An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body… The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston voted narrowly on Sunday to remain with the Presbyterian Church USA over a breakaway evangelical denomination. The alternative denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO — advocates a stricter interpretation of the Bible and prohibits openly gay clergy.
A supermajority (67%) was required for the congregation to leave the PCUSA. They fell just 36 votes short, with about 64.5% voting to leave. What this means is that despite a comfortable majority wanting to leave, they’re staying put.
Close votes are painful in the church. I know many people, from all over the theological spectrum, who are praying for First Pres, regardless of whether we see eye to eye with them on biblical interpretation. I don’t agree with First Presbyterian Church’s leadership on many issues. I agree with them that the PCUSA has changed, but I don’t agree that they (we) have strayed from the fundamentals. We are body of Christians who are “reformed, and always being reformed.”
But the congregation does good ministry too. And I feel for them wholeheartedly.
They will either find a way to move forward together, or they will split. And that hurts.
I’ll be returning to the PCUSA’s General Assembly this summer, this time as a commissioner (I’ve been an observer a few times). As I think about what we’ll be doing in Detroit, I think about the many church votes I’ve witnessed and taken part in. I remember a GA vote to overturn our denomination’s ordination standards prohibiting lesbian and gay clergy and officers. The vote was close. Very close. When the results flashed on the screen, there was a sharp intake of breath. There almost always is in close votes. (It’s right up there with the murmur that people make when someone shares a powerful story—not quite an Amen, I call it the Presbyterian Moo.)
Now, the gasp at a close vote can mean a lot of things—relief on the part the “winning side,” lament from those who lost so narrowly. But in the church, it’s also an expression of pain that we are not of one mind and heart on significant issues. The gasp is a realization that change, when it happens, is so hotly contested, yet so incremental. And yes, it’s a sympathetic cry of pain even from those whose point of view prevailed.
It’s hard for some people outside the church to understand that. The non-religious people I know, for whom the full humanity of LGBT persons is indisputable, sometimes find it puzzling that we’d be hurting for a congregation that wants to leave our denomination in part because of their apparent unwillingness to embrace that full humanity. “How are you not condoning bigotry?” they ask me.
First, I don’t find the label productive. It’s a non-starter.
Second, and more important: that sharp intake of breath is part of our witness. It’s not our only one: I expect that marriage equality will come to the PCUSA this summer, or perhaps two years from now, and rather than being a departure from our fundamentals, I personally see that as a faithful expression of them. And that action will be, I hope, a witness to the world.
But that sharp intake of breath matters too. In a world where we “like” Facebook statuses that we agree with, only ensuring that we see more of the same—in a world where cable news and blogs tell us exactly what we want to hear—in a world where narcissistic trolls have taken over internet comments such that meaningful back-and-forth debate is an endangered species—our unity in the Holy Spirit, in the bonds of peace, is a witness too.
We’re officially in a season in the Dana household when there is so much going on it’s actually comical. My Lenten discipline of “doing nothing extra” could not come at a better time… though it’s often hard to figure out what’s “extra,” and even when one separates the wheat from the chaff, there is still more to do than time to do it.
So here’s a quick Friday Link Love. Maybe like me you need a little palate cleanser between must-do tasks. Hope these bring a little joy and inspiration.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time will probably make a much smaller splash than Evans’s book even though it is one of the most helpful and well-conceived books on spirituality I’ve ever read.
In the aftermath of a major disaster, it’s hard for aid workers to know what’s happening on the ground, and to direct resources where they are needed most. That’s when text messaging and social media can help. By analyzing tweets and other snippets, it’s possible to see trends–say, where people are trapped, or where there are water shortages–and do something about them.
The issue is the analysis part, says Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower, a San Francisco company that finds people online willing to do “micro tasks” (normally for commercial purposes). One, you’ve got a huge amount of data to sift through, and not a lot of time. And two, all the text might be in a language–or filled with local references–that you don’t understand. You need some way of crunching it quickly, using people who aren’t put off by colloquial or foreign terms.
Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, and a member of a group called the Digital Humanitarian Network, says crowdsourcing can help. Following last December’s Typhoon Pablo, in the Philippines, DHN identified 20,000 relevant tweets, and then called on CrowdFlower to find volunteers to make the first assessment. The groups identified, one, messages with links to photos and video, and, two, messages that referred to damage that could be geo-tagged. From about 100 tweets, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) could then build a map plotting damaged houses and bridges, flooding, and so on.
A Presbyterian minister who helped resolve bloody conflicts in Sudan reflects on his long career of peacemaking in America and Africa.
Bill Lowrey is a friend and colleague here in the greater DC area an amazing inspiration. I love that Faith and Leadership saw fit to feature him on their site. People who think that Christianity is nothing but hate and intolerance need to read about this fine man who has quietly and humbly devoted his life to peace and justice.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 16, 2012
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Some years ago I taught a class during Advent on the mother of Jesus, called “There’s Something about Mary.” (I may need to reprise that sometime here at IPC!) During the class we looked at how Mary has been portrayed in art and in music:
“Gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,” according to one hymn.
“Gentle Mary” laid her child in a manger, says another.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” speaks of the “maiden’s bliss.”
“Mary was that mother mild,” we sing in “Once in Royal David’s City.”
Ah, gentle Mary—mild, meek, the handmaiden of the Lord, head bowed in reverence. Can’t you see her there on so many paintings, stained glass windows, icons and Christmas cards?
There’s certainly scriptural support for this view of a demure mother of Jesus. When Mary asks, “How will it be that this child will come to me?” the angel answers, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s that word, overshadow. Gentle Mary, meek and mild, will be diminished even further by God’s power, who will overshadow her.
But then… there’s this song.
It’s an improvisation of the song Hannah sings in the Old Testament after the birth of her son Samuel. But it is not a sweet lullaby. It is a battle cry, bold and defiant.
God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Does that sound meek and mild to you?
* * *
My friend and colleague Michael Kirby tells me that several years ago, someone began stealing the baby Jesuses from outdoor manger scenes in his Chicago neighborhood. It turned out to be a prank, and the figurines were later found in a woman’s yard, 32 of them, sorted by size and type. Unfortunately, many people coming to claim their figures tried to walk away with a “nicer” Jesus than the one they’d had. “They were trading up,” he said. “Everybody wanted the freshly painted, unfaded baby.”
Mary would not approve of such cheap attempts at an upgrade.
“[God] has lifted up the lowly,” she sings. God has looked with favor upon the dingy, the faded, the forlorn and discarded figures of this world.
…Because Mary’s song, at the heart of it, is a song of defiance, in the tradition of the old African-American spirituals and of protest songs. It is “We Shall Overcome”; it is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” It is a dissent against the way things are. It is a counter-testimony to the dysfunction that passes for normal in our world.
Mary sings this song, because her pregnancy itself is God’s act of dissent against worldly power. God did not choose a queen, a wealthy noblewoman to bear the Messiah. God chose an unmarried peasant girl. God assessed the demands of the world and expectations of a king that would come in strength and might and prestige and said, “No, I’d just as soon not.” And in her song Mary echoes this divine No:
No to the proud and their haughty ways.
No to hunger that goes unfed.
No to suffering unrelieved.
No, no, no.
We’ve had a lot of occasions to say no this past week. I shared last Sunday about a friend whose son took his life at the age of 14. The moderator of our denomination, Cindy Bolbach, died on Wednesday after a cruel and relentless cancer. And of course, there is Sandy Hook Elementary School. To each of these, especially the last, and to countless other injustices, atrocities and heartbreaks we say No. No. No. And we do not say it meek and mild. We say it with clenched fist. We say it in protest. We say it loud and with a catch in our voice.
No, by the way, to the idea that God let this madness happen because we no longer pray in school. Like clockwork, the political and religious pundits have suggested exactly that. Imagine what kind of a God that is. A narcissistic thug who would allow such carnage because we don’t pray in the time and place and manner that God specifies. No.
And if I were ever to find out that that’s the kind of being God is, I think I’d have to renounce my ordination and go sell insurance, because that God and I would be finished.
