U-C: What I See

Friday, July 29, 2005

Pentecostal Presbyterian Churches? This is NOT your fathers Oldsmobile

Sisters and Brothers,

Sorry to load you up with several posts in one day. I've been working on these for a week but haven't had time to post them. (This one is quite long - if you're not particularly churchy, you may want to skip it. :)

In the last two weeks, I’ve visited two churches that are similar to one another yet unique among all the other churches I’ve visited this year.

On Sunday, July 10th, I was invited to preach at First Presbyterian Church, Atlantic City, New Jersey. This is a stately old building that looks like many other inner-city, “First” Presbyterian Churches I’ve visited. However, it is surrounded by the gambling casinos that have replaced any identifiable sense of downtown community, and immediately across the street is the Trump Taj Majal. I’m told that in the early 1980’s the small group of remaining members were offered several million dollars by Donald Trump, who hoped to tear it down and replace it with a parking garage. The members insisted that, although they were unclear about God’s plans for them, they were sure that God had a ministry in mind for them in downtown Atlantic City (and that it wasn’t to be a parking garage).

As their numbers continued to dwindle, they eventually offered to share their sanctuary with a small, African American Pentecostal Church pastored by Bishop Charles and Dr. Diana Lyle. Charles is an accomplished musician who regularly performs in England, and Diana is a well-known evangelist who has been invited to speak all over the world. Though the two churches had extremely different worship styles (as you might imagine), there was some affection and affinity between the members, and the African American congregation grew as the mostly white congregation continued to decline in numbers.

A few years ago, Diana and Charles approached their minister colleagues in the Atlantic City area, as well as the West Jersey Presbytery, and expressed interest in affiliating with the Presbyterian Church (USA). They appreciated the form of governance of the PC(USA) and were attracted to the way that Presbyterian churches have a sense of connection and accountability with one another that helps our churches to develop an identity that lasts beyond the personalities of a particular pastor.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. The Presbytery Committee on Ministry worked with Charles and Diana to help them to pick up the training background in reformed theology and Presbyterian Polity to complement their strong skills in ministry, and they became Commissioned Lay Pastors. Then, the members of their church also studied Presbyterian polity, history and reformed theology, and eventually eighty of them were confirmed as members of First Presbyterian Church. Today, the church is intentionally multi-cultural, though largely African American, and decidedly more lively in worship than the typical Presbyterian Church. The church houses a large ministry called “Sister Jean’s Kitchen, founded because they followed the spirit of one of their members who lives a few blocks away and who simply started feeding homeless folks out of her own kitchen. Nowadays, they’re feeding fifteen hundred people each weekday out of the church, with dreams of supporting a dramatic expansion in services to the homeless in partnership with the Atlantic City Presbyterian Mission Council (check it out at: http://www.wjpresbytery.org/committees/ac_council/) as they expand the program into an abandoned synagogue a block away.

The other two churches in downtown Atlantic City are also seeking to remain a faithful, viable witness in that difficult place. Chelsea Community Presbyterian Church is a somewhat smaller, traditionally white church about twenty blocks south that has now become a small, Indian, Urdu speaking congregation. I shared a wonderful Indian meal with Pastor Suppogo and his congregation, and they shared their efforts to maintain a vibrant presence and outreach to the remaining neighborhood around them. The other is Jethro Presbyterian Church, an African American Congregation that has a smart, dedicated, and dynamic preacher named Dr. Delrio Liggons-Berry who is trying to help revitalize the congregation and strengthen its historic witness that stands in opposition to all that the casino empire stands for.

Another church story. . .

A few months ago, I was visiting Shenango Presbytery in Western Pennsylvania, and I asked E.P. Dave Dawson what the most exciting new thing was in their presbytery. He immediately became animated as he launched into a story about “Word Centered Fellowship” and Pastor Angel de la Cruz. I knew that I would be back in the area this week for the New Wilmington Missionary Conference held at Westminster College, and I asked Dave to arrange for me to visit the church.

After I preached at the conference last Sunday morning, Dave was waiting to whisk me away to Sharon, Pennsylvania, an old steel town on the Shenango river sitting right on the border with Ohio. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a modest, brick building formerly used by the Knights of Columbus as their lodge, with a simple, painted metal sign on the wall that said “Word Centered Fellowship” in big letters. Though worship had ended, eighteen or twenty members had waited to meet with me and to share their story.

Pastor Angel is a Pentecostal preacher who has a D.Min. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A couple of years ago, he set out to create an intentionally multi-ethnic (his word) church that would be especially hospitable to inter-racial couples. Though he is clearly at home in the Pentecostal tradition, he approached the Shenango Presbytery to ask whether he and his congregation might be welcome there. Once again, they were quite clear that they valued the sense of accountability, connectionalism and the rich theological traditions of the Presbyterian Church. Their members also had been deeply moved by the warm embrace they received from First Pres. Sharon when they needed a place to worship as they began their ministry. That welcome was what helped them to feel safe enough to explore the possibilities for uniting with the PC(USA).

As we settled down for conversation over coffee and sandwiches, I expected that Angel would probably do most of the talking. However, when I asked about the goals and the mission of the church, a young man named Luther immediately began to speak. He spoke with conviction, but everyone chuckled as he earnestly began to describe the church’s mission, and within two sentences, all of the members joined in unison to recite their mission statement from memory. Here it is:

“We are a word centered cell church, effectively presenting the gospel to all races and persuading them to become disciples of Christ. We are equipping disciples by teaching the faith, encouraging intimacy with God and demonstrating perseverance to live holy; empowering our youth for tomorrow through prayer support, biblical teaching, education and church support.

We are utilizing the seasoned saints wisdom to build the Kingdom of God and serving the seasoned saints by providing viable ministry for them and excellent nursing care.

We are worship filled, prostrating our lives before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are utilizing a variety of music to heighten the desires of the people to true koinonia.”

During our conversation, every single one of the members present was anxious to share the way this church is the center of their lives. Though they are clear that they value and are anxious to maintain the Pentecostal spirit of their worship, they’ve also been studying the first four chapters of the Presbyterian Book of Order (something I wish all of our churches would encourage), and they spoke excitedly of the ways in which they have been empowered to provide leadership for their life together. They were particularly impressed by the role of the ruling elders in our polity.

Angel is now a pastor in good standing in Shenango Presbytery. The church has received a New Church Development grant totaling 25,000 dollars each from the Presbytery and the Synod and 50,000 dollars from the General Assembly Council National Ministries Division. That money will come in at $20,000 per year for the next five years, and it will primarily be dedicated to paying a youth pastor’s salary. The members of the church are giving sacrificially themselves to the tune of almost eighty thousand dollars a year. The church will confirm its first members and install its first pastors in late October. Once again, the Commissioned Lay Pastor provisions of our Book of Order are being used in a way that I believe is both creative and God-inspired to recognize the special gifts of the spirit that leaders in the Pentecostal church have been given by God. Three members have entered into a special program with the Committee on Ministry to prepare to become CLP’s so that their leadership and support of the church’s ministry will continue to be recognized and affirmed.

God is clearly working a new thing in these churches, but God can’t do it without long-time Presbyterians who are willing to embrace this new thing in their midst, nor without Presbytery leaders who are willing to think outside the box. It makes me proud, and excited, to be Presbyterian. It also makes me wonder just what our unpredictable God might have in store for us next.

Hang on,


Dying to Get In


A quick update on border issues and resources.

First, there is a new dvd/video that is the best thing I have ever seen on the migrant experience on the border. It was done by a student in the BorderLinks "Semester on the Border" Program who was with us in the spring of 2004, and he got footage of migrants that is absolutely remarkable. The video runs about forty minutes, and it can easily be used for classroom (high school and college), and for church education programs for teenagers and adults. It is extremely compelling stuff. It can be ordered for ten dollars plus shipping from Brett's website at www.bretttolley.com.

Also, in April the Synod of the Southwest hosted an profoundly meaningful conference on immigration, border policy and migrant concerns. The material from that conference has been compiled in a new edition of Church and Society, published by the PC(USA). It is a phenomenol resource for anyone interested in being educated or educating others on these complex issues. This magazine is a consistently deep and thoughtful resource, edited by Bobbi Wells Hargleroad. Learn more about the magazine in general, subscribe, or order individual copies from: http://www.pcusa.org/churchsociety/. The issue you're looking for is on Migration, and it came out the end of June.

Finally, the migrant support work in the Arizona desert continues apace. There have no been almost 200 people who have lost their lives since the first of October. Two volunteers in the No More Deaths movement were arrested about three weeks ago as they were trying to get three, extremely ill, migrants to medical care. Though they have been offered a plea bargain, they have refused anything that could appear to be an admission that they are guilty. We're waiting to hear what will happen next, particularly whether or not they will be indicted and have to stand trial. They were clearly following the No More Deaths public protocols for who can be helped and how they can be helped, and they have good legal support. Their names are Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz. If you want more information, go to www.noremoredeaths.org.

I know that this continues to be a highly contentious issue, and that many have grave concerns about the legality of the act of providing food, water, medical care, and transport in a medical crisis. Theologically, I remain convinced that our volunteers are standing on strong scriptural foundation. Many texts can be sighted, but the story of the Good Samaritan, and the description of the Judgement of the Nations in Matthew 25, continue to be the Biblical stories that ground my own personal commitment to this work. "I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. . . Surely when you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me."

Politically, this is an important time to invest in conversing with our elected representatives about these important matters. At President Bush's request, Senators McCain (Republican from my state) and Kennedy (Democrat from Massachusetts) have drafted a bipartisan bill that by any account would be a vast improvement in the immigration laws regarding migrant labor coming to the U.S. If enacted, it would go a long, long way toward taking death out of the border equation.

Legally, the statutes read that it is illegal to knowingly further the undocumented entry into the U.S. or presence in the U.S. of any person. It is our conviction that attempting to keep people from dying in the desert in no way violates those statutes.

Regardless or how you feel about these difficult issues, please keep migrants in the desert in your prayers as the hot summer continues. Please also keep Daniel and Shanti in your prayers. They are showing the kind of courage of conviction that we desperately need in a hurting world.

In peace, and with a dream of a world in which no one needs to leave behind family, culture, land and language to provide for their families.


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Multiculturalism, Church Transformation and the Missional Church

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Multicultural and Church Transformation Conference at Colombia University in New York City. There were over one thousand Presbyterians there, and all of them attended because they are involved in trying to bring new life to their congregations.

Several years ago our denomination set a goal to be ten percent “racial ethnic” or “persons of color” by the end of 2005, and twenty percent by the year 2010. We have made significant progress toward this year’s goal, though we still have a long way to go, and it isn’t clear that we will hit the target this year. As I’ve traveled this year, I’ve become convinced that our real focus shouldn’t be so much to create a culturally and racially diverse denomination, but instead to create churches that are intentionally multi-cultural. Many of our small churches in rural, suburban, and urban areas are discovering that their neighborhoods are becoming far more diverse than they are, and that their own renewal and hope for the future is tied up in their ability to make their worship and fellowship a place that genuinely welcomes God’s “Pentecost” church of all nations.

I wish that every Presbyterian could have been with me to participate in this wonderful, Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired event, because as I looked from the stage out across a huge auditorium filled with people from all over the world and from across the spectrum of historic, racial diversity in our own country, I was looking at the future of our church. There were workshops on how to transform our worship in a way that will honor our reformed tradition even as it welcomes folks who bring their own rich tapestry of worship traditions. There were teenagers who brought marvelous dance and music. There were lively conversations about “the Missional Church” and “emerging worship” and helping our congregations to become skilled at multicultural communications. Each day began with the entire assembly in Bible Study led by Rodger Nishioka, faculty from Columbia Theological Seminary. Cynthia Rigby, faculty from Austin Theological Seminary, offered daily theological reflections, and the worship itself was moving and full of life. If you’d like a closer look at what took place at the conference, called “Witnessing To God’s Radical Hope,” you can find it at http://www.mt2005.org/index.php.

When I was in Long Island Presbytery a few weeks ago, I met with pastors and lay leaders from 18 churches that have signed onto a commitment to doing the hard work of transformation. That’s almost a third of them. (Long Island Presbytery has a great website in which you can find the covenant and the other documentation for the church transformation project. Just go to http://www.presbyteryofli.org/ and click on “file cabinet.”) In Shenango Presbytery in Western PA, nine churches have covenanted to become “missional churches.” If you don’t know about that movement, you should start with anything written by Darrell Guder, the recently appointed Academic Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary. (There’s much more to be said about the Missional Church – google it and go crazy!) I’ve seen similar efforts almost everywhere I’ve gone this year: the Bayou Cluster of South Louisiana Presbytery, the churches of Oklahoma, small churches that are finding new life in upstate New York.

There is nothing magical or easy about entering into this work. It’s hard work to prepare church members to make this commitment, serious effort to carry out the work in prayer and discernment that this task demands, and a heavy load for both pastors and lay leaders who are helping their churches to become a new thing. Change is slow, and many of our members will be dragged into this new thing kicking and screaming. As Pastor Bill Craxton, (whose church in Mercer, PA has committed to the Missional Church model) shared with me a few days ago as he drove me to the airport in Pittsburgh, it’s hard to quantify the successes. Still, there’s no doubt that these efforts beat the alternatives. Do we really want to sit by and watch as many of our churches see the membership decline and wonder who will still be around to turn the lights out or sell the building when the last members have been buried. Even in some of our apparently healthy churches, the missional church movement helps us to stand against the status quo in which there is little engagement in the mission of Christ, or worse, where there has been a clear capitulation to the seductiveness of the dominant culture. It is clear that we are no longer a Constantinian church of the State, and that faithfulness involves standing against the temptations of a consumer culture that is antithetical to our most fundamental Gospel values. We must be a church that follows that Jesus who demands that we risk everything in his service.

My friends, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that something mysterious and Holy is afoot in our church. Moments like the one we shared in New York are little glimpses of that mystery. No one has a road map, and no one can define exactly what God has in mind for us. This is not a task that can be delegated to our national staff, however dedicated, committed and skilled they may be. The work of transformation begins in local churches, with all the support that Presbyteries, Synods and the General Assembly can bring to bear. I’m so excited to find regular, everyday Presbyterians are gathering to share their challenges and “best practices” and dreams and skills with one another as they seek to follow God into this new adventure.

The Holy Spirit is on the move!


Saturday, July 16, 2005

Faith Walk at Ground Zero


Yesterday, I went to church. As moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, I go to a church almost every day, but this wasn’t just any church.

This was St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City http://www.saintpaulschapel.org, the oldest public building that has been continuously in use on the island of Manhattan. This was George Washington’s first stop after his inauguration on April 30, 1789. St. Paul’s also has the distinction of being immediately across the street from Ground Zero where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once soared well over one hundred stories in the air.

St. Paul’s became a place of hospitality and care for the recovery workers who worked to clear away the rubble and debris that reached twenty stories up and sank seven more into the ground. I’ve been in a lot of historic churches over time, and in general they tend to resemble museums far more than houses of worship. Not this one.

Here, the pews are battered with the marks of the heavy tool belts worn by the hundreds of workers in the recovery effort who came in to sit for a while and try to recharge after long hours of working to clear bodies, mementos, and the wreckage of the towers. Today, there is still a trundle bed, low to the floor and neatly made up with stuffed animals on the pillow, a reminder of the beds which ringed the sanctuary for many months to provide a place of refuge for the exhausted folks whose bodies and souls were equally battered by the grim work.

There are home-made banners of support from all over the country and around the world that hang on the walls and on the front of the balconies that line the room on three sides, and there are what can only be described as shrines of remembrance for both the victims of the disaster and for the sacrifice of so many of those who responded. Members of this church and hundreds of volunteers of all faiths fed thousands of recovery workers here each day. They offered counseling and care for the men and women who came in off “the pile” that eventually was known as “the pit.” George Washington’s historic pew, a ten by ten, enclosed box on one side of the room, became the podiatry clinic where the workers received care for their cut or burned feet. One volunteer told us that no one entered the room untouched by their experience in the pit, but they left with spirits renewed in this place of worship.

One of the displays next to Washington’s pew is a rack that contains a display called “healing hands.” There are small, brightly painted, paper hands – most sent by children as an expression of care and support for the recovery workers. One in the middle jumped out at me: “War is what we need to eradicate, so please spread love – not hate.” On the other side there are hundreds of paper cranes sent by sisters and brothers in Japan. A sign explains that the most treasured have been stored for safe keeping. Those are the ones sent by the victims who survived the nuclear bombs dropped on their cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty years ago.

Later in the afternoon, the members of the General Assembly Council Executive Committee visited the offices of Lutheran Disaster Response of New York and Koinonia NYC, who jointly sponsor the “Faith Walk” experience. (Check out http://www.ldrny.org/ for more info.) We watched a video that focused on this marvelous expression of what God calls each of our churches to be. Toward the end of the video, several of the volunteers from the church and the recovery workers shared similar thoughts about their experience. “I don’t want this experience, which is all about peace and love and unity, to be forgotten when the immediacy of the disaster has passed us by,” one woman said. One worker reflected that this disaster stripped away all of the divisions that normally define us: black, white, gay, straight, whatever cultural or religious boundaries we might normally cling too; they all disappeared in the immediacy of the crisis. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” said another man, “if all churches acted like this without the impetus of a disaster like the one we experienced.”

