Thursday, November 11, 2010

Belfast or PCUSA

Deep inside, my soul fights a war I can’t explain, I can’t cross over anymore. All I see are dirty faces, rain and wire, and common sense in pieces. But I try to see through Irish eyes. Belfast.

So begins a hauntingly beautiful, very sad, yet simultaneously uplifting tribute simply entitled Belfast, penned by Bernie Taupin, and magnificently set to music and sung by Sir Elton John, on his recording from the 1990’s, Made in England. The piece details an Englishman’s attempt to understand and chronicle the turmoil in that embattled city, and does so with an unmistakable sense of admiration. This is a song about a city that is torn apart by a politically motivated struggle played out along religious lines, yet determined to survive and prosper. This is a fight born of patriotic nationalism on one hand, people who want to retain home rule as a unified, predominantly Roman Catholic country; and descendents of the protestant, likely predominantly Presbyterian, immigrants from the United Kingdom who have remained loyal to the crown and who have asserted their power on a small portion of the island. While not a split specifically involving religion, the battle lines have traditionally been drawn along these denominational lines - - all within Christianity.

The analogy could be drawn between the situation in Northern Ireland and that of our beloved denomination in the brouhaha over the ordination of homosexuals to the leadership or ministry of the church. The division is every bit as political, with definite religious overtones and includes those whose positions are every bit as intractable as one has historically found the two factions in Northern Ireland. To follow is a comparison drawn in my mind with Belfast representing the PC(USA).

The battle is one waged in the souls of those of us who do not, and in fact, cannot, live in the world of strict dichotomies of black and white, right and wrong, sin and righteousness. Everything’s a little grey, the lines a bit blurred. We are the segment of the population that sees both sides of the dispute, or at least cannot find a comfort level with one viewpoint to the complete exclusion of the other. Most of us probably would prefer to leave the language contained in the Book of Order intact. But, prior to the 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, it seemed to us that neither side was actually listening to the other in our dispute; the rhetoric has been harsh, and the tactics unworthy of a Christian organization. It is based upon the worldly political battle lines of liberal versus conservative instead of along the guidelines of the peace, unity and purity that we seek. Our opposing forces struggle for control of the denomination by figuratively blowing it up, burning it down, and shooting the combatants with heated accusations of intolerance or abominations. Both are right and both are wrong, and I can only imagine our Lord weeping as the arguing continues.

Look outside; summer’s lost and gone; it’s a long walk on a street of right and wrong. And every inch of sadness, rocks and tanks, go hand in hand with madness. But I’ve never seen a braver place than Belfast.

The long walk on the street of right and wrong; it’s a daily stroll for each of us, isn’t it? At the far end of the road for all of us is our Lord and Savior. The distance in between us and the triune God is sin. We Presbyterians do not rank sin; we do not accept that God does either. We are taught that all sin is abhorrent to God; that he cannot look upon any of it. He reaches out to us, he calls to us. We get confused in our humanness and head in the wrong direction; and we do it every day. Each of us. Everyday. In different ways.

The gift of grace is just that; God’s gift to us. None of us deserve it and none of us can earn it. God even provides the gift of the impetus to seek after his Word and his example. We hear the Word, and if it is God’s will, we believe. We still sin, but we believe, and we are mindful of our shortcomings. We try to minimize the intrusion of worldly matters on our relationship with God. But we all fail. Thanks be to God that He continues to pick us up. But, if we all are sinners, why is it we can only hear the Word of God being preached, or can only tolerate the idea that it is being lived out, by persons whose sins are similar to ours? And on the other end of the argument, why is it that we cannot see that in our stubborn resolve to live our own lives, we may be ignoring the possibility that our behavior might actually be sinful? Why has the expression of human sexuality outside of traditional marriage become an abomination while other sins are simply sins? If God, through his Son Jesus Christ, can cause a murderer and terrorist to become a great apostle, if He can awaken the faith in this example of a admittedly heinous sinner, why is it so hard to believe that He could awaken faith in someone whose predominant sin lies in the way he or she expresses love and devotion for another human being? How many of us, when listening to a sermon, obsess over how the speaker expresses his or her personal sexuality? And on the flip side, for those among the denomination’s population who are fighting to change the Book of Order’s ordination criteria, why can we not understand that our insistence on getting our way on this subject can be a serious stumbling block for other Christians? Most seriously of all, while we are embroiled in this battle, which of Christ’s flock are going unfed and untended? Is that not the primary task set before us in this life on earth? Did Jesus not tell Peter to “feed my sheep”?

And it’s sad when they sing, and hollow ears listen to the smoking black roses on the streets of Belfast; and so say your lovers from under the flowers: every foot of this world needs an inch of Belfast.

Who’s to say on whom heaven smiles; our different ways we try hard to reconcile. No more enchanted evenings; the pubs are closed, and all the ghosts are leaving. But you’ll never let them shut you down, Belfast.

Who is right in this dispute? Only God is. God is always right, the Father, along with Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus told us that only those without sin have the right to criticize and hurl rocks; and he also told us to go and sin no more. Those instructions pretty much cover all of us, do they not? Like the embattled combatants in the Irish conflict heading out from the pubs, not knowing whether they will make it home or be blown to bits, some are choosing to leave the denomination. Many Irish have immigrated to the United States and other parts of the world over the years; but the yearning for the “auld sod” remains in their souls. They are not whole without Ireland, and most make the trip back home on a nearly annual basis. For those who decide to abandon the denomination, they are similarly not leaving whole. Even if they manage somehow to wrest the church physical property from the presbyteries, part of the heart will stay, as will some members of the congregations whose majorities decide to go. If it’s a sizeable minority, is it fair that those who do wish to stay in the denomination lose access to their place of worship, which, by the Book of Order, is held in trust for the Presbytery for use by Presbyterians in the PCUSA? I don’t think so. Furthermore, the precedent has been set by the PCUSA to maintain a presence in the communities in which these departing congregations are located. Whether they leave with or without the physical property, the congregations who go will be shadows of their former selves. The denomination will go on, wounded, scarred, and with rebuilding to do, