Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Calvin's 500th Birthday

One of the key questions I have been asked in my visits throughout Lake Michigan Presbytery is that of identity. Who are we Presbyterians? A beginning answer to that is that our spiritual lineage is Protestant and Reformed. Christians in the Reformed Tradition are celebrating John Calvin’s 500th birthday this year. John Calvin, who articulated a Reformed Theology in the 16th century in Geneva, was born on July 10, 1509. There are celebrations and events world wide. The March 23rd issue of Presbyterian Outlook lists a comprehensive list of these events including celebrations in Geneva May 24-June 3. I will be attending the Calvin in Retrospect at my almamater Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, May 6-8, in conjunction with my class 25th anniversary gathering. Other opportunities include: Calvin Jubilee at Montreat July 8-10 sponsored by the PCUSA office of theology and worship and Austin Seminary, www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship, After 500 Years: John Calvin for the Reformed Churches Today, September 3-5 in Grand Rapids at the Protestant Reformed Seminary (www.prca.org/Seminary/seminary.html), a lecture series on John Calvin, September 24-25 at Journey, a center for the church’s learning at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, among the lecturers is Dr. Ellen Babinsky, Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs and Professor of Church History, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and Ravished with Wonder: John Calvin and the God Who is Love, October 19-22, the Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. I commend any of these lecture series as a way of helping us ground our identity in the historic and theological roots that formed and shaped us Presbyterians.

I took a course a few years ago with Dr. Ellen Babinsky, who is coming to Western in September, on the Medieval Roots of Protestant Spirituality. We studied four mystic Christian leaders who lived in the period prior to the Protestant Reformation. Then we considered Calvin’s writings and heard their voices and spiritual hunger and longing for mystical communion and union with God come through his words. The Scholastic/Reformed theologians who followed Calvin and my seminary professors missed this passionate spiritual side of Calvin. In addition to the intellectual “head” side of Calvin, which has marked us Presbyterians, is the passionate “heart” side which I believe we Presbyterians need to reclaim today. This other side of Calvin mostly ignored over the years by the church, originally gave the church its symbol for Calvin: the burning heart in the hand. Let us explore these roots of our identity. As we consider who we are, what God is calling us to be and do, there is at the core of our historic and theological roots a spiritual heart filled passion ready to be recovered, reclaimed, and restored. As you know we are reformed, and always reforming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Report to Presbytery March 10, 2009

My name is John Best and it is my privilege to serve you as general presbyter. I say that because I was inspired by Pat Ramsden, who shared at a recent retreat how she begins every worship service she leads at the Buchanan Church with the statement: “I’m Pat Ramsden and it is my privilege to serve as pastor of this congregation.” Pat inspired me, and I hope that wherever you serve, you celebrate your calling, and with the Apostle Paul, boast not in yourself, but in the good news we share in Jesus Christ. We Presbyterians are an introverted, bashful people when it comes to sharing our faith, and act ashamed of our denomination. Deliberations on controversial issues embarrass and anger us. Yet our diversity just may be our greatest strength, when we disagree faithfully, by staying in relationship, drawn together by Christ.

This is a difficult time in which to minister, and to discuss issues which divide us. If feels like a perfect storm. Why have these difficult conversations now during an historic economic downturn? Why me? Why now? Why all this under my watch? Well, guess what? The next five years are already a whole new ballgame. It will probably take that long after the economy recovers for the church’s financial picture to catch up with were we were a couple of months ago.

This year I am anchoring my ministry in the Book of Joel. It is a story of lament over the total devastation left by a plague of locust. It's message invites us to lament what we have lost. God did not leave Joel/Israel in grief, but gave them a new metaphor and new identity for Israel. In chapter 3:18 we read,“A flowing stream comes forth from the house of Judah and waters the valley of acacias.” There is a stream that flows from the throne of God. We know where that well of living water is. We’ve found the source of living water in Jesus Christ.

We know the normal stages of grief are shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We must not allow ourselves to get stuck in any one of them, but move through it to acceptance, and to the new life, and the new identity that emerges from it. We are a resurrection people celebrating God’s victory in Christ over death, and much suffering. We are a people of hope living through the cross bearing of Lent, knowing and believing in Christ, who gives witness to God's resurrection power and outcome . God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We are stewards of hope as we navigate the journey before us.

The reality of that journey is the smaller church just got a lot bigger. Some congregations no longer have the luxury of a 5 to 10 year transformation process. Your learning curve is more like six months to a year, until something has to change. We need a Presbytery strategy for handling financially struggling congregations. Pastor’s need full employment, but that call may take new shapes. We must look for what God is doing in this new time, and get with the program. Learn, risk, and be faithful, and refuse to measure ourselves by the past. God is doing a new thing. The reality is many of our larger stronger churches have invested in capital improvements building for the future and carry a heavy debt. There is a direct correlation between this investment and the decline in mission support. We must trust God to tide us over this rough stretch ahead. Stewardship is a spiritual discipline in which we must depend on God. We must learn also how to do mission without just giving money. Discipleship is about ministry, doing ministry. What does a ministry look like where there is little or no money? Immigrant refugees,our global partners in Ghana and Nicaragua have much to teach us about God, faith, and trust relying totally on God. We must learn from our from your indebtedness.

So what are we doing to respond?

1. On March 24th leaders of the Committee on Ministry, New Communities of Faith, Transformation and Redevelopment Ministry Teams will consult on a presbytery strategy for financially struggling churches.

2. Our Administration Team has launched a presbytery wide project to create a new stewardship curriculum of hope, which will involve our seminary faculty members, educators, Outreach Mission Team, to tell our mission story of hope in a barren time and place.

3. The Lansing Area Clergy will gather in April to study regional dynamics and congregational systems that have led to decline.

4. We will also hold a Presbytery wide minute for mission campaign in May. Lay leaders and honorably retired ministers serving on our Presbytery committees and teams will be asked to visit a neighboring congregation and tell our story through their eyes. I hope you will receive them and learn how the Presbytery’s ministry is relevant to your congregation.

5. I expect that the Presbytery’s 2009 operating budget will be revisited this June for mid course adjustments.

6. At our September 15-16 retreat, Jill Hudson, the General Assembly staff person who relates to middle governing bodies will lead us in thinking about being a presbytery in the 21st Century.

7. The Transformation and Redevelopment Team will be coordinating at every presbytery meeting some witness to good news, some faith sharing. Let us be bold not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ. We are the body of Christ.

The faithful conclusion of every loss is acceptance, and a new identity. I commend to you the new identity of the Flowing Stream of vitality that flows from our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. May that stream be unblocked and allowed to flow to the barren, desert places around us as that vitality of God’s Spirit brings dead things to life.

I am John Best, a child of God, who knows the source of that flowing sream. It is my privilege to serve Christ in the world through Lake Michigan Presbytery. I trust it is for you as well.