There is a wrought-iron fence that surrounds the historic graveyard between the church and the site of Ground Zero. On the morning of the disaster, firefighters parked on the street by the church and rushed to change from civilian clothes into their protective equipment. Many hung their street boots upside-down on the spikes of the fence to be collected when they returned at the end of the day. By the next day, volunteers realized that the owners of many of the boots would never come back to collect them, and the fence that circles almost a city block became a memorial to those who lost their lives - more than three hundred of them - in their attempt to save those who were in and around the towers at the time of the attack.

Boots upside down on the fence. This is the image that stays with me. A witness to the fact that there is a cost to caring for and about others. I hunger for a church and a country in which we embody that kind of sacrifice. One person in the video reflected on the honor of being connected to St. Paul’s, because there were people all over the world who wanted to respond. St. Paul’s, less than a hundred yards from the unbelievable destruction of the attacks, was given the opportunity to be God’s witness and the healing presence of Jesus Christ to a people numbed by violence and destruction and the loss of loved-ones. We should all be so fortunate to have that opportunity.

Yesterday I realized in a powerful way that we have a choice in our country. We can choose to define who we are as a people by remembering the attack and all of the twisted hate and malice that it represents and make it the hallmark of how we will interact with the rest of the world. Or, we can remember St. Paul’s and the hundreds of volunteers and the indomitable spirit of a people defined by a fundamental, unshakable belief that God is good and that we can choose to celebrate that goodness in one another. It took only a few minutes for the towers to come down, but for eight months after that event there were thousands of people who insisted, as our guide Lisa must have insisted at least a dozen times yesterday, that God is good and God was present through it all.

God is good – All the time!


Thursday, July 07, 2005

On bombings and hope for the future

July 7, 2005 – Bombings in London

This morning I arose to spend the day with about sixty teenagers from the United States, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel, and Palestine. They are Jewish, Muslim and Christian, and they are all participants in a program sponsored by Auburn Seminary in New York called “Face to Face/Faith to Faith.

This project is among the most compelling things I’ve seen in my first year of travels as Moderator of the General Assembly.

When I woke up, it seemed like it would be a fairly easy day. I was being offered the opportunity to sit in on the deliberations of the teenagers, who have just three more days before the program ends and they all head home.

However, on the way down the hill to breakfast, I received the news of the bombings in London this morning. Forty more dead, hundreds wounded, another senseless round of violence in a cycle that seems to spin ever more quickly and wildly out of control.

I can think of no place I would have preferred to spend this difficult day than with this courageous group of teenagers.

Five years ago, the folks at Auburn decided to do something significant and real about the rising tide of violence in our world. The idea is pretty simple, really, though the logistics and the group dynamics are quite challenging. Students from the participating countries must be sixteen to eighteen years old to participate for the first time. They are chosen for their diversity, their commitment to their faith, their location in places of violence in the world, and their openness to energetically engage those who are different.

Students arrive in New York from all over the world, and head off to a camp an hour north of the city (another great thing a Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center is offering our denomination – this one is the Center in Holmes, NY). Then, they embark on a two-week adventure of getting to know one another, learning and practicing the communication skills necessary to share and listen to one another’s difficult stories, and becoming a new generation of practitioners of peacemaking.

Today’s news of the bombings in London evoked a watershed of deep sharing, tears, and a realistic assessment of the hard reality they confront as they go home. This afternoon, many of these young adults shared painful, rarely told stories of the ways in which their own families have been touched by the violence. One young woman said that for the last ten days she felt this was a safe place. “The bombings reminded me,” she said, “that no place is entirely safe, but I’m still glad I came.”

I have seen a lot of great things our church is doing as I have traveled. This fits in that elite category I’ve created in my mind of “The Church being Church.” This program insists that God can help us to manufacture hope, even in spite of the clear-eyed assessment that the situation could easily be categorized as hopeless.

Over the last few months, I have heard a possible consensus growing among Presbyterians, many of whom have disagreed with one another about our action at last year’s assembly to start a process of “phased, selective, divestment” from companies whose activities support the occupation of Palestine and the terror of extremists in the Middle East. Whatever we may believe about the assembly’s actions, it seems that most of us can find common ground on a commitment to invest in efforts to build a strong and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Auburn’s program is a gift to our church. They have already been hard at work at developing the foundation for a resolution to the madness of a growing violence that, all too often, is fueled by religious extremists. They aren’t complaining. They aren’t wringing their hands. They’re just partnering with Christian, Jewish and Muslim colleagues around the world to defy the madness. They are making an investment in peace.

Please check out the website for Face to Face/Faith to Faith at:


This program doesn’t just deserve our support, it deserves to be copied and emulated. They have to raise almost half a million dollars every year to make it go, and they need our help. They also could use help from pastors and lay leaders in identifying the teenagers in your area who would make good participants. Together, we can grow this work.

Tonight, after that very heavy afternoon session in which the kids shared so deeply with each other, someone pulled out a guitar as we finished dinner. The first song, sung with gusto by sixty teenagers who stood arm and arm on top of the picnic tables and the benches in the dining hall, was “Stand by Me.” The organizers tell me that when the teenagers arrived they brought with them most of the stereotypes about one another that have been so destructive in the world. It’s not that they’ve unlearned all the racism and hatred and bigotry and violence that they’ve been brought up on in just two weeks. However, they’ve learned to see one another as people, and to rethink some of their own assumptions. One young man pleaded with the group today, “When you go home and you see other people, look them in the eye and see that they are people, just like I am.” Those words - "Stand by me" - take on an entirely new meaning when song by these young adults who have experienced hatred in such profound ways.

Today, I received a wonderful gift from God. I sat on the edge of a moment of intimacy shared by a group of teenagers - Muslims and Jews and Christians – who dream of leading the world into a new and lasting kind of peace and security. “Look at the way we’re sitting all mixed up with one another after just one and a half weeks,” one young woman said. “Imagine what we can do in a year.”



Reflections on a difficult day in the life of the Moderator

Dear Friends,

Prompted by an article in the Presbyterian Layman OnLine, many of you have written asking for my explanation of what took place at First Presbyterian Church in Torrance, CA on June 26th. I appreciate your interest, and your commitment to hear my own reflections about that difficult day.

First Presbyterian Church of Torrance, which is a very large Korean church in the L.A. area, has been going through a painful and wrenching conflict over the past several months. My understanding of what has precipitated the conflict was that when the session desired to call a new Senior Pastor, they discovered that he was facing charges of misconduct in his previous Presbytery. Rather than respond to the charges, he renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbytery. Though the Presbytery refused to release him to take the call to Torrance, he has been functioning as the Senior Pastor, and has made an attempt to remove FPCT from membership in the denomination. (I am well aware that there are a variety of opinions about the underlying issues. The Layman offers their own in their article. My own assessment is based on my conversations with a variety of the folks involved.)

Two months ago, a significant minority of the members and nine of the staff left the church and began worshiping in other locations: first a park, later a nearby church, and recently a high school auditorium. The case over the ownership and possession of the building has been taken to court.

In early June, when I learned that I would be in the Los Angeles area near the end of the month, I offered to worship with that significant minority. When I arrived there on Sunday morning the 26th, I learned that the judge had issued a preliminary ruling that insisted, among other things, that the building had to be shared equally between the two groups until a final decision regarding ownership was reached by the courts.

The members who had invited me to worship with them asked me to accompany them to the 11:00 a.m. worship at FPCT, to ask for the opportunity for me to speak as a part of worship and to worship together with that community. I was told that their intention was to go to the front of the Sanctuary, to ask the pastor for time in the pulpit, and to remain respectful and calm at all times. In the event that we were not welcomed, I was informed that the plan was to leave and drive to the high school to worship with the members who feel they have been forced out of their church.

We spent approximately ten minutes in the service of worship. Had I been offered the opportunity to speak, a courtesy that has been extended to me as Moderator at every PC(USA) church I have visited this year, I intended to offer words of encouragement and an exhortation to reconcile to a congregation of brothers and sisters who clearly are in crisis. I was not invited to speak.

Although all of the communication was in Korean - a language I don't speak - it was clear to me that there was little common ground and no hope for any kind of dialogue in that context. As I shared afterward with my wife, given my lifelong commitment to dialogue and peacemaking, the situation was extremely uncomfortable for me. I imagine that everyone in the room would have said the same. There were security guards present. Some members of the congregation and leadership on both sides raised their voices with one another. There were at least a dozen cameras being used as members on both sides of the conflict attempted to document the event. I give thanks to God that no one lost his or her temper to the point of resorting to physical violence. In the end, I accompanied about one hundred members as they left the sanctuary, and we moved across town to the high school where close to five hundred members have been worshiping for the last month.

My discomfort was profound. As I watched what was taking place, I had an overwhelming sense that Jesus was weeping as he witnessed the argument being mounted in his place of worship. I wished for an ability to speak the language and for a far better understanding of Korean culture so that I might have participated appropriately or even have been a more healing presence. I regretted that my presence itself had become part of what fueled the conflict.

As we drove across town to the high school, I threw out most of my prepared manuscript, and instead jotted new notes for my sermon.

As I preached to the smaller part of the congregation that has felt excluded from their worshiping community, I tried to make three points. I started with the lectionary text from the book of Habakkuk that Cory Nelson had shared with us the previous week at the Peacemaking Conference, in which Habakkuk cried out to God “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” and God responds, “there is a vision for the appointed time…If it seems to tarry, wait for it… It will surely come.” I told the group that I do believe their cause is just. That is to say, they are justified in seeking appropriate ways to make their voices and their dreams for the church heard.

However, I then shared the passage from Isaiah 58:4-9, where Isaiah suggests that God’s people fast only to quarrel and to hit with wicked fist, and that such a fast will never be acceptable to the Lord. Basically, my point was that whether or not those assembled were in the right, God would judge us by our actions and by the ways in which we choose to glorify and worship God. Being “right” is not enough - for either side in this conflict. Isaiah made it clear. God’s chosen fast is to focus on loosening the bonds of the oppressed, to share our bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into our house.

Finally, I turned to the lectionary, which was from the 10th Chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus describes his conviction that God will reward us when we extend hospitality to those who come in God’s name. I suggested that even in the midst of great pain and division and suffering that First Pres. Torrance is experiencing, we must keep our eyes on the prize. This has been a healthy, thriving community of faith, and the danger is that faithful Presbyterians will become paralyzed and lose that vibrant sense of ministry and mission that has characterized their church for many years. My prayer for all of the members of FPCT is that they will embrace this difficult moment as an opportunity to extend themselves outward and to offer genuine hospitality to others, not to become more and more insular and focused on themselves.

That’s a message I've tried to share with our entire church in the midst of the division and pain we are experiencing as a denomination. It’s not that the divisions we experience are unimportant. Rather, it’s that we cannot allow those divisions to define us as we attempt to become an ever-more faithful community of God. We are clearly called by God to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to people who are adrift and directionless, and to live that good news in communities that are in great need.

I regret that the Presbyterian Layman chose not to contact me for an interview before publishing their story about what was absolutely the most uncomfortable and difficult day I have experienced during my term as moderator. Though we clearly do not have the same understanding of all the facts, I appreciate many of the concerns they have lifted up. I think we would agree that what we do in worship matters greatly to our God. I am painfully aware of my own shortcomings as I was caught up in this conflict. Being a part, however peripherally, of such a bitter disagreement in the midst of a worship service, is something that I regret. I pray that my own admission of my regret will not be the only part of this reflection that I find quoted by those who disagree with me.

I do believe that we must work out our disagreements with one another in ways that will honor and uplift our God. I did my best to confess my own discomfort with the events of the morning as I preached at the high school later in the morning. I would have welcomed the opportunity to share those reflections with the Layman. I hope that all of us who are outsiders in this particular argument will keep all of the members of First Presbyterian of Torrance in our hearts and our prayers during this difficult time.

One last thing. I hope that this won’t precipitate a round of arguments about the rightness of my actions in particular. This was as difficult a situation as I have encountered in some time. Some folks will disagree with how I participated. Others will agree. Everyone is free to state an opinion, and I welcome thoughtful and constructive feedback. However, let’s not forget the work we’re called to be doing as we follow Jesus Christ into a world that cries out for his healing presence. Months of fighting with one another over whether the moderator acted appropriately does not seem like it glorifies God. Please, if you have comments to share – write them to me directly instead of to one another about me.

Seeking a fast that honors our God.