Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Presbyterians Seeking Their Way into the Kingdom: a Parody

 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the Presbyterians will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Wow Jesus, we figured we would be in trouble for refusing to serve on all those committees!  People complained about us at presbytery all the time!  We never got to go to General Assembly because we didn't show up at presbytery meetings.  Besides, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
"They will reply, "But Jesus we preached every Sunday!  We served on many presbytery, synod and general assembly committees, and task forces and commissions!  We attended presbytery meetings faithfully and even paid to go the General Assembly meetings our of our own pockets!  Well actually our congregations paid.  But really all this time we did your work!  What's with the new rules?
"He will reply, 'Sorry boys and girls, I never particularly cared for meetings. And to be honest your sermons just make people feel self righteous.  I care about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.  Committee meetings have never been on my list.  When I was on earth I avoided them as much as possible as most of them are a waste of time and keep you from doing the really important things.
 "Then the committee members will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (My apologies to those who translated the NIV)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Viagra, a few more inches and a healthy marriage

This post is gross but then life can be gross.

I always check the spam email in case there might be something in there worth reading in the spam folder like a magazine from my seminary.  And I still get those letters from around the world offering millions if I would just pay the shipping.  ButI mainly get adverts to help my penis.  There are a lot of ads that talk about wanting to sell me Viagra.  Interesting conclusion from the drug company.  It knows I'm male and in my late 50s so I must need Viagra. My wife gets it too.  She needs Viagra?

Then there is a lot of spam advertising that if I use their product my penis will grow 4 inches in a month.  Gotta wonder how I could walk around in pants with that thing in my briefs.

But the main message seems to be that sex is really all there is to life.  Personally I've discovered that even when I was much younger sex was not the key to a relationship.  Not that it isn't a lot of fun.  But you can't do it all the time.  Married life is more about the joy of communicating and having someone who will listen to me even when I babble on about things no one cares about but me.  My wife always listens when I come home all excited about a new Greek word I learned and the context of the word.  When I ask her if she actually cares she responds "No, but I care about you." Which is a blessing. 

Not that I don't enjoy sex but our culture seems to be obsessed with it.  Sex or beautiful near naked women are used to sell everything.  There used to be a billboard with a large beautiful blond in a very skimpy bikini and a very small can of beer down in the corner.  Also there were and are commercials that have a mostly naked woman draped across the front of a hot car.  The assumption about the beer commercial seems to be that if I get sloppy drunk a beautiful woman in a bikini will want me.  As to the car, one time after one of those commercials with the woman on the car I had the audacity (and stupidity) to say to my wife, "Hey, my car came with a missing part!"  When asked what that might be I I pointed to the beautiful blond.  I don't remember anything after that.  I was probably unconscious.

So having an affectionate and loving relationship in front of the kids is more important than having a sex life that would be at home in a porno movie.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


When it comes to land I am a traditional Calvinist. That is when speaking theologically I don’t believe that God has established one place as more important or more holy than any other. Traditional Calvinists believe all land, space, stars are equally holy as all is created to give glory to God and to enjoy God to whatever extent soil, rock, stars and the space in between can enjoy God. I refrain from saying what soil rock, stars and space can feel as I am none of the above and can only comment from a human point of view. God may have called the descendants of Jacob to a particular land which is, for them more holy and the temple mount most holy of all. God may also have called Muslims to have holy places as well, Mecca with pride of place

As an aside I would observe at this particular moment that much of the Gulf of Mexico, to the extent it can enjoy God and be holy must be weeping, if possible, because of human destruction and sin.

But that is not the point of this blog. When leaving for Israel two and a half years ago I stated that Christians do not have places that are more holy than others. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman:

"Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

Thus according to Jesus neither Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worship nor Jerusalem where Jews had their temple were somehow more holy anymore than any other place.

Having said all of that, my experience does not coincide with my theology. When in Israel I discovered two places in which I “felt” that God was somehow more present: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall (also called the Kotel).

My Celtic ancestors (alright, I have lots of ancestors from other places and other ethnic groups) call places where God seems to be more present “thin places. My theology says they don’t exist, they can’t exist. But my experience is different.

I’m not entirely sure how to describe my experience. Certainly part of it was feelings. Somehow when I touched the Western Wall I had a feeling of peace and a feeling of touching eternity. And in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher I had the same sense. In that spot I felt like I was at the center of Christianity. Somehow the Triune God was present in a way that God is not present in other places.

I have the same sense of presence, what I might call the eternal now when I take communion.

So I wonder if I was to go to Ireland or Scotland (particularly to Iona) would I have the same sense? Or would the Dome of the Rock produce such feelings? We didn’t get a chance to go there when I was in Israel. Besides non Muslims can get kicked off the mount, curiously by Israeli police, for praying on Mount Moriah.

Theology is, for the most part, thinking. It is an attempt to describe the God the Bible speaks about and what God has done, not only in the Biblical record but also since then. Is there a place for feelings alongside theology? Are there really thin places? My Calvinist head says no. My heart says yes.

Someday I want to go back to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and examine my feelings theologically. Or examine my theology in relation to my feelings.

As for now I have declared a truce between theology and feeling. I simply remember.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


A while back Joe Small of the Office of Theology and Worship wrote an article on church discipline. He said that things were as bad as they were (and are) in relation to church discipline not because we don’t have a good system for discipline, we do. We have problems because we no longer seek to reconcile people to God and each other about the little things. Church discipline, after all is really about reconciliation.
The first chapter of The Rules of Discipline it says in part:
The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ.
In other words the disciplinary process of the PCUSA is not about punishment. It is about reconciliation. And as Joe Small says we have problems with the big stuff because we neglect the small stuff.
At one time the primary purposes of the Session in a local congregation were theological and disciplinary. The Session received and dismissed members. This was a theological function. When someone sought to join the congregation by affirmation or reaffirmation of faith the Session didn’t just look around nervously and ask why the individual wanted to join the congregation. The Session asked deep theological questions. There was a time, back in the mid nineteenth century when Presbyterian lay members of a congregation could explain the five points of Calvinism and do his or her best to convince a Methodist that she or he was wrong on the subject. People knew their Bibles and could quote passages and chapters (I suspect our saying “chapter and verse” comes from this) More important they thought about what they believed. Presbyterians read their Bibles, prayed regularly and kept an account for every day of how they had or had not pleased the Lord.
The Session expected much more of congregational members that we do now. When someone sought membership the Session expected that the proposed member could say what they believed and back it up by quoting Scripture. And if the person seeking membership was unable to do so they were not received into membership until they could do so. This was not a matter of elitism. It was the Session’s job to make sure a Christian was prepared for membership. The Session also concerned itself with the proposed member’s spiritual experience. In the minutes of a former congregation when the Session interviewed people for membership it was stated that the ones seeking membership were questioned as to their doctrinal and experimental religion. They had to be able to say what they believed and describe how they had come to believe and how their relationship with Jesus made them feel.
Further it was the Session’s job to provide ways for congregational members to continue their education. While Presbyterians believed that God chooses those who would go to heaven and hell it was the Session’s job (since they did not know the mind of God when it came to individual salvation) to teach church members to so believe and so live that they would be fit for the Kingdom of God. Part of this continuing education was what a Session called “the means of grace.” The simple definition of “the means of grace” is does this church member come to worship, go to prayer meetings and take the sacraments. If a member stopped attending worship a couple of members of the Session were sent to ask why that member was not availing him or herself of the means of grace. And if that member didn’t have a good reason (I broke my leg and can’t get down the stairs) the Session called that member to appear before the Session for a trial that would determine whether the individual would be disciplined or not. But the purpose of discipline, as The Rules for Discipline still say, was to bring that person into reconciliation with God and/or neighbor. This was discipline for the small things.
These days the Session of a particular congregation has a variety of problems even starting to do its primary task: seeking to teach members proper belief and proper ways to live. The first problem seemed like a good idea at the time but I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it was a profound mistake. That is the idea of having unicameral boards.
Curiously the term unicameral boards does not refer to whether a congregation has a Board of Deacons or not. Many congregations that have Boards of Deacons have a unicameral board. A bicameral board system is a church that has both a Board of Trustees and a Session. A unicameral board system is one in which the Board of Trustees and the Session are one and the same body.
At first glance. Particularly from an organizational and relational perspective it makes sense to have a unicameral board. Within the first five years after I was ordained I watched a major conflict between a Board of Trustees and a Session. It was over whether the Trustees should paint the wood exterior parts of the church building white or whether they should have vinyl siding put on that would cover the wood exterior parts. The Trustees had done all the work, priced it all out and figured that it could save a lot of money by covering the wood with vinyl siding. And no one told them that anyone had a problem with the idea. At the next Session meeting the Session invited the Trustees to meet with them to explain about the vinyl siding. The Session ultimately asked the Trustees to reconsider the vinyl siding given the emotional reaction of some church members to the idea. One of the reasons given was that I had been pastor of the congregation for three months. The unstated message was that I was a babe in the woods and was not ready to handle the blow up that would occur if vinyl siding was put on the 150 year old church building.
The Session, according to the Book of Order, had the right to overrule the Trustees. Instead they asked the Trustees to reconsider their decision. And since it was a small congregation in a small town most of the Trustees were related to members of the Session. It took me quite a while to figure out the dynamic.
The important point here is that under most normal circumstances the Session would not have concerned itself with the property and the finances of the congregation. That was the Trustee’s job. The Session already had a heavy task: the theological and spiritual well being of all the members of the congregation. When a Session also takes on the work of the Trustees the property and finances of the congregation come to the fore, taking the place of the spiritual needs of the congregation. Soon Session meetings become similar to board meetings of corporations. Session members even ask why prayer is necessary at a meeting or why they should be bothered with spiritual tasks. After all, their job is really to deal with the business (property and finance) of the congregation!
If the Session of a congregation truly takes the theological and spiritual well being of the members seriously it has a heavy task indeed. It does not have the time to do the work of the trustees as well. But the Session that seeks to do its true work runs in to a greater problem: the American mindset and way of life.
For good or evil the American experiment has over the years made the doing of this task impossible. The reason is the American ideal of the individual. Americans as a group prefer autonomy in its original meaning: that each person is a law unto him or herself. Americans do want some basic laws so that they can live through the day. They want people to stop at traffic lights, to stay within 20 miles per hour of the speed limit and to not be killed in the process of the theft of their expensive footwear. They are willing (for the most part) to go through the indignities of the security process at the airport so that no one else will take the plane over and fly it into a building. But the first and most important law for every American, the one we want the government to protect the most is the right to be left alone. We aren’t so sure that we want the guy down the block who continually cleans his extensive hand gun and semiautomatic rift collection on his front porch to have the same rights that we have. But if I am sitting in my family room watching the NCAA basketball finals on my large screen TV, hurting no one, I should be left alone.
While this American ideal of independence is a great gift for the common man or woman it is destructive to theology and church discipline. As far back at the 1790’s a theology that probably grew out of the American ideal of independence and rights dealt a fatal blow to Reformed theology and discipline. That theology came out of Yale Divinity School. It was named Hopkinsianism, the New Haven Theology or the New Divinity. Basically it said that humans did not inherit original sin. Humans were literally able to not sin and thereby have no need for the death of Jesus for their sins. In actuality humans, because the society in which they were raised, were brought up to sin and thus needed atonement through Christ.
Notice how the ideal of independence moves with the idea that each person is responsible for their sins. Sin is only act, not a state of being. One did not inherit original sin but rather learned sin, much as one learns bad behavior. Carry this idea of individual independence and responsibility and one will have strong objections to the idea that a group of humans called the Session should or could have any responsibility to guide another human in the ways of salvation and sanctification.
Ultimately the true role of the Session has fallen to a now unconscious belief that what one does and thinks, as long as one does not break the law, is no one else’s business. Sessions now quail at the idea of actually asking potential members what they believe. And unless they are strict Evangelicals (that is Baptists or their ilk) members of a Presbyterian Session will never ask a potential member about her or his spiritual experience which in this case means a narrative of the way from damnation to salvation with all emotions felt named and maybe acted out along the way. Yet well into the mid nineteenth century such questions and appropriate answers were expected.
Asking further questions about the state of each member’s soul, another primary task of the Session (asked just prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to see if members should or should not present themselves to receive the sacrament). The reception of the sacrament was not a right for all baptized Christians but rather a privilege not so much earned as confessed. Elders regularly interviewed all members of the congregation about their spiritual and moral lives prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If one did not satisfy the elders (who usually went out in pairs) as to the state of their souls that person did not receive a communion token. And if one approached the front of the sanctuary to receive the sacrament without a communion token one simply was not served.
