Tuesday, August 29, 2006

As funny as a rubber crutch

Ever since Dave Barry, a Presbyterian PK, ceased writing his humor column, I've been a little starved for really funny reading--you know, the make-you-laugh-out-loud-with-an-embarrassing-guffaw kind of material that leaves you weak, with tears streaming down your face. Recently, I think I've found a contender.

He's John Dorhauer, a United Church of Christ clergyman who contributes regularly to the Talk2Action blog. The guy is a stitch! I mean, the broad irony and subtle self-parody in his pseudo-pretentious writing is priceless. He affects this mien of taking himself and the subject matter oh so seriously, but yet you just KNOW he can't be serious. And talk about a poker face! He never breaks a smile, never lets on that he's pulling your leg, never winks at his audience. He just plays it straight, as if his preposterous claims actually were intended to make sense.

Take his most recent little humor piece, for example: "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing." I'll give you a moment to read it...

Don't you just love the mock tone of concern, the deep alarm and furrowed-brow instruction? Those church ninjas dispatched by IRD are ubiquitous, and with their training in dismantling churches, you'll be lucky to have one 2X4 attached to another if you aren't careful.

Full alert, America! Somebody might want to effect meaningful change in a church somewhere. Watch out! Hoo-eee! It's a kick.

You can't help but chuckle at the broad irony of Dorhauer describing this sitting-duck "extreme welcome" church that succumbs to paranoia about apparently well-intended visitors whose only desire is to exploit the congregation because they are "[t]rained by others in the art of dissent, they are clever manipulators of thought and action who know the things that make for unrest."

Yeah. Right. Those people, with no mind of their own but total willingness to go wherever there is a church to be dismantled, have become kind of destroyer zombies under the command of the all-powerful IRD, who everyone just knows is lying in its mission statement and cares nothing about theology or churches or Christian discipleship. What an evil villain! Where's Superman when you need him? Right, Dorhauer? Talk about laying it on thick! Dorhauer knows humor.

But the juiciest irony Dorhauer employs is the bit about the church in which "there will always be an atmosphere of open and mutual respect," and in order to show that "openness" to others and "respect" for their ideas, the church becomes paranoid and exclusive, taking pains that "no one should be asked to join the church unless and until they can demonstrate their appreciation for and comfort with this openness."

Har har! He's got the church saying, in effect, "We're so open that we won't let you in if you're not as open as we think you ought to be! We're so inclusive that we'll exclude anyone who is not just like us!" And, get this: not a hint that there is any irony here. He just plays it straight. What a hoot! That Dorhauer just cracks me up.

Oh, there's more, such as progressive churches discovering that it might be a good idea to ask new members what they believe or to have some standards for membership, or to actually know people before they are made members or--get this--top leaders of the church! Keep that up, and these progressive churches could become conservative!

Well, if you have to explain humor, it's not that funny. So I'll lay off. Dorhauer's classic humor is easy to find. It's deeply embedded in just about everything he writes for Talk2Action. And his buddies aren't bad, either. Their conspiracy satire reads almost as if they believe it.

But nobody could be THAT ridiculous. Could they?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Evangelicals' splitting headache

What is the evangelical mind concerning staying to contend for the faith within the PCUSA versus leaving to contend for the faith outside the PCUSA? All over the place.

We know this: We’re not of one mind. We’re even disagreeing over the numbers we estimated in a straw vote taken at the recent Atlanta meeting of the Presbyterian Coalition. The straw vote was meant to determine NOT what persons had firmly decided to actually DO, but what general direction they thought it most worthwhile to look into.

Parker Williamson reported his perception that more than half want to consider leaving the PCUSA.

I wrote about what I counted, that somewhere around 50 people--perhaps a sixth of those present--favored investigating departure from the PCUSA.

Toby Wilson estimated nearly 50 percent in the “some sort of separation” camp.

Gary Miller estimated a few more than 40 percent or maybe nearly half who are looking to head out the door.

Matt Ferguson was trying hard to count, too, from the back of the church, and he “guess-ta-mated 30% voted for the ‘Separate, Relocation’” option.

I’m happy that several people have given their estimates. I would hope that several more people--especially the Coalition board members who were strategically placed on the chancel and in front of the pews to “read the room”—would also give their impressions and estimates. It is in the data from the many that we can probably come close to reconstructing a near approximation of the true count.

Trial lawyers tell us that eyewitnesses are notorious for relaying different, even contradictory, stories about a crime. We see what we think we see, but it is usually only partial, and it is often colored by perception. Then that impression enters into the memory, where it can be distorted or partially lost. By the time it comes out as an eyewitness account, it may or may not be accurate. I think we see elements of that in all of our recollections of the vote.

