Archives for category: 221st PCUSA General Assembly

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We are reaching the end of what has been a very full week here in Detroit.   While this General Assembly is addressing a broad range of significant issues, two have stood out — (a) marriage equality and (b) actions intended to influence Israel on the treatment of Palestinians.

MARRIAGE EQUALITY

On Thursday, the Assembly addressed marriage in two ways:

1.  GA voted to allow pastors — whose churches are located in states that have made same gender marriage legal — the discretion to conduct marriage ceremonies for same gender couples.  This action goes into effect immediately.

2.  GA voted (with 71% in favor) to change the definition of marriage with the following language:  “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people (traditionally between a man and a woman) to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.”

This new definition will now be sent out for vote by all of our  173 Presbyteries.  If more than 50% approve the new definition, it will go into effect.   The new definition would allow pastors to marry same gender couples where that is legal.   The Assembly also added the following paragraph to ensure that pastors and sessions who disagree with this action are not forced to act against those convictions:

 “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”

There will be those who will celebrate this decision on marriage, and there will be those who are greatly disappointed in this outcome. My hope is that the flexibility provided in the second paragraph will enable our church to live together in the midst of any such disagreements.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE

The second BIG matter before the Assembly are a series of proposals that aim to influence Israel to change certain policies so as to improve the conditions of the Palestinian people.    Known by the shorthand of “BDS,” three main planks of these actions include:

(a) boycotting products produced in the occupied Palestinian territories,

(b) divesting the PC(USA)’s financial holdings from three U.S. companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola) that supply products to the Israeli government which are then used by Israel in its ‘occupation,’

(c)  and other sanctions.

The Assembly will vote on this issue on Friday.

For some, the BDS proposals are colored by a study guide titled “Zionism Unsettled.”   Produced by the “Israel Palestine Mission Network” (http://israelpalestinemissionnetwork.org/) of the PC(USA), the publication is highly critical of Israel and equates Zionism with racism.  The denomination has responded that this publication is not an official statement of PC(USA) policy, but just a guide for reflection and study.  Nonetheless, the fact that it is sold on-line through the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation has given the impression to some that it does reflect the official policy of the PC(USA).

Of all the issues considered here in Detroit, the BDS debate has garnered the most attention and energy.   The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (http://presbypeacefellowship.org/),  Israel Palestine Mission Network, as well as the Jewish advocacy group Jewish Voices for Peace  (http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/)  have joined in calling for divestment.

On the other side, Presbyterians for a Middle East Peace (http://www.pfmep.org/) and others have opposed divestment.   At the beginning of the General Assembly, 30 Presbyterian leaders, including two previous Moderators of the General Assembly, released a letter titled “The Things that Make for Peace.”    I am posting the full text of that letter at the foot of this posting.  In it, the writers urge GA to reject the BDS approach.  The Assembly also received “A Letter of Shalom” signed by 26 American Jewish organizations and approximately 1,600 Rabbis from around the country (including 8 from the KC metro area) which opposes BDS and protests the “Zionism Unsettled” study guide mentioned earlier.  This is also posted below.

In reply to these criticisms, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship released a letter titled “We Refuse to Be Enemies” signed by 8 former moderators of the General Assembly and approximately 60 other pastors and faith leaders.  This is attached below.   Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu also submitted a letter in support of the BDS proposals which is also include below.

This, as one readily can see, is an extremely complex matter.   While everyone at the Assembly is in agreement on the goal of peaceful co-existence between Israel and Palestine, there is sharp disagreement about how to get there.  I have wrestled with this issue through the week and continue to pray about the appropriate response.  I am mindful of the precarious situation of the state of Israel in a volatile region and the history of violence perpetrated against it.   I’m concerned that the BDS proposals do not adequately press elements in Palestinian society, such as Hamas, to unequivocally renounce violence and affirm the right of Israel to exist.  (I have been told, however, that such stronger language has been added.)   I am also greatly concerned about how approving BDS would affect the relationship between the PC(USA) and the American Jewish community.

At the same time, I am greatly concerned about the dire living conditions of the Palestinian people and how Israeli security measures and settlement expansions contribute to these conditions.

I attended a luncheon on Wednesday to learn more about the “pro-BDS” viewpoint.  At the luncheon, a South African church leader (of Indian descent) shared how he went on a fact-finding mission to Israel and Palestine.  His conclusion was that the Palestinians are living under conditions that are equal to or worse than those in South Africa under apartheid.  A white South African church leader shared how it was the divestment campaign in the 1980s that awakened his own consciousness to the  unjust majority policies.

