Thursday, June 22, 2006

Future General Assembly Requirements


From now on, all General Assemblies must be held in cities with Major League Baseball teams.

Restaurants MUST be in walking distance.

The only talk about sex and ordination at General Assembly should be something dirty my wife whispers to me.

Bloggers should have a designated space in the exhibition hall so we can meet face to face.

Solitare games must be removed from Commissioners laptops -- don't commissioners know the press sit right behind them?


My Presbytery Executive walks up to me and has to be introduced to me. "Oh, I didn't recognize you now that you have grown a beard," she tells me. Should I say, "Yep, grew it in 1971?" I've been on Presbytery Council. COM. CPM. I'm at Presbytery office almost every month. Geeee....


OK, I'm home. I'm ready to celebrate the fact that the Miami Heat is the BEST team in the NBA.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Evaluating the Moderator

I supported Joan Gray for Moderator, but it is sometimes painful to watch her moderate the General Assembly. Vice Moderator Wilson is doing a much better job.

She needs to move more quickly if we are to finish on time -- well, this is not the first time that's been said of a moderator of a GA.

She often recognizes two negatives or two positives in a row -- it is supposed to be alternating pros and cons among the speakers and debators.

She often - very often - loses her place in what we are voting for, mistaking a call for the question vote as a vote on the main motion -- but that is one reason we have Cliff sitting next to her.

She does not do well in the press conferences. "She waffles" is a comment I've heard from the More Light Presbyterians, and I think they may be right. She avoids clear answers because clear answers upset one side or the other -- well, vague answers frustrate everyone.

A buddy of mine who knows Joan told me today, "She's no Rick." Well, Rick was a great moderator. He didn't do all that well at the GA meeting and often needed Cliff's help. Perhaps Joan will shine after the meeting of GA.

Parker Williamson And Others Start Process For Split In Church

I stood in the hallway last night. We were in front of the Press Room, waiting for a press conference that was to follow the evening's decision on the PUP report. Parker Williamson was there, having conversation in hushed tones, giving careful instructions to a group of people on how they were to orchestrate what today's online edition of the Presbyterian Layman called "an impromptu press conference." The writer says there were more than 100 present. Try 48.

Distributing a prepared statement, the group declared, "This recent decision marks a profound deviation from Biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support or tolerate this decision."

When asked if this meant schism, Parker Williamson declared schism had already happened.

So who is leading the split?

Rev. Richard Burnett, of Constitutional Presbyterians
Rev. Paul Gaug, of Evangelical Presbyterian Pastors Fellowship
Rev. Robert Pitman, of Knox Fellowship
Rev. Sid Rice, of Literacy & Evangelism, International
Rev. David Henderson of the New Wineskins Initiative
Rev. Dean Weaver, of the New Wineskins Initiative
Kristin Johnson, MDiv., of OneByOne
Alan Wisdom, of Presbyterian Action
Terry Schlossberg, of the Presbyterian Coalition
Rev. Susan Cyre, of Presbyterians for Faith, Family & Ministry
Rev. Michael Walker, of Presbyterians For Renewal
Rev. Parker Williamson, of the Presbyterian Lay Committee
Elder Marie Bowen, of Presbyterians Pro-Life
Rev. Brad Long, of Presbyterian Reformed Ministries, International

At the top of the list is the name of Richard Burnett, who is the Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary. He identified himself as a spokesman for the Constitutional Presbyterians. One of the things that organization calls for is for churches to ask, "What will be the future relationship between this session or presbytery and the P.C.(U.S.A.)?"

The Constitutional Presbyterians also urge churches to "evaluate" their giving -- which I take to mean "don't give to the PCUSA." He highlights the work of the new Presbyerian Global Fellowship. I've wondered what this organization was all about. They claim on their web page that "Presbyterian Global Fellowship is not an effort to start a new denomination or to write a new constitution." But with this association with Constitutional Presbyterians, I wonder.

So what did we decide?

