OH. Hmmm.

July 23, 2008 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

This weekend, I’m off with 3 other adults, 2 college students, and something like 8 or so high school youth to the Montreat Youth Conference (week VI) at the Montreat Conference Center in (you guessed it) Montreat, NC.

I’ve been a little nervous about this trip.  So much so that I think I’m annoying our youth director with questions, which he is patiently answering.  I don’t have any good reason to be nervous.  I trust the youth director and the other adults going on the trip.  The college students and youth going on the trip are great and I expect fewer than average problems with them or their behavior (as compared to what I read on Youth Ministry websites).  I’ve heard nothing but good things about the place and the conference from a large number of people.

I’ve been telling myself that the reason that I’m nervous is that the last time I went to a church youth conference was the Youth Triennium in 1986 – when I WAS a youth.  That I was just worried about whether the 40-year-old air-conditioning-loving, out-of-shape, used-to-sleeping-in-his-own-room me could keep up.

While shaving this morning it hit me.

Triennium wasn’t the last time I went to a church youth conference.

Several months after Triennium, I went to a weekend retreat sponsored by some of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s NJ chapters.  Here’s what I wrote about that previously:

Back in 1986, I was a freshman at Rutgers University.  On the first day, I was wandering around campus looking at the booths that various student organizations had set up.  One of them near the Busch Student Center was for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  They were giving away ice cream.  I figured that as a rather religious person (at this point I was already a deacon and serving on two Synod committees) I should take a look and find a campus christian fellowship.  The local Campus Crusade for Christ seemed too fundamentalist for me, so I tried out InterVarsity.

I have since learned that different chapters of IVCF fall into different places on the  liberal/conservative spectrum.  This chapter was VERY conservative.  One of the first Bible studies on campus taught me that I should not be a friend to any Jews unless I was actively trying to convert them to Christ (“be not unequally yoked”).  Other lessons were similarly extreme.

In October I took a retreat with them for a weekend in the woods.  It turned out to be a very cult-like situation for me.  The 48-hour retreat turned out to be (as experienced by me) 24 hours of telling me
how terrible my beliefs are, and then once I stopped fighting them, 24 hours of pouring in their own beliefs.  As expected, those beliefs were strongly conservative.

Fortunately, my personality turned out to be strong enough to resist such tactics.  I made the right noises and they stopped treating me as the “resisting” attendee and moved on to other people.  Once I returned to campus, I never went back to their group again.  And as I wrote before, this was the first step in my turn away from the church

This hit me like a ton of bricks today.  My last experience traveling away with youth to a place foreign to me was a negative one.  While I’ve done some overnights with the youth in the past year, those were either at the church or at Camp Johnsonburg where I felt very comfortable and always knew that I had the ability to leave (since it was at home or I was driving my vehicle).  I wasn’t miles away from home without control over my movements.

Having realized what has been going on in my head, I feel much more comfortable now.  I’m shifting rapidly from nervous to excited.  This is going to be fun!

It’s amazing how things from your past can influence the way you perceive the present.  Not a new lesson for me (by a long shot), but a newly reinforced lesson.

If you or anybody you know will be at Montreat for 7/27-8/1, leave a comment or send an e-mail.  I’d love to say Hi.

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.

Another Roundup

August 3, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion, Work 

I’d like to apologize to my readers for the lack of deeply thoughtful articles of late.  Life and work are a bit busy at the moment and I only have time for these roundups.

Work
I’m on the old laptop, reloaded from scratch.  I’ve been told today that I’m getting a new one in the next few weeks.  Given that this one was nearly top of the line when we bought it in 2000 or 2001 – it’s time.  Company culture issues aren’t touching me as much as they had been a while back.  One of the “problem children” has resigned and another in a different state has been told that her job is moving to my location by spring and her department reorganized.  Given that and a few other things I can’t mention here it’s unlikely that she’ll be here by then.  It’s unfortunate when people lose their jobs, but in some cases it’s necessary – anybody who consistently and willfully provides negative productivity (not only are they not productive, they make others less productive) needs to go.

Church
I had a good meeting with with the Youth and Young Adult council this week.  We’re getting ready for the new year.  We talked a lot about the philosophy of how we lead/schedule the group and some possible changes.  The one thing that was a common thread was consistency – that each weekly meeting follow the same pattern and that we choose simple and meaningful as opposed to trying to do a major production each week.  This follows the trend in Youth Ministry nationally to move away from the “let’s bring in new converts” blockbuster events of the 80’s and 90’s and for most the over-30 crowd in the council represents a step back to what they experienced as a youth.  We’re also talking about changing the names of the groups.  Right now they are CHAOS (Christians Hanging Around On Sunday) for the Senior Highs and WILDLIFE (which is an acronym nobody can remember off the top of their heads) for the Junior Highs.  The youth director wants to de-emphasize the chaotic aspects of the names and I agree.  We’re going to see what the youth want early this fall.