I have had discussions with commissioners from other cities on the BDS question.  One commissioner shared how his delegation had met with Jewish leaders in their city prior to coming to Detroit.   To his surprise, the Rabbis didn’t overly object to the divestment proposals.  Instead, he said, their greatest concern was the “Zionism Unsettled” study guide.    There has been a proposal introduced at the Assembly which, if approved, would officially repudiate this study guide as reflecting the policy of the PC(USA).   This too will be voted upon on Friday.

In a dramatic moment in the floor discussion on Thursday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of Union for Reform Judaism (the largest association of Jewish synagogues in the United States) addressed the Assembly.   He urged commissioners to defeat the BDS proposals and instead join in a time of dialogue.   He invited the new PCUSA Moderator Heath Rada to fly to Israel next week to join him in meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the issue of peace between Israel and Palestine.   It seemed as though that invitation was conditioned on the Assembly defeating the BDS measures.

So this is a very challenging question that is before the church.   Please keep the Assembly in prayer on Friday.   You can follow the events at the Assembly by going to http://www.pc-biz.org.   You could even live stream the Assembly from  http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga221/ .

Below are the letters that I referenced above:

1.  Letter from Presbyterian Leaders AGAINST BDS

“The Things That Make For Peace”

An Open Pastoral Letter to the PC(USA)

AS PASTORS AND LEADERS, we are deeply disturbed by the escalating conflict within the PC(USA) over the Church’s policies toward Israel/Palestine. Conflict over these issues, of course, is nothing new; what is new is the focus and tone of that conflict. For decades, the PC(USA) has argued passionately over how best to express our opposition to the 1967 Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. But through all that time, we have consistently maintained that we oppose the occupation, not Israel.

This has now changed. With the publication of Zionism Unsettled, a “study guide” on Zionism produced by the PC(USA)’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network, and a series of overtures pending before the 2014 General Assembly that reflect its arguments, we are no longer debating how the occupation should end, but whether Israel should exist. Zionism Unsettled announces this shift from its opening section, saying: “put simply, the problem is Zionism.” It makes no distinction between different forms of Zionism, arguing that any form of Zionism is inherently discriminatory. Some forms of Zionism have been violent and exclusionary; the same is true of any form of nationalism (American, British, Chinese, Palestinian, etc.). But to argue that any Jewish desire for any form of statehood within their historic homeland is inherently discriminatory is not only patently false but morally indefensible. And the conclusion is obvious: if Zionism is the problem, then ending Zionism (i.e., Israel) is the solution.

It is telling that one of the earliest and loudest affirmations of Zionism Unsettled was by David Duke, perhaps the most notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite in the United States today, who said:
In a major breakthrough in the worldwide struggle against Zionist extremism, the largest Presbyterian church in the United States, the PC(USA), has issued a formal statement calling Zionism “Jewish Supremacism” — a term first coined and made popular by Dr. David Duke.
The reality that David Duke would endorse a Presbyterian study guide available for purchase on the PC(USA) website is sickening to us, and should give all Presbyterians great pause in considering the arguments and language of this document and Zionism Unsettled’s ideological relationship to the overtures coming before the General Assembly.

The most obvious connection between the two is in the overture that actually calls for the denomination to reconsider its decades-long support for a “two-state solution” to the conflict, meaning a secure, independent Israel with a Jewish majority living in peace alongside a viable, independent Palestine. To do so would mean that the PC(USA) would now find a “one-state solution” acceptable: a state in which Jews would no longer have a majority, which means an end to the state of Israel. In affirming a one-state solution, the PC(USA) would ironically be adopting the “exceptionalism” that Zionism Unsettled purports to reject: exchanging its prophetic call for justice and peace for all peoples for an ideological privileging of one people’s rights and aspirations over those of another. This, quite simply, cannot happen.

Zionism Unsettled’s rejection of a future for Israel also connects it to the debate over divestment. Many Presbyterians have long feared that divestment overtures have not simply been about addressing the business practices of individual corporations, but rather about pushing the denomination into the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”) Movement. The great problem with the BDS Movement is that, for many of its supporters, the goal is to bring an end to not just the 1967 occupation of Palestinian lands, but to having an independent state of Israel at all. It is this problem that makes the BDS Movement so distressing to the overwhelming majority of American Jews, and why they are so concerned about the PC(USA) engaging in divestment. Now, it’s true that some people support divestment to seek justice for Palestinians and do not support eliminating the state of Israel. Yet it is not clear whether they can even claim to be a majority within the BDS movement. If our strategies do not clearly express our motives and goals, i.e., that we want to establish justice, security, self-determination, and peace for both Palestinians and Israelis, then we need different strategies. This is why we oppose divestment.

