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,, 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!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Everything Old is New Again

Attended a fascinating breakfast this morning, hosted by the Presbyterian Foundation (thank you, friends). The guest speaker was Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor. He's the author of several books, perhaps most famously The Next Christendom.

Listen to this: he said that in 1900, there were 10 European Christians per every African Christian. At the start of the 21st century, there are now 10 African Christians per every European one. Christianity is not dying - except for the Christianity we thought we knew. Around the world, it's flourishing. 

He shared a map that was drawn in the 1500s. Imagine a three-leafed plant, with Jerusalem at the center. The three leaves emanating from it are the places where the Gospel had spread at that time: Europe on the left side, Asia on the right side, and Africa below. (There was also a ship in the sea which was perhaps a salute to some of the development that was going on in that crazy place across the Atlantic, but otherwise we were not a player.) Jenkins maintained that Christianity is not dying - "it's just going home."

He told story after story of the church in Africa, and the numbers were staggering. The twelve million Ethiopian Christians of 1900 are now 170 million strong. (He also noted that Ethiopia was Christianized before the Roman Empire). It's an indication in his eyes that it's not just demographic changes, but a fundamental change of conscience which indicates a new Reformation.

And here's the best part. One of the marks of the previous Reformation that's happening again today is this: people in Africa and elsewhere are READING the Bible

Short history lesson: one of the reasons the Reformation took off was its pairing with the Renaissance, in which the printing press was invented. The less-than-educated did not have easy access to the scriptures because they were only available to the highly-educated clergy, and only available in Latin. Because of that, stained glass windows were used to teach the stories and serve as an oral history for worshipers. So Martin Luther posted his suggested "reformations" for the Church on the door of the sanctuary in Wittenberg, Those suggestions captured the imagination of the people, who were able to read it in their own (German) language, and the printing press allowed those suggestions to be multiplied and circulated at an astonishing rate.

Fast forward: today, Jenkins noted, we in the US are a society of many books, one of which is the Bible. We may feel a deep connection to it, but it is not our only source of reading material. Imagine a world of only one book - a society where books are quite the luxury and so there is not immediate access to a variety of them, even a library. He notes that in Uganda, the word for "Christian" is the same as the word for "Reader." If one converts to Christianity, he said, one has the ability to read the texts in one's native tongue, whatever it may be. And if they don't have it in your language, he said, don't worry - they'll have it for you by Tuesday.

Listen to this: "the original language of the Bible is translation." 

Another mark of the Reformation is a major increase in activity around hymn composition. "To write the history of Christianity spreading around the world," Jenkins said, "study its hymnody." He noted that the hymn is the heart and soul of East African Christianity - and they are not being written down or collected into hymnbooks. He said you can be somewhere in eastern Africa, hum a few bars of one of their familiar hymns, and before you know it you've got a choir going. This I believe: the words of scripture go into our heads, but set them to music and they take root in our souls. 

One last similarity with the previous Reformation: church growth. Churches in Africa are growing like topsy. We Presbys have been known to wring our hands and lament the end of the Eisenhower era, when we (especially Southerners) didn't just ask "Where are you from?" and "Who are your people." The third question was usually "Where do y'all go?" That's no longer a presumption we have the luxury of making.

Jenkins noted a conversation he had with a Ghanian pastor. The pastor confessed to him, "Every night I go home and pray, Please God, don't send us any more converts. We can't handle them!" They too see small churches as a "problem," because they don't have any.

My Takeaways: 

It's not time to give up on the church. It's time to reconnoiter. What are we doing to engage ourselves and others with the basic, the text?

Just because the church doesn't look like it always has, doesn't mean that the church is dead. Maybe we're the ones who need a little resuscitation.

Don't underestimate the power of hymns. Commit some of your favorites to memory, if you haven't done so already. Encourage your congregations and friends to do the same. Let them work their magic on you.

We have a lot of learning to do, we who are by far the most affluent and best resourced. Historically, it was we who took the missionary effort to countries around the globe. Some of the countries we evangelized, for example Korea as well as Africa, now in my opinion have more to offer us than we have to offer them. Jenkins noted that there is deep gratitude for our (and their) forebears who were evangelists. But, they've moved on in the faith, and so should we. A good dose of humility, and a sincere interest in walking with and learning from our brothers and sisters in the Christian community, might just help us take part in the new Reformation too.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

What I wish we'd heard

I confess to you up front. It's an occupational hazard for preachers who are taking part in worship: we all write the sermons in our heads, and know that we can deliver it with more passion and fire than the current preacher. Even in a glorious setting like worship at General Assembly with probably 2000 of our closest friends, sometimes it's tough to just sit there and worship, and let the Word of God reach you.

