I am still processing The General Assembly and over the next few weeks will introduce some of the “other” things that went on and were decided at GA. Some of the decisions will affect our congregation and so as I lay them out I hope that you will engage me a bit on them. Saying that, I wanted to talk this week about the Presbyterian Church and who we are.
There is a book from the Presbyterian Church in Canada that is called “Presbyterians: People of the Middle Way.” This is a very important understanding and it was very evident in some of the discussions and dialogs that happened at this GA. First, the two most controversial decisions at GA, Gay Marriage and Divestment from three companies that deal with Israel. Though I agreed with the decision on Gay Marriage and I disagreed with Divestment, in both cases the committees went out of their way to make the final recommendations as palatable to the church as possible.
In both cases, the language in some of the overtures was toned down considerably from the almost radical and punitive verbiage that some came in with. In the case of the Gay Marriage, it was important that we respected the conscience of the churches and pastors as well as recognizing the traditional language. So even though it is found elsewhere, the amendment includes wording that specifically says that if churches are not comfortable with allowing Gay Marriages in their churches they do not have to, and the same holds true for pastors. This was amazing, since almost 75% of those who were gathered could accept that, and even the conservative wing of the church wrote a letter letting their constituents know that it is not that bad. Honestly, one of the most gracious letters I have read.
In the Middle East Committee we quickly recognized that all of the overtures that were dealing with divestment had language that was so harsh that it would not be acceptable to most moderates. So they took a proposal that was about investment and inserted the language of divestment, in the most simple way possible making the overall text rather positive. While the hope was for that compromise to be a unifier the AP and other news services not only report the divestment line but chose to spirit in a way that aligned the church with the global BDS movement, which the overture explicitly said we were not part of. However, as I said to my committee and to the General Assembly, when you use something like money for your proxy you have no control of what the story is or even how that action actually serves the purpose. A mentor of mine would always say the mantra, money is money, words are words, but actions are what change the world.
The interesting thing is that if somehow we can begin to rebuild the relationship with the Jewish Community, the majority of the overture does call for action and support of real peacemaking efforts. The vote on this was 51% to 49% with a 7-vote separation. Which also goes to show that this was not a run-away liberal GA and that we are still struggling to seek and understand how we can be a diverse church accepting all people: Liberals, Conservatives, Moderates, etc. and maintaining our call to be People of the Middle Way.
Once one accepts oneself and their sin and who they are, they are able to look beyond themselves and see a much deeper and richer world because when we accept our sins we are able to move past them. This was the essence of last weeks letter. This week we pick up where that left off, in the recognition that when we look beyond ourselves we quickly realize that there is a whole world of other people our there.
In Matthew 10:40-42, we are brought deeper into a theme within the book of Matthew, which focuses on the importance of acceptance, as well as service to others. In modern day parlance we call that hospitality.
Unfortunately, in our modern world the term hospitality often refers to being hospitable to the guests that are invited. However, the Mission of God calls us to be hospitable to everyone and to think beyond ourselves.
One of the great lessons I learned last week was the importance of hospitality. I swear they had to have had every Presbyterian in Detroit wandering through the hotels and convention center. Many who were so adept they could answer your question before you even asked and others who gave a pleasant smile and hello. Actually, when you are working as hard as you do at a General Assembly, the smile is one of the most incredible gifts of grace you can get!
In the passage, it implores us to go and connect with others, starting small. It even gives us an example, to give someone who is thirsty a glass of water. I was thinking about that act and the whole welcoming nature of it. Giving away water is not that big of a thing, it is cheap and easy to do. But when it is received, it could mean the world to someone who needs it. The subtext, though, of this passage is that we often forget to do even the simplest of things to serve others.
In the church we often get acceptance and welcome wrong. Many churches will put up a sign that says, “ALL ARE WELCOME” or something like that. While friendly and attentive, the welcome that people receive is often a welcome that is empty. This passage sets a higher standard of acceptance and lets us know that to truly accept another person and subsequently God, you have to put yourself in the place of service.