According to the Miami Herald: "A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national assembly voted Tuesday to create some leeway for gay clergy and lay officers to serve local congregations, despite a denominational ban on partnered gay ministers. A measure approved 298-221 by a Presbyterian national assembly keeps in place a church law that says clergy and lay elders and deacons must limit sexual relations to man-woman marriage. But the new legislation says local congregations and regional presbyteries can exercise some flexibility when choosing clergy and lay officers of local congregations if sexual orientation or other issues arise."

In other words, not much has changed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A gift to the church

Our standards have not changed -- that is the phrase I keep hearing now that we have adopted the PUP report.

Hopefully, people will accept this and move on with being the church.

As Marge Carpenter, former moderator, said on the floor of the GA, "I'm tired of this conflict. It's getting in way of the church, in the way of mission, in the way of evangelism."

The PUP report has been called a gift to the church. Let's accept it as a gift and move on.

Will We Split

Later today we have the PUP report -- the Peace, Unity and Purity task force report.

I have a fantasy that the report will be approved without debate.

I have a fear that it will be passed by a small margin and that some of the ultra conservatives will split the church. The forces are gathering now for a split. The ground work is being laid.

Professors at Erskine Theological Seminary are sowing seeds -- but I'm not sure for what. Erskine is an ARP seminary -- Associate Reforemed Presbyterian Seminary. Are these professors trying to open the door to their denomination in the hopes that the ultra conservative PCUSA will leave and join them?

Who knows.

And then there is the Layman newspaper. They are talking openly with people about how to pull their congregations out of the denomination with their property.

I lack wisdom to know what will happen.

But I still will remain a minister of the Presbyterian Church USA, and I hope that we will be at peace, have unity, and with both of those somehow find purity.

Monday, June 19, 2006

There is no decent place to eat here!

I've been to several General Assemblies, but I don't remember one that was in a place like this.

There are no decent places to eat here!

The few that are within walking distance are swamped at meal time.

The grill in the Sheraton Hotel takes forever! AND they have a tendancy to lose orders.

And the prices! I feel like I'm eating in a football stadium -- at least that is the price I'm paying for a burger or hot dog.

I do like the Fish Market however -- but to get there you do have to drive :(

Anyone want to meet me for a picnic?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Lord Was Praised

Occasionally worship in my church does not go as planned. The sound system is off. The choir sputters. The Lay Leader loses his place. The sermon falls flat. As I leave the Sanctuary and head for the nearest restaurant, I might exchange glances with the Associate Pastor or the Music Director. "It will be better next week," we seem to say to each other. If we actually say anything, it is often, "The Lord was praised inspite of us."

The highlight for most people attending General Assembly is the worship service. Not all of the little services, but the one big Communion service on Sunday.

As electric guitars played, the choir was unheard until the second or third stanza.

When Robert Wilson led us in prayer, his mike was so poorly adjusted that all we could hear was his breathing until one of the sound team finally brought him a handheld mike.

Communion is usually served by intinction with people getting up and going to a station for the bread and wine, but here the elements were distributed as we remained in our seats -- a bit awkward for some. Volunteers in my section didn't seem to know what to do and I think a row in front of us was missed.

There were a few other glitches, but all in all, the Lord was praised in spite of human frailties.

The choirs were terrific. One group from Africa was particularly good. Yes, the Lord was praised.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

All Of It Is Important

No grand gathering today at General Assembly. Everyone goes into his or her committee, where they will work until tomorrow or Saturday. The commissioners won't gather as a single body again until Monday.

As the committees discuss their business, some of their concerns will be boring. Some will be exciting.

It is all important.

Take "Divestment" for example.

There is a big billboard that commissioners can see as they drive to the Civic Center where the Assembly meets -- "Divestment is not the Road to Peace" -- or something like that.

"What's divestment," Mrs. Apostle John asked me. "Isn't that when Presbytery takes someone's ordination away?"

Well, not in this case.

"Divestment" is a hot button -- one of several at General Assembly.

When it came up in 2004, I thought, "how boring. No one will pay any attention to this."


Let someone mention divestment and people begin to raise their voices, jab index fingers into another person's chest and make bold declarations that often begin with the phrase, "The trouble with you people..."

What is divestment?

