Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Loving God and Neighbor

In recent months a small group from Covenant has been in regular conversation with our Jewish neighbors, primarily over matters of Israel and Palestine. These conversations are typically vigorous and insightful, and, by God's grace, we always like each other by the end of the evening. At one point it became apparent that our Jewish friends held some concern about our appreciation for their tradition. So, we decided to begin our next conversation with a walk through our sanctuary.

We began on the eastern wall of the nave, where stained glass captures the whole narrative of the Jewish scripture. 

The first window on the back right is the creation window, where we can see God the Creator tossing out the sun and the stars with one hand, and with the other, the sea and the fowls of the air. 

Step forward a bit and we find the Passover window. The lamb has been slain, the blood is on the lintels of the door, the angel of death passes by. This day of atonement, now called Yom Kippur, is celebrated even to this day. 

The top lancet of that window includes the ten commandments, while other windows tell the rest of the story.

It's striking that the faith story of Jewish people is literally built into the walls where we worship. And in a recent passage we studied from Mark (Mark 12:28-31)

Jesus suggests this is as it should be, because at the heart of both traditions is the call to love God and love neighbor. It is sometimes difficult to get past the theoretical "what" and to the practical "how", especially about loving God, as most folks find that elusive. However, it is the most rewarding and important work we can do.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Decades of Dividends

"You have gray hair!" she exclaimed joyfully, extending her arms to offer a warm embrace.

It wasn't exactly the greeting I expected, at least not the first part.

It happened last week at Montreat. I drove up Assembly Drive, looked to the left to check for signs of life at the home of Walter and Jeane Jones, just in case they were in town for the same conference. They were, and when I dropped in, Jeane greeted me with characteristic warmth.

"It's so good to see you. It's almost late enough for a glass of wine. Come on, sit on the porch. We'll start early."

We sat and caught up on friends, family, and laughed about what we call our "halcyon days" of ministry, five years good years together at Eastminster Presbyterian in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Our relationship began when I was called to serve as an associate pastor for congregational care where Walter served as senior pastor. I was straight out of seminary, young, idealistic, and energetic. But, I was also inexperienced (yes, I almost dropped the baby during my first baptism), regularly impatient, and more than occasionally arrogant. The truth is that our "halcyon days" were because Walter made them that way. He was patient with my hubris, generous with opportunities for growth, and modeled for me a ministry of integrity and self-sacrifice. In other words, he was a mentor, so much so that during the past 21 years, I have often thought, "How would Walter approach this situation?" and occasionally picked up the phone to ask him.

Now that I have my own gray hair, gratitude for Walter's investment has led me to invest in others, hoping, perhaps, to pay forward the gift given to me in those early years. To that end, my present congregation, Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte, has begun a pastoral residency program, hired seminary interns, called young associates, and sent numerous of our members to seminary. As I've interacted with those launching into a life of ministry, I've paused to consider what made Walter so effective.

Five themes emerged:
1. He enjoyed our time together. When I think of my time with Walter, I envision him smiling, laughing, and taking delight, even in my ineptitude. He derived genuine pleasure from my company and treasured the gift of sharing ministry;

2. He was patient. When I began at Eastminster, I had a lot of adjusting to do. I'd been married a whole week, out of school a whole month, and lived in town a whole day. I didn't know how ministry worked, how marriage worked, how Atlanta worked. Somehow, Walter remained patient through my learning curve, even when the demands on his own time were considerable and he would have benefited from a more experienced associate.

3. He was humble. His experience as a naval officer, graduate student academic dean, minister, parent and spouse helped him know what he didn't know. On the contrary, when I came out of seminary I knew a lot -- in fact, a whole lot more than I know now -- and he tempered my youthful hubris with his experienced humility.

4. He created time. Growing churches are always behind on staffing and pressed for time. And yet, I could always ask, visit, talk and check in when needed. He prioritized my success and made himself available to foster it.

