I wasn’t here last week, but I know Pastor Nancy faithfully addressed what happened in Charlottesville. As your pastor, I wanted to share just a few thoughts as well.
We’ve been sharing our histories with one another and talking about the importance of knowing our history. Of learning from the past in order to know who we are, who we have been, and who God might be calling us to be. This year, we celebrate what’s designated as the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation. In Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, a young monk, Martin Luther, posted things that he saw that were going terribly wrong with the church, things that weren’t faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And through the help of the printing press, it went viral. Thoughts and actions that had been bubbling up here and there became a movement. A movement that sometimes not only required words but also bodies on the line to stand up for the Gospel.
This October, through our Stewardship season and beyond we’ll be talking about some of the words and thoughts that that movement inspired. We’re going to be looking at some of our more recent confessions from our Book of Confessions. One of those is the Barmen Declaration. (Here is the symbol for it.) It was written by Christians in Germany in the early 1930’s, soon after Hitler’s rise to power which included legitimating power given to him and his party by churches and church leaders. Other Christian leaders saw this for what it was, a corruption of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many were imprisoned and lost for their lives for what they said and how they lived the Gospel.
Here is some of what they wrote…”As members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches, we may and must speak with one voice in this matter today. Precisely because we want to be and to remain faithful to our various Confessions, we may not keep silent, since we believe that we have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation.” Here’s the core of their message: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scirpture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death….As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life…. We reject the false doctrine, as through there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords- areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.”
This is the core of their message and the core of the Gospel- we belong, body and soul to Jesus Christ- and that is good news! We belong to Jesus Christ, our identity is in Jesus Christ over and far above all else- not our race or our gender or our economic status or our political party or the nation which we call home. We belong to Jesus Christ.
Jesus- the brown, Middle Eastern Jew, who put his body on the line to call out sin and announce the kingdom of God. Who was killed in the midst of power politics and occupation of land and oppression by European forces. The Jesus who was raised, renouncing evil even in death.
That’s the Jesus we belong to. Now…The good news is that I still belong to Jesus no matter how bad I mess up. No matter how much I have failed to speak and act as the Gospel requires me to. The sobering news is that belonging to Jesus and following that Jesus requires a lot and that I have failed and the Church as a whole has failed many times over to follow the way of the one to whom we belong. Failed to clearly renounce the sin of white supremacy. Failed to examine and exorcise our own racism. Failed to notice the ways we choose to belong to our race or political ideology or country over and above belonging to Jesus. Failed to put our words, actions, and even bodies on the line for the sake of the Gospel.
Clergy colleagues and so many others did just that in Charlottesville. And I confess, when I see their courage and their faithfulness, I know without a doubt, I have much work to do in my own heart. So, pray with me…
Holy God, we confess that too often we want following Jesus to be easy. But most of the time, what is easy is not always faithful. Give us courage in today’s world to be faithful to the Gospel. To proclaim the Gospel of belonging to you and to the way, truth, and life of Jesus. Help us to examine our own lives, dropping our defensive postures, learning to belong to you over our race, our political parties, or our citizenship. Give us the courage to listen to and to stand with those have been pushed down, told to be quiet, told to passively accept the violence done to them and their communities. Heal our hearts. Heal our country. Heal our world, O God.
We know that like Jacob, you often bless us in the midst of our struggles. As we struggle with our sin, as we struggle with how best to love our neighbors, as we struggle with how to be faithful to your gospel. Remind us of that promise that there is blessing in wrestling with these important things.
We pray now for blessings in the lives of others, known to us and known to you….
Hear our prayers O God. Give us courage and grace to live and work for your kingdom come, even as we pray now….
This week, on Tuesday morning Trish our new Office Administrator received a call from the White House, yes THE White House. Aaron had sent the White House the letter about our 60th anniversary. The caller told Trish that due to his schedule the President was unable to attend our Celebration. The fact that someone opened our letter and responded to it was just amazing. I guess we can never underestimate our little church in Warren, MI. Nor should we underestimate the Communications committee. We just figure that we will get one on three answers, yes, and no or maybe, so why not ask.
On July 31, we gathered for our second Family, Faith and Fun Night of the summer. The weather was iffy, but the highly-anticipated bounce houses got set up anyway. The rains came, but it didn't stop anyone from jumping in the house or giving the obstacle course a go. It became more slip and slide than anything else, but kids and adults enjoyed the playful night just the same. Dinner was delicious with hot dogs and covered dishes, topped off with freshly popped popcorn. Don't forget about the last FFF Night on August 28 at 5:30pm - Movie Night! Bring a pillow and blanket and find your spot in the sanctuary as we enjoy the flick together!
Our church hosted the Macomb County Warming Center March 10-17. It was a blessing to serve our neighbors with a warm place to sleep and hearty meals. This event was a first for the church, in opening up our building to folks in need of shelter. We served at least 100 guests during the week and offered 600 hours of mission service. We are grateful for our partners at the Warming Center who helped guide us through this week.
In April, we will sponsor a table at the Spring for the Homeless annual dinner to support the Warming Center's operations. We invite you to purchase tickets for this worthwhile event, too. Please see the flyer below for more information.
Hunger ministries have always been important to First Presbyterian Church. At Fellowship Hour today, we learned more about Gleaners from one of their Warren area volunteers. The organization collects 40 million pounds of food each year to feed people throughout metro Detroit. Last summer, many from our church helped pack food at Gleaners and we look forward to more volunteer opportunities there in 2013. On a weekly basis, we support St. Mark's Food Pantry with food donations. Today we learned that Gleaners is the main supplies of food for local pantries like St. Mark's. Supporting Gleaners is supporting folks in our local area, too! Christ calls us to help those who are hungry with our helping hands and with our financial support. We are grateful to be able to partner with Gleaners in serving our neighbors.
Mark Kausch ate lunch at the Bronx Deli in Farmington Hills last week and was surprised and excited to see First Presbyterian Church's former sanctuary pews re-purposed as booths in the deli!
During the Facility Enhancement Project in 2012, the church sold a number of pews on Craigslist to make space for our new choir chairs and redesign of the sanctuary. We were pleased to sell them to the owners of the Bronx Deli for their new location in Farmington Hills. We're glad to see that the restaurant is now open and ready to go, and that the pews are being put to good use by a local, small business.
Gloria Stanley, member of First Presbyterian Church, wrote this reflection for the Christmas season:
Pastor Emma’s sermon on Sunday made me sit back and reflect on the past 50 years of my life. I will be 70 on
January 2, and I cannot believe where the years went. I remember in 1963 I was about to celebrate my 20 th
birthday, the teen years would be no more and I was already anticipating being 21, the age at which I would be an
adult (able to Party) my Mom told me “you are going to 20, do not wish your life away, once you are 21 the years
will fly by.” She was right, they flew. I sit and remember this time of year during the past 50 years. When I was 20 it
was a wonderful time, shopping and gift giving and of course receiving. I would sit in front of the Christmas tree in
the living room just wondering what was under there for me. I would be excited for Mom and could not wait until
she saw what I got for her. Packages would come from my Sister and there again “what is in there”? I still have the
ladies electric shaver she gave me that year. Unfortunately we were not members of a Church back then, not sure
why, there was a Catholic church right down the street, a big Methodist Church on Woodward avenue but too far
away and no transportation.
What was going on in 1963; 50 years ago when I was 20? The biggest news of that year was the assassination of
John F. Kennedy on November 22nd. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was arrested, films included “The
Birds” “The Great Escape” and popular TV programs were “The Virginian” and “Lassie”. Ladies fashion included
fur boots and towering hair do’s. Beatlemania after the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing
There” hit the air ways.
Yearly inflation rate in the USA was 1.24%
Year End Close Dow Jones Industrial Average 762
Average cost of a new home $12,650
Average Income per Year $5,807
Gas per Gallon .29 cents
Average cost of a new car $3,233
Loaf of Bread .22 cents
Bedroom Air Conditioner $149.95
Technology: AT&T introduces touch tone phones
The first prototype Learjet takes off
Zip Codes are implemented in the U.S.
