Oh, boy

May 31, 2008 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

Today, I was at church participating in the Spring Cleanup Day, where we cleaned up the grounds.  Lots of raking, digging, moving bushes, mulching were done.

When it was time for me to go I found the woman in charge and the pastor together.  I told them that I was done and heading out.  I was thanked for my service, and then ….

Pastor:  Thanks for coming.  Let’s talk this week about deacons.

Me:  OK ….

Pastor:  Didn’t you get the letter?

Me:  No.  What letter?

Pastor:  I thought you’d have gotten it by now.  We’re asking you to serve on the deacons.  We’ll talk later this week.

Mark:  We’ll see.

The letter was in the mail when I got home.

I’m inclined to say no simply based on the fact that I’m clearly not even on the C list – I’m on the D list or E list.  They started asking people in mid-April – it’s now 2 weeks before the Congregational Meeting.  I figure I’m about #35 on a list to fill 8 slots.  It’s hard to feel called by the congregation (represented by the Nominating Committee) when you’re that far down the list and asked at the last minute.

There are other factors to consider, too.

I’d like to hear your opinions.  You’re read of my recent trials and tribulations regarding service at the church and personalities there (including one deacon who will be going off the board at this time).

Start of Summer Meme

May 29, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion 

I’ve been tagged by Toby Brown of Classical Presbyterian for a meme.

Start of Summer Meme

Whether it’s the smell of the grill, the taste of fresh lemonade, the glow of fireflies or the pull of your fishing line, many of us have distinctive senses about what makes for the sign of summer.

So, you all know the rules–fill it out on your own blog and tag other blogs. If you have no blog, answer it in the comment section here.
Let’s dive in!
1.)  What first tells you that Summer is here?

Two things:  First, the need for air conditioning.  Second, the First Sunburn of Summer.  The latter generally happens in late April on a gray cloudy day when I’m out at a festival of some sort and forget that I need a hat on my sparsely-populated head.

2.) Name your five of your favorite distinctively Summer habits or customs.

  1. The Summer Afternoon Nap
  2. Cooking on the Grill
  3. Mowing the Lawn
  4. Volunteering for check-in on Sundays at church camp
  5. My Birthday

3.) What is your favorite smell of Summer?

The odor of the first few big, fat raindrops that fall before the full thunderstorm hits.  This is the smell that signals a reduction in humidity and temperature in the near future.

4.) What is your favorite taste of Summer?

Grilled cheeseburgers.

5.) Favorite Summer memory?

Sitting around the campfire in the evening at Work Camp at Camp Johnsonburg, circa 1984.  Work Camp was special.  The 50-70 campers were spread across all age groups from entering 3rd grade to graduating from high school.  The cost was half of a regular unit because the work camp spent mornings doing work on the camp.  I remember painting buildings and one year even re-shingling a roof.  The younger kids did things like cleaning campfire cooking equipment and lanterns.

Every evening the entire work camp would have a campfire together.  We had our own leaders (the same every year) and our own set of regular songs.  The evening campfire was a cross between the traditional campfire, a bible study, and a worship service.  The work campers were a close-knit group – many came from two churches that founded the work camp and they and others repeated work camp every year – but they readily accepted new people.  It felt like a giant family even more than regular camp.

I’ll pick one specific memory.  In 1985 I was a CIT (Counselor in Training) and for work camp I got to co-counsel with the Associate Pastor of my church (my youth pastor).  He was also the chaplain for the week.  The last night of work camp was always a communion service.  At the time I was already a deacon, and the Book of Order limited service of communion to elders or “deacons, if sufficient elders are not available”.  The communion service that he and I served at was my first chance to serve communion – something that was only ever repeated the following summer at Triennium.

Alas – Work Camp is no more in that form.  The closest thing today is that some churches will send a group (youth or adult) up to live in a cabin for a week and do a project.  Those folks don’t interact with the camp program much.


6.) Extreme heat or extreme cold? Which would you choose and why?

Extreme cold.

For one thing it’s easier for humans to “fix” extreme cold.  Heating is generally easier than air conditioning.  I dislike temperature extremes at either end.  Secondly, I’m a real homebody and love the snuggly “stay inside” call of a cold snap.

