222nd General Assembly, Final Post

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Sunrise from the airplane.

It is Sunday night as I type this and I have been home for over twenty-four hours.  I arrived home having slept only a few hours between the two plane rides in the previous thirty-three hours.  I was so tired but I know enough about navigating time changes to know I needed to stay awake for a few more hours.  I do not recall falling asleep later in the evening but I awoke fully clothed and on top of the covers in time to get to the church this morning so it all worked out.

I have been summarizing my thoughts about GA for many people today, in person and in writing.  I wanted to make one final post on this topic for those of you accompanying me electronically.  Thank you for reading all my reflections on this incredible experience.

It was a joy to come home and be hugged and shake hands with people I love dearly.  Re-entry is always a challenge but today it was made sweeter with hugs, smiles, e-mails, and questions.  I have spent the last nine days thinking about church on a large level, discussing money to be spent, arranging the work of many, what message we are sending to the world, and how faithful we are to our call as followers of Christ.  I returned home to our Session meeting (governing board) and we talked about these same items.  The similarities between the meetings was comforting.  The differences not so great.

I am thankful for the way our denomination governs itself, from the local to the national level.  I know we are not perfect, that we sometimes get our decisions and our words wrong.  But mostly I think we try at getting it right, we are honest with each other and when we listen we are changed even as we change someone else.  This afternoon as I sat around the table with my partners in service, others moved around us setting up for Vacation Bible School, and children laughed as they played in the building waiting for all of us to get done so they could go home.

It is good to come home and see the people that make being a part of a large denomination worth the work.  It is good to see how we vary in politics and theology and yet sit at the table together breaking bread, sharing stories, challenging each other, and laughing together.  This was just as it was a GA in those moments I had to sit and talk with others.  It is what we were trying to do on a larger level, and I am thankful there were moments when this reality shone brightly as we gathered in Portland.

GA was well worth the sacrifices made to attend.  If you ever get the chance to go I highly recommend it.

222nd General Assembly, Day Seven

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A gift of kindness I found in my hotel room from the hotel staff. 

Tonight we concluded the majority of the business for the 222nd General Assembly.  Tomorrow will be an passing of the budget, of which we have been talking about for days, and closing worship.  Unfortunately, due to a change by the airline I will be well on on my way back to Illinois by the time the meeting opens in the morning.  Though I am happy to be returning home, I will miss the fellowship of these eight days.

This experience has been much like a mission trip, the emotional upheaval, the exhaustion, the prickliness of being with others for many days in a row, the isolation from family, and the opportunity to gather new knowledge.  As with any mission experience there is a bittersweet quality to re-entering normal life.  It is sweet to return home, and it is bitter to say goodbye.  As with any mission experience there is a sense of disbelief that life is lived in this manner.  That disbelief can be about the joy and contentment of a community, and/or the community’s habits that seem to be harmful.

GA filled me with both these kinds of disbelief.  I found much joy in talking to other commissioners, in reading the overtures and rationales, in listening to passionate speeches and reports, in watching how groups interacted with each other.  I was also filled with disbelief at how easily we could fall into bad habits of not really listening to each other.  We all know what this is like because we experience it in our own lives, now imagine that on a large scale of hundreds of people.  There were times when we were all confused and exhausted and listening was difficult.

Since I have been on a mission trip or two over the years I recognize that this behavior is common to the group experience.  It makes me wonder if we as a whole approached this experience like a mission trip – a chance to go and learn about how God is acting in others, and a chance to share with others how God has acted in your life – if we approached GA in this way, would we recognize that GA is a spiritual experience?

It is late, my brain is tired, and I am headed to the airport soon, but I wanted to be faithful to my commitment to post, so I leave you with this half formed reflection on the power of approaching GA as a spiritual experience, not just a business meeting.  There is joy in gathering, in sharing, and in remaining silent, and tonight as I prepare to head east I am mindful of the many ways I saw Christ these eight days and how as tired as I am, I am renewed in my hope for a better world, and a deeper understanding of what it means to belong to God and each other.

Sleep/rise well beloved of God.

 

 

 

222nd General Assembly, Day Six

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The motivational message on the cup of coffee delivered to me by our presbytery support staff.

Tonight I arrived back at my hotel room just before midnight and I confess the bed looked really comfortable.  I almost crawled into it but I knew I had committed to posting for you each night of General Assembly and I did not want your morning reading to be missing (I sure hope you are reading, mom).  I offer that qualification because I will not be proofreading this post as diligently as I have the previous posts.  Thank you for your compassionate grammar and typo indulgence.

