If you are new to this blog....

Welcome! The primary purpose of this blog is to explore and encourage around what it means to be winsome and sent into the world for God's glory. If you are new here, the definition of "lighthouse-searchlight" or our missional journey is a good place to start. Come peruse the blog and add me to your RSS feed!

Friday, December 26, 2008

all creation was waiting (christmas eve message)

A blessed Christmas to all!

Here is audio of my Christmas Eve message... about 7 1/2 min. long with the prayer at the end. Or, you can read the transcript (I was reading this time) on the sermon blog HERE.

"All Creation was Waiting" (audio)


Thursday, December 18, 2008

gspc christmas e-card

Last Wednesday, a group from church went caroling in our neighborhood. The group was warmly received; kids would peek out their window and families would come to the door. I'm sure it seemed like something out of a movie or times long past... about 40 people of all ages singing joyfully. What fun... and I think a good searchlight witness to the neighbors we are slowly and persistently trying to get to know and love. Click below for a link to hear us sing (we stopped under a streetlight for a brief video e-card recording) and for a challenging and heartwarming Christmas story from one of our members.

Merry Christmas from Good Shepherd!
[link]


Friday, December 12, 2008

facebook wisdom, pt. 2

Facebook is the dominant online social network and we are to bear the light into the world around us. Can these two statements come together somehow? Can Facebook be more than superpokes and virtual snowball fights?

In the previous post I shared one practical (by me) reflection on Facebook usage. Here I share a very thoughtful on by Justin Buzzard, writing on the Gospel and Culture Project.

Here's two parts of Justin's article: read the rest HERE

Here are nine ways not to use Facebook:

1. Don’t use status updates to complain. For many, complaining has become a trend on Facebook. With their status updates, many people broadcast consistent grumbles, like: “Joe is bored,” “Joe can’t wait to leave his stupid job,” or “Joe is exhausted.” By all means, be real, be honest and authentic, but beware of the culture of complaint.

2. Don’t measure your worth/identity by the number of your Facebook friends and interactions. Facebook measurements are the opposite of gospel measurements. Facebook tells you that the more Facebook friends and interactions you have, the more important, loved, and accepted you are. The gospel tells sinners an opposite message: no matter how lonely, unpopular, or unnoticed you might feel, in Jesus you are more loved, accepted, and noticed than you can imagine.

3. Don’t value forming Facebook (virtual) friendships more than real world friendships.

4. Don’t diminish your face-to-face time with people to check what’s going on in your Facebook world. If you’ve ever been out to dinner with friends and found yourself anxious to pull away and check out what’s happening on Facebook, you know what I’m talking about.

5. Don’t be someone online you’d never be in person. Let Facebook reflect the real you, not some pseudo-personality that emerges when you’re alone with your computer.

6. Don’t hurt and exclude others (intentionally or unintentionally) through use of applications such as “Top Friends.” Likewise, don’t become jealous of others having conversations without you. Be patient and gracious with potential misunderstandings that inevitably happen in cyberspace. When you spot something on Facebook that causes feelings of hurt or jealousy, assume the best.

7. Don’t allow Facebook and online life in general to make you a more distracted person. If you’ve noticed that use of Facebook and online life—constant change, updates, movement, and hyperlinks—has made it more difficult for you to sit down and read a book for one hour, you’d benefit from stepping back and evaluating how this technology is affecting you.

8. Don’t allow Facebook to tempt you away from your calling and work. Don’t let Facebook’s little status updates (“Lisa is chewing gum”) and Wall writings take your focus off the great and big things that your heart should be engaged in, namely the work that God has put you on earth to do.

9. Don’t let Facebook cause you to think about yourself more than you already do. You were created to look outside yourself toward God, other people, and the wonder-filled world he has made for you to enjoy and cultivate.

In the same vein, here are six ways to use Facebook to love God and others, and care for your own soul:

1. Use Facebook to get back in touch with far-away friends, showing them how Jesus has changed you. As Facebook has reconnected me with friends from my past, a number have been struck by how much I’ve changed. High school friends from Sacramento regularly express shock at learning that I’m a pastor.

2. Use Facebook as an extension of face-to-face relationships and to enhance time with people. Get to know people and love and care for them better when you’re with them because, through Facebook, you know more about who they are and what’s going on in their lives.

3. Use Facebook to take the focus off of yourself. Facebook can actually help you get outside of yourself and your problems. Next time you login, use the time to focus on creatively listening to, loving, and encouraging others. Approach Facebook thinking about what you can give.

4. Use Facebook to sharpen and discipline what you do with your time. Facebook status updates can serve as a form of built-in accountability. Just knowing that my Facebook community can read my updates provides additional motivation to stay on task and actually do what I say I’m doing.

5. Use Facebook to quickly announce and facilitate great face-to-face gatherings. Instead of taking 45 minutes to call 10 people to come over for a spontaneous evening, use Facebook.

6. Use Facebook to influence other people for Jesus. Create a new culture with your status updates. Use them to love, encourage, teach, and challenge people.

Recently, my wife used a Facebook status update to express how her reading in the Gospel of John was encouraging her. One of my wife’s friends from high school read my wife’s update on a particularly difficult day, triggering her to begin reading the Gospel of John. Since that status update, my wife and her friend have had several fruitful conversations.

We are all in different places in our use of technology. As a result of bear hugging, some of us are Internet addicted and need to take a fast or maybe even a permanent break from Facebook. Some of us need to take more time to reflect, get alone with God, and ask him how to engage this technology for his glory, our good, and the good of others. A few of us are giving technology the cold shoulder and need to catch up with the 21st century.

May we work to put our use of Facebook beneath Jesus’ feet, along with everything else in our lives.

Justin Buzzard is a pastor at Central Peninsula Church on the San Francisco Peninsula. His first book, Consider Jesus, a guide to the book of Hebrews, will be published in early 2009. You can find him on Facebook under the name Justin Buzzard.

Let me know what you think!

Robert

facebook wisdom, pt. 1

Facebook is the dominant online social network and we are to bear the light into the world around us. Can these two statements come together somehow? Can Facebook be more than superpokes and virtual snowball fights?

In this post and the next I'll share one practical (by me) and one thoughtful reflection (by another person) on Facebook usage.

First, a recent Facebook note of mine:

Don't mean to be a downer, but:

Just a word to the wise, particularly all my new Good Shepherd adult face-booking friends...

Don't take it personally if I don't return thrown snowballs, plant a 'lil green patch, receive bumper stickers, or engage in mob wars.

It's nothing personal - I'm just cautious. Each one of these is an application that comes from outside Facebook. That means a 14-yr. old whiz kid could have written it. It means a marketing company for ping-pong balls could have written it to collect your personal information and that of your friends. They are fun, harmless looking applications that turn over your info to someone you don't know.

And sometimes... like "mob wars" apparently (a blog friend of mine was hit) - they can share a computer disease with you and all your friends and even take down your hard drive.

I continue to enjoy sharing photos, comments, and other Facebook-written features with you, but wanted to share with you my choice to say 'no' to all the rest... for what that's worth.
Let me know what you think!

Robert

Monday, December 01, 2008

silence and solitude

After Sunday's sermon on silence and solitude, a church member wrote this e-mail to me:

There was a young family I knew a number of years ago and the mother was expecting a baby shortly after the holidays.

