Quite a last day. Went on forever. But I soaked it all up. It really is an honor to get to do this.
Sunday worship, Pride parade, major steps on the Fitbit, plenary session, first meeting of Bills & Overtures, a late dinner and Fathers Day wishes from afar - just a few of the things that found their way into my second day at PCUSA's 222nd General Assembly.
So for the next week I'm attending our denomination's every-other-year gathering we call the General Assembly, where commissioners from Presbyterian churches all over the country come together to worship, pray, make decisions, vote, and engage in lots of other great Presby geekiness. Some 800+ of us are hanging out in Portland, OR and it's a pretty cool thing.
I'm going to try and post a summary every day. I'll probably wind up missing a day or two. This is my first time at GA and apparently they keep commissioners pretty busy. In addition to the large group gatherings, we're each assigned a specific committee (we are, after all, Presbyterians). I'm on Bills & Overtures, which has elicited many sympathetic looks and condolences from friends. Apparently my down-time this week won't be much.
But that's alright - you don't come to one of these things to just sit around. So with that, here's a quick synopsis of Day One at #GA222 (and if you want more of a real-time thing, follow me on Twitter at @slindsley).
Last year the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which I am a pastor, changed language in its Book of Order to allow for same-sex marriage. This change does not force congregations to have gay weddings; only to allow for the possibility. So, rather than wait for a request to come and act hastily and reactively, many churches have undergone or are undergoing various processes to proactively set policy on what they will do when the request is made.
So the church I pastor, Trinity Presbyterian of Charlotte, began its own process in late spring. Throughout the summer, members are invited to write a letter to session to express their thoughts and feelings. Back on June 5, we hosted a potluck dinner to bring our church family around the table for fellowship and conversation. Richard Boyce, dean of nearby Union Presbyterian Seminary, did a brief lecture on literalism, relativism, and the Bible's understanding of covenant as it relates to marriage. Both Grace Lindvall, our associate pastor, and I were asked to share our thoughts on same-sex marriage. Mine can be found below.
Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time probably has an idea where I stand. But in nineteen years of ministry, this is the first time I've spoken publicly to my congregation on the matter. Why? For many years the typical advice for pastors has been "don't talk about it;" because doing so could compromise your pastoral credibility with those who disagree with you. And we certainly didn't want anyone to leave the church over it. Perhaps that was wise advice at one time. But with our session prepping to vote on the matter in a couple of months, the congregation I serve deserves to know what's on their pastor's heart, regardless of whether they agree with me or not.
So here it is. As I prefaced at the dinner, my hope is that whoever hears or reads my thoughts receives them much as one receives a gift on Christmas morning. Sometimes you open that gift and it's exactly what you want and you're excited. Other times, it's not at all what you hoped for and you're disappointed, even angry. Either way, you still receive it in gratitude because that's the spirit in which it was given. We can agree agreeably, and we can also disagree agreeably. In the end, that's what being church is all about.
The issue of human sexuality - specifically homosexuality and same-sex marriage - has been a backdrop on my entire nineteen years of ordained ministry. Literally, the same year that the PCUSA adopted language in our Book of Order prohibiting the ordination of gays and lesbians (language that's since been removed) was the same year I was ordained as a PCUSA minister. We've been constant sojourners; albeit often uncomfortable ones. I was asked about my stance on homosexuality when I went before my very first presbytery examination committee prior to my first call out of seminary. Nineteen years later, and here we are.
In one sense I regret that it’s taken up so much of the church’s time and energy when there are plenty of other things we should be focusing on. But I also realize that this is a very important matter in our culture and in the church; and I’m grateful to be part of a denomination who has actively wrestled with it, even though it’s taken many years and led to some individuals and even entire churches leaving our denomination.
I can tell you that, from the get-go, I never understood why the church would say to an LGBT person, “We know you think you’re called to ministry, but because you’re LGBT, as heterosexuals we can tell you that you’re not.” I went to seminary with a few gay/lesbian students and saw that their sense of call was as strong as mine. So I have long supported the ordination of LGBT persons. My journey on same-sex marriage has been a little more nuanced, and I wasn’t fully aware of where I stood until around six years ago when I met my cousin Scott’s partner, Joey. Getting to know them and their struggles as a loving couple who simply wanted to have that love validated in the same way as a heterosexual couple, and getting to celebrate with them when Amendment One was struck down a couple of years ago, all of that helped clarify my position on the matter.
And over and over again I keep coming back to a number of things. I keep coming back to the fact that "welcoming all," as our church’s slogan goes, cannot be "welcoming some." I keep coming back to the fact, as Richard mentioned, that the Bible is more nuanced about marriage and covenant than we typically think. I keep coming back to Jesus, who never once commented on this issue; only that his actions were consistently about loving everyone, even and especially those maligned by the society of his day. And I keep coming back to one of the very first things I promised you when you called me here as your senior pastor - that I would strive to let love guide me in everything I did, and if I were ever going to err, I would always err on the side of love.