Here’s why I retain a level of confidence in what I reported:
1) My exact task at that moment was to record what I saw. It had my entire attention, and I was straining to do it accurately.
2) I wrote down the result for each of the five options. I have a contemporaneous record and don’t need to rely on memory.
3) My vantage point was second to none. Looking down from near the pulpit, I could see all areas. Rather than looking out through a forest of hands around me from within the pews, I had more of a bird’s-eye view. The only better vantage point would have been if there had been time to roam the floor as a teller for an actual count.
4) There are basically two ways to determine a rough count: (a) One can judge “relative density” (Are there more hands down than up? A lot more? How thick is the clustering of hands up versus hands down?), or (b) one can count and if time runs out, extrapolate (If you count X hands on half the floor, and the votes look evenly spaced throughout the floor, you can double the count and get a close estimate of the vote). I used the first method to guess about 40 percent for the first option to “stay and fight.” It seemed significant but not quite half. Then when the second option’s hands went up for “fellowship,” I was surprised that the density seemed very close to the first, so I estimated another 40 percent. It was easy to count the votes for option three (3 votes) and four (2 votes), and they were insignificant to the overall picture. So that leaves option five: “separate, relocate.” This one entailed the greatest change from the present course, so I was intently interested in the exact number on this one. Thus I attempted a quick count. I got nearly two-thirds of the way around the floor and was up to 35. A quick glance at the rest of the floor confirmed that it was similar to what I had counted already, so I extrapolated the total count to about 50 votes (not 50 percent). This was the most accurate of my estimates.
5) There were about 450 people registered for this 24-hour conference. I wouldn’t expect a lot of attrition for this final session, which offered some of the greatest opportunity for insight and action. Therefore I would guess that at least 300 if not 400 people were present and voting in the straw poll. If I were extremely inaccurate in my actual count on the “separate, relocate” option and missed as many as half of the hands, that would still mean that no more than a third of the people voted for the departure option. I have a clear memory that the hands seemed sparser for the fifth option than they had been for the first or second options.
6) I came into the straw poll with no idea of what I would find. It wasn’t that I expected one thing rather than another, which can affect perception. I felt more like a social scientist than an advocate on this poll. While no one can claim a total lack of bias, searching myself, I don’t think that desired results biased my counts. I’m not even sure what I would have desired!

So what can we say at this point? Let me venture some new guesses for the range of votes.
1) Option One, to stay and fight: close to 40 percent. (Perhaps there is an optical illusion that makes a significant vote look closer to half the house than it is. Obviously THREE options couldn’t have had roughly half the vote each, since we’re not talking about Chicago politics!) Several observers seem to coalesce on about 40 percent for this group.
2) Option Two, to form fellowships: about 35 to 40 percent. There is less unanimity concerning this number. One observer even seems to fail to take this option into account. But it was a substantial group that approached Option One in size. It also would characterize those interested in the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, and many were in town to take in the PGF meeting immediately following this Coalition straw vote. It makes sense that that option would be a major percentage.
3) Options Three and Four: insignificant.
4) Option Five, to separate: as much as 25 percent (assuming I missed a bunch of hands in my count). This group, being the most fed up, also tended to speak out regularly and do so forcefully. It only makes sense. Thus, their presence may have felt larger than their actual numbers, which were significant but not near a majority, as I saw it. I realize that mine is a much lower number than others report for this option, but I don’t know what else to do with the actual numbers I counted. Even with twice as many as I actually counted, my number would be far below half the house that some others report.

This is my opinion. Of course, others’ opinions count, too, so you can take mine with a grain of salt. I’d encourage still more voices to bring their best estimates to the table. Taken together, we may get the most accurate picture.

And in the mean time, it is obvious that people among us want to go in at least two different directions. Since another conclusion from the same Coalition session is that people want unified leadership to lead them in ONE direction, I’m feeling not a little disconnect.

One small group had this advice: “No one option surfaced as a way forward…. We see a need for the Renewal groups to speak with one voice and organization.” The small group of 15 to 20 couldn’t agree on a single option, and yet they expect the entire renewal movement to speak with one voice and organization? Hello-oo!

Groups that oppose us love to talk about “wedge issues.” They figure if they can introduce a wedge issue to drive a wedge into the opposing bloc and split it into factions, they can defeat the individual pieces that result.

I’m not sure, but it looks like we may be doing a great job of “auto-wedging” ourselves, and we need to be very careful to work together with concern and support for one another, even though it appears that we are tending toward taking at least two different routes toward faithfulness. Parker Williamson beautifully modeled such a spirit of support and concern in his reply to my earlier letter. We can do it!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Earth to WJK: Come in!