5. He maintained integrity. His advice was grounded in the moral authority of his actions. His ends and means cohered. This was, perhaps, the greatest gift. He lived the life to which he called others and reminded me that more than anything, people want their pastor to be a person of genuine faith.

There's more, of course, but to be mentored by someone with those five principles was a gift beyond price. Even more, it was an investment in the future that has paid dividends for decades, and it's now my turn to pay it forward, hopefully by treating others with similar grace and wisdom.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Presbyterians' vote on Israel conforms with our values

This commentary first appeared in the Charlotte Observer on June 28, 2014.

On the afternoon of Friday, June 20, a group of highly committed, thoughtful and informed Presbyterian elders voted to substantiate our religious values with concrete action. By a vote of 310-303, we decided to remove our funds from three U.S. companies that profit from Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. We did not vote to divest from Israel, and in fact hold considerable investments in Israeli companies. Nor did we vote to join the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement. Instead, we voted to divest – take money entrusted to us by our churches’ members – from companies that profit from a military occupation that violates international law on a daily basis. In other words, we made an ethical choice that coheres with our spiritual convictions. It’s called integrity.

Some suggest that we have been callous to our Jewish friends and neighbors, but nothing could be further from the truth. We even invited Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, to speak to our gathered assembly – not just once, but twice. My hope is that he will return the courtesy and ask the leader of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, to interpret our actions to their national gathering. In fact, Rabbi Jacobs wasn’t the only representative of the Jewish community present. Many from Jewish Voices for Peace were at our assembly vigorously lobbying our delegates in favor of our decision. Some even wrote us a thank you note! In addition, members of my congregation have been meeting regularly with representatives from leading Jewish congregations in our city, affirming our shared values and discussing – sometimes vigorously – our different perspectives on the divestment issue.

Those less familiar with the Presbyterian Church (USA) may not be aware that this is far from the first time we have aligned our investment decisions according to our spiritual convictions. We have a long history of carefully considered decisions about investments that have nothing to do with Israel or companies that profit from the occupation of Palestine. This vote follows more than a decade of discernment and conversation. If anything, Presbyterians act slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully.

In the aftermath of our decision, some have tried to obfuscate the core issue – principled investment of our resources – by spinning a secondary narrative marked by conflict and name-calling. But the Presbyterian story is mostly about a group of faithful Christians aligning our actions with our religious values. These same values lead us to similar actions in our own city like supporting Salvation Army’s Center for Hope, volunteering at Urban Ministry, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, learning from our Muslim neighbors in a joint study group, and joining with Temple Israel in a Martin Luther King Jr. service day.

It’s exactly the kind of integrity our world longs to see in people of faith, and I’m proud to be part of a church brave enough to bear witness to it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

God Isn't Done With Us

 Perhaps the greatest gift of being a pastor is the beautiful people with whom we get to share the journey.

One of them, now well into her eighties, is a person of deep conviction and commitment. In fact, when I came to serve her congregation, she promised to pray for me every day. And she did. Every day, for 15 years, she prayed for me, my family and my work.

When I left that congregation, she said that since she’d been praying for me every day for 15 years, she saw no real reason to stop and promised to pray for my ministry at Covenant every day. And I know she has.

This lovely woman had plenty of strong convictions about social justice, but she could not bring herself to agree with the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. When the Presbyterians started debating the idea 20 years ago she studied, read, prayed, sought different opinions, did everything she could, but she just couldn’t change her mind.

I talked to her recently about another matter, and, as you might expect, the subject of same-gender marriage came up. I inquired gently how she was processing the new guidelines that allow it in the Presbyterian Church. Her answer couldn’t have surprised me more:

“I’m ok with it,” she said. “I can’t say I really like it, but I am ok with it. I’m not sure why. I guess I grew. Imagine that … growing and changing at my age. I suppose God isn’t done with me after all.”

