Should death await us…

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made headlines last week at its 221st General Assembly. At this weeklong gathering the body made a number of decisions, most of which are overshadowed by the two biggest issues: same-sex marriage and divestment. These are obviously watershed moments for the denomination. One publication described the decision on same-sex marriage as a “denomination-altering moment.” And it certainly is that.

I was not at GA, but I did watch a good bit of the live stream and I followed the conversations on Twitter rather closely. What fascinated me most was not so much that these things passed (I expected the same-sex overtures to pass and figured the divestment vote would be close — seven votes!), but that so much of the dialogue and debate, at least on Twitter, had to do with how people would view the church if these things passed and how many people we might lose. Tweet after tweet after tweet was eager to tell folks either about how the PC(USA) has already declined because of it’s stances on LGBTQ issues or suggested that this will be the nail in the church’s coffin (or even better, calling us the “denomination of demons“!). Others were quick to entreat folks to begin the exodus (also here and here). We even got hit with the obligatory farewell meme (see what you started, John Piper?). Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (whatever that is) was among the most obnoxious and vociferous. What others were merely suggesting Mark stated bluntly. “By overturning natural marriage the PCUSA is only accelerating its already fast-paced demise. It will become even smaller, whiter and older.” He continued, ” Only declining denominations reject historic Christian standards and in nearly every case that rejection reinforces the decline.” And the Blaze quoted him in a post called, “Will Embracing Gay Marriage Usher in the Death of Major Christian Denomination?” In other words, the sky was already falling and we Presbyterians just did a rain dance.

Interestingly, on the other side of the ideological divide were the folks who were encouraging the decision and celebrated its passage. Obviously many celebrated it as a victory for justice, equality, and inclusion, but many others were quick to point out — perhaps in response to the death-declarers — that this decision may in fact promote growth. Therefore, this is actually a wise decision for long term viability of the denomination. Carol Howard Merritt, for instance, penned an insightful piece all about how the PC(USA) can grow not in spite of these decisions, but because of them. Her reasons make sense, and she might even be right —I certainly hope she is — (she probably is, she’s super smart), but the whole debate about how this decision in particular might impact church membership got me a bit nauseated (not Carol’s piece, just the online conversations before the vote). This has never been how we are supposed to make decisions, especially decisions of this magnitude.

I’m not exactly a polity nerd, but there is at least one line from the Book of Order (which is half of our constitution, along with the Book of Confessions) that I am particularly fond of. F-1.0301 reads, in part, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” This is perhaps the only question that should matter when deciding difficult issues. Are we entrusting ourselves and our church to God alone? Are we willing to be faithful to God even if it means the death of our church? The answer should be an unequivocal yes, and I believe the decisions made at GA bear that out.

I’m sure we didn’t get everything right this time. In fact, we probably got a lot wrong, or at least not quite right. We always do (ahem, total depravity). That’s why we do this every two years. But what is fundamental to the way we do church is our unwavering belief that we are able to listen to God better in community than alone. We affirm that when we get together like this, however imperfect our gatherings may be, we are better equipped to discern the voice and the movement of the Spirit among us. Again, this does not mean we will always be right or that our process is above reproach. But I think it does help remind us that this was a not rash or brazen decision. This was not the result of a bunch of elders getting swept away by moving stories and groupthink. It was the result of many years of Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders discussing, debating, praying, reading scripture, and genuinely and fervently seeking to be faithful to God alone. And I applaud the decision even if it means, in the words of a non-Presbyterian friend, that we have signed our advanced directive.

Thanks to Jesus’ speech to his disciples in the Mission Discourse of Matthew 10 I was able to preach yesterday morning on the power of fear and Jesus’ constant assurance that we have nothing to fear.

We have nothing to fear, y’all.

While I don’t believe God is done with our denomination I also don’t believe it matters all that much. God doesn’t need us. God has never needed us. But for some reason —grace — God chooses us and chooses to work in and through us. My hope is that God is using the PC(USA) and others to do a new thing and to speak a new word to our church and world. My deepest prayer is that this moment will become for us like Peter’s rooftop experience in Acts 10. That we will all be able to affirm together the words of God to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

The road ahead will surely be difficult, and we may not survive it. There are many, even in my own congregation, who feel deeply betrayed and further disillusioned by these decisions. I’m not sure if I am in a unique position or not, but I suppose I am in a bit of an awkward place as someone who celebrates these decisions, especially the decision to recognize and affirm same-sex marriage, yet serving a congregation of folks who are largely against it and feel a profound sense of hurt and grief. I’m still figuring what it means for me to a be a pastor in this context, and probably will be for some time. I hope I can serve these people I love dearly with grace and humility and that they are willing to be led and pastored by someone who may think differently.

But for now at least I rest on the assurance that we are entrusting the church to God alone, whatever risks we might be taking in the process. Should this be the beginning of our end, fine. Should death await us at the end of this journey, so be it. The church has never been called to survival. We are called to be faithful to God alone, while being guided by scripture, and to listen for how the Spirit is moving among us. The story of the church from its inception has been one of ever expanding circles of welcome. Today I rejoice that the Spirit has widened our circle yet again, come what may.

