Friday, November 30, 2007

Discernment Is a Gift, Not a Tactic

Discernment is a spiritual gift. The gift of "discernment of spirits" is given by God (1 Cor. 12:10). Everyone who is a Christian has the responsibility to be appropriately discerning, but those with the gift of discernment have an extraordinary ability, given by God, to be employed "for the common good." Such people see with spiritual eyes and have a special ability from God to cut through the fluff and what's bogus, in order to latch on to what's real and true and of God.

Friends, I am becoming sick to death of the oh-so-trendy, touchy-feely, all-views-are-equally-valid, sociologically driven, feel-good, human-potential-centered, quasi-psychological pottage that is being hustled on the streets by our denomination as "discernment."

This is not what God means by spiritual discernment. This is not what the Bible speaks of. This is not right or good. This human-centered "discernment" leads to the will of God being trampled by the exalted feelings and self-important opinions of mortals. It leads to manipulation and compromised convictions. For God's sake, we must lay it aside to be led by God's Word, which reveals God's will! Enough already of the misconceived and misused "discernment" that is being misspoken among us ad nauseam!

Just recently, presbytery moderators from all over the country were lined up and doused with this bogus "discernment" solution at a conference in Louisville, put on by the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). (The OGA appears determined to drag the denomination into both this kind of discernment and also troublesome consensus decision making, foisting both on an unsuspecting church at every opportunity.)

If one looks at the Presbyterian News Service account, Moderator Joan Gray shines. "It’s really about God; it’s not about us," she said. She reminded moderators that "Jesus Christ is the Lord and head of the church," and that authority must come from him and accord with his will. Preach it, sister! Discernment, she said, is "seeking, recognizing God’s will .... It's about surrender." Amen.

But when the account turns to the presentation on "discernment" that the Reverend Vicky Curtiss gave, what we get is a sociological process that listens to human opinion, pretty much without critical thinking. But the greatest shortcoming in this little exercise is the utter absence of looking to God's Word.

Look at the news story, and see if the Word of God is even mentioned in Curtiss's discernment process. It's not there. Instead we find a fuzzy "spiritual approach and a consensus-seeking approach in an effort to 'discern the mind of Christ.'" Do we seek what Scripture teaches us, since in the Bible we find the mind and will of God? No. We look inward and listen to others' feelings and opinions--"Praying, listening to one another and emphasizing the use of silence," she explains. All is subjective and captive to our totally depraved humanity.

This "discernment" is nothing more than a small-group tactic playing dress-up in Grandma's quasi-spiritual garb. It is not the spiritual discernment of the Bible, the spiritual gift supernaturally given by the Holy Spirit. It leads to our feelings and impressions, our brokenness and misperceptions, having authority over God's Word in how we determine what God wills. It is the poisonous extract of a church more psychologically than spiritually attuned. It's about me--and maybe you, if I get really generous.

If we Christians are to truly discern anything, let us go to the Word of God. And let us stay there until God's message to us is understood at least as clearly as it has been lovingly communicated to us by God.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." ... For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. -1 Cor. 1:18-19, 25

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A while back I wrote about a careless slip or idle prattle on the Stated Clerk's part when he made an early (and actually quite considerate) announcement of his retirement next June. "I am making this announcement now so that the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee … will have ample time to search diligently and discern whom to propose to the 218th General Assembly (2008) for election as the next Stated Clerk” [emphasis added].

Clifton Kirkpatrick was obviously assuming the nominating committee would be busy beating the bushes for the next Stated Clerk, operating as a proactive search committee. That was an incorrect assumption, as it turns out. Kirkpatrick's announcement didn't necessarily aid the nominating committee, since its job right now is to wait for applications. Instead his timely announcement nicely served the others who were considering applying for the position.

I made the case in my posting for why Kirkpatrick was in error, that the committee was tasked specifically to receive and not actively search for nominations. But then a few persons writing comments on my posting got all over me for my assertion, as if I were gravely misinformed or inventing meaning. Not so.

I viewed today--okay, with sinful gloating--a comment attributed to Steve Grace, Stated Clerk Nominating Committee Chair: "... in the interest of fairness to all the candidates, it is not our role to invite specific individuals to apply..." [emphasis added]. My previous points exactly.

Excuse me, please, while I do a little dance around my office.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Perhaps a Little Too Smug?

I was taken aback today in reading a Presbyterian Outlook account of the Covenant Network conference, in particular, the comments by the plenary speaker Damayanthi Niles. Niles had been recently examined for ordination, and the Outlook reporter quotes her as complaining that “some people saw a candidate ‘who’s a little too dark, a little too female, a little too single, a little too smart.’”