Of course God isn’t done with her, or with any of us. We can be grateful, should we choose to be, even if it means loosening our grip on old certainties, blurring comfortable boundaries, and humbly embracing a new and even uncertain future. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Local Option

"Do you have five minutes to explain something to me?" asked a familiar voice on the other end of the line.

"Sure," I replied. "What's on your mind?"

"Somebody wants me to explain this Presbyterian decision on marriage ceremonies … allowing ministers to do same-sex weddings … and whether we're going to do them in our church. Tell me what I need to know about that."

It was a fair question, some would say an important question, but it was not an easy question, especially since for years the answer has been an unequivocal "No, we cannot and will not have same-gender wedding ceremonies in our church."

I explained that for those of us in North Carolina the answer is the same now as it has always been: We cannot perform same-gender marriages in our church. Period. End of discussion.

"But, I thought the New York Times reported that you could? Which is it? Can you perform same-gender wedding ceremonies or not?"

"Do you mind my asking if you're a Republican or Democrat?"

"Yes, I do mind," he said. "Why does it matter?"

"Because the best way to explain this is in terms of states rights. Up to this point,  local congregation have enjoyed no 'states rights" on this issue. All congregations, ministers, and elders in all states, no matter their personal preferences or convictions, had to follow national law. Beginning today, however, some local rights are available. In other words, if you're Republican, you'll probably like this change, favorable as Republicans are toward states rights."

"Explain this a bit more, please."

"OK. In states where same-gender marriage is legal, the local minister is now allowed to conduct a same-gender wedding with the approval of the local Session."

"But I thought the Session already had to approve every marriage ceremony," he said.

"They do."

"So the only thing different is that now the Session can approve conducting a same-gender wedding?"

"That's right," I said, "but not in North Carolina. It has to be legal in the state. So, our Session cannot approve them."

Then he got to the point: "What do you think about all this?

I said, "It boils down to this: I trust our elders. In 25 years of ministry, I've seen elders make wise, spirit-led decisions time after time. I think they should have the autonomy needed to make faithful decisions according the Spirit's leading, but I'm a 'states rights' kind of guy. I don't need -- or want -- a cumbersome national bureaucracy to tell me the right thing to do in my local context. Does that help?"

"Some." he said," But I may need more than five minutes next time." 

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Political Statement?

"Does my wedding have to include all those political statements?" she asked after the rehearsal.
This was nearly seven years ago, and I had no idea what she was talking about.
"I'm sorry. I don't understand. What political statements?"
"All those political statements you started the rehearsal with. They make a lot of folks in the wedding party uncomfortable, including me."
I still didn't get it and asked her to be more specific.
"I can't quote exactly what you said, but all that language about marriage being "between a man and a woman..., a gift of God in which a man and a woman..., where a man and a woman mean to make a life together..." It's all so political. I'd like my wedding to be about God and the love that brought me and my fiancé together. Can you just leave that other stuff out?"

I was taken aback and a touch defensive. After all,  I was just saying what I'd been saying for twenty years, what they taught me to say in seminary, what the Book of Common Worship prescribes. I had no intention of making a political statement. Yet this earnest request: Could you please take out all those political statements?

Since then, I realized that our culture had changed dramatically while I was too busy raising children to notice.. That happens you know. The hour hand moves, the calendar flips, the millennium shifts and before you know it what you said before means something entirely different now. Ask someone whose last name is Gay. Tell your young adult children you went hiking on the "Old Negro Bill" trail. Inquire of a teenager what 'ginger' means to her. The meaning of language changes according to context. My earnest bride knew her context and was simply asking me to be attentive to it as well.

I did, of course, refine my use of language in her wedding ceremony and nearly all ceremonies since. It was a simple fix: wherever the Book of Common Worship mentioned "man and woman" I simply replaced the words "two people." Marriage is a 'covenant between two people…, a gift in which two people…, where two people mean to make a life together…." Those for whom these things are extremely important found the change to be a God-honoring act of respect and consideration. Those for whom marriage is designed as a covenant strictly between a man and woman found the change  so insignificant as to be nearly invisible.  Sometimes it is pretty easy to please nearly everybody!

 I'm glad our General Assembly has taken he first step to change the Book of Common Worship to say 'two people." Because the hour hand has moved, the calendar has flipped, the millennium has shifted, and it's time for us to return the wedding service to its original intent, a worship service honoring our God who gives two people the gift of love.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We Refuse to Be Enemies

A general feeling of malaise tends to overtake me regarding denominational matters.  For my personality, it's just too many meetings with too few outcomes, too much peace/mission/worship/ talking and not enough doing. One friend, a seminary president, even called our denominational headquarters a "tired cul-de-sac where all good ideas go to die." 

In recent years, however, I have developed a deeper appreciation of our denomination (PCUSA) and its work in the world. Look across Africa and you'll find hospitals, universities and other great social institutions planted and sustained by denominational missionaries for more than 100 years. Glance across the Middle-East -- Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, and even Iraq -- and again you'll  find long-standing educational and vocational missions that honor the dignity and value of all people. By working together for many years, we have engaged intractable social problems with careful thought, resilient hope and the moral force of faith.

In my lifetime our denomination has made headlines primarily through defection, decline, and conflict, yet something of our large vision acting as God's people in this world remains. In particular, this week's General Assembly will vote on a matter of morality and conscience that has the potential to bear  important witness to the world. Today, the assembly will vote on a carefully considered recommendation to divest from three American companies that profit from the military occupation of Palestine. Nearly every mainstream Christian leader in both Palestine and Israel has encouraged members of our assembly to vote in favor of this divestment option. Faithful efforts at other options have failed to change the actions of these corporations, and now we have the opportunity to engage intractable social problems with the moral force of faith. I sincerely hope our General Assembly honors our long-standing history and once again bravely acts upon a gospel vision for this world.

I didn't go to this year's General Assembly, but for the first time in my life wish I did. Had I been there, I would have proudly joined our ministers, elders and scholars in the written document you'll find pasted below. It captures well the essence of why I'm in favor of the recommendation to divest from these three companies. I hope you'll take the time to read the letter and be as proud as I am to be associated with these Christian leaders. And, if you'd like to understand something of the urgency around the issue, I invite you to watch this painful video recorded this week by Christian Peace Making teams. Yes, three Israeli settlers have been kidnapped and yes kidnapping, regardless what violence these settlers have wreaked upon the Palestinians, is always wrong. But home demolition upon children whose families have no proven -- or even broadly suspected -- culpability in response?  

Please note the weaponized Caterpillar tractor. Then you'll know why it's time to decide and declare, time for peacemaking instead of merely peace-talking..

We Refuse to Be Enemies 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sisters and Brothers,

We are deeply concerned about the Open Letter sent to General Assembly Commissioners by John Buchanan and twenty-eight of his colleagues on Friday, June 13th.

We consider the signers of this letter our friends. Together, we have been allies and colleagues in our shared work of reclaiming a vibrant church. However, we disagree sharply with their critique of the recommendation that the Presbyterian Church (USA) divest itself from the stock of three corporations that are doing business in a way that supports or benefits the State of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

You have already been inundated with diverse opinions about many issues facing the General Assembly. While this may seem to be in opposi­tion to the Reformed tradition’s understanding that “God alone is Lord of the conscience....” we believe that in order for all of us to engage in measured and faithful discernment, we must be aware of the diverse opinions and perspectives that exist within our Presbyterian family. We share our conviction with passion, just as we trust our colleagues with whom we disagree will continue to do so.

We offer the following, three fundamental ideas that we find compelling, and a suggestion about how the General Assembly could move for­ward with the greatest possible integrity and commitment.

This is a matter of conscience. It is a reasonable thing – and a moral obligation – to assure that our financial investments reflect our core values as followers of Jesus. Our Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee has done due diligence over the course of the last ten years in engaging these three corporations. It is entirely clear that these companies are profiting from business that is counter to our social witness policy.

This is a faithful, principled response to a call for nonviolent resistance from the Palestinian people. Palestinians – both in Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine, and including the Christian leaders who signed the Kairos Palestine document in 2009, have called on us to embrace the principled use of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions as a nonviolent strategy of resistance to the continued expansion of illegal settlements and the occupation of Palestine. Simply put, they have asked us to stop funding their oppression.

Our witness matters. No one cared what the Presbyterian Church (USA) believed about the evil of a decades-long occupation until we began to consider selling our stock. The reason we are struggling about this matter is because it is the only thing we have contemplated that actually has the potential to help change the reality of the occupation. This decision will lay the groundwork for peace with justice and genuine security for all who live within both Israel and Palestine. As we strive with our sisters and brothers across the church to be faithful in this difficult matter, our sense of conviction about the critical need to divest is shaped by the powerful words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regret­table conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a posi-tive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constant-ly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

When we choose to honor our conscience and follow our legacy of social corporate engagement, we actually claim the moral authority to stand against all instances of anti-Semitism, or Islamaphobia, or any act in which people really are targeted because of their religion or ethnicity or race – or for any other outrageous reason that people are discriminated against and targeted on a regular basis.

We Propose “Divestment Plus”:

Adoption of the divestment recommendation should push all of us to a more spiritually-grounded and faithful place – a more Holy Ground. As we take this option, let us publicly commit our church to the work of defending the rights of all people – starting with our sisters and brothers in the Abrahamic traditions – wherever and whenever we can claim the power to do so. Let us work with colleagues in all religious traditions from around the world to reclaim our sacred texts from those who would steal them for purposes that are antithetical to our fundamental val­ues of peace and harmony with one another.

In the end, we trust that God will be at work in this assembly and in your deliberations. We will hold you in prayer as you discern together how best to help all of us to be obedient to our call as followers of the Risen Lord.


Herb Valentine, Moderator 203rd General Assembly
John Fife, Moderator 204th General Assembly
Patricia Brown, Moderator 209th General Assembly
Syngman Rhee, Moderator 212th General Assembly
Jack Rogers, Moderator 213th General Assembly
Fahed Abu-Akel, Moderator 214th General Assembly
Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator 216th General Assembly
Bruce Reyes Chow, Moderator 218th General Assembly
Jerry Pillay, President, World Alliance of Reformed Churches
Rifat Kassis, General Coordinator, Kairos Palestine
Bruce Gillette, Moderator, 2004 PCUSA General Assembly Committee on Peacemaking
Jim Brown, Executive Director, General Assembly Council 1992-1996
Michel Nseir, Programme Executive for the Special Focus on the Middle East, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland.
Marilyn Borst, Former Executive Director, Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding
Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, Associate Professor of New Testament, The Interdenominational Theological Center
Yusef Daher, Jerusalem Inter-Church Center
Mazin Qumsiyeh, Professor, Bethlehem University
Nahida Gordon, Former Moderator, National Middle East Presbyterian Caucus
Walt Davis, Professor Emeritus, San Francisco Theological Seminary, Education Co-Chair, Israel Palestine Mission Network
Elaine Johnson, Christians Witnessing for Palestine, Rochester, NY
Carolyn Harris, Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, Synod od SoCal and Hawaii
Rev. David F. Johnson, Retired General Assembly Staff
Marietta Macy, M.Div. , Israel Palestine Mission Network Steering Committee
Terra Winston, Candidate, Presbytery of the Western Reserve, former lecturer at the Near East School of Theology
Rev. Ron Shive, First Presbyterian Church, Burlington, NC
Rev. Lisa M. Lopez, Member, Middle East Task Force, Presbytery of Chicago
Rev. Anne M. Ross, Pastor, Elkton Presbyterian Church, Elkton Virginia
Rob Trawick, Moderator, Hudson River Presbytery
Mark C Johnson, Executive Director, The Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice
Rev. Dr. Lois A. Aroian, Retired Foreign Service Officer, Moderator Elect, Presbytery of South Dakota
Rev. Steven W. Plank, Stated Clerk/Communicator, Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse
William P. Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Chair of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary Decatur, GA
Megan McCarty, Inquirer for Ministry, Mission Presbytery, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Rev. Raafat Zaki, Synod Executive, Synod of the Covenant
Dr. Pauline Coffman, Middle East Task Force, Chicago Presbytery
Rev. Aric Clark, Pastor, United Presbyterian Church of Fort Morgan, CO
Rev. Darrel Myers, Friends of Sabeel North America
Emily Brewer, Candidate for Ministry (East Tennessee), Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York
Rev. Katharine Cunningham, Moderator, Israel Palestine Mission Network
Cat Dodson Goodrich, Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta GA
Melinda Thompson, M.Div., Chair of Middle East Committee, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
Addie Domske, TSAD, McCormick Theological Seminary
Bob Ross, Assist. Professor of Global Cultural Studies, Point Park University
Laura Newby, Special Projects Director, Church of All Nations
Don Mead, Professor Emeritus of Economics, Michigan State University
Rev. Geoff Browning, Peacemaking Advocate, Presbytery of San Jose
Ben Snipes, Inquirer for Ministry (Whitewater Valley Presbytery), McCormick Theological Seminary
Bill Plitt, Executive Director, Friends of Tent of Nations North America
Rev. Chad and Johanna Collins, Valley View Church, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
Theodore Settle, Former Volunteer, Pilgrims of Ibilin, Palestine
Rev. Kathleen Day, Campus Minister, Northern Arizona University
Rev. Matthew Johnson, Pastor, Aldrich Church, Minneapolis
Dylan Rooke, Ruling Elder, Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, Pittsburgh, PA
Rev. Dr. Pat Youngdahl, Downtown United Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY
Rev. Joo Kim, Parish Associate, Church of All Nations, Minneapolis
Colleen Earp, Young Adult Volunteer, New Orleans, Louisiana
Rev. Roger Powers, Co-Chair, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Pastor, Light St Presbyterian Church, Baltimore
Abbi Heimach, Candidate for Ministry (Whitewater Valley), McCormick Theological Seminary
Rev. Katie Mulligan, Chaplain, Rider University
Dean Lewis, Former Director, Advisory Council on Church and Society
John Morgan, Former Chair, Joining Hands for Justice, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta
Rev. John Kleinheksel, Honorably Retired PCUSA, Moderator, Friends of Palestinians and Israelis, Holland Michigan
Rev. Jin S. Kim, Pastor, Church of All Nations, Minneapolis Minnesota
Rev. Paul Palmer, Former Moderator, Chicago Presbytery
Luke Rembold, Youth Director, First Presbyterian Church, Baker City, OR
Rev. Jeff DeYoe, Advocacy Chair, Israel Palestine Mission Network
Rev. Libby Shannan, Co-Chair, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Associate Chaplain, Eckerd College
Fern Brown, TSAD, McCormick Theological Seminary
Rev. Winston A. Lawson, Honorably Retired, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
Mary H Smarr, Chair, Joining Hands for Justice in Israel & Palestine, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta
Rev. Kori Phillips, Associate Pastor, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church
Margaret Woodcock, Student, Willamette University
Rev. Jan Orr-Harter, Aledo, TX
Kevin Moran, Coordinator, GA Peace and Justice Coalition
Rev. Mitchell Trigger, co-pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Rockaway, NJ
Rev. Paul Hoang, Pastor, Korean Young Nak Presbyterian Church of Houston

Organizations listed for identification purposes only.