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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


Reyes-Chow said...

Thanks as always for keeping it real and being willing to stay engaged for the glory of God! I'll be interested to see what kind of reaction this gets because I do know that not everyone feels that this is the right path of the day.

Viola said...

Thank you Robert,
All I can say is thank you, thank you--this is in my heart also.

Clay Allard said...

You know that I agree with you, Robert. But this is a very short line of sight; you lay out the three large paths in the second paragraph, and there is where the hard discernment lies.
I don't think that you are advocating for any path of the three-- are you? But each requires different forms of leadership. Perhaps the scrum is not around whether the glory has departed, but which path of the three is the Lord leading us down?
That discernment is done by tugging and pulling, "kicking the tires" on each option.
I know the same deep stream of peace, but we are also called to lead, are we not? Is not the willingness to lead the sign of whether we are engaged or not?
I hear a lot of folks prayerfully trying to see which path the Lord is taking us on. That discussion has a lot of emotional freight, and whatever path it is, it will be difficult and painful.
Let's not confuse that discussion with a sense of abandonment by God.

Debbie said...

Wow! C. S. Lewis always gets it so right! "...if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces." Sometimes when I'm praying I'm amazed at Who I'm talking to.

And that's encouraging. Thanks for the reminder, and for the hope that this post gives. You are right: we don't have to know what God wills for the PCUSA; we just need to follow him each day. He can handle the big question.

robert austell said...


I believe you have missed my point, and I believe I answered your concern with the 5th paragraph.

What I have mostly heard is "stay/fight/win" leading with various lines in the sand defined. More recently, folks are re-strategizing.

What I'm not hearing is theological reflection on WHY to engage these strategies or what happens when they fail. Is that, then, the end of the story?

I'm really also responding to the deep sense of discouragement and "burnout" I see in many friends. I am hoping that verbalizing my calling would be encouraging to others who have given up or run out of juice.

It's the same distinction I would make with church growth. Do I primarily define success as my church reaching 300 members? 500? 2000? Or is success defined in terms of faithful teaching, preaching, and leading? Sure, numbers say something - they may be one fruit of faithfulness (they may also be fruit of something less faithful).

Likewise, are we really defining faithful ministry in terms of the pitched battle over 2-3 sentences in chapter 6 of the Book of Order, or can we dig a little deeper than that? That's what I'm going for here.

Regarding "Ichabod," I don't think I'm confused at all. One friend preached (at GA) that the PCUSA was "Ichabod" back in 1998 or so. Others justify their leaving by naming the whole lot of us apostate. I don't think it's so and thought it necessary to say so.

robert austell said...

Clay, I also disagree with your comment on the "short line of sight" - I believe I'm taking the long line of sight.

Putting all our eggs in the vote-for-G6.0106b in February basket is the "short line of sight." A number of friends have indicated that is the "line" for them.

I'm hoping that faithful obedience for God's glory is broader, wider, and deeper than that one vote.

Bill Teng said...

Thank you, Robert, for sharing your thoughts in such poignancy. You and I are definitely on the same page that this is NOT about winning or losing on any single issue but being faithful to the One who's called us!

Preach it, brother!

Justaservant said...

"Called first to obedience," and not to (insert the crusade/obsession of your choice here) -- that's a word I need to hear every single day.

Thanks for the reminder, brother.

Adel Thalos said...


Thank you for your heart-felt and thoughtful blog. I have only just discovered your blog as I tracked back from Viola Larson's blog. I found your comments to be both poignant and passionate.

I have one major question that rings in my head as I read your blog.

You seem to indicate that you have no "line in the sand", but believe that you are always called to be faithful in the PCUSA. Is there any issue over which you would feel/believe it appropriate to leave?
I have worked with pastors that have drawn, lines only to erase them and draw them somewhere else. So, is there a hard and fast line for you?

robert austell said...


While I recognize the reality of your last paragraph, I don't understand how it relates to the question you asked me (it seems backwards like it should have been "I have known other pastors with 'no line' who later discovered one..."

At any rate, to answer you last question: I do have a line in the sand, but it is one of personal obedience and faithfulness rather than one I am waiting to see if others cross. Does that make sense in light of my article?

If, in pursuing faithful ministry, I am removed from the PCUSA because of not changing with changing denominational standards, that is another matter. But I do not foresee 'x' happening and me saying, "Now I'm leaving."

Erik Liljegren's random thoughts said...

Thanks Robert,
Thanks for your encouragement and your writings. Although I stood behind a pulpit for three years and have finished my seminary education I feel that I am in the midst of discernment. Your writings are a blessing.

In Christ,

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