* * *
So say No we must. But it’s not enough to say No. Lament is not enough. Heartbreak is not enough. Mary didn’t stop with a song. She embodied her song in her devotion to God; she lived that song as a witness to the God who is surprising and surpassingly good. And so must we. Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and it did. And so our lives must magnify, enlarge, make clear, the goodness of our God.
Right now, it’s hard to see anything but the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. But slowly, slowly, the stories are coming out of ordinary heroism and great sacrifice. Stories of average people whose lives were magnifiers of love and peace. The teacher who lost her life shielding her students from harm. Or the teacher who piled her class into a restroom and told them to be very quiet… but who also took the time to say how much she loved each of them—so that if this was the end, at least they would hear words of love. Thankfully, they all survived.
There will be more stories like this, coming out of Newtown.
And there must be more stories like this, from Newtown and from Falls Church and from everywhere that good people curse the darkness and long for the light. Our laments are insufficient without action, what my friend Roy this week called “embodied prayer.” There is too much violence, too many guns making their way into the wrong hands. There are too many disturbed people slipping through the cracks rather than receiving the mental health care they need. Time and perspective will guide us into a faithful response. But respond we must.
* * *
If my Facebook feed is any indication, there were a lot of preachers who burned the midnight oil last night. What does one say? What can one say? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that this is “Joy” Sunday, a word that seems to taunt us, especially if we let ourselves imagine 26 families, and many more, who will never be the same again. And yet, as a friend reminded me last night, joy is not the same as happiness. There is always a touch of heartbreak in joy, because joy is hard-earned. C.S. Lewis, who “Joy is distinct… from pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
It’s that longing in the midst of joy that we hear from Mary’s lips. Mary sings for the weak and the lowly, the poor and the hungry. And there is a stubbornness to Mary. She’s no fool, after all. She must look around and see rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Surely she must see the powerful comfortably on their thrones and the lowly begging for food. She is singing of a world that does not yet exist, but still could.
And Mary invites that same holy stubbornness to erupt from our own hearts and lives.
We must refuse to be defeated.
We must refuse to let the darkness win.
We must refuse to let Friday’s atrocities be the lasting legacy of our age.
Yesterday at Cindy Bolbach’s memorial service, we closed with a hymn. Not the Magnificat, but a similar protest song, a song of Martin Luther. We sang it defiantly, we sang it stubbornly, we sang it vigorously, we sang it in honor of our friend who loved it so, and we sang it for the children of Newtown, Connecticut.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.
This weekend I listened to a Splendid Table episode featuring artist Jon Rubin. Rubin co-founded Conflict Kitchen, which is a storefront take-out place in Pittsburgh that rotates its menu every six months to highlight the cuisine of a country with which the United States is in conflict. From their website:
Our current Iranian version [of the restaurant] introduces our customers to the food, culture, and thoughts of people living in Iran during a time of increased calls for military intervention by the U.S.. Developed in collaboration with members of the Iranian community, our food comes packaged in custom-designed wrappers that include interviews with Iranians both in Iran and the United States on subjects ranging from street food and popular culture to the current political turmoil.
Rubin talked about using food as an entry point for people to engage with issues and topics that they might normally avoid. Staff are trained in the art of conversation, which is as important as serving up orders and running the cash register. They are educated on the issues, but are not experts. They are equipped to help customers come to a deeper appreciation of the intricacies of the conflict. And of course, consuming the food of a people with whom we are in conflict breaks down the walls a little. This kind of eating cannot help but change us. Whatever happens between our two countries, with every bite, we ingest a bit of empathy.
So friends. Help me think about this as a template for the Lord’s Supper.
Many of us celebrate World Communion Sunday in October by using different types of bread from around the world. That’s lovely. But a Conflict Kitchen-inspired Eucharist would go deeper and be potentially more transformative. I imagine that the tablecloth, furnishings, blessings and prayers would be indigenous to a specific part of the world, bearing something of the complexity of the situation. How poignant it would be to have the table set with these items that bespeak of conflict, and then to share bread and wine at that table. Such eating is a liturgical act of hope, a leaning into a future that is not yet here—a future of peace.
Final thought: our denomination’s (PCUSA) General Assembly will be in Pittsburgh. How about a field trip?
Image: a recent iteration of Conflict Kitchen, highlighting Venezuela.