A Sad Story

September 27, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Life, Religion, Youth 

Last night I was watching an anime (You’re Under Arrest season 3 – the story of a traffic patrol shift in a Tokyo district) episode that featured the story of a high school girl who died while crossing the street against the light, hurrying to tell the guy that she had admired from afar of her interest.  One of the traffic police who stars in the series found her diary near the accident scene, and later learned that the boy also liked her.

This brought to mind a story from my own past, which I don’t think I’ve ever told here.  My memory of events 26 years ago is fuzzy, so some dates or events may be wrong.

In December of 1984, my youth pastor asked me to consider attending an overnight retreat for youth from the presbytery (at the time I was in Tenafly, so this was Palisades Presbytery).  At this retreat the youth were led through a program about leadership development with the purpose of meeting and evaluating each other and then in the morning – choosing the Youth Advisory Delegates to the General Assembly, Synod, and Presbytery Council.  One youth was allowed from each church; there were about 15 or 20 of us at the retreat.  At the time I was a high school junior, and recently elected to be ordained as a Deacon in late January.

At the retreat I met many wonderful people.  One of the earlier activities was taking and evaluating and understanding the Myers-Briggs Temperament Test.  This was the first of many times that I took this test, and I ended up being an INFP.  Later in the evening, some of us spent time chatting and bonding and discovered that we were all INFP’s – and I’ve since found that INFP’s tend to find each other at events like this, drawn together.

One of these INFP’s was Jessica Berg.  Jessica was a year older than me, a senior from Ridgewood, NJ.  She was an Elder serving on their session at the time.  She and I just clicked – that kind of natural friendship where you feel like you’ve been friends all of your lives.  We bonded that evening over laughter and late night discussions with others.

In the morning we had elections for the positions.  First we elected a YAD and Alternate to the General Assembly (national) meeting.  A girl from another church was chosen as the YAD, and Jessica came in second.  I remember her being devastated.  She was given the option to step aside from the Alternate position to stand for Synod YAD, but chose to stay as Alternate.  The second election was for the Synod (regional) YAD, who ended up being me.   In some ways, these months were the start of my journey that has me at Princeton Seminary today.

In January, my youth pastor arranged an overnight retreat for our youth group and the Ridgewood youth group at our church.  (I suspect some match-making here, but I could be wrong.)  We had a great evening, and I found myself being very interested in Jessica.  I had her phone number.  It took me a long time to get up the courage to call her and ask her out.  For a while it was “I’ll call tomorrow”.

Finally I decided early in the week to call and ask her out on a Wednesday evening.  Earlier in the week was out because I was busy with one thing or another (probably Stage Crew, music, or church).

Wednesday evening rolled around.  It was around 5:30pm in the evening (I think).  I was in the basement playing with the computer, when my father called me upstairs.  My youth pastor was in the kitchen, still dressed up in a suit (he lived at the Associate Pastor’s manse around the corner from our house).  He told me that Jessica had died on Tuesday, January 22, 1985.  I had read the newspaper that Wednesday, but completely missed the story at the top of the Local section with her picture.  Jessica had been driving to choir practice and was killed when her car was struck by a train at at railroad crossing.

I was numb.  I don’t think I reacted correctly to this news.  According to my memory I was not sad, not in a crying heap.  I was just quiet.

On the following Sunday, I was ordained as a Deacon.  That evening Jessica’s memorial service was held at her church.  At that age, I was not ready to handle death well (indeed, I chose to skip my grandmother’s out-of-state funeral later), and I didn’t attend – choosing to go to my own youth group instead (volleyball with the local Catholic church group).  I still regret this decision.

Ultimately I went on to attend the Synod meeting, which continued my heavy involvement in the church.  In June, the presbytery meeting was held at my church and I attended in order to see the report of the YAD who went to General Assembly, and to prepare for my attendance at Synod in June.  (Ironically, during that meeting I ended up having dinner at the table of the General Assembly Moderator.)  Also during the meeting there was a report from the presbytery folks about youth programs.  Pictures of the retreat to choose YADs were shown, including some of me and some of Jessica.  And one of me and Jessica, with her wearing a silly hat that I brought to the retreat that looked like a bear’s head.  I still have that hat.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d called sooner.  Jessica was pretty clearly on a seminary/ministry trajectory.  She planned to attend Rutgers that fall; at the time I did not know that I would start at Rutgers a year later.

About a year later when I was at Rutgers I met another member of the Ridgewood High School class of 1985.  She showed me her yearbook, and the page tribute to Jessica.  This friend from my floor at Rutgers ultimately introduced me to my wife Carolyn, right about the time that I saw the yearbook.

For a long time, every January 22nd I would remember and say a prayer for Jessica.  As the years have gone by I have forgotten a time or two.  But I’ve never forgotten her.  And to a tiny degree, she is a part of my faith journey that has led me to seminary.