All this was done not to judge the members of the congregation but rather to reconcile those members to God. And at times the Session was asked to reconcile members one to another. Sometimes people went to the Session rather than civil courts to seek help in reconciling with their neighbors. Curiously today congregations go to civil courts to seek help in severing their ties with their neighbors (or in this case presbyteries and denominations.
The point of all of this is to describe regular discipline. The Session acted as a loving guide to help the members of the congregation down the road of life in what they believed and what they did. No one asked how dare someone come to their house and ask about their prayer life. Neither did anyone ask why a group called a Session should have the right to decide whether someone may join a congregation or not. Yet today it is assumed by all, including the members of the Session that no one has the right to ask a congregational member or someone seeking membership about their theology, their prayer lives or their daily lives. Members of Sessions are embarrassed to ask even people seeking ordination as elders what they believe. And it is the rare Session that would question the behavior even of one of their own. An elder openly commits adultery yet the other elders on the Session are too embarrassed to ask the elder if she is committing adultery and if so why that person has not resigned from Session.
All of this, aside from the final statement about adultery is a description of ordinary discipline and how we got to the point where we just don’t do it anymore. Even extraordinary discipline, such as requiring an elder who is in an adulterous relationship to step down off of Session is rarely done and then only with great embarrassment. For that matter Sessions have to be careful. Church boards have been sued for defamation of character and have lost such suits even when the person suing the board has indeed been committing adultery! The defaming, one must conclude, comes from making the sins of the one bringing the suit into the eyes of the public. In the case of the Presbyterian system of discipline, dismissing a member from the ordained office of elder is made becomes public when that person no longer goes to meetings of the Session or serves communion. For the most part neither ordinary nor extraordinary discipline (for the purpose of reconciling persons with God and each other) is done for the good of congregational members.
However we are all too quick to seek extraordinary discipline in the case of Ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
The hurdles one must jump to be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are many and high. Just the learning of Hebrew and Greek is a hurdle that many cannot overcome. But beyond the learning of Biblical languages, one must present satisfactory transcripts from an accredited college and an accredited seminary. There are regular reports to and meetings with a presbytery committee. There are required courses including Clinical Pastoral Education and Field Experience. There are five standard exams. Finally a presbytery while examining a candidate for off can question that person on any subject at all, as long as the questions are pertinent to that particular candidate.
After one receives a call and is ordained, however, there is little if any dicipling of a Minister of Word and Sacrament. No one asks the MWS about their prayer life, what they are thinking about theologically, even how things are working out in their ministry. There is only the required every three year visit from members of the Committee on Ministry and many COMs are too busy with crisis situations to do even this minimal discipling Thus ordinary discipline is simply not done for Ministers of Word and Sacrament either.
Extraordinary discipline is another matter altogether. A disciplinary case may be filed rather easily. There is a particular form that must be used which is found at the back of the Book of Order. The person making the allegation must state what the person being accused has done wrong, give some minimal evidence, and show quotes from the Bible, the Book of Confessions or the Book of Order as to why, if the person against whom the allegations are made should be disciplined. Please remember that the system is to be for the purpose of reconciliation between a Minister of Word and Sacrament and God and/or with another person.
The problem is that often one would not reach the stage of a disciplinary case if each pastor (and elder and church member) had a spiritual advisor or small group. Since neither presbyteries nor sessions are willing or able to do the hard work of ordinary discipline we must find new ways. Requiring a spiritual advisor or a small group (led by a person with some training in the area) would be one step on the road to resuming ordinary discipline.
In the meantime we jump from case to case of extraordinary discipline, some of which concern issues about which all would agree allegations must be brought (such as sexual abuse of a child) and others which are matters of great debate in the denomination and people test the system to see if the Permanent Judicial Committees of Presbyteries, Synods and the General Assembly will interpret a section in the Book of Order as does one who brings an allegation or not.
In any case our current system is not so much broken as abandoned. God requires us, for the good of us all, to find some way that will work to give the gift of ordinary discipline to officers and members of the Church. And then maybe Permanent Judicial Commissions would have less to do.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Death at Sea. Maybe a Chance for Peace?