In other words, no matter what your status is you are called to humble yourself and be a servant to others. More than that, you are called to be a servant with no expectation of reward! You’re called to serve because that is what we are called to do.
Thinking back to last week, that is what the people in Detroit did, and actually that is what most of the commissioners did, they gave their time, their precious vacations, themselves for an intensive week of service, and (for most) not for anything other than following their calling as elders and Pastors within this church. Interestingly, in my ministry, the most powerful and successful ministries are always the ones that focus on hospitality and service. There is a reason why Christ calls us to that way.
What does it mean to be reconciled? For the church when we use that word we often mean to bring into agreement or harmony. So it was interesting when I went to the Westminster dictionary of Theological Terms and found that it had defined it as:
The concentration of the whole person in seeking to experience the presence of God by eliminating distraction.
But that is not so surprising of a definition if you look and explore one of the more direct calls for reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. In this passage the writer is speaking to a church that was young and not quite getting along. In this passage the image that is given is that reconciliation occurs when you set aside yourself and your own selfish motives to become one with God.
This is one of the most difficult things for the church and for individual to do. But when it is done something changes, and we can see and feel a deeper presence of the divine. For the most part, I don't really think much about the things that go on at the General Assembly Level. I would say that 90% of the things that go on really have a miniscule connection to the daily ministry of the church. But that 10% can make a big difference and can often drive a wedge between groups of differing opinions.
The reality is that there are times when the issues become more important than the quest for what God is calling us to do. One thing that has really changed me happened after GA was over and I looked on my Facebook Page. In the midst of decades of emotional discussions and fights, the denomination in a very cordial way passed the Gay marriage amendment and AI with huge margins. In the community that was there, we still had many dedicated Presbyterians who considered themselves conservative. After the vote, they felt maligned.
But in the simple action and in the spirit of Reconciliation a huge conservative voice in the denomination wrote a letter to that constituency which almost made me cry as it reminded the community and myself that the church is bigger than one issue. It also reminded us that in our church there is room for a diversity of opinions, but our call is to serve God in the best possible way. Their letter ended:
Let us commit to one another, and to Almighty God, that we will seek to embody the grace and love of our Savior across our theological differences, and in personal and congregational deliberations about our future in the PC(USA). You can find the whole text here: http://www.fellowship-pres.org/pastoral-letter-pfr-fellowship-presbyterians/
Reconciliation in the church only can happen when we set aside the fight, and accept that God can work through things, even if we think they are wrong. Because, in the end we are all part of God’s body, remembering that He is bigger than any single one of us or any single opinion.
On Friday Night after the vote on Divestment and the prayers for the people of Israel and Palestine I got up and emotionally, and probably incoherently, asked for prayers for the people in the United States, particularly my parents church, that were affected by the vote (just a side note, it was the only request for a prayer that was not given).
Eight weeks ago I knew very little about the Middle East, and I knew even less about what our church was doing there. I, like most Americans, did not understand how the Israeli government worked and why the Settlements that it seems everyone are against can still be being built. In that short time, I sought out insight and advice from everyone I could, but in that short of a time with this big of an issue I often found myself more on the side of confusion than enlightenment.
Out of frustration for not hearing Boo from the denomination and just a short introductory email from the committee moderators, I wrote requesting some more background information from then moderator Neal Pressa and Gradye Parsons. I did not hear from either Neil or Grady but did from the Vice Moderator of the Committee who let me know that she had not received any more information then the affinity groups mailings.
I can honestly say knowing my parents church, in the heart of Caterpillar Country, and personally having very close relations with the Jewish community, I knew that this vote would have a huge impact on relationships and individual people in our communities. For the entire discussion, those people were not brought in to the deliberations and when they were, they were maligned as not really important to the discussion. But that is not really what surprised me, the preassembly work told me that!
What really surprised me was the lack of things like impact studies and truth telling. The truth of Caterpillar is that they do not sell their equipment directly to Israel, but they have a civil contract through the military. When asked how much the company profited from the sale of their equipment through that contract the question was either evaded or the committee was given another speech from MRTI or ACSWP about the importance of divestment. Interestingly, other than lines like “It will send a message” no one could express what divestment would really do to change or put pressure on Israel or even if they care.
