Tag Archives: presbyterian

Abound in Hope–A Message for National Capital Presbytery

I was invited to preach at tonight’s meeting of National Capital Presbytery, during which we heard reports from our commissioners to General Assembly. The sermon (more or less) is below.

Also, during small groups I shared a couple of tweets by Niraj Warikoo, a reporter for the Detroit Free-Press who was covering the meeting. Presbyterians can get very self-deprecating about our sometimes tedious parliamentary processes, and I was touched by Mr. Warikoo’s view of our meeting from the outside. Others wanted a copy, so here it is:

“Watching the Presbyterian assembly you see why Protestant-rooted civilizations have been so successful. You see the Protestant sense of time, order, democratic openness, rule of law, & an unending drive to improve themselves & the world.”

Anyway, here’s the sermon:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
National Capital Presbytery
June 24, 2014
Romans 15:4-13

Abound in Hope

4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
10and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
11and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
12and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

~

One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Audie Cornish, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their early 40s can get set in their ways.)

One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 6 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.

Tonight I want to keep that spirit alive, and I’ve enlisted some friends to help me. (Keep in mind that these readers may or may not endorse the words they say!)

“Here were some of the voices in the news this past week”:

Voice 1: “We are not here to fight and divide, but to continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to testify to the transforming power of his love that is available to everyone. We urge you in the strongest possible way to refrain from actions, attitudes, and language that would mar the image of Christ in your response to the Assembly’s actions.”

Voice 2: “You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions.  You should refuse to fund the General Assembly, your synod, your presbytery and even your local church if those bodies have not explicitly and publicly repudiated these unbiblical actions. God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God.”

Voice 3: “We pray that the discussions that will take place around amending the Book of Order in the coming year can be vehicles for healthy conversation about what it means to be church together, even with deep disagreement.”

Voice 4: “Divestment is not the end, it’s the beginning of non-violent means to fight the oppression of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Voice 5: “The decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups PCUSA. We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities… to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.”

(Thank you all for reading the words of others, and in some cases, giving voice to sentiments you don’t agree with!)

Part of the fun of Voices in the News on NPR was trying to figure out who was speaking and what they were talking about. I will save you that mystery and say we heard words from the Fellowship of Presbyterians, the Layman, the Covenant Network, former GA moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, and a spokesman for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

As for what they were all talking about: if you managed to miss the news about GA via CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or heck, even the Springfield Shopper, you’re going to hear about it in our breakout groups with our GA commissioners in a few moments. Suffice to say that some people are elated, others are furious, some are elated about the one thing and furious about the other, some are proud of their denomination for speaking prophetically and at great risk, some are wondering why we even weigh in on half the stuff we weigh in on, some have been looking for any excuse to leave, some are trying their hardest to stay, some have been waiting for a decision for years, some wanted just two more years to study the matter.

In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations: Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.

Oh Paul, you ask hard things of us! One voice? The divestment vote passed by seven votes! Even the marriage decisions, as decisive as they were, left 30-40% of commissioners in opposition. Do you detect a lot of harmony in the voices we just heard? We are not a well-tuned barbershop quartet, glorifying God with our tight chords. At best we are one of those 12-tone pieces by Schoenberg or some other 20th century composer. If you’ve taken music theory and listen really hard with your head cocked just so, you can hear a unity and coherence to the notes. But 12-tone music is more appreciated than it is loved. It’s probably not going to be your choice of soundtrack for a dinner party or your first dance at the wedding reception. And it’s not likely to fill its listeners with all joy and peace in believing so that they will abound in hope. It’s more likely to leave people cringing with their hands over their ears.

You will hear from our commissioners in a moment about what happened at GA. What I hope they will convey, and what I wish to convey, is that the debate was vigorous, and intense, but also prayerful and respectful. That matters.

Personally, I call it a success that we made it through the marriage debate without hearing the words pedophilia or bestiality. And nobody in the Middle East debate got compared to Hitler. Now I realize that’s setting the bar pretty low. But it’s bar we haven’t always cleared in this presbytery or at General Assembly, so kudos to us!