I am in no way an expert in military affairs or in maritime law.  But I have read various press reports and watched videos both from the Israeli Defense Force and Al Jazeera.  Here are the two videos.  Let me know what you see.  But it has to be what you see not what you believe.

 Here are my questions and observations:

1.      This is not the first time groups, particularly “Free Gaza” have sent ships into Gaza.  The Israeli navy either didn’t know that some were going in to Gaza or did nothing about them.  On at least one other occasion an Israeli navy ship rammed a ship attempting to go into Gaza. 
2.      This, as far as I can tell, is the largest group of ships attempting to enter Gaza to date.  Certainly the ships were larger, or at least one ship, the Mavi Marmara, was large enough to carry 600 passengers.  Someone and news stories suggest it was Turks, put up a lot of money to pay for the ships.  There were, by the way, ships sailing under the Turkish, Greek and US flags.  There may have been ships registered in other countries as well.
3.      There were, I understand, six ships in the flotilla.  What happened on the other five ships?  Why would the IDF open fire on one ship and not the others?
4.      It is clear from both IDF videos and Al Jazeera’s video that some of the passengers on the Mavi Marmara attacked Israelis after they slid down rope lines from helicopters.
5.      I am not a military expert but watching Israeli soldiers sliding down ropes one by one onto a ship with 600 passengers does not seem to be the best way to mount an attack.  In the IDF video soldiers land on the deck of the Mavi Marmara one by one and are attacked by people with objects that look like steel rods or baseball bats.  Why would any commander put his soldiers at risk in such a fashion?
6.      The reporter for Al Jazeera said that a white flag had been raised.  I don’t think I saw a white flag but the ship is also painted white.  Maybe there was a white flag that I didn’t see.
7.      I did hear shots being fired.  The IDF did not produce any pistols or rifles found on the ship.  At the very least this suggests that the IDF has made some attempt at telling the truth.  While claiming that there were guns on board the IDF did not produce any guns.  It would have been very easy to toss a few pistols or rifles into the pile of metal bars, wooden bats and knives. 
8.      While I understand the desire to retaliate those on the Mavi Marmara would have served their cause better by not fighting back.  Israel is susceptible to civil disobedience in ways that most of the surrounding Arab nations are not.  And in fact simply sailing a ship towards a port on international waters is not even civil disobedience.  Refusing to retaliate, however, would have made any attack by the Israeli navy that much more despicable.  It was the sight of police using fire hoses and dogs against people who only wanted to use their right to vote and to be treated as equals in the 1950s and 60s in the south of the USA that ultimately turned the tide of the civil rights movement.  If African Americans had used weapons from the start the “officials” would have had a public excuse to respond to force with force.  One has to wonder if this is what happened on the other five ships.
9.      On the other hand if no one had been killed or wounded the story would have never made the international news.
10.  While Israel delivers aid to Gaza on a weekly basis it does not seem that the aid provided is sufficient to meet the needs of the people of Gaza.  Curiously Egypt has also blockaded Gaza and, at least from what I’ve read, does not supply food or other supplies to Gaza.  One has to wonder why. 
11.  If the people of Gaza are not receiving enough food it makes sense for people to try and provide the aid.
12.  The Israeli government, with good reason, does not want to allow free access to Gaza by any ship as sooner or later a ship will carry weapons into Gaza.
13.  Israel has withstood rocket attacks from Gaza lasting for years.  One has to wonder what would have happened if Hamas had refused to use violence against Israel and sought to sit at a peace table with the Israelis.  But Hamas already has a reputation for the use of violence in their victorious fight against Fatah.
14.  In early 2009 Israel got tired of the rocket attacks and attacked Gaza.  Lots of people were killed.  Hamas and other groups in Gaza placed their supplies of weapons next to the houses of innocent people.  There was at least one incident in which a white phosphorus rocket (used to provide light at night) fell in a neighborhood and set a house or houses on fire.  How does one fight an enemy that hides behind the innocent?
15.  There is a curious belief in the Hamas party that Israel’s abandonment of settlements in Gaza was a victory for them.  Israelis are concerned that if they do the same on the West Bank that all Israeli cities would be open to attack by missiles.  Further the border of the West Bank with Jordan is much longer than that of Gaza with Israel and Egypt.  The probability that weapons would enter Palestinian territory would go up dramatically.
16.  Hamas and the Palestinian Authority refuse to recognize Israel and are unwilling, as far as I can tell, to put that on the table as part of a peace settlement with Israel.  Both organizations want at the very least for all those who left their homes in 1948 and their descendants to have the right to return to their homes.  Israel will never allow this.
17.  Hamas makes it clear in its charter that sooner or later Israel must be destroyed.  Fatah which is currently recognized as the Palestinian Authority has also refused to put peace with Israel on the table.
18.  Some in Israel want to exile all Palestinians.  Attempts by Israel to protect itself and its settlers (particularly settlements in the West Bank) give the impression that Israel does indeed want to exile all Palestinians. 
19.  It must feel pretty lonely being Israel in the Middle East.
20.  Most Israelis would love to have peace with the Palestinians.  I suspect the same is true of the average Palestinian.  The leaders of both sides at the present time seem to be convinced that a whole loaf is better than half a loaf.  And so the violence goes on.

That’s what I saw and some conclusions I reached.  Now some evaluation:

It seems to me that Israel is going to have big public relations problems after this event.  If the public embarrassment (yes, killing people is worse than embarrassment but that is the best word available under the circumstances) to Israel is large enough maybe Israel would be willing to give more at the peace table.  This would mean that the Palestinian leaders would have to be ready to make peace.  I doubt that they are.  So this will probably be one more incident in a long series of incidents in which people died and it will make no difference at all.

If the Palestinians were smart they would read Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Life in Palestine was much better for all before the second intifada.  I hope that this tragedy will supply an impetus for peace.  The land of Joshua, David, Jesus and yes, Saladin deserves more.

Oh, and for Presbyterians this will make things more exciting at the General Assembly.  I doubt that Israel, Palestine or even Washington is listening with bated breath for the General Assembly to make a proclamation.  I suspect that no one will care what Presbyterians think, no matter what the GA says.