But what it did impact, and there are many this week who are genuinely hurting, are people who work for those companies, Jewish communities that feel they lost friends, and churches who see our denomination continuing to move away from faithful witness and towards secular political activism. While none of those are necessarily true, that is part of the impact of the decisions we make and none of that was part of the discussion.
Personally, when I saw the resource person, Raafat Zaki, from ACSWP, who at times gave angry responses to our committee, dancing with the pre-vote pro-divestment demonstration, it really hit home that this was much more about pushing an agenda rather then trying to make the best decision. It also showed me that ACSWP had a singular goal; they were going for the win, at any cost.
The emotions that came up for me that day were real and deep. I was hurting for the people in Palestine and Israel who are caught in a war where everyone in the world has an idea of how to bring peace, but few actually take time to sit with both sides and listen. I feel the pain of the line workers in Peoria who are confused about why their church hates them. I feel pain for relationships of trust and love with my Jewish neighbors that are fractured. I felt the pain for my more conservative brothers and sisters who see this as another step of our denomination placing social action over faithful witness.
Moving forward my hope and prayer is that people will take time to reflect on what happened. That ACSWP will reach out to people with differing opinions and understandings. Moreover, I pray that people will take the time to learn and research how we can be a better witness getting our feet on the ground, supporting our friends and changing the world through our actions, not our words or our money.
The Friday at General Assembly was packed and probably will take years to process. It was the hardest due to how tiered I am! It is hard to describe, but GA is emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. But all of that is lifted up by the spiritual renewal that comes from a body trying to discern God’s message for us, and the church today. There are many choices we made and chose not to make that I will struggle with for years to come. But I know that everything was done out of love.
Personally, this was a hard day for me. As you know when I jump into something I jump all the way in. 8 weeks ago I only knew the surface of the issues in the Middle East and while I now know much more I still feel like I only know the surface. On Tuesday, I thought it was something I could live with, but after seeing what happened with it in the media, I knew that the action we actually took would be lost in the media’s interpretations. I spoke to that effect.
I cannot help but think about my parent’s church and especially their pastor, who as you know has had quite a year, and this will be one more thing! Please, also keep in mind the Great Rivers Presbytery Leadership as they will be spending the night carefully wordsmithing a letter, which they have asked me to comment on as well.
Saying all of that, I am glade that in the committee we could get the document out that got out. It brought positive language to the resolution and with a couple of other amendments made today it clarified that it was not in line with the BDS movement as well as a call for engagement. Unfortunately, that is not what the media heard.
I am looking forward to worship and closing tomorrow, but I will miss my time at GA. We still have a long night to come, so I will blog sometime tomorrow. And will at some point process everything and give some thoughts with sleep and perspective!
In the movie Patch Adams, the Patch Adams character meets a man in a mental institution who holds up four fingers and asks “How many fingers am I holding up?” Patch replies “Four,” and the man grumps away. Later Patch makes his way to the man’s room to find some kind of understanding, to see what he was missing beyond the obvious. The man point’s out to Patch that the problem most people have is the fact that they focus on the problem and do not look beyond. In the case of this problem of the fingers and many problems, that means that you cannot see past yourself, but when you look beyond yourself you open your heart and mind to a new reality. (here is a link to the second part of the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKLQBuSPVwQ.)
In the passage we have this week, Jesus is asking those who are listening to this speech to come to a couple very real and central understandings. First he wants us to understand that our place is that of a student learning from the master. Second that our master is the only one to fear, and finally our ability to see the master is completely dependent on our ability to see past ourselves.
This is key and one of those central Christian dilemmas we face. This is also one of my great frustrations with the pop-theology teachings. First we see how some traditions, in order to lure people in, offer the promise of elevating them to another place. We know of traditions like Mormonism that gives a vague promise of being a ‘God of your own planet’ in the afterlife, but even on a more simplistic level there are thousands, if not millions of traditions that offer a greater role based on perceived spiritual connection. In fact, this is one of the great reformed critiques of the Catholic Church and why the Pope was seen to be more evil then good. This is because we understand that no person could take the place or even speak for God except for God.