Just how many pity cards can one person play at a time?

A little too dark. What? The Presbyterians I know would be absolutely thrilled to embrace a dark-skinned, very ethnic Sri Lankan--with a solid Christian faith and a genuine call by God to ministry. Rather than an impediment to her being ordained, her ethnicity would be seen as a boon. “At last we’re actually moving toward the kind of church we hope to be!” would be on people’s minds. “Here’s someone who can do things and go places I never could! We’re in for a treat!”

A little too female. No way! Has Niles looked around? The percentage of women in seminary and being ordained is large and growing. Being female is no bar to ordination in this denomination. What she means by “too female,” I’m not sure, but if her idea of “female” means “heterodox,” then, yes, she would be correct. But hers would be a very narrow and faulty definition of “female,” excluding the brilliant minds, excellent ministries, and consecrated lives of many of my esteemed colleagues with two X chromosomes.

A little too single. What does that have to do with anything? In more than three decades in presbyteries, I have never seen marriage considered an ordination requirement. If by saying “too single,” Niles meant “too single and sexually active,” then, again, she’d have a point. But then that’s not a case of being single; it’s a sad case of simply being immoral. Being married and immoral would be just as great a hindrance to ordination.

A little too smart. Okay, this might actually be the rub--not in actuality, but in her self-perception. I have yet to find a presbytery that says, “Give us candidates who aren’t very bright. We like the dumb ones, the slow learners, the imperceptive louts. No more Phi Beta Kappas and summa cum laude candidates. We want underachievers, dimwits, and drudges!” Instead, I have seen presbyteries captivated by some truly brilliant candidates for ministry. But I have also seen presbyters rightfully provoked by smug and egoistic candidates who consider themselves superior to the naïve, simple folks presuming to judge them. Any candidate who considers him- or herself “a little too smart” for the presbytery has much more to learn prior to ordination. I’d highly suggest a serious read of Helmut Thielicke’s slim A Little Exercise for Young Theologians prior to a second, more reality-based consideration of ordination.

If Niles's lame excuses weren’t sufficient to raise some red flags about readiness for ordination, her sweeping dismissal of those in her denomination with convictions different than her own was absolutely stunning. Rather than ascribing any hint of deep theological conviction to her ideological opponents, any semblance of either caring love or intellectual capacity, Niles just swats them away with a breezy, “Our friends want to deal with rules so they don’t have to deal with people.” Well, if this is any indication of the quality of Niles’s theological discernment, collegial esteem, breadth of understanding, and pastoral style, again, I would think that voices in her presbytery that questioned her readiness for ordination were on to something.

Any candidate who puts on airs, seems to consider ordination some kind of birthright, is swift to give pitiful excuses, deems her- or himself just too brilliant for the morons in presbytery to understand, and perhaps shows up weak on orthodox theology--well, that person is understandably going to have a difficult time being ordained.

I would think the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) could well do without any more smug, self-satisfied, and possibly heterodox pastors. But apparently the Covenant Network showcased one such as a conference speaker.

Monday, November 12, 2007

How Not to Be Open and Welcoming

The meetings of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entities are intended to be utterly open, according to policy. In practice, however, actual openness and welcome vary considerably, from transparent and warm, to cold and prickly, to secretive and pretentious. At the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) meeting last week in Los Angeles, I witnessed a major instance of the cold pricklies at one point.

At the beginning of the second day, Jim Roberts was newly arrived from San Diego to observe. Roberts is an attorney specializing in mediation, a member of the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Sun Valley, Idaho, and a director of the Committee to End Divestment Now. He had previously attended an MRTI meeting in New York City, prior to the 2006 General Assembly. He had also graciously corresponded with MRTI leadership about his planned attendance in Los Angeles.

The MRTI chair, Carol Hylkema, began the meeting by asking Roberts to introduce himself, since he was newly arrived. Everyone else had done the same the evening before. Roberts stood and gave his name, where he was from, and his church, and he made some friendly comment about coming to observe the meeting. He was ready to sit back down, when Hylkema indicated that she wasn’t done with him yet.

What followed next was nothing less than a public interrogation, with Hylkema firing off questions in an increasingly adversarial and accusative tone. (My account, here, is approximate and reconstructed from memory; the quotations are not exact, although the flow of the conversation is intact.) “Who are you representing?” she asked. Roberts answered. “What will you be writing about us?” Hylkema shot back. Roberts said he was just visiting and didn’t think he’d be writing anything.