Be at peace, Jessica.  You are not forgotten.

Lisa Larges Decision – Synod PJC half right

March 25, 2009 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

Yesterday, the Synod of the Pacific PJC released it’s decision in Remedial Case 08-01, Naegeli vs. Presbytery of San Francisco.

Here’s a quick summary for those not in the know on this case.  Lisa Larges is a lesbian.  She was ordained as a Presbyterian deacon some time ago.  She has also attended seminary, and for many years has been fighting to remove prohibitions against gay ordination in the PC(USA) – in part (though probably not the greatest part) so that she can fulfill her call to ministry.  At the time of the relevant events, she was enrolled as a Candidate with the Presbytery of San Francisco.

In December of 2007, the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry (CPM) of the presbytery voted to certify her as “ready for examination with a departure”.  The departure was her unwillingness to agree to abide by the G-6.0106b requirement for chastity or fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman.  Others call this a “scruple”.  This process was apparently made possible by the Peace, Unity and Purity report received by the 2006 General Assembly.  A CPM minority report was made recommending that she be stripped of her Candidate status.  The presbytery voted in a close vote to choose the majority report, which was passed.  After that a large number of people requested a stay of enforcement and this remedial trial against the presbytery ensued.

The Synod PJC ruled the following (to the best of my ability to understand – it’s a bit confusing):

  1. The vote to certify Lisa as “ready for examination, with a departure” was out of order, because departures are considered at the time of examination.
  2. The Synod PJC denied a number of specifications related to the actions of the CPM, on the basis that it had no jurisdiction over a committee of a presbytery.  Most of those involved forcing the CPM to “uphold church-wide standards”.
  3. The Synod PJC admonished the presbytery to “faithfully execute its constitutional obligations to the entire church to enforce mandatory churchwide ordination standards”.  It also admonished the CPM (through the presbytery) to meet it convenantal obligations to candidates who insist on departing from mandatory standards.
  4. The Synod PJC did not remove Lisa from the roll of Candidates because it cannot do so – only the presbytery may.

I believe that the Synod PJC got it half-right and half-wrong.

First, they were half-right in that the action taken by the presbytery was out of order.  It is not correct to rule that a Candidate is acceptable with a departure (or scruple) when declaring the candidate ready for examination.  That is putting the cart before the horse.  The decision on a departure is properly part of the examination itself.  The PJC pointed out that the elements of an examination were not present – Lisa’s Statement of Faith was not presented, she was not questioned.

Second, they were half-wrong in their admonishment of the presbytery on mandatory standards.  The General Assembly PJC has recently ruled that examinations are made on an individual basis by the ordaining body.  The GA PJC hinted that G-6.0106b as it stands today (and likely will stand – I believe that Amendment B will fail, unfortunately) is a mandatory standard and not allowed for a departure.  However, there has yet to be a test case under the PUP rules and recent GA PJC ruling.  I don’t know what the PJC will rule when a real examination with a real departure from G-6.0106b comes before it.  But I don’t believe that the Synod PJC is right in issuing this warning as a blanket statement.  The General Assembly PJC was VERY clear that each examination is an individual case.

If I were the Presbytery of San Francisco, this is what I would do:

  1. I would again hold a vote, but this time certify Lisa as “ready for examination” without mentioning the departure.  This action should be unchallengable under this ruling, as no examination takes place.  I don’t believe further CPM action is required as their recommendation would be properly before the body as a result of the vote being rescinded.
  2. I would expect that the action described in #1 would again be the subject of a remedial case, and prepare to defend it.
  3. I would expect that the General Assembly PJC would support the step of approving for examination.
  4. When it comes time for an actual call and examination, that’s when the real fur will fly.  I suspect that the presbytery would approve the examination, and then be the subject of a remedial case.  I expect that the General Assembly PJC would rule that Lisa is not eligible for ordination, based on their previous rulings and comments regarding the mandatory nature of G-6.0106b.

Let me be clear – I am fully in support of ordination of gay or lesbian (or any of the other categories that they tack on to the list) people being ordained provided that they are in an equivalent relationship to an acceptable heterosexual person.  I just don’t think that the rules that we have today support it, and I don’t believe that Amendment B will pass this time (though it’s gonna be close).  I also believe that this issue will continue to harm the church until it is ultimately resolved in favor of gay ordination OR it causes a split.

A side issue – the PJC chose to “exclude all media from the trial, including all electronic devices, cameras, and recording devices.”  This caused more than a little consternation from the users of the Internet service Twitter, including our own GA Moderator.  I believe that the Synod PJC overstepped its bounds in taking this action, as it is not supported in the Book of Order’s Rules of Discipline (though it would have been for a Disciplinary Case).  I have seem a growing problem in the church surrounding the issues of authenticity and transparency, including all levels of the church from the congregation to GA committees.  This is another issue that has the potential to divide the church, as young people who demand authenticity and openness see the backroom, Old Boys’ (and Girls’) Club atmosphere that is so prevalent in our congregations, presbyteries and higher bodies.  There is a clear desire on the part of some to avoid “airing our dirty laundry”, but that actually has the potential to hurt the church.  I believe that Generation Y, the Millenials, and even parts of Generation X demand openness.  These younger folks would much rather see a dispute handled well than a dispute covered up.

