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General Assembly Arrival Day

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I arrived in Detroit early today, on a nice direct flight from Bloomington.   Was in the city by 10:30, and started my general assembly experience by checking in, seeing some friends, and starting to get the lay of the land.   Had a nice lunch in Greektown with some commissioners from home, then treated myself to a couple hours at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.    No, they have not sold the art, and I pray they never have to. It is a great museum, not quite the Art Institute of Chicago, but close.    I was excited to see Van Gogh, George Caleb Bingham, and even a Roy Lichtenstein!   

In getting to DIA, I took a cab, as it is about 3 miles north of downtown.   (I think it is 3 miles). Detroit is the motor city, yet strangely, there are not a lot of cabs, and certainly not much mass transit.  When I left, I was a bit concerned I’d struggle to get a cab back to the RenCenter.   I lucked out, and after about 10 minutes flagged down a cab.   The ride back was eye-opening.  On one side of the street there were new condos.  On the other side, there were acres and acres of vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. See, e.g., this photo from the Washington Post, from last Sunday.  It wasn’t quite as post-apocalytic, as some of the photos I have seen, but it told me the tale of a city in distress, but trying to find a new resurgence.  

After spending some time visiting with some friends in the exhibit hall, I got some important information from Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the church (which is Presby Talk for the chief administrator of the Church’s offices in Louisville, and who in effect is the executive director for the Church in between General Assemblies), about what I had to do to submit a  commissioner’s resolution tomorrow.  YES!  I went straight to the top!   And why not?  🙂   I wrote my resolution (which I will talk about in tomorrow’s blog post) and have five additional co-signers from 3 additional presbyteries, but I actually have to have real signatures on it.  So, that is tomorrow morning’s task.

Tonight, I spent 90 minutes in a strategy session with a group of people I have chosen to align myself on some key issues coming this week.  It was a very positive and really quite valuable experience.  People shared stories, and we talked about approaches to issues.  I know I am being vague right now, but this will become clear in my next post.

It is now 9:38pm, and after not a lot of sleep last night, and a long day, I am pretty tired.  So no real major insights.   Tomorrow morning I go to a breakfast to listen to speakers on Middle East peacemaking issues, then there are informal roundtable discussions on several issues coming before GA.  At 11, we have Opening Worship, and then the first two plenary sessions occur in the afternoon and evening.  The main task, beyond orienting commissioners, is the election of a moderator.   I am very hopeful that a man named John Wilkinson wins the election tomorrow night.   I was quite impressed by his candidacy as presented in various newsletters and interviews.  The Church needs a strong moderator for the work to come this week, and I think he would be effective.   We will see what happens.

Signing off, from Detroit.  Day 1.  Peace out.

Pre-General Assembly Musings, Part I

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I grew up Roman Catholic.  I remember as a young adult being really frustrated by church doctrine, and the non-democratic nature of ecclesiastical authority.  There were so many times I recall arguing that the Church should be responsive to the people, there should be democratic aspects to it. Sure, I served on a church council, but we had no real authority.  I was particularly troubled by the very notion of the power of the hierarchy, of the Bishops, and Vatican.  Ultimately, I chose to leave the Roman Catholic church over questions of equality, over the subjugation of women, and what I saw as obsessive focus on a few social issues at the expense of the bigger picture. 

Four years later, I am about to embark on something I could hardly imagine for most of my adult life.  I am an elected ruling elder commissioner to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).   The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, for those not familiar with protestant church governance, meets every other year for one week, with representatives from the entire church (in the United States).  645 ordained commissioners (divided evenly between clergy (teaching elders) and “ruling elders” (those non-ministers entrusted with responsibility to guide and lead the church), 172 Young Adult Advisory Delegates, and several thousand observers come together for a week, to shape the policy, theological doctrine, and  focus of the church.   Commissioners are elected by regional bodies (known as presbyteries), which in turn consist of elected representatives (elders and ministers) from each congregation.  

The issues faced by the General Assembly range from questions of governance, to theology, to social justice.  This year, the Church will, for the third time in 6 years, consider the question of marriage equality.  Four years ago, the GA ruled that gay and lesbian ministers could be ordained — and then a majority of the nation’s presbyteries ratified the decision.   This year, we will consider for the second time, whether gay marriage will be recognized and celebrated in the church.  The GA could issue an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order, or it could pass an amendment, calling for ratification by the presbyteries in the next year.  We will also deal with hot-button political issues such as divestment from three companies doing business with Israel, as protest to the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.   The GA will also consider whether the Confession of Belhar, approved by the United Reformed Church in Southern Africa,  should be added to the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions.   These are just a small smattering of issues.  Big and small.  

As I prepare to embark for Detroit, I am mindful of the fact that this coming week I will experience church democracy – in all its flavor, the good, the bad, the ugly.   I know that there will be a lot of emotions at play.   Some of the work of GA will be exhilarating; some will be infuriating; some of it will probably be boring.  There will be extensive lobbying on a few issues; there will be efforts to build a community as a whole; sometimes in various caucuses.  Yet the process is one of discernment, worship, and prayer.  It is not the log-rolling and pork-barrel politics of Congress. (I hope not – but the lobbying will be there, particularly on a few issues!)   Of course there will be extensive parliamentary maneuvering.  Yet we will also worship together, we will work together, and provide witness for the Church in future years.   

I am honored to have this opportunity. I am excited to experience something that I really couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago.  As time permits, I will continue to blog my experiences over the ten days to come.  But right now, I have to make sure I have packed enough socks. 

Words matter. Christian scripture, anti-semitism, and its consequences.

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The Christian New Testament includes some language that quite frankly, irritates me to no end.  Take today’s lectionary reading from John, the beginning of the “Doubting Thomas” story. Jn 20:19-29.  

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”

The house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.

Wait a second.   All the disciples were Jews.  Jesus was a Jew.   Yet, “the Jews” are portrayed as the outsiders, as people to be feared; as those who killed Jesus.  But time out.  It was the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.  It was the Roman empire and its temple collaborators that pushed for his execution, for challenging the Roman power structure.  It wasn’t “the Jews.” But as early as the late first century, when the Gospels were bring written, the religion that became Christianity, was already separating and distinguishing itself from “the Jews.”  

Yet, this language — and it is sprinkled heavily in John, and in Matthew, Luke, and Acts as well, (but not Mark), really sows the seeds of two thousand years of anti-semitism.   I was particularly struck by this language when I realized that today is the day that Jewish synagogues, and the Jewish people around the world commemorate Yom HaShoah,  or Holocaust Memorial Day.  

I wonder, if words were chosen differently, almost two millennia ago, if there would not be the need for such a memorial remembrance.  

And if we are going to read these words, it is incumbent to acknowledge that words have consequences. We need to be aware of the words used.   It is not ok to simply perpetuate such language, no matter if there is no conscious effort to promote hatred or anti-semitism.   

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