The Presbyterian Layman will tell you that divestment is a "resolution called on the denomination to begin phased, selective divestment of corporations that do business with Israel."

Not quite!

Shame on you Layman -- must you always bend the truth?

Divestment is a plan that was approved in 2004 for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest its holdings in companies profiting from Middle East conflict and war.

It is a complicated issue that is made more complex because for many it is an emotional issue.

Yesterday I listened Dr. Judea Pearl implore the Presbyterian Church not to continue with the plan for divestment. Standing with several Jewish men in front of a banner that read, "End Divestment Now," Pearl frequently lost his place in his manuscript. He spoke in angry tones about how the Presbyterian Church has betrayed him and his people.

Pearl is the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded in Pakistan by Islamic terrorists.

In his mind, divestment empowers the Islamic terrorists.

Today, however, I attended a committee meeting that was addressing the issue of whether or not to continue the plan for divestment. One Presbyterian elder, speaking in favor of divestment said, "I can't understand the conflict in the Middle East, and never will. It is beyond my understanding. I don't have the wisdom to know how peace can be established there. But one thing I know, as a church we should not be making money off of the suffering of any people."

Betty Dobson told the committee, "I have no credentials. I'm not a politician or a military strategist. I'm just an American and an elder. Our church went to the Middle East for a short term mission. I stayed in the home of a Palestinian family who lived in fear of a knock at the door and a message that they would have to immediately vacate their as-yet-unfinished home so it could be bulldozed by Israel."

It is not a simple issue.

It is one filled with tragedy and dispair and fear and confusion.

One way or the other, the General Assembly will vote on whether or not to continue divestment.

Someone will rejoice.

Someone will be angry.

Whatever the decision, these pastors and elders who vote will certainly do so prayerfully and with a heavy heart at the stories they have heard.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Who is Blogging GA?

Who else is blogging at General Assembly? I started blogging GA in 2000, and I think there was only one other blogger doing the same from Long Beach that year. Now there seem to be several.

There is an elder commissioner from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Stuart Hill is not at GA, but had sad thoughts at Joan's election.

Terry is an alternate commissioner, and is observing GA. He was also saddened by Joan's election.

Tom is an observer at GA, and he is also saddened by the election of Joan.

Pastor Terry is another voting commissioner.

Colby from Minnesota is also blogging away.

The Eagle and Child is blogging from Birgminham, I believe.

Cheesehead and St Casserole are rooming together.

Quotidian Grace wishes she could be here, but she is doing the next best thing. She is taking it in via streaming video.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

We have a new moderator in our church -- Joan Gray

We have a new moderator -- Joan Gray.

It was not an easy process.

First, there were technical difficulties involving everyone's laptop.

Gone are the notebooks filled with two reams of paper -- we now have LES and a wireless network so we can view documents on screens.


One vote tonight was: all those who have their laptop systems working vote yes, if it is not working, vote no.

The NOs had it by a slim margin.

Fortunately, laptops were not needed for the election of the moderator.

First came the nominating speeches. Each one was limited to 5 minutes, and a countdown on a screen reminded them of the time remaining.

The person nominating Halverson was first. She started by talking about Tim Halverson's 19 year old daughter, and as the speech ended, came back to the daughter by saying that it was 19 year old Helen Halverson who told her Dad he had to run for moderator, telling her Dad, "The church needs you."

A Native American gave the nominating speech for Joan Gray, and she began with an introductory sentence in Spanish. As she continued in English, the person nominating held up Joan's book on church government and said, "Joan not only knows church polity, she wrote the book."

The person nominating Carson said he was a very authentic person, which I found to be very true as I talked with him earlier in the day.

Block's nominator said that his favorite story of Deborah Block was from a 14 year old daughter of a pastor who said, "She is the coolest pastor I've ever known."

After the nomination speeches, the candidates were given an opportunity to give a five minute acceptance speech.

The first to speak was Tim Halverson, who gave what might have been the most dynamic speech of the four candidates. "He's got it in the bag," I thought, as he talked about the church regaining its passion to grow. One of his memorable statements came toward the end when he said, "I would rather fail at doing God's ministry than simply whine and complain that our church is deing. It is time for us to grow. It is time for us to regain our passion."