We spent the entire day, with a break for lunch and dinner, in the plenary session.  I walked into the hall around 8 a.m. and did not head back to the hotel until after 11:30 p.m.  This time frame of work is not much different than the others days, the difference is that instead of moving around rooms or working from my hotel room we sat together in the hall together and listened, talked, prayed, disagreed, prayed some more, danced, and laughed on occasion.

One of the reasons I love our denomination is our diversity in theological understanding.  I love that I can preside with or be served at the Table by a person who has come to understand Christ in a way I do not.  I love that we are unified by our belief that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior; question one of our baptismal and ordination vows.  I love that there is room/space/intentionality for us to be ourselves while working toward being who God is creating us to be.

I love that this is a denomination full of people from all walks of life who find joy, daily find joy in our call as followers of Christ.  I love that I can sit with complete strangers and in less than five minutes find joy together and nurture each other’s faith simply by acknowledging we serve the same Lord.

Tonight we heard from a pastor in Detroit, Michigan about the struggles of urban congregations.  I have no experience as a pastor in an urban setting.  I do not know the struggles faced by pastors and congregations in that context.  I do not know what it means to serve a community so vastly different than mine.  But I did recognize in that pastor’s passionate plea to be heard and seen and supported, my own desire for our rural congregations to be heard, seen, and supported.

I serve in an area where traveling to the grocery is a half day event, and sometimes a full day event.  I know what it is like to drive hours for a hospital visit.  I have learned on-line shopping makes being isolated a bit easier.  I do not know what it means to be so close to abundant wealth, to be able to see it a few streets over, or on the way to work, or at work, and yet be part of a congregation full of people who live far below the poverty level.

Tonight my brother in Christ, my colleague, a person who took the same ordination exams and vows I did, stood before the body and talked about his love for his community and his sense of call to them.  He spoke words that are my language and I heard him.

This was powerful for me because we serve very different communities in very different contexts, and yet we speak the same language.  We love with the same love of Christ.  Tonight I heard an urban church pastor speak and had he not told me he was an urban church pastor, I would have thought he was serving in the town next to mine.  This is our unity in Christ displayed for all to see.  We serve the same Lord, we are called to the same ministry of reconciliation and love, and until we share our stories and learn to hear each other we will continue to be ineffective at demonstrating to the world what it means to be changed by God.

Tonight I was convicted and inspired.

I love this life I have been called to live.

222nd General Assembly, Day Five

Rarely do we know we will be experiencing holy moments before they happen.  There are times when we know one is coming, a birth, a death, a hard conversation,  or a reunion.  But typically we stumble into the holy, those thin places between us and the Triune God; possibly even blundering our way in with no idea what awaits us.

Tonight was a moment of anticipation of history in the making, and a moment of anticipation of a thin place.  Even with that anticipation when we were met with tonight’s thin place, when the Holy Spirit was sparkling all around us, and we were full of tears, singing, clapping, and words, the power of tonight’s thin place will not be adequately captured.

Tonight was the final vote on accepting the Belhar Confession as a part of the PCUSA’s constitution.  Our constitution comes in two parts, the Part 1: Book of Confessions and the Part 2: Book of Order.  Part 1 is a collection of confessions of faith used over the centuries.  Each confession comes from a moment in history and was used, and still is used, to teach our faith.  Each confession informs our understanding of God’s action.  Part 2 is the collection of our form of government, directory or worship, and rule of discipline.  Part 2 is the part most people know the most about because it helps organize how we worship and work together.  Part 2 gets revised fairly often.  Part 1 has only eleven confessions; which means it does not get changed often.  In fact, to change Part 1 is a many year process because these confessions are part of our foundational understanding of what it means to be a part of a long tradition of the Church universal.

Tonight, we ratified the vote to accept the Belhar Confession as a part of Part 1 of our constitution.  The sentence is too bland for what happened.  After the vote was announced we heard from Godfrey Betha of Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.  He spoke to us of how our acceptance of this confession which was written against the crimes in South Africa during Apartheid, was a long prayed for and worked for moment.  He was moved to tears, and I was moved to tears.  Then Allan Boesk of Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa spoke to us and he cried because he has been working on this confession since I was a child.  He has been working for decades to have it ratified by the PCUSA.  In that moment years of his work was affirmed.  I did not record his speech, but I know it has been recorded.  His refrain was, “I know, we shall overcome.”

We were propelled our feet, our hands clapping because noise needed to be made.  Our voices were raised in song, singing We Shall Overcome in many voices, so that we were not together, but stanzas apart, until from the platform our Co-Moderator began the call and response and we sang in one voice, hands clasped together and raised over our heads, tears pooling and spilling, and the moment was bursting with the power of the Holy Spirit.

I was in a room tonight where I witnessed the power of what it means to be heard.  The power of what it means to be loved, to be cradled in the arms of God.  I was in a very thin place tonight with more people than reside in my entire town and I did not want it to end.  Tonight God was glorified and I was a witness.

Sleep well my friends, rest in the knowledge that God is indeed at work, and even when we are not looking, we can still stumble into God’s presence and be transformed.

222nd General Assembly, Day Four

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The spire in the distance is the OCC.

Today was the last day of committee business before we will gather for the plenary sessions for the rest of our time.  It was a full day with lots of emotional discussion and attempts to honor the spirit of the overtures before the committees.  In my role as an observer of a committee I had the unique view of watching the business at hand while being able to observe all the people in the room.  I had the information of the overtures in front of me, I could see the committee, staff, advocates, press, and observers.  Sitting in the back I could watch body language as words were heard and motions were acted upon.

This photograph I took first thing this morning had no real significance when I took it.  I was taking it to show my children the view from my hotel room.  However, tonight as I reflect on the day I realize this photograph illustrates how I felt today.  In the distance is the OCC, the place I wanted and needed to be today, up close is the place I am, and in-between are all the obstacles and other places I will have to be before I get where I am going.

Today I watched as advocates spoke with intelligence, imagination, and love, three parts of our ordination vows.  I heard them present intelligent, imaginative solutions relating to how to care for the communities they love.  I heard committee members ask questions and provide options for meeting the need, or at least acknowledge the need was heard, even if no solution could be offered or agreed upon.  I watched attempts to be who we long to be, who we are working to be, who we hope to be, who God is creating us to be.

I also watched and heard our brokenness.  I watched and heard how our words do not match our actions.  I watched the shoulders of those trying to love their communities pull back in defense, then slump in defeat when they realized they had not been heard, not really.  I sat silently, first with confusion, then with disbelief, then with tears, and then with anger.  Anger that propelled me to my feet and out the door as soon as I could be because I needed to move.  I needed an outlet for the anger I felt.

For me it was not the outcome of the votes that matter, so much as the manner in which they were handled.  If you know me, you know disrespect of any kind lights a fire in my blood, and silencing the voice of others in my presence makes me hear the phrase, “thems fightin’ words.”  I was angry and I was hurt and I was embarrassed this afternoon.  I spoke to some of the people I felt had been silenced to let them know I had heard them.  Then I walked really fast and kept on praying.

God is always faithful.

Into my path walked one of the people who have been my pastor for more than a decade.  They listened to me, really listened.  The power of being heard can change everything.  There will be no change to the situation that made me angry, at least not yet, because we are not yet where we long to be.  We will not completely be there this side of heaven.  We will not completely be there until Christ comes again.  We will not be there because there are obstacles and places to go before we can be there.

But we can walk this road together and maybe get closer to where we want and need to be.  We can learn from each other, we can learn how to listen, really listen.  Even if we disagree, even if we cannot always walk the path together, we can learn so much from each other.  The photograph I took today on a whim, now reminds me that sometimes we need to see up close, sometimes into the distance, and sometimes where we are will have obstacles so high we can only see the walls around us.

My prayer tonight is that no matter where we are, where we work, where we live, or who we share our lives with, we will recognize the importance of having people around us that can see up close, see the walls around us, and into the distance, and that we will listen, really listen to them.  For I am convinced if we learn to listen we will embody the Gospel in a manner that allows the Holy Spirit to change the entire world.

I have hope, and hope does not disappoint; for even in my brokenness God placed just the people I needed to hear me, to make me run up flights of stairs, walk long blocks, to find a reason to laugh again, and to find God’s action in an emotional day.  Tonight I am thankful for once again being challenged to find God at work, and finding God right there even in the mess.

 

222nd General Assembly, Day Three

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A view of the committee I am observing. 

Back in seminary I learned the Presbyterian phrase decently and in order and it made my heart pitter-patter.  Presbyterian Polity remains one of my favorite classes.  In fact, my polity professor is here at GA and I greeted them with a hug.  It was my polity professor who introduced me to the National Association of Parliamentarians, an organization I joined last year after passing the entrance exam, which is full of people who enjoy learning and using Robert’s Rules of Order.

