Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Aymer's Mirror

As usual, I am a "Johnny-come-lately" to the many observations regarding Margaret Aymer's response to the now infamous "Letter to the PCUSA."  Many have written well about her main points and the various nuances of her rather remarkable response, so there is little need for me to get too deep into deciphering what she wrote (especially since it is very likely that no one will be reading this anyway).  I commend her on her insights and her ability to get a good discussion going, even though I pretty much disagree with her on most everything she said.

 There is only one thing that I would like to point out that no one else seems to have noted.  According to Ms. Aymer, a major flaw that infects the writers of the "Letter" is their contextual parochialism.  They are allowing themselves to be subject to their historical, cultural, and geographical settings, which means they think only within the "northern, US-based, European-American ideals of the 19th century and early 20th century." This, then, causes them to view their concerns and solutions without due attentivenessand considerations for the views of people in the rest of the world, or in other ages and times, especially in the church.  The result, says Ms. Aymer, is "...a call back (or forward) to modernist values of separation upon disagreement and radical individualism, and pre-modernist/fundamentalist elevations of all aspects of religion, regardless of changing cultural norms (e.g. slaves obey your masters)."  (With language like this, no wonder most of the world considers our intra-church squabbles irrelevant!  We are at the least quite unintelligible.)

 Okay, so much for that.  What is interesting to me is that Ms. Aymer herself employs the same neglect of the views and norms of the rest of the world and ages that she accuses the writers of the "Letter."   Most of the church of the past and the present views the Bible as a revelatory book that is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus warranting obedience and reverance.  She sees this as a outdated idea that should be rejected, but she makes this judgement as a North American 21st century post-modern liberal who is part of a very, very miniscule theologically esoteric "club" in a declining and culturally "out-of-touch" American protestant denomination.  She trumps the teachings and views of most Christians of all time and places with her own opinions without providing due justification for doing so.

 She mirrors in her own actions the following accusation she makes against the "Letter" writers.  Ms. Aymer declares, "What is clear is that their ecclesiology parallels exactly the cultural norms of 21st-century neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism and neo-liberal globalism which purport to bring the Western ideal to the rest of the world without first determining whether that ideal is in fact ideal for (italics hers) the rest of the world or asking what the rest of the world might consider to be ideal."  Does she herself follow the rest of the world's views on women's leadership, gay rights, and religious freedom?  Does she dare ask the rest of the world what is considered "ideal," especially regarding her own "post-modern liberationist" views?  (It seems to me that I hear echos of a Marxist voice in her critique, so that is why I use the term "liberationist.")  Of course not.  As Christians are more aware than most, the world in its myriad of cultures is still wrong about some important things.  Christians of all times and ages have had to contend with a disconnect between obedience to the eternal Word of God and the constantly shifting demands of culture. 

 Then there is Ms. Aymer's sacred allegiance to the PCUSA as somehow being an entity that embodies all the aspects of the church universal. She audaciously writes, "Instead, with God's help, I will remain in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and with my denomination I will follow the Christ whose followers dwindled from 5000 to zero over the course of three years, yet who calls us still to follow; who has been demonstrated a capable healer of the deathly ill and has revealed himself to be the resurrection and the life."  (Of course, whether or not the PCUSA is following Christ is pretty much the question at hand, isn't it?)

 What is she talking about here?  When did Christ's followers dwindle "from 5000 to zero over the course of three years," and why is this named as her "denomination."  I think she is talking about Jesus followers before the Crucifixion, but his followers did not go down to zero ever, and there was a big event called the Resurrection, which enabled the followers of Jesus to explode in numbers throughout the world for over two thousand years!  Maybe she missed this because this universal witness of the Church may be more at odds with her views than they are with those she is dismissing with her entertaining sophistry. 


 Anyway, this is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hope For The Irrelevant

I am perhaps the most irrelevant pastor in a very irrelevant denomination adding more irrelevant comments to the latest emerging "water-cooler" conversation in the ole' PCUSA.  (For those of you who have innocently stumbled upon my blog because your search engine has gone berserk, PCUSA is the acronym for a once great protestant denomination called the Presbyterian Church USA.)  I haven't been pastoring (or "pestering," as the case may be) a church for awhile, and I sprang for early retired status for no other reason than to meet my monthly mortgage.  Most of my preaching and church involvements in the last couple of years have been in non-PCUSA churches, every PCUSA church I've applied to since leaving my last church has decided not to call me (except for one bizarre "twilight zone" case which is grist for another posting), and lately my primary venue for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been to young people and drug addicts (sometimes one in the same).  So, my credentials for irrelevancy are quite formidable and beyond question.

