Tuesday, December 9, 2014


The seasons of Advent and Christmas provide me with a lens to process my experience.  As 2014 comes to a close, I can name some Advent yearnings and celebrate the light that shines in the darkness.  I can give witness to the transforming love of God incarnated in Jesus.

2014 was full of challenges.  The Committee on Ministry and the Organizational Design Team reviewed the Book of Order's mandates for Presbyteries and are dreaming how we might organize differently to fulfill those functions in the future.  Anticipating and managing change seems always challenging.  The General Assembly made some difficult decisions on divestment and an authoritative interpretation that delighted some and angered others.  We have one discernment team working and two listening teams in formation.  We processed three disciplinary cases.  None were easy, two continue in process.  Two administrative commissions were appointed to resolve congregational issues.  Our moderator has been hard pressed to appoint all these teams and commissions.  Our Mediation Team was also active.  The camp experienced a perfect financial storm:  our camp director resigned due to family reasons a month before summer camp opened;  a grant the camp had the past few years was not renewed this year;  and non-compliant renters of the camp manse.  2014 was also our first full year of not having an associate presbyter working along my side.  We now know how that feels!  My performance review in the spring illumined that something had to give!

Challenges can also lead by God's grace to blessings!  I was blessed by the Staff Services and Leadership Team with a three month Sabbatical.  This was a wonderful blessing, which renewed me in body and spirit.  I thank them!  I hired Nelson Lumm and Larry Boutelle to fill in for me during this sabbatical.  I hired Verla Custer as interim camp director.  She has the right credentials, gifts and experience for the camp at this time.  I contracted Sarah Schmidt-Lee to serve as COM secretary and Pastoral Transition Coordinator, and  Kurt Kremlick to orient her and provide a smooth transition.  The Thriving Congregations Initiative completed a second round of assessments of two polarities.  Over all 22, or one third of our congregations were introduced to polarity thinking.  The Greenwood Alumni Gator Association (GAGA), a new group formed to support the ministry of the camp.  The Greenwood Agency is exploring a creative new vision for the camp. A task force to be appointed and led by our moderator elect, George Hunsberger, will identify and recommend benchmarks for the camp.  We were blessed by visits from the Presbyterian Mission Agency staff at our Presbytery meetings:  Eric Hoey, Director of Evangelism and Church Growth in June;  Ray Jones, coordinator of Evangelism Ministries, and Ann Philbrick, Associate for Church Growth and Transformation, who introduced the New Beginnings Assessment Program at the September retreat;  and Charles (Chip) Hartwick, Director of Theology, Worship & Education at the November Presbytery meeting.  Nine congregations were awarded six Deep & Wide Grants by the Leadership Team in 2014.  Several of these are multi-year grants.

Life in community is not easy.  In her guest editorial in the December 8th Presbyterian Outlook, Jan Edmiston writes about the church family and the PC(USA) as an imperfect or perfect family.
    "What makes us perfect is not our lack of guilt and secrets and deceit.  What makes us perfect is that we are a mess and God still loves us and we are keenly aware of that particular soup.  The perfect family is not the one that hides its flaws and shameful secrets.  It's the one who acknowledges that Mistakes Were Made, that confessed, then redeemed--because God loves us enough to die for us and because God is the ultimate steward who uses everything--even our imperfections--to bring something good and amazing into the world.  God even uses The Worst Things That Could Happen towards something redemptive."
      "...The marks of a healthy congregation include authenticity, courage, honesty and grace--which also happens to be some of the characteristics of Jesus.  Families that pretend that everything is perfectly whole are not real families." 
      "The perfect church family acknowledges personal brokenness, shares mutual failure, holds each other accountable and offers forgiveness and grace in the name of Jesus.  The perfect church family is full of misfits and miscreants who find welcome and community and redemption--in the name of Jesus. This is the kind of real church that looks like heaven.  This is the kind of family that Jesus came to save.  They are perfect." (p. 5)

God's light shines in our Advent Seasons!  We celebrate at Christmas God's transforming love embodied in Jesus!  I praise God for the tangible expressions of love shone on me by this Presbytery. As disciples of Jesus, may we recognize God's transforming love in our lives, give witness to it, and in some small, tangible and imperfect way make it real for another needful soul!
Merry Christmas!  And looking forward to another Blessed New Year.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Committee on Ministry Support

I want to introduce Sarah Schmidt-Lee as the new secretary for the Committee on Ministry and Pastoral Transition Coordinator.  In this week of Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude to Kurt Kremlick, Jr. for his many years of service as COM secretary.  Kurt's experience and wisdom has been much appreciated and has been a gift to the COM, to this Presbytery and its congregations. The COM meeting Tuesday, November 25 is the last meeting for which he will be responsible for keeping the track of things.  He will continue through February providing orientation, training and support for Sarah as she learns the nuances of the role.  Kurt will then continue as an adviser to the COM team, which reviews it's documents through June, 2015.   Thank you, Kurt!

New to this position is the coordination of pastoral transitions.  The COM appoints a transition counselor to each congregation, which is between installed pastors.  There are many steps and documents to track and file during this process.  Sarah will join me in coaching and supporting the work of these transition counselors, Sessions, and PNCs, doing Congregational Leadership Connection matching, and reviewing candidate background check reports.  I will continue to do executive reference checks of candidates and supervise her work.

Sarah is the daughter of PC(USA) mission partners and lived with them in Japan where they served for 10 years.  She is a graduate of Regent College in Vancouver, British Colombia-an international, interdenominational evangelical seminary, served as pastor of the Westernville Presbyterian Church in Utica Presbytery in upstate New York for seven years prior to moving to Kalamazoo with her husband Barrett Lee.  Barrett is the pastor of the North Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo.  They have two young children.  In Utica Presbytery, she served on the Committee for Preparation of Ministry for 6 years and the Committee for the Equipping and Empowerment of Congregations which she chaired for 5 years.  Also, noteworthy, she followed a 38 year pastorate at the Westernville Church!  She presently serves as Presbytery's recording clerk, on the Administrative Commission for the First Presbyterian Church in Albion, and is on the Presbytery's Pulpit Supply List.  Welcome, Sarah!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Aroma of Christ

In my last blog I wrote, "the church that we have known and loved is dying."   Scary sad statement!  Let me elaborate!! Central to my faith and the church's faith is that "Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, was buried, descended to the dead, but on the third day rose again"  (the Apostles Creed)!  Christ won the victory over sin and death!  If the church is Christ's body in the world today, then should we be surprised by suffering?  No!  Should we fear dying?  No!  "In life and in death we belong to God" (the Heidelberg Catechism).  This is our creed!  Our trust is in God who gives us life and who gives new life in Christ.  "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ" (Romans 8).

To the church in Corinth, a highly anxious congregation in the throws of considerable discord, the Apostle Paul wrote, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."  (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)  Preaching on this text to an aging anxious congregation recently, I asked, "What fragrance are we spreading in the sanctuary and neighborhood because of our knowing Jesus?  And said, "Fear is not the aroma of Christ."  

In my office I sense a heightened anxiety in many of our congregations.  It's stewardship season.  The early tallies of pledges are not promising.  How in the world will we meet next year's budget?   The aging demographic trend in many of our congregations is beginning to catch up with us.  Families leave because the pastor's too conservative, because the denomination is too liberal.  Church budgets and leaders are taking it on the chin from both directions, and the pillars keep dying!  A harsh new reality is beginning to settle in, that we can't do what we have done in the same way.  And it challenges our sense of identity. This panic can be a constructive wake up call to adapt to faithfulness in a new context, a new beginning, a new vision for sharing the gospel with a new people, and claiming our secure identity in Christ given in our baptism.  Or it can degenerate into a destructive toxic smelly mess that attracts no one and repels everyone!   PNCs long for a young leader and Sessions a program to attract young families as elixirs to save their congregations, and then expect the new folk to venerate and sustain the church practices we know and love.  There is something askew in this picture!  Do we worship God who gives life, or do we venerate a church or camp or program, which shared the life giving gospel to us?  People can smell that at the door like mildew in a basement.  Jesus warned "new wine will burst old wine skins."  Alas, I've been witness to burst old wine skins for most of my ministry.  While the fastest growing demographic in religious poles are the "none."  "The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few,' who will fashion new wine skins. 

"Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession."  Friends, the Church of Jesus Christ will be just fine.  It may die as we have known and loved it.  But God's spirit will raise it up in new forms that make sense for a new day.  The church has regenerated multiple times.  The scattered persecuted congregations of the early church, later flourished to social prominence then retreated into the monastic movement as safe havens in a dark time, and so on.  The seed is planted in the soil, breaks open and sprouts new life in God's time.  

"And through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ."    At Lake Michigan Presbytery's retreat in September, Ray Jones encouraged us to engage our personal stories of the transforming power of God in our lives, to engage the neighborhood where God has planted us, to be intentional about nurturing a relationship with someone outside the church community.  At our November 8th Presbytery meeting, Chip Hardwick described the new cultural post modern, post Christendom, post Christian context in which we live, which no longer supports church's ministry.  We can fight it. cry about it, shake our fist at it, beat our selves up because we feel like failures, OR we can be about living out our identity as children of God, as disciples of Jesus, doing what Jesus did, discerning what God is doing and joining God in it, spreading an aroma of love, grace, justice, welcome, safety, like the home cooked thanksgiving dinner fills the house.  

At  the November 8th meeting of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, participants were exposed to the fragrance of the:   
  • Ministry of our Youth:  as we gathered in the Muskegon sanctuary for the meeting, we were greeted by a video of our teenagers who participated in this fall's Urban Plunge, October 31-November 2 at the First Presbyterian Church in Holt.  See video at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJhE2u4jYos
  • Ministry of the Marginalized:  Rev. Barrett Lee preached and told the story of the North Presbyterian Church, our covenant partner.  For years our shared mission dollars has been and continues to support North Church's ministry with marginalized persons, many of whom are challenged with mental illness.  They have 30 years of experience ministering to marginalized persons.  The Holy Spirit of God is preset and fills their sanctuary and worshiping community with a love.  They say to each other every week, "God loves you and I love you, and there is nothing you can do about it."  Then invite us to come and catch the spirit among them, to learn from their experience, as we seek to reach those in the margins in our neighborhoods. Speak with Barrett about a pulpit and pew exchange.
  • Ministry of Young Adults:  The Jackson cluster of churches are learning from several young adult interns, pre-ministerial students at Spring Arbor University.  Supported by a Presbytery Deep & Wide Grant, they want to help build a network of young adults, and help us learn how to connect with their peers. A special issue of Presbyterian's Today focusing on Young Adult Ministry where available at the Resource Table.  Speak with Rev. Jim Hegedus or Rev. Lynne McQuown to learn more about this ministry.
  • Ministry of Solidarity:  through the Synod of the Covenant's Mission to the USA program, Father George Mahklouf, a Palestinian Antiochan Orthodox priest born in Jerusalem, shared his story and perspective of the crisis in Palestine with us in plenary and then in an open space conversation.  He spent time with the Westminster/Portage, Decatur, Jackson/First and Kalamazoo/First congregations.  Palestinian Christians seek our solidarity.  Father George left DVDs and the ecumenical Kairos declaration with our Resource Center for our study.  Many people question the actions of the 221st General Assembly.  The office of the General Assembly has assembled resources on this subject at this link:  http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga221/ga221-israel-palestine/  
  • Ministry of Camp Greenwood:  The Greenwood Agency reported a difficult financial year.  They anticipate an $35,000 deficit this year.  At an open space conversation, members of the Leadership Team and the Agency and others discussed this financial reality, the value of camping ministry, potential alternative futures, and the stewardship question, are we being faithful?
  • The Question of Marriage:  In another Open Space conversation, Chip Hardwick described the 221st GA actions on marriage.  The fact is the definition of marriage as a civil contract between an man and a woman, as stated in the Directory for Worship in our Book of Order is no longer true.  In more and more states, whether we agree or not, this is no longer the case.  The 221st GA is calling upon the presbyteries to address this new reality.  It has already given through an Authoritative Interpretation, freedom of conscience to pastors in states where same sex marriage is legal, to officiate at such weddings.  This has caused much strain in the church. The A.I. and the Overture sent for our consideration  both give relief of conscience for pastors and Sessions who do not decide not to do so.  Lake Michigan Presbytery will vote on this overture on April 14.  I encourage people to study what the overture actually says.  The Office of the General Assembly has pulled together several resources here:  http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga221/ga221-marriage/
Though anger, confusion, fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, grief may abound for a time...we are human, I give "thanks to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma of Christ."  May it be so for us!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Using the Polarity Lens for Envisioning the Emerging Church

I am attending the 2014 Polity Conference of the PC(USA).  This gathering of middle council leaders is dynamic and painful as we face the realities of the church today!  Everyone in the room knows the church that we have known and loved is dying.  This is NOT the elephant in the room, at the Polity Conference but front and center.  Philip Bergey, a Mennonite who works now with Design Group International, was recruited to name the 21st century trends, and then facilitate a conversation on the 221st General Assembly mandate to reduce the number of synods to 10 to 12 from 16.  The group expressed a frustration with this technical change when an adaptive change is needed.  Our very name Middle Council smacks of middle level bureaucracy in an age in which hierarchical, command and control is dead in the water.  Instead of rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, ie, reducing the number of synods, we need to identify the best of what we have been, and regenerate that for the 21st century.

What came to my mind in the midst of listening was what we in Lake Michigan Presbytery have learned from Barry Johnson this past year.  He encouraged and helped us move from EITHER/OR thinking to BOTH/AND thinking and gave us a new lens to see polarities and how they work in organizations.  Polarities are as natural as breathing in and out.  Neither can be done to the exclusion of the other.  They are part of life.  They DON'T go away!  Getting rid of them is NOT an option! Polarities are not bad things.  They simple are.  They are present in every organization.  He also pointed out that not all problems are polarities.  However, polarities which are at work in an organization are not problems to be solved but realities to be recognized and managed well!  Those who do, thrive!  There is an energy path that cycles around the upsides assets of one pole and the downside fears of the other.  They feed off each other either in an aspiring cycle toward the organization's greater purpose, or in a vicious cycle of decline.  Barry's gift to Lake Michigan Presbytery was the lens to see polarities at work in congregations, and providing a strategy for managing them and spending as much time as possible on the upside/asset side of both toward our greater purpose. The number one strategy is to affirm the upside of the pole that is being threatened first, and then affirming the upside of the other pole necessary to balance the organization.  

In our adaptive work of regenerating/re-envisioning the church for the 21st century, I wonder, are there polarities at work, which will never go away?  Are we caught in the vicious downward spiral toward our greater fear?  Stuck in the downsides of both poles? And if so, how can we refashion the church's life to better manage them?  Barry's organizational thesis is, that those organizations that thrive don't get rid of polarities, (an impossibility) BUT see the polarities and manage them well.

My musing is, what are the polarities at work in our PC(USA) organizational life that we are not seeing or managing well.  What are the deeper fears that the two poles?  Here are the polarities I hear in our denominational conversation.

1.  Connectional Nature of the Church     AND     Freedom/Autonomy:
  Most PC(USA) Teaching Elders trumpet their love and appreciation of our connectionalism, of their fear of independent thinking of congregationalism.   We are not alone, but part of the body of Christ, and accountable to our colleagues. More on this below. The other pole is the aspiration for freedom and autonomy, and claim the wisdom and seek the power to join in what they see God doing in their particular context.  Their deeper fear is being bound by the actions of others on from following their conscience!    