I also keep coming back to Susie. Maybe you know a Susie, maybe you don’t. I'm betting you do, whether you realize it or not. When Susie is born and the news is shared with her church, the whole congregation rejoices. Later, her parents ask for her to be baptized, and the church says, "Yes, of course! " During her early years the church says, “yes, of course!” to Susie by providing Sunday school and Sunday night youth for her. When she goes through confirmation, the session and congregation enthusiastically say, "yes, of course!" When she asks to serve as an acolyte and crucifer, the church says, “yes, of course!” The church says “yes, of course!” when they give Susie a Bible her senior year. Throughout college and early adult years, the church says “yes, of course!” when she comes home to visit and reconnect. Then one day, Susie tells the church that she has found the love of her life and wants to be married in the place that literally “yes, of coursed” her from birth. She also tells them that the love of her life is named Emma.
So what does the church say now? If I’m honest with you, I struggle mightily with the idea of a church who, after all those “yes, of courses,” would choose in this instance to say, “no, of course not.” For me, at least, that just does not feel like church. That is why, should our session vote to allow same-sex weddings at Trinity, I would be happy not just that our church is aligning with our denomination's stance, but also aligning with what I feel is our calling as the welcoming and loving body of Christ. And if it does not, if I’m honest with you? Well, we would still no doubt do many great things as a church. But we would not be doing them as a church who welcomes all. We would be doing them as a church who welcomes some.
With all that said - and this is the most important thing I'll say tonight - I fully embrace my role as one of Trinity’s pastors to love and serve all it’s people, no matter who they are or what they believe. This means that I’m not only called to love and care for that LGTB person who wants to be treated the same, but also to love and care for those who, in good conscience and with a loving heart, do not feel same-sex marriage is right. No matter what you believe about this issue, you have a place here at Trinity. So whatever our session decides and whatever you as a church member feel, I will continue to love you and be your pastor. For nineteen years and counting, that has and will always be my calling.
I mean, seriously, right?
Our country has two presumptive candidates for president who, historically speaking, each bear the highest disapproval rating of any person ever running for that office.
The state I live in and love enacted legislation over bathrooms (but really, more than that) that quickly riled up respective party bases and, in the span of just a couple of hours one day, saw the state and federal government sue each other in rapid succession.
My denomination has contended for nearly twenty years over the ordination of LGBT persons and same-sex marriage. The latter has prompted congregations like mine to address the issue head-on regarding church policy, leading to uncomfortable and anxiety-filled conversations. Or just avoiding conversation altogether.
And remember tow truck guy? About a month ago outside Asheville, a twenty-something motorist got stranded on I-26 and called for a tow truck. When tow truck guy got there he went back to hook the car up to his truck. And that’s when he noticed her bumper sticker promoting a presidential candidate he did not support. So he stopped what he was doing and told the motorist that he would not tow her car, told her why, and then just drove off, leaving her stranded on the side of the interstate. When the news of this eventually got to the press and they tracked down the guy, this is what he told them: “Something came over me, I think the Lord came to me, and he just said, get in the truck and leave. And when I got in my truck, I was so proud of myself for doing that.” (http://fox6now.com/2016/05/05/tow-truck-driver-leaves-woman-stranded-after-seeing-bernie-sanders-sticker/)
Somewhere along the line, we've lost something. At least it feels that way. It's not like we've batted .1000 when it comes to solving problems and quelling arguments. But something's been lost - perspective, maybe? We used to be better about keeping things in perspective. When we disagreed, it wasn't that big of a deal. Differences noted. We worked through things. We moved on.
But then it was like we got kindling and made a big pile, doused it with kerosene and set it aflame with one of these. Everything has become so combustible. Now, when someone expresses a thought or opinion different from our own, it's not that we just don't agree with it. We're offended. We take great offense at someone's diverging opinion, as if that opinion somehow injures us. And we've learned to lash out in emotion, stoking the fires; or shut down the conversation entirely, killing the flames but also dousing the wood with water and throwing dirt on the remains so the conversation is snuffed out.
And when we manage to have the conversation, it's all about winning the argument. Convincing the other person that they are wrong and we are right, and that they need to see things the way we do. They need to agree with us. They need to change.
It's a counter-productive and dangerous way to exist.
As a society our ability to engage in meaningful dialogue is disintegrating at a rapid pace. Blogger extraordinaire Seth Godin unpacks this beautifully:
The easiest way to disagree with someone is to assume that they are uninformed, and that once they know what you know, they will change their mind. (A marketing problem!)The second easiest way to disagree is to assume that the other person is a dolt, a loon, a misguided zealot who refuses to see the truth. Their selfish desire to win interferes with their understanding of reality. (A political problem!)
The third easiest way to disagree with someone is to not actually hear what they are saying. (A filtering problem!)
The hardest way to disagree with someone is to come to understand that they see the world differently than we do, to acknowledge that they have a different worldview, something baked in long before they ever encountered this situation. (Another marketing problem, the biggest one).
There actually are countless uninformed people. There are certainly craven zealots. And yes, in fact, we usually hear what we want to hear, or hear what the TV tells us, or hear what we expect, instead of hearing what was said, and the intent behind it. Odds are, though, that we will make the change we seek by embracing the hard work of telling stories that resonate, as opposed to dismissing the other who appears not to get it. (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/10/the-easiest-way-to-disagree-with-someone.html_)
I'm not sure what the way out of this is (I'd love a few tips, as my next post will be about my thoughts on same-sex marriage and I know some folks won't agree with me). But I have to think it involves some or all of the following:
Letting go of fear.