Day Three of GA is full of opportunities for me to see parliamentarians and moderators at work.  The committee I am serving on is charged with observing the other committees to help plan the docket for the plenary sessions.  That means we divide up and sit through committee meetings, coming back together to report and plan on how to organize the work that must come before the whole assembly.  I not only get to see parliamentary procedure in my committee, but also another committee, and the plenary sessions.  For me, these days of committee work are practical experience of Presbyterian Polity and Robert’s Rules, two topics I enjoy.  Not only do I get to observe and reflect on these topics, I also get to drink coffee, text others for updates, and visit with others.  GA is not a vacation, it is work, but this is work I enjoy, which means I am loving this day.

Even so, today I hit a wall, which if you have attended work trips you know Day Four of travel is often a hard day.  Today is the fourth day since I left home and by this afternoon I was feeling the Day Four symptoms.  Symptoms include, but are not limited too, tired brain, eyes, and heart (also known as feeling prickly).  Day Four symptoms often need to be felt and expressed before they mellow out.

After some coffee and visits with our YAAD, staff member, and advocate, I was ready to work again.  My Day Four symptoms lessened because I was heard, seen, encouraged, and loved.  Robert’s Rules and our Presbyterian Polity are both grounded in making sure voices are heard, acknowledged, and responded to with respect.  We laugh about our phrase decently and in order but it is our faithfulness to this vision that allows us to hear voices we may not want to hear, agree with, or know existed.  Listening with respect allows for compassion to grow and relationships to be nurtured, which in turn glorifies God.

We may never know when a person is enduring Day Four symptoms, or how long they have been feeling those symptoms, but if we approach them with respect, our mutual compassion will grow, our relationships will be nurtured, and God will be glorified.  Thanks be to God that we have the opportunity and charge to live decently and in order.  May God continue to change us and the world through us.

222nd General Assembly, Day Two

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My water bottle and notebook.

Today’s post is going to describe to you some of the details of the last three days in hopes you will feel as if you are here with me.  This is also a post for my children who are reading and wondering what it is I am doing besides talking to friends and making new friends.

On Friday I arrived at the airport and was greeted by volunteers from the Committee on Local Arrangements (COLA).  These volunteers explained about the tram system of transportation and told me where to go in the Oregon Convention Center (OCC) to register.  Once at the OCC I picked up my registration packet and looked around a little bit.

On Saturday I arrived at the OCC to see lots of people walking around greeting each other.  I made a short loop through the Exhibition Hall (where vendors and many groups of the PCUSA have booths), then walked into the plenary area.  This is the large space in the OCC and is separated into areas based upon the purpose of the participants.  I am a Commissioner which means I can wander in every area except the platform.  Observers and support staff are restricted from the official floor where the Commissioners sit.  We are identified by the color badge we are wearing.

Commissioners have assigned seats which is nice because I do not have to think about where to sit and I get to sit with the our presbytery’s  Commissioners and our Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD).  On the table at each spot we find information and gifts each day.  The water bottle in today’s photo is one of the gifts.  Our presbytery is seated near a microphone so we have two assistants sitting behind us who can answer all kinds of parliamentary and process questions.  I walked to my spot and saw two copies of Robert’s Rules of Order, one of them spiral bound at those spots and all I could do is smile.  I do enjoy Robert’s Rules of Order.

Saturday began with a worship service.  There were over 3,000 people in attendance.  In my head I kept hearing the often asked question, “How many people were in worship on Sunday?”  This time no one asked, but I really wanted to be able to say, “OVER THREE THOUSAND!”  Reports and greetings were heard from a wide variety of people from all over the world and from Portland.  We watched video presentations of some of the work of the PCUSA.  We acted on certain business items regarding the organization for the week, and we learned how to vote using our electronic devices.

Saturday ended with a moment of history.  Saturday evening is the official election of the Moderator of General Assembly.  This is an elected position with a two year term.  The person who holds this office represents the PCUSA in many ways and helps to run the Assembly meeting.  It is an office that requires a lot of time and effort.  This year for the first time ever we had two teams of co-moderators.  This was history right in front of us.  The next bit of history that happened was the election of two female co-moderator candidates.  This is the first time we have elected co-moderators, usually there is a moderator and vice-moderator.  This is also the first time we elected two women to be the moderator team.  Adding to the significance of this moment is that this GA marks the sixtieth anniversary of the ordination of women as teaching elders (pastors) and eight-fifth anniversary of the ordination of women as ruling elders.  I had the thought last night that I will one day tell others I was there for that moment and they will look at me with wide eyes.