This leads to the second part which asks the question “Who do I fear?” The fact here is that when it comes to fear, the only real fear that we should ever have is the Fear of God. Because, as Christ points out God is in control of the soul, and whatever might happen to the body in comfort or strain in this world is temporary, but and life in God is permanent.
The problem of all of this is that it hinges on faith. Again, this is very difficult for many believers, since faith is often described as a personal experience. Interestingly, like the pop-theology, which creates an elevated status, the pop-theology often takes one’s spiritual life to focus inwardly: how do you feel, what do you know, see, etc. The problem is that what we see is never the solution; rather, it is often the most apparent problem. Most importantly, this state by its very nature keeps us from fully seeing the glory and promise of God.
Altogether, what this passage gives us is a way for us to find comfort in the reality that we will never be God and should live life always as a learner and servant. Secondly, to live life, and we must not fear life because this life is temporary and out life with God is forever. This means that more than anything else we are called to live beyond ourselves, seeking not what we can see in front of our face, but rather what we see when we look beyond.
After a fairly long and useless morning, we broke for Lunch. Today I meet Dan Dan the Hotdog Man, at this awesome hotdog restaurant to get a real Detroit Coney Dog! It was awesome, that is after getting some good Jibing from Dan about my California attire, which made the experience all that much better.
But with an unusually brief introductory section we jumped right into the Civil Union and Gay Marriage, which did catch me a little off guard. For months I had been think about what I was going to say in this time, I knew I needed to say something. But when I was limited to 1 minute I had to quickly think of what was best to say. I chose to speak about Westminster and their struggle, but also their choice to welcome all people Conservatives and Liberals, Gays and Straight (I did not have a chance to expand on that in one minute). I spoke to the cost it has had the Westminster congregation but that doing that was important to be able to minister in our community. I also spoke to how I needed to be able to officiate at services that my conscious and the Holy Spirit called me to do.
It passed and it passed well. In lay terms, while we now allow Gay Marriage, we do affirm both an individual pastors and an individual congregations choice of whether or not to do them. There is also a little confusion there were two main things that came out one was an Authoritative witness, which goes into effect now, and a change to the Book of Order that will go into effect after the Presbyteries ratify it.
I have to say that the cool thing about GA is that once we get going it does get pretty exciting and we are really talking about important things. In addition to the discussion of Gay Marriage, we hit on Gun Violence and Taxes.
The essence of the Gun violence action says
In response to Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call, which calls us to “encourage the church at every level—from individual member to congregation, presbytery, synod, and national church—to become informed and active in preventing gun violence” and urges that “the church take responsibility to build public awareness of gun violence and the epidemic of preventable gun-related deaths”
The recommendations in the tax report seeks to make the U.S. tax system fairer, calling it to be:
• more progressive, taxing those with greater wealth at higher proportions of their income, wealth, and inheritance;
• more transparent, which includes both simplicity and accountability for all tax preferences and tax expenditures;
• more solidarity-focused, which means reducing the use of tax expenditures, shelters and havens, and supporting more adequate international standards to reduce tax competition within and among nations;
• more sustainable for current and future generations, which means avoiding unproductive financial and ecological indebtedness; and
• more adequate, effectively addressing broader objectives of economic and social health than efficiency alone, such as meaningful employment, improved family life, and restored public trust. The tax system must be characterized by both efficiency in tax collection and revenue sufficient for the common good.
We are finally making real discussions about the future of the church and it is cool! I am not going to “report” on everything all of this is on the website http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga221/ or www.pc-biz.org. To be honest, it is hard to even remember what happened since everything we do is quite intense. But that is good, because it is all important since it is all about the future of the church. Saying that, I am looking forward to having a few hours next week to just crash!!!
This afternoon was a first for the GA with taking care of well over 100 items on the consent agenda, a new practice for the GA. This included the resolution I have written about. It is good to know that our denomination stands with the LGBT community in the humanitarian crisis that affects them around the world.