Realizing you may not be as right as you think.
Realizing the value of someone else's thoughts, especially when they're different from yours.
Acknowledging that we have more in common than not.
Accepting that winning the argument is not the goal, having the conversation is.
Learning how to disagree agreeably.
None of that will instantly change our politics, churches, governments, or AAA service. But if we could make a habit of listening, loving, letting go, realizing, acknowledging, accepting and learning in all human interactions - well, I have to think that would help.
I think it's worth a shot. Wouldn't you agree?
So did you hear that they're tearing down the Build A Dream playground?
My wife says this to me last night from the other side of the couch, each of us half-heartedly watching the Warriors/Cavs game on the TV in front of us (to be fair, the Cavs were half-heartedly playing) and scanning our respective Facebook feeds. A quick Google search led me to this article from the local Mount Airy newspaper. It was true, the playground was coming down. Coming down today, in fact.
Playgrounds, like pretty much everything in life, come and go; but this playground was different. It was a dream playground. Built by the community, from the ground up. One of those companies that comes in with a tailored plan, some how-to and a way for everyone to get involved. My young family had been residents of our new town for not quite a year when the project began. We loved it, for a couple of reasons. The "park" that existed before was not just nonfunctional but downright unsightly, bringing tears to our eyes the first time we saw it. That, and the playground build was a phenomenal community-builder. There was food, there was music, it was fun. Lorie and I met lots of good folks; many would become great friends.
For those few weeks the build took place, we were all in. I spent my days off on the build. Lorie spread chips under structures, crawling around on her hands and knees, all the while pregnant with the second child we'd not told anyone about yet. My Dad even got in on the act, coming from Raleigh for a few days to help with the build and even purchasing a Lindsley fence picket to help raise funds. It was all so invigorating. And I'll never forget that moment when the playground opened for the very first time, all those kids running in with such excitement and anticipation. It literally brought tears to our eyes, for a very different reason than the time we cried there before.
For the next nine years or so, our family made the most of the park. Picnic lunches and playdates and afternoon excursions. The last couple of times we were there, I began to notice some of the wear and tear on a playground much loved, but assumed it could all be repaired. Twelve years after its inception, though, wood had been rotting. Some parts of the playground were not even functional anymore. It had gone from attraction to eyesore, in the same way perhaps that its predecessor had once appeared to me.
It's so funny as I think about this. I am a pastor, and being a pastor in the 21st century means I have to help my church realize that it cannot simply keep doing what it's always done. My job is to strategically and pastorally steer the church through change, nudging when nudging is needed and holding hands when that's needed. My job is to work with our leadership to build a dream of our own of what we think God wants to see for our future.
And yet my initial reaction when I heard the news about the Build A Dream playground was NOOO! Even though I didn't live there anymore. Even though I hadn't seen it in three years and had no idea of its condition. In my mind, at least, what I continued to see was that brand new sparkling playground of twelve years ago that was a source of pride for so many. But more than that - what I remember was the palatable sense of community in those early halcyon days, a bond forged with people I knew and didn't know, the joy and satisfaction that comes when you are part of something bigger than yourself.
Memory and community are incredibly powerful forces of human nature. They connect us to something other than right now; they bestow meaning and significance on that which otherwise would simply be a collage of events and an assortment of people. Memory and community answer the critical question of "why" in our relationships with each other. They are portals through which you and I extend outside ourselves and into the world around us. Memory and community grant meaning to things, and that is why our traditions and history matter. They tell us where we have come from and who we are so we can hope to have a clue to know where we're going. Memory and community are sacred.
But memory unchecked can hold us back in those instances when we need to see what's ahead of us. Community restrained can stifle as we foolishly attempt to do the very human thing of limiting access to others because "we like things the way they are." And I realized this anew, sitting on the couch last night. The fact that I don't like the idea of the Build a Dream playground becoming just a dream does not mean that it isn't the right thing to do.
It is time, hard to let go though, a friend of mine texted, commiserating. But she added - how excited the new families and young kids will be!
And that's it, right there. When you're able to acknowledge that change is loss and grieve that, and simultaneously embrace and celebrate the new thing that is coming, that is when you know that you've truly grasped a full sense of memory and community.
It's the best of both worlds, really. I'll always be able to remember the Build A Dream playground. My friend graciously snagged our Lindsley fence picket, as the city was putting them aside for folks to claim all this week. We'll eventually get it from her and do something with it, even if that something is nothing more than remembering.
But while we remember the dream that was, we get to know that a new one will unfold, and a new community birthed through it. And from that community - new memories made, new friendships forged, new vision revealed. It starts all over again, until it ends, and then it'll start again too.
Here's hoping those new families get to enjoy themselves in the same way mine once did. Here's hoping we all can maneuver the sacredness of memory and community with grace, with hope and with gratitude, building a new dream all over again.
Child of God. Husband. Father. Minister. Musician. Songwriter. Blogger.