better connected.
Others ask me how it feels to be “permanent”? Well, only death and taxes are permanent. Nevertheless, many do say they feel better knowing that I am no longer “transitional.” As long as my daughter, her husband, and their son are living in Birmingham, then this is as “permanent” a home on earth as I will ever hope for.
The important question: what difference does it make to the Presbytery that I am “installed” or “plugged in” or “permanent”? My responsibilities change very little, and yet the words spoken at the installation service were powerful and meaningful and, yes, brought tears to my eyes. As the music of “Here I am, Lord” rose from behind me, the Lord was speaking to all of us.
Now is the time to listen wisely and to follow where we are led. Now is the time to answer the call to serve Christ and our neighbors. Now is the time to use both hands to grasp our colleagues and neighbors as we work together to form new partnerships and strengthen those that have become weak. This is our work together, not simply mine.
Thanks be to God for your invitation to share in this ministry,
May 10, 2018
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
The news is out. Maybe the world’s most favorite Presbyterian is now debuting on the silver screen in a documentary film coming to our Presbytery soon. The Presbyterian News article is helpful (https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/wont-you-be-my-neighbor/)
I have it on good authority (the Internet web site for the film– focusfeatures.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor/theaters) that our Presbytery will have the opportunity to enjoy the story beginning June 29, 2018 with showings in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery.
Any of our congregations hosting gatherings to watch and reflect and learn together? I invite replies & postings on this page about any such gatherings that may be open for others to join. What a great way to be church together, to give thanks to God for the life of Fred Rogers and his ministry with and for children.
April 28, 2018
Why do churches grow?
Bart Ehrman’s popular new book, “The Triumph of Christianity,” is worth the read. He seeks to be a good historian, looking at the source materials with an open mind, asking questions of what makes sense. Best of all, his explanation of why the Christian faith spread offers a perspective that we might learn from today.
Why did/do churches grow? The power of social networks is crucial. Going door to door was not the key. Public preaching may have gotten the attention of a few. Much more effective in spreading the good news were family, friends, business relations, all our social networks are ways churches grow.
Why did/do churches grow? The church was community, a place to belong, to learn how to behave and what to believe (to borrow from Diana Butler Bass). Ancient religions were usually individualistic focused on prayer, sacrifices, seeking to learn the will of the gods through natural events. The Christian community focused on how to behave and what to believe about the one God.
Why belong to a church? The faith community performed the miracle of giving value and meaning and purpose to people who turned from their pagan pursuit of the favor of the gods. The church cared for each other, including their health, teaching mutual respect and love, providing a place of support and ways to understand who God is and what God asks of us.
Whether from Ehrman the ancient historian or Bass the contemporary sociologist, the message is the same. Our church grows when we provide a community, a place to belong, when we model faithful ethical behavior, and when we teach the faith that gives meaning to life and the world.
Christ is alive!
April 13, 2018
I have never visited a church that did not want to grow, specifically to grow in numbers of members. Whether 10 members or 100 or 1000, a feeling that more members will make life together better is shared by most all. So, everyone looks for the secret — how does our church grow like the early church? The stories in the Acts of the Apostles of church growth put us all to shame. What can we do to be like them?
Several responses to that question can be found, from quick fixes to adaptive changes that take significant spiritual work. Our Presbytery had eight congregations and “adaptive change agents” work with the PneuMatrix consultants, Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright. They tell us no quick fixes are to be had.
I was trained as an “intellectual historian” so I tend to learn from writers who seek a longer, historical perspective on the issues we face. I have discovered recently that a # 1 Best Seller on Amazon is one such book: “The Triumph of Christianity” by Bart Ehrman. The subtitle is inviting: “How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World.” The author has become a popular writer not simply for the topics he addresses but also for his own professed lack of faith. He is open about his journey through the church of his childhood into an adult historian; his lack of faith has surprised some who sought to learn from him. Yet, faith is not required to do history, even religious history.
I am venturing into Ehrman’s story of how the early church grew to see what I might learn for our contemporary church. I confess that I have preferences for other writers on this topic, especially Diana Butler Bass, and will no doubt refer to them from time to time.
I invite you to join me in this reading adventure, and share in this space wisdom you have received from other writers.
Christ is risen!