Granted we have not come to the two most controversial things, but so far it has been incredible to see through this whole battle, disagreement without fighting, and genuine openness to the desire to see the church become healthier. It was also great to see the church pass the Belhar confession so overwhelmingly. This is going to call our churches to reflect and think seriously concerning race and race relations in our communities. It is also a firm stance that we, as a denomination, stand on the side of Justice over our own comfort or self-interest.
In the evening we started with speeches from a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Reformed Rabbi. What a cool thing! Another statement about how committed we are as a denomination to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue! As for the rest of the night there were some presentations and we started the Book of Order stuff, but most of that will happen tomorrow!
Wednesday morning is one of the few breaks in the GA meeting Schedule, well for most of us. The Committee moderators spent last night and this morning working on their reports. Also, many commissioners were finalizing their minority reports. I slept in being that I have not fallen asleep before 1 am since arriving at GA. However, while I was not writing a report of any kind, there were still many resolutions to see, especially the ones that were amended and the ones that are going on the consent agenda. This is the Fist GA with one of those, if an overture received larger then 75% of the vote in committee it automatically will go on a consent agenda so that time can be freed for the fun discussions!
The commissioner resolution that I signed will be on that consent docket, hopefully it will not be pulled! However it did pass it’s committee with a unanimous vote! Pretty cool! Here it is:
Given the global crisis for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons and their families in eighty-one countries where homosexuality is illegal and the impact of persecution that threatens their lives, health, and safety, the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does the following:
1. Encourages each Presbyterian to hold in prayer our LGBT sisters and brothers in the countries where they are vulnerable around the world.
2. Encourages the Presbyterian Mission Agency to create educational resources about the critical global LGBT situation and forward those resources to synods and presbyteries for study and action.
3. Encourages Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations to consider preparations to provide sanctuary, safety, and support for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.
I also made the front cover of todays General Assembly newspaper. Now the afternoon fun starts!
This morning I woke up with a massive headache! What an omen to a start to another crazy the day in the Middle East committee. After a couple Excedrin and some allergy meds, I was off to run to make my committee. The morning has been something else with impassioned speeches for and against Divestment, and of course I said my peace, which as the spirit moved had me speak, but for most of you that should not be a surprise.
What breaks my heart in the discussion is the lack of God and discernment (sorry folks who are getting sick of that word). The essence of my speech hit on something that had not heard by others and that is our focus on money as a church. Basically my frustration that as a minister, “I’m sick of money doing our mission.” To be honest, I don’t remember what I said, but I am sure I will hear what the spirit allowed others to hear. However, I have already heard how many others wish as a church we could get away from money, numbers, etc. and get to the business God calls us to.
Saying my peace, the rest of the committee chimed in, though many agreed, the committee decided to move for divestment, but worth a clear understanding that the reason for divestment was that we do not want our money in companies that profit from war. At the end it was a very hard struggle for me. I have passionate friends on both sides and while I do not like divestment, and I really do think the denominational representatives were WAY out of bounds with their involvement, The committee crafted a good compromise document that talks far more about positive engagement then negative. Many of us, including me, were moved by the cooperative nature. My only real lament is that a young youth advisory delegate called the question before any discussion.
I think without that a substitute motion will be brought, and everything will be undone and we will go for one of the other motions with to me were just bad. Here is praying for us not to do something stupid that will paint us into a corner on this issue.
Finishing the rest of the committee work was fast paced and sometimes confusing. With the moderators desire to finish we rushed through the rest of the items, which was good but left some a little unnerved. However, we did finish and I think all was good. Now we will wait to see what happens on the floor of the GA.
Tonight was AWESOME, and reminded me what a great presbytery I am in. I had a great dinner with my fellow presbyters. They are an awesome bunch of people.
Tomorrow the REAL fun begins as we move to the First Plenary session, this means that I have a morning of cramming as much information into my head as I can so that I know what is going on with all of the changes modifications and motions that will be brought before GA.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen