Monday, June 08, 2009

Who ARE We?

What does it mean to be Presbyterian?

Indeed, what does it mean to be Christian?

Is it about what you do?

Is it about what you believe?

Is it a combination of both?

Who decides?

There's an inherent tension, I believe, between making sure that we stand for something, and not putting too much focus on policing member belief and behavior. We believe, after all, in the priesthood of all believers. But not all differences, not all principles can be cleared away with a rhetorical flourish.

Who is to judge? And how?

The root problem is that our systems rely on humans. Human humans, the kind with strengths and weaknesses, love and pain, doubts and sins and failures of every kind.

I know more Christians than I can count who work hard for a greater good, doing important works without calling attention to themselves, trying as best they can to follow Jesus' example.

I have seen good Christians behave in horrible ways to others in their communities: lying, manipulating, scheming, hurting all in the pursuit of an end they believed important.

The vast majority of Presbyterians I know serve honestly and with integrity. It pains and annoys me to say that like in every other organization, there are some Presbyterians who really like to be in the middle of conflict, who thrive on behind-the-scenes politicking, who believe that the ends do justify the means, who lose sight of larger goals in pursuit of immediate minutia, who seek power for its own sake.

(Disclosure: someone very dear to me was once viciously pursued and professionally harmed by a career administrator/executive who engaged in gossip, lying, secret meetings, and horrendously unprofessional behavior from a position of denominational power. This experience . . . shocked off my rose-colored glasses. It was actually a lot like a certain Ministry of Magic official - hem hem - in the fifth Harry Potter book/movie. It might have been laughable if it weren't so real.)

I'm sure there are damaged apples in every part of the tree, from youth to member, staff, clergy, executive, moderator, volunteer. We're all damaged apples, one way or another.

what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? MICAH 6:8 NRSV

I don't think our system is irrevocably broken. I just think we need reminding, every now and then, what we're about. I think we'll do bad things, sometimes, as individuals and as an organization, precisely because we're human. We fail and we fall short and we pick ourselves up to try again.

Still, I'd love to know what you think about this essay, called: The Inquisition.

For me, the single-word answer for how I feel is: unsettled.

Where I am right now, I tend to look for justice and kindness and humility on a personal scale before seeking out a larger context. I think it's hard to go wrong when facing this direction; the personal can and should be expanded outward to the global, while the neighbor can be disregarded when the focus is on the entire world.


Carmen Fowler said...

I going to have to go with the most basic of confessional statements in terms of what it means to be a Christian (and therefore, an essential part of what it means to be Presbyterian): Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter responds, "You are the Christ, the Son of the the Living God." Jesus affirms that Peter's confession is "right" and the product of divine revelation, not human reason. On this confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Church is built. "Membership" in that invisible body is ultimately up to the judgment of God, alone. If, however, one does not believe in the reality of God, and therefore cannot believe in the reality of a Son of God, then one has no reason to care if one is "included" or "excluded" from the visible reality of the organization known in the world as the church. It is time we all revisit the Nicene Creed and the debates surrounding the divinity of Jesus.

Stushie said...

I've just written something similar Sarahlynn about the 'dumbing down' of our beliefs in order to appease the world.

Sarahlynn said...

Stushie, I only had time for a quick read, but I wonder - do you see knowing the answers by rote (disciple names, Lord's prayer, 10 commandments) a way to measure faith or build that foundation of faith?

Carmen, what, then, of those who choose to join a church or call themselves Christian who don't believe in (for example) a literal resurrection. Does someone kick them out of the church?

I agree with you that God is the ultimate judge. Does that mean that we should not judge at all, here and now in our churches?

Quotidian Grace said...

I'm very disappointed that you would call this proceeding of Mission Presbytery an "Inquisition".

The issue presented was quite narrow--whether or not the church erred in accepting into active membership someone who did not profess faith in Jesus Christ. That is the sole criteria for active membership under our Book of Order.

In this case, there was no question that the man in question did not profess faith in Jesus Christ. In fact he had written widely to that effect at the time of the proceeding and did not dispute it nor did the session of that church.

Sarahlynn said...

My apologies for the misunderstanding; I'll clarify. The link refers to the title of the essay to which it links, not to my personal opinion on the matter.

Stushie said...

Sarahlynn, we teach our kids how to use a telephone by showing them how to punch the numbers; we show them how to operate a DVD by clicking the right buttons on the remote. How can we expect our kids to grow in faith if we don't teach them the basics...and how can we teach them the basics if we do not know them for ourselves?

I'm also with Jody on this issue about this guy who has know faith in Christ. How can we bring him into the church which is ostensibly the bridegroom of Christ if the first public vow that we make is: "Do you believe Jesus Christ do be Your Savior and Lord?"

As for being "inquisitional," everything was done decently and in order.

Stushie said...

oops..."no faith in Christ"...I really need to wear my spelling glasses when keyboarding...

Sarahlynn said...

Stushie, I agree about teaching our children, and that the teaching should not stop with children. I was at a dinner party the other night (Dinners for 8, a great way to meet people in our congregation with whom I might not ordinarily cross paths) and we got into an interesting conversation about Pentecost.

One very active long-time member in her late 80's had no idea why the sanctuary was "decorated" in red last week. The pastor, perhaps assuming that people understood about Pentecost, didn't explain thoroughly during the sermon (which did follow the lectionary). I think that must be an interesting balancing act for pastors: how to keep engaged those who are familiar with the Bible and the creeds while still helping others to learn.

I'm not sure that teaching the Bible will lead to faith, but I think it's an important place to start. (I think it's possible to be very familiar with all the teachings, and still not believe; faith isn't meant to be easy or logical. I imagine we agree on that, too.)

As for Jensen, it's still a situation that unsettles me. I don't think I disagree with you. But on the other hand, his perspective is certainly one I've heard before. I'm not sure it's helpful not to talk about it, not acknowledge this thing that's out there. (And by "out there" I mean: probably within every congregation and not just in our denomination.)

I do think there are more and less constructive ways to talk about the issues. I don't think it's helpful to be intentionally inflammatory in a situation like this. (And it seems that - perhaps - that's the approach that Jensen and his pastor have taken.)

Sandy said...

What is membership other than the right to vote? I can affirm my faith in God and Christ without membership. I can tithe without membership. I can take communion without membership. I can lead a spiritual life and believe all the Presbyterian fundamentals without membership. Is who we are a social club where only the "right kind of people" can join?

What struck me when I was reading the article was that it actually bothered him. For some reason he ended up at that church--a church-going atheist. And for some reason, since joining he had moved from atheist to something else--agnostic, not sure, who knows what. But he had moved--"help my unbelief." Maybe his pastor, session and congregation saw something in him that everyone else is too blind to see.

Stushie said...

Membership is more than a right to vote. It is purely a Christian concept of one body of believers taken from Paul's images in his letter to the Corinthians. It didn't exist before Paul wrote about membership. Members of the one body operate under the same supreme head...Jesus Christ. We are His arms and legs, eyes and ears.

This is Christian connectionalism at its most foundational root in the church.

Belief in Christ is of the utmost importance to becoming a member of His Body, the Church. What they did in Texas was bring an atheist into a religious country club, not the Church of Christ.

Sarahlynn said...

Stushie, I agree with your point about membership, but Sandy's point is a very good one: he's not an atheist anymore.

"Maybe his pastor, session and congregation saw something in him that [no one else saw]."

Stushie said...

I understand that SarahLynn, but until he confesses that Christ is His Lord, he's not a member of the Church either.

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