Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Conversations Go to the Presbyteries

To the saints in Lake Michigan Presbytery, grace and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you! The 218th General Assembly has made some hard decisions today. We will all need to take a deep breathe of those gifts of God, grace and peace. Indeed, these are God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ to be claimed with gratitude. After a long day many of us Executives and General Presbyters met for prayer before the evening meeting.

In an attempt to bring our spiritual selves and faith to the Assembly's decisions, when voting, the moderator was instructed to call for every vote with the invitation, “Sisters and Brothers in Christ sharing our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, walking humbly with God, commissioners vote now.”

You may have already heard the headlines news. The Assembly struck (G-6.0106b) “fidelity and chastity” clause from the Book of Order and inserted the text: Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003.), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instructions of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.” This is now in the presbyteries hands to concur and ratify this change to the constitution or not to concur. The sense of the Assembly is to lead the presbyteries into a time of engagement and discernment, encouraging us to use a discernment process practiced by the PUP Task Force and by the committees of this Assembly. This action will go into effect only if and when two thirds of the presbyteries concur.

In the same overture and vote, the Assembly also set aside the authoritative interpretations concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the 119th General Assembly (1979) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and all subsequent affirmations otherof. This stands effective as of this Assembly. The vote was 54% to 46%.

Some persons will rejoice at these actions, others will loathe them bitterly. It will be up to all of us to sit with one another in love and respect and discern God’s will together for the Church. I have my opinions on these matters, but I committed to Jesus Christ in loving one another and bringing every voice to the table with the respect, decorum and zeal to understand one another, in that love. If I didn't get it before, I do know, Jesus certainly didn't mean agreeing with one anther to love each other and living in covenant together. Nor did he say that would be easy, yet the church calls us to that faithful dialog.

The Assembly disapproved an overture to redefine marriage as a covenant between two people by a 77% to 23% vote. However, it approved another overture to renew and strengthen the PC(USA)’s longstanding commitment to equal protection under the law for lesbian and gay persons and the 216th GA’s affirmation of the right of same-gender persons to civil union, and to appoint a special committee to study the history of the marriage, laws concerning it, how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed and broader Christian traditions, the relationship between civil union and Christian marriage, the effects of current laws on same-gender partners and their children, and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community. This study will be forthcoming at the 219th General Assembly in Minneopolis in 2010. No doubt it will seem superfluous to even study the matter. But we Presbyterians like to study and think on important matters.

The Assembly did a lot of other work today that may not make the headline news, but are of great concern to the church:

  • Gradye Parsons, the deputy Stated Clark, was elected the new Stated Clerk on the first vote.
  • Passed Overture concerning Peace and Justice in Palestine and Israel: Affirming the obligation of the church to speak to the governments, ours and others where it sees those governments violating the commandments of God. Endorses the “Amman Call” regarding Arab-Israeli peace, issued by the World Council of Churches conference, in June 18-20, 2007, including its affirmation of the UN resolutions that are the basis of a projected “two-state” solution, a shared Jerusalem, and the human rights of refuges and occupied peoples, its call to resist extremism and push for reconciliation. Directed the General Assembly Council to provide resources to interpret the church’s historic concern for justice and peace in Israel and Palestine. Commends the nonviolent witness of the Christians in Palestine and Israel with whom we share membership in the one Body of Christ, joining them in prayer and mutual remembrance, advocating for fair treatment for them and their neighbors. Encourage Presbyterian individuals, congregations, and councils to take pilgrimages and trips to Israel and Palestine. Continue the process of corporate engagement with companies supporting or profiting from the occupation of Palestine and/or other violence in the regions.
  • Called for Emergency Food Aid to North Korea in the face of mass starvation. A DVD segment on this call was shown and made available to us to take home.
  • Directed the General Assembly Council, in consultation with the Office of the General Assembly, to continue to monitor and address human rights violations in the Unite States, and in other nations brought to their attention by the members of this denomination and/or the partner churches. Secondly, the Assembly directed the Stated Clerk to write the members of the Congress of the U.S.A. urging them not to ratify the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, which would have grave consequences for works, indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, and the environment.” 77/21
  • Concerning Building Peace in Iraq, among other things, the assembly hammered out a compromise statement, “Call upon the US government to develop and implement a lasting peaceful solution, responsibly bring the troops home, and reaffirm the call of the 216th General Assembly for the US government to engage with the international community through the United Nations and other international agencies to cooperate with the government of Iraq in providing security, peacekeeping forces, and funding the rebuilding of the country.
  • Other Social Justice issues addressed involve:

· Public Education for the 21st Century

· Homelessness to Hope

· Economic justice for women

· Social Creed for the 21st Century

· U.S. energy policy

· Prepare and provide church balanced materials on abortion

Please over look the typos and grammar. We are all going on fumes here. I travel home Saturday. I thank you for your prayers. May we all return home safely, and may the presbyteries enter into the work of engaging one another determined to recognize the face of Christ in one another.

God has our back for God is behind us,
God is in front of us, above us and beneath us.
We are encircled in the love of God.
Thanks be to God.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Thursday, June 26th

To all the Saints in Lake Michigan Presbytery,

Your commissioners are working hard here in San Jose. They are clamoring for more snacks to get them through the long business meetings. I returned to my hotel room at 10:45 p.m. and they worked on tackling one more committee report.

The GA News service reports are being posted at our presbytery web site. Please check them. Know that I am not attempting to report all the GA actions: However some highlights of GA actions are:

· The Rev. Byron Wade was elected Vice Moderator. As a result, the moderator and vice moderator are both members of racial-ethnic groups. Both are young pastors, 39 and 45. Both were born and reared on the West Coast, though Wade now lives and works in North Carolina. Both are married fathers of young children. Their election speaks of the yearning of the denomination to connect with our younger generations.

· Item 13-06. Approved to correct translation problems of the Heidelberg Catechism. A translation in the 1960’s added homosexual acts to a list of sins. This as was vigorously debated, and had the same attempt had been defeated at several previous Assemblies. It was a 33/26/2 recommendation from the committee, and the Assembly vote as similar.

· Item 13-07. Set in motion the process of the path of inclusion of the Belhar Confession into the Book of Confessions.

  • Item 06-01. After several defeated amendments, sent, by a very strong vote, the revised Form of Government to the Presbyteries for study and recommendations, to appoint a new Revised Form of Government Task Force to include some from the present one, some members of the 218th GA FOG Committee. The Assembly sent 11 pages of comments to this Task Force. The sense is that this is our constitution, it is very important, but we need to move slow on this and considerate it well.
  • Item 08.21 The committee helped the Presbyterian Foundation and the GAC come to a compromise solution for a means of resolving incidences when these two groups are in disagreement on the allocation of restricted funds.

  • Item 03-20 The overture calling for creating a Presbyterian Office for the Prevention and Healing of Minister of Word and Sacrament Misconduct and Abuse was reworked by the committee and supported by the Assembly. To address this great concern, the OGA and GAC were given several mandates to address the concern through existing offices. The Assembly stood in silent prayer in solidarity with sexual misconduct victims.

Reflection: Again and again debate goes on with amendments after amendments made, debated, and voted on and defeated. Then the main motion recommended by a committee is passed by a very large majority. Meaning, 8 and 10% of the body causes the body to work long and hard to hear them out. Speeches to and against motions has now been limited to 1 minute by an act of the assembly. They are running about one business meeting behind schedule. Commissioners will have to learn to move along the debate, move the question...

Worship has focused on Micah 6:8 and in particular what it means “To walk humbly with God.” Today we heard the third sermon on this theme.

The Exhibit Hall has closed. Many of the crowds have dispersed as the Assembly has gone to its plenary work.

Looking Ahead. The energy level is running low. Several contended overtures are still ahead on the docket: an overture to redefine marriage, and another to strike G.6.0104b. Stay tuned. Keep praying.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, June 26, 2008

GA Plenery Business Begins

My day began attending the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Breakfast followed by the Ecumenical Worship. The speaker and preacher were both Palestinian Arab Christians. Both spoke eloquently and powerfully of the power to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a nonviolent witness in the homeland of our faith. Mubarak Awad, Director of Nonviolent International and co-founder, of Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence spoke eloquently of the power of nonviolent resolutions. His center is busy translating teaching materials on nonviolence for the Arab communities. Father Elias Chacour, the archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church, and author of the book, "Blood Brothers," challenged us not to take sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict but to get our hands dirty in helping them move the peace process forward. Later in the day we heard from a leader in the church in Iraq. The war and the strife has cause the church to loose many of his members as they migrate to neighboring countries. They all need our prayers.

As many clergy present, I attended a luncheon with my seminary. Seth Weeldryer and Timothy Chon, Eileen and I joined our fellow alumni from Union Theological Seminary/PSCE. We heard our newly installed seminary president Brian Blunt, the first African American president of a non Black Presbyterian Seminary, speak of the visioning being done at the seminary. We have to prepare, envision and walk through doors that don't yet exist. As we think about the present and future, he reminded us of our understanding of the reign of God Jesus ushered into the world. "Jesus bent back the God's future into the present in powerful ways." So we must not think of the church as a refuge or safe place or harbor to call, as I am fond of doing. Rather the church is less as a space and more like a force breaking into the present, like an electrical cord, power of the future into the present. The church is to testify to God's future work among us and to conduct the power of God into the world today. He said, the door to God's future is through other's pain and difficulties.

Then the Assembly began its plenary business in the afternoon and continued in the evening. Under Church Growth and Christian Education

  • adopted a strategy for church growth for African American congregation
  • approved an evangelism initiative that Linda Knieremann worked on in the GAC, to Grow God’s Church—Deep and Wide in 2009 and 2010 an Initiative to Grow in Evangelism, in Discipleship, in Servanthood, and in Diversity.
  • Called for the development and publication of Adolescent Human Development Resources, after a lengthy and tedious debate. The debate demonstrated the struggle we Presbyterians have in agreeing on sexual morality, as to what to include in such a curriculum. The direction given was to provide a wide balance of materials to resource the breadth of the church. In the committee’s words, “We choose to plant a seed of peace. We set aside our individual desires to “win” and to further our own agendas and put our faith in God, and send this overture on without trying to advocate one position or another, trusting not only God, but our fellow Presbyterians to do what is right not only for our children but for our denominations. We send this overture on in the hope that the next step of the process will cultivate the seed we have planted, faithfully stepping out in mutual trust.”
Under Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations:
  • 07-05 An Ecumenical Policy Statement was recommended unanimous and passed unanimously.
  • 07-01 An overture on Calling for Tolerance and Peaceful Relations Between the Christian and Muslim Communities grew out of the shared experience of 9/11 in NYC metropolitan area, and the dialogue with Muslim neighbors that grew out of it.
A Special "Generative" Youth Committee had no study papers, no overtures to consider but was an opportunity to talk about youth and young adult concerns. A video and study paper were presented on how to listen and engage today's youth culture was I think approved for production and making available to the church. Every decision like this has a financial ramification. They are good at monitoring the financial implications with every decision.

I left the plenary with Janet Magennis then to attend a reception for the leaders of Top Ten Giving presbyteries. Lake Michigan has been in this group for some years. At the reception Janet and I were able to meet and have conversation with Linda Valentine, the executive director of the General Assembly Council, Tom Taylor, the deputy executive, and Hunter Farrell, the director of World Mission.

Pray for the commissioners. This process can be tedious as some items are considered. I had dinner with our commissioners yesterday. They are fine.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Committee Recommendations

The committees have worked hard for two solid days, listening and questioning overture advocates, discerning God's voice. I monitored the following and can report:
  • The New Form of Government Committee will recommend to the plenary to send the new Form of Government to the church for study, and to form a new task force to receive advise and recommendations from the church to report at the next GA.
  • The Church Orders Committee will recommend by a vote of 44 to 11 to strike G.6.0106b from the Book of Order and replace it with the following. "Those who are called to ordained service in the church by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination, pledge themselves to their lives of obedience to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the scriptures, and to understand the scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and or installation establishes the candidates sincere efforts to adhere to these standards."
  • The Peacemaking and International Issues Committee dealt with many overtures concerning Israel/Palestinian Relations. Most of the overtures which called for a balanced non-partisan approach to peacemaking.
Both of these recommendations will both draw considerable attention in the plenary business, and in the media coverage of the Assembly. It's important to know that any changes to the Book of Order do not go into affect until ratified by a majority of presbyteries.

Other items I will be watching closely are:
  • several overtures dealing with ecumenical and interfaith relations;
    • to study relationship with and promote human rights for Muslims,
    • to receive ecumenical agreements with Episcopal Church and Moravian Church to be ratified by presbyteries,
    • to affirm dialogue and/or common convictions between monotheistic religions.
  • Evangelism Initiative: "Growing the Church Deep and Wide,"
  • a new updated Social Creed for 21st Century following a former one adopted 100 years ago.
  • Proposal to study the Belhar Confession for possible inclusion in Book of Confessions.
  • And the Open Discussion on youth ministry.
  • Proposals to strengthen commitment to equal legal protections for lesbians and gays, and to redefine marriage as "between two people."
  • Calls to balance advocacy and resources for and against abortion.
  • to reinstate the Environmental Justice office.
  • resolution to conflict over allocation of designated funds,
  • the election of a new Stated Clerk (Friday night).
Sleep will be short tonight for those preparing minorities reports. There is no business scheduled for Wednesday morning. We will be led in worship by the larger church community at an ecumenical worship service. The preacher will be Elias Chacour, the Archbishop of Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, a Palestinian leader for peace and reconciliation.

The preacher at today's worship was a second generation Korean pastor of a New Church Development in Minneapolis. He gave testimony to his congregation's experience of building an intentional multicultural congregation that is post...everything, a congregation which has no majority race, and builds bridges across the gaps that divide most of us. He then went on to give a blistering look at racism in America and how deeply it is embedded in our history and culture, and then finally issued a call to repentance and healing. Whatever comes of the business of this Assembly, this prophetic message cut true to the bone for me. This and the Anti-Racism training prior to the Assembly changed me. This walk up slap in the face for justice has me feeling the need for

Grace and Peace,


PS. If the posting time seems a bit early in the morning, know that I am posting this in Pacific time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Committee Work

Having watched the General Assembly from a distance for most of my years in the church, one can get the idea that GA committees simply approve what they are given. Not! They are working here, pouring over overtures sent by presbyteries, considering study papers and reports written by task forces mandated by earlier assemblies, some of which have been working for four years. Yesterday the committees heard from overture advocates from the sending presbyteries and task forces who represent the diversity of the church. The committee engaged them with questions. Others can sign up to speak to the committees. Some committees have a lot of overtures to deal with. Some committees, like the New Form of Government Committee, have just that to deal with. Know that they are working here, fine tuning, editing, removing lines, rephrasing a line. Know that what is sent here is not just approved or disapproved, but molded and shaped by the process, with the belief that the Holy Spirit is working through the process of engagement with the subject at hand and discerning God's will. Watching can be exciting or boring depending on one's interest in the matter at hand. There is a lot of minutia, at least on Monday. Today, committees will have much more pressure as their time together is compressed.

Yesterday, I primarily visited ministers who are looking for new calls and representing the needs of the presbytery. Sharing faith and call stories, hearing the passions of clergy persons is always an energizing experience. It was a good day.

Grace and Peace


Monday, June 23, 2008

A New Spirit

I sense a new hopeful spirit at this Assembly. Not a different Holy Spirit, who is eternal, but a new hopefulness among us mortals. Although advocates and others will raise to speak for and against overtures being considered from the presbyteries, task forces, and commissioners, I sense a growing consensus emerging that our attempt to legislate and regulate the areas of deep division is a misplaced energy. I hear a lot more emphasis identifying and celebrating what we hold in common, which is the apostolic mandate to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.

At worship on Sunday, six retiring missionaries representing 158 years of mission service, were recognized and honored. New appointments since the last Assembly in 2006 were recognized and commissioned: 18 new mission co-workers, 7 long term international mission volunteers, 48 national young adult volunteers, 48 international young adult volunteers, 12 young adult mission volunteer interns. In the commissioning liturgy we were encouraged not to say the words unless we mean them.

"As God's people, we commit oursleves to support our companions in mission with prayer, encouragement and resources, so that Christ's reign of peace, justice and love will be known in San Jose this week, in our all our communities, and through out the world until Christ comes."

Also recognized were 17 Presbyterian (USA) ministers who became active duty military and Veterans Administration chaplains since the last assembly.

I joined a gathering of Executives/General Presbyters last evening. I expected a tired spirit of cynicism, but was greeted with a zealous prayer by a colleague casting a new vision and hope for turning around our denominational numerical decline.

I sense a changing wind and new spirit at this assembly. Pray that it is so.

Grace and Peace,


Fellowship, Prayers, Teaching and the Breaking of Bread

Sheldon Sorge, in a Pre-Assembly article writes, "Acts 2:42 sets the core paradigm for the gathering of Jesus Christ's mission team: 'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.' To the extent that this apostolic pattern shapes our assemblies, an apostolic identity is more like to emerge among us."

Before any real business of the Assembly is done, other than electing a moderator, the assembly gets started with Prayer, Fellowship, Teaching, and the Breaking of Bread. There has been a lot of these elements so far.

Fellowship: the assembly is a reunion for many. Stand in one place here long enough and people from all parts of my life walk by. I've reconnected with family (four cousins are here as observers), peers from college, mission training, seminary, former presbyteries. It is a homecoming reunion, a gathering of the church family. I've made new acquaintances as well. I had dinner with the Association of Executive Presbyters tonight. There is a special bond among those who lead presbyteries.

Prayer: The prayers at worship this morning were rich and meaningful. But the prayer at the end of the Executive's dinner this evening was full of passion, hope, and longing for our beloved church, and for a colleague who has been battling pancreatic cancer for a year and a half, while continuing to lead the rather complex Presbytery of New York City. The room was filled with love for this colleague who gave her witness. A prayer tent has been set up for the assembly.

Teaching: Friday was a day for learning. I attended a pre-assembly anti-racism training. Before the assembly even convened for business, we learned the stories of a Native American lay commissioned pastor, a black Puerto Rican Seminary student, a second generation Korean/American minister. Out going moderator, Joan Gray gave her witness of confronting her subconscious racist ingrained in life in Atlanta.

Worship and the Breaking of Bread: The music at worship this morning was expectedly wonderful, accompanied by organ, brass and tympani, and a large choir. The preaching was pointed and powerful. Joan Gray lifted up to us the impossible commandment Jesus gave his disciples. "Love one another as I have loved you." Not just to love those persons who are easy to love, but the difficult persons in our lives, in the church and the world with whom we contend. It is an impossible commandment made possible only by God. This commandment goes against our human nature. Only by relying on the divine love of God can we fulfill it. I was unexpectedly moved by the necrology role which included a neighboring pastor of my youth, my supervising pastor as a seminary intern, an uncle, 2 seminary professors, and Al Weenink, who I never met, but have heard so much about. There were 610 of them who joined the church triumphant since the last assembly. Multiply the years of ministry among them and the thought of the multitude of lives their collective ministries touched gave me pause for awe and thanksgiving. We broke bread together sustaining and connecting with realities beyond our strength and knowing.

Tonight the committees met for orientation and took up the business before them. Sorge reminds us, "Items of business are like the poor--we have them with us always, and in abundance. Attention to time is not optional. There is a time and place for diaconal service and prophetic declaration, and all the management, regulation, and advocacy they require. But they need to be set in the larger context of building up the Body of Christ to the glory of God for the sake of the world, rather than becoming the core and substance of our gatherings....What we do when we gather shapes and reflects who we are as a body...Acts 2:42 sets the core paradigm...'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.'" And so did we! The rest is gravy.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Church Councils

You can read the GA news at Lake Michigan Presbytery's web page at You can also follow the business via the internet web site set up for the 218th GA. You can register for this by going the GA's web site and look for the link to pcbiz. You can see all the business before this assembly, access all the overtures, study papers, pick the business you are interested in and follow it.

What I will try to do in this daily blog is give you some of my reflections.

Bruce Reyes-Chow is a young, smart, articulate, energetic, technologically savvy, and successful new church development pastor. He is boldly progressive in his stand, yet "excruciatingly fair" in moderating and engaging others in discussions. Two years ago Joan Gray won the election because she hedged on the big question of ordaining gays and lesbians, saying she did not know and had not come to a determination, because the church had not. It the time I thought that was disingenuous. She made a wonderful moderator and was just what the church needed. Yesterday the assembly elected Bruce who I believe reflects the church, one who has made up its mind and is excruciatingly fair to those who disagree, and who is called to build bridges and love others who disagree in spite of the differences. Bruce came within 2 1/2% from winning on the first round, with the YADs and Theological Students voting overwhelmingly for him. He easily won on the second round of voting. What moved me the most was his installation prayer given by his mother and 11 year old daughter. That was special. Bruce is God's gift to the church.

We worship today, then committees will begin meeting with orientation and team building. Many committees will be using a discernment process. PCBIZ has a resource paper on discernment offers new ways for coming to decisions than many of us are accustom. I expect that this will be part of the orientation.

Finally some closing comments on why do we do all of this. Most church members in the pews that I know dislike the political nature of the church and try to avoid controversial issues at all costs. Many in our culture claim to be spiritual but not religious for this very reason. They feel close to God but not to the church or others who challenge their set beliefs. I believe that undercuts the very nature of the meaning of spirituality, which I understand to have the base meaning of being in relationship with another. The Bible teaches us to love God and neighbor. Jesus pressed it to love our enemies. The practice of coming together, assembling, congregating, is the root meaning of the Greek word for church, ecclesia. Many congregations are pretty homogeneous. People tend to seek out like minded persons with whom to worship and serve. Elders who serve on Sessions and are commissioners to the larger church assemblies are exposed to the lives and hearts and passions of people from a broader world. I believe that this engagement with one another is a laboratory for living in covenant with one another. Encountering others who are different, and who bring a different life perspective to the table is never easy, but when it is done with mutual openness, respect, and love, even when we do not agree, and yet are still bound together in God's covenant and beloved community, is a spiritual experience. That is special. It is a spiritual discipline, a spiritual encounter of meeting Jesus in the other.

Grace and Peace

John Best