Sunday’s business began in the afternoon to allow for the chance to worship in local congregations in the morning.  The business was similar with greetings and challenges from partners from other denominations and faith traditions, videos, and information sharing.  The majority of the assembly was given the chance to relax together and greet the new co-moderators.  The committee I am on had to meet because we are responsible for establishing the docket for the rest of the plenary sessions.  After dinner the other committees met to get organized.  After four hours of work my committee finished for the night and I left to return to my room and do my homework.

Monday and Tuesday we will be working in our committees.  On Wednesday we will return to the plenary sessions and continue with those until Saturday at noon.  Throughout it all I am taking notes and soaking up the whole experience.  If you have specific questions let me know and I will answer them.  I plan to return to my observations tomorrow and leave the details for our in person conversations.

222nd General Assembly – Day One

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My table.

I enjoy collecting stories.  I enjoy meeting people and figuring out the lines that connect us.  In the Presbyterian Church (USA), a.k.a. PCUSA, the phrase connectional church gets repeated often.  Our form of government is based upon working together as partners in a congregation, as congregations, as presbyteries, and as synods.  General Assembly (GA) is the gathering for governing decisions of the whole denomination, it is a practical expression of our connectional nature.

GA is also a chance to collect more stories and figure out more connections.  So far on this first day I have found classmates, colleagues who have moved, extended family, current colleagues, and seminary professors.  All of these people are a part of my story.  They are names and faces I have collected, phone numbers and e-mail addresses stored in my electronic devices, and they are stories I tell.  They are this eclectic bunch I have collected and hold tightly in my prayers and my heart.

Today has been full of hugs, smiles, and exclamations of joy as this eclectic bunch of people I know wander by me, call my name, or respond when I call their name.  Today I have collected new stories, met new people, and discovered connections I did not know existed.   I have wandered around a convention center full of many people and yet not felt lost, or alone, or invisible.  Instead, I have felt clearly what it means to belong to something bigger than myself.

I have witnessed the PCUSA’s connectional nature many times over the years, but today as we worked through the organizational details necessary to conduct business this week, I was amazed I could look around and see faces of people whose stories I have held for years.  I know this week will bring challenges and exhaustion, but I am confident I will add to my collection of stories of God’s action in the world, and hopefully make a new friend or two along the way.

Graduation Season

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A scene from the high school graduation. 

In our rural community graduation season often means for the month of May each weekend will involve at least one open house on Saturday and Sunday.  There are some Saturdays when the afternoon and evening are spent traveling from one location to the next, reminiscent of a traveling dinner as many of the same people are following the list you have in your hand.

These open houses are joyful events, made even more so because the people in attendance have known the graduate most, if not all, of their life.  As a transplant to this community these parties are an excellent opportunity to determine family lines and lifelong friendships.  They also provide an opportunity to eat someone’s famous recipe, that you had no idea they made or was famous, but everyone else seemed to know.

This year while sitting at a particular graduation party I looked around the tables and realized I knew most of the people.  My eyes rested on each of them as I thought about the particular struggle they are facing.  There were strained family relationships between siblings, exhausted parents wondering if their child will even make it to their high school graduation, couples filing for divorce, couples enduring life-altering medical conditions, individuals waiting to hear from the doctor about a test, and mourners who saw a tent with a glaring empty spot where last graduation season there was a person.  I listened to the conversations around me, shared in the stomach-aching laughter, received joyful smiles from faces recently drawn tight in grief, and felt an overwhelming sense of peace.

This peace came from the understanding that life is being lived with joy and purpose.  Amid all the pain of each of those individuals under the tent, they still came out to celebrate the joy of one child, a child they had prayed for before they were born, helped raise, and are getting ready to send out into the wider world.  As a transplant who did not have the experience of a community such as this, I am amazed once again at the deep connections of this community full of people who throw a party because there is joy, even when they know most of the guests are enduring some trial.  I am amazed at the people who come to the party to celebrate with joy, even as their heart is breaking.

This vulnerability and acceptance is what makes life in our community, not just our congregation, beautiful.  It is not the kind of life that can be bottled or written up as a curriculum, it is the kind of life found through generations of shared sorrows and joys.