Zionism Unsettled also demonstrates one of the most significant flaws in the argument that Israel is practicing apartheid. It argues that Zionism is “like other colonial movements,” thus equating Zionism with the European colonialism. To affirm that Zionism is colonialism, though, would require us to believe that Israelis, like white South Africans and other colonial powers, have no legitimate claim to any share of the land in question. White South Africans were European colonists who came to a land to which they had no connection, invaded it, and claimed absolute sovereignty over it on the basis of European “manifest destiny.” Yet any responsible review of the history of the Holy Land must acknowledge that Jews have been present there for literally thousands of years, and have a legitimate, though certainly not exclusive, claim to it. The PC(USA) is morally obligated to mount a vigorous critique of the settlement enterprise as aggression which threatens both the basic rights and welfare of Palestinians and Israel’s basic character and integrity as a democracy. But to raise the accusation of apartheid negates the legitimacy of Israel having any share of the land, and pushes us from challenging the current occupation to denying the ancient Jewish connection to and presence in the Holy Land. The PC(USA) cannot allow itself to do that.

We believe that current GA policies are where the denomination should continue to stand if it wants to bear an authentic witness for justice, hope, and peace in the region: strong support for a negotiated two- state solution with a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine; a substantial critique of unjust Israeli policies and practices against the Palestinian people, particularly the settlement enterprise, which is one of the greatest threats to achieving a two-state solution; a condemnation of violence perpetrated by either Israelis or Palestinians; and a commitment to economic investment in the Palestinian Territories to make the goal of an independent Palestine more achievable. We urge the commissioners to protect this strong witness by voting against the misguided and damaging overtures advocating BDS, alleging apartheid, and reconsidering support for the two-state solution.

We reject that a two-state solution is “impossible,” that we must choose between the well-being of the Palestinian people and the well-being of Israelis, that there is not enough justice to go around for both peoples, and so we must pick one over the other in a “zero-sum game.” Scripture tells us that “nothing is impossible with God,” and history itself is filled with impossibilities that have been overcome. We hope and pray that the church will not abandon its historic commitment to insisting upon the fullness of justice, security, well-being and peace for both peoples through our words and concrete actions. And we have faith that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us as we discern what that means this summer and in the time to come.

J.C. Austin: director of Christian Leadership Formation, Auburn Seminary
The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson: president, Auburn Seminary
Susan Andrews: Moderator, 215th General Assembly (2003)
John Buchanan: Moderator, 208th General Assembly (1996)
+ 26 other pastors/faith leaders

 

2.   Letter by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in FAVOR of BDS Approach

“We Refuse to Be Enemies”

A Response to the Open Letter from Former Moderator John Buchanan and his Colleagues

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sisters and Brothers,

We are deeply concerned about the Open Letter sent to General Assembly Commissioners by John Buchanan and twenty-eight of his colleagues on Friday, June 13th.

We consider the signers of this letter our friends. Together, we have been allies and colleagues in our shared work of reclaiming a vibrant church. However, we disagree sharply with their critique of the recommendation that the Presbyterian Church (USA) divest itself from the stock of three corporations that are doing business in a way that supports or benefits the State of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

You have already been inundated with diverse opinions about many issues facing the General Assembly. While this may seem to be in opposi­tion to the Reformed tradition’s understanding that “God alone is Lord of the conscience….” we believe that in order for all of us to engage in measured and faithful discernment, we must be aware of the diverse opinions and perspectives that exist within our Presbyterian family. We share our conviction with passion, just as we trust our colleagues with whom we disagree will continue to do so.

We offer the following, three fundamental ideas that we find compelling, and a suggestion about how the General Assembly could move for­ward with the greatest possible integrity and commitment.

This is a matter of conscience. It is a reasonable thing – and a moral obligation – to assure that our financial investments reflect our core values as followers of Jesus. Our Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee has done due diligence over the course of the last ten years in engaging these three corporations. It is entirely clear that these companies are profiting from business that is counter to our social witness policy.

This is a faithful, principled response to a call for nonviolent resistance from the Palestinian people. Palestinians – both in Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine, and including the Christian leaders who signed the Kairos Palestine document in 2009, have called on us to embrace the principled use of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions as a nonviolent strategy of resistance to the continued expansion of illegal settlements and the occupation of Palestine. Simply put, they have asked us to stop funding their oppression.

