Monday, July 25, 2016

General Assembly and the "Muslim Prayer"

Greetings to the Saints of Mission Presbytery! 

I understand that many of you were following the Facebook postings, blogs, and etc. from General Assembly that your commissioners and I generated.  As you know, lots of good stuff happened this year, not the least of which was the final adoption of the Confession of Belhar.  It is going to be such a meaningful tool which will not only encourage and challenge us in our own walk of faith; it will be a gift to each of us as we continue to struggle with issues of race and separation in our day.

You’ll be hearing more from our commissioners at the October Presbytery meeting.  You also need to know that any of them are willing to come meet with you and your congregation to talk about “what happened” from their point of view.  If you need names and contact information for our commissioners, please contact the office and we’ll let you know how to get hold of them.

For me, one of the biggest headlines out of this year’s Assembly is how centrist it was. There was more than once occasion for the body to take a stand on an issue which would have felt divisive at best and outrageous at worst to many Presbyterians. But in each case the Assembly took a more moderate road, and a feeling of consensus emerged.

One totally surprising area of controversy which has arisen since the Assembly is the “Muslim Prayer.”  It is true that on the opening day of the Assembly, a Muslim cleric was invited to greet the Assembly and offer prayer. The same courtesy was offered to other ecumenical delegates, including a Rabbi.

In my opinion, the media (and social media) coverage of this prayer has been over the top and out of proportion to what really occurred. I even read one “news” piece which was highly critical of the prayer. But the photograph they used to represent the prayer during the opening day of the Assembly was actually a picture taken during a Sunday worship service at Second Presbyterian in Little Rock. I know this because my family worshiped there when we lived in Arkansas, and I recognized not only the setting but a number of the people in the picture. It was a false visual representation of the Assembly, and an unfair written article as well.

I’m writing you about this today because a few of you have called or emailed me to find out more about this prayer, contacting me on behalf of upset sessions and/or parishioners.  So I’m assuming that there are more of you that would be interested in knowing what happened, and hearing another perspective. With his permission, I want to share with you a piece written by my friend and colleague Mike Cole, the Executive Presbyter for our next-door neighbor to the east, New Covenant Presbytery. I very much appreciated his perspective on this issue, and I hope you will too. Mike calls this piece, “Too Much Ado about Nothing.” Mike's article follows in bold print below. Give it a look:

Too much has been made of a prayer offered at the beginning of our General Assembly by a Muslim Imam.  The context of the prayer was within a prayer vigil for victims of terror and violence.  A common question among Christians is “where are the moderate Muslims when it comes to denouncing violence?”   This was an opportunity to allow one such Muslim to stand and be counted.  He did and the GA is receiving criticism for it.

One online publication in particular has spotlighted this prayer with comments from a former PCUSA minister, who is no longer serving the congregation that he led out of the PCUSA for ECO.   His ministry is the conversion of Muslims and he regularly blogs on the evils of Islam.  I submitted both the prayer video and the “critic’s” comments to an Islamic scholar in Houston whom I trust implicitly for an explanation.  

At the General Assembly, the Imam began in Arabic with a phrase that is commonly used whenever quoting from the Quran - “I seek refuge with Allah from Satan the accursed.”  This is not a prayer for protection from “evil” Presbyterians, as the “critic” alleges.  The remainder of the prayer in Arabic was: “Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all Amen.

Then the Imam prayed the following in English: “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, let us praise the Lord. The creator of the universe, the most merciful, the most compassionate and the Lord of the universe who has created us and made us into nations and tribes, from male and females that we may know each other, not that we might despise each other, or may despise each other. Incline towards peace and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows everything and the servants of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, gracious are those who walk in the earth in humility and when bigots and hateful and Islamaphobes address them, they say peace. Peace be upon them and peace be upon Allah.”

Later in the assembly the Stated Clerk offered this apology/explanation:
“During the interfaith prayer service on Saturday in response to the killings in Charleston and Orlando, a prayer was offered that went beyond what had been scripted. It was an offense of the head, not of the heart; it came from one seeking to be authentically gracious, as part of the healing service. Some commissioners found it offensive. When in relationship with people of other faiths, sometimes we can inadvertently be offensive when meaning to be sensitive and ecumenical. It was never the intention of the one offering the prayer to offend any of us. Nevertheless, we offer an apology to all those who were offended.”  In my mind, that ended the matter, until the "critic" picked it up several days later.

I agree with what one of our pastors wrote today, “I do not subscribe to the interpretation that the prayer:  was anti-Jewish or anti-Christian;  was an attempt to convert the assembly; or denied the authority of scripture or of biblical salvation”  This statement lines up with the explanation of the Islamic Scholar I consulted who wrote the following:

“One point of clarification here is that, in Muslim tradition, Jews and Christians are the direct two religions before Islam.  The Quran  refers to both religions as good and worthy of following. Also, it is worth mentioning that the Imam was speaking his own words construed from various verses In Quran. He was trying to show the message of peace as shared by all those sent from God and what we all should have.

The word Allah in Arabic literally means “the One who is worshiped" I.e God in English or Dios in Spanish.   The word prophet in Islamic tradition is (Nabi or Nabee'). It is not what the English term connotes. Rather, in Arabic, It refers to the person who is sent by God with a message to guide humanity. Within that understanding all those mentioned were sent by God to guide us all. The difference is that Muslims revere Jesus as a special creation of God unlike any human while our Christian counterparts believe in him as lord and or the son of God. Even with that main difference, Islam orders us to respect other faiths. We believe that everyone is entitled to choose their faith and belief system.”

My observations are that the prayer refers to God as Allah, which is a common word for God in the Middle East, used even among Jews.  We regularly refer to God by different names - Father, Rock, Redeemer, etc.   That doesn't change God's character when we use a different name for God.  If I were invited to pray at a Muslim assembly and used the name of Jesus, it would not be with the intent of converting them or offending them but simply an expression of how I normally pray.
I would not expect a Muslim to acknowledge Jesus as Lord any more than I would expect a Jew or Buddhist to do so.   From our perspective putting Jesus on the same level as Muhammad is not sufficient.  From the perspective of a Muslim, putting Jesus on the same level as Muhammad is an honor.   I doubt that the Imam thought of it as offensive.  

The bottom line is that this prayer was intended to affirm Presbyterians in faith and stand with us for peace and justice and against violence.   It is a shame that some would choose to twist the intent to be something nefarious and devious.


Mike has given permission for Presbyterians to share this article as we see fit. So feel free to make copies of it for your Sessions, your church newsletter, wherever you think it would be most appropriate and most helpful. And if you’d like to talk more about the topic, give me a call or drop me an email. I’m happy to talk it over with you. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Nunc Dimittis

It's Friday morning. We  just elected a new Stated Clerk of the PC(USA). Lord have mercy.

J. Herbert Nelson, a teaching elder who hails from Orangeburg, South Carolina, was just elected to serve as the head of our communion. He has served with distinction in the denomination's Washington Office, being present and outspoken at every critical time in the last six years. He's a prophet and he's amazing.

A number of people, like me, have been wary of J. Herbert's election, wondering out loud whether he had the gifts needed for doing the highly detailed job required of a Stated Clerk. No question that he's a prophetic leader, but can he make rulings based on our Book of Order?

I stand corrected.  To people who had wondered about hi s abilities, this morning he said: "I can read. I can learn. And every institution of higher learning I've ever attended has been Presbyterian."

He's going to be fine. And he's absolutely right.  I did not come out of the womb knowing how to be a General Presbyter. And I too have been totally shaped and formed by the Presbyterian Church which baptized, educated and nurtured me. We all help raise each other up.

I think my main disappointment is that I knew at least two other people who were being considered for the office, and I was really rooting for them. But I am convinced that J. Herbert is the right person at the right time, and I'll be doing all that I know how to support and encourage him.

It does seem to me there have been a preponderance of prophetic acts and "firsts" this week. We elected two women to moderate this meeting, on the very day that the first woman was ordained in the PCUSA sixty yeears ago. We elected two groups last night, both of which are going to be working on "the way forward" for our denomination. We confirmed the addition of the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions. And - on a personal note - I saw with my own eyes the leadership of my son this week as he led the assembly in an "energizer" and asked a cogent question of the candidates for Stated Clerk. Our YAADS are not the future of the church, they are the church here and now.

This is one of the days that I understand what Zechariah said in the book of Luke:
My own eyes have seen the salvation 
which you have prepared in the sight of every people.

We ain't there yet. This ain't the end. But oh my goodness, it's lovely to get a glimpse of the Reign of God, right here in our midst, even in a convention center.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Late Afternoon Mid Councils

Be still my heart. We just made quick dispatch of one item in about 45 seconds.