She developed complications early in December and was confined to bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. She always had a dozen things going – and probably more during the holidays, whether activities with the kids, volunteering, decorating the house, baking, or hosting a party at their house. Her initial reaction was “how will we ever get through the holidays with me in bed?!?” Understandably, it turned out to be a very different Christmas for the family – no parties, relying on others for help, etc.

The “significant” part of the memory is that, after the holidays, she shared that it turned out to be one of the most special Christmases she’d experienced. Not just because of folks reaching out to help them, but because she saw it as a time the Lord was telling her to “be still” and that He was giving her a chance to focus on Christmas’ true meaning. I wish she could have been here this morning to testify to the truth of your message.

With wishes for a merry-but-quiet Christmas!

Friday, November 07, 2008

power and trust

If this is too long, these next two paragraphs are the bottom line... (also repeated at the end).

This GAPJC ruling does not help foster trust, increase dialogue, heal wounds, or move us forward. It is a show of force and power, demanding trust and requiring compliance. It is not the way of grace any more than starting in court. It reminds me of the husband who forbids his wife to spend time with friends, travel away from home, or do anything other than stay close, near, and servile. As a way of fostering dialogue, trust, and grace, that approach is toxic.

I appeal to those in positions of power: re-read the rationale and comments along with Item 04-28, given in my supporting notes HERE. Our witness to Jesus Christ in our communities is of far more value than getting the stuff. More important than the outcome is the process itself, and many of our presbyteries have no process. I am speaking as one of US to US; WE must do better in how we treat our brothers and sisters who are separating, if we are to survive and serve Christ.
=================

The longer version... (with some background if this is new to you)

A recent judicial action of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), set in the witness-tarnishing context of church splits and property lawsuits, compels me to write. It's not entirely off-topic for this blog since our effectiveness as a witness for Jesus Christ in our community is affected by the way Presbyterians are treating each other right now.

Going into the 2008 General Assembly, I was aware of a number of pastors, elders, and congregations talking about and exploring a move to another denomination. I also recognized that there was an assumption that the denomination was instructing the local governing bodies (presbyteries) to play "hard-ball" with any congregations considering this action. Only a very few presbyteries had an established process that mitigated that impression. My analysis has been that this context has led and perhaps even required congregations who were moving forward to exit the PCUSA to take pre-emptive legal action to make a claim on the local church property and buildings. For many reasons, this situation grieves me, and led me to offer a resolution (04-28) to the General Assembly calling on presbyteries to establish a process to relate to such churches, and hopefully a process that was gracious and offering a Christlike witness. More detail on that resolution is available HERE and the text, rationale, and oral presentations I gave are available in a 4-pg. PDF file HERE.

That resolution called on the Stated Clerk to share the resolution with every presbytery and congregation. Frustratingly, it was only sent to the middle governing body mailing list (synod and presbytery staff) with no explicit direction for them to forward it on to the local churches. So, I have been trying to share this resolution - strongly supported by the General Assembly - with those who need it most: HERE (please share widely!).

My frustration elevated this past week when I read the decision of the GAPJC in case 219-03: Sundquist v. Heartland Presbytery. That 14 pp. decision has a number of parts, but several things jumped out as unusual and over-reaching.

First, there is a whole section (II) given to ruling that "withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not a matter that can be considered at a congregational meeting." If that is true, then the following statement is non-sensical, since the presence of presbytery leadership or an administrative commission doesn't change what can or can't happen at a congregational business meeting.

Congregational meetings called or conducted by sessions for the purpose of voting on dismissal without the involvement of the presbytery are improper and have no binding effect.
It is not clear how withdrawal would be considered then, when the ruling goes on to state,

This does not mean that a congregation is prohibited from requesting dismissal. However, it is the presbytery...that has the responsibility to consult with the members of a church about dismissal (G-11.0103i).
I've read the ruling several times now and it seems to me that if there is to be any talk, prayer, discussion, wrestling with, or other consideration of separating from the PCUSA, that the GAPJC is forbidding local leadership and congregations from broaching the subject without direct leadership and involvement of the presbytery. That is impractical, unenforceable, and poorly explained.

  • Impractical: no pastor or Session (or individual church member) should dial up their presbytery with an invitation to dismissal procedures without first discussing the matter prayerfully and at length with the leadership and with the whole congregation.
  • Unenforceable: if it can't be a matter of business at a congregational (business) meeting, can it be discussed ever? The congregation can come together for fellowship, fun, or any other topic under the sun. Is the ruling really trying to tell us we can't ever talk about it at the congregational level?
  • Poorly explained: I hope this isn't forbidding free speech... rather, I've got to think the GAPJC is trying to say that (in their interpretation) the congregation can't make the decision to be dismissed; rather, the presbytery does that. Well, GAPJC also seems to say the congregation can't ask to be dismissed either... but I'd think a well-handled town hall meeting could instruct the Session on what to communicate to presbtery.
Second - and here's the part that got my goat - the ruling appeals to Assembly action 04-28 as rationale for forbidding congregational discussion. What?! It is used at the end of section II of the ruling to shame and threaten congregations when the primary recipient of Item 04-28 is the Presbytery. Perhaps the single biggest reason for that resolution (and this was stated in the resolution) is the lack of process for this very matter at the presbytery level. The resolution calls on presbyteries to establish a process for interacting with churches seeking dismissal; it sees the establishment of such a process as inviting to congregations and encouraging of dialogue... and the GAPJC jumps over that purpose to wield the resolution like a hammer.

This obligation and mutual responsibility for dialogue was made explicit by the 218th General Assembly when it adopted the Resolution for a Gracious, Pastoral Response (Minutes, 2008, Item 04-28).
...
Thus congregations, sessions, and pastors {RMA: and presbyteries??} who fail to abide by the principles of the Resolution for a Gracious, Pastoral Response or presbytery policies (such as the Heartland Resolution) that embody these principles shall have breached important responsibilities and duties. As Presbyterians, the church at every level must visibly demonstrate the covenantal ties that bind us as the one church of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Item 04-28 calls for presbyteries to make a process of dismissal available to its churches (rather than first demand that churches walk blindfolded to the table). Let every presbytery take that challenge seriously, then let's talk about how to get folks to the table.

I've been pondering these dynamics for a week now - this is no hasty post. (In fact, I've been pondering these things for years.) In the rationale for GA Item 04-28, I compare the relationship between a congregation seeking dismissal and the presbytery to a divorcing couple. One obvious thing to focus on in divorce is the "stuff" - the property and all, which usually requires attorneys and litigation. But we are the church! We are pastors and elders and if I were counseling with a divorcing couple, I would steer towards the attitudes and practices described in 04-28.

Here's the bottom line...

This GAPJC ruling does not help foster trust, increase dialogue, heal wounds, or move us forward. It is a show of force and power, demanding trust and requiring compliance. It is not the way of grace any more than starting in court. It reminds me of the husband who forbids his wife to spend time with friends, travel away from home, or do anything other than stay close, near, and servile. As a way of fostering dialogue, trust, and grace, that approach is toxic.


I appeal to those in positions of power: re-read the rationale and comments along with Item 04-28, given in my supporting notes HERE. Our witness to Jesus Christ in our communities is of far more value than getting the stuff. More important than the outcome is the process itself, and many of our presbyteries have no process. I am speaking as one of US to US; WE must do better in how we treat our brothers and sisters who are separating, if we are to survive and serve Christ.
=================

RESOURCES FOR PRESBYTERIES
Here are two processes that I've seen that best embody the spirit of Item 04-28...