7.) What books do you plan to read for the season?

Because of the economy (national and personal), I’m re-reading things from my shelf.  Most of that is science-fiction.  Right now I’m reading The Tower and the Hive (Rowan) by Anne McCaffrey.

One book that I have ordered is:  Fearless Fourteen (Stephanie Plum, No. 14) I like the Janet Evanovich “Stephanie Plum” series in part because it takes place in Trenton NJ but also because it’s REALLY funny.  Note – those easily offended by foul language, risque topics and less than Godly behavior probably won’t like these.

8.) How does the Summer affect your faith? Is it a hindrance or an ally?

An ally.

I’ll preface my remarks with a reminder that I’m a strong introvert.

During the rest of the year, church alternates between hard work, painful interaction with some (including some nasty fights on the web … ahem), and high moments.  I love working with the youth group, see the value of my work on committees (though they are a form of stress for me sometimes), and experience the difficulty of an introvert functioning in a large community.  We are called to be in community, but our current structures aren’t really designed to make introverts comfortable.

In the summer, all of the “large group” aspects of faith get less intense.  Our church has no air conditioning, and as a result attendance on Sunday drops WAY off.  Committee work slows down or stops completely.  The youth group doesn’t meet regularly which is both a bad thing (I miss them) and a good thing (I can get to sleep earlier on Sunday evening).

There are a few summer-only things too:

Church Camp – Carolyn and I will go up to help with check-in a few Sundays this summer.  We generally spend about 3-4 hours in the afternoon doing medical checks or doing the complicated and crazy job of managing the medical paperwork.  For that work, we get the privilege of spending the whole day there.  We generally arrive in time for Staff Worship in the morning and then have a leisurely lunch with our camp friends.  Sometimes we stay for dinner (if it’s not too hot) with 100-200 excited kids and staff.

Montreat – for the first time, I’m going with my church’s youth group to the Montreat summer youth conference (week VI, in case you’re going).  I’m doing this with some trepidation – the last time I did something like this was Youth Triennium in 1986 when I WAS a youth, but it should be fun.  We have something like 10 youth and 4 adults going for the program plus another adult in a support role.

Last, let’s not forget that my return to the church was sparked by a conversation at camp at lunch on a Sunday that I did check-in.  Summer is generally pretty good to my faith.

Let’s see.  I tag:

Cheesehead in Paradise
Alan of Some Amusing Blog Pun
Gannet Girl of Search the Sea
Adam Walker-Cleaveland of Pomomusings
Little Miss Sew and Sow

A good sermon on being called

May 20, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

This past Sunday was Deacon Sunday, when the Board of Deacons runs the service.

The outgoing President of the Deacons, Pam Ford, delivered the sermon.  The title is “Confessions of a Reluctant Deacon”, and it talks a lot about her sense of call and how her deacon experience has caused her to grow.

It’s worth a listen, or a read.  I recommend listening.

Youth Summer Trip Car Wash

May 18, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

Yesterday we held our “Free, Sponsored Car Wash” to raise money for the two summer trips.

This summer, one trip will be a mission trip to Philadelphia to work with Broad Street Ministry.  The youth and adults will stay at their building for 5 days and will do various ministry work.  The other trip is to the Montreat Conference Center Summer Youth Conference, week VI.  For that trip the group leaves on Saturday, drives to Greensboro, NC and stays overnight at a church.  The next day we arrive at Montreat and do the conference through the following Saturday morning, when we take the 12-hour drive home.

This car wash raises money to augment the participant fees for the trips, and also allows us to cap the total cost for families with one or more youth taking one or both trips – otherwise the fees would add up fast.

This car wash is a Sponsored, Free Car Wash.  Each youth and adult going on one of the trips is expected to gain sponsors for their participation.  The sponsors pledge either a flat amount or a small amount per car washed.  For example, I got cash donations of $71 plus a pledge from one person of 0.25 per car for another $11.  We hoped to get about $100 on average from the youth and adults but right now the church members have already been asked to give to a lot (including the capital campaign and special funds like today’s collection for Myanmar and China disasters) so we know that we might not make the goal.  We also accepted donations from people whose cars were washed (even though they weren’t expected) and that totalled just over $700.  I found this idea on the Youth Ministry Exchange website.