We are so on a roll. Another one down, 45 seconds!!

Another one down, 45 more seconds! God is good, all the time.

Now - another time-taker, for sure. 05-01 from the Presbytery of Santa Fe. Here we go.

WE now have the opportunity to perfect a substitute motion, and then perfect the main motion, before voting on whether the substitute shall become the main. Only then can we vote on the motion.

Okay. The main, 05-01, has been declared perfected. (since I wrote it, I'm happy about that)

Now we are perfecting the substitute.

The substitute motion failed, 380 to 196. Back to the main motion.

I find it interesting that 95% of the opposition to this overture - I'm not exaggerating - is coming from the same synod. Which tells me that the opposition is not widespread. Perhaps the problem with synods is with one synod.

And now the main motion......  

We did it!!!!!!!

Mid Afternoon Mid Councils

Sooooo - the Mid Council Committee report started this morning around 11:00. We had to stop for worship, for lunch, and for several presentations. So at 3:06pm, we are just now on the third item of business.  There are still five more items before we even get to the question of synods. Lord have mercy. I should have brought my jammies.

There was some good debate at first, and it was for a good reason - the best way to provide model policies for dependent care. But oh my goodness, did it really need to take, what, two hours?

The body has taken the action to limit debate now to 60 seconds per speaker. Perhaps what would be more helpful would be to limit certain SPEAKERS, she said....   yikes.....

It is now 3:41. and we STILL have 5 more items to go. Commissioner Heger just brought me bubbles to blow. Lord have mercy.

It is now 3:57. All that time we debated an amendment that ultimately failed. We are still on the same item of usiness.

We are going to end up spending the greater part of this day on business scheduled to take an hour, two at most.

05-09 now complete at 4:01pm. Please, God, let us speed up!!!

It's happening!

Sorry I missed blogging yesterday, but things are starting to happen pretty fast now. Hitting the current highlights:

A new Directory for Worship was approved yesterday. That may not sound like a big deal, but it kind of is.  It's the first revision in 30-some years, and if you've been paying attention (as I know you have) there have been a few changes in our worship life during that time. Some things are universal, but others, well, could use some refreshing. The new Directory is shorter by about 9000 words, yet uses the remaining words more effectively IMHO. So when the new Books of Order come out - which lines are already forming to buy - there will be an entirely new "W" section as well as some changes to at least the G section if not the D section.

We also get a new Book of Confessions this year!  Last night, after a long protracted history (which happens necessarily when any change to the Confessions is proposed), the Assembly voted by a 94%-6% margin to add the Confession of Belhar to our book.  Since the confessions are listed in the book chronologically and not by date of approval, Belhar will not be the last confession in the book. The Brief Statement will retain that place. But in this contentious time of ours, with racism still alive and well, our proclamation of the Confession of Belhar could not be more timely. The assembled body in the hall last night was singing; at least one hotel bar (that I only heard of, you see) was toasting, and it was a wonderful, historical night. The Book does not get changed all htat often; this is the first addition in about 25 years.  So this may be the last confession added that many of us will live to see. If that's true, then it's a darned good one.

There was another moment yesterday that may not have received as much coverage. There was a person who was sexually abused by a pastor, and he was turned away when he tried to report to the presbytery and even to the synod. Last night, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons issued an apology in front of the entire Assembly to that person. Sometimes we get things right, though it may take us awhile. And as for That Gradye Parsons, giants have walked among us. We are SO going to miss him and his gentle, on target, determined and understatedly hilarious leadership.

This morning the body is currently taking actions on reports from the GA Procedures (Bill Bohart's) committee. And - I would be accused of being less than a proud mom if I didn't mention this - my son Alex was one of the YAADs who led the entire body in an energizer this morning! There is video footage on my Facebook page; I figured you'd appreciate it more there than here.

Mid Councils coming - more soon!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

As the Sausage Turns

Before I get into Sausage Making, Chapter 2, I want to give you a heads up.

The new Co-Moderators of General Assembly have said that they want to remember Kelly Allen on the floor of General Assembly TOMORROW, Wednesday afternoon, about 4:10pm San Antonio time (2:10 Portland time). If you'd like to watch from home, go to the denomination's website, www.pcusa.org, and on the home page there's a place for you to click to watch live streaming from the Assembly.  They only stream when the body is in session, so if you tune in an hour early there probably won't be anything for you to see. But if you are there at the stroke of the hour, the tribute to Kelly should take place shortly after that.