Tim Halverson was a tough act to follow, and Joan Gray was up next. She did a fair job, but it paled in comparison to Tim.

In her acceptance speech, Joan said, "Polity is not going to save us. One thing will save us and that is a God who makes a way for us." She talked repeatedly about how God makes a way. Joan talked about a church in Greater Atlanta in which God made a way for a small congregation to reach out to the homeless. In talking about her Interim ministry with conflicted churches, Joan said, "Some of them were so broken we disparied if things would ever get better. As long as we focused on fixing the problems of the church we made no progress. Only when we focused on Christ did we start to move forward. God makes a way where there is no way."

Carson's speech was fair as well. Not as dramatic as Tim's, he talked about how it was time for the church to let go of the status quo -- all it had brought us was status decline.

Then came Block, who talked about Africa in vague terms.

I was sitting with the press and a member of the secular press turned to me and said, "That was the worst speech I ever heard. Was it just me, or did that make any sense at all?"

No, it wasn't just him.

I have no clue what she was saying.

Maybe I was just tired.

Now came an hour of questions from the floor.

First from a Youth Advisory Delegate: How do you work with youth?

Halverson said, "If we were Ford Motor Company and we found out that youth didn't buy our cars, we’d ask why and talk with them and bring them in. That is what the church needs to do."

He was refreshingly brief and to the point.

Next up was Block. She was very long winded.

Throughout the question and answer period, however, Halverson seemed to lose steam. Block never shined. Carson and Gray gave consistently good, clear responses.

It was the fourth or fifth question that asked, "What is your view of the ordination of gays and lesbians."

Block gave a predictable answer, as she had been clear about this before. "I believe god calls all persons to ministry. The church has been slow to work with people of racial and gender difference. If a person who is gay or lesbian seeks ordinatin, the presbytery has the right to ordain."

Tim Halveson said, "It is not time to ordain gays and lesbians, although that is my dream."

Joan Gray spoke of her own discomfort over this issue. "I have a great deal of respect for gays and lesbians who want to be respected and called. I have not yet gotten my mind around that homosexuality is a valid lifestyle. I am uncomfortable and will remain so until God speaks and directs me." She went onto add, "The moderator acts as an officer of the church. I stand where the church stands, and if the church moves, I move.”

Kerry Carson clearly said, "I will not support an ordination of gay or lesbian."

The last question came from a man who said his 3 or 4 year old son liked to draw. "If you were to draw a child-like picture of the church two years from now, what would that picture be like?"

Gray talked about John Calvin's seal, which is a hand with a heart, and the heart is on fire -- on fire for God.

The next two candidates picked up on the imagery of hands. Kerry talked about the picture of two hands holding together, for that is what I see for the church.

Block, who had constantly talked of Africa and her experience with a short term mission there, spoke of American children's hands on a paper, along with the hand prints of African children. This prompted a secular reporter to groan, "What the hell does that mean?"

Halverson departed from the image of hands and spoke of a windmill that turns into the wind, as if turning to catch the spirit of God.

The questions ended, there was a prayer and the four candidates were escorted off stage by former moderator Susan Andrews.

The first ballot was very split. Two candidates had 22% each, and two had 28% each. Block was the leader, followed by Gray, then Halverson and finally Carson.

The second ballot had Gray leading with 40%, followed by Block at 32%. The two men had 14% each.

At the third ballot, we had a victor -- Joan Gray with 62%.

She was escorted back into the room, and those of us with press credentials were allowed to stand in a certain spot to get a photo of her walking by. I got a great shot of former moderator Susan Andrews as she escorted Joan into the assembly hall. If you look carefully, you can see Joan in the background.

Joan was installed as the new moderator. Roger Wilson was confirmed as the new Vice Moderator. There were words of appreciation to the retiring officers, and an exchange of gifts for them for the good work they have done.

Family Reunion

Every other year the national level of our church gathers in what we call the General Assembly.

Is it like a conference? Is it like a business meeting? Is it like congress? Is it like Hell for those who hate long meetings?

I like to think of it as a "Family Reunion."