Our witness matters. No one cared what the Presbyterian Church (USA) believed about the evil of a decades-long occupation until we began to consider selling our stock. The reason we are struggling about this matter is because it is the only thing we have contemplated that actually has the potential to help change the reality of the occupation. This decision will lay the groundwork for peace with justice and genuine security for all who live within both Israel and Palestine. As we strive with our sisters and brothers across the church to be faithful in this difficult matter, our sense of conviction about the critical need to divest is shaped by the powerful words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regret­table conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a posi-tive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constant-ly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

When we choose to honor our conscience and follow our legacy of social corporate engagement, we actually claim the moral authority to stand against all instances of anti-Semitism, or Islamaphobia, or any act in which people really are targeted because of their religion or ethnicity or race – or for any other outrageous reason that people are discriminated against and targeted on a regular basis.

We Propose “Divestment Plus”:

Adoption of the divestment recommendation should push all of us to a more spiritually-grounded and faithful place – a more Holy Ground. As we take this option, let us publicly commit our church to the work of defending the rights of all people – starting with our sisters and brothers in the Abrahamic traditions – wherever and whenever we can claim the power to do so. Let us work with colleagues in all religious traditions from around the world to reclaim our sacred texts from those who would steal them for purposes that are antithetical to our fundamental val­ues of peace and harmony with one another.

In the end, we trust that God will be at work in this assembly and in your deliberations. We will hold you in prayer as you discern together how best to help all of us to be obedient to our call as followers of the Risen Lord.

Sincerely,

Herb Valentine, Moderator 203rd General Assembly
John Fife, Moderator 204th General Assembly
Patricia Brown, Moderator 209th General Assembly
Syngman Rhee, Moderator 212th General Assembly
Jack Rogers, Moderator 213th General Assembly
Fahed Abu-Akel, Moderator 214th General Assembly
Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator 216th General Assembly
Bruce Reyes Chow, Moderator 218th General Assembly

+ another approximately 60 signatories.

 

3.  Letter from Jewish Rabbis AGAINST BDS

A Letter of Shalom, from American Jewish Religious Leaders to Our Friends in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Dear Friends,

With the blessing of shalom, we, religious leaders of millions of American Jews representing each of the denominational streams, reach out to you, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) commissioners, who will be considering multiple overtures during the
June General Assembly in Detroit. Your voices will be heard on many issues, including the challenging Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We want you to hear directly from us of our hopes and aspirations for the people of the Holy Land. We respect your opinions and
commitments, and trust that you might want to hear from American Jews on these issues of grave concern to all of us who are dedicated to bringing peace to the region.  We write as longstanding and deeply committed brothers and sisters in Presbyterian-
Jewish interreligious relations.

We share with you a commitment to peace in the Middle East, particularly toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like you, we long for the leadership and courage that will bring the peoples of the Holy Land to a just two-state solution, when
the State of Israel will dwell in peace and security alongside a Palestinian state. We can, no doubt, join together in prayer for a time when Christians, Muslims, Jews and others can fulfill their spiritual destiny in this holy place, each sitting “under his vine and
under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

We applaud the efforts of our American government, under the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry, to bring the parties to the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians, closer to a permanent solution or at least to a framework for getting there. It has not been easy and there are frayed nerves and sustained suspicions that need yet to be overcome.  Our prayers are with the peacemakers who are working to bring the parties together for a brighter future for them and their descendants.

We appreciate the PCUSA’s commitment to peacemaking, human rights, and the particular Presbyterian concern for their fellow Christians whose spiritual aspirations include the establishment and sustenance of flourishing Christian communities in the
Holy Land. The religious and other freedoms we cherish together in the United States should be inviolable for all the citizens of God’s world.

We hope that we can agree on these fundamental principles. Nonetheless, there are areas of concern we need to share with you in the interest of our relationship. We are deeply concerned that the PCUSA is considering several overtures that would threaten
the prospects for future peace. Oversimplifying a complex conflict and placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding.

The role of peacemaker is irreconcilable with positions that promote economic coercion through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), and consequently discourage, rather than encourage, constructive engagement. Every peace treaty signed between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and every peace plan proposed by the United States, the European Union, Russia, the Arab League and the United Nations, specifically calls for the normalization of relations between the Arab states, the Palestinians and Israel, including trade links. If we truly want to help both parties, we should encourage reconciliation, investment and a negotiated solution, instead of boycotts and divestments.

Additionally, we are deeply disturbed to see an overture calling for the PCUSA to reconsider the Church’s commitment to a two-state solution. Adoption of that stance would be tragic. It is wrong to deny the Palestinian people their right to a state and it is
also equally wrong to deny the Jewish people the right to a state. There are two competing claims to the same land and they should be answered by a two-state solution, something with which we have long agreed with the PCUSA. The Palestinian people, the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government and people, the United States government, both major U.S. political parties, Russia, the European Union, and the Arab League all advocate for a two-state solution. Getting there is difficult, but that remains the goal of most Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the international community. Among the parties to the conflict, only Hamas and Hezbollah reject a two-state solution.