The Polarity Question:  How can we refashion our denomination to better manage this polarity to honor the upside of both poles and relieve the deeper fears?  An historic Presbyterian Principle that worked for our fore-bearers expressed in our Foundations is Forbearance.  This is different from tolerance, but recognizing the gift of another part of the body, which may not be my particular thing.

2.  Diversity    AND    Affinity"
I hear a lot about the gifts of our diversity.  We celebrate this at every ordination and installation service by reciting Paul's words describing the church as the body of Christ needing all parts of the body.  We see the beautify of diversity in God's creation in nature.  Fred Rogers, one of our heroes, told the story of the Purple Planet where everything was the same, purple...  Presbyterians celebrate diversity.  And we are leery of too much like mindedness.  On the other hand, there is an undeniable sweet blessing of koinonia/fellowship of kindred spirits.  There is a comfort and joy of being able to worship with the same language.  Difference threatens that sweet communion, and we fear and will do almost anything to keep from loosing koinonia.  

The Polarity Question:  How do we fashion a people which leads to both the celebration of diversity AND the fellowship of kindred spirits?

3. Power/Authority: Hierarchical    AND     Flat/Shared
The reformers of the 16th century rebelled against the authority and abuses of the pope and bishops. They re-balanced power by sharing, spreading it in Sessions and Presbyters both teaching and ruling. Today hierarchical power is suspect.  Trust in institutions lost.  Cultural trend today is toward open source, flat organizations where decisions are best shared broadly.  The community self regulates.  This challenges another one of our historic Presbyterian principles, that the higher council reviews and has authority and power over the lower council.  This has brought order and clear lines of authority to bring order to the sometimes chaos in which we find ourselves.  Without it we fear chaos!  On the other hand, we are learning and our Book of Order states that mission is best carried out by those closest to the ministry context.  e may be on the down side of hierarchy and may need to recognize the gift of the shared power of people who have access to all sorts of tools and information.

The Polarity Question:  Is their another way to hold persons and groups accountable?  How can we better recognize the gifts of shared power of people with access to all sorts of tools and information.  The pastor is no longer the only educated person in the community.  Could it be that we are reaping the benefits of 500 years of empowering people to self government through education?

In summary:  most of us celebrate the connectional nature, the diversity, and ordered way of resolving chaotic confusion in the church,  It seems to me that given the cultural trends we are living out the down sides of these polarities, and there is a cry for and deep fear of autonomy, like-mindedness, and a more broadly shared power. How do we adapt organizationally to claim the gifts of all these, and get to the upside of these poles, and relieve our fears?  It seems to me that following Jesus is the path to an church in labor pains to be born anew/regenerated. Will you give your deeper fears to Jesus and risk trusting again?  Will you let Jesus be the host of the table and welcome communion with his other guests?  Will you, like Jesus, set aside authority, position and power to walk with fallen, sinful, broken neighbors and love them, and use power to heal?      

What polarities do you see at work?  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sabbatical Report

Lake Michigan Presbytery, thank you for the gift of my Sabbatical.  Our good intentions, our strong sense of call to ministry to glorify God and join God in addressing the never ending needs of our families, our congregations/presbytery, our communities, and world make us vulnerable to burn out and illness.  Too many of us live out of balance forgetting self care. I thought I was doing pretty well at it...but the strain and fatigue does have a way of catching up with us.  The Michigan and American cultures prize work and celebrate 150% effort at the expense of the time and space for the mind, body and spirit to rest and rejuvenate.  Not surprisingly, our culture suffers from the compounding crisis of failed marriages, dysfunctional families, health and obesity crisis...  Step out of our culture for a bit, and one recognizes that it does not have to be this way.  European workers in highly developed countries are granted far more leisure time than the typical American worker.  Christian brothers and sisters in under developed countries exhibit in their poverty a joy that stretches and lifts our spirit, which is far too often depressed.  A recent National Geographic documentary names "stress" as the nation’s most deceptive killer.  I believe God has a healthier more balanced lifestyle intended for us. So does this Presbytery!  My Sabbatical gave me an extended period of time to unwind, get my mind and heart on something else for a bit, nourish my spirit and passion, tend to my marriage and family, and strengthen my body.  What a gift!  I thank this Presbytery and its Committee on Ministry for having a policy which encourages Sabbaticals, the Staff Services Committee and Leadership Team for granting me a Sabbatical and freeing up funds from an unused professional development account to make it possible.  Thank you to the staff and Nelson Lumm and Larry Boutelle who filled in for me.  I return strong, invigorated, healthy, as fit as I can remember being and renewed for ministry serving this presbytery.  
So what how did I use this time? After getting turned around on our return from attending the General Assembly in Detroit, Eileen and I, traveled to Great Britain for four wonderful weeks!  This immediately got our minds on something other than our presbytery duties and gave us an adventure in which we spent nearly every moment together.  We first toured Edinburgh:  St. Giles Cathedral, Greyfriars Church, John Knox House Museum, the Peoples Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, shopping on the Royal Mile. We stayed with an Airbnb hostess just behind Holyrood Palace and park below Arthur's Seat.  We were able to walk everywhere. 

Then we traveled by train down the East Coast to London, seeing Holy Island at a distance and going through York (I was born in York, Pennsylvania) on the way.  There we stayed in a community in the north east outskirts of London and commuted by the Tube.  We watched the changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace on a sunny, blue sky day and walked through the gardens and around the House of Parliament with Big Ben.  We toured Westminster Abbey and worshiped there and at St. Paul's Cathedral for Even Song with the boys choir singing.  These midweek services were well attended, each with grand processions and recessions of many church officials in full dress.  We enjoyed a midday concert at St. Martins of the Field, and ate lunch at the church cafeteria in the crept downstairs.  We visited the National Gallery of Art, next door, the British Museum, The British Library, and the Museum of London.  We took a walking tour of Old Kennsington, and ate a snack at the Kennsington Palace, the home of Will and Kate, then meandered through the gardens there.  To rest our feet, we took a cruise on the Thames,

From London, we traveled straight to Oban by train via Lancaster (Eileen was born in Lancaster, PA), Carlisle (I grew up near Carlisle, PA, and was ordained by Carlisle Presbytery), and Glasgow.  The train trip from Glasgow to Oban is not to be missed if you go to Scotland.  The train travels slowly, as it winds through the incredibly beautiful mountains and along the lochs (lakes). In Oban, after touring London on the cheap, we celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary a month early by staying in a refurbished Bed & Breakfast with a harbor view from our room and going to Oban's best seafood restaurant by the docks!  Nice!     

The next day we hopped the ferry to Mull and headed for Iona.  A waiting bus at the ferry terminal took us across Mull on a single track road. Then another ferry to Iona.  This was my second visit to Iona.  There is a saying that no experience is complete until you share it with the one you love.  When asked what her favorite part of the trip was, Eileen will tell you, "Iona."  There is another saying, if you come to Iona once, you will come three times.  May be.  Hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Iona every year.  We stayed at the Abbey for a week long conference, "Love for the Future" with David Osborn, a member of the Iona Community, and author of the book with the same title.  I consider Environmental Stewardship the greatest challenge of this generation.  This conference attracted many kindred spirits.  We spent twenty minutes at the first session on the global environmental crisis and then the rest of the week on the spiritual gifts and disciplines David believes are needed to summons the courage, strength and stamina to address the crisis.  PERFECT!  More on that in another blog.  We participated in the daily chores of community life.  We worshiped morning and evening.  We ate the freshly baked bread and homemade jellies from the kitchen. A highlight for me was the pilgrimage walk around the island.  At Columba's Bay where St. Columba landed after leaving Ireland, I picked up a stone, as we were all invited to do, and cast it into the sea, representing that which I named to leave behind. I named what is almost pathological for many of us ministers, the desire to please people.  I have always tried to speak the truth in love.  Sometimes it's painful.  I cast that pain into the water and gave it back to God.  We took an excursion to Staffa, a neighboring island, where we had a wonderful photo shoot with the puffins.  They are the cutest, friendliest birds.