Now. It's been another day of sausage-making around the halls of the Oregon Convention Center. Josh Robinson's committee, The Way Forward, is having a working dinner this evening and will probably be one of the last committees to finish their work. Others were finished earlier today. Folks are all over the map. Our intrepid commissioners, minus Bill and Josh, gathered this morning for a group check-in and a photo op before scurrying off to their committee work. Shown left to right are Carol, Anne, Tom, Bruce, Amy, Geoff and Madelyn.

To illustrate the process, let me tell you about the fortunes of the overture I followed today.

While I was still in the Presbytery of Santa Fe, I worked on an overture which (after arriving at the Assembly) became known as 05-01. That's because it was the first overture assigned to Committee 5, Mid Councils. The VERY short story is that the overture asked this assembly, the 222nd, to rescind an action taken by the 221st assembly two years ago. That action was to require our 16 synods to reconfigure themselves into, oh, 10-12. I'll spare you all the other reasons why I believe it's a good idea to rescind that action, but I will say that if the committee had decided merely to take no action, then action would have begun to reconfigure all the synod boundaries across the country.

Stay with me on this.

So in the life of this particular overture, the committee this morning heard 30 minutes of testimony from the Mid Council Commission 2, the group that decided to shrink the number of synods. Then they heard 30 minutes of testimony from a working group of folks from synods across the country who had prepared a report which also asked that the action be rescinded. Next on the docket was to hear from those who supported Overture 05-01. I spoke first, since the overture originated in my presbytery. Fifteen other presbyteries and one synod also thought it was a good idea, so we had sixteen concurrences (like sixteen people seconding a motion). About half of those bodies sent people who also wanted to speak to the overture. And so I think a total of six of us ended up speaking in the course of about 15 minutes in favor of the overture. After the body heard somewhat similar testimony on another overture, the committee went into small groups to discuss what they'd just heard, and then broke for lunch.

Short story: the committee spent a little over two hours just listening - to overture advocates, and to each other.

After lunch, we came back together and 05-01 was the first order of business. The Moderator asked the body if someone was prepared to make a motion. There was a little silence, and then one woman moved that the committee DISAPPROVE 05-01.

Not exactly what I wanted to hear! But at that point, I was only an observer in the gallery and was not allowed to say a thing.

So the conversation raged back and forth. There was some confusion that a vote in FAVOR of the motion was a vote AGAINST rescinding the overture. There was curiosity about what the financial implications would be. Resource people went to find an answer for the committee, but their answer only addressed what the action would cost the General Assembly. They had not addressed how much reconfiguring synods would cost each synod and, ultimately, each presbytery. (That had been one of my points - no one had fully assessed the financial cost) Experts were brought in to answer the committee's questions. Some in the gallery THOUGHT they were the experts that could answer questions. Debate raged back and forth.

Someone moved to call the question. There was confusion as to how to deal with that. (Answer: a motion to call the question DOES require someone to second it, but it is not debatable; the body must vote immediately on whether or not to continue debate) This motion must pass by a 2/3 majority; there was not a large enough majority, and so they were back to debating the motion. They probably did so for about 10 more minutes, and then someone else moved to call the question. This time, it passed.

They moved directly to a vote. We all held our breath. The motion FAILED, 15-27.

At that point, there was nothing at all on the floor. So the Moderator suggested that another motion be posed. A committee member moved to APPROVE 05-01. There was no further discussion, since they had already discussed it in such detail. When they moved to the vote, 05-01 PASSED, 28-15! The time was about 3:30; four hours thirty minutes to pass one item of business.

Shortly after this vote, the committee voted to add an additional comment to the overture, which basically encouraged the synods to continue working together creatively, to engage each other in mission, and for the wealthier synods to offer financial support to those less wealthy.

Enough sausage making! But hopefully now you can see that what began as a thought and a conversation about a year ago had made the journey through the leadership of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, to the body of the Presbytery, to the internal processes of sixteen other councils, to a committee of the General Assembly. Because the vote was not overwhelmingly positive, it will likely not be placed on the consent agenda in the plenary session. That means that it could be debated all over again, and that it may not automatically pass on the floor. Time will tell. Until that moment, all bets are off.

