23 February 2009

More Mountains to Climb

By Bob Brashear, Pastor West-Park Church

We’ve just passed through one of those “Gateway Sundays”...days in our liturgical calendar that lead us from one season into another. Yesterday was “Transfiguration Sunday”, the Sunday that leads us from the season of Light, Epiphany, into the season of reflection and repentance, Lent. With one final blast of light, the season that began with a star and the visit of the Magi on January 6th comes to an end. It comes to an end on a mountaintop with Jesus standing blaze of glory with Moses and Elijah, and then Jesus alone.

As with all “mountaintop” experiences, the disciples want to stay there with Jesus, to build shelters, extend the experience. But Jesus reminds them that there is work to be done. The road to Jerusalem, to the Passion and to Resurrection, lies ahead.

In the struggle for full acceptance and inclusion of lgbt folk, there have been a few mountaintop experiences. Certainly, the San Jose General Assembly last summer was one of them. The light was really shining that week. We have needed those moments of hope and inspiration, of celebration. And knowing that we’ve been there before, with GA victories, we knew we couldn’t stay for long to enjoy it, there was work to be done if the victory was to be won.

Lately we’ve been experiencing some “mini-mountaintops” as more and more Presbyteries have “flipped” their vote and moved to the side of inclusion. Certainly, in each of those presbyteries, the joy of that experience, the brighter shining of the light, needs to be celebrated. But we are still behind. There’s a long road ahead. More hills to climb.

Maybe something of that Transfiguration story can help us on the way. On that mountain, Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. And in the end, as the passage says, there was “only Jesus.” As Reformed Christians, we know that it is our own experience of the risen Christ that informs what we read in Scripture and inspires the work of the prophets. We understand the Scripture by reading it through the eyes of Jesus, and it is this reading that enables and empowers us to move beyond Bibliolatry, and, as we have known, that the Holy Spirit always has “more light” to shine on the Word.

It is through the living word that we understand and interpret the received and written word. But it is also that person, that spirit that informs our prophetic witness. I am convinced that it is that spirit that inspired the strategy of the ‘Thousand Conversations” and has enabled presbyteries to move beyond ideological power struggles and into spiritual discernment. (And it’s a classic Obama style community organizing strategy as well.)

There are more hills to climb until we reach that victory. It’s in sight. The strategy is working. And there’s more work to be done. The light of the Transfiguration can help sustain us through the tough days ahead. Walking with Jesus, we can move beyond the law and prophets. Or better, reveal them in their brightest light. Resurrection time, new life time, lies ahead.

15 February 2009

Promises of Psalm 30


I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my
foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you
have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored
me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the
Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For
his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping
may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me,
I said in my prosperity, "I shall never be moved." By your favor, O
Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face;
I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made
supplication: "What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the
Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!" You have
turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and
clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
—Psalm 30

Two things have converged for me in an odd way this week. Thing
number one: I am in the interview process to be the stated supply
pastor at a PCUSA church nearby where I live. I had lunch with the
Clerk of Session yesterday, and in the course of our conversation he
made it crystal clear that he is against the ordination of gays and
lesbians, and that the church has considered breaking away from the
denomination. ("Why?" my spouse, who is an Episcopal priest, asks.
"The Presbyterian Church isn't even that progressive yet!") I
remained silent, to my shame, and let him assume what he wanted to
about my beliefs. Since I am a man married to a woman, he was happy
to assume that I am also against gay ordination, and have similar
concerns about the fate of the Presbyterian Church. (I may have my
concerns about the fate of the PCUSA, but only if it doesn't start
allowing gay ordination and blessing gay unions!) I've since learned
that this man is on the far-right fringe of his church, and that
although the Session briefly discussed leaving the denomination—in the
course of a larger conversation about another church in the Presbytery
that is doing so—there is no general talk around the church about
leaving the denomination. That said, though, I also know this is a
self-described "conservative" church. I am a Candidate ready to be
ordained and am unhappy with my current job, which is part of what
makes me so interested in this stated supply position. But I have to
stop and ask myself: would I even be considering this church if I were
already ordained and had a good job, given the difference between
their theology and mine?