Discerning God's Leading Together: the Jubilee Process - submitted to the Presbytery of Olympia for consideration. [I don't know the result, but this document builds explicitly on Item 04-28 and looks full of grace and truth]

Presbytery of San Joaquin - Property Covenant - San Joaqin has had to use this more than once and are worth consulting. The EP is Rick Irish, whom I met at GA when he presented an overture on "Solemn Assemblies" - also adopted by the Assembly.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

gspc kids rock!

Maddie Shuler - opening for Christian recording artist, Erik Bledsoe, at Pineville UMC on October 11, 2008. Songs are Maddie originals. Someone is also playing stuff and singing in the background. :)

"Time"


"Let it Go"


"Take Control"


Paul Castanet (bass), Cory Klein (drums), and Michael Valeri (vocals, guitar) - their band is The Pursuit, playing at Harrison UMC in a benefit concert for Erik Tanksley, a young boy with cancer. Songs are band originals.

"Is It You?"


"Family Girl"


"Coffee House"

Saturday, October 25, 2008

lighthouse - searchlight: short definition

In the Old Testament, God's people (Israel) were blessed to be a blessing. God was to be their God, but also promised to reveal Himself to the world through them. But, they were also charged with being a holy (and thus, separate) people. In order for the world to come to God and come to know God, they had to "Come and See" through Israel.

This is how most of us (in America) have "done church" for a long time now. We've built great ministries and programs and talked about inviting people to come and see and hopefully meet Jesus Christ in our churches. Increasingly, church has been geared toward this model, even with the extra sensitivies given to the "seeker model" and understanding exactly who we would hope to attract.

In it's best form, this is what I mean by being a LIGHTHOUSE CHURCH (but here's a longer definition).

But, in the New Testament, the model changed radically! Jesus said, "Come and see," to gather disciples and followers to himself, but his model for ministry and the charge he and the Holy Spirit gave the New Testament Church was to "Go and Tell!" No longer was the world supposed to come to and through God's people. Now, God's people were supposed to get up and get out to the world. Holiness still meant "distinct and set apart" but now the saints were to be in the world and not of the world.

We are still learning how to do this, but this is what it means to be a SEARCHLIGHT CHURCH (but here's a longer definition). Jesus' mission and God's heart is to seek and save the lost, and that means carrying the light of Christ into the darkness. Jesus not only said, "I am the light of the world"; he also said, "You are the light of the world." Let's continue inviting folks to church and Christ, but let's sink our hearts and hands into getting up and getting out... let's go and tell.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

how can i be a part?

Cross-posted from Good Shepherd Sermon Blog.

At Good Shepherd we have been asking the mission question - the lighthouse/searchlight question: "What is God doing and how can I be a part?" In this past Sunday's service we had a number of people from the Good Shepherd family share testimony about how they are answering that question. Listen to or download all the testimonies in series above or download individual portions below.

download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Right click on links below to download mp3 or left click to open in your mp3 player. All testimonies in sequence will play in the window by using the flash player above.

01 Robert Austell - A Faithful Worker (2 Timothy 2:15 mini-sermon)
(starts at 0:00)

02 Melanie Hatfield - In My Neighborhood (starts at 3:42)

03 Graham Meeks - Writing with Purpose
(starts at 9:28)

04 Phoebe Elliot - Serving in Worship (starts at 12:06)

05 Susan Slade - Rediscovering Talent (starts at 14:39)

06 Katie Meeks - A Mother's Calling (starts at 18:47)

07 John Shuler - Art and the Word (starts at 22:58)

08 Barbara Thompson and Jane Chiseck - Knitting in Nicaragua (starts at 25:47)

09 Mary Hill Lane - Piano, Prayer, and Technology (starts at 33:28)

Friday, September 12, 2008

inconsequential church, pt 2 [response]

As a follow-up to my post below called "Inconsequential Church," I would add the following (which I posted in the comments at Jan Edmiston's blog).

At my church, we've been wrestling with the [Michael Frost] question, "If your church disappeared tomorrow, would anyone outside the church notice or care?"

In some ways, it's like the question of whether anyone would notice or care if my family and I sold our house and moved out of our neighborhood.

Under what conditions would people notice or care? Well, probably they would if we had friendships and relationships with our neighbors... if we were good neighbors.

Surely the same is true of our churches (and there is some precedent, of course, to think about what it means for the Christian community to be a "good neighbor").

So, that's what we're pursuing as a church. It's awkward; there's no blueprint; we come from traditions of "if you build it they will come" and the only view of our literal church neighbors is the 20 second walk from the parking lot to the church building... and that, only if we look around.

It's strange and hard, but that's what I think it will take to be noticed, missed, relevant, significant, etc... - and those are non-club words for what I believe Christ asks of us in "faithfulness."

can i get a witness?

I read the report of the court case over Kirk of the Hills church with great sadness. In some ways, the expulsion of this congregation of over 2000 from the building and property saddens and discourages me more than the years of wrangling over ordination issues. When Christian sue Christians there can be no good outcome... only a lose-lose. When the local church wins the property, it's just embarrassing and a black eye on Presbyterians and Christians in general. But in this first prominent case of a presbytery winning the property from such a vital congregation... it is, in my opinion, disastrous.

Who in that community would want to come to the soon-vacant building? Who will buy the property? What will that money be used for? Even if a strict PCUSA understanding of property trust was upheld, something far greater was lost. The witness to Jesus Christ in that community and area, not only for PCUSA Christians, but for all Christians and churches, has been tainted. Does anyone doubt me? I'd pray that I'll be proven wrong. But go into a coffeeshop and ask someone who has read the article in the paper what they think of the Church... of Christians... and then count the cost.

Is there any way out of this? If I could plead with the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma, I'd say, "Okay, you've proven the polity case... now, won't you sell them the church back for $1?" That would be a miracle, of course, but I think it will take a greater miracle than that to pull the name of "Christian" back out of the mud for the next generation in Eastern Oklahoma.

For all the rest of the presbyteries watching... there is a better way! And by presbyteries, I mean the pastors and elders that constitute a presbytery. Please, please, whatever right you may claim to property, there are more important things at stake! If you have not considered a pastoral response to churches seeking dismissal, now is the time to wrestle with that gracious alternative to litigation.

inconsequential church

A Presbyterian pastor colleague posted a challenging and truth-full post on "church culture" that should pierce through our shells and awaken us to blindly and blithely we go about waiting for those outside the church to come to us... and we wonder why it doesn't happen. This piece reinforces the desperate need for us to become "searchlight" churches, and ones who grasp the great distance between church language and culture and that of the world around us.

Church World via A Church for Starving Artists by jledmiston on 9/12/08

M. and I were interviewed by our friend S. last night over dinner for a paper she's writing on particular cultures. She could pick any culture she wanted (think: bowling league culture, junior high girl culture, enlisted soldiers culture, etc.) She chose to analyze our particular congregation's culture.

Church World

Now that's a culture. And it's foreign to increasingly more people, at least around here.

There are so many catch phrases that we in the church know, but most in the world not only don't know but they couldn't care less.

Worship Wars
Circles
Bell Choir
More Light/Welcoming & Affirming [rma: or emergent... or confessing church... etc...]
Coffee Hour

If strangers come through our doors at all, imagine the culture they find. We hand them "bulletins." They call them "programs." We call it a "congregation." They call it "the audience."