Popular musicians were: The Beatles, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, The Drifters, and Jim Reeves
Popular Tv Programs were: The Andy Griffith Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Our Church celebrated its 50 years a few years ago, and several of our members celebrated 50 years as members
& I know that they have stories to tell about the past 50 years. As the 2012 Holiday season draws near, I am now
alone, Mom, my Sister and Brother are gone, the house is empty but the memories remain. I know how much they
loved Christmas, Mom singing in the Choir at First Church and playing Christmas music on her piano (Art Snook)
tuned it up for her. I would hear her playing as I entered the driveway coming home from work, she would have
the house all decorated, it felt so good.
When she passed I thought that I would not do Christmas anymore, but that thought changed as the holiday drew
near. I just had to decorate for her memory, and I thought perhaps I may not be here next year to decorate, so I do
a little, but enough to hold her memory, and I am not really alone; The Lord is with me always, I invite him into my
home each day of the year and on Christmas Eve after our Church service I come home to my little Dog Dexter, we
invite Jesus in to share the rest of the evening together, perhaps talk to a few friends on the phone and thank God
for what I have, thank him for the wonderful memories of family and friends who are no longer here. I just want to
hold Christmas for what it truly is and I am full of joy along with a little sadness this time of year remembering the
past 50 years of laughter and tears, joys and sorrows. I made it – Thanks Be to God – I made it this far.
What about your past 50 years, if you have that many?
Member, First Presbyterian Church
3 6oz bags semi sweet chocolate chips
14 oz can sweeten condensed milk
Dash of salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup chopped nuts - Walnuts
Melt chocolate & milk in glass dish in microwave 1 min at a time (do not over melt)
When that is melted add vanilla, salt & nuts
Put in wax paper lined 8X8 or 7X7 pan. Put in fridge for 1 hr. Cut and store in a tight container.
Variations: use different chips, toasted coconut, almond, peanuts
Cranberry Salsa with Lime
makes about 4 cups
1 12 oz pkg fresh cranberries – picked over and stemmed*
2 large ribs of celery – finely diced
1 small white onion finely diced
1 jalapeno pepper – seeded and minced
¼ cup chopped cilantro
½ tsp salt
¾ cup sugar
3 Tbs fresh limejuice (1 lime)
Process berries in food processor until coarsely & evenly ground
Transfer berries to a medium bowl & add rest of ingredients
Stir well to combine – cover & refrigerate
Salsa is best if made several hours ahead of serving, or up to one day
Tip: freeze fresh berries first & then let them thaw partially before using
Peanut Butter Balls
3 cups Rice Krispies
½ cup softened butter or margarine
1 pound powder sugar
28 oz Peanut Butter, Chunky
Lightly crumble Rice Krispies
Mix cereal, butter, sugar and peanut butter
Form into balls
Chill 2 hrs on cookie sheet.
Melt 2 8 oz Hersey bars, 12 oz chocolate chips and 2/3 stick of paraffin wax
Put tooth pick in center of each ball and drop in chocolate, place on wax paper till hardened
Store covered. Freezes well.
Though our allegiance is first to Jesus Christ, we believe our faith calls us to participate in the political process, particularly through exercising our right to vote. At First Presbyterian Church, we particularly marked this year's election with an Election Day Communion service after the polls closed on November 6. Knowing that campaigns and elections often have the power to divide us, we served one another at the table to remember that in Christ, we are ONE.
On November 6, President Obama was reelected to serve another term in office. The president carried the keys states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and won California’s 55 electoral votes to achieve the 270 electoral college votes needed to win his battle against Republican Mitt Romney.
Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives, while Democrats stayed in charge of the Senate and the White House in Washington, DC.