This was an environmentally friendly car wash.  Rich Richards (the youth director) and Jason Meyers (who just completed his freshman year at Carnegie Mellon) diverted the gutter downspouts at the church into trash cans and collected nearly 200 gallons overnight.  We used that water to wash the cars, and only used tap water from the hose to give them a final rinse.  Also, we used special environmentally sound soap bought at Whole Foods.  Drying was done with synthetic chamois and cloth towels.  Rich also noted on the white board Information Board that no paper was used, because we used a white board.  (How recursive.)

I started the day with a youth out at the road flagging down cars.  It was quickly apparent that neither of us has the right personality for this job.  We were replaced by Grier Booker-Richards (seminary intern and Rich’s wife) and Catherine Thomas (pastor’s wife) and Will Vamos (pastor’s 5-year-old son), who did a MUCH better job bringing in cars.  OK, Grier, was that enough?

Over the course of 3 hours (until the recycled water ran out) we washed 45 cars.  That was just about the right number – any more and the wait would have been excessive.  We had two washing stations and one drying station.  The youth and adults all worked hard on the washing and drying.

Now we wait to see how much we get in sponsorships – the youth haven’t turned in their forms or money yet.

I am a little sore from bending in directions that I don’t usually bend (I generally don’t have to bend over to wash bottom fenders often).  I also think I managed to get sunburn on the backs of my calves – probably from leaning and bending.  It was satisfying work.

Wish us luck!

Picking up the pieces …

May 14, 2008 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

It’s been a while since I posted something on my intentions regarding my congregation.

There’s a reason for that.  My employer (after we were told it wouldn’t happen) laid off a number of people last week (not me).  Then we got news that the company is being delisted from the NYSE.  It’s been a rollercoaster ride.

So here’s where I am.

This experience, and the reaction to it (some of which isn’t written here), have seriously damaged my self-confidence as it relates to this congregation.  I find myself walking on eggshells, and needing reassurance for things that aren’t even likely to be a problem.  On the other side of the coin, there have been several recent events where things went well, even VERY well, and I had a big part in pulling them off (very big for one, about average sized contribution for the others).

At the same time I’ve had bad news in other parts of my life, notably work (plus a few deaths and wake to attend for family of co-workers and such).

Please note that I didn’t say “damaged my faith”.  I’m making a distinction between my faith and my opinion of the congregation and organized religion in general.

It’s the time of year where the church asks folks to serve as an officer or on a committee.  I haven’t gotten an letter yet asking about either, so I have to assume that the church has decided not to ask me – either as a result of this incident or because I’m already busy enough.  I’m pretty sure they’re up to the C list by now, so if they haven’t asked yet they probably won’t.

I’ve also found myself censoring what I write on this blog.  That’s a big problem for me.  As I have written, some of my most important core values are honesty, openness and authenticity.  When my pastor asked me, “Is there anybody that you run your blog posts by before you post them?” it hit me hard.  Most of you agree that I may have a been a little too open and have said one thing out of frustration that you wouldn’t have said, but that it’s my blog and that I’m being careful enough by leaving out names.  I’m struggling with whether I can be myself in this congregation.  One of the things that I love most about Camp Johnsonburg is that you truly can be yourself – warts and all – and you will be accepted (and even loved).  Some folks have rougher edges than others, and it IS possible to get too far outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior for camp, but for the most part it’s a place where 90% of the folks who come there feel at home.  I expect that from the local congregation too – after all, isn’t that what we’re called to do?  I realize that this may be an unrealistic expectation, even if it is a valid expectation.

All of this is complicated by the fact that I’m co-chairing a committee whose job is to figure out how well the church is doing at welcoming people and making them feel at home.  That process is starting to identify some common strains that line up fairly well with what I’m experiencing  (or alternately, I’m identifying what look like patterns to me as I look through the lens of my experience).  In other words, the actions and events and feelings that are distancing me to some extent from the congregation are exactly what the committee is supposed to identify – and even more, to propose solutions to fix them.   It’s a little like recovering from surgery and being expected to come up with ways to prevent your illness/disease in the first place, while you’re recovering your strength.