Yet, my irrelevance does not dissuade me from being very intrigued and encouraged by the Letter to the PCUSA penned by the "scandalous" all male gathering in "blissful" Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Actually, I would think meeting in Scottsdale would be looked upon favorably by the very relevant Robert Kopp of the Kopp Disclosure, as the location has a Harley-Davidson ring to it --- at least it does to me.)  The criticism this letter is now receiving is disappointing, although the responses of some groups and persons reveal the ingrained habit they have nurtured in their hearts and minds for being points of contention rather than points of construction. 

Yes the early signers are all males, and yes they are mostly well known names, and yes most of them are from big churches.  (Would this letter be receiving the same notice if it were formulated by thirty or so male and female small church pastors meeting at the I-70 Inn in Colby, Kansas?  I don't think so!) While these are things one can complain about with a good deal of self-righteousness, such complaining only bolsters one's own ego, and does nothing to bridge the conversation with the fruitful exchange of ideas and understandings.  As I learned long ago in my marriage, I can press the point when I'm right (a fairly rare occurrence) when arguing with my wife, but winning the argument can make for a less than joyful relationship.  Sometimes holding on to a sacred point of correctness can mean missing the opportunity for improving a relationship with love and understanding.

Anyway, about ten years ago when I was more relevant as a PCUSA missionary in Croatia, I had several occasions to work with pastors and congregants from several of the largest and most influential churches in the PCUSA.  I don't remember the exact crisis our denomination was facing in 2001 (pre-9/11), but as usual there was something (in all likelihood connected to extolling homosexual conduct and ordination) that was forcing congregations to re-evaluate their place in our constantly contending denomination.  It was then I said to several of these pastors that regardless of what controversies the PCUSA faces, nothing will ever really change for the better until most of the bigger churches form an alliance with one another and take the lead in forging a biblically faithful and missionally focused future that the PCUSA official leadership cannot stop with its organisational machinery.  This alliance must be clear in its goals, ardently orthodox, passionately missional, trans-denominational in vision, and must be committed to being an umbrella of protection for the smaller churches and less prominent ministers who would follow their lead while being more vulnerable to the heavy handed actions of the liberal presbyteries and the ever vigilant PCUSA bureaucrats.

Of all the congregants in the PCUSA, there are only about 900,000 truly active members (these are my guesstimates based on my research when I was an almost relevant pastor).  Of these 900,000 members, over 700,000 are in evangelical and orthodox churches, which virtually makes the PCUSA in its substance and active expressions an evangelical/conservative denomination.  However, so little of this reality is ever noted or acknowledged in many of the upper structures of the PCUSA, especially at the General Assembly level. 

Therefore, the ideas and sentiments in the Letter to the PCUSA are very hopeful to me.  It's a beginning, and I pray that these pastors and others will have the wisdom and resolve to not shrink from the task before them.  The journey has begun, and many will follow if those taking the first steps keep their feet from turning into clay.  As Mark Brewer of Bel Air Church once told me (yes, I used to talk with Mark Brewer, although I doubt that Mark even remembers me now), "You can't lead if no one is following."  A corollary to this is true also, "Don't stop leading when so many are following." 

The criticisms being slung (yes, "slung" is the past tense of "sling") at this group of faithful (albeit prestigious) pioneers is mostly out of blindness, ignorance, or just plain demonic spite!  In the churches represented on this list of signees are some of most truly diverse, gender affirming (orthodox biblical Christianity truly affirms what it means to be male and female while the liberal humanistic understandings obliterate any true and distinctive affirmation of gender), culturally engaged, missionally innovative, globally involved, socially active, multi-ethnic, youth reaching, and theologically-inclusive (yes, it is possible to be clearly orthodox, evangelical, and Reformed in theology while being open and accepting of other truly catholic theological positions) ministries not only in the PCUSA, but in the whole world-wide church!  After all, when Presbyterian churches have their engines biblically tuned, they are the Corvettes of the ecclesiastical world (or the Ferrari's for those of you with a European bent).  As the leaders in this journey, all these realities will emerge and be clear distinctives of this ecclesiastical reform. 

My prayer is that they just have the guts to keep on going despite the obstacles and the criticisms.  After all, the devil does not want a bunch of effective, relevant, God-bearing, heart transforming, society changing, Gospel proclaiming, Christ loving, outcast accepting, Word upheld, Spirit empowered, joyful worshipping Presbyterians to be let loose on this world of deceit and despair.  So, with all the dunamis and exousia my one little irrelevant voice can muster, let's get going! 

I'm not worth a hoot in effecting these kinds of movements, and no one is going to complain about the unfair advantage my support lends to the Letter to the PCUSA, but I can follow and encourage those who do have the relevance needed to get these things done.  After all, in the end it is all about how relevant and effective we are according to the final Arbiter of all relevance and effectiveness, Jesus Christ.