Reports are coming quickly now from all of the committees regarding their work and results. Because I was making my own sausage in Mid Councils today, I didn't have a chance to observe other committees. But we will be hearing about the other committee actions by morning, I'm sure.

If you'd like to follow all the action, the body will be back together again in plenary tomorrow afternoon. You can tune in to see the memorial to Kelly, and then stay tuned to see how the body moves forward with its business from the other committees.  Now is when it will start to get interesting; and you thought sausage making was a challenge!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Kielbasa, Jimmy Dean, Smoked...

Well, today at GA was the first full day of committee meetings.  The Way Forward (Josh Robinson's committee) actually began meeting before the opening gavel dropped. Most committees met last evening to get to know one another and to build group covenants for how they would interact with each other.

It's obvious that some of that group-building has payed off in my observations of the committees today. Some are starting to hit the deep end this evening, others anticipate the most difficult work tomorrow. But in all cases, GA committees are where the sausage gets made. Unless you're making it, you probably wouldn't want to see it till it's served up.



I'm happy to report on one slice of the sausage: the Confession of Belhar, which we have been considering adding to our Book of Confessions for - what, five years now? - passed by such a wide margin that it's going to come to the floor of the Assembly as part of the consent agenda! Praise be. The addition of this confession to our canon of faith statements is the first from the southern hemisphere. Coming out of South Africa, you can imagine that it takes a strong stand against apartheid, which translates well into the ongoing racial tensions in our own society. It is a powerful statement, and if you've not read it yet, I commend it to you  and your congregation.

The "consent agenda" was first tried by GA two years ago. They decided to try putting items that passed by handy margins into one item to be passed quickly by the body. Of course, any commissioner has the right to request that one item or the other be pulled off for consideration, but otherwise, it's a great way to zip through business that presumably most folks would vote to pass.

Another "slice of the sausage" came this afternoon from the Church Polity committee. They deliberated on an overture from my former presbytery on whether to change the nomenclature for Teaching Elders back to Ministers of Word and Sacrament. The committee also deliberated on the proper title to give Commissioned Ruling Elders, and they are recommending instead "Commissioned Pastors." These changes passed committee 56-3, so I am presuming they will also go to the floor via consent agenda. But you never know. Stay tuned.

And now for something completely different. Mainly today I trolled around to see our commissioners in action. I got to see Geoff Leech (and my baby boy Alex) at work in the Middle East Issues committee. The magic mirror spied Carol Rahn in the Church Polity and Ordered Ministry committee. Anne Felts was considering the business of the Immigration/Environmental committee when I dropped in on her. Josh Robinson was deep in thought at The Way Forward committee.  And while I didn't exactly get to see Amy Meyer in action in the Theological Education/Institutions committee, I did get to take her an afternoon cup of coffee. I've also had sightings of Kris Bair from the Alice church, Michelle Vetters from St. Andrew's in San Antonio, Kyle Walker from Faith in Austin, and even Ruben Armendariz! I suspect I'll see many more tomorrow evening when we gather for a party to celebrate the ministries of Ruben and of Mike Cole from New Covenant Presbytery.

And, sigh - I got to see Kelly Allen today. Today is World Refugee Day, and Kelly was scheduled to
speak at a lunch gathering. Unfortunately she was not able to be there physically, as we know. But our friends at General Assembly prepared an exquisite video in her memory and showed it at the luncheon. There weren't many dry eyes in the house. I am expecting a link to that video to become available, and I'll share that with you as soon as I get it. In the picture, she is being remembered by Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, and Allison Harrington, a pastor from Tucson who's deeply involved in work with refugees.

Kelly was also honored last night at the More Light Presbyterians with the Rev. David Sindt Award, "in honor of her dedication to justice and inclusion" and "for her long-standing and faithful witness to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender welcome." And it is my understanding that she will be remembered on the floor of the Assembly in the next plenary session on Wednesday. Thanks be to God - not only for Kelly's life, but for the impact her life and ministry had on so very many people outside the bounds of Mission Presbytery.

I will be spending most of tomorrow in the Mid Councils committee. They will be considering a report from all 16 of our synods, and also another overture asking that the requirement to reduce the number of synods (from the 221st GA in 2014) be rescinded.  I'm advocating for that overture in the morning, and then the committee will take actions to wrap up its sausage-making in the afternoon. As will all of the committees. We will see what comes out of this time!