Thing number two: Valentine's Day is here again. Oh joy. I read
recently that in 2006 people in the United States spent about $13.7
billion on Valentine's Day. If you've ever seen the promotional video
put out by the Advent Conspiracy (www.adventconspiracy.org), you know
that it is estimated that it would cost $10 billion to provide clean
water to everyone in the world who needs it. $13.7 billion on one
year's Valentine's Day in a single country, or $10 billion to solve
the world's water problem? Sure, clean water isn't nearly as sexy as
chocolates, flowers and lingerie. But it does make you think. And in
the midst of the commercialism and the idealized (and hopelessly
unrealistic) images that Valentine's bring us, I also just watched the
video put out by the Courage Campaign (www.couragecampaign.org) in
which gay married couples in California ask simply that they not be
"divorced" by Ken Starr's hateful legislation that would invalidate
the state's 18,000 gay marriages. On the one hand, we have the
perfect (heterosexual) images of romance brought to us by Hallmark,
DeBeers Jewelers and Godiva Chocolates, and on the other hand we have
committed and hurting gay couples asking simply that we not separate
them with bigoted laws.

In the midst of this complex week, Psalm 30 speaks to me with a fresh
voice. The psalmist sings "I said in my prosperity, 'I shall not be
moved.'" We have all been there—on top of the world, at the height of
our game, at the point when nothing can go wrong—until it all comes
toppling down: "you hid your face; I was dismayed." The promise of
this hope, though, comes for me in two lines, the first that "Weeping
may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning." The
psalmist is not dishonest about pain, about suffering. But the
psalmist also believes that with God there is always hope. It reminds
me of the line from the hymn "Great is Thy Faithfulness" in which I
have taken some solace in hard times: "strength for today, and bright
hope for tomorrow."

The second promise of Psalm 30, of course, is that God will turn
"mourning into dancing." What a beautiful image, and what a profound
hope. My prayer—in the midst of my own discernment, in the midst of
this wreck of a saint's feast we call Valentine's Day, and in the
midst of arrogant and spiteful attempts to break apart those who love
each other—my prayer is, "Dearest God, God of the lover and the
Beloved, turn our mourning into dancing." Amen.

09 February 2009

A Reflection for Criminal Justice Sunday

Annie Rawlings, M.Div.

Interim Associate Executive Presbyter for Social Witness

Presbytery of New York City

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

1Praise theSoverieign

How good it is to sing praises to our God;

for s/he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

2The Sovereign builds up Jerusalem;

s/he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

3 S/he heals the brokenhearted,

and binds up their wounds.

4S/he determines the number of the stars;

s/he gives to all of them their names.

5Great is our God, and abundant in power;

God’s understanding is beyond measure.

6The Sovereign lifts up the downtrodden;

s/he casts the wicked to the ground.

7Sing to the Sovereign with thanksgiving;

make melody to our God on the lyre.

8S/he covers the heavens with clouds,

prepares rain for the earth,

makes grass grow on the hills.

9S/he gives to the animals their food,

and to the young ravens when they cry.

10 God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,

nor is God’s pleasure in the speed of a runner;

11but the Sovereign takes pleasure in those who fear God,

in those who hope in God’s steadfast love.

20aPraise the Sovereign!

For many years, the second Sunday in February has been “Criminal Justice Sunday” in the PCUSA – although the designation seems to have disappeared from PCUSA calendars and materials. Some of us concerned with Criminal Justice here in New York City have tried to learn what happened: our best guess is that references to this special Sunday were dropped when the national church decided it would no longer employ staff to work on Criminal Justice. As people of faith we cannot let awareness about Criminal Justice issues, and the great needs for ministry and advocacy, become muted within the church. We are in the midst of a crisis. There is an epidemic of incarceration in the United States where roughly one out of every 100 adults is in prison. This is a greater percentage of population in prison than exists in any other country in the world. Really…more than any other country in the world!

What is the relationship, one might ask, between Criminal Justice Sunday and Presbyterian Welcome? Not, let me be clear, because of anything having to do with “criminality.” Absolutely not. The link lies in the all-too-familiar dynamics of marinalization and exclusion in the United States that continue to challenge our national rhetoric about equality and democracy. Patterns of incarceration reflect historic systems of marginalization in the U.S., chief among them: racism, poorly functioning (and poorly funded) schools, and economic injustice. One example: racism has been dramatically evident in the “war on drugs.” According to the Correctional Association of New York: “Studies have shown that the majority of people who use and sell drugs in New York State and the nation are white. Yet 90% of the people doing time in New York State prisons for a drug offense are African-American or Latino.” The report goes on to say: “The problem – at least partially a function of having the Rockefeller Drug Laws in place – is that law enforcement efforts focus almost entirely on inner city communities of color.” (Say No To 35 Years of Injustice: Policy Paper Urging New York State Leaders to Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Correctional Association of New York, May 2008, p. 4)