But what most reflects and magnifies our sadness is the promulgation of an explicitly anti-Zionist congregational study guide that remains for sale on the Church’s website.  Entitled Zionism Unsettled, it labels the national movement of the Jewish people,
Zionism, and Israel, its expression, as ‘”false theology,” “heretical doctrine,” “evil,” “pathology,” “racism,” and “cultural genocide.” Those characterizations are not only at wide variance with the facts, but are also extraordinarily hurtful and incendiary. No one
truly committed to peace and reconciliation should use that kind of vocabulary to describe either side. Nothing, including the assertion that the Israel/Palestine Mission Network speaks “to” but not “for” the Presbyterian Church (USA), can justify the PCUSA
leadership’s silence on, and toleration of, Zionism Unsettled and the PCUSA’s distribution of it.

We are concerned that despite our shared objectives, the Presbyterian-Jewish relationship in America is headed in the wrong direction. We need a new way forward.  We are ready for a more constructive relationship. We invite you to join us and start by
sending a message that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Presbyterian peacemakers work for reconciliation, investment, and understanding of conflicting narratives rather than inciting further conflict. We are ready to join you in this new way.

Will you join us?

Shalom, shalom la-rachok v’la-karov (Isaiah 57:19). Peace, peace to the far and to the near.

 

4.   Letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

Letter to PC(USA)

As the Presbyterian General Assembly gathers for its biennial meeting I reach out in prayer and solidarity that the Assembly will make a strong witness for reconciliation, justice and peace. I am aware that the Assembly will consider eight overtures on the confounding and intractable conflict in Israel and Palestine, however I am especially urging the Assembly to adopt the overture naming Israel as an apartheid state through its domestic policies and maintenance of the occupation, and the overture calling for divestment of certain companies that contribute to the occupation of the Palestinian people. Both are worthy of adoption, by speaking truth in the first instance, and owning up to the Church’s complicity in maintaining the occupation through its investments in the second.

The sustainability of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people has always been dependent on its ability to deliver justice to the Palestinians. I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed. Realistic Israeli leaders have acknowledged that Israel will either end its occupation through a one or two state solution, or live in an apartheid state in perpetuity. The latter option is unsustainable and an offense to justice. We learned in South Africa that the only way to end apartheid peacefully was to force the powerful to the table through economic pressure.

The overtures proposed at the General Assembly are not about delegitimizing the State of Israel, but about ending its suppression of 4,000,000 Palestinian sisters and brothers. It’s about naming an unjust system and refusing to participate in it. The stubbornness of Israel’s leaders in wanting to hold onto and settling land that is not theirs can only lead to tragedy for both peoples. For the sake of them both as God’s cherished, the strong witness of the two overtures is the only peaceful route left in the cause of justice and ultimate reconciliation. My prayers today are with the members of the General Assembly and with all the peoples of the Holy Land in Israel and Palestine.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
June 10, 2014

 

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20140616_174459 (1)General Assembly, while a great deal of work, thankfully has some times for refreshment and fun.   After completing our work in our committees today, the delegation from Heartland Presbytery/Kansas City gathered at a restaurant in Greektown for a great dinner, conversation and a time to wind down.

After dinner was over, I headed over to Tiger Stadium to catch the Tigers/Royals game.   It’s a gorgeous stadium with fun sculptures of Tigers prowling around the tops of the outer walls.   I got a ticket and settled in for the game.  The Royals, for the second night in the row, 20140617_211844scored 11 runs to reduce the Tigers to mere meows.   After all of the intense discussions, issue briefings and debates of GA, it was a great change of pace to catch the game and banter with Tiger fans and the KC boosters sprinkled around.

The day had begun with a breakfast focusing on evangelism.  In another provocative presentation, the speaker suggested that we consider spending less time on Sunday morning and more time in carrying the message of Christ outside our walls.  He shared how he, as a pastor, regularly asks his wife how she thinks worship went.  And then he realized, it doesn’t matter if it was perfect.  Did we gather and praise God?  Pray?  Hear the word read and proclaimed?   Good.  But then follow Jesus into Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.

20140617_084416From there, I shared in the morning worship service which featured a compelling sermon and stirring singing from a local Korean Presbyterian Church.   And then we received communion.

Following worship, all of the commissioners headed to their hearing rooms for a second and final full day of considering and voting upon the array of overtures (proposals) brought before this General Assembly.   In my Social Justice committee, we acted upon overtures related to abortion, the death penalty, end-of-life issues, a clemency request for Jose Oliver Rivera, tax justice, and more.   We completed 20140617_165138 (1)our work at 5:oo p.m.   It was gratifying to watch the church, in this committee, wrestle together with these issues and seek to discern God’s call for us with regard to each.

