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?

Maintenance or Innovation?

Last week, I was in Estes Park, CO for a national gathering of the Company of New Pastors. I spent the week with recent graduates from all of the PC(USA)’s seminaries who were selected for this program because of the particular promise that they showed for ministry. There were some good things about this week, but there were also some things that I’ve observed that leave me worried about the future of our denomination. Here are a few:

1.) We gathered for prayer three times a day. The first session was Tuesday evening. Chris and I were running late, and as we were walking down the hall to the meeting room, we heard the sound of voices singing “In the Secret.” We were both pleasantly surprised to hear passionate singing, no less singing of a song written this century. We then neared the meeting room, opened the door, and discovered a room full of young pastors sitting around and waiting for things to begin. The singing was coming from another room. Instead, our worship, (admittedly with some noble exceptions) slavishly followed the Book of Common Worship’s daily prayer rubrics. This made for worship that was theologically sound, but missiologically ineffective if ever attempted for use with laity (and even some clergy) under the age of 40 (and even some over 40).

2.) The retreat also included a panel discussion in which we could learn from several experienced mentor pastors, all of whom were very qualified for the task, and had good things to share. Since we’re all entering a ministry context in which the denomination we’re serving in is declining in numbers, young people are seemingly uninterested in the gospel (or at least they way in which it’s traditionally been presented), and we had a panel of entirely white pastors and the Company of New Pastors class was probably about 90% white (maybe even higher) despite the fact that ethnic minorities are all growing, you’d think there would be some significant discussion about missiological, evangelistic, and cross-cultural aspects of ministry. Nope. Most of the discussion centered on administrative issues of ministry; interacting with sessions and personnel committees, handling vacation and continuing education time, and so forth.

3.) There was also a time for people to meet in small groups based on ministry situations. (Solo pastor; associate pastor; still seeking a call; women in ministry). Given the context I described above in 2., and the fact that this was a gathering of the seminary graduates showing great promise, there would be a significant number of people going into new church development or the mission field. Once again, this wasn’t the case. Apart from Chris and I and those still seeking or not-yet-seeking a call, everyone else was in a traditional pastorate.

What bothers me about all of this is that our denomination is declining, even failing, and we desperately need new ministries and new structures if the ministry of the PC(USA) is going to continue. Instead, much of this retreat encouraged the maintenance of the present institution. The Company of New Pastors is an opportunity to challenge some of the PC(USA)’s best new leadership to taken on challenging and innovative ministries that can renew and revitalize our denomination. If only that challenge would be given…

Presbymeme the second

Alright, PC(USA) moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow has started a new meme for Presbyterian bloggers. The rules: answer each question in 25 words or less. Chris tagged me, and away we go…

1. What is your favorite faith-based hymn, song or chorus?

This is a tough one for me; I love singing. This might be cheating a bit, but I’m going to say the Sanctus (any version) while celebrating the Lord’s Supper. I love the Reformed theology of the Eucharist; that we’re joining Christ at his table. Singing the Sanctus (“Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of power and might! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”) is a profound reminder for me that we’re joining the angels, saints, prophets, apostles and martyrs around the throne. Mind-blowing.

2. What was the context, content and/or topic of the last sermon that truly touched, convicted, inspired, challenged, comfoted and/or otherwise moved you?

I was completely blown away by Ken Bailey’s sermon at New Wilmington Mission Conference this year. Check it out online. (Though you’ll probably have to cue it up in the middle of the worship service recording.) Just to give some context: Dr. Bailey was a missionary for something like 50 years in the Middle East. Sitting behind him during the sermon were career missionaries representing a combined total of more than 1,000 years of mission service.

3. If you could have all Presbyterian read just one of your previous posts, what would it be and why?

I’m going to go with “The Homosexuality Debate: Are We Completely Missing the Point?” The answer to that question is, in my opinion, yes, and you should read the post to find out why.

4. What are three PC(USA)-flavored blogs you read on a regular basis?

Lately, I haven’t been to active in the bloggin realm, since I don’t have my own internet access in the new apartment. I’m going to say Presbymergent, Presbygrow, and even though it’s not technically a blog, I do read the articles posted by Rob Gagnon on his website.

5. If the PC(USA) were a movie, what would it be and why?

I’m going to say A Mighty Wind. The movie’s a mockumentary, in which the characters take themselves entirely too seriously and don’t realize they’re actually being utterly ridiculous and are being laughed at by the audience. We in the PC(USA) are taking ourselves entirely too seriously and He who sits in heaven is probably laughing.