As the Lord leads, please pray:
On September 16, we tried 8 different chili recipes and voted on the best one. Last year's champ Carol Swanson took the year off to make sure someone else had a chance for the title. This year, Joyce Macfarlane's chili took first place. We're grateful for all the folks who donated a recipe of their best batch and for those who put on the event. The proceeds raised will be given to the Facility Enhancement fund to put finishing touches on the back of the sanctuary.
Try Joyce's chili at your house, now that the weather has turned to fall!
Scarecrow Chili from Taste of Home
Judy Webb shows off the winning doll.
...the Scottish Lassie. Dressed by Ann Hamilton and named "Heather" after her daughter, this doll was the winner in the congregational vote for best dressed doll. The dolls were displayed on August 26 in Fellowship Hall, where worship also took place during the final phases of construction in the sanctuary. We were able to offer a blessing to the dolls, those who made their beautiful clothes and the children who will receive them this Christmas. Goodfellow Dolls are given out each holiday season to needy children in the area so that they can enjoy a wonderful Christmas gift, made with love.
The committee itself had taken a lukewarm view of many of the ideas in it. The GA agreed with their view and chose not to try any of the really new ideas, such as non-geographic presbyteries or doing away with synods. Instead, it was agreed to create a commission to try to reduce the number of synods overall, but not to do away with them completely. This move basically meant we didn't shake much of anything up. We know the church is struggling, but we don't want to try anything too scary regarding our organization in order to try to fix it. Although I, too, was worried that some churches might try to form a non-geographic presbytery just because they all agreed on a few theological issues, I though the Commission's recommendations were worth a shot. The recommendation was just to try it until 2020, and if it didn't work, we could go back to the way it used to be. I supported the idea, in part, because the work of the Mid-Council Commission was so thorough and far-reaching, and their results...frankly, terrifying. If we continue to shed members at our current pace, the entire denomination might be out of members in less than 20 years. That is worrisome - not because God really needs a Presbyterian church, but because I believe our tradition offers something unique to the whole body of Christ. And selfishly, because I make my living serving God through it and I would like to continue to do so. This GA decided that we need to try new things, but not things like this.
Middle East issues were the next major topic on the agenda. This was about whether or not our church should divest its monies from 3 companies who operate in the Occupied Territory in Israel/Palestine, and whose business is (perceived by many to be) in violation of human rights. Each morning before the business started, we often heard greetings from ecumenical and interfaith leaders from around the world. Before this vote, a prominent Jewish Rabbi was invited to do a greeting. Unfortunately, he abused his invitation and spent about 10 minutes telling the body why it would be incredibly damaging for Presbyterian/Jewish relations if we voted to divest. Although he is entitled to his opinion, using his greeting to persuade us of it was an inappropriate attempt to sway the vote before we had even had open discussion on the topic. As soon as he got on that topic, I was furious and couldn't understand why the moderator didn't step in to respectfully tell him he needed to stop. Perhaps the moderator was worried about how such an action would be perceived. However, nothing was ever done to rectify the situation or present a similar voice on the other side. Though we were told that a Palestinian had been invited to come to GA, he could not attend because of visa issues. That alone tells us how difficult it is for Palestinians to have freedom of movement.
With the stage set, we took up the committee's recommendations which were overwhelmingly in favor of divestment. Most of the arguments remained focused on the Jewish/Presbyterian issues, rather than the actual issues Palestinians face or what our Christian brothers and sisters had asked us to do. Through some challenging parliamentary moves, the main issue on divestment was eventually replaced with a substitute motion to focus on "positive investment" in Palestine. That substitute motion passed (and thereby the plan to divest was defeated). While positive investment sounds really nice, it is impossible to carry out in reality. The church has looked for ways to invest in Palestinian businesses, but there are no major companies able to operate there. Israeli rules and regulations simply won't allow it. The only kind of commerce going on is small arts and crafts and a bit of olive oil production, which is not sufficient to garner the kind of investment folks are seeking to make. In the end, we also agreed to a boycott of a few specific products made in the Occupied Territories, including Ahava cosmetic products and certain dates grown in the region (often marked King Solomon). The market share of these products is so limited however, and since most of us don't buy them anyway, the impact will be relatively insignificant. I was really disappointed about the entire outcome. Money is such a powerful issue in our culture, and agreeing to keep it invested in companies we know are using it in ways that are against our faith seems ultimately unfaithful. I know the actual amounts of money we have in the companies are small, and I know that relations with some Jewish groups might become challenging, but I also believe that Jesus calls us to do the hard things, the unpopular things that also point toward justice.
