U-C: What I See

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Reflections from someone who is living his faith

One of the highlights of my summer was the opportunity to attend the Presbyterian Peace and Justice Conference in Tacoma in early August. There, as in each conference I visited this summer, I asked for a late-night bull-session with any interested young adults. We had a particularly rich conversation that night - about living our faith and struggling to be the kind of faith community God calls us to be.

One of the people I met that night was Jonathan Scanlon. He is a third-year student at Princeton Seminary, and I was struck by his thoughtful questions and comments.

I want to share a letter (with his permission) that I just received from Jonathan in the past week. It strikes me as just of the kind of seeking we ought to be striving for as "first-world Christians."

August 24, 2004

Dear Friends,

I recently returned from the 2004 Presbyterian Peace and Justice Conference in Tacoma, Washington. I was selected this year to be one of nine Theological Student Workers. I helped set up and run the conference with the other seminarians, three of which were from Columbia, two from McCormick, two from San Francisco, and one from Louisville. I made many new friends within our own denomination from across the country, and left the conference energized and ready to go out into the world bringing a message of peace. The conference was not only the highlight of my summer, but one of the most meaningful experiences I have had in seminary.

There were three speakers and many Action Group seminars discussing a wide variety of topics involving ecology and peacemaking. This year four PC (USA) organizations came together for the conference: The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Joining Hands Against Hunger, the Presbyterian Environmental Justice Program, and the Presbyterian Self Development of People. The speakers focused on issues relating to current trends in economic globalization and the negative effects it has on people and the environment. Dr. Flora Wilson-Bridges, who is a professor of systematic theology at Seattle University and pastor of Madrona Presbyterian Church, said that to combat global poverty, environmental degradation, and warfare, we as a society need to develop a common understanding of suffering. As Christians we are called to pick up the cross and that action involves suffering. Dr. Wilson-Bridges sees Christian suffering as transcending fear, unifying the world through the Holy Spirit by no longer compartmentalizing the secular from the sacred, bringing the community together, and seeking justice as reparation to give back what has been taken from others.

One issue I have been dealing with since my first meeting with my committee on preparation for ministry is how we as leaders of the church are to guide those who disagree with us. Many on my committee did not agree with my protest of the United States attacking Iraq. Throughout the conference I continued to ask every speaker his or her thoughts on this question. The overwhelming response I got was that we are to build relationships with others first before pressing our opinions on others. The next important idea to keep in mind is that, for whatever reason, those who disagree with us have come to their opinion out of faithful devotion to God and to reading the scripture. As long as we continue to acknowledge that fact, we will treat others with respect and plant the seeds of persuasion on the most important issues of Christian discipleship.

The third speaker for the week was Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly. He was already scheduled to speak at the conference before being elected moderator in June. The night before he spoke, Moderator Ufford-Chase met at ten o’clock with the young adults attending the conference. He asked the twenty or so of us to go around introducing ourselves. When he heard I was a student at Princeton, he became very interested and spent most of the rest of the night talking to me directly. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Mr. Ufford-Chase lived in Princeton when he was young while his father attended seminary. After finishing college in Colorado, Rick came to the seminary but left shortly after when he decided he was not called toward ordination. I found out he lived in the same dorm room I had my first year of seminary.

We were up until 1 a.m. discussing where the church stands on important issues and where we as Christians are called to guide others. The Moderator sees the church in a trough, where it has been for the past fifty years, building up its institution to become the organization it is today. He also believes our society is coming up upon the next wave of social movement and it is now time for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to decide whether it will take part in the social movement or sit it out. His slogan “it’s time for us to get in the boat with Jesus” is very catchy and pointed. He believes the institution of the church may only lead us so far as Christians and that we must be willing, at any moment, to abandon the structure of the denomination if it interferes with our discipleship of following God by living lives in accordance to the teachings of Christ and revelation of the scripture.

The moderator gave me some suggestions on where to take the youth group of the Community Presbyterian Church in Mountainside next year on a mission trip. Their high school youth have never attended a week long service event together and I hope to find the time to pull one off for them to experience a little of what I did in high school. Mr. Ufford-Chase plans on reaching out to youth over the next two years and encouraging them in their search for God. He has a plan to double the amount of young adult volunteers in mission while in office. I could see he truly believes that out of all the protestant denominations in the United States, the PC (USA) has the strongest and most linked and supported mission program. Our denomination has the most potential to spread the message of the gospel and work for peace and justice across the globe, but we must choose to support the effort, not only with money, but also with our time, and with our members. After returning from the conference, I have developed three steps I wish to institute in my life as a part of my personal commitment toward peacemaking and Christian discipleship. I hope you all will help me in this process.

My first step in my personal commitment to peacemaking is to officially declare myself a conscientious objector to participation in war of any kind and military service. I have thought long and hard about this decision and know that I could never take another person’s life. I have arrived to this calling with the full support of my family, including my father who was drafted and chose to serve the United States in Vietnam, though he too opposed war. I have already begun to go through with this public and official process, not out of personal concern of military service, but for the benefit of other Christian men and women who, sharing my sentiment of higher calling, desire to attain conscientious objector status and come to my counsel for assistance.

Next, I hope to encourage dialogue about peacemaking within the church. The Peacemaking Program of the Presbyterian Church, (which may be found on the web at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/), has plenty of available resources to facilitate dialogue. It is not enough for our General Assembly to pass position statements on literal life and death events in the world. Those statements need to become available for members of the congregation with their elected elders to discuss and act upon. The Peacemaking program has an official Commitment to Peacemaking which, “helps Presbyterians engage individually and collectively in peacemaking ministries by making a public commitment. Sessions, presbyteries, synods, Presbyterian Women's groups, colleges, seminaries, and other groups make a public commitment to include seeking peace and justice as part of their discipleship and mission. The Commitment suggests eight ways to engage in peacemaking.” I am going to encourage every congregation I am affiliated with to make this official and public pledge to working for peace.

Finally, I hope to continue to re-evaluate my life and how I am working for peace and social justice. I want to examine in what ways I am progressing in my service of the poor and oppressed and in what parts of my life am I holding myself back from stepping up to the challenge. We all are scared of leaving our comfortable lives. I have lived a very sheltered life in an affluent community of people very similar to myself. But Jesus Christ calls us out of our comfort level. The Christian life is a life that follows Jesus’ own suffering He endured. During my discussion with the Moderator, I asked him what are ordained ministers to do when they are afraid to preach what they believe because they are afraid of losing their job and not being able to provide for their families. He looked at me seriously and said if you are afraid of upsetting others, than you need to reconsider your call to the ministry. The church is not a corporation for upward mobility and promotion. I have always felt a strong allegiance to the Presbyterian Church. I believe the structure of the denomination provides the least likely opportunity for corruption. I respect the Reformed Tradition in both theology and practice. Though our denominational institution has served well so far, we must not forget our church is always reforming. REFORMATA ET SEMPER REFORMANDA. We must stand ready to sacrifice the institution for the sake of Christ. I hope you all will hold me accountable in this decision and endeavor. May God bless people of every nation.

Jonathan Scanlon

Thanks for letting me put it up on the blog, Jonathan.

blessings on each of you.