Friday, June 27, 2008

All at Once

I occasionally wonder how God can manage it -- to hear, to know, even to feel everything the world feels all at once. Our joy, our pain, our anxiety, our hope, our courage, our fear, our inabilities and awkwardness, our prejudice and pride, our depths and our shallows.

I know I can't begin to imagine how God does it -- but in this moment, this holy and humanly moment, I'm feeling more of all of the above than I know how to say.

The General Assembly has just taken three momentous votes -- two little pushes of more than 900 buttons -- that will change the course of the church.

We'll take them in reverse order -- the way the "headlines" are likely to treat them in the morning --

First, and by a 54% majority, the Assembly is sending out an Amendment to the Book of Order to strike the current language of G-6.0106b. The new language would no longer prohibit gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered persons from ordination or installation as Elders or Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. In the same action, the Assembly repealed all "Authoritative Interpretations" that declare homosexual practice to be sinful. These companion actions were framed off of an overture from the Presbytery of Boston.

Secondly, and by a 53% margin, the Assembly has overturned the action of the GA Permanent Judicial Commission which barred "scruples" to G-6.0106b. This reestablishes the intent of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the church, which reported in 2006. Candidates for ordination/installation are now free to declare departures of theology or practice with regard to our standards -- and it rests upon the governing bodies to determine, on a case-by-case basis, if such departures fall outside the essentials of the Reformed faith.

Thirdly, as the first item of business this morning, a new General Assembly Stated Clerk has been elected. The Rev. Gradye Parsons will assume the Clerk's role as the term of the current Clerk, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, comes to a close this summer. During the pre-election hour of questions and answers, Gradye offered words very apt to the Church on this day:

"When we fight with each other, we develop a blind spot between us. I stop seeing the Christ that is in you, and you stop seeing the Christ that is in me." He went on to talk about the fear that also blinds us, sharing with us his daily mantra -- words that keep him going. "Get in the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die."

Parsons will take office in a church feeling many things -- from deep grief to great joy.

How does God do it? How does God know the weight and the joy of this world all at once? How does our loving, aching, all compassionate God feel all these things every day, for you and me and all the world? Oh to feel the echo of God's groans! I can only bear it for a moment before the tears come rushing. They remind me of my baptism, and that, wrapt around all my wonder, is sufficient.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Word About Wednesday

There's something sleepy about Wednesday. Or maybe it's just me. Or maybe its just what happens after 5 overfilled days of meeting, eating, watching, waiting, worshiping, praying, laughing, and occasionally rolling one's eyes. Not that it isn't all wonderful -- perhaps, in fact, it's all the more tiring because of the wonder of it all.

A General Assembly Wednesday begins with the Ecumenical Service of worship -- featuring, this year, Archbishop Elias Chacour -- a Nobel peace prize nominee, and prelate of the Melkite Catholic Church in Galilee. As he entered the pulpit, he opened wide his sport-coat saying, "I am a Palestinian, I have no bombs." His message was stirring as he urged the church to engage, "Some say, 'We are not Jewish or Palestinian. We don't need to get involved.' But what would have happened if the Good Samaritan didn't get involved? He got his hands dirty...and I invite you Presbyterians to get your hands dirty."

The Assembly will turn to recommendations in regard to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on Friday evening.

After worship -- Wednesday morning is a time for reading. All of the committees have submitted their work, so its time to peer into the crystal ball (or your LCD display) to see what actions will be coming up.

Among the items to come --
  • A statement on Muslim/Christian relations
  • A call for correcting translation errors in the Heidelberg Catechism (one of which reckons with the words "homosexual perversion" -- a phrase not found in any edition of the Catechism until the 1960s.)
  • The beginning of a process that would add the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions
  • A motion to refer the work of the Form of Government Task Force to the presbyteries for continued study
  • A recommendation to disapprove any changes to the language defining marriage as between a man and a woman
  • A new Authoritative Interpretation that reemphasizes the work of the Peace, Unity, and Purity task force and clarifies the process known as "scrupling"
  • A recommendation to delete G-6.0106b
  • The election of a new Stated Clerk for the General Assembly
The list goes on.

And it is that lengthy list, and all the work that leads up to it, that makes Wednesday a little bit sleepy.

Or is it the chicken? ...since all you eat at GA seems to be chicken. No, I guess that would have to be turkey. Hmm... yup -- must be the work.

Get some rest.
(Photo by Danny Brolin, Presbyterian News Service)

A Peaceful Surprise!

Early this morning -- and I do mean early, 6:45 blessed a.m. -- the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship held its GA breakfast. Now, lest I begin getting an abundance of early morning breakfast invitations, let me hasten to add that this is not an hour at which I am customarily social. But, when it comes to a good surprise, and the celebration of someone who truly deserves applause, I'm there.

This morning's breakfast featured several impassioned reminders of our broken world which cries out for peace. Two recent partners in the Christian Peacmaking Teams who have been active in Iraq were honored. We heard from a Palestinian Christian Non-Violent activist who shared stories of challenge and courage.

In the midst of all of this, perhaps the most rousing applause was reserved for one of our own. The Rev. Peggy Howland, one of God's most uniquely fashioned formidable forces, was honored with a Peaceseeker Award for 2008 for her years of service to the PPF. Soon to celebrate her 50th Ordination Anniversary, Peggy has participated in the work of PPF for four decades. For many years now, she has also been the coordinator of the GA breakfast.

Keeping the secret from her was surely a challenge, but somehow they pulled it off. Several of the HRP crowd were gathered to share in the joy.

An early morning, yes, but a great way to start the day!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

41 - 11

The Lord be with you.
(I hope you just said, "and also with you.")

Lift up your hearts!
(We lift them to the Lord!)

It was not just hearts that were lifted this afternoon in San Jose, but hands. 41 hands to be exact, lifted in support of the removal of paragraph G-6.1016b from the Book of Order.

Committee 5, the committee on Church Orders has voted to recommend that the General Assembly send a invitation to the presbyteries to strike the current language of the passage commonly called "Amendment B." The vote, specifically taken with regard to an overture from the Presbytery of Boston, was 41 in favor, 11 opposed.

Several overtures were considered by the committee, including an overture that originated in the Hudson River Presbytery. Ultimately, the committee opted for the Boston overture which offers replacement language for the current paragraph rather than an outright deletion. The new language would read:

"Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards."

A few additional changes to other paragraphs are also proposed.

The same committee voted earlier to recommend an Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 that would overturn the precedent established by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission earlier this Spring. If the Assembly accepts this recommendation, the process of "scrupling" implied in the report of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the church (adopted at the 217th GA) would be restored.

It is important to note that neither of these actions have yet come before the entire Assembly -- so the conversation is not yet closed. The docket for the plenary sessions will become more clear in the days to come.

And so, I refer you back to the beginning of these thoughts -- "Lift up your hearts!" However you feel about the actions taken by these committees, the time for prayer is now. These are exciting, trying, and tiring times here in San Jose. The Commissioners and Advisory Delegates need our continued prayers for strength, for wisdom, for the sustaining hand of the Spirit. Pray for all our sisters and brothers as we face the challenging conversations ahead.

The Lord be with you.

Extra! Extra! Presbyterians Eat!

Not every moment of General Assembly involves intense debate and impassioned conversation. Sometimes, it's as simple as chattin' and chewin' -- as we former Texans might say.

Several of our HRP contingent gathered for dinner this evening at the Sainte Claire Hotel. In the pictures, you'll recognize familiar faces (and/ or backs of heads! sorry Cathy and Rose!) and also a newcomer. We were honored to have with us the present and future of the Stony Point Conference Center, outgoing director Bill Pindar, and incoming co-director, (and former GA Moderator) Rick Ufford-Chase.