It would be nice to be able to pull back for a bit and let others take up the slack.  Unfortunately, events are conspiring to make that difficult.  My committee co-chair is in the middle of a medium to long-term family emergency, and is unable to take up the slack.  The pastor is the other member of the leadership of that task force, but his time is already split 50 ways and it’s not really fair to ask him to take up the slack either.  So it falls to me.  Supposedly God has a plan for everything – I hope the end result of this situation is a really good one because it’s a bit much now with two of us in the throes of issues (hers much bigger than mine).  The one area where things are winding down is youth group – we’re transitioning from school-year mode to summer and summer trip mode which is a smaller time commitment.

Last night the Youth and Young Adult Council met.  Before that meeting I had a private meeting/dinner with the Youth Director.  I actually feel much better about the church after those two meetings.

So here’s the plan for today and the near future.

A month ago or so I wrote that I want to either get more involved or less involved in the fall.  This experience and the lack of any invitation from the leadership to get more involved have decided that question with an answer of less involved.  I also need to retrench and take some time to lick my wounds.  The committee that I’m co-chairing completes its work in January.  My word and my commitments are very important to me, so there is no question about me completing the committee work.  I still LOVE working with the Youth Group, and I’m looking forward to the trip to Montreat this summer (with a little apprehension, but that’s just “I haven’t done anything like this for 20 years”).  So at this point the plan is to finish my committee work and drop back to just doing youth stuff (probably including Confirmation).  That’s where I fit the best anyway of the places where I have been invited to take part.

This is all subject to change – this plan isn’t remotely etched in stone.  This is just what the plan is today.

It’s a little sad because I know that I have more energy and skills that I could put to use for this congregation.

I also could put that energy and skill into things beyond the local congregation (witness the Moderator Candidate event) but for one thing – the PC(USA) polity doesn’t really know what to do with somebody who has an affinity for the polity but who isn’t an elder.

At this point, I have no plans to leave the congregation.  I’ll just fade back into the anonymous mass of members.

Cat Health Update

May 8, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life 

Three weeks ago, we took the cats in for their annual checkup.  We were a little worried about a lump on Isaac’s front leg, which was biopsied.

The results are now all in.

Albert is fine.  He went into the vet today for a dental cleaning for gingivitis.  (Isaac didn’t need it this time.)  His blood work came back fine.

Isaac is also fine.  The lump on his front leg matched the one on his back leg – fatty tissue and nothing to be concerned about.  We are a bit concerned about his blood work.  His thyroid number was slightly elevated for an older cat.  We’re going to take him back for more blood work in 3-6 months.  We’ll have his teeth checked again at the same time.

We should have Albert at home this evening.  I hope he’ll just be drowsy rather than psychotic like Isaac was the last time they had their teeth cleaned.

We love our cats.

Alabammy Bound

May 7, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Life 

Carolyn is headed for Birmingham next Monday through Wednesday to look at a machine casing with a hole in it.  (For her job – it’s not just for fun)

Any restaurant recommendations?

Can we agree to disagree about homosexuality?

May 2, 2008 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

One of our moderator candidates, Bruce Reyes-Chow, confronts the elephant in the room in his blog post.

He asks the question of whether or not we can “be engaged in a community where the position is held in the contrary?”  If you feel that homosexuality is not a sin, can you stay in a denomination that declares it to be a sin?  If you feel that homosexuality is a sin, can you stay in a denomination that sometimes allows people to hold responsible positions who are homosexual?

Some people have voted with their feet.  (And that’s just a few)

I’ll start with me.

I am a strong supporter of gay marriage and gay ordination.  I do not feel that homosexuality is a sin, provided that it is exercised (“practiced”) within a two-person long-term committed relationship.  I would define marriage as between two people of legal age who truly intend to love each other and share each other’s lives forever.  If that happens to include God as part of the relationship, good, but I’m not going to say that non-church marriages aren’t valid.