We will return Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to the plenary in the main convention hall where the actions taken in the various committees will be reported and submitted for vote by all the commissioners.  (You can track all the action and relevant documents at http://www.pc-biz.org.)

But for tonight, I’ll be satisfied with the 11-4 Royals win which put them a half game in first place.  Who knows what the rest of the season will hold, but maybe Royal fans will look back at these games in Detroit and see them as a turning point for the season.

And GA?   How, I wonder, will this national conference affect, shape and spur the witness of the church in this season?

 

 

 

 

20140616_070839

I woke up to another beautiful morning here in Detroit and made my way from my hotel along the waterfront to the convention center.  The Detroit Princess (right) is moored along the walk.  Joggers and bikers passed by.

Our day began with a 7 a.m. breakfast and hilarious/biting/provocative/inspiring talk by writer Lillian Daniels.  Her most recent book is  When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. Daniels spoke about how mainline denominations like the PCUSA have a tendency to offer utilitarian reasons for coming to church (i.e., we’re friendly, we have a great choir, good youth programs, etc.) instead of speaking about the difference Christ makes in our fellowship and own lives.   That seems a helpful, if basic, reminder for our church today.

Following breakfast, all the commissioners and advisory delegates divided up among the 15 committees that will hold the first round of discussions and voting on all the overtures (proposals) that are before the Assembly.  (While advisory delegates don’t have a vote on the FLOOR of GA, they DO have a vote in committee.)   I am serving on the Social

20140616_114747 Justices Committee and we’ll be considering 18 different overtures — from agricultural policies,  the death penalty, gun violence, end of life issues, tax justice and more.   Anyone can follow all the business of any committee by going to http://www.pc-biz.org.  Once there, click on the “Committee” tab and then on a link for any of the 15 committees.  Once at a Committee’s page, click on the “schedule” tab and you can see what each committee is working on at what time — as well as find links to the documents (including the original overtures) that the commissioners themselves are using.

I’ll welcome your comments and questions on any of the topics before the Social Justice or the other 14 committees!

20140615_093348
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  (Acts 2:4-8)
 
 

This morning, GA commissioners fanned out across Detroit to attend worship.  I walked with others 8 blocks over to the historic Fort Street Presbyterian Church.   The soaring steeple reached up into the bright blue morning sky.   Upon entering the church, I found a pew along with Jason Carle, pastor of Overland Park Presbyterian Church.  (Jason and I are roommates at the Detroit Marriott.)

The Reverend Dr. Sharon Mook entered the sanctuary with Rabbi Alissa Wise and Imam Abdullah El-Amin.  The newly elected Moderator of the PCUSA, elder Heath Rada, was also in attendance and offered opening words of greetings.  After opening songs and prayer, Rabbi Wise and Imam El-Amin gave words of greeting from their respective faith communities.  Rabbi Wise spoke of the Jewish tradition of “disagreeing for heaven’s sake” — which means on one hand standing up for justice, but then also being committed to being in relationship with one another.  Imam El-Amin celebrated our common Abrahamic tradition, and then in a moving moment, recited the Lord’s Prayer.  He then shared passages from the opening of the Quran which echo calls to glorify and rely upon God.20140615_093702

Rev. Mook preached from the text of Acts 2:1-13.    Referencing the work of theologian Eric Law, she asked this question:  Is the miracle of Pentecost a miracle of the tongue or a miracle of the ear?  We often assume the former, but this passage from Acts references speaking once and hearing/understanding three times.  It was an appropriate call for all the commissioners, and all the members of our national church, to seek to listen with urgency, patience and love as we head into the work of the General Assembly.

Following the worship service, I met in the narthex one of Rabbi Wise’s colleagues (Stephanie)  from Jewish Voices for Peace.  Stephanie and I talked about the question of whether or not the PCUSA should divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola) or boycott products made in Jewish settlements as a means to promote justice for the Palestinian community, while remaining committed to Israel’s peace and security.  I am prayerfully considering this issue.   Jewish Voices for Peace is in favor of the divestment and boycott.   I asked Stephanie if she has encountered resistance from other members of the Jewish community because of JVP’s stance.  She told me that initially some of her own family20140615_114548 (1) members stopped talking with her, but now there is more dialogue and openness on this issue within her own family and the Jewish community at large.   I continued that conversation over lunch with other commissioners.   It’s one of the topics that will be coming up in the days to come.  (Photo above — Rabbi Wise meets PCUSA moderator Heath Rada.)