We’ll see what the next steps are in this case.  I believe that the presbytery will again move forward with Lisa’s quest for ordination to her calling, but that the road will continue to be bumpy.  I respect her for choosing to be a test case.

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.

Church – a new chapter

September 6, 2006 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

This blog has been dead for some time.  Mainly, that was due to a lack of interest in blogging, and too much to do otherwise.  However, I have something new to talk about and I’ll do that here.

First, a little history.

When I was in high school, I was pretty religious.  I was a member of a Presbyterian PC(USA) church in Northern NJ.  When I was a high school junior, I was ordained as a deacon in that church.  That same year, I was a YAD (Youth Advisory Delegate) to the Synod of the Northeast meeting.  I then became the youth member of Synod Mission Council and the Synod Nominating Committee.  At the same time, I was involved in Camp Johnsonburg as a camper, CIT (Counselor in Training) and a full-time counselor.  I also went to the Youth Triennium during those years.

Right about the same time, I went to college at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ (the state U of NJ).  I started taking religion classes and computer science classes, intending one to be my major and the other to be my minor.  I was thinking that seminary could be in my future.

Then, a few things happened.  On campus, I got hooked up with an extremely conservative chapter (“you can’t be friends with Jews unless you’re trying to convert them”) of a conservative Christian campus organization.  That only lasted two months, ending after a cult-like weekend retreat.  After that, I experienced some disturbing events at Synod-level meetings involving racism and politicking in a church organization.  (NOTE:  I will not be going into those farther here.)

All of that led me to believe that church was a place where a small number of people in power used the structure to control the behavior of a large number of people.  This control was not particularly Godly, but rather of human origin with the accompanying pettiness.

I had already resigned my post as a deacon because of distance issues at college (it’s hard to serve at a worship service 50 miles away when you don’t have a car).  I resigned my Synod posts and essentially left the church.  I filled out my religion minor with eastern religion classes.

About a year later, I ran into an officer of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (now part of More Light Presbyterians).  They were looking for someone to serve as their liaison to Presbynet (a part of Ecunet – a discussion network for church issues).  I agreed with their cause, and began helping them for about 5-6 years as a supportive straight person.  This ended when again I ran into human politics and found myself being called homophobic due to my support of one strategy over another.  I turned my responsibilities over to another and left that service.  Thus ended my church career.

Fast forward about 10 years.  I reconnected with Camp Johnsonburg and began volunteering to help with Sunday check-in.  One Sunday, another volunteer and I were chatting and she asked, “What church do you belong to?”  I had no answer.  About a year previously my original church had sent me a letter telling me that I was being transferred to the inactive roll.

This started a spark in me.  I discussed the issue with other camp staff alumni and found that many were in the same place – unsure of whether or not they belong in a church.  The camp held a retreat last January called “Reconnecting with Faith – Finding Your Home” which covered issues of how to discern whether or not belonging to a church is right for you, and if so how to find the correct congregation.  We also talked about related issues like Home Churches and spirituality that is not rooted in a church setting.

Taking ideas from the retreat and a few of my own, I began a process of determining simulateously:  1.  Whether or not to join the PC(USA) again at this time, and 2.  If so, which one?

The first question (whether or not to join the PC(USA) now) was and continues to be the harder one.  The denomination is mirroring American society as a whole – it is dividing into increasingly separate camps based loosely along the conservative/liberal continuum.  Denominational politics were fairly hostile (though still in order) through the General Assembly meeting in Birmingham, and have only gotten more hostile since (and less in order).  All of this is a huge turn-off to a potential member – particularly to one who saw human politics overriding the message of Christ in the past.  So far, I have decided that in a particular congregation, these issues are at least buffered and NOT the primary focus.  So I’m willing to give it a try.

The second question was more fun to answer.  I went through a process of attending local churches, interviewing members and staff, and reading anything I could find about them on the Internet.  I ultimately found a church that reminds me very much of the church that I grew up in in many ways.  That could be scary, but I’ve also done as much research as I can and I believe that this church is different from the church that I grew up in where it is important to me.

So, after attending on some Sundays, last week I signed up for New Member classes for the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville NJ.  Those classes take place in late October and early November.

I plan to blog about the process of a former member again joining a Presbyterian church.  I’ll also throw in amusing stories.  I do not plan to be a blogger who hides his name or church in order to be able to talk about people anonymously.  Because of that, I will probably avoid mentioning controversial issues or controversial people, unless I’m willing to make my views known publicly.

Wish me luck.