I grew up with my parents telling me all sorts of things about gay people.  How they were all dirty, how they all had sex with multiple partners in bathrooms, that they did illegal drugs, and how most were diseased.  I remember one particular conversation with them so vividly that I can tell you that we were riding in the 1974 Ford Gran Torino station wagon southbound on Tenafly Road between Oak Ave. and Ivy Lane in Tenafly, NJ in approximately the year 1980.

Then I got involved in church beyond the local congregation.  I was a YAD to Synod in 1985, and subsequently the youth member of Synod Mission Council for 2 more years.  I went to the Youth Triennium in 1986.  At all of the big events, PLGC had a presence.  I bought the “Presbyterians Do It Decently and In Order” T-shirt mainly because it was a cool saying (and I bought it in lavender because pink was too girly), but while I was doing so I met the folks who staffed the booth at Synod.  I found some of them and some others at Triennium.  I discovered that the stereotype of gay people that my parents professed was not true.

Later, I left the church because of some negative experiences with judgmental people.  After that I started working with PLGC as their Presbynet coordinator.  About 5-6 years later I left PLGC because I was called homophobic when I dared to disagree with a particular strategy.  I’ve seen the ugly from both sides of this particular issue.

I have to note that my personal beliefs on this issue have remained the same for about 20 years.  I have read the interpretations of Scripture on the issue from both sides and I find the pro-gay interpretation more compelling and more in line with Jesus’ message of love.

Now the church.

This question really comes down to one big question – can we stay together and hold different beliefs?  This is nothing new – if it wasn’t homosexuality it would be something else.  In the early 20th century it was all about the virgin birth and other essentials.  Before that it was subscriptionism vs. experiential religion.  The history of the Presbyterian church in the USA (that’s not a denomination name, it’s a description) is littered with schism and reunions.  The schisms come from differences of opinion on what we today see as either no-brainer decisions (like women’s ordination) or nit-picky issues.  A review of history shows that the one lasting question is this:  Do Presbyterians need to universally subscribe to a well-defined list of doctrine elements, or is there room for variation in belief and practice?

Today the pro-homosexual folks are on the variation side.  Conservatives point out that if they are successful that we could someday reach a point where ministers are required to participate in ordinations of gay people just as they are required to participate in ordination of women.  That would put the pro-homosexual folks on the subscriptionist side.

Today the anti-gay folks are on the subscriptionist side.  That makes sense – the subscriptionist side is usually populated by people who feel most strongly about inerrancy of Scripture (as opposed to new interpretations of Scripture, as we had with slavery and women’s ordination) and more conservative beliefs.  However there are still bits of variation desired – witness those who are still complaining about women’s ordination years after it was settled.

I believe that our denomination is divided into 3 groups:

  • The right – folks who are traditional and want belief and practice to stay the way that they are today (or earlier).
  • The left – folks who believe that we are not seeing the new truths that God is revealing in our day and who feel that we are too strict in our interpretations of Scripture.
  • The middle – folks who just want to keep doing the work of the church and who want gradual change.

The middle is much larger than the other groups – probably bigger than the left and right combined.  They are also largely quiet – they are focused on doing the work of God.  They see the left and right as distractions who get all the attention and spend all of the energy of the higher-level governing bodies while causing people to turn away from the PC(USA) and church as a whole, and who spend all of the money fighting each other.

One of the things that was talked about a lot at the Moderator Meet and Greet last week in Lawrenceville, NJ was the loss of our young.  We lose our youth from the church when they graduate from high school (one person said “immediately after confirmation”) and the conventional wisdom has always been that they’d return when they had kids.  That’s not happening.  Our denominational average age is about 58 and climbing.

What isn’t being talked about is the effect that our infighting is having on potential members.  I know that I took a LONG HARD look at the church when I considered returning about 2 years ago (after almost 20 years outside).  I remembered church to be all about control of belief and action by a small group.  That’s really what the current fight is about – the control by those who believe in a well-defined set of essential beliefs AND practices of the membership at large (and the expulsion of those who fail to meet the standard – from leadership at a minimum).  I’m still wrestling with issues of control and “in-groups” within my congregation.  What I do know from talking to friends and co-workers is that Christianity as a whole has a bad reputation – it is increasingly seen as hypocritical and judgmental.