Leaving the church, I was grateful for a nourishing and thought-provoking service of worship and time of dialogue.  A miracle of the tongue or a miracle of the ear?  I’ll be praying for understanding and ability to hear in the days to come.

 

 

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The main business Saturday night was to elect the moderator for the 221st General Assembly.    There were three candidates—Rev. John Wilkinson, Rev. Kelly Allen and Ruling Elder Heath Rada.  Each candidate gave a 5 minute speech and then there was a 45 minute Q&A session in which commissioners asked questions from the floor.  After that, we voted.

All the voting on the floor of the GA occurs in two steps.   First, the 220 “advisory delegates”  (comprised of 172 youth, 25 seminary students, 8 missionaries and 15 ecumenical partners) cast a non-binding vote to give their advice to the 656 voting commissioners (like me).  In the advisory vote, elder Heath Rada received a significant majority.   The second, binding vote of the Commissioners fell the same way with Rada receiving 331 votes, Rev. Wilkinson 157 and Rev. Allen 143, so effective immediately, elder Rada is the Moderator of the PCUSA.

In his professional life Elder Rada was CEO of the Greater Richmond (VA) Chapter of the American Red Cross. He was 20140614_225407also the first lay person to head one of the PCUSA’s seminaries (Presbyterian School of Christian Education – now part of Union Seminary).  All three candidates were impressive and would, in my opinion, ably lead our denomination.

I thought I would share some of elder Rada’s comments from his speech and the Q&A to give you a sense of our new moderator.   In his speech, elder Rada talked about how he saw a t-shirt for sale in a store that had the following message:   “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!”  He used that illustration to talk about how the church is suffering from division and that we need to pull together.   This was a theme that he would sound throughout the Q&A as well.  Here are excerpts from his responses to the questions asked.  I’m paraphrasing his answers.

Q:   What do you think are the theological views of Evangelical Christians and what do you think their role should be in the PCUSA?

A:   Evangelicals are not a single group; they are as diverse as liberals and progressives.   But as I understand Evangelicals, a foundational belief for them is their love for Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  But then that’s something that we all believe.

Q:   The moderator needs to be a good communicator and help forge understanding.   How do you approach communication?

A:    Two days ago my wife and I celebrated 46 years of marriage.  Now there have been times when we have had 20140614_225339disagreements, but you work those out.   I think the church is like a family and we need to be able to live together with our differences.

Q:   Tell us about your vice moderator

This is the question I am the most eager to answer.   When I was first asked by people to run for the office of moderator, I said no.   I’m a white male, and this face is not the face of the church.  So I went to some young leaders in the church and told them that if they found me a younger partner who could help me effectively lead the church, then I’d consider it.   They introduced me to Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, a Chinese American who pastors the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills in Queens, New York.  She’s very dynamic and I know we would work well together.

Q:  What is the role of youth and young adults in the church?

A:  Young people are vital to the life of the church.   They are bringing us into a new understanding of the church.  We need to be techies, selfies!

Q:  What is your understanding of the Belhar confession (which the last GA attempted to add to our Book of Confessions but it fell just short).   How would including this confession in our Book of Confessions serve the church?

A:  I spent time in the Republic of South Africa (where the Belhar Confession was drafted), and had the chance to see that Belhar was an outgrowth of peacemaking and how to work together with people despite hatred.  Adding this confession would help us to take another look at peacemaking and who we can be with one another.

Q:  The Moderator of the PCUSA has to serve in many capacities.  Is there one that best suits you?

A:  I would name three.  (1)  I bring gifts as an educator.  I’m a Certified Christian Educator.   (2)  I can be a  peacemaker.  (3) And I  would be an ambassador for the church nationally and globally.

 Q:  What gifts do LGBTQ members bring to church?

A:  LGBTQ folks are an important part of my home congregation.  But what I find in the church is a desire to get beyond the fact that we need to label people and our church.   I’m frustrated that the PCUSA is being labeled by one or two issues.  That doesn’t minimize the need for justice, but I believe we need to be the church together.

Q:   There are churches that may consider leaving the PCUSA.  What advice would you give them?

A:  We’re family, and we need to be able to disagree and still live together.  I would use my skills to get folks to 20140614_225251communicate and build on what we agree on.  Sometimes differences are so significant that we’ve separated, new denominations have formed.  It’s amazing how many splits have occurred.  But  denominations are a human phenomenon and we see things thru our own lenses.  But once we can’t reach accord, we need to be gracious in separation.   It saddens me, but it is an option.

Q:  I’m a missionary in the Middle East.   What is your view of international partnerships and ecumenical relationships?