My wonderful friend L. wrote this morning, that after a couple years away from "church" :

"It's difficult to convey just how completely inconsequential the world of the church is to those who aren't in it."

Yep.

So we can invest in new directional signs (like that would help. "They just can't find us!") Or we can start "a contemporary service." Or we can recruit "more families" or "more young people" to "join."

Or we can be the church out in the world. Do we even know how to do this? Have we ever known how to do this? Maybe not, because we've been so concerned with all those inconsequentials for so long.

Church World.

Anybody know what I'm talking about?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

open letter to my pcusa brothers and sisters

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

My name is Robert Austell and I am pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. I was a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church this past June (2008). While there, I wrote a resolution calling on presbyteries to establish a gracious process through which to relate to churches that might be seeking dismissal from the PCUSA. My concern is that lack of such a process in many presbyteries has resulted in "pre-emptive strikes" on all sides, often resulting in legal action between Christians.

The logic and gracious spirit of this resolution was sufficient to pass overwhemingly in committee (49-3-1) and then in plenary (519-157-8). With this vote, the General Assembly directed:
"...the Stated Clerk to send this resolution to the presbyteries, synods, and sessions, indicating the will of the Assembly that presbyteries and synods develop and make available to lower governing bodies and local congregations a process..."
The resolution goes on to describe goals for such a process so that it would be grace-bearing and witness to our mutual faith.

I would share this appeal with every pastor and session in our denomination - indeed, that was the overwhelming will of the Assembly! I am not looking for an easy or tough stance on dismissal - we need our presbyteries to create a gracious process, whereby brothers and sisters in Christ treat each other with the consistency, pastoral care, accountability, grace, openness, and honesty due to all people, much less fellow believers. This affects our public witness to Christ - it IS a public witness to Christ.

Each presbytery has the constitutional charge to set the tone for this.
  • If your presbytery doesn't have a process, use resolution 04-28 to get the ball rolling.
  • If your presbytery has a process, but you think it falls short of the ideals in this resolution, inquire about modifying the process accordingly.
  • If your presbytery has a gracious process already - get a copy and send it to me so it can be shared widely!
If you have any questions, would like resources or need direction in how to communicate with your presbytery about such a process, please e-mail me at robert@gspc.net.

You can find the full content and story of this resolution here:
http://robertaustell.blogspot.com/2008/07/god-on-move.html

I challenged each commissioner at General Assembly to carry the resolution to their presbytery. It's not something that can be ordered - just shared. Would you help do that by forwarding this as e-mail (or the link to this post) on to as many pastors or elders as you know in order to get this out to the church?

In God's grace,

Robert Austell
Pastor, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church -
Charlotte, NC
Minister Commissioner, 218th General Assembly (2008)

google reader

Time out for a commercial...

Why do I use Google Reader?

  1. I no longer have to visit the website of every blog I read to check for new content; it is sent to me in Google Reader as soon as it is written - Google calls it a "personalized inbox for the entire web"
  2. Each incoming post contains full graphics and audio (with pop-out option) along with one-click links to the original site and comments section.
  3. Each incoming post contains (via the Reader) a one-click link to tag by keyword, forward to a friend by e-mail, share via your own collective RSS feed to others, and more; you can also categorize your various feeds (like church-related, politics, etc...) and view one category at a time (like if you are at General Assembly and only want to access your church-related feeds)
  4. Since it's Google-based, you can access your reader from any computer or mobile phone browser anywhere you can access the Internet.
  5. It keeps track of what you've read (nothing to click; it marks as read as you scroll past, with an option to "keep as unread") and what you haven't while saving all the content online for you to Google-search and find later (did that register?? - I can Google search all the blogs I've ever read in Google Reader!)
  6. It's easy and straightforward to use and set up in any browser (see links below). If you use Firefox, there is an add-on that puts an "add to Google Reader" button in your address bar for any page that has an RSS feed (like this blog... click... now it's in Google Reader). IE8 has a built in reader, but after trying it for several months for my wife, she is also on Google Reader because of the ease of use and features.
How Do I Set it Up?
  1. I'm not sure I can be any clearer than the instructions at the site here: www.google.com/reader
  2. You'll need a Google account (but there's a button and instructions for that, too)
  3. It's all free
  4. Once it's set up, click "add subscription" to try adding an URL from within the Reader... like this one: http://robertaustell.blogspot.com - the really nice thing about Google Reader is that (unlike the built-in for IE8) you can just type in the website address and it will FIND the RSS feed... instead of having to know the usually more complicated feed address
  5. Try adding my sermon blog to see how the audio player works! http://gspcsermons.blogspot.com
  6. If you use Firefox, I believe the one-click "add subscription" is automatically activated (you may be given the option of choosing Google Reader as your default reader). It should be a little orange icon that appears in the far right of the address bar on any site having a RSS feed (you should see it on this site!)
Let me know what you think - I am confident that you will like it... and that you will get back the 20 min. of setting it up within a day or two of not having to visit sites.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

unleashed!


In the sermon this past Sunday, I talked about being unleashed from worship into the world as salt and light. Here's a visual for that "launch"...

[It's also a great excuse to show this great photo of my nephew being launched off the blob at YL's Frontier Ranch this summer.]

Monday, August 18, 2008

dazed and confused

I've been preaching this summer on the theme of exile in scripture. Exile is a consequence of sin, yet one of God's mercies, delaying immediate judgment. What is grace on top of the mercy of exile is God's proven willingness to leave the high heavens to plunge into the muck of human depravity to seek us out, call us by name, and bring His children home.

This past Sunday we looked at Isaiah 51, a dense and rich passage holding out hope to the exiles. In this passage, a weakened, captive, and exiled Israel calls out to God three times for God to save them - "Do it like you did it before!" they cry, referring to the Exodus.

But God has something else in mind. God replies, calling on Israel three times to "Wake up! Get up! Rouse yourself!" God promises redemption and offers hope, but it is on His own terms.

I was reminded of the man by the pool at Bethesda (John 5), waiting for the miracle waters to stir so that he might walk again, yet lying before the very Son of God who held out the hope of true healing and redemption.

Two questions arise out of these passages: 1) Will we miss what God is doing, looking in the wrong place for God's hand, all the while calling out fervently to God to "to it like you did it before?" 2) Do we want to be well (or have we become used to life by the pool)?

God speaking through Isaiah and the Father speaking through His Son said a remarkably similar thing: Rise! Take up your pallet, and walk!

This passage has significant application for us on the individual level, the local ministry level, and beyond. You'll have to check out the sermon for all that -
HERE.

Monday, August 11, 2008

some things are bigger than GA

There is some overlap here with the "Ichabod/Scribbling" post below (I didn't know when The Outlook would run the article), but the following is fuller and was written first. It's duplicated from the article HERE.

=============
I write today having had just under two weeks now to reflect on the experience of being a commissioner to the 218th General Assembly in San Jose. Fresh from the stricture of a 60-second time limit at the microphone, I am not going to waste words, but jump into what is of greatest import to me as I reflect on the whole of that experience.