Now comes the part when I’m supposed to tag 5 others. I so don’t know 5 presbyterian bloggers who haven’t already been tagged and will actually post. The only one I can think of is Matt Bell. Matt, have at it.

E-care?

Last Saturday night, the PC(USA) General Assembly elected Bruce Reyes-Chow as its moderator. Something that made Bruce unique from other moderators and moderatorial candidates in the past is his use of the internet in his campaign. Bruce used a blog, a facebook group, and I’m assuming a bunch of other online social-networking resources to share more about himself and his positions, and, perhaps more importantly, to listen to the concerns of his fellow Presbyterians. The “Web 2.0” approach to ministry is a natural extension of Bruce’s personality, it seems. In fact, he mentioned during the moderator election that much of his pastoral work at Mission Bay is done online. He also made a point of saying that the medium of the internet in no way lessens his pastoral work.

As someone who’s worked for the past two years in college-age ministry, and someone who’s going to be doing more campus ministry and church planting with young adults, I’ve been intrigued for a while now about the appropriate use of online communication in ministry, particularly in pastoral care.

Working at KUPC, I found that using the internet helped my ministry a lot. Being on Facebook helped me learn people’s names much more quickly. Reading the blogs of students in the church helped me better understand who they are and the contexts I was called to preach into. Being on AIM opened up the possibility for some conversations with students that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. These are just a few examples among many of my ministry being enriched because of the internet.

At the same time, though, I saw ways in which the internet created barriers in ministry, especially in pastoral care.  In fact, my first experience in pastoral care at KUPC came to me via email. Without breaking any sort of confidentiality, I’ll just say that it was a pretty significant crisis. At first I found myself grateful that I was contacted by email. I didn’t have to be caught off guard, and it gave me the chance to really pray about and discern the situation. I found myself pacing back and forth in my dorm room and reciting what I had heard in Pastoral Care class… “Ok. Where’s Jesus in the situation? How do I bear witness to Jesus in this context?” Eventually I worked through these and more specific questions and sent a response.

Soon after, though, my gratitude for the internet turned into frustration as I got no immediate reply from the person on the other end. Was my email  helpful? Did I say everything that needed to be said? What if I missed the point of the problem entirely? I was quickly finding the isolation that the internet creates a frustration for ministry.

Now, I later realized that these questions that I was asking myself were really more reflective of my wanting to be affirmed than they were for doing faithful ministry. But, as I continued to handle this and other pastoral care “cases”  by communicating through IMs, emails or both, I also began to realize that other things were missing that were more important, like eye contact and (when appropriate) physical touch.

Perhaps the biggest piece that I’ve seen missing in doing “e-care” is the opportunity to pray with a person. In doing any one-on-one pastoral care, I always make a point of concluding a session by praying with and for the person. Frankly, I think the time spent in prayer with the person has always been the high point of any pastoral care I’ve done.  Most people will rarely hear someone actually pray for them, and that’s a gift we as pastors can give to people.

So, I’ve seen how “web 2.0” culture has opened up doors for ministry. At the same time, though, I’ve seen its limits. The same resource that makes us more connected to one another than ever before also seems, in some ways, to isolate us and keep us from communication on a deeper level.

Rather than draw any definitive conclusion, I simply pose a few questions:How much technology is too much in doing ministry? Is it possible to do pastoral care completely online without ever meeting in person? To what extent is our culture’s (over?)reliance on the internet to communicate an asset we can use for the sake of the gospel, and to what extent is it a fallacy that needs to be critiqued by the gospel?

The Homosexuality Debate: Are We Completely Missing the Point?

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard compares writing to mining. When we write, she says, our words are a miner’s pick. Our words probe into our thinking, and we follow where they lead. Sometimes our words lead us to a dead end, other times our words lead us to new territory, and we discover the real subject of our thoughts and find ourselves mining something completely different than what we set out for. The latter is what happened in my writing this post. This post was originally inspired by a brief online conversation I had with Bruce Reyes-Chow via comments made on Chris’s post about Bruce. If you don’t know him, Bruce is one of four PC(USA) pastors/elders who are standing for moderator of our General Assembly. I was originally going to write a post about stereotypical categories (like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’) and how Bruce doesn’t fit into either of those categories. Then all of a sudden I found myself writing about something completely different, and I found myself coming to conclusions I hadn’t come to before. So all that being said, here are some of my thoughts about the PC(USA)’s decades-long debate about homosexuality.

First, a parable: Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting at a poker table with three others to play a game of five card stud. The cards have been dealt, and being the shrewd, methodical poker player that you are, you look at your cards slowly, one at a time. First you see a ten of diamonds, then a Jack of diamonds… then the Queen of diamonds… your interest is perked. You uncover your next card and see that it’s a King of diamonds. Your heart begins to race. Then you look at your fifth card. Yep. It’s the Ace of diamonds. Somehow, you’ve managed to be dealt a royal flush, the greatest poker hand you can possibly have. You get excited knowing that you’re going to win the hand, and you begin to strategize your betting, so that your opponents don’t catch on. The person across from you is about to begin the betting. He says, “Got any threes?” And the person to your right says, “No. Go fish.” Your heart sinks, and you grow angry. You thought you had the perfect hand, and you did… if you were playing the right game. To your dismay, the game is Go Fish, and your royal flush suddenly has no value to the rest of the table.

Such is the problem, I would argue, with the homosexuality debate in the PC(USA) (and probably in most other mainline protestant denominations). The two sides are playing two completely different games. For example, those who support traditional ordination standards and consider homosexual practice a sin base their argument on about 4000+ years of Judeo-Christian tradition and on the teaching of Scripture. When it comes to Scripture, this side of the debate has a “royal flush.” The problem is those on the other side are playing a completely different game. Consider, for example, the remarks of Walter Wink, one of the leading scholars supporting ordination of homosexuals. In his article, entitled “Homosexuality and the Bible,” Wink says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”

It’s greatly significant that one of the leaders in the debate on the pro-homosex side admits that the Bible consistently identifies homosexual behavior as sin. The issue then is not a matter of “what does the Bible say?,” but rather “should we listen?”. For those supporting ordination of homosexuals, they’re much more likely (from what I’ve seen) to begin their arguments by talking about the experience of homosexuals (or their families and friends) in the church. They’ll tell stories of those who have been hurt and jaded by the policies of the church, and will conclude that their argument is a ‘royal flush.’ Of course, those on the other side think otherwise.

The homosexuality debate, then, is iconic of a larger, even more important issue surrounding theological method and authority of Scripture (and authority of our own experience). As less scandalous (and frankly less interesting) as it is, I don’t think the church is going to solve the homosexuality debate until it first takes time to determine what game it is we’re playing; we need to discuss theological method. We need to discuss the authority of Scripture and the authority of our personal experience (and while we’re at it, the authority of church tradition, reason, and science). Until we do, I think we’ll just keep arguing our points not realizing that the other side is playing a completely different game.

Confession of a White Male

I recently returned with my friend, Chris, from the PC(USA) multicultural conference. Chris has already posted a good summary and reflection on the conference on his blog, so I’m not going to bother rewriting what he’s already done a fine job doing.

I do though, want to reflect on what it means to be white/Euro-American. Honestly, I’ve never really thought about until this conference when Rev. Jin Kim of Church of All Nations challenged Chris and I to do so. Something that I’ve been learning from my Asian friends over the past year or so is the importance and significance of communal identity. As Euro-Americans, our culture is so terribly individualistic that we have no understanding of corporate identity, corporate sin, or even ethnic heritage. As I’ve been reflecting on this for a few days, I’ve been feeling the need to confess and repent, and while a don’t consider a blog post to be a valid Christian form of confession, I nevertheless want to write out what I feel I need to confess as a white male:

I confess that I’ve inherited and benefited from a legacy of oppression. I’ve benefited from a history of stolen land and slave labor solely because of the color of my skin. I’ve also received unjust privilege because of my gender, and have contributed to the unjust suffering of minorities in America and the poor across the world by virtue of the food I eat, the clothes I wear, and other ways that I’m probably completely unaware of. I confess that, until recently, I either didn’t care, ignored facts, or rationalized my way into denying the sin of my people. (And I could easily go on…)

I’d like to say that I repent of this, but sadly I’m not sure if I know at this point what genuine repentance looks like in this case. How does an individual repent of corporate sin? In concrete terms, as I turn away from the above what am I turning to? How do I completely crucify my ‘white privilege’ and to what am I raised? (And I could easily go on…)