Our time at Iona was the centerpiece of our month.  Afterward, we picked up a rental car, and explored the Highlands.  I drove 1200 miles on the "wrong" side of the road with a left handed stick shift.  Many of those miles were on single track roads. We drove through Loch Lomand National Park. Walked to a waterfalls in the misty clouded forest of Queen Elizabeth Park, a reforestation project of the queen some years ago.  We explored the standing stones in Kilmartin, south of Oban, the Isle of Skye, toured Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland's most picturesque, as it has been restored. From there we drove all day on single track roads up the west coast, including what a National Geographic poll determined the world's most dynamic drive--the Applecross Highway.  Actually the drive up over the mountain was the most exhilarating experience I had.  The mountain pass had many hair pin steep switch back turns, no guard rails.  I was having the time of my life.  Eileen lost a year or two with white knuckles on that mountain pass.  We climbed over 2,000 feet and stopped at the top.  There was the Isle of Skye and the community where we had stayed, just a few miles away as the crow flies.  We could almost the make out the house where we left hours before that morning.  So it is in the west coast of Scotland.  Absolutely stunning views all day!

We then stayed at an Airbnb in Golspie, on the east coast of the Northern Highlands.  Our host was a miller who ran a  water powered Grist Mill, one of two in Scotland.  We toured the Dunrodin Castle, the home of the Duke of Sutherland.  The Castle and gardens were stunning.  A falconer did demonstrations with his trained falcons, owls and eagles.  Fascinating!  The Duke had a museum of hunting trophies from Safari Hunts in Africa.  The next day we drove north and visited the ruins of the seaside town where crofters (subsistence farmers) who for centuries worked the land for the price of fighting the Duke's wars.  When the region was demilitarized by the English after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Duke of Sutherland was one of the first to figure out that he could make a whole lot more money by raising sheep.  The Duke expelled the crofters, an experience called "the Clearances."  The families I grow up with were Scotch Irish farmers who had immigrated to Ireland briefly, and then to America.  The church of my youth in South Central Pennsylvania was organized by Carlisle Presbytery in 1766.  Again and again I was reminded of the scenery and of driving the roads of my youth in the valleys of the Appalachian mountains.  My impression of the Duke was transformed that day as the place and history resonated with memories of the families of my childhood.  We drove to the north shore, explored the Grey Cairns of Camster, Bronze Age Pict burial places which look like a pile of stones in a field.  These were reconstructed.  I crawled into three of them on my hands and knees through a 20 foot long passage way just high and wide enough for me to squeeze there.  Another exhilarating adventure!  We drove to John O'Croats. the end of the road on the north shore.  It reminded me of Montauk, the east end community of Long Island.  We went right to the light house and hiked along the cliffs of Duncansby Head on a rare (for the area) clear blue sky afternoon.  Stunning!  We stopped by the Castle of Mey on the north shore, which the queen mom bought when King George died and Queen Elizabeth became queen.  She found a refuge there to grieve.  Prince Charles now oversees it.  We drove to the top of Dunnet Head, the northern most tip of the mainland of Great Britain/Scotland.  Because of the clear day, we could see the Orkney Islands, and much of the northern coast.  We ate dinner at the docks in Scrabster, famous for fresh seafood.  We watched the Orkney Island ferry load and unload.  We headed south.

The next day we headed to Turiff in the North east of Scotland.  We visited a 12th Century church in Dornoch where Madonna was married.  The Clintons and other celebrities visit there.  We passed through Inverness, drove along Loch Ness but the views were limited along the much busier highway.  We retreated to the Culloden Battlefield.  Ran into a couple there who shared our week at Iona!  For those who unfamiliar, it was the Gettysburg/turning point battle in the war with England. The English disassembled the power of the clans, altering the culture of the Highlands.  We pulled into Turriff and were warmly, lovingly welcomed by Jim Cook, a minister member of Lake Michigan Presbytery.  Jim is from Grand Haven, First, was a candidate under care of and then ordained by Lake Michigan Presbytery to serve the Church in Scotland.  He has been there 15 years.  He was a gracious host to us, and is a great pastor.  With Jim, we toured Fyvie Castle and the Glenffidich Whiskey Distillery (self proclaimed as the world's best).  Farmers who raise prize Angus beef and barley rule here, and are quite wealthy.  The many wind turbines that dot there farms are paid for by the farmers at a cost of a million or so dollars each...  We talked long into the nights there, visited his two churches and worshiped at the St. Andrew's Kirk in Turiff.  That Sunday, the Society of the Italy Campaign were present to place their records in the hands of the church for safe keeping.  Nine World War II veterans, all in their nineties were there, along with family and family of their comrades.  It was an emotional exchange.

We then headed south following the eastern edge of the Cairngorms National Park.  We drove along the Linn of Dee river valley.  We toured Balmoral Castle, which was more of a hunting cottage bought by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.  The expansion of this "castle" was Albert's main project.  He died young and she grieved his death.  One wonders what the Victorian Era would have been if he had remained the life of the party and she was not so long depressed.  We learned there again of the royal families environmental sensitivities and land management principles and practices. High tailing it south we stayed in an Airbnb near the Firth of Tay.  The next day devoted exploring Stirling.  We ended up spending near the whole day at Stirling Castle.  Since 2002, when I last visited many improvements have been made to tell the story of this historic home of the king of Scotland.  After which we made the quick drive on super highways to Glasgow, our last stop.  The Commonwealth Games were opening the next day.  The city was a buzz with the Games events.  The Glasgow Cathedral hosted a flower exhibition/show of the Flower or Woman's Clubs of Scotland.  The cathedral was filled with elaborate flower arrangements, and women.  Reminded my of the movie Calender Girls.  Most of them were in their 70's and 80's.  The games were beginning as we boarded the plane to return home.

That was our adventure.

After a week at home to rest and pay the bills...we traveled to Pennsylvania with our two daughters.  We attended the LIMIAR Family Reunion at the University of Pittsburgh branch campus in Bradford, PA.  These families had all adopted Brazilian children.  I led worship for the group on that Sunday.  We spent a week visiting Eileen's father and her extended family in Paradise, PA, with several family reunions, and a Best gathering.  I painted my father-in-laws basement windows.  The next week we spent at a Beach house in Wainscott, NY.  Spent time with our son, Nate.  He taught me to paddle board in the Sagaponnack Inlet.  We had a fabulous week of weather there.  There I began my physical fitness regime.  I walk/ran on the beach every morning and did a session of yoga, that I had learned when living in Montauk, but have neglected these past years.  We also worshiped with the Montauk Church, which I had served as pastor for 12 years. We met their new pastor and had a wonderful reunion with friends.

We arrived back home on August 19.  Eileen returned to work.  I went to work on painting and organizing my garage, stained the deck, waxed the cars, while continuing the exercise routines I had begin at the beach.  I added lifted weights, which were collecting dust in my basement, a couple of times a week. I bought a new bike and rode the KalHaven, the Kalamazoo River Valley, and Portage Trails.  I became quite surprised and proud at how fit, trim and strong I became.  Until I hear what others are doing ...  Humbling.  Each of us are on our own journeys.  We must stay within ourselves... I also downloaded 2500 photos into a new external hard drive, and a new photo processing software, which I'm still learning to use.  I saved the photo work for winter evenings to savor the memories. I look forward to showing them.  Eileen was our main photographer. I also got a means to transport a Kayak which has been in storage for too long.  Did't get it in the water...but plan to this fall.

You'll notice a lot of "doing" in the above paragraphs.  Sabbaticals are also about rest and making peace with "being," which will be the theme of another blog.  For now, know that I love with my deck at home.  I read several books novels.  To mention a few: "The Monsters of Templeton," by Lauren Groff, about Cooperstown.  An interesting read for me, because Lauren was a teenager in the church I served as pastor in Cooperstown in the early 90's.  And I laughed my way through Christopher Moore's "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal."  This book is X rated, inappropriate for read aloud groups at church.  But it is hilariously funny, biblically rich, and out of the box thought provoking imagining Jesus' boyhood coming of age adventures and of Jesus young adult years on which the Gospels are silent.  It was good to laugh and laugh often.  "The Boys in the Boat" a remarkable true story of the University o f Washington's 1936 eight-oar crew and their quest for an Olympic gold medal, is a powerful, and beautiful description of the elements of a successful team.  We also viewed a special screening of the documentary film:  "Fed Up" a cutting critique of the obesity crisis in America and the public policy fiascoes, which has caused it.

Finally, one Sunday, I attended a local mega church.  I'll write about that another day.

Again, thanks.  It is good to be back!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The 221st General Assembly those far—Day 3, Reflections

I intend to blog my reflections while attending the 221st General Assembly in Detroit.  Thus far I’ve had a love/hate relationship with technology.  I can post to my Facebook timeline via my Iphone and Ipad more easily than logging into my blog account via my laptop.  I haven’t figured out how to blog from my Ipad.  So look… for my facebook posts for photos and brief comments.  I will try to post my blog at the close of each day.   After a flurry of activities the first two days, I write now as I sit observing committee meeting.   I will try to catch up in this post.

Friday, Eileen and I arrived with materials for the APCE (Association of Presbyterian Church Educators) Booth in the Exhibition Hall.  Just down the aisle I met Sara Dorrien and Will Christians who had just completed setting up the booth for the GA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.  They greeted me with broad smiles and shared the news, “We got engaged to be married last night!”  Congratulations Sara and Will!  I then made a first walk through the Exhibits.  Three quick observations: 
·         The PC(USA) has apps.  The OGA (Office of the General Assembly) has a “Guidebook” app for this 221st GA which provides the schedule for the GA meetings and events, which I/you can then personalize.  It gives the times, place, and maps for the activities I selected.  Slick!   Another app is for prayer and Bible study for this Assembly.  The  D365 app for daily devotions is show cased at the Young Adult Ministry booth in the Exhibition Hall (See the next bullet point).  One recommendation being considered at this GA will be funding for the development of an app for nurturing and supporting mission practice of disciples.   
·         The PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency) staff persons are younger.  A young twenty something PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency) staff person helped my download a Daily Prayer app which has the daily liturgy and scriptures in the Book of Common Worship, Daily Prayers, onto my Iphone.  “How cool!”  The YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) program hosted a reception Sunday night celebrating its 20th anniversary.  The room rocked, and buzzed with energy.  T.J. Piccalo, a veteran of our Camp Greenwood Staff was there fresh back from a year in Northern Ireland.    
·         Our Church has Resources.  The Exhibit hall is filled with booths  to connect with the resources of the denomination and networks associated with the church.  One I noted is Research Services.  They provide guidance and support for congregations and presbyteries doing strategic planning, help for engaging groups in discernment, and Mission Insight, U.S. Census demographic data, available for every congregation to help leaders understand the demographics of their nearby community.  One reason to come to these assemblies is to be introduced to the new resources to support us in ministry.

Saturday, the 221st General Assembly opened with worship.  Three bus loads of Presbyterians from Lake Michigan Presbytery arrived in the nick of time for this opening worship service.   This was a new experience for me as I tried to touch base with as many of these visitors as possible and guide our folks to the worship area and point to restrooms.  Holt/First brought a large group of young people.  Others are volunteering.  What a joy to see so many of our members having a taste of the GA experience!

After lunch, the Assembly began with orientation for commissioners and receiving greetings from the host presbytery and COLA, Committee on Local Arrangements. 

A Personnel Connection:  I found myself sharing with all who would listen, that the labyrinth in the Exhibit Hall was designed by my nephew, Jason Best.  He is a landscape architect.  He designed the labyrinth incorporating the Presbyterian Seal in it as a gift for my brother the Rev. Charles Best on the occasion of his 35th anniversary of his ordination in 2007.  His church, the Monaghan Presbyterian Church, in Dillsburg, PA, had just moved out of their historic building into a new church building on 15 acres.  The labyrinth was installed in the landscaping on the church property in honor of his father’s, and my brother’s 30+ years of service there.  Jason is now the co-moderator of the Trinity Youth Conference, once a Synod sponsored conference.  The proceeds of the canvas labyrinth on sale support this beloved conference known as TYC.  Although Jason is not mentioned at the display, here writes a proud uncle!   

Opening Worship:   It is always inspiring to worship with a large gathering.  And so it was.  We worshiped in the plenary space, so we were really spread out.  Singing and liturgy readings were awkward as we were so spread out.  The young contingent from Holt sat in front of me.  What an experience for them!  I was honored to be a communion server for this service.  Memorable!  Holy Communion will be celebrated at every worship service.  This is a new practice promoted by my colleagues in the Association of Middle Council Leaders to instill more spiritual practice at the Assembly.  COLA is scrambling to recruit enough communion servers!  Opportunities to volunteer still are open, I think.

Presbyterian Outlook Luncheon:  This luncheon attracts the "who's who" list of the denomination, including most past moderators.   I sat with Bill and Pat Fuerstanau.  

 Two Opening Plenary Highlights:  Assembly planners highlighted the racial tension in Detroit and our country playing excerpts of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Detroit, June 1963.  We discussed in small groups how King’s speech was mirrored in our personal experience of racism.   The COLA report and orientation to commissioners played a U-Tube of the 6 presidents of the 6 Presbyterian Corporations (OGA, PMA, PILP, BOP, PF, PPC) singing  a new version of a “Les Mis” in which they lip synced  with voice overs by professional Broadway singers, of their G.A. anxieties, to thunderous applause.  This is not your parent’s PC(USA)!  These leaders have a sense of humor!  Check it out on U-Tube. 

Wrestling with technology:  There are blessings and curses with our love/hate relationship with technology!  We love the advantages.  We hate the learning curve!  The OGA (Office of the General Assembly) stretched itself again this year.  See above concerning the “Guidebook,” a welcomed and helpful new innovation.  A new online voting process was introduced on Saturday only to fail when tested.  The internet support was not sufficient to support it.  Curses!  The OGA modeled how to test out a new system and are to be commended for taking a risk, and for not being rattled when it did not at first work.  They moved to a backup electronic voting system, which they began using in Birmingham in 2006, and which has served us well.  It did not prove reliable either on Saturday.  Curses again!  So for the election of the moderator on Saturday night, they voted by paper ballot.  So it goes.   

Election of the Moderator of the 221st G.A.:  Normally, this provides Assembly watchers an early gauge of an assembly.  This year all three candidates nominated supported a change in the church’s stance on same sex marriage.  All of them expressed a respect for those who may disagree, and promised to be a bridge-builder.   There was little difference in them.  They were all articulate, and accomplished leaders.  There seemed little difference in their responses.   The election provided no gauge of this Assembly except, in my opinion, the absence of a conservative option among the candidates.  Heath Rada was elected by a large margin on the first ballot.  Another personnel note:  Heath was the president of P.S.C.E. (Presbyterian School of Christian Education) in Richmond, when my wife, Eileen attended there.  Also, I learned that Heath was the best man at Dave and Pat Milbourn’s wedding.   Heath has much experience in leadership and mediation in the church and as executive director of the American Red Cross.   

Sunday Worship:  The Assembly worshiped at many congregations throughout Detroit Presbytery.  Eileen and I worshiped with the Calvary Presbyterian Church in northwest Detroit.  We were given a tour sponsored by the GA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.  The author of a study paper with recommendations “the Gospel from Detroit” led our tour of the old Packard Plant, closed in 1958.  The white flight from the city and economic decline began immediately after World War 2.  The Packard plant is symbolic of this.  The post war public policies including the GI Loans and FHA, red lined black communities llimiting loans.  No investments were made in Black neighborhoods.  Lost economic base, lost employment, lost institutions, lost churches , and decay we witnessed are the result.  After worship we visited the wall, built by the white community in the 40's in the suburbs to keep the black community out.  Detroit is the canary in the mine of what can happen in urban centers elsewhere.  “The Gospel from Detroit” is a major report/paper before this Assembly in Committee 8 (Mission Coordination).  Look for it in the documents on “PC-Biz” for committee 8.  We have had no Urban Ministry initiatives for decades.  This study calls to change that, and to invest in urban ministry, and to reclaim the city for Christ.  The Calvary Presbyterian Church, and Rev. Kevin Johnson, who is a member of the GA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and co-author, is a leader in Detroit Presbytery leading the way for reclaiming the city for Christ. 

Sunday Plenary:  Greetings were brought from Ecumenical Delegates.  And by a 92 year old African American Presbyterian who shared his reflections.  Sorry I missed his name.  He brought the Assembly to its feet with a thunderous sustained applause with his comment that as a minority in the church, “there have been many things which have annoyed me and made me feel unwelcome in the church, but I never left the table.” 

Sunday Evening the Commissioners met in 15 committees in closed session to get organized, for group building and worship.  Observers like me attended receptions for everything under the sun:  I got to four: to greet the moderator, 1001 New Worshiping Congregations, Fossil Free P.C.(U.S.A.) a new group bringing an overture to the Assembly, and Young Adult Volunteers celebrating the 20th anniversary of this program.  The YAV reception rocked!

Note, I was too tired Saturday and Sunday to write up this blog… G.A. is a marathon of a lot of walking, events, conversations….     

OGA Breakfast:  Two young adults led worship, powerful and to the point, followed by the speaker Lillian Daniel, senior minister at First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois and author of “When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.”   She is young, smart, funny, and right on in her critique of the church and the "Nones".  I have not read her book, but based on her speech, it is an essential read for ministry today.

Committee Hearings:  Similar to Congressional hearings, people can sign up to speak to overtures.  They get 90 seconds to speak.  The Committees hear one after another, alternating pro then con, without question or comment.  Committee #10 Civil Unions and Marriage, which I observed, heard thirty persons speak, followed by small group discussion and prayer.  Then after a break, the committee heard overture advocates speak in support of the overture they wrote.   I am serving as a “Presence Keeper” for the Association of Middle Council Leaders.  Presence Keepers observe and intentionally pray for the committee as they work.  I am assigned Committee #10.

Covenant Network Luncheon was well attended.  Mark Achtemeier, former professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, spoke powerfully on the biblical, theological, and pastoral importance and gospel mandate to change the church’s position on same sex marriage, and how he as a conservative, evangelical scholar came to change his mind.  Personal Note:  Mark is a seminary classmate of mine.      

I have taken the afternoon away from the committee deliberations to put these thoughts down to share with those who read them. 

Please note that you can comment on this blog.  Please use this and others to engage in conversation….

I’ll be attending a Tiger’s Baseball game tonight.  This outing is sponsored by the Special Offerings committee--a fundraiser!  No blog tonight.  Next blog will be on Tuesday night, when most committees will have finished their work.  Until then….

The Deep Peace of Christ be with you.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

General Presbyter Sabbatical Plans

It has been my honor to serve as General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan since January 2008. Now after six and a half years of service, I am very appreciative that the Staff Services Committee and Leadership Team have granted me a three month Sabbatical for rest and rejuvenation of spirit and body. My Sabbatical is scheduled for Monday, June 23 through Sunday, September 21, 2014.

On a personal note, this summer is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Eileen's and my dating relationship.  We will celebrate the 38th anniversary of our marriage on August 14th.  July 14th will be the 30th anniversary of my ordination.  We have served side by side in the P.C.(U.S.A.) over these years, with the Presbyterian Mission in Brazil, then congregations in North Carolina and Virginia while seminarians, and then congregations in Pennsylvania and New York and now the Presbytery of Lake Michigan.  This is my first Sabbatical.

Sabbatical Plans:  Eileen will be taking an unpaid leave of absence to accompany me on a Pilgrimage to Scotland June 25 through July 24th. We will tour Edinburgh and London, then spend a week (July 5-11) at Iona for a conference "Facing Our Environmental Challenges" with David Osborne, a professor of theology.  The conference will not center on the science of climate change or global warming, but on the theological implications and psychological dynamics at play concerning our reluctance to engaging this global challenge. This is a great concern of mine, which I believe has profound implications for faithful leadership in the coming years.  I believe this leadership challenge transcends the issues which absorb our daily attention.  We will then explore the Scottish Highlands, and conclude with a brief stay at the the Northumbria Community in Northern England, a community which has given us the "Celtic Daily Prayer" Book.

After a week's rest at home, we will visit family in Pennsylvania and Long Island as we normally do.  Eileen will then return to work on August 19th.  I will then have five weeks at home for reading, resting, prayer and contemplation, enjoying the biking trials and rivers of Southwest Michigan.  I will join you at the Presbytery Retreat at Geneva Shores, September 15-16, and will return to work on Monday, September 22nd.

I have contracted with Nelson Lumm and Larry Boutelle, both honorably retired minister members of the Presbyter, to fill in as acting General Presbyter for head of staff, administrative leadership and crisis management for 12 hours a week during the Sabbatical.  Pastoral responses will be delegated to COM and other available persons.  Use the following email address and phone number to contact them:  plmactinggp@gmail.com,  and/or 269-381-6337 ext. 1.

Prior to the Sabbatical, I will be attending the 221st General Assembly in Detroit June 13-21, during which I will be blogging here and posting my impressions on Facebook.  Please join the Presbytery of Lake Michigan Facebook group for photos and videos. The deliberations of General Assemblies often focus us on what divides us. However, Assemblies also point to what unites us.  This Assembly will celebrate Holy Communion every day.  Mission co-workers will be commissioned, and mission stories will be shared, which we all celebrate.  However, Presbyterians have always been rigorous in discerning the will of God on pressing matters contemporary to ministry. This is part of our DNA as Presbyterians.  Presbyterians nation wide, as well as within our Presbytery, agree on some matters and disagree on others.  I suspect this will be true again this summer as well.

As I will not be with you in the aftermath of this summer's Assembly, I share here my commendation and prayer.  I commend to you our Lord's "Other" Prayer in John 17:11, "Protect them (the disciples) in your name that you have given to me, so that they may be one as we (the Holy Trinity) are one."
Our unity is the content of our Lord's other prayer, his hope for the disciples as he prepared to leave them. Such unity does not mean unanimity, but unity in our diversity as expressed in the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.  "The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church's membership" (F-1.0403).  This diversity is not always seen in our congregations, but is more apparent when we come together in the larger contexts of Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assembly, and ecumenical relationships.

So I call upon the teaching and ruling presbyters of this presbytery to honor our historic principle of showing mutual forbearance toward one another, and fulfilling our ordination vow to be governed by the church's polity and to be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God's Word and Spirit (W-4.4003e). Christ's call to discipleship is to love not only our neighbors with whom we agree, but also our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  The Church calls us and we covenant together to be a friend of colleagues.  Sometimes this is hard, but I believe the Spirit of God is in the midst of us in profound ways when we walk that path.

The Leadership Team and I want to model for pastors and Sessions the gift of Sabbatical for the vitality and health of ministry.  May God bless our pilgrimages!  

May the Grace and the Deep Peace, which we know and share in Christ, be with you.

John Best,
General Presbyter

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Other Lord's Prayer

“The Other Lord’s Prayer”

The lectionary gospel text for Sunday, June 1st is John 17:1-11.  When I have preached on this text, I have entitled the sermon, “The Other Lord’s Prayer.”  In the Sermon on the Mount and Plain Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven….”  Most Christians learn and memorize the Lord’s Prayer.  Scholars refer to John 17 as Jesus’ High Priestly prayer.  I call it the Other Lord’s Prayer.      
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.” (vs. 11)
“Holy Father, protect them.”  Can you imagine how vulnerable and fragile those first followers were? God’s reign which Jesus ushered into the world would hang by the thread of their witness! Talk about angst!  Would they keep the faith?  Would they understand it?  Would they be thwarted by the rejection in the synagogues and temple leaders? Would they survive the coming persecution of Rome? 
“Holy God, protect them”their road would not be easy.  They would be persecuted, suffer, killed and raised, glorified as he would be.  He predicted this for himself and them. We American Christians enjoy a religious freedom.  Unlike the church in Cuba, where for 35 years a few church leaders kept church doors open when the atheist government frowned on church activity.  Our suffering comes more from stress within the church as we struggle to love one another, fight over how best to witness in our communities, and discern the will of God.     
Holy God, protect them?  However, God did not protect Jesus, nor the early Christians from suffering. Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome, “Their suffering will produce endurance, and their endurance will produce character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint them. (Romans 5:3-5).
“Holy God, protect them?”  They were not protected from harm’s way.  What does he mean?
Gospel living puts us in harm’s way, in the crucible of loving another soul. When you start carrying about someone other than yourself, you expose your heart to hurt. You expose your mind to ideas other than your own. When you share your life in community with others, it isn’t easy.  Church life is a learning laboratory of community living. And it’s full of frustrations. Good strongly committed people don’t always see eye to eye. We fight over the color to paint the sanctuary, over so many little insignificant things. Sometimes we argue over very significant matters of life and death.  “Holy God, protect them,” us from self imploding. 

This year the Presbytery of Lake Michigan has been introducing Polarity thinking to our church leaders.  Often conflicts arise out of the energy that flows between two opposing poles. An example in Scripture and theology is law and grace. The Pharisees and Jesus battled on this one.  The Pharisees were stuck on the law and righteousness.  Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)  Polarity thinking suggests that instead of choosing sides in a zero sum game, we move from an either/or stance to a both/and stance.  Stop trying to solve a problem that will never be solved, but identify/see the polarity and manage it to get on the up side of both poles.
Sometimes polarities lead to a tug of war, a stand off, and a vicious cycle of self defeating behavior where the church suffers the down side of both poles.  The Goal of our initiative is to experience the up side of both poles.

The two polarities we assessed in 32 of our 66 congregations in October 2013 and in March 2014 are the Spiritual Health of the Individual & Spiritual Health of the Church, and Tradition & Innovation. It turns out, according to nearly 2000 assessments completed in 32 congregations; we are healthier than we think.  There is always room for improvement.  Again, the premise of the Thriving Congregations initiative is to move away from vicious cycles of infighting, and to consciously choose to honor the value of both poles.  Thriving congregations see and manage polarities well.

“Holy God, protect them,” us from imploding, vicious cycles, self defeating behaviors that turn congregations into environments which repel the very ones we seek to attract.

“Protect them in your name…so that they may be one, as we are one.”  Think about it. We know the content of three of Jesus prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and this High Priestly Prayer. Our unity is at the heart of this other Lord’s Prayer.

What is that, to be one?  It doesn't mean agreement!  Look at our history, as Protestants, Reformed, Presbyterian Christians, we are forever protesting, reformed and always reforming some indiscretion, some impropriety, challenging some tyranny. We fight and sometimes split, old side/new side, old school/new school, abolition/pro slavery, modern/fundamentalist.  We fight and then sometimes mend the rift and reunite, recognizing the inevitable of who we are and whose we are.  We are disciples of Jesus Christ, sinners in the need of grace, who have died and been raised to new life in Christ, celebrated in baptism.  God calls us to live in covenant community, whether we like each other or not, whether we agree with each other or not.  We rediscover again and again our oneness in our Baptism, and in this Other Lord’s Prayer, “that they may be one.”

We have been living through a new reformation for some time. The church has been divided on matters ordination, and sexual morality.  We have tried to legislate matters.  Recently, we’ve been tied in a draw, votes teetering back & forth 51 to 49%.  So as I anticipate the coming General Assembly in Detroit, I pray with Jesus, “Holy God, protect them in your name…so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In our better moments, we do get it, and have carved Christian Unity as foundational to our faith in the constitution of the church.
“Unity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ.  Just as God is one God and Jesus Christ is our one Savior, so the Church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ.  The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.  There is one Church, for there is one Spirit, one hope, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, on God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:5-6) (Foundations of Presbyterian Polity: Book of Order F-1.0302a)

Unity made sense to the Apostle Paul when he thought of the human body and its many parts.  All parts of the body are important and necessary for the functioning of the whole body. We are reminded of this at every ordination and installation of a church leader called to ordered ministry. (1 Corinthians 12)

Unity is not unanimity, but it is more like making music.  Singing in unison is nice. Singing in harmony is far richer. Putting a counter point with a different rhythm adds even more.  But every singer musician has to keep to the same beat of the One Lord.  The beauty of music comes in its rich complexities of voices held together by the one beat of the master director Jesus Christ, who loves us all.

Unity is not a mono-culture of sameness, but the strength of honoring diversity in Christ.  The American experiment of modern agricultural has led to a mono-culture of one high production cash crop.  This has some benefits of high production, but at a cost to the soil, and with the added need for harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer.  We are learning again the wisdom farmer stewards of the soil have long known: diversity of crops, crop rotation--don’t risk putting all your eggs in one basket.  There is natural harmony and strength in diversity.  God designed the world in all its glory with a built in interdependence and strength in diversity.  The flower needs the bee to pollinate it.  The bee needs the flower.  The bat needs the insect. It all fits together in a godly harmony of balance. 

God calls us to live in covenant community not to ourselves, but with God and each other.  In covenant community we call church, God calls us to practice the new thing that God is doing in the world.  What if we lived in such a covenant community like the holy Trinity?  What if we set down the polarized tug of war rope which leads to stalemate, long enough to listen to, understand and respect the value of another’s position?

Unity in diversity is foundational in our faith!  It IS the Other Lord’s Prayer.
“Holy God, protect them in your name…so that they may be one, as we are one.”

You can follow the work of the General Assembly by going to PC-Biz.  http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga221/pcbiz/  All the business before the 221st GA is available there, along with the committee assignments, and their work.  Log on in see for yourself. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tools for Spiritual Formation

The March/April 2014 issue of Horizons, entitled "Bible 301," provides many tools for equipping the church for making disciples. Here are highlights of a few articles and how I've seen them reflected in our congregations.

The Artful Christian:  Nurturing Faith Through Art, pp. 12-15
Katherine M. Douglas urges us to consider incorporating the arts, not just language, into our expressions of faith, but suggests that creative expression draws us closer to our Creator God and all people.  For nearly 50 years the Interpretive Arts Team at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portage has prepared a visual arts interpretation of their church's Sunday worship theme.  They keep a photo gallery of each display in their library.  For the second year, they have sponsored and hosted a juried art festival during lent.  This year's theme is Earth Care.  This year's Exhibit is one display through April 22 when winners will be announced and celebrated.   Rev. Timothy Chon, the pastor of North Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lansing taught liturgical art seminar at Princeton Theology Seminary during his Sabbatical last year, is the director of the art studio at the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Program at St. Francis Spirituality Center in DeWitt, and is on the worship committee for the 221st General Assembly.

How to Study a Bible Passage, pp.16-19
Donald L. Griggs, former professor at P.S.C.E (Presbyterian School of Christian Education) in Richmond, Virginia, my wife, Eileen's professor when she was a student there, offers timeless suggestions of both resources to consult and questions to ask) for making Bible study enriching.  Nothing new here for seminary graduates, but clear direction for discipling persons who are unfamiliar with the Bible.  Rev. Charlotte Ellison, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Albion recently lead a dialectic interactive sermon with the Albion congregation using many of the techniques and questions outlined here.

Bound Together in Love:  Bible Study as Group Process and Possession, pp. 20-23
Sharon Dunne Gillies celebrates the gift and value of the Presbyterian Women's historic practice of a group doing Bible Study together.  Presbyterian Women have been publishing a Bible Study for many years.  The Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba does the same.  The Administration Ministry Team of Lake Michigan Presbyterian prepared a Stewardship Curriculum "Building Hope" in 2010, which bound many of us together.  Imagine the members and Sessions of Presbytery covenanting to engage a text for the year?

Reading Plans for the Bible, pp. 24-25
Chip Hardwick, PC(USA) Mission Agency Director of Theology, Worship and Education, spotlights various methods for reading the Bible in its entirety.  My fondest memory of my seminary experience was a concentrated January English Bible course with Elizabeth Achtemeier.  We read through the Bible in a month, while Dr. Achtemeier lectured on the broader themes.  She used old Bible Content Ordination Exam questions to test us and prepare us for the Ordination Exam two weeks later. Compared to the exegetical courses which examined particular texts, it was like sitting in an Amtrak traveling across the country, watching the scenery fly by in a blur.

Websites, Apps and Streaming Content! Online Resources for Bible Study and Prayer, pp.27-29  
Kathryn McGregor profiles some of the best websites and smartphone apps for engaging in focused, informed Bible Study.  The directors of Presbyterian resource centers and Christian Educators now have an online resource center http://www.parc-pcusa.com/online-resource-center.html  The group doesn't create content, but sifts through the tremendous number of online resources for faith formation and determines which ones are appropriate for Presbyterians.  Some highlighted in the article are:  Bible apps... http://www.biblegateway.com/  and http://globible.com/  and https://faithlifebible.com/  Devotional Apps:  http://d365.org/ is sponsored by the PC(USA) and two other denominations.  Prayer Apps: http://prayerbowls.com/   The PC(USA) offers the Daily Prayer PC(USA) app which includes psalms, readings from the daily lectionary, prayers of thanksgiving and intersession, and concluding prayers for morning, midday, evening and the close of day from the Book of Common Worship.  At a recent gathering of judicatory leaders in Central Michigan, the Roman Catholic Bishop was embarrassed when he realized that he had agreed to lead us in an opening devotional worship.  He had forgotten!  Yikes!!   Without batting an eye, he pulled out his smart phone, opened the Catholic Prayer Book app and led us with the mid day prayer liturgy and text.  No sweat!

Tools for the spiritual formation of disciples in the 21st Century!  Good stuff!  God speed!


Monday, March 24, 2014

Rediscovering Our Purpose as Discipling Communities

"The purpose of 
the Presbytery of Lake Michigan is 
to challenge, encourage, and equip 
worshiping communities of faith 
to make disciples of Jesus Christ 
with the gifts God gives them."  

Toward Presbytery's purpose of equipping for making disciples of Jesus Christ, consider this quote from  Rick Rouse and Craig Van Gelder's book:   "A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation: Embarking on a Journey of Transformation," Augsburg Fortress (c) 2008, pp. 60-61)  

"The missional congregation finds it's purpose grounded in God's mission--living for the sake of the world as it participates in God's redemptive ministry of reconciliation for all creation.  Within this identity people are invited to make life-changing commitments as they discover the grace of God in becoming modern-day disciples of Jesus Christ.  The missional congregation understands baptism as a call to vocational service of God and others, an ordination into ministry in daily life.  The missional congregation is serious about cultivating committed disciples for Jesus instead of just adding more members to the institutional church.  Congregations that focus on discipleship are:
  • not as concerned about numbers; and more concerned with how well people are living their faith and sharing the gospel.
  • not as concerned about how well we care for members; and more concerned with how we serve needs in the world around us.
  • not as concerned about maintaining institution (structure); and more concerned with empowering people for ministry.
  • not as concerned about preserving facilities (ownership); and more concerned with offering them as a gift to our community.
"What if congregations in the United States were to rediscover their purpose as discipling communities?  What if every congregation reordered its priorities for ministry with the primary focus on helping these communities of faith grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ in order to live out a discipleship that was for the sake of the world?" 

Those of you who are learning polarity thinking will recognize this as either/thinking.  This is a not a problem to be solve, but a polarity (Inreach and Outreach) to be managed.  This is a both/and.  The unhealthy cycle many of us have been stuck in, is a laser inward focus on caring for self, the needs of our members, our buildings, our institution.  As our numbers diminish and urgency strikes, our motivation is to grow large enough to make us feel good again about our congregation, our presbytery, our denomination.  Our sense of urgency may be self serving, real and appropriate, but our motivation which will sustain our efforts must be something more!  That something more, I believe, comes from our core identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, baptized to new life in Christ and called make disciples.  Jesus in his person, brought near the realm of God,  the kingdom of heaven, incarnating, making real and present the love of God  to those he encountered. As a disciple of Jesus, I understand my calling is to do likewise.  Our collective acts of loving kindness, mercy, justice likewise brings God's kingdom near.  Not perfectly, but through God's grace, transformative.  This is who we are, disciples of Jesus. Any anxiety of our identity dies in our baptism, and secured in our rising with Christ.  Our Lenten Journey ends in Easter Celebration:  Resurrection.  


Monday, March 10, 2014

Son of God, the Movie

The new movie, "Son of God," is now showing in cinemas.  I saw it this past weekend. The actor portraying Jesus didn't look very middle eastern....and the flogging and crucifixion were gruesome, but not nearly as extreme as Gibson's "Passion of Christ" was.  It is a faithful telling of the gospel story told with all the skills of a 21st century movie maker.  I loved the tight editing.  The Apostle John narrates the story.  The movie shares John's point of view, that Jesus is the eternal Word, the Son of God, whose miracles are signs of this truth, that Jesus was the paschal lamb, who died for the sins of the world.

As the first gospel writers and redactors did, this movie maker takes Jesus's words we know in one scene in scripture and puts them in Jesus' mouth in other settings.  Such as in the call story of Peter.  Brother Andrew and then James and John and father Zebedee are absent in the scene as this movie explores imaginatively what that scene might have been like.  Another story we know elsewhere in scripture, when Jesus meets Peter at the end of a disappointing day of fishing, is used to convey Peter's call.  Jesus wades out to the boat and climbs in and quickly Peter pulls in an unexpected huge catch.  Then Jesus says, "Follow me, I will make you a catcher of people."  Peter follows because of Jesus' extraordinary power.  As I ponder Peter's call story in scripture, I imagine Peter dropping his fishing nets and following, because of Jesus' authority, perhaps also because of what he had heard about him, but most of all because of his extraordinary loving manner with people, "his way," as Peter speaks of it later in the movie.

The first disciples called themselves not so much a church, but "people of the way," the way of Jesus.   That resonates with me as I ponder the emerging nature of the church today, and the purpose of Lake Michigan Presbytery.  "The purpose of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan is to challenge, encourage and equip worshiping communities of faith to make disciples of Jesus Christ with the gifts God gives them."   The movie scene which most dramatically portrayed this "way" in the movie for me was the call of Matthew, a tax collector.  Matthew's eyes rimmed with tears as Jesus approached him.  Sitting at his tax collecting table lonely in a crowd of people, shamed for his benefiting from the empire's tax burden on his neighbors, Jesus loving gaze at Matthew without a word communicated understanding, compassion, forgiving love.  Matthew's eyes filled with tears and over flowed, as he leaves the tax table to follow Jesus.  That scene is worth the price of admission!  

Who in your community, like Matthew, is starved for love?  How do you need to grow as a disciple to encounter such a person and show such love that does not need words.  Our colleagues serving as chaplains in hospitals, nursing homes, the military, and with hospice are on the front lines of such heart to heart encounters.  Pray for them.  Pray also for God to open our hearts to recognize love starved people we meet in our daily activities outside the walls of our sanctuaries. Disciple making is not a program.  It is a way of living and encountering others in the way of Jesus with the amazing life transforming love of God.

Deep Peace of Christ,


"The purpose of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan is 
to challenge, encourage, and equip worshiping communities of faith 
to make disciples of Jesus Christ with the gifts God gives them."