In a failing attempt to explain why the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation's Westminster John Knox imprint decided it was a spiffy idea to publish a book that rashly accuses the President of the United States and untold numbers of co-conspirators of cold-hearted, calculated mass murder of thousands of U.S. citizens, we find this sentence:

Under the Westminster John Knox Press imprint, we publish a theologically and religiously diverse selection of books that extends far beyond the Reformed tradition and the official policies and stances of the PC(USA).

Indeed. Regrettably so. And far beyond credibility or responsibility, too.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Putting the Squeeze on Generous Presbyteries

Does anyone else know that a new Advisory Opinion #19 has been quietly released by Constitutional Services in the Office of the General Assembly? It’s titled “Implementing the Trust Clause for the Unity of the Church.” It ought to be titled “Limiting the Kingdom of God by Parochial Presbyterian Greed.”

It’s that bad.

Do you remember how the recently released Advisory Opinion #18 about the new Authoritative Interpretation on G-6.0108 was fuzzy, falling all over itself in its avoidance of useful counsel on ordination matters? Well, the same folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t be clear on ordination standards have found a way to be perfectly clear on church property--mainly that the PCUSA owns every square inch of it and that church property exists solely for the benefit of the denomination. And nobody had better mess with that tightly held and narrowly defined possessiveness!

The Advisory Opinion is rife with bad reasoning and poor logic, but the main points it attempts to establish are these:

  • A church can’t dismiss itself; presbytery must dismiss it. Granted.
  • Presbyteries need to be mighty careful about just how they dismiss churches, especially if they’re going to be giving away assets that Louisville covets--if’n you get my drift.
  • Presbyteries had better fear the wrath of synods coming in to assert original jurisdiction if they start squandering PCUSA riches by doing the unthinkable act of allowing worshipping congregations to leave with their property for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God and the welfare of a community of believers.

This is a narrow, parochial, covetous, desperate, bullying Advisory Opinion, unworthy to be emanating from our highest constitutional authority. Or his office. Or whoever was on duty at the time and didn’t see fit to attach his name.

I’ll leave detailed analysis to better legal minds than mine. But let me just briefly point out four glaring problems:

First, the opinion confuses polity with theology. It reads that Presbyterian “polity incorporates these theological principles regarding church property…” and then it goes on to list plainly legal and constitutional assertions about polity, not about theology. I suppose if any denominational office would think polity is theology, it would be most likely the legal wonks. But really, aren’t these guys supposed to be professionals?

Second, section II A attempts to limit presbyteries’ dismissal determinations to the most greedy aspect: what’s good only for the interests of the denomination. It reads: “All such decisions [about releasing a congregation] must be made solely upon the basis of advancing the mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the presbytery’s geographic area.”

Forget about what would be good for the worshipping community of believers. Forget the community or neighborhood. Forget our supposed interest in ecumenism. Think entirely of PCUSA interests--or greed, or possessiveness. That’s so selfish, so institutionally sinful! (The section then attempts to buttress this atrocious selfishness with Book of Order references that don’t apply.)

Third, section II E is simply false. It reads: “… only the General Assembly itself can release or dissolve a presbytery (G-13.0103n).” If you actually read G-13.0103n with eighth-grade comprehension, you will see that it says nothing about releasing or dissolving a presbytery.

And fourth: Whatever happened to the Office of the Stated Clerk’s infatuation with the “presumption of wisdom” we’re supposed to lavishly grant governing bodies? When it worked in order to grant unconstitutional latitude to ordaining bodies, our Stated Clerk honored it, as in the final two paragraphs of Advisory Opinion #18.

But now, when governing bodies might perhaps make decisions about being gracious with departing churches, when a small part of the King’s riches might depart with a congregation for the congregation’s continued welfare and vitality rather than accrue to the bureaucracy of the denomination, where did the presumption of wisdom about that decision go? Pfffft! It’s gone.

Rather than a presumption of wisdom, we have a no-nonsense, hierarchical threat: “If a presbytery fails to carry out these constitutional responsibilities [to hoard the property for the PCUSA only], the synod may be required to intervene.”

Let me take a little liberty with the language of Advisory Opinion #18 to show how Advisory Opinion #19 might have read, if it were to follow the same kind of generous reasoning employed about ordination standards in the previous Advisory Opinion:

All parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to presbyteries in graciously blessing departing congregations and to synods in respecting that generosity.