Enacted in 1973, when Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York, the Rockefeller Drug Laws require harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. The penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the individual's character or background. Whether the person is a first-time or repeat offender, for instance, is irrelevant. It is important to note that changes to the laws passed in December 2004 and August 2005 do not amount to meaningful reform. The most severe aspects of these laws are still on the books. Mandatory sentencing provisions remain intact, meaning that judges still do not have discretion in deciding whether to send someone to prison or to an appropriate alternative-to-incarceration program. Prison terms, though reduced, remain unduly long – for example, under the new system, instead of 15 years to life, the most serious provision of the drug laws carries a determinate (or flat) sentence of between eight and 20 years for first-time, non-violent offenders. (Say No to 35 Years of Injustice, p. 2)

Anyone who has been marginalized by society. Anyone who has been targeted by society. Anyone who is a member of a group upon whose backs people try to lay blame and punishment related to vague notions of social worry can understand what it means to be caught in the sights of a relentless social project that is looking for enemies to capture and punish. In the case of prisons, reform advocates have labeled this project the “Prison Industrial Complex.” I hope that sympathy and empathy will yield solidarity: for action to reform the prison system, to reform sentencing and parole policies, and to address the grevious inequalities that place, in particular, young people of color squarely in the bull’s eye of an escalating national tragedy. (The Presbytery of New York City’s Prison/Reentry Working Group has compiled Take A Next Step – a resource for education, ministry, and advocacy – email me for a copy: socialwitness@presbynyc.org.)

And I hope we can all draw on the best of our theological understanding, and the best strengths gleaned from whatever suffering any of us has endured, to remember that within the human family the question of how we stay family after we have hurt each other is one of the principal challenges of community. There are people in prison who have caused harm – sometimes deadly harm. We have ALL hurt someone. We have hurt each other through exclusion. We have hurt each other through scapegoating. We have hurt each other through a tolerance for poverty around the world and close to home. We have hurt each other through any number of things we have done or not done. The need for confession is upon us ALL. The need for reconciliation is before us ALL. We must not let people in prison become the “demonized other” upon whom we project the shadows of our own impulses towards violence of greater or lesser degree. We instead must connect with the humanity of people in prison, and who have been in prison, from that place in each of us that wants to be part of the whole, that wants to feel worthy, that wants a chance, that longs to experience the dignity associated with being a child of God, and longs to have that dignity affirmed by others.

2The Sovereign builds up Jerusalem;

s/he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

3 S/he heals the brokenhearted,

and binds up their wounds.

4S/he determines the number of the stars;

s/he gives to all of them their names.

5Great is our God, and abundant in power;

God’s understanding is beyond measure.

05 February 2009

The Ol' Ark's A-Moverin'

Paul Mowry

"The Ol' Ark's A-Moverin', a-moverin', a-moverin'; The ol' ark's a-moverin' and I'm going home…" My mom would break into the refrain from this 1939 gospel song whenever big changes were appearing in someone's life. Well, she's singing now!

The Western North Carolina Presbytery (WNC), just voted in support of the current proposed constitutional amendment to allow partnered gay clergy. It was surprising, significant, and substantial. This turnaround comes after more than a decade of support for the church's policy that requires ministers "to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

In 2001, WNC voted against a constitutional amendment by 100-166. They made history on January 31, 2009, by voting in favor of the new amendment that allows partnered gay clergy 144-108, a 57% margin.

In another turnaround, Lake Huron Presbytery also changed its voting record, voting for equality by 57%. Members of the Presbytery voted 43-32 in favor of the new amendment, a significant change from its 2001 vote of 42-64

The excitement so many felt at the General Assembly in San Jose last year – that the church was living into a new era of its vision, mission and call – are feeling the Spirit moving again. Even the conservative Presbyterian publication, The Layman, is predicting that if other presbyteries that kept the status quo by 30 or fewer votes in 2001 also decide to change in favor of the new wording, the hurdle for Lesbian and Gay people seeking ordination will be removed by an overall vote of 96-77. Many Presbyteries will vote by the end of February but the final decision will be announced shortly after May 18.

Pack your bags, Mom. A lifetime Presbyterian since her baptism in 1921, she considers herself a Presbyterian-in-Exile, having tired after thirty-some years of the church's lack of acceptance. She may well be "going home" any day now!