Heath Rada, Moderator of the 221st General Assembly, preached a fine sermon this morning. But it wasn't about the referenced text. The text he actually preached was from Luke 15, the story of the "Prodigal Son," rehearsing God's extravagant and reconciling love for us. Always good to hear. And it's not at all bad for us as a denomination to hear a call to reconciliation in this time of ours.

But the text referenced was Genesis 45:1-15, the story of Joseph's reunion with his brothers in Egypt. I've preached from Joseph's story about a million times, but usually I gloss over this particular part of it. Today, it kind of hit me between the eyes.  This is the part of the story which falls after Joseph was given the "amazing technicolor dreamcoat," after his brothers in their jealousy threw him in the ditch, and after the great famine hit the land and sent the brothers back begging to Egypt, not knowing their little brother would be there and in a spot to help them. Catch this, as Joseph reveals himself to his brothers:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God send me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God send me before you to preserve for you a remnant on eaerth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 

God has sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth. That's the sermon I wish I had heard today.

I looked around the meeting hall today and saw so much - lots of people that I know, lots that I don't. Commissioners who are wide eyed with hope, commissioners who look more askance at the process unfolding before them, commissioners who have that telltale "deer in the headlights" look. Some have recently lost loved ones, as we have in Mission Presbytery. Some are coming from small churches who aren't sure how much longer they can keep the doors open. Some have lost parts of the Body of Christ in their midst who have left for other denominations. A number of people here are weary and wary and hurting. It feels like we are in a time of famine in the PCUSA, and it's difficult to perceive an end in sight.

The key to this passage is a recurring theme in the Old Testament. Look at verse 7: "God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors." One of the most important recurring themes in scripture is the faithful remnant. Not since the flood has God broken God's promise to totally destroy. And even then, Noah's family (and some untold number of creatures) were the remnant. 

One of my favorite "remnant"  illustrations is found early on in the book of Revelation, in the seven letters to the seven churches. Some of those churches are in "deep voodoo," suffice it to say. But even to those in the deepest of it, God gives a promise. there is a way forward, and a group of the faithful who will see that it is so.

What I heard today is that we are "two years" into the famine. There are "five more years" ahead of us. Phyllis Tickle might rephrase it to say that we are through about 50 years of the "garage sale" cycle of the church, and that there are about 100 more left to go. But the famine will not destroy us. There is a remnant who will help to provide for us through this time.

I don't know whether that means that there will still be a PCUSA after our "famine" is said and done. I certainly hope so, and if I didn't think so I'd be in a different line of ministry. But whether or not the PCUSA makes it,  I look at the emerging leadership among the Young Adult Advisory Delegates, and at young pastoral leaders like Marci Glass and Jenny McDevitt, and I know we are going to be fine. The famine won't be over for awhile yet. But we are not going to starve. We are not going to be left to our own devices. God is still in the mix, and the church will provide for others, and be provided for, in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

That's the sermon I wish I'd heard today.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Highs and lows

Well, it's been awhile - and for some reason!

The Women's Conference at Mo-Ranch was off to a swimming start.  Sometimes literally. It was a wonderful conference, with the best leadership team I think I may have ever had the honor of serving. I left for a night to attend first the General Council meeting and then the opening of the Mission Presbytery meeting in Austin, What a powerful sermon we heard from Thomas Daniel about digging wells vs. building fences. (In light of the experience our nation has endured this past weekend in Orlando, that sermon was somewhat prophetic...)

Then, almost back to Kerrville, I received the call about Kelly Allen. I headed straight for the Kerrville hospital, back to Mo-Ranch to open the second conference, then my daughter and I packed up to head back to San Antonio.

Kelly's loss has been such a blow to so many, not the least of whom is her family. I spent the last week working with the Board of Pensions, her family, and the church staff and congregation to try and figure out the next steps forward.

In the middle of that, I got to take off for south Texas and have a delicious lunch while getting acquainted with the Rio Grande Valley cluster.  What a wonderful group of people!  Seeing the vital and multiple ministries being carried out in the RGV was an absolute shot in the arm for me. There are so many good things happening there.

I finally got to take a day off yesterday to CONTINUE working on unpacking our house. It just seems like Day 412 of our move, but it's actually been about 2 weeks.

It's been a rollercoaster of highs and lows as I continue trying to get off the ground with serving the presbytery. I have been up to my elbows with Presbyterians since I arrived - and oh my goodness, what a lifeline that has been. It is truer than true that as a Presbytery, we ARE "better together." We have laughed together, cried together, worked together, maybe argued a teeny bit, but all of us have made all of us better. And I am so proud to be part of such an enterprise.

I'm taking off for General Assembly this week. Please feel free to follow along here for reports from GA, and also on my Facebook ("Sallie Sampsell Watson"), the Presbytery's Facebook ("Mission Presbytery"), and my Twitter account (@salliedmin) for all the news that's fit to print. And maybe some that's not. You can also follow the action at the website (It's easy to set up an account if you don't already have one) And live streaming of the Assembly will be available on the PCUSA home page,  Please keep the commissioners, all who are traveling, and the deliberations of the GA in your prayers!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Love without measure

I'm not sure when the last time was, if ever, that I've attended a staff meeting where the devotional came from Zechariah, chapter 2!  But that's what we had in the office this week.  Cathy Hooker brought us a reading from Zechariah and also from John, and as frequently happens - the reading made me sit up and pay attention. Listen to this translation from the NRSV:

I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then I asked, "Where are you going?" He answered me, "To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length." Then the angel who talked with me came forward and another angel came forward to meet him and said to him, "Run, say to that young man: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it." 

I think God is trying to tell me something: the Reign of God is a whole lot bigger than we might imagine. We don't need to try and measure it because its size is immeasurable. Where we get in trouble is when we start trying to set the boundaries, of who's in and who's out. Or when we start trying to measure the kingdom, as if there are limits to God's grace.

It's also true for our congregations. Don't you agree that those walls get us in trouble sometimes? What if our congregations could be "inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it?"  (The animals might be an issue for the Property Committee, but oh well) How is it that we could begin to think of structuring our life together in that way - where measurements are not needed because God's glory cannot be contained?

Thursday, May 19, 2016


This is going to be a place where I will share with you my whereabouts, thoughts, ideas, opinions, and some of the wonderful things I know I will see as I sojourn with the saints of Mission Presbytery. Feel free to share your comments with me here. I'd love for this to be a two-way conversation.

So, today is Day Four on the job. I've been drinking from the fire hose this week, just trying to get oriented around the office, straighten out password issues, and wait for my family and the moving truck to arrive. The staff has warmly and graciously welcomed me, even with all the other things they have to do. If you didn't know, you have a terrific staff at the Presbytery office. 

The Watsons are arriving in waves - my son Alex (our 18 year old) comes next Tuesday, daughter Meredith (our 16 year old) is most likely coming next Thursday, the furniture arrives next Thursday or Friday, and my husband Paul will follow as soon as his company works out the details for him to be able to work remotely for a time. I'm happy that Alex will be a counselor at John Knox Ranch this summer (which is why he's coming a little early). Meredith will get to spend a week at Mo-Ranch with me while I direct the Women's Conference.  

The Women's Conference, which I committed to directing more than a year ago, is playing a little havoc with my attending the June Presbytery meeting. I apologize for that. Fortunately, there is a break between the two conferences. During that time I'll leave to come up to Austin for the General Council meeting, be with you for at least the opening worship and a little more of the meeting, and then I will have to hightail it back to Mo-Ranch. Thanks in advance to Michelle Vetters, who is my Co-Director.  She's agreed to keep the home fires burning with the Conference while I come up for the Presbytery meeting. 

That James Lee. Oh my goodness, what a hole he has created in our hearts and in our life together as a presbytery. Services for him this week were a real Witness to the Resurrection. I've heard estimates that somewhere between 2000 and 3000 people were there. Thomas Daniel preached a barn burner of a sermon, We will miss him so, even as we give thanks to God for his life and his ministry, and for the way he made us better people just being around him. Our love and prayers continue for his mother Vi, his two children, and the entire Lee family. You also need to know that the Stated Clerk and General Council are hard at work on a plan for filling the Moderator vacancy; they will have a way forward to present to you at the Presbytery meeting.

Lord willin' and the creek don't rise - which is debatable as I write this - I'm planning to worship with the saints at Llano First this Sunday as they celebrate their 135th anniversary. Looking forward to it! 

Okay, enough for now. Please feel free to let me know you're reading, to ask any questions you like, to start a conversation topic, or even to just pick up the phone and give me a buzz.  I'm so looking forward to meeting each of you and serving God with you here.  After all, I hear it's true - we ARE better together!  

Blessings, Sallie