The youth director also asked me if I wanted to help lead the Confirmation Class.  This year is the first year doing the class for 9th grade youth (it had been 8th grade, and last year there was no class due to the switch).  I’m honored to be asked, a little uncertain about my ability and the strength of my faith being sufficient, and probably nearly overbooked already.  The Welcome and Outreach Task Force is about to get started, I’ll still be working with the Senior Highs weekly and attending the YAYA council once a month, and the confirmation class is every other week for 8 months plus 3 weekend retreats (one just overnight).  I’ve asked the youth director to lay out time expectations, and perhaps I can be a guest speaker on topics that I know well (polity would be one, and I’m sure that there are a few others).

The Lawrenceville church and a Princeton church (I think it’s Nassau Presbyterian) are putting together a new young adult event called Theology On Tap.  It’s the 2nd Thursday of each month (starting September) in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room of the Nassau Inn in Princeton at 8pm.  The idea is for 20’s/30’s somethings to get together and share a drink (alcohol optional), fellowship, and talk about theology.  You can find more information HERE, or in the Theolodoodle group on Facebook.  I barely qualify by age, but it’s intriguing enough to me that I’ll probably attend at least the first session.

The youth director also told me a freaky coincidence story.  He was at Triennium 2 weeks ago, sitting with a woman minister friend of his.  She was working on a sermon.  On the table she had laid out a Bible, some books, a few printed e-mails, and one printed blog post.  My director asked, “Can I look at that?” and picked up the blog post.  You’ve probably guessed by now – it was one of mine (either from here or a comment elsewhere).  He started laughing and when she asked why he explained:  “This is one of my adult advisors.”  Since Triennium was attended by youth from all over the world, he claims that I’m now internationally famous!  Somehow I doubt that, but I’m glad that folks are finding worth in my ramblings.

Life
All is well, but we’re so busy with other people’s events (family, camp, church) that we’re neglecting work around the house.  The outdoor trim needs to be painted, the garden needs weeding badly, and the driveway needs to be sealed.  We need to decide whether or not to pay someone to do some of these things (we can afford to) or to stop our commitments and just get it done.

We also need to be sure that we get some downtime.

Back to the Future

February 9, 2007 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

This weekend, I go Back to the Future – reliving part of my life.  How?  I’m helping out with Sr. High Youth Group at church.

Back in my youth (as I’ve said before many times), I was heavily involved in church.  Part of that included being probably the most regular member of the Sr. High youth group.  My freshman year, I was probably the only one who wasn’t a junior or senior in the group – we didn’t have an Associate Pastor at the time so some of the more recent young adults were running the group.  I think we had maybe 4 or 5 people.  As I got older, we got a great Associate Pastor who had youth ministry as one of his specialties.  We then grew to a solid 8 to 10 by the time I graduated (this in a church that drew about 200 attendees at Sunday services).  I enjoyed going every Sunday evening.  My parents had it easy – the Associate Pastor’s manse was around the corner from our house so I always had a ride to and from church (or actually to church and from Friendly’s after youth group).

My youth group involvement grew into becoming a deacon, attending the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in 1986, and being a Youth Advisory Delegate to the Synod.  One of the most fun weeks of my life happened when I was working at Camp Johnsonburg as a CIT.  One summer, I got to be the 3rd counselor in a work camp unit, with my Associate Pastor as a co-counselor and kids from my youth group in the unit.  Helping to serve communion (deacons were allowed to do that back then) at Triennium and at work camp were very meaningful for me.  This left me sufficient engaged with the church that I headed to college planning to make either religion or computer science my major (with the other my minor).

Then some stuff happened that I’ve written about before and I left the church.  However, it was my ties to youth group experiences – particularly camp – that drew me back almost 20 years later.

So …. this weekend I’ll be volunteering with the CHAOS (Christians Hanging Around On Sundays) Senior High youth group at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church.  Alicia from my church, camp, and who worked with me leading the Reconnecting with Faith retreat (she’s the redhead at the left end of the group photo below) talked to me about getting more involved at church and suggested helping out with this group.

I admit to some fears.  While I used to work with youth once upon a time, at the time I more or less WAS a youth.  It’s been 20 years, and my youth relational skills are gonna be very rusty.  I don’t have any reason to have contact with kids of any age on a regular basis.  (I know, be yourself and the kids will respond.)  The good news is that the other youth advisors that I know are great people, and I’m sure somebody will be able to backstop me if I falter.

Wish me luck!  If it works out, you may see more posts here about this group.  If not, well, you’ll probably see an “it didn’t work out” post and that’ll be that.

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.