Additionally, there are signs that this question of homosexuality and subscriptionism are just the last gasps of the Modern world.  I work with youth, and have written previously about how I see homosexuality being perceived by those youth.  I believe that the church of the future will be somewhat different from the church of the present in ways that we’re just starting to understand, and that in that church homosexuality will be a non-issue – accepted by all.  It’s just a matter of time, and a matter of the Modernist leaders of today to retire and/or die off.  The acceptance of ambiguity and disagreement on little things is coming.

I am increasingly convinced that the fighting must stop.  But how?

Two options

We can stop the fighting in two ways.

One option is to agree to disagree.  That would require both the left and right to call a truce, and to wait for the Spirit to build a consensus on homosexuality.  There’s only one problem – this option would require that there be pockets of inconsistent practice for some time – some churches and presbyteries would ordain gays and other would refuse to.  The left is somewhat OK with this (they’ll rail about legalized discrimination in the “anti-gay” presbyteries) but this solution is anathema to the right which requires universal subscription to a set of rules.  Again, it really doesn’t matter that the current division is about homosexuality – even if we agreed today that all gays are to be excluded from the church (unlikely) we’d start fighting over something else – maybe the use of collection plates vs. baskets.

The other option is to separate.  To a certain degree this is in progress – The Layman maintains a scorecard of congregations leaving.  It’s important to note that there are only 55 congregations listed out of something like 10,000 – a rate of less than 1%.  The only question is how do you separate?  Normally (not that any separation is normal but this is the usual way) we separate by one faction breaking away.  We haven’t really tried a graceful separation yet.  The middle generally ends up remaining with the “non-leaving” side through inertia.  With a non-graceful separation each congregation has to decide whether or not they are upset enough to leave based on the issue of the day.  This process gives a lot of power to pastors – they have a ton of influence on their congregations and are often the only source of “what’s going on nationally” for their local membership.

A graceful separation would be harder.  That would require the national church (the General Assembly) to determine that there is an issue that we just can’t agree about.  Then each congregation would have to vote to decide which side of the issue they fall on.  This will in turn cause schisms in some congregations.  After the local votes the national makeup of the denomination would have to be rebuilt – some presbyteries would be absorbed into others and some would split down the middle.  We’d end up with two denominations.  Even so, some congregations and perhaps whole presbyteries would prefer to be union churches – being members of both sides.  If we’re going to separate, I think this is the more honest and faithful way.

Either way – separation is painful and debilitating to the denomination and it’s work.

So answer the question, Mark

OK, I will.

I don’t think we can agree to disagree about homosexuality.  I believe that the church will continue to decline for another 15-20 years, until Modernism mostly dies out with the baby boomers.  I also think that the world is headed for some huge upheavals in the way that we provide energy and food and how we feel about population growth, and that in a world where feeding yourself and others is in question the issue of homosexuality will be seen as an unimportant distraction.

Our religion has evolved over the last 2000 years.  We have moved from consensus (what really happened with Jesus?  Were you there?) to Authority (the iron will of the Catholic Church) to Intellectual Faith (from the Reformation) to Modernism.  We moved from “What is the faith?” to “We’ll tell you what the faith is” to “Let’s figure out what the faith is really about, in minute detail” to “You have to decide what the faith is yourself, but if you want to be part of us you have to match us on X and Y and Z”.  The next step is Individual Faith, where each person builds their own faith and the church is a resource for doing the work of faith (including bringing others to it) rather than the owner of faith.  That’s scary to Modernists, because it implies a loss of control over others’ faith.  That’s brilliant to Postmodernists, because it implies a gain of control over one’s own faith.

But we aren’t there yet.  We’re gonna continue to fight until we make ourselves irrelevant.  The only question in my mind is whether or not there will be a PC(USA) denomination in 20 years or whether it will have collapsed through an inability to accept each other’s uniqueness.  If there isn’t a PC(USA), there will be something else – God always provides.

So if you were going to the General Assembly, what would you do?