But regardless of how we made the decisions we did, the decisions themselves have consequence. And we are not of one mind and one voice. And what makes our current situation more challenging, especially here in this presbytery when it comes to the Middle East, is that folks who are used to agreeing with one another don’t agree about divestment. It’s one thing to be colleagues in Christ when you see eye to eye on a whole laundry list of social issues. It’s much harder when those colleagues disagree on something that feels so fundamental. This is going to put our unity to the test. (And at this point our loyal conservative minority is thinking, “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”)

And still, despite all of this, I do have hope. Because thank God, our hope is in God, who is the one true author of the joy and peace that we so sorely need.

This is the last section of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It’s a sweeping epistle that has covered everything from the role of the law to the significance of Adam to the interplay between spirit and flesh. It’s no accident that after these weighty matters of the day he winds up where he does, in a place of unity, of welcoming one another, lifting up the steadfastness of the Christ we meet in scripture. But this is not quite his last word to the church. Later in this chapter Paul acknowledges that he has “written rather boldly,” or what the Message calls “bold and blunt criticism.” There is an edge to Paul’s words; they are not all sweetness and light. Deep issues are at stake. So Paul must feel like it’s possible to do both: To be bold and even blunt with one another, to say “here’s where I see God at work in our church,” but also to do the “one-anothering” that Jesus calls us to do.

But how do we live with that tension between the call for unity and the deep disagreements we have? Maybe we need an image to guide us. And the one that comes to mind is from an old Looney Tunes cartoon. (Stick with me.)

Those of you who’ve been to GA know is the exhibit hall, where you have booths for the different affinity groups. Whoever’s in charge of the placement of those booths has a godly sense of humor, because the groups that are diametrically opposed to one another often end up side by side. And it’s not unusual to see someone at one booth chatting amiably with someone the next booth over. And when I see that, I always think of Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog.

For those who don’t remember these characters, Ralph the Wolf looks like Wile E. Coyote and Sam is of course a Sheepdog. Ralph’s goal is to steal the sheep for his dinner, often with the help of various products from the Acme Corporation. And Sam’s job is to guard the sheep and keep Ralph from doing that, often with the help of his big doggie fists. Slapstick gold.

But what’s funny about the Ralph and Sam cartoons is that they’re not enemies. In fact, if you remember, they begin each morning by greeting each other: “Morning Ralph. Morning Sam.” They meet each other at the punch clock and they each punch their time card and go to work. And here they are, taking a lunch break together as friends before they go back to doing what it is they do.

Sam_and_ralph

Now, my point is not that one side is stealing sheep and the other is the benevolent guard! But maybe the kingdom of God is something like this. We have divisions. But we can decide whether we want to be a divided church. We will continue to address controversy, but it need not be cantankerous. The councils of our church will continue to hash out issues. We will line up at microphones, offering our best arguments and scriptural support for our position. We will be bold and sometimes blunt. And when it’s time to break bread together we will do so, as we did every single day of General Assembly, welcoming one another just as Christ welcomed us.

The things we decide matter. But do we believe that God holds our future or not? Do we believe that God works through our deliberations and beyond them, within us and without us, through us and in spite of us? Do we believe that God is not finished with us?

I do. I believe that God has got this.

And that belief is the  peace that Jesus promises, not as the world gives. That kind of peace can only be dreamed up by a wildly imaginative God… a God of joy, steadfastness and hope.

Abound in Hope… in a Church Business Meeting?

GA-Abound-Hope-2014Over at John Wilkinson’s General Assembly website, John writes about this year’s GA theme, Abound in Hope, and specifically where his personal story has encountered hope. I hope you’ll go check it out, then share your own stories of hope on his Facebook page.

With this post I want to go in a different direction, riffing on the theme of General Assembly, “Abound in Hope,” by answering a question some of you may be asking:

General Assembly has themes?

Why yes it does! The theme is designed to provide some scriptural grounding for the proceedings—it shows up in worship and in other ways. And “Abound in Hope” is a great theme. So energetic!

There is plenty of hand-wringing over membership statistics and declining budgets and churches leaving the denomination. And yes, we need to think long and hard about how we do ministry and what it means to be faithful in the 21st century. But our hope is not in innovative approaches and fresh ideas. Our hope is in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, which existed way before the Presbyterian Church was a twinkle in John Knox’s eye.

So how can commissioners, GA participants, and observers keep Hope at the forefront of what will be a very intense week at GA? Consider this some friendly advice from someone who’s been there as an observer and a former Theological Student Advisory Delegate.

  • Attend worship each day, or as much as possible. Yes, you will be tired, and tempted to worship at Bedside Baptist. But worship will serve to ground you, and I suspect, will give you eyes to see and ears to hear the ways that hope is abounding in the work of that day.
    ~
  • Do an examen each day, with a focus on hope. The Ignatian examen is a wonderful practice in which you reflect on the previous day and ask questions like “Where did I see God today? Where did I feel distant from God?” or “Where did I feel alive today? Where did I feel energy draining from me?” How about questions like “Where did I see Christ’s hope expressed? Where did hope seem to be absent?” The good thing about this practice is it can be done in just a matter of moments, as you drift off to sleep.
    ~
  • Enlist a friend from back home. It’s easy to get insulated at GA—there’s so much to see and do. So how about asking a colleague, your pastor (if you’re a ruling elder) or a friend to send you short hope-filled texts each day about what’s happening back home? There’s nothing like a picture of the mid-week children’s program or an anecdote from the Tuesday tutoring ministry to help remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing.
    ~
  • Let yourself be pushed. Be open. I’m reading Anne Lamott’s lovely book Stitches, which has tons of “hope quotes” in it. But this one’s my favorite, from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” We will come to GA with our own convictions and commitments, but we also need to remember that God is not finished with any of us. I
    ~

What do you say? Where do you see hope alive, and how do you keep focused on hope when life gets busy and intense? Hope you’ll share here or on our Facebook page.

Presbyterians: Be At This Thing.

The 2014 NEXT Church National Gathering will be in Minneapolis.

Yes, Minneapolis.

But come on. Polar Vortex will be a distant memory by then! The weather will be just fine in early April…

NEXT Church is a conversation within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that seeks to inspire and nurture creative and vibrant ministry for a changing cultural context.

That’s a mouthful. Here’s the gist: The way we do church is changing. It must change, it will change. What better way to live toward that change than to gather with other pastors, church professionals, ruling elders and other leaders to celebrate, think, grow, and challenge one another?

Check out NEXT Church’s website and explore our articles and initiatives. I am proud to serve as co-chair of this growing organization.

What does NEXT mean to me? I cherish the support, inspiration, accountability and ideas that the NEXT conversation offers me as a small-church pastor.  But there’s one phrase from the mission statement that tugs at me above all:

...the church that is becoming.

The national gathering March 31-April 2 will be focused on the church that is becoming. There’s a spirit of adventure in NEXT Church, an excitement and trust that our best days are still ahead of us.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 3.40.37 PM

We’ve got a great keynote team, several workshops around the themes “lead, create, discern,” testimonies of how the church is stepping out in bold faithfulness right now, and lots more. What’s probably most vital about the NEXT gathering is the community that gets built “in the margins” of the schedule. The conference team has built even more time for breaks, informal conversations, and Open Space than in past years.

I invite you to come to Minneapolis this spring. You will dream big and come home energized.

Read more about the leadership and workshops. Check out the schedule.

And register here. Hotel info here.

P.S. There are also regional gatherings coming up in Richmond (February 1) and in the Baltimore/DC area (February 22). I will be at both and if you’re nearby, I hope you will be too.

 

I’m Not Married to My Church, Are You?

I was with a group of folk from another congregation recently, introducing them to NEXT Church and talking about my involvement as co-chair. We got to talking about generational differences when it comes to membership in an institution, particularly a church. Millenials are way less wired toward joining a group in the sense of signing on the dotted line. In many cases they are committed to the organization and will support it through time and money, but they do not see the point of being a member.

I made an offhand comment about churches that have people re-commit to church membership every year. Rather than having someone join and be a member of a church “forever,” there is an annual discernment process. The church leadership re-introduces folks to what it means to be a member (and presumably, the expectations are high), and asks people to consider whether they are willing to devote the time and energy toward that endeavor. As always, non-members are welcome to worship and serve in the community, to receive pastoral care, etc.

There was some predictable backlash to this idea, some of which I can understand. There are times in a church’s life when things just aren’t that much fun. A beloved pastor leaves and the energy declines. There are conflicts and crises. Are we saying it’s OK for people to bail just because things get hard, or because the church is not suiting their needs?

And yes, our culture is one in which ties to institutions and communities are more tenuous than ever. So people are right to ask whether a yearly church membership drive feeds that lack of commitment. OR, does it simply acknowledge the world as it is, not as we want it to be? People can carp all they want about “kids today,” but how does that work as an evangelism strategy?

One comment really grabbed me: What, are people going to get married year by year now? I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to question that analogy. But now, a few days later… No. Just no.

Church membership is not like a marriage. It’s just not. Don’t believe me? Consider this: when a person relocates because of a job, there is often grief over leaving one’s church. But rarely does someone pass up that job because they have made a commitment to their worshiping community. But I know plenty of people who have done that because a move would be bad for their spouse or family.

We use the marriage analogy all the time in the church. Pastors seeking another call feel like they’re “cheating on their church,” like they’re “running around behind people’s backs.” I can relate to the sentiment—there is a zone of secrecy that must be present in these situations, and it can feel inauthentic and sneaky. Still, I find these kinds of metaphors very unhelpful. Pastors are not called to a church until death do they part. They are called for a season of the church’s life. And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there is at least a minimal sense of re-upping each year, in the sense of negotiating and re-approving terms of call.

Why would we not at least consider giving church members the same freedom to reaffirm their commitment to a congregation that pastors themselves have? Why do we get to leave whenever we feel the winds of the Spirit blowing, but church members are on the hook for the rest of their lives?

The real crux of this membership stuff is not people’s lack of commitment. It’s that the church has done a poor job of teaching discernment and discipleship.

Discernment: sensing the presence and leading of God, which goes beyond what makes me happy in the moment.

And discipleship: commitment to following the Way of Jesus, even when it’s hard, even when it means being in a community with people who are sometimes a pain to deal with.

A church that does a good job of this doesn’t need to worry about a mass exodus of people if the interim’s a boring preacher.

And a church that does a poor job of this wants to keep warm bodies (or not-so-warm ones) on the rolls any way they can.

Friday Link Love: Tech Overload, Life of Pi, and the Death of Homework?

Away we go!

~

dove-hands12NEXT Church 

I am on the strategy team for the NEXT Church, an initiative that is trying to encourage dynamic and vibrant ministry, particularly in the Presbyterian Church (USA). If that’s something you care about too, you want to be reading our blog, perusing (and contributing to) our archive of ministry resources, and registering for our 2013 gathering, March 4-5 in Charlotte.

Bookmark it! Share it! Love it!

Update: The latest post on the NEXT blog is by yours truly. Yes, I’m getting cranky about not singing Christmas carols during Advent again.

~

Time to Tune Out — Roger Cohen, New York Times

Posted this on FB/Twitter yesterday with the question, “Is disconnecting from technology going to be the new trend?” Here’s the article again:

[The author quotes a reader who unplugged from Facebook] “Now, I am back to reading books when I would have been Facebooking. I talk to folks at the café I frequent. People have started calling me on the phone again to catch up because they don’t know what is going on with me otherwise. I have a hunch that being DISconnected is on its way to being the new trend.”

So here’s to doses of disconnection in 2013. Get out of the cross hairs of your devices from time to time. Drink experience unfiltered by hyperconnection. Gaze with patience. Listen through silences. Let your longings breathe.

Take a tech sabbath!

~

Can Faith in the Better Story Sustain Us? Survival and Significance in “Life of Pi” — Nick Olson, Patheos

Life-of-Pi

Life of Pi is a story about Story, which means I love it:

Taken together, Life of Pi‘s various themes seem to suggest a longing for human significance couched in vaguely religious language. It’s a contemplative tale rooted in questions with room for open-ended interpretation. More specifically, Lee’s film — as an extension of Martel’s novel — suggests that our difficult, often tragic lives matter in a way that cold “facts” can’t totally explain. You might characterize the story as a “desperate” (survivalist) attempt to re-enchant a supposedly disenchanted modern world. Interestingly, in an interview with PBS, Martel says that he wrote his novel during a time when he felt lost: “I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small ‘s’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’ — something that would direct my life.” Martel’s existential plight seems to have been Pi’s shipwrecked plight: lonely and directionless. Having “faith” in this particular context has a less specific range; its content is the simple belief that our lives — suffering included — are filled with meaning, purpose, and wonder. Which is to say, in Life of Pi, the religious and literary imaginations merely function as signals of the truth of significance itself, a “better Story” compared to a disenchanted, cold rationalism because there is more to humanity and existence than meets the eye.

~

Isaac Newton v. Rube Goldberg — 2D House (Video, 1:07)

Who will win the battle? Why, you will, because you’ll be wonderfully entertained. Here it is. (Can’t embed for some reason)

~

Today’s Assignment — Louis Menand, The New Yorker

Is homework useful? The article looks at attitudes about homework in two very different countries, Finland and South Korea.

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead. When President Hollande promises to end homework, make the school day shorter, and devote more teachers to disadvantaged areas, he is saying that he wants France to be more like Finland. His reforms will work only if that is, in fact, what the French want.

What do Americans want? Not to be like Finland is a safe guess. Americans have an egalitarian approach to inequality: they want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else.

That’s one of the truer sentences about the American Dream I’ve ever read. He goes on:

The dirty little secret of education reform is that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is household income. Even the standardized tests used for college admissions, like the S.A.T.s, are essentially proxies for income: students from better-off backgrounds get higher scores. The educational system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity and social readjustment, but in some ways it operates as a perpetuator of the status quo.

~

An Age-Old Question: Readers Debate Science and Theology — New York Times

The author, Nicholas Wade, wrote a reflection on Marco Rubio’s recent comments about the age of the earth. These are some of the responses to that article, which I found interesting. Here’s one:

In calling Senator Marco Rubio’s answer to a question about the age of the earth “15 back flips and a hissy fit,” Nicholas Wade grossly misdescribed the answer quoted earlier in his article. Mr. Rubio’s answer was a simple and ordinary evasion. It left room for Mr. Rubio’s religious right supporters to hope that he will support teaching the Bible in science class, while leaving himself room not to appear to be an outright science denier, to appease his more scientific supporters.

Possibly, the article should have been put in the political news section rather than the science section; the scientific truth of the theory of evolution has not been news since about 1859.

I’m not sure whether it was a simple evasion or not, but it seems plausible.

~

“Couponing” for Authors — J.L. Greger, Mystery Writing is Murder

This link is going to be most of interest for writers; if that’s you, check it out. The author describes a process by which she collects stories, data and tidbits that might be inspiration for a bit of writing.

Good principles here. But the main reason I’m linking to the article: it gives me yet another chance to profess my love for Evernote. I have several notebooks set up at the moment, in which I’m couponing ideas for new book projects.

~

A 120-Year-Old Mechanical Device that Perfectly Mimics the Sound of a Bird — Colossal

Get out the headphones or turn up your speakers and prepare to be impressed by archaic 19th century engineering.

Delightful:

~

Have a wonderful weekend.