Tomorrow around this time I will be heading Sky Harbor Airport here in Phoenix on my way to Pittsburgh, PA, to join thousands of others to witness the coming together of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I have been reading up on all the news on pc-biz.org (the tool used for the last several GAs to do their business, saving I don’t know how many thousands of pounds of paper). I have been trying to keep up on all the rhetoric from all the special interest groups around the major issues: Gay marriage, ordination standards, Israel/Palestine, major proposals for change in our structure as a denomination (a recommended significant change in form and function of Synods, allowing non-geographic presbyteries, etc.), among many other important issues.
I know not everyone thinks this stuff is important, but I truly believe it is part of we do as a denomination: we continually try to discern from God what it means to be a denomination, and how God might be calling us to be just that. It is difficult, tedious, and sometimes frustrating work. But I continue to be amazed at the faithfulness of those present at these grand gatherings, even when things don’t go the way I think they should. The prayers that are offered (albeit, sometimes laced with political/ideological slants), the opinions and theological insights shared, as well as the formal and informal conversations in the hallways and coffee shops around town, all come together to create an overwhelming feeling of “connection” among diverse people with incredibly diverse experiences, perspectives, and ideas. It is, truly, one of the most amazing examples for me of what it means to be “Church.”
That said, the last several General Assemblies I have attended have not been without fraught and sadness. I continue to be struck in the heart by those who feel they cannot abide by the collective wisdom of those assemblies and feel they must leave our denomination because now things are no longer going the way they want them (this, of course, says nothing of those who have waited patiently, worked hard, and who have sought to help steer our church in other directions, and who have stuck it out despite being struck down for decades—I have to admire their passion and consistency, whether or not I can meet them on their journey). I am sad by the sometimes overly-emotional and desperate actions of some commissioners, observers, and even staff who have a terrible sense of losing control and spiraling into bedlam and evil. I’m sad they feel that’s where things are going, because I remain hopeful, though sometimes cautiously so, about what lays ahead for us.
I have been and will continue to hold our entire denomination in prayer, asking God to guide us by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, regardless of where that might lead us and in spite of whether it is the direction I believe we should go. I pray that I may listen too and be healed of my own fears and trepidations of where we are going and what the future Church might look like or be. My family depends on me for my income, and my life’s work is at risk as things change dramatically in the coming years and decades, yet I remain hopeful that we might continue to grow deeper in our faith and faithfulness as we explore new ways of being, new and ancient ways of praying, and new ways of engaging the cultures around us, inviting all to come alongside in our journey as we also join others along their journeys.
Community is hard work—anyone who says otherwise is probably selling a 10-step scam to “grow your organization.” Being community is harder than just being “a” community, as I recently reminded during a session meeting as my community of context wrestles with this very issue. Any group can be “a” community, regardless of how close or intimate they are. But being true community requires intimacy, vulnerability, and risks. It requires us to listen more than we seek to be heard. It requires looking after my neighbor and working toward his or her safety and security if I ever wish to feel safe and secure in my own person. It requires open, honest, and respectful conversation, especially when the topic is difficult or painful, keeping in mind that conversation is a two way form of communication—if only one party is doing all the talking, then we call that a lecture.
General Assembly affords the opportunity for all these things and so many other markers of what it means to “be community.” And it is hard work! And it is both a thrill and an honor to be witness to it. I ask you, whether or not you are Presbyterian, to keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers in the coming week, as many of us have held delegates from many other denominations as they held their own versions of a general assembly. I hope to keep this blog updated throughout the week with thoughts, noticings, prayers, and insights gained. Stay tuned…