I’d do what everybody is going to do anyway – vote their conscience.  Look at the trends and listen to the younger folks there who can tell you what the church of the future needs to look like as they understand it today.  Fight if you must, compromise if you can, and try to reconcile with your brother (sister) when you grow apart.  Have faith that God is still in charge and that these things are happening for a reason, and that He’ll sort it all out at some point out of our control.

GA PJC tries to please everybody but pleases nobody

May 1, 2008 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission issued a ruling in the case Jane Adams Spahr vs. Presbytery of Redwoods (218-12) this week.  I have an IQ well north of 100 and have read the entire Book of Order (and the annotated version), and I find the ruling confusing.

In 2004, the Rev. Jane Spahr conducted two “weddings” between two pairs of women.   All parties in the case admit that she called these ceremonies “marriages”.  She was charged with a violation of W-4.9001, which states:

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.

The Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission dismissed the case, stating that there was nothing in the Book of Order or Authoritative Interpretations of it that prohibited a marriage between two people of the same gender.  This was appealed to the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission, which ruled that she had violated the Book of Order and a 1991 Authoritative Interpretation that stated that sessions should not allow same-sex unions to be held in their church if the ceremony is not clearly stated that it is NOT the same as a marriage.  She was given censure, the lowest possible punishment and what amounts to a slap on the wrist.

The General Assembly PJC used a curious bit of logic in reversing the Synod decision:

In summary, Specification of Error No. 1 is not sustained because by definition, “marriage is . . . between a man and a woman.” (W-4.9001) Specification of Error No. 1 and Specification of Error No. 2 are sustained because W-4.9001 does not state a mandatory prohibition on performing a same sex ceremony. The charge was for performing a marriage ceremony, which by definition cannot be performed.

Now, understand that I am an unabashed supporter of gay marriage and gay ordination.  I find this ruling to be curious.  This seems to me to be a bit of double-speak.  “X happened, but since the rules say that X can’t happen then X didn’t happen.”  This ruling completely ignores the fact that our rules are stated in the affirmative “X is Y” in order to draw boundaries around allowed behavior.  My conservative fellow bloggers are right in that this ruling calls into question the Book of Order’s ability to mandate any specifications of practice or definition for our worship.  One conservative blogger asks “What if I baptized my dog?”  Would the dog be listed on the rolls?  The Book of Order states that baptism is for “children of believers” or “adults” – it never states human.

I would personally prefer that the rules be changed in this case explicitly.  Let’s broaden the rules for marriage, or narrow them, but let’s not say “anything not ruled out by the Book of Order is acceptable”.  That’s simply not true.  Shoot – we don’t even define sin (except for sex outside of marriage, of course) but we have Rules of Discipline that assume we’ll know it when we see it.

I like our polity’s requirements for consensus and for making decisions face to face.  This is important – it’s really easy to throw stones at someone from afar (particularly over the Internet) but it’s another thing entirely to do it in someone’s presence.  Something happens when we are together than can change the equation.

I also like our polity’s flexibility.  I don’t want to see a day when the Book of Order is published in volumes like law books – covering an entire bookcase.  However, the role of the GA PJC (actually, the Presbytery PJC or Session, with backup from the GA PJC) is precisely to make decisions on where the boundaries are.  The General Assembly and presbyteries can’t do that in every circumstance without reducing our faith to a list of rules and regulations.  This ruling ducks the decision on semantic grounds.

I’m also particularly concerned with a new rule made here.  The new rule is:

We further hold that officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage. Under W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.

This is the PJC legislating from the bench.  It gets worse in the first concurring opinion:

We join in the foregoing Decision and Order (Decision). We understand the Decision to be an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9001, to mean that officers of the PCUSA who are authorized to perform marriages shall not hereafter perform a same sex union ceremony in which or with respect to which such officer states, implies or represents to be a marriage or the equivalent thereof. While the Commission did not find Spahr guilty as charged herein, in part because her conduct occurred under prior authoritative interpretations, we understand that future noncompliance with the authoritative interpretation of the Decision will be considered to be a disciplinable offense.

