Could a President Keep These Vows?

Chris and I sat in Arefa’s today and watched the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. A lot went through my mind. I was deeply moved seeing the faces of older African Americans watching the events of the day and wondering to myself how significant this day is for them. I found myself grateful for the country I live in when Chris reminded me how rare of an event it is in our world to see power change hands so easily and peacefully. I was honored when Marie, the owner of Arefa’s, entrusted me with the TV remote control during the inauguration. (Okay, so this last point pales in comparison with the others…)

 

What caught my attention most, though, was the actual oath President Obama took. My first thought was, “That was… short.” In fact, the Presidential Oath of Office is shorter than the Vice Presidential Oath. (Anyone know why that is?) When I shared this observation with Chris, he commented, “Yeah. Our ordination vows are longer the Presidential Oath of Office.”

 

This sent my Presbyterian mind racing. Being raised Presbyterian, one of the things I was always taught to appreciate about our heritage was the Presbyterian influence on the American political system. The representative democracy of our country derives from the Presbyterian practice of congregations being ruled by a ‘session’ of elders, and the larger denomination by elders and pastors from churches across the country. We have Presbyterian polity to thank for our American political system. What if, though, oaths of office were influenced by Presbyterian ordination vows?

 

When I was ordained back in September, I had to give an affirmative answer to each of these questions:

 

1.)    Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

2.)    Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

3.)    Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

4.)    Will you be a minister of the Word and Sacrament in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions?

5.)    Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

6.)    Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

7.)    Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?

8.)    Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

9.)    Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

 

Could these vows be adapted for a president, or any political ruler? A few references would need to be changed. The church would be changed to the American people, the Scriptures to the constitution, and the confessions perhaps to the rulings, decisions and policies of Supreme Courts past and present, and previous presidents. This does, of course leave one more reference that would need to be changed, but I can’t think of anything comparable to Jesus Christ or the Triune God that could be substituted where reference is made to them. (Perhaps this shows the weakness of government in a religiously plural society. There’s no Higher Power apart from an abstract concept to which the country’s leader can be expected to submit. But we’ll save that for a different blogpost…)

 

What do you all think? Would it be reasonable for a president to take vows comparable to these? What if the presidential oath of office included vows to work for the reconciliation of the world? Or vows to further the peace, unity and purity of America? Or vows to serve the American people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? Would this matter?

Missional Catechesis

Back in November, I got to perform my first baptism. (Yes, I’ve been meaning to write this post for that long.) The candidate (Shi) and I spent time in “catechesis” for about 40 days leading up to the baptism day. We met once a week and worked our way through the Heidelberg Catechism together.

Even though this was my first baptism, it wasn’t my first time doing catechesis. When doing the English Ministry (i.e. college ministry) for KUPC, 4 students sought to be baptized, and a fifth sought to reaffirm his infant baptism. I wasn’t ordained at the time, and so the baptisms were done by the senior pastor, but he gave me the responsibility and privilege of doing pre-baptismal counseling.

So, I had some prior experience in leading catechesis and I mostly knew what to expect. In addition to reading the Catechism, I also require baptism candidates to write their own statement of faith. I intentionally leave the assignment somewhat open-ended so that no one can reproduce what they think I want to hear, and they’re forced to use their own voice and perspective. The results are always fascinating and creative (and orthodox :-)) Some have simply translated the ancient faith into their own words. Others would include paragraphs on how they planned on living out their faith after being baptized. What Shi wrote back in November, though, was the most original and made me completely rethink the purpose of the exercise.

As Shi and I talked about how he would write the statement, he decided that he would write his statement as if a nonChristian were reading it. I thought this was a great idea, and I was even more surprised when I learned that Shi was writing it with a specific nonChristian in mind: his brother. The result was a statement of faith that was beautiful, honest, and very passionate. It ended with an invitation from Shi to his brother to follow Jesus. Shi wrote it with the intention of giving it to his brother after the service.

Typically when we require people to write statements of faith, we expect them to write with good, clear theology that shows their knowledge of church language. Whether it’s candidates for baptism or candidates for ordained ministry, requiring such statements implicitly tells people that what’s important is learning to speak “our” langauge and learning to fit into “our” church. What if we spent more time asking candidates to write statements of faith for those who don’t know church language? What if we expected them to do as Shi did, and write the statement as a letter to a friend who doesn’t know Christ and then give that person the statement?

Then, maybe, baptism wouldn’t only be a rite of passage into the church, it would also be the annointing of an evangelist.

Easy Evangelism

Last Saturday, I had an unexpected witness opportunity. I had planned on walking that morning to the Tango Cafe to get some work done, and then on to Chris and Eileen’s to interview some intern applicants. Those plans were altered, though, when I saw the fire at the Burton Hirsch Funeral home. The fire kept me from going into the Cafe, and instead I spent some time with other bystanders watching the largest fire I’ve ever seen.

Then came the witnessing opportunity. I stood on the corner of the street, and shouted at the crowd, “Listen up people! You see those flames?! Well, that’s what in store for you lest you repent….”  Just kidding. Besides the fact that I’m way too bashful ever to attempt something like that, it also probably (I hope) goes without saying that methods like that are inappropriate in any context. What did happen though was an unexpected conversation with a young woman.

She and I along with a couple others were talking about the fire, when I said, “Well, I’m walking to my friend’s place, and he lives up there, so I need to find an alternate route.”

She replied, “Oh, me too. How can we get there.”

So we walked together and made small talk for a while, talking about jobs and living in Squirrel Hill. Eventually it came out that I’m a pastor starting a new church in Squirrel Hill. She responded, “Oh, so you’re a pastor? Can I ask you some questions?”

From there, she shared her hesitations about faith and religion and why she considers herself an agnostic. Her concerns were honest and well thought out. In fact, she’s probably thought more about faith than most people who claim to be Christians have. I shared with her some of my own, similar struggles, and how I’ve worked through them. She said she found the conversation helpful, and even expressed interest in visiting “my church.”

As I reflected on this conversation, one of the first things I thought was, “That was easy!” The opportunity for witness came naturally and seemed to be leading to results. I think there were a few reasons for this:

1.) The conversation was on her terms. I never had to ask loaded questions or force the conversation into matters of faith. She brought it up and was never uncomfortable in the conversation.

2.) I was myself. As she was sharing her struggles, it was tempting to search my “apologetic memory bank” for a clever answer that would try to simply God and faith into logical reasoning. Thankfully, I resisted this temptation. She wasn’t speaking from her mind as much as she was speaking from her heart, and so I responded my sharing mine. We don’t speak to people’s hearts by logical reasoning, we do it by sharing our heart.

3.) The “evangelism” was more about listening than sharing. I never thought to myself, “Okay, Mike, squeeze in a good word for Jesus.” I eventually shared some of my own story, but most of the time I just listened to her. I think effective evangelism is just as much about being silent and listening as it is about proclaiming Jesus.

Pray that these conversations can continue!