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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).


Viola said...

Robert thanks for writing this. I think this: "I choose obedience (if reluctantly) if the present reality is persisting obediently in the broken institution,"is where many stand today. Your words help us stand. My God truely be glorified.

thekingpin68 said...

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.

I respect your devotion and willingness to be obedient.

Our church plant closed and some of us headed back to the mother church. I am trying to stay loyal to my PCA denomination in Christ.

Cheers, Robert.

John said...

Thank you Robert for putting words to the convictions (and fears) that I, as a PCUSA pastor, have tried to express. With your permission, I would like to copy & share this article with members and fellow pastors who would benefit from it as well.

Rev John Salley
Bedford Presbyterian Church
Bedford, VA


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