Monday, July 31, 2017

Leaving Synod School with hope

This past week I had the privilege of attending Synod School at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. 

Synod School is a combination of family vacation (many families come to Synod School every year to spend time together), church camp at a college (all of us live in dorm rooms, eat dorm food, and worship together in the morning and evening), educational opportunities (the workshops and speakers are helpful for people interested in religious leadership and also for people interested in engaging our culture), and Presbyterian love fest (people here have a deep appreciation of the PC(USA).  

Within the Presbyterian Church many people question why Synods exist; however spend some time at Synod School and the need for Synods is obvious.  This year close to 700 people attended Synod School—a record number. 

The highlight of Synod School for me was listening to Rev. J. Herbert Nelson speak.  He serves as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) also known as PC(USA).  I loved what he had to say about the ministry of justice.  One quote of his that resonated within Synod School was “Get off your Blessed Assurance and do something for the Lord.” 

What also resonated with me about his speaking was:
·         His spiritual foundation.  In my memory I cannot remember a national, PC(USA) leader so authentic and open about the importance of prayer, worship, listening to the leading of God;
·         His honesty.  He grabbed me the first day when he shared that the PC(USA) has been in depression.  He also grabbed me when he said that any governing body that has three task forces figuring out the way forward is in trouble;
·         His openness.  J Herbert ate meals in the cafeteria, walked the grounds with the rest of the group, and was willing to talk to people when he was approached;
·         His passion.  This man is committed to significance for the PC(USA).  His passion alone is worth listening to him speak.    

I had the privilege of taking a class by Rev. Mark Sundby called, “The Productive Pastor.”  He is the Executive Director of LeaderWise.
Just taking a class by Mark Sundby is worth attending Synod School.  I came home with all sorts of tools for my own toolbox that will help me be more productive.

Rev. Sarah Dickenson and I led a class called, “Healthy People; Vital congregations.”  Sarah is the pastor of Discovery Presbyterian Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
The class originated from Sarah and my discussions last year at Synod School.  Both of us are deeply committed to the PC(USA), but last year both of us were frustrated.  We shared our frustrations with each other.  Out of our conversations came a course.  Sarah did much of the work in designing and leading the course.  Both of us were very pleased with how the course turned out and hope that the content of what we taught will be implemented in local congregations.

The last day of Synod School I shared a Facebook post where I wrote that I’m more hopeful about the PC(USA) than I was when I came to Synod School.  The basis of my hope is a combination of the leadership of J Herbert Nelson; the recognition that many of the Presbyterian conflicts about churches leaving are behind us; and the recognition of the gifts of the people who attended Synod School.  There were some very talented individuals who walked the campus of Buena Vista this past week.  The gifts of those people gave me a sense of hope that God is going to do something with a group of people called Presbyterian. 

Thanks Synod School!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Worship at Chain of Lakes with the Cameroonian community

This past Sunday, July 23 Chain of Lakes Church had the privilege of hosting a service of thanks that involved the Cameroonian community.  The joyful noise that was shared in that service still has to be reverberating with everyone who was present.

Edet Afonchwi approached me recently about holding a service of thanks.  Edet has attended Chain of Lakes for almost two years.  She was born in the Cameroon.  For a significant part of her childhood she was not able to live with her mother.  Edet now lives in the Lakes Development of Blaine—within walking distance of the property that will someday (sooner rather than later) have a Chain of Lakes building.  Recently Frida, Edet’s mother, became very ill.  Edet was not sure if Frida would live.  Edet flew back to the Cameroon and to be her mom.  Miraculously Friday was able to live; and not only that she was able to travel to the United States to live with her life. 

Edet is extremely thankful that she can care for her mom in this phase of her mom’s life.

I was touched by Edet’s story.  I believe that one way to think of a local congregation is a collection of individual faith journeys.  I proposed that we share her story in worship—giving thanks for how God helped heal her mom—and also give thanks for the enormous gifts of the local Cameroonian community. 

Many Cameroonians grew up as Presbyterians.  When they came to the United States and started looking for a place to worship the Presbyterian church was the place they looked.  All of the north Metro Presbyterian churches have been blessed by the presence of folks born in the Cameroon.

Our new church (soon to be an established church) has had many memorable worship services where the Cameroonian community is present.   Since coming to Chain of Lakes I have learned that when the Cameroonian community learns about an event they will show up in mass. 

And this is what happened yesterday at Chain of Lakes.  People came streaming through the doors of our facility on Davenport.  At least twice the ushers had to go look for more chairs.  We ended up with 190 people in worship—at least half were born in the Cameroon.  Our worship space seats 100.  Imagine how packed we all felt—Yay, God!!

But the memory of the service wasn’t the number of people who attended—my memory is the fervency (to put it mildly) with which the Cameroonians worshipped God.  A local Cameroonian choir started worship yesterday by singing.  As they sang many in the congregation sang with them.  The songs were known and sung with joy.  The choir was dressed in their beautiful white, yellow and black garb with head dresses.  Many who came to worship were dressed in native, Cameroonian clothes. 

After they sang Edet’s family and other sang for the congregation.  Again they sang songs that the Cameroonian community knew.  Even though many Caucasians didn’t know the songs, we could relish and worship because of the spiritual energy that was being shared.  Imagine people packed together, with joyful and fervent singing, with energy and loud sounds. 

I preached on giving thanks and encouraged us to think hard about letting go of the idea of insiders and outsiders in a congregation.  God owns our life together as a congregation.  Each of us can grab the hands of others as outsiders—because of grace God has turned all of us to insiders.  Our task as congregations is to discern what our owner wants.