While we should be focused on a number of significant issues, I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that we have been preoccupied with sex for the last 30 years, which spans my entire college, seminary, and ordained ministry. Related to these issues, we are alternately discouraged, jubilant, crushed, set back, etc. as we amend, debate, vote, send to the presbyteries, rinse, and repeat. At times, a “loss” on this issue, or perhaps another, makes one deeply question remaining on in this part of the Body of Christ. I see friends struggle cyclically (strangely, now, about every two years) with deep emotions as if the fate of the denomination and their own call to ministry hangs in the balance.

There are, indeed, deeper questions than how the vote turned out this year.
If, as some believe, the denomination is apostate, local ministry is compromised, personal conscience is bound, or they are just burned out on “the fight,” I believe going to another part of the Body of Christ is a faithful option. Unfortunately, this path is fraught with danger, sometimes more dangerous than remaining compromised. Because of these dangers, many languish in place. Some reach the point of desperation and blunder out in the midst of a litigious denominational climate. This reality compelled me to offer resolution 04-28 on gracious dismissal. Not only is the witness of Presbyterians then compromised in the local community, real people are often casualties of the process. Blame lies everywhere — from desperate pastors and elders to presbyteries and denominational officials with a death grip on property held in trust. Friends, there is a better way! Press your presbytery execs to confront this reality with pastoral sensitivity and grace. If you don’t understand the rationale, read 04-28 at PC-Biz or on my Web site.

But, dear ones, hear this — for many, God has called us to faithful obedience and service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and I want to describe my own understanding of that calling.

I have been asked to explain my existence in the PC(USA) throughout my ministry in it, and the best wording I can come up with is, “It is the ministry to which I am called.” I have not been waiting for a line to be crossed (like the ordination issue), nor do I feel like I am slowly being deceived and compromised (the boiling frog analogy), but that I came in and remain in with eyes fully open. From before my ordination in the mid-90s and my sense of calling in the mid-80s, I understood much in the PC(USA) to be broken, in error, and unfaithful. Is this surprising news? I’ve noticed that same tendency in myself and all the people I pastor! And it was and is to that mess of a church, the church of my childhood, that God called me.

My continued ministry in this context continually tempts me towards discouragement and disillusionment, but obedience to God’s call sustains me. I have found oases of grace in the midst of that call by serving churches like Good Shepherd and through conferences and godly friendships, where broken and sinful people gather to hear God’s Word, submit to it in obedience, and drink from the wells of grace. That God has called me to my current church is a gift of grace.

Can God change the direction of the PCUSA when events seem to have sealed a new identity for the denomination? Of course, God can do anything! But even more to the point: vote results, stormy issues, and shocking headlines cannot seal our identity; only the Holy Spirit can truly “seal a new identity” — and that in Christ. All the other “names” we receive and claim are of human origin and temporary in nature. God is not only able but intends to show His glory through whatever He does with the PC(USA).

Read that twice: God is not only able, but intends to show His glory through whatever He does with the PC(USA). That may be redeeming the institution; it may be a long period of preserving a faithful remnant in the midst of human brokenness and disobedience; or it may be the destruction and judgment of that human institution.

Recognizing this theological reality, I would also affirm that God is able to and purposes to use those who are obedient to bring about His glory, regardless of the particular trajectory of the denomination. I am not called primarily to fix or to abandon the PC(USA), but to be faithful in my personal obedience and public ministry. I believe that in so doing, I will participate in bringing glory to God. I long for that obedience to take the form of complete redemption of the institution; alternately, I would be relieved to have clear release to minister somewhere that is a better “fit” theologically. I trust God will safeguard me and my family if the end of the institution comes (and hope it’s not as close a call as it was for Lot). And finally, I choose obedience (if reluctantly) if the present reality is persisting obediently in the broken institution.

Does that mean I am “letting go and letting God” and not engaged in being a change agent, as some other friends have suggested? On the contrary, I am as engaged in denominational renewal as anyone I know. But I do so out of a sense of calling rather than the frustration of “one more battle in the big war.” A deep stream of strength and peace flows out of that calling. I write to remind my brothers and sisters who are weary of the war that you are called not first to “fight” but rather to faithful obedience to the One who called you to serve Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Robert Austell is pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, N.C. He is also a life-long musician and songwriter, and a frequent conference worship leader within the PC(USA).


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ichabod or scribbling on the wall?

"Ichabod" means "the glory has departed." Some say that has happened in the institution of the Presbyterian Church USA, but I disagree. I see God's glory all around me, including within this part of the Body of Christ. I would assert, rather, that the "lighthouse" and "searchlight" that God has designed us to be is, human failings notwithstanding, still a vessel for God's glory to be manifested.

I would go on to say that God is not only able, but intends to show His glory through whatever He does with the PCUSA. That may be redeeming the institution; it may be a long period of preserving a faithful remnant in the midst of human brokenness and disobedience; or it may be the destruction and judgment of that human institution.

Further, I believe God is not only able, but purposes to use those who are obedient to bring about His glory, regardless of the particular trajectory of the denomination. Believing this, we see that we are not called primarily to fix OR to abandon the PCUSA, but to be faithful in personal obedience and public ministry. I believe that in so doing, we will participate in God manifesting His glory.

I long for that obedience to take the form of complete redemption of the institution; alternately, I would admit relief to have clear release to minister somewhere that is a better “fit” theologically. But finally I choose obedience (if reluctantly) if the present reality is persisting obediently in a broken institution.

Does that mean I am “letting go and letting God” and not engaged in being a change agent, as some might suggest? On the contrary, I am as engaged in denominational renewal as anyone I know. But I do so out of a sense of calling rather than the frustration of “one more battle in the big war.”

There is a deep stream of strength and peace that flows out of that calling. I write to remind my brothers and sisters who are weary of the "war" that you are called not first to “fight” but rather to faithful obedience to the One who called you to service of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

These are thoughts that I have wrestled with for years, but which I find myself needing to verbalize more of late. This morning I read the following quote from The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis. His words resonated deeply with what I'm trying to put words to:
Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus of Milton, that human irreverence can bring about ‘His glory’s diminution’? A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces. If we do not, that only shows that what we are trying to love is not yet God - though it may be the nearest approximation to God, which our thought and fantasy can attain. Yet the call is not only to prostration in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little. [h/t: Shane Duffy]
See also the elaboration HERE

Monday, July 14, 2008

searchlight-in-training

Last night at bedtime a scene played out at my house that happens more frequently than I'd like. One of my beautiful, precious, beloved young daughters (seriously - they are amazing) lost it, started yelling, hit her mother, and kicked her sister. Having been warned only 5 minutes earlier (not to mention every day of her life) that she may not hit her mother, I took her up to her room to go on to bed. For nearly 30 minutes she alternately yelled and cried, "It's not fair! It's not fair!" After a long time of this, realizing she could not and would not listen to me, I left her alone for a time and only later was able to talk to her. What happened was also familiar - she had wanted something and was not getting her way. Though we responded to her with boundaries and expectations (like, "you need to wait for 2 minutes until this show we are all watching is over") she wanted what she wanted NOW. And despite the fact that she desperately also wanted to see the end of the show (the really not fair part!), her desire for her own wants took precedence over the rest of the family, the "rules", and even the carefully explained boundaries.

I describe all this in detail because we really do bend over backwards to be fair to our kids (as they are constantly comparing their treatment to their siblings treatment). But, despite all the fairness we could muster, when my daughter didn't get what she wanted, the whole world became unfair.

What was I doing anyway? Was I trying to make her miserable? Was I trying to control everyone around me? Was TV more important than what she wanted? Did I make up arbitrary and meaningless rules to rob her of her happiness? No, ultimately - and maybe you can't explain this to a five year old - I was trying to teach her that trickiest of human lessons, that she is not the center of the universe. I don't mean that in a mean way - in many ways, she IS near the center of my universe! But I believe from the depth of my soul that one of my chief purposes as a parent is to show her the face of God and that God is the center of the universe. This is the "missional" or "searchlight" lesson played out in the parent/child setting. Ultimately that involves teaching her that loving and serving God is more important than self. And closely tied to that (says Jesus), loving and serving others is more important than self. [But then, just to keep it challenging, I'm also supposed to teach her that she (herSELF) is important because she is created in God's image to reflect His glory.]

And as a parent, I "train" her for this by walking her through the steps of gracious submission to God and others again and again until it becomes habit, then desire, then character.

And anyone who has trained, coached, or parented knows, that process comes with many, many hours of "that's not fair" and even an occasional, "you hate me!" That's what stinks. It's no fun having your child rail against you claiming you aren't fair and don't love them, when nothing could be further from the truth. What I cling to as those cries rip my heart out is the conviction that I am being faithful as a parent and the hope that one day they will "get it."

I often tell people that becoming a parent was and is one of the most significant things to happen in my own spiritual life. That's because I finally got a first-hand glimpse at how God sees me and God's infinite patience and love toward me when I rail against Him in frustration. I get reminded of it every day, and that's a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

vbs on the road

Lest readers wonder if I have lost the searchlight/lighthouse theme... I have not... just felt like reporting on General Assembly was the responsible thing to do. I may have one or two summary pieces left to write, as I have been asked to do so for publication... but on to the searchlight!

Tomorrow night we are doing a first for Good Shepherd - in response to the call to become more of a searchlight church, we are taking our Vacation Bible School (held at church two weeks ago) on the road to one of the housing projects behind the church. We have a community room and are hoping to have lots of neighborhood kids turn out to play with us and share the love of Jesus. I'll let you know how it goes!

Update (Thurs pm, post VBS):

We had the first VBS tonight (Thurs) and it was far beyond my wildest imagination. We were expecting 5-10 kids and more like 30 showed up, with some older siblings joining in the fray. I was also blown away by the response from our church - about 12-15 people... a middle schooler, a high schooler, a college student, a 20-something, a couple of parents of small children, several in their 50s... and here's the part that really got me pumped (okay, there are several things...): this was not a church program, but a group of people who have heard me for two years running challenge every member of the church to find a personal ministry and mission. The staff didn't plan this... we had nothing to do with it. The elders didn't form a committee or call planning meetings. This was initiated by two parents who caught a vision for the children of our neighborhood and they ran with it. They didn't recruit volunteers heavily - just said, "If you can join us, come on!" So everyone who came did so because the Lord moved them to do it... everyone there wanted to be there, wasn't guilted or pressured in to it, but sought out this opportunity to love our neighbors.

Here's the other thing that blew me away... I just about melted into a weepy puddle when a single mom and her 11 yr. old daughter conducted the lesson (again, not handed to them, but planned entirely on their own 'cause they felt called to this)... and they did a skit on the parable of the wedding banquet. The 11 yr. old was dressed up fancy and was throwing a party and sent out invitations to all her rich and powerful friends - her mom delivered these to various kids sitting around, who had been dressed up as baseball star, doctor, mayor, etc... - each then read the excuse on the back of the invitation as to why they wouldn't make the party. Finally, the mom returned to say that no one could come - all the powerful people were busy. And the 11 yr. old sends her mom back out to invite everyone to come to the party. Then they read the verse about how Jesus came for the poor, the lame, the blind... and man, the Gospel was preached to all those gathered 'round. It was electrifying.

One bonus... near the end of the invitations, one was given out to a really cute 4-5 yr. old girl who couldn't read. Instead of reading her line and making an excuse to not go to the party, she went running up to the 11 yr. old (who had been playing with her for the past hour), hugged her, and said she would come to her party. I'm about to start crying again typing it on my screen. Wow. For those who have ears to hear...

I've been at Good Shepherd for 6 1/2 years... I've been preaching on being a searchlight church for two years. Change and growth is slow; but tonight I saw the light shining bright as day. God is on the move!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

god on the move

The story of item 04-28, a commissioner's resolution I wrote, is a story of God on the move. That the resolution would go anywhere was a surprise. I saw seemingly impossible hurdles fade away and doors open that I wouldn't have imagined possible. The story is still unfolding, but on a personal level, I had a fresh and direct experience of how God shows strength in the midst of our own weakness. I told that story to my congregation in Sunday's sermon (July 6), linked below:

"Five and Two is What?" (John 6:2-14) (audio and text available)

Click the following links to see the text, rationale, and presentations of the "gracious witness resolution" in committee, against 03-21 (legal fund), and speaking for 04-28.


Addendum: a commenter asked for an "official link to this action" - it can be found, with
text, rationale, and vote counts here on PC-Biz: PC-Biz 04-28

a fragile flower...

I'm getting lots of traffic from Bruce's "Moderator Monday's" post. The story of that prayer is, in my mind, part of a longer story that I plan to preach on this Sunday and then post Monday. So, wait for it.... :)

But, for those who have not read it, I include the prayer below. I was honored when, on Thursday morning, an aide appeared at my C-05 seat with a note authorizing him to seek me out and tell me that the moderator had asked me to give the Friday pm closing prayer. I planned to play guitar and sing a hymn (they already had it loaded for the projection), but as Friday unfolded, God put this prayer on my heart. As much as we (and I) may disagree with others in the church, they are not the enemy. For the most part, folks are seeking what they believe to be God's deep desire for the church. Now I realize that we can't all be right; but we can seek both truth and justice (somehow God holds those two together, right?) as we wrangle over church polity. For all that Bruce and I do have very different theology, we seem together on this point, and for that I am hopeful. It was a significant sign of trust for Bruce to entrust the "last word" of the day to a known evangelical, and a sign, I believe, of his desire to trust "the other side."

There are opposing sides in the polity debates, but there is just one family of God... that's a hard reality to grasp. And it's easy to give that lip service and then denounce those with whom we disagree as not being in the family of God, as not being Christian, but that is too easy an out. Surely our own families teach us better than that - we can be bound to family and disagree significantly, even to the core of our being! Those disagreements can last years and years. Will we say, "You are no daughter of mine... you are no brother of mine" or will we continue to strive, perhaps broken-heartedly, to love in the face of substantial disagreement? How we understand these dynamics and act on them will shape much of our life together moving forward.

Lest one think I am swimming in the "mushy middle" or giving away the farm, know that these thoughts and the prayer below do not come easily. I am strongly convicted about biblical teaching on human sexuality; I am also strongly convicted about my own calling to be faithful in the context of the PCUSA, and I have been laid hold of by God's grace, despite my own significant weaknesses, sins, and errors. That is why it's amazing...


General Assembly Plenary: Closing Prayer, Friday pm


Would you please stand and hold the hand of those on either side of you, stretching across the aisles as well?

Let us pray…

Heavenly Father,

We are divided on much. Chances are that the person beside us voted differently on significant issues, passionately held. It is so easy to see one another as “the enemy” and yet you declare those who hope in the Lord Jesus Christ to be family.