This means that presbyteries should be given the “benefit of the doubt” in making individual judgments regarding dismissals of congregations. Correspondingly, it means that presbyteries are urged to not “push the limits” in making those determinations. While explicitly recognizing the right of review, we urge the church to exercise great restraint in utilizing that right, reserving its use to clear cases of abuse of authority by presbyteries. We remind the church that it is the duty of both individual Christians and Christian societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward one another (G-1.0305). We pray that all presbyteries will exercise Kingdom judgment and abound in Christian charity.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think congregations ought to depart willy nilly. Presbyteries have a true responsibility to act prudently as well as graciously. Presbyteries may at times save congregations from swindles or blunders.

But presbyteries are given the ability by our Constitution (G-8.0300) to be generous and broadminded with congregations, transferring property to them if the presbytery so chooses. If a congregation simply must leave, a presbytery need not kick them on the way out. Or hold them over a barrel, squeezing every last nickel out of them before they go. Or confiscate property from a thriving congregation to be left in the failing hands of a disgruntled few holdouts for all things PCUSA.

A presbytery ought to be able to weigh many factors in its decision on how best to handle property matters when a congregation genuinely will not remain in the PCUSA. What’s good for the community? What’s good for the continuing discipleship of the vast majority of the people in the congregation? What is generous and openhanded, rather than grasping and legalistic? How can the Kingdom of God be enhanced by the decision, rather than just the bottom line of the PCUSA? What would bring the greatest glory to God?

When a dying WASP congregation lovingly deeds its property to an emerging neighborhood multi-ethnic congregation, we applaud the graciousness. Why can’t a pragmatic presbytery be just as gracious with a group of former Presbyterians who want to thrive in another Reformed denomination, being able to utilize the building they paid for over the years?

Surely presbyteries ought to be able to freely and prayerfully consider Kingdom factors rather than purely preservation-of-PCUSA-assets criteria when making their decisions about departing congregations. Our Stated Clerk has threatened such presbyteries preemptively, using much more certainty than the Constitution grants him, and certainly more certainty than he was able to muster about other constitutional matters dealing with morality rather than mammon.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I wish I could trust the PCUSA

People are truly in need. Tragedy is definitely present. And the PCUSA issues a call for humanitarian aid.

I’d sure love to be able to respond wholeheartedly. But I can’t.

Unfortunately, I know too much. I can connect too many previous instances of inappropriate action, and that makes me hesitant to be taken for a ride once again.

It’s a little like a person who lies. Once the person is known to be a liar, you never know if what he or she says is true anymore. A particular statement might be perfectly true, and yet you have to wonder, because the last statement wasn’t. You just never know.

So it is when those in responsible positions have taken missteps and have proven not to be reliable. You never know if this time they can actually be trusted or not.

This time I’d like to trust the supposed aid givers, but previously they have proved untrustworthy. In particular, the Presbyterian News Service story calls for us to contribute to humanitarian relief for the Lebanese people, who are in need. Already, One Great Hour of Sharing has given $50,000 to Action by Churches Together International, and that group has sent aid to the Middle East Council of Churches for distribution.

Whoops! Big red flag.

The PCUSA mission worker assigned to the Middle East Council of Churches, Dr. Nuhad Tomeh, is the PCUSA go-to guy for this kind of thing. This is the same guy who time after time has escorted groups such as the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and a group from San Francisco Theological Seminary into ill-advised and actually dangerous meetings with none other than the Hezbollah.

So Tomeh is found to be the controversial Presbyterian link time and again to Hezbollah. Does that inspire you? Does it seem a good idea to send money to the very guy who appears to be in Hezbollah’s back pocket?

“Safe passage for aid convoys remains a major problem,” says another spokesperson for the Middle East Council of Churches. Could it be that the MECC is at all compromised by their coziness with Hezbollah itself and thus not trusted? Could it be that Hezbollah has a habit of operating right in among vulnerable civilians, thus causing the security problem for aid convoys? Using civilians as human sand bags for their military operations does not particularly ennoble the Hezbollah as warriors!

Hezbollah caused the current war. Hezbollah is responsible for causing civilian deaths and suffering by operating their war from the midst of populated centers. Hezbollah is proudly hurtling unaimable rockets at just any old civilian population in Israel, hoping to knock off whoever happens to be under the rockets’ arc when they drop. And Hezbollah is the close buddy of “our man” in Lebanon.

Somehow, that doesn’t inspire my confidence. It's a sad thing, because the need truly is there.

(And where’s the aid appeal for the Israelis, who likewise are being killed and displaced by Hezbollah aggression? Not a word about that. Why am I not surprised?)