I have seen some of the "close kin folk" I often see -- I saw Arlene from Presbytery office, Bart from the church down the road from where I serve, Charlie who is an elder I see at every presbytery meeting. All "close relatives."

I am also running into some of the "distant cousins" I don't see often.

"ApostleJohn," I hear from a distance (OK, they actually called me by my real name, but no need to trouble you with what that is). "I haven't seen you in ages. Merri Bass talks about you all the time."

I know Merri Bass -- wife of the late Dick Bass who was the Exec in Savannah Presbytery. She's now at Montreat. But who the heck are you and why are you saying "hi" to me?

It is because I'm speaking to a distant cousin.

And there are other distant cousins -- missionaries back from the field, friends from other presbyteries, seminary class mates and such.

I'm as happy to see them as I am to see the close kin folk.

It is part of what makes a church.

I'm not just part of a congregation that meets in a specific building.

I'm part of something larger. Something national. Something global.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

My Endorsement of Joan Gray for Moderator of General Assembly

General Assembly meets this week. This is the national level of the Presbyterian Church (USA). One of the first actions will be Thursday's election of a moderator.

The moderator presides, or "moderates," over the large gathering of voting commissioners during the several days of the assembly. But the moderator does more. He or she becomes the most visible leader of our denomination until the next General Assembly, scheduled for 2008.

There are four candidates.

I predict a winner --- Joan Gray.

Why Gray?

First two of the others represent specific interest groups in the denomination. While there are exceptions, General Assembly commissioners often look for a true MODERATOR who will represent the whole church. This year, with the emphasis on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, I believe voting commissioners will be especially sensitive to the whole church.

The Rev. Deborah A. Block, a Milwaukee pastor and leader in the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that supports ordination of gays and lesbians.

The Rev. Kerry Carson of Conrad, Iowa, whose congregation is part of the Confessing Church movement that wants to hold the line on homosexual ordination.

That leaves Gray and the Rev. Tim Halverson, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral, Fla., who describes himself as a centrist. He seems like a decent fellow -- actually, they all seem like decent folk. But as I read Halverson's information online, I don't see the amount of preparation that Gray has. I don't believe he has ever moderated a governing body larger than his own congregation's session of elders.

So out of those two, why Gray?

Experience -- she has been moderator of one of the largest presbyteries of our denomination -- Greater Atlanta. She is considered an expert on church polity and structure, and is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers. She has been moderator of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission and a member of the PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Through five General Assemblies before and after Presbyterian reunion in 1983, she served on the Provisional Constitutional Committee. All of these are very important positions that provide Gray with insight and skill needed to be the moderator of the General Assembly.

Like the other nominees, she is a pastor (there are no lay leaders or elders in this year's group of nominees). She served seven churches in the Atlanta area --Fellowship, Oglethorpe, Columbia,
Hemphill, Good Shepherd, Smyrna, and College Park. She has served as Adjunct Faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary, Johnson C. Smith Seminary and has taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

I've never met her, but I know the pastor of one of the Atlanta churches where she served as Interim Pastor from 2001-2003, and he affirms what many are saying about Gray -- she is a peacemaker.

For a General Assembly planning to focus on the PEACE, unity and purity of our church, having a peacemaker would be a good thing!

I also like her choice of Vice Moderator. Irv Wilson is a great choice. I've gotten to know him through his work on the Presbyterian Men. He also provides diversity. Among a slate of four nominees for moderator, all are pastors and all are White. Among the candidates for Vice Moderator, two are African-American and two are elders. Irv represents both of those groups by being the only African-American elder to run for Vice Moderator. Hence, the Gray ticket provides the single most balanced team before the General Assembly.

And there is one other reason.

She's a woman.

Normally that would not matter at all, but this is the year Presbyterians celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and the 75th anniversary of the ordination of women as elders. I believe commissioners will be especially aware of this early in the assembly and this will add a slight, but vital, extra in Gray's favor.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

No Charlie, God is NOT calling you

Presbyterians like to talk about discerning the voice of God through the voice of the community.

I served a church in Tennessee once and found the people there were always saying, "God is telling me this or that."

