Tuesday, June 24, 2014

General Assembly, Controversy, and a Family Wedding

Last week, as my Presbyterian Church (USA) was debating issues of marriage equality and divesting from companies seen as profiting from activities damaging to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, I headed to Austin, Texas to attend my daughter's wedding and associated fun and festivity. (As an added bonus, The Mountain Goats, my favorite group, played a concert in Austin on Sunday evening. Something about divine providence in there somewhere.) In my only slightly biased opinion, the wedding was one of the best I've ever attended. And no, I didn't officiate. I enjoyed simply being the dad. The marriage equality votes at General Assembly had already occurred prior to the actual wedding activities, but I was not really paying attention by the time the divestment vote happened.

Even though this wedding and its related activities were incredibly well done, they were not so dissimilar from weddings that you have likely attended. There was a rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, along with tuxes, bridesmaid dresses, and a lovely wedding gown. People stood and snapped pictures with their smartphones as I walked my daughter down the aisle, and picture taking and Facebook posting continued at the reception, along with eating, drinking, dancing, and a bit of wedding cake.

I suppose someone who objected to drinking alcohol could have found fault. Perhaps someone might have disliked the band. But it's hard for me to imagine that many would not have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. There is little disagreeable, off-putting, or controversial about a lovely wedding.

I returned from Austin yesterday, and I'm in the office for the first time in a bit, digesting all the blog posts and reactions to the recently completed General Assembly votes on divestment, marriage equality, and more. Unlike my daughter's wedding, many have found the events of GA disagreeable, off-putting, and controversial. There are worries that more congregations may leave the denomination over some of the decisions. And there are numerous posts attempting to explain or clarify "what really happened."

Some of the latter are certainly needed. Mischaracterizations of the events abound, as they so frequently do on issues that are politicized with people on both sides prone to hyperbole and demonizing the other. Others have done an admirable job here, and I'll simply recommend some of those to you. Check out some of the coverage by The Presbyterian Outlook. I found colleague Steve Lindsley's open letter to his congregation helpful. And MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a colleague who ran for vice moderator of our denomination, and whose church is just down the street from the one I serve, had a couple of helpful pieces, one a post in her blog The Blue Room and the other a piece in TIME.

I was for the marriage issues, which passed easily. I was also generally in favor of divestment, although some its supporters have been prone to unnecessarily inflammatory language regarding Israel. And so I'm not one who is upset by decisions coming from this General Assembly. At the same time, I am bothered by how divisive such decisions often are and the turmoil and controversy they create. Isn't there some way that General Assemblies could be as enjoyable, agreeable, and non-controversial as my wedding fun this past weekend?

The short answer is, "No." As much as I and others may long for the theological equivalent of "Can't we all just get along?" the fact is we are struggling to follow a Jesus who created disagreement and controversy most everywhere he went. He didn't get executed because he was a nice guy who stuck to the status quo.

When I looked at today's gospel reading, I couldn't help reflect on how good the church has become  at polishing off Jesus' rough edges. Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." I've heard some rather lame attempts to make this say something other than what Jesus clearly says, but in the end, these are troubling and uncomfortable words for a majority of Presbyterians who hear them. We preachers sometimes twist ourselves in knots as we dance around their unappealing character. In the process we often embrace this prevailing notion. "Surely Jesus doesn't mean that following him will make us different, odd, unlike the world around us, and subject to name-calling, lies, and mischaracterizations?" But of course the short answer here is, "Yes!"

I presume that Jesus didn't enjoy controversy for controversy's sake. It was simply the inevitable result of his ways being so out of synch with the world's. This leads to a recurring source of discomfort for me. Why isn't the Church more controversial? Unless the ways of the world have gotten a whole lot closer to those of Jesus in the last two millennia, then those who follow Jesus should be as out of step with the world as he was. (Jesus says as much on several occasions.) And so I am left to ponder whether the Church is so often non-controversial and comfortable with the status quo because the world has drawn so near the Kingdom, that new day Jesus proclaims, or if, as seems more likely, the Church has instead drawn too near to the world.

Jesus on occasion used the image of a wedding banquet to speak of the kingdom, of that day when the world is set right Oh, how I wish that proclaiming and living into that new day were as agreeable and easy and enjoyable as the wedding I attended this past weekend. But they are not. And while I operate with a fairly high level of uncertainty regarding just what controversies we in the Church should be stirring up, I have no doubt that we fail to be the body of Christ when are simply benign, unoffensive, status quo reflections of the communities in which we live.

As for the decisions of the recent General Assembly, time will tell how true they are to Jesus and his call to follow him. But the fact that they create controversy, cause people to speak ill of us, or even to hate us, is hardly evidence of a failure on our part. It may even be evidence of faithfulness.

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  1. What a fantastic reflection!

  2. The forward movement of God is rarely met unopposed.