Hylkema wasn’t satisfied. “You were with us before,” she declared, as if that were a crime she had caught him committing, “and you weren’t clear then about who you were representing.” She seemed to be implying that there was some kind of prior disclosure required of anyone who dared attend one of her meetings, and somehow Roberts had violated her rules the last time he had dared to darken her doorway. Roberts remained courteous and even deferential in his reply, even though Hylkema was sorely violating common courtesy as well as proper moderatorial decorum.

"You’ve got your computer with you,” Hylkema pressed. “So what is going to go into that computer?” Roberts said he was actually trying to read his e-mail, if she really must know. After more of what seemed like the Spanish Inquisition, finally Hylkema let Roberts sit down, and the meeting went on. The damage to openness and welcome, however, had already been wrought.

Many ways to get it wrong
What was wrong with this episode? Let me count the ways:

1. An introduction ought to welcome a guest, not treat one’s guest like a suspect. Roberts, I’m sure, felt about as welcome as the black plague when that little interrogation was finished.

2. Observers ought to be encouraged to attend meetings, not be browbeaten by those in authority. Roberts had forgone a day’s work, traveled hours, and paid for a hotel and meals in order to be a concerned Presbyterian involved in Presbyterian matters. That’s a sacrifice. That’s commendable! He is active, committed, and invested. Is that not something to be encouraged, honored, and appreciated by those in charge? Why discourage such behavior and demean the person?

3. Observers should never be required to pass some sort of idiosyncratic test devised by committee leadership in order to attend meetings. According to policy, observers “have a basic right to know,” and meeting leaders “have a basic obligation to honor that right.” Observers have no obligation to divulge any organizations they may be involved with, as if being a part of such organizations makes any difference in their right to observe the work done and decisions made by entities of their church government. In addition, had Roberts wanted to write an account of the meeting, he would have been entirely within his rights, and Hylkema had no authority to quiz him about what he might write, why he was writing, or to whom the account would be distributed. That is none of her business! It is her business, however, to conduct the meeting openly and fairly.

4. A public accusation of a guest is a heavy-handed and entirely inappropriate way for a committee chair to use his or her authority. Perhaps Hylkema had personal qualms about something Roberts had done or not done at the previous meeting. If so, the proper course of action would have been to confront him privately about his actions, and if that hadn’t led to a satisfactory resolution, she ought to have properly charged him in the appropriate venue with whatever misconduct she considered he had done. Then Roberts could have had his “day in court” to defend himself. As it was, however, Hylkema acted as if she considered Roberts devious, right off the bat. She ambushed him with some vague and apparently bogus accusation, when she should have been a gracious host. Hylkema had the gavel and was calling the shots, while Roberts was caught totally unprepared for such rudeness. The unfairness of the situation was palpable. What were committee members supposed to think of this man, come to be their guest, after Hylkema had poisoned the relationship from the get-go?

5. The episode disclosed a shocking attitude of proprietorship on Hylkema’s part. She acted as if it were her meeting, and hers it was to grant or deny access, once she became fully satisfied that this interloper was worthy enough to be entitled to receive her beneficence. Thus she could interrogate and accuse, assuming permission to attend was hers to grant or withdraw. How wrong! The meeting was not Hylkema’s meeting. It was not even MRTI’s meeting. It was the Presbyterian Church’s meeting, and how appropriate it was for church members to be present! Hylkema as moderator, MRTI members as elected members, and denominational staff as servants of the process had roles to play, but none of these parties owns the meeting or has any right to make it difficult for church members to participate as well. While Presbyterians have many fine servant-leaders, we are not meant to have owners and masters to lord it over us.

An alternate scenario
Think of how this might have played out differently: Roberts introduces himself. Hylkema welcomes him warmly and commends him for having the interest and making the sacrifice to attend. She uses the opportunity to be sure that others know they will be warmly received if they, too, make the effort to observe. As a gracious host, she makes sure that Roberts feels at home and has all the papers and access he needs to meaningfully observe the meeting. She might even wisely turn to Roberts sometime during the meeting and perhaps draw upon his knowledge and experience to enhance the gifts the committee members also bring. Roberts goes home, feeling appreciated and positive toward MRTI and its work. The committee perhaps benefits from what he has to offer. And the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is all the better served because of this interaction.

That’s how it might have been. Maybe it might actually be that way yet, sometime in the future. Certainly our Open Meeting Policy intends such pleasant circumstances. After all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!