(Tomorrow's Headline: Former GA Moderators in Stare-Down over Tiramisu)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Committee Season

Advent? No.
Epiphany? Maybe a few.
Ordinary? Certainly not.

It's committee season at the 218th General Assembly. Some might even call it one of the more penitential seasons of the year...but let's not go down that road just at the moment.

In order to reckon with the volume of work that comes before the General Assembly, the first few days of GA are spent in committee work. The commissioners and advisory delegates are spread out in to 17 committees in order to more fully consider particular items of business. Once the Assembly returns to Plenary mode (on Wednesday) the body will act upon the recommendations of the various committees.

Many of the committees have become familiar fixtures of GA -- Church Orders (reckoning with Ordination issues), Polity (dealing with everything from Synod minutes to the constitutional definition of marriage), Peacemaking and International Issues (considering overtures regarding Iraq and Israel/Palestine among others)... The list goes on.

Two of our HRP delegation find themselves on new committees this year. Elder Bruce Mather (pictured above) is on the Youth Committee. They won't be planning a pizza party, however. This committee is attempting to accomplish its work by means of a discernment process. Operating informally, they will be considering how the GA might support the church in its working with 12 - 18 year olds. They have no overtures to take up, so it remains to be seen what they will produce. YAD Jason Cerillo is on the second 'discernment' committee, considering matters related to Worship.

Committee season is also the time when Overture Advocates are invited to speak to the overtures put forth by their presbyteries. Today, Rev. Peggy Howland (also picutred) addressed Committee 11 with regard to our concurrence with the Greater Atlanta overture to withdraw troops from Iraq. Later in the evening, Stated Clerk Harriet Sandmeier joined a chorus of Overture Advocates in calling for the removal of G-6.0106b, which bars ordination to GLBT persons.

Harriet (pictured below) shared her amazement at just how destructive three sentences could be. Speaking her conviction that now is the time to remove Amendment B, she called the committee to remember that our LGBT candidates for ordination are, "living breathing sisters and brothers in Christ, claimed by God in their Baptism."

Hearing Elephants

There are elephants among us.

Have you ever tried to write down the sound of an elephant? And I'm not talking Babar here friends. What is the screeching, yolping, brash, hungry, haunting, trumpeting sound of your average local, (perhaps even Presbyterian) pachyderm?

As the committees begin their work here in San Jose, many elephants have wandered their Ringling way from the side shows and into the Big Top of the PCUSA.

I've just spent the last hour or so in Committee 5 -- the GA committee on Church Orders. This is the committee that will take up the various questions surrounding G-6.0106b, the provisions of the PUP report authoritative interpretation (established at the last GA), and other matters related to the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in the life of the church. The Hudson River Overture (item of business 05-06) is before this committee.

The first order of business for most committees of the Assembly is to hold open hearings. Committee 5 is no exception. Most of this morning has been devoted to a full range of perspectives on these challenging issues.

Hearing is hard work. Hearing the pain of those who feel deeply excluded. Hearing the convictions of those who believe the ordination standard must stay. Hearing the stories of those who have found Jesus embracing them and their sexual identity. Hearing the stories of those who feel that Jesus called them away from their sexual identity. Hearing the hopes of those who love their church, no matter the side of the argument. Hearing can be heavy. To hear can be too close to heart.

And ah, the elephants. Bruce Reyes-Chow, our new Moderator, said he has a "no elephants policy." I think I disagree with him just a bit. I'm more inclined toward a "name the elephants" policy -- and in naming them, learning to listen to them, wondering how they got in in the first place, and working to bring them down to size.

Trouble is, we have polynonymous pachyderms -- elephants with many names, that are so heavy, and so heard to hear. I can't even write down the sound they make. Were I to try though -- were I to look for the letters of the word that no one knows quite what to do with, or quite how to hear -- I suspect I'd spell it "t-r-u-s-t." What a sound that grates on our ears! What a sound we so need to hear!