You declare it – in Christ, we are one family! Yet, we struggle so to experience it! Some of us believe truth is at stake; some of us believe justice is at stake; some of us distrust each other, and we struggle with other issues that would drive us apart. Some leave rejoicing; some leave in sorrow; some are not sure what they feel.

What hope do we have apart from your grace through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? What hope? Grace seems a fragile flower in a room full of elephants.

Give us a vision for your grace – unconditional, true, winsome, and strong. Help us see the person on our left and on our right, not as the enemy, but like us, a broken son or daughter for whom Christ has died. Help us cling to your Word and live in your Spirit.

We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen!

gracious witness resolution, pt. 3

This is my 60 second testimony on the plenary floor in favor of the gracious witness resolution (04-28).

This resolution urges presbyteries to communicate and implement a gracious and pastoral process in use with churches seeking dismissal from the denomination. This resolution also explicitly urges a move away from litigation to address this situation.

But to the deeper point, let me say that the deep dream of this resolution is not that it simply be mailed, but that the whole Assembly consider it as an opportunity to signal to the whole church and WITNESS to the watching world that we are more interested in shepherding the sheep with grace than through litigation. We are more interested in caring for ALL involved in church conflict through gracious dismissal and helpful re-location than in any legal or material focus. Earlier tonight, I said that there was a better way for the church than litigation, and I believe this resolution points us toward that better way.

This resolution calls on presbyteries, to whom belongs the responsibility of dismissal, to be the initiators of GRACE. And beloved, grace is both unconditional and winsome. The resolution points us to the appropriate resources, but for this resolution to make any real difference, YOU will need to catch the spirit behind it and communicate it back to your presbytery and to your own church. Beloved, there is a better way! I ask you to vote yes not just to approve some words, but to embrace and carry home what I believe to be the wind of the Holy Spirit.

See also the text, rationale, and presentations of the "gracious witness resolution" in committee, against 03-21 (legal fund), and speaking for 04-28 (this post).

gracious witness resolution, pt. 2

This was my testimony against item 03-21, which called for the creation of a two million dollar legal fund for presbyteries in litigation with churches seeking dismissal.

Brothers and Sisters, please vote ‘no’ on this motion.

There is an immeasurable cost to what this motion proposes. And brothers and sisters, that cost is not the two million dollars, which is inconceivable enough as we struggle to support our missionaries. The immeasurable cost is the damage done to real human beings in our midst and to our witness to Jesus Christ in the world as “Christians sue Christians.” Friends, there is a better way!

One might say that we are experiencing a kind of divorce between some congregations and the PCUSA. In a local congregation, when a divorce is in process, a sharp attorney might advise one spouse to get all they can while the getting is good. But, as pastors and elders, we have a different perspective, particularly if one or both parties are Christian. We must be concerned that in these church dismissals, we function first as pastors and elders in Christ, rather than as legal counsel for one party. Brothers and sisters, there is a better way!

But what if a church initiates action? Jesus doesn’t call us to stockpile arms, but to lay down arms and shepherd his sheep. Will this encourage more churches to leave? On the contrary, grace is inviting and winsome while legal threat or retaliation further divides. In the big picture, litigation is a lose-lose situation for the people in our churches and it is deadly to the cause of Christ. Beloved, there is a better way!

I urge you to vote NO on this motion.

See also the text, rationale, and presentations of the "gracious witness resolution" in committee, against 03-21 (this post), and speaking for 04-28.

gracious witness resolution, pt. 1

This was my 3 min. presentation on the gracious witness resolution (04-28) to the church polity committee.

To give you a brief overview – this resolution urges presbyteries to communicate and implement a gracious and pastoral process in use with churches seeking dismissal from the denomination. This resolution also explicitly urges a move away from litigation to address this situation.

What I want to share with you in these moments, though is why this resolution... Feelings towards churches seeking dismissal from the PCUSA range from sadness to anger. I have experienced those feelings and more. Nonetheless, whatever our feelings may be, the pastoral commission from Christ remains: do you love me?... shepherd my sheep.

One analogy for our situation might be that we are experiencing a kind of divorce between some congregations and the PCUSA. In a local congregation, when a divorce is in process, a sharp attorney might advise each spouse to get all they can while the getting is good. But, as pastors and elders, we have a different perspective, particularly if both parties are Christian. We must be concerned that in these church dismissals, we function first as pastors and elders in Christ rather than as legal counsel for one party.

I didn’t write this resolution to wrangle about property trust issues. I didn’t write this to validate or invalidate the EPC, New Wineskins, or anyone seeking dismissal. I wrote this resolution because the Holy Spirit has convicted me that our witness to each other, to the larger body of Christ, and especially to those outside the church is paramount. We are to be salt and light in the world and the witness of how we treat each other is absolutely essential to our sharing in God’s mission.

Finally, this resolution is bigger than getting a letter written or getting something into the minutes of the Assembly. In what, I hope, is humility, and with the validation of you and the Assembly, I believe this resolution to be the gentle moving of the Holy Spirit through a complex mix of emotions, legislation, leadership, history, conflict, mistrust, and circumstance.

Here's the dream: If I could envision a complete movement of the Spirit; it would be for you and the Assembly to enthusiastically embrace this vision; it would be for the stated clerk to come before us and tear up the so-called “Louisville papers”; it would be for us to signal a ceasefire to Christians suing Christians over their buildings and land; it would be for each commissioner to go back to our presbyteries and communicate that THIS – tending Christ’s sheep and bearing gracious witness to Jesus – this is where the Holy Spirit led this Assembly.

If you love me… shepherd my sheep.

I urge you to heartily approve this resolution and put it before the Assembly. I have tried not to repeat here the resolution’s rationale, which fleshes out reasons for the wording and principles listed. Please take time to read it. If appropriate, I am happy to clarify anything I need to. I thank you for being open to God’s Spirit and for allowing me time here tonight.

See also the text, rationale, and presentations of the "gracious witness resolution" in committee (this post), against 03-21 (legal fund), and speaking for 04-28.

gracious witness resolution - rationale

This is the written rationale for item 04-28. Unfortunately, the rationale section doesn't always get passed on with the action portion.

There are many scenarios and reasons for dismissal of churches. Furthermore, presbyteries have constitutional discretion in how to respond to such requests. Nonetheless, it is not sufficient to follow the letter of church law and miss or transgress the Spirit of Christ in that law. This resolution is deeply needed for two reasons.

First, it is easy for us to emphasize the property trust responsibilities of presbytery/synod oversight to the exclusion of the pastoral responsibility of caring for the congregations (members staying and leaving) and the responsibility of public witness to Christ with the larger body of Christ and the community and world.

Second, across the church our presbyteries are inconsistent in communicating how they will respond to churches seeking dismissal. There are several helpful and gracious processes available on the middle governing body website (and by the example of some presbyteries), but many presbyteries and councils are guarded about the local application of G-11.0103i. This fosters a pre-emptive all-or-nothing posture from a church seeking dismissal. Our desire is to urge each other into a more grace-filled exchange.

Our concern is practical and is rooted in the commission to care for Christ’s sheep. To be direct, if a church goes through the trauma of an internal split, wouldn’t we rather the members go to church anywhere than end up disillusioned and quitting on a local church and presbytery that have been to court in a protracted legal battle? Wouldn’t we rather lose some dirt or brick or even lose face than poison the well of witness in our community? As the resolution states, we believe litigation by Christians against Christians is deadly to the cause of Christ.

What do we envision? We call on local church leadership and presbytery leadership to care pastorally for majority and minority groups in a church seeking dismissal. This could result in a final picture, not of two embittered enemies in court, but in mutual blessing and partnership in the midst of the sadness of parting. We envision presbytery leadership and local church leadership working together to bless and make way for a majority group and to take great care to re-locate and shepherd a minority group. This could be the last great joint mission effort of two parts of Christ’s body who are focusing on different mission fields.

Brothers and sisters, we can do better than we are doing! But it will take a re-prioritizing of how we exercise responsibility and power and a commitment to act. Failure to act will perpetuate communication and practice that we believe is not only harmful to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) but to our witness to Jesus Christ in the world. Choose to act by endorsing this resolution for the cause of Christ in the world.

See also the text and presentations of the "gracious witness resolution" in committee, against 03-21 (legal fund), and speaking for 04-28.

gracious witness resolution - text

COMMISSIONER'S RESOLUTION
"Urging a Gracious, Pastoral Response to Churches
Requesting Dismissal from the PCUSA"

RESOLUTION

The 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) directs the stated clerk to send this resolution to the presbyteries, synods, and sessions, indicating the will of the Assembly that presbyteries and synods develop and make available to lower governing bodies and local congregations a process that exercise the responsibility and power “to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members” (G-11.0103i) with consistency, pastoral responsibility, accountability, gracious witness, openness and transparency.

Furthermore, we believe that trying to exercise this responsibility and power through litigation is deadly to the cause of Christ, impacting the local church, other parts of the Body of Christ and ecumenical relationships, and our witness to Christ in the world around us. The Assembly therefore urges presbyteries and synods to implement a process using the following principles:

Consistency: The local authority delegated to presbyteries is guided and shaped by our shared faith, service, and witness to Jesus Christ.

Pastoral Responsibility: The requirement in G-11.0103i to consult with the members of a church seeking dismissal highlights the presbytery’s pastoral responsibility, which must not be submerged beneath other responsibilities.

Accountability: For a governing body, accountability rightly dictates fiduciary and connectional concerns, raising general issues of property (G-8.0000) and specific issues of schism within a congregation (G-8.0600). But, full accountability also requires pre-eminent concern with “caring for the flock.”

Gracious Witness: It is our belief that Scripture and the Holy Spirit require a gracious witness from us rather than a harsh legalism.

Openness and Transparency: Early, open communication and transparency about principles and process of dismissal necessarily serve truth, order, and goodness, and work against seeking civil litigation as a solution.

See RATIONALE

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

ga summary and analysis

Note: This was written for my congregation in the church newsletter; it assumes their general theological position and anticipates their particular questions.

What Happened?

A. Elections
Bruce Reyes-Chow was elected as moderator for a two-year term. Bruce was the youngest candidate at 39 (by 20 years), is a self-described progressive, but also highly committed to everyone interested getting a seat at the table. He demonstrated himself to be a fair and even-handed moderator. Gradye Parsons was elected to a four-year term as stated clerk. He has served as assistant stated clerk for a number of years. There is concern that he will continue previous policy and style, but it remains to be seen if he will distinguish himself from his predecessor.

B. Human Sexuality (this is where MOST of the controversy falls)
There has been an interlocking “web” of support for biblical standards on the subject of practicing homosexuals serving in church leadership. This Assembly spoke and acted on a number of these support statements to remove all denomination-wide barriers to ordination of practicing homosexuals. All previous “authoritative interpretations” and “definitive guidance” were removed. A portion of the catechism was re-translated (needs 2/3 presbytery approval). The only significant barrier to such ordination is the now infamous G-6.0106b (requiring "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness" for ordained people), which the Assembly voted to remove, but which a majority of presbyteries must also approve. Nonetheless, however that Presbytery vote goes, authority to determine essential belief and practice is now assigned to presbyteries rather than a national standard. The Assembly did deny an overture to change the definition of marriage to allow for homosexual marriage. Formation of a task force to study the implications of “civil union” was approved, to report to the 2010 Assembly.

C. Focus on Mission (good intent; questionable implementation)
One of the significant emphases throughout the church today is that of mission. Our own lighthouse/searchlight emphasis is in line with this. This emphasis was clearly seen in a number of overtures to the Assembly. I see this as a good intention, though the means of achieving it varied from questionable to confusing to irrelevant. For example, many hours went into a suggested overhaul of our Book of Order. This “New Form of Government” was intended to provide a more missional constitution, but many found it too complicated a change and others argued that the current Book of Order was not what was keeping us from being mission-focused. The “new FOG” got little support for immediate implementation; it was sent back for two years of further study and development. Easier to understand, but seemingly only a name change, the executive council of the denomination, the General Assembly Council got a new name: the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). We’ll see if the reality follows the name change. A significant mission focus entitled “Grow God’s Church Deep and Wide” was approved, focusing on evangelism and discipleship.

D. Getting Along with Religious Neighbors Near and Far
There was great potential for controversy here, but the Assembly modified or voted down the most controversial approaches. An overture stating that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God (of Abraham) was amended to note the “different understandings of God” and focused rather on calling the monotheistic faiths to work together for humanitarian aid, peace, and similar endeavors. Closer to home, several overtures tried to hinder the reality of PCUSA churches leaving for the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church). Nonetheless, the Assembly amended or defeated these overtures, and finally affirmed my own resolution calling presbyteries away from lawsuits against churches leaving.

E. Numerous Calls for Social Action
It was mind-boggling how many overtures had to do with one or another social issues. There are at least two denominational committees whose full-time job it is to generate these overtures. Any one of the overtures comes with 30+ pages of background and rationale. To expect commissioners to comprehend as many as 25 of these study papers is unrealistic, and yet, they did. What is surprising is that the Assembly came to as balanced a position as it did on issues like Israel/Palestine (though many would still say the "Amman Call" is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel), reporting relief of conscience dues stream for pastors’ medical/pension fund; the Iraq war; and more. In most of these cases, the initial overtures were radically progressive, but the committees and Assembly moderated them down to something that balanced out the disparity of views. More info. is available on specific topics.

What is Next?

In the coming weeks, I will be exploring the implications of this Assembly with our session, with other pastors and elders in our presbytery, and with leaders of the national renewal organizations.

One option is to be functionally independent – hunker down, put blinders on, and be the best local church we can be. This is not an option for me, and is not a long-term solution.

Another option is to begin considering departure to another denomination. There is great cost to this – including consuming a church’s focus for at least two years. There is also great potential to split the congregation. This is an absolute last resort for me and not where I believe us to be.

A third option involves some combination of finding a way to be both a change agent and faithful in ministry and mission within the PCUSA. For numerous reasons, I believe this to be my own calling and the journey Good Shepherd is on. In the coming weeks I will share more of my rationale, both corporately and in smaller settings. In many ways, this is the hardest path, but it is one I believe God has left open before us. I believe we are in a unique position to be an effective witness for Christ within the PCUSA while we continue our vital ministry in the neighborhood and to the world. I also believe that God used me in a specific and Spirit-directed way at the Assembly and I look forward to sharing that with you in more detail.

You’ll see variations of these positions from various churches and renewal groups. I’m including a link HERE if you want to read more about the Assembly or a particular renewal group.

Readers are invited and welcome to contact me for clarification or further conversation at robert@gspc.net.

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