A:  Thank you for your service in the mission field.  We need to support you more fully.  We don’t have good history in our international mission support, so I hope we could find more resources.   I’ve traveled around the world and place great value in those relationships.

Q:   Some other countries, such as Ghana, have taken harsh actions vs. LGBTQ persons.  What would you do in response?

A:  First, a confession.  It makes me want to weep, what’s going on in Ghana.  But the PCUSA offers hope.  We are a denomination that invites others to the table.  We cannot impose Presbyterian thoughts on the government of Ghana.  But we can reach out to the people of Ghana.  Make gestures, and also listen.  But hopefully, through our witness and conversation, we can help life in Ghana, or anywhere, to not be threatening to anyone.

              *****************

Once the questions were over, the voting began.  Or I should say we tried to vote.   The internet had gone out in the convention hall, so we could not vote as planned on-line.   So conference organizers distributed “clickers” that look like cell phones to use for the vote.  But after a few test votes, it was clear that they weren’t fully functioning.   So finally, it was decided that we would vote by paper ballot – and then Elder Rada was elected.

I hope that you will join me in praying for Heath Rada as he assumes this important and challenging role.  He will have his hands full this week as the GA progresses and we handle many issues, some controversial.

It was a little after 11:00 p.m. when the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, gaveled us to a close.  He remarked:  “If they don’t fix the internet service tomorrow, I’m breaking out flannel boards!”

 

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”    Romans 15:13

 
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Welcome to my “GA Journal!”  I arrived in Detroit this morning after a two-day drive from Kansas City. After checking into my hotel, I made my way to the Cobo Conference Center where the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA is being held.   For the first time, I am serving as a commissioner along with six other commissioners from Heartland Presbytery.  In total, there are 656 voting commissioners from 172 presbyteries around the country, plus 172 Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs), 25 theological advisory delegates,  8 missionary advisory delegates and 15 ecumenical advisory delegates.  In addition, there are hundreds of other attendees — visitors, PCUSA staff and exhibitors.

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The Assembly kicked off this morning with a rousing service of worship with about 2,500 people.   Outgoing moderator Rev. Neal Presa preached on the texts of Luke 24:28-51 and Romans 15:1-6, 13.  Romans  15:13 is the theme of this General Assembly.

After lunch, I explored the exhibit hall which has dozens of booths for PCUSA organizations, advocacy groups, missionary organizations, seminaries, vendors and others.   As I made my way, I delighted in seeing Veeda Javaid from the Presbyerian Education Board of Pakistan, whom we support and hosted at BRPC last fall.

The official business of the Assembly has begun.  Our host presbytery, 20140614_150617 (1)the presbytery of Detroit, opened the assembly with a welcome and stirring video about the state of the city and the call for hope.  “Little did we know how appropriate the GA theme from Romans 15:13, picked several years ago, would be for our city today,”  said a Detroit pastor of the past 30 years.    He then highlighted the importance of racial justice for the city and for our nation.  He recalled how Dr. King gave the first rendition of his “I have a Dream” speech here in this same Cobo Conference Center on June 23, 1963.   That struck me since that was the day I was born.

Then a moment of great hilarity ensued as members of the national staff of the PCUSA were introduced in a video in which they lip-synced a song about GA sung to the tune from “Les Miserables.”  You can watch it on YouTube; it’s a hoot!

Over the course of the next seven days, I will be reporting on my experiences here at GA and of the broader church.  I’ll reflect on the business of the assembly, our times of worship, encounters with other Presbyterians from around the country, and my encounters in the city of Detroit.  I welcome your comments and questions in the comment space below as I go through the week.  Perhaps you’re wondering about something, or maybe you want to express a view about any business before the assembly.   I welcome all your comments!

A last word of grace.   As some know, my mom passed away on Tuesday of this week, which of course is quite fresh upon my heart.   I ate lunch today with some other commissioners from Heartland Presbytery (including Rev. Sandra Stogsdill of 1st Presbyterian Lee’s Summit).   Another commissioner at our table was from Newark, NJ.   I said to her, “Oh, I grew up for a time in Basking Ridge (which is 30 miles from Newark).  My dad,”  I added, “was the pastor at Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church.”   At that, Sandra put her sandwich down and said “Really?!  I did my field study as a seminarian for 9 months at your dad’s church the year before he retired!   I remember your mom.   I had lunch with your parents in their home.  This is strange, but I remember — and this was 20 years ago — how your mom commented on my sweater which had this special embroidery.  She was really nice.”

While I have known Sandra through our Presbytery for a few years, I never knew that she had served at my dad’s church.  And of course I had no idea that she had ever met my mother.  It was a gentle grace as I begin my time at this gathering of our national church, and it was a personal experience of how we are joined in the body of Christ.