Not, "I feel that God is moving me to do this or that," but that "God is telling me this or that."

My first reaction was to think, "How arrogant, that people would think that God speaks to them and no one else."

My second reaction was to think, "How dangerous."

Marty decided God was telling him to start a home for children. A year later he was angry and came to see me. "Why would God do this to me? I've lost my house, I'm in debt up to my eyeballs. I gave up my job for this. God told me to do this and now He has left me hanging."

No -- God did not tell you to do this. You WANTED God to tell you to do this, but you never actually heard the voice of God speak.

One reaction I heard was in a committee meeting. "God is telling me this or that," one of the members of the committee said. It was her way of saying, "It's my way or the highway. I'm putting God's seal of approval on my opinion so you can argue with it."

In other words, "God is telling me..." was a way of using the Lord's name in vain.

And so we come back to Charlie -- remember him from a few posts ago?

He wants to become a Presbyterian minister.

Which means that the will of God is to be discerned not by Charlie, but by the community. We trust that God who calls Charlie, will also speak to the church.

So Charlie has to have the approval of our local Session or board of elders.

The congregation's session sponsors him to go to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, which is part of the Presbytery -- which is the regional body of the Church. In our case, it is the area of South Florida.

If they say yes, he is approved by the Presbytery as an Inquirer -- it is a time of searching and evaluation. He goes to Seminary and is trained. He is continually guided and mentored -- some Presbyteries being better at this than others.

At the end of three years, he gets a Master of Divinity from Seminary, takes and hopefully passes a series of ordination exams, and becomes a candidate ready to receive a specific call.

Once he receives that call to a church or ministry, Charlie is ordained.

It is early in the process for Charlie, and everyone is hoping someone else will tell Charlie to go into another line of work.

So often we let the poor sap go through years of preparation only to be left hanging at the end with folks like Marty. Tropical Florida Presbytery, around 10 years ago, had a candidate for 11 years. Pauline finished all the requirements, except no one was calling her to serve -- and we won't ordain until that first call to ministry is given and accepted and approved. We finally told her no one would call her into ministry, and removed her from Presbytery's roll of candidates. We could have saved that lady more than a decade of her life.

We were irresponsible.

So the Session a few days ago told Charlie that we were removing our sponsorship and recommendation. He is free to seek the support of another congregation and session, but we do not hear or feel God calling him into ministry. We gave a laundry list of reasons why.

He left angry.

He will never forgive us.

But it's better than what the church did to Marty or Pauline.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Church Is A Great Investment

A woman came into my office the other day at the end of her rope. I won't go into her problems or what happened to her, but I want to focus on one thing she said to me.

"I'm so alone. I have no one."

She was right.

Her husband divorced her. Her 18 year old son is a drug addict and left home a year ago. She has no idea where he is. Her parents are long dead. No siblings. No friends.

She talked about being a Christian, but said she didn't ever go to church.

That's when it hit me -- the church is a great investment.

I mean, it costs nothing. No membership fees at all. Yes, you are asked to give, but you don't have to.

Most programs we offer are free -- even if there is a fee, if you can't pay, you can't pay. What fee do we charge? The cost of the book for a study -- but if you can't pay we still give you the book and you take the class.

Meals? We sometimes charge for events that are catered, but even then, you can't pay -- come anyway. Besides, most meals are covered dish. All you can eat, free of charge -- or at most, all you can eat in exchange for you bringing some dish to share.

But that's not the best part.

The best part is friendship.


I watch my members interact. Someone comes to church as a stranger, and by next week they are part of the family. They are going out to someone's small group meeting in a home. They join in the group to go to a baseball game -- OK, there is a charge for that one :)

Get sick, someone is fixing you a meal.

Get into trouble, someone is there by your side afterward.

Somewhere in life, beyond the kindergarden art class and the elementary playground and the high school dance and the college beer tasting event -- the ability to connect on a deep level vanishes.

You go to work and you have co-workers. Or maybe colleagues.

You go to Rotary and you have a weekly stranger you eat next to.

But go to church, and you have fellowship. Friendship.

Salvation aside -- that's a great investment.