Towards the end of worship Frida came forward.  Edet shared how important it was to have her in worship and how significant it was for her to give thanks.  All of us raised our arms and prayed over Frida.

I know I can’t speak for all Caucasians, but I can say that we Caucasians have so much to learn about worship from our Cameroonian friends.  As a pastor I am extraordinarily grateful that I can could lead worship yesterday—being present and participating with our Cameroonian friends.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Eugene Peterson fracas. How wide is our biblical tent?

Image result for eugene peterson
At a Communications Team meeting of Chain of lakes Church last week I shared that I would come back to blogging.  My initial goal is to blog three to six times a month. 

Last week Eugene Peterson was interviewed by Jonathan Merritt, award-winning columnist for the Atlantic and Religious News Service.  The interview was shared in three parts.  Peterson was asked questions about why he was stepping away from public life, his thoughts of Donald Trump, and whether he is afraid of death. 

Peterson is the author of “The Message,” a translation of Scripture that is widely used and sold.  I have a copy of the Message in my library and refer to it almost every week I preach.  Peterson has written many books.  One of my favorites is his memoir called “The Pastor.”

Eugene Peterson is one of my heroes.  I regret that I haven’t read every word of what he’s written.  I would change my schedule to hear him speak.  I have tremendous respect for him as a person and for his writings.   If I’m in a tricky situation in my work I have asked myself the question of how Eugene Peterson would respond. 

The last part of the interview became controversial and prompted many responses on the Internet.  This part of the interview can be found here:

The following is an excerpt of that interview:
Eugene Peterson:            I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

Question:                            A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?

Eugene Peterson:             Yes.

The fallout from this comment was immediate and swift.  Lifeway Books, the publishing arm of Southern Baptist Convention, immediately announced they would stop selling his books.   See more:

The next day Peterson came out with the following statement.  It’s worth reading the statement in its entirety.  I found this at:

I included the statement at the bottom of this blog.

The bottom line of this statement is Peterson shared that he would not officiate a same-sex wedding.

Many excellent blogs have been written about what happened. 
Here is one written by an Irish pastor who worked with Eugene Peterson.  Thanks to Neil Craigan for sharing the blog.

Here is one written by Dennis Sanders that I found helpful.

This is a complicated story that illustrates the fracture of the church.

Because of my respect for Eugene Peterson I give him the complete benefit of the doubt on the shift of his position that was reported.

My hunch of what happened is Peterson was surprised by the initial question, wasn’t comfortable with his first answer, reflected some more, and shared his belief.   I would call this this discernment.

Peterson lands at a different place on his willingness to officiate at a same gender marriage than me.  But his position doesn’t diminish my own respect for him.

A question I haven’t seen asked about this controversy is how large is our biblical tent?  Can we accept that some people look at the Bible differently on issues that each of us care deeply?  And does another person’s different biblical views make the person any less of a Christian?  And who am I to judge another person for their view?  I believe judgment is left to God.

I get that the idea “come let us reason together” is not guiding us.  The sense of coming together to pray, talk, and ask hard questions about how the biblical witness and ultimately Jesus Christ guides each of us rarely takes place.  

One reason I love the Presbyterian Church (USA) is we are not a subscriptionist denomination.    Ever since Jonathan Dickinson helped develop the Adapting Act in 1729 religious leaders have the freedom to develop their own views.  This freedom comes under the authority of an appropriate governing body, but nonetheless the freedom is essential.  The issue in 1729 was whether Dickinson was going to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith; the issue in 2017 is whether Eugene Peterson is going to subscribe to someone’s view of same-sex marriage. 

I’m glad that both have had the freedom to their own views.  How wide is our biblical tent?

Here is the statement from Eugene Peterson:
“Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I “haven’t had a lot of experience with it.”

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

It’s worth noting that in my 29-year career as a pastor, and in the years since then, I’ve never performed a same-sex wedding. I’ve never been asked and, frankly, I hope I never am asked. This reporter, however, asked a hypothetical question: if I were pastoring today and if a gay couple were Christians of good faith and if they asked me to perform their wedding ceremony—if, if, if. Pastors don’t have the luxury of indulging in hypotheticals. And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use. It was an awkward question for me because I don’t do many interviews at this stage in my life at 84, and I am no longer able to travel as I once did or accept speaking requests.

With most interviews I’ve done, I generally ask for questions in advance and respond in writing. That’s where I am most comfortable. When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that.

That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.

When I told this reporter that there are gay and lesbian people who “seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” I meant it. But then again, the goodness of a spiritual life is functionally irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

We are saved by faith through grace that operates independent of our resolve or our good behavior. It operates by the hand of a loving God who desires for us to live in grace and truth and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.

There have been gay people in a variety of congregations, campuses, and communities where I have served. My responsibility to them was the work of a pastor—to visit them, to care for their souls, to pray for them, to preach the Scriptures for them.

This work of pastoring is extremely and essentially local: Each pastor is responsible to a particular people, a specific congregation. We often lose sight of that in an atmosphere so clouded by controversy and cluttered with loud voices. The people of a congregation are not abstractions, they are people, and a pastor does a disservice to the people in his care when he indulges in treating them as abstractions.

I regret the confusion and bombast that this interview has fostered. It has never been my intention to participate in the kind of lightless heat that such abstract, hypothetical comments and conversations generate. This is why, as I mentioned during this interview, I so prefer letters and will concentrate in this final season on personal correspondence over public statements.”