This is an example of a decision made by a rule-bound vice-principal in a cartoon that I remember watching once.  Kids were out skateboarding on school property, and when the vice-principal tried to give them a detention they pulled out the rules and showed him that there was no rule against it.  The rule was changed immediately.  Then the kids were playing roller hockey, the vice-principal got mad, the kids pulled out the book … and it continued for the rest of the episode until the rule book looked like a phone book.  This is a few PJC members saying, “You got away with it this time, but I’ll get you next time.”  Can they do it?  Yes.  Is it good for the church?  No.  If the church wants to prohibit ministers from performing same-sex marriages, it should do so with an amendment.  After all, this ruling already states that a same-sex marriage isn’t a marriage under the Book of Order!

Is this good for the church?

This ruling is clearly an attempt by the GA PJC to make an issue go away before a General Assembly meeting that will clearly be contentious.  This year we have the complete Form of Government rewrite to consider (a change that if anything makes the rules even blurrier), the fallout of the PUP report, and lots of difficult overtures.  We have the election of a new Stated Clerk which could substantially change the way the national office operates.  Also, the PJC in their G-6.0108 rulings in February and in this ruling are clearly showing a frustration with segments of the church using the judicial process to force consensus or at least obedience within the denomination.

Unfortunately, this ruling is really a lose-lose ruling.  The conservative side loses because one of of their primary targets “gets off on a technicality”, and because the practice of same-sex civil unions is not banned outright.  The progressive side loses because the practice of same-sex marriages is banned outright.  The center loses because this ruling is confusing and only serves to anger the folks at the extremes.  This ruling solves nothing.

I’m not sure that the GA PJC could solve the root cause.  The root cause here is a very deep split over theology.  It’s not about homosexuality.  It’s not about marriage.  It’s really about the split between legalistic Christianity and wide-open fully-accepting Christianity.  The two sides aren’t pro-gay and anti-gay – they’re pro-big-tent and pro-rules.  The PJC can’t fix that problem.  The General Assembly has only a tiny chance of fixing that problem.  It’ll take a decision by everybody to either learn to live with each other and support each other’s strengths, OR to split.

Bad News

May 1, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion, Work 

I got some bad news at work.  Most of it is “company classified”, but there is one piece that I feel pretty free to share.  No raises this year for anybody.  No layoffs yet either … for now.

This left me in the unfortunate position of having to send an e-mail to our church’s “guy who tracks pledges” reducing my budget pledge for the year (but not the capital pledge – I already paid that in full).  In the fall we had been exhorted to pledge boldly (even recklessly) believing that God would provide.  One of the stewardship team actually made that his Minute at the beginning of worship.  He talked about how when his personal finances were stressed he chose to pledge boldly and how God provided good financial news later in the year.  Let’s just say that it hasn’t happened for me yet – it’s going the other way.  So I have to take back the 20% pledge increase over last year and give at last year’s rate for the rest of the year.  Even so, I know that other families in the church are hurting more.

We’re not in dire financial straits yet.  We are still saving at the same rate, but the “unbudgeted” savings that resulted from the times that the paycheck was bringing in more than expenses (minus the planned savings) aren’t happening.  A surprise bonus from work (from last year’s project work) and the tax refund both went in and out of the checking account at such speed that other papers were sent flying in their wake.  We’re not quite at the point where we need to reduce the saving rate, but we are at the point where the rest of the budget is just breaking even.  I’ve already taken the step of eliminating an expensive hobby (flying) and I’m holding off on buying ham radio equipment for the new hobby.  We’re right at the point where we’ve reduced discretionary expenses as much as possible, and if things get worse (pay cut, job loss, even more expensive food or gas) we’ll need to start making lifestyle cuts.  There is still a lot of room to make lifestyle cuts before we reach the point that some families are in – mainly because Carolyn and I (mostly Carolyn) are VERY conservative with money.  Our mortgage is fixed at a very comfortable rate and we have ZERO credit card debt (thanks, Mom and Dad for teaching fiscal responsibility).

I think we’ll survive the downturn intact and probably better than most, but only because we’re prepared.

But it still hurts.  If we’re feeling the pinch, how much worse can it be for those who didn’t collect their nuts for the winter?  (Or even those whose nuts were stolen by others?)