U-C: What I See

Thursday, July 07, 2005

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.