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23 thoughts on “Should death await us…

  1. You are awesome, Pastor Sheldon. I’m very moved. Such honesty and vulnerability. Well said, sir. Well said.

  2. Institute for Religion and Democracy is a group you should know about. Talk2action.org might give some insight. IRD has been after mainline denominations for years, doing all they can to undermine any social causes. Scary folks.

    • God loves us ALL! That is the message heard over and over again via Bible Scripture readings, Church sermons and Small Bible Group study etc, even though all the while many of us may question the reality of God’s love for us given our own haunting personal failures and foibles in life. Given those, how could God love me without exception is the underlying question???

      But, nevertheless, accepting the premise of “God’s Love for All”, how can we as a Community of Faith hold in judgement those who fall short of the “Christian mark”? In reality, however, that definition of the “Christian mark” becomes one’s own interpretation of various Bible passages that are picked out of context to support the “Christians'” interpretation of God’s condemnation of those in relationship outside of a man and woman coupling.

      As the welcoming banner hanging at the entrance of the Cathedral of the Rockies states, “All Means All”, the “All” including everyone alike: gays, lesbians, transsexuals, the rich and the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the transgressor, the Republican and the Democrat and every other person/group of nomenclature. This is the way it must be if we want to walk in Christ’s footsteps! No one should ever be excluded, especially within a Church promoting God’s forgiveness of sins and love for the sinner.

      I do take issue here with the subject of “divestment” however, particularly because the PCUSA stance is directed against Israel, but all the while there are countries sadly committing inhumane and egregious actions against the innocent, child and adult alike, those believers of a non-accepted Christian faith. Should the church become so political as to pick out one country now solely for divestment? I do not believe so. That action will only pose a potential threat to the Presbyterian church to become a victim of a political divide. Who needs that? March on for Christ instead!

      • Thank you for your comments, Jan! The divestment question is quite complex and we are clearly still very divided over it. However, I do think it helps to clarify that this is not divestment from Israel, but from American companies that sell products to Israel for military purposes. And that our divestment form these companies doesn’t even impact Israel financially. The divestment is not from any company that does business with Israel, but how the products they manufacture and sell to Israel are used. This is consistent with our commitment to invest in things that promote peace and justice (Or whatever MRTI’s official language is). In other words, it’s not an attempt to punish Israel but to better align our investments with our principles. It’s the same reason we don’t invest in companies that alcohol, tobacco, and firearm companies.

        I also really appreciate the diligent work done by the Middle East Committee to nuance the language of the overture to at least attempt to guard against some of the claims of anti-Semitism they knew would surely come. In the overture that passed they also, among other things: 1) reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation, 2) stated a clear commitment to a two-state solution, 3) urged positive investments in Israel-Palestine that “advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”

        I understand why many Jews around the world are hurt by this decision and it’s certainly something we need to be attentive to. However, those statements don’t come across as being particularly anti-Israel or anti-Semitic to me. Nonetheless, we certainly have much work ahead of us to being to repair broken relationships, both within the denomination and outside it.

  3. I saw this posted on Facebook. I am not a Presbyterian–I belong to The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)– but I love the way you think and express your opinions. I think you have it right. The world needs less judgement and exclusion, and more love and inclusion.

  4. I enjoyed very much reading what you shared. You have handled a delicate situation in a delightful manor. I am an elder on a session in a Presbyterian church , and I am not on the same page as you with same sex marriage. HOWEVER I did enjoy reading this and I thank you for sharing this with everyone. That is the great thing about Presbyterians … We disagree in love.
    Thanks again. 😉

    • Tommy, thank you very much for your comments. Disagreeing in love is not always easy, but it’s what we’re called to. I appreciate it when folks can actually demonstrate what that looks like.

  5. Thanks for this reflection. I have been intrigued by impending death as the major critique. We are indeed Easter people!

  6. Thank you for this. As a member of the Reformed Church in America (which hasn’t quite gotten as far as you guys!) this gives me hope. I, too, listened to the PCUSA’s gathering as well as the recent RCA Synod and was disheartened by the entire lack of any mention of the Holy Spirit. When I see how the Spirit turned the church upside down in Acts, the Spirit’s work now does not surprise me….nor should it. We have become a faith of “that’s the way the church has always done it.” That scares me.

  7. What a nutty post. No, GA did not trust in God alone. They made political decisions, the very OPPOSITE of trusting in God alone. How incredibly lame. The church will be dead in 30 years.

  8. And furthermore, I find it interesting the PCUSA only cares about Israel. What about other countries, or what about Palestinian terrorists? I am glad I left that apostate denomination when I was in high school a few years ago (yes, PCUSA folks, trying to be all liberal isn’t going to help your numbers….)

    • Bob, thanks for taking the time to read and comment, but I think you missed the point of the post entirely. If you’d like to add something substantive I’d be happy to have a conversation with you, but what you have here is just unhelpful name calling. As for the Israel stuff I’d invite you to read the comments above.

  9. Pingback: Articles on General Assembly Actions | Thinking Faith

  10. Beautifully written! I love your passion,your willingness to state your[our] truth and the courage to forge on with Christ’s teaching, that we love one another as He loves us. Without conditions. I love you and I am proud to call you “son”. moms

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