It was agreed to take up the marriage issues at 2pm on Friday. The theory was that if we started this issue "early" enough, we would finish our business on time. Ha! This debate began at 2pm and lasted til 5pm. Then we ended up working until 1:30am on Friday with all the other business, and we still weren't finished. Things continued Saturday, but it was really tough to get through everything before us.
My committee's report began with the amendment to the Book of Order that would have changed the definition of marriage to be between two people, rather than between a man and a woman. However, there were two substitute motions that were presented to replace that recommendation. One was a mandate to the church to study issues of marriage, but it recommended a delay in hearing the outcomes of the study for 6 years. Many who were opposed to this study called it just "kicking the can down the road." The other substitute motion sought to strengthen the language in the current BoO regarding one man and one woman.
Since I had sat on the committee, I wanted to be able to speak to the motions on the floor. I went to the microphone and began waiting in line right when the report started. The process for speaking is that there are 8 microphones. You check in with the person at each mic, and depending on whether you are speaking for or against the motion, you hold up a green or red paddle. Then you wait to be called on. Sometimes you wait and wait and wait. I stood in line for no less than three hours in order to speak for 60 seconds. The lines at each mic were 10-20 people deep, since this issue was so important. When it was my turn, I recommended approval of the Authoritative Interpretation (see Part 2 for a refresher on this), and spoke about how our international mission partners might respond to a change in our definition of marriage. There is much concern that some global church partner denominations will choose to break communion with us if we do make a change, because they perceive us to be doing something we shouldn't be. However, I spoke with a number of people who said that some global denominations already did this over our change in ordination standards. Though the "official" line is that they are no longer in partnership, many individual presbyteries and churches are still participating in faithful and fruitful ministries, particularly in Ghana and Mexico. I though it was important for people to know that relationships founded in Christ, where actual church members know each other, are not so easily broken over doctrinal or policy differences. My time serving in Africa leads me to believe that relationships are the most important thing.
In the end, neither substitute motion was accepted and we still voted on the amendment. The Young Adult Advisory Delegates (whose votes "advise" - they aren't counted in the official total) advised us to approve the change. However, the overall vote was again razor thin, but was in the negative. We then moved on to the groups request for a study (different than the one mentioned above), which was moved to "answer all business." That meant that we would not vote on any of the other overtures - our vote on the study would be the final word on everything. This study was a piece of new business the committee approved. It asked the church to study marriage for a period of two years, so that more discussion could be had a the next GA in 2014. First, many of us tried to pull out the AI so that it could still be voted on separately. I felt this was important and was a way to stop the judicial procedures against pastors. The AI was not pulled out, so the last vote regarding marriage issues was on the study. This passed, so it now falls to US to choose whether or not to study marriage in all its forms and have a deeper conversation on this issue.
You are probably worn out reading this. We are all incredibly worn out debating these issues. Truly GA was one of the most exhausting and challenging weeks I've had. I came away feeling disappointed. I felt that the church had a number of opportunities to try new ways of "doing" church, to stand up for justice even when that is risky, and maybe to open ourselves just a little to people who have often been un-loved by the church, the LGBT community. We passed lots of other interesting studies and measures. But I basically felt like we came out with a status quo position. And the status quo is not helping our church find a new identity or serve God in refreshing ways. The PCUSA is still doing plenty of faithful work. But we aren't adjusting to new cultural realities, which means we are being left behind.
I know there are lots of reasons why this is the way GA went: fear, worry about a schism in the church, differences in Biblical understanding, fear, disagreements, churches still reeling from new ordination standards and a new form of government, and fear. But the angels of the Lord always come and tell us "Do Not Be Afraid." And that's for all of us: those of us who are afraid the church will stagnate and die, those who are afraid we are becoming too liberal OR too narrow in our reading of the Bible, those who are afraid we will turn off young people if we don't marry gay people, those who are afraid we will divide as a denomination. We simply have to take heart and stop being afraid. Because there is nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Period.
Do you recognize that photo? It's Mr. McFeely, from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor whose special ministry was to serve children. He served faithfully through his PBS program for years, which was filmed in Pittsburgh, PA, the location of this year's General Assembly meeting. Mr. McFeeling made a 'special delivery' to drop in and wish us well at our meeting.
Moments like those at GA are special. They remind us of the good things Presbyterians have done and are doing in the world as part of the larger body of Christ. Those moments helped sustain me during the difficult hours of working in committee. In this post, I want to share with you my experience on the Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee, and tell you some of the recommendations that other committees made to the full General Assembly (plenary session).
Because the process is a little muddy, here's how things work: in the two years leading up to General Assembly, presbyteries may submit overtures (like a bill in Congress) to be voted on at the GA meeting. Presbyteries must receive a majority vote on their overture in order to send it to GA. This year, we received tons of overtures from presbyteries regarding changes in language in the Book of Order (our constitution), new issues of peace and justice they would like the PCUSA to support, and programs they hope the church will create. GA also receives some overtures from the church's denominational offices. Every overture is assigned to a different committee to be studied at GA. The committees are made up of commissioners elected to attend the meeting. About two and half days of the eight day GA are spent in committee. The committee has to make a recommendation to the whole body, called the plenary, about whether or not the overture should be approved, disapproved, referred for more study and/or amended in some way. The plenary hears the recommendation from the committee, allows time for debate and then makes the final vote on each overture.
I served on Committee 13, which studied how we define marriage in the church. We had about 50 members on the committee. As my committee moderator said, "we were given an impossible task - to solve the issue of defining marriage for the church." Throughout most of those two days, it did feel impossible. I came really wanting to listen for the Spirit. But I also came hoping to hear something new in this debate. I have been aware of and immersed in the discussion surrounding issues of sexuality in our church for years, but was hoping that at this major event, we might discover a new path or come to some breakthrough that would lead us forward. For people who had little knowledge about the debate or really didn't know where they stood, I think there was some clarity. For others of us, it was a difficult discussion and one that we felt we had heard many times before. That made it hard to know how to move forward together.
Overall, there were three choices about what we would recommend to the plenary.
1.Re-affirm the church's current understanding of marriage, between one man and one woman
2.Change the church's understanding of marriage to be between two people
3.Issue an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) that would allow pastors and churches in states where same-gender marriage is legal to perform same-gender weddings without fear of prosecution in the church disciplinary process. [An AI is a statement that tells the church how to interpret our constitution.]
For two hours, we hard from people inside and outside the church in open hearings. Each one received one minute to speak about how they felt on the issue, how they are impacted by it, and how they sense God leading us. The variety of voices was wide: people who claimed to be recovering gays urging us not to change the definition, pastors who had been prosecuted by the church for marrying gay couples, young people on all sides of the issue who want the church to continue to be strong for their generation, and members who said their church will leave the denomination if we make a change. That last one, which was repeated over and over, unfortunately, felt a lot like a threat Later, we also heard from Overture Advocates - representatives from the presbyteries who had sent us the different overtures about why they were asking us to approve their recommendation. Eventually, our committee had discussions in small groups about how we were feeling and where the Spirit was leading us. On the second day, we moved into our official business and began to conduct our work by voting on what to do.
Though committees rarely issue new overtures, that's one thing our committee decided to do. We agreed to recommend that the whole (congregations, presbyteries, etc.) engage in a study of marriage during the next year and half. Though this is a hopeful idea, it remains to be seen whether leaders will really take up the challenge to have such a wide-ranging and potentially contentious decision. We also voted not to re-affirm the current understanding of marriage, and also not to issue an AI. The vote on the AI, however, was very very close. Finally, we moved onto the overture changing the understanding of marriage to include two people of any gender. To everyone's surprise, that vote passed in committee by one or two votes! Together, those were the recommendations we took to the plenary session. Stay tuned to Part 3 for what happened there.
For myself, I had gone in thinking that an AI was a bad idea, as it seems to take away the voice of presbyteries, since it is automatic and not voted on by the lower councils. However, I was persuaded that it actually was the right way to go. It would un-tie the hands of churches and pastors to serve the needs of their individual members with regard to weddings, and the pastoral care and worship issues involved. No one would be forced to marry any couple they did not want, just as is the case now. And, the AI would prevent costly disciplinary cases. When pastors are prosecuted in the church, congregations, presbyteries and the pastors themselves are force to spend up to a hundred thousand dollars on the case. This is money that would normally be spent for mission and other church service. Our committee was asked, "how many hungry children could $100,000 feed?"
Other committees also did difficult work. There was a committee on Mid-Council Issues, tasked with acting on recommendations of a two-year study that urged us to re-organize the church's governance structures with regard to Presbyteries and Synods. The main overtures were to eliminate Synods completely, which is the third highest governing body, just below the General Assembly itself. Over the years, synods have dwindled in power and effectiveness. Doing away with them would be a new way forward, though we would need to appoint several regional bodies to participate in the disciplinary process. Second, they advised us to allow for more flexible ways to create presbyteries. Rather than always being a regional body, they wanted us to be able to organize new presbyteries around a common missional purpose (such as starting new churches, or serving an urban area, etc.) There were concerns about both of these recommendations, especially that the presbytery item would allow people just to organize around like-mindedness, furthering turning us into a factional church. Therefore, the committee recommended disapproval of both these items.
Finally, the committee on Middle East Issues had another of the hot button issues. They were asked to decide whether the PCUSA would divest from (take it's money out of) companies whose business supports violence and oppression in the Occupied Territory (OT) in Palestine. A group called Mission Responsibility Through Investing (MRTI) has worked for more than 10 years to get companies who hold our money to work for peace, rather than violence, in the OT. However, three companies never agreed to cooperate and so they recommended we divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and HP. Each of these companies makes and furnishes products that are used to destroy Palestinian homes, monitor the movements of Palestinians, and track Palestinians at checkpoints by the Israeli government, respectively. Our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters have also asked that we divest from these companies.
This issue got a lot of play in the media. Some Jewish groups said that if we divested, Presbyterians would no longer be seen as friends of Jews. This kind of thinking assumes that all Jews and all Presbyterians think alike and is not an accurate representation of what divestment means. We are still supporters of Jewish people and of Israel as a nation. We do not, however, support the way Israel has occupied the land given to Palestinians, prevented them from freedom of movement, taken away their homes, and their ability to farm their land. Divesting from these companies would simply show our disapproval of those actions. I was convinced that our church should follow the MRTI recommendations and take a stand for justice, even when it is hard to do. I also trusted the Jewish groups who supported divestment. The committee agreed with this logic and recommended by a large majority that we divest from those three companies.
Remember - this is just what happened in committee. It's not exactly where things shook out with the whole plenary GA session. But it is important to remember that each committee had more time, more resources, and more preparation to study these issues than all the other commissioners, so their recommendations are certainly to be respected as well-formed and thorough.
Attending General Assembly as a commissioner was an intense experience! I think I needed a couple of weeks to reflect on it before I could really consider sharing it with you. This will be the first of a short series of posts describing 1) the moderator's election and worship services 2) committee work and 3) plenary sessions.
In case you're new to the PCUSA or need a refresher: General Assembly is our biennial meeting that makes decisions about our policies as a denomination. Commissioners (lay people [ruling elders] and pastors [teaching elders]) are elected from each presbytery to go and discern the leading of the Spirit as they vote and make decisions. This GA met in Pittsburgh, PA from June 29-July 7, 2012. I attended as a Teaching Elder commissioner from Detroit Presbytery.
The first major task of the Assembly is to elect a new moderator. The moderator serves for a term of 2 years as the figurehead of the denomination, as well as moderating (leading) the plenary (large-group) sessions of the current General Assembly meeting. This year, there were four candidates and their vice moderatorial candidates, all of whom are Teaching Elders, or pastors. I had read up on the candidates ahead of time and was still a bit uncertain about who I would vote for. In the past ten years or so, there have been two really dynamic, exciting moderators and that's what I was basing my hopes on. Rick Ufford-Chase had been a strong advocate for peace and justice, and had tons of experience serving on the US-Mexico border. Meeting him in college was a really powerful experience. Bruce Reyes-Chow was the moderator three/four years ago and he was strongly committed to using social media to serve the church and reaching out to young people. None of this year's candidates struck me as having a strong platform in any direction. However, getting to hear each of them speak in a roundtable setting was helpful, as were the questions from the floor during the plenary session.
The one candidate I was most interested in was the Rev. Neal D. Presa who is a pastor in Elizabeth Presbytery in New Jersey. He was really focused on unity in the church. Neal's vice-moderator candidate was the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe. It had come out in recent weeks that Tara had signed the marriage license of a lesbian couple earlier this year in Washington, D.C. Same-sex marriage is legal there, though the Presbyterian church still disallows such marriages. That difference puts pastors in a tough position if they are trying to offer pastoral care and worship to gay and lesbian people, if they believe that marrying them is appropriate. For Neal and Tara, this situation kind of exploded. However, they didn't dance around it and took the issue head on, which was impressive. Neal does not believe that same-sex marriage is appropriate. Tara obviously does. They are also really good friends, who love and respect each other as people, as Presbyterians, and as children of God. They chose to stay in the election. The told us that their leadership would be a model for the church about how to live together - and be friends - even as we disagree. For me, this spoke volumes! No matter where you are on this issue, we need people to lead us who are in different places, but still committed to conversation and true relationships.
I voted for Neal and Tara. After four ballots, they finally got 50% of the vote and were elected. Later in the week, however, it came to light that a number of people were upset about having elected someone who had done something (signed a marriage license) that was outside the PCUSA's polity. Tara felt that she had to resign the position or folks were going to make the situation even uglier. It was a really tough and sad part of the week for her and for many folks there. The new vice-moderator is the Rev. Tom Trinidad. He had to jump into the position without having really planned for it and did so gracefully. Neal, Tom, and Tara all would benefit from our prayers over these next years!
The election took place on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, all the commissioners went out to worship in local churches in Pittsburgh. I had eagerly signed up to worship at a community called Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community. About 10 years ago, this church first got its start in the Pittsburgh neighborhood called Hot Metal Bridge, which is named for the bridge that crosses the river nearby. They are an eclectic community designed to meet the needs of younger adults who may never have encountered Christ, may feel they've been burned by the church, or who don't fit in a "typical" church. Each service includes the Lord's Supper and a dramatic interpretation of the scripture, as well as a different style of band/music each week. After each service, they transform the worship space into a fellowship space and share a meal.
While I was there, the band played kind of a rock version of some bluegrass-y music. It was really cool and very fun to sing songs like "Amazing Grace" in a totally new way. We packed the house that day, as a busload of Presbyterians invaded their small worship space. The dramatic re-telling of the Good Samaritan showed a new take on the story. They showed that perhaps the Good Samaritan was actually not the one who "saved" the man who'd been robbed. Rather, the man in need might actually have saved the Samaritan by taking him out of his comfort zone and allowing him to serve. What a neat way to think about it! And how true for so many people - maybe us, included!
The meal was so generous and gracious and I got to talk to a young married couple who live in the neighborhood and attend the church. They grew up in conservative Christian environments, but were eventually turned off by that atmosphere. They have found a home at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, which is more in tune with their way of understanding God.
The images below are taken from the beautiful artwork on Hot Metal's walls that depicts the growing, preparing, and serving of Communion. These are just a few images in the series, but they give you a taste of what the sacrament is all about! Worshiping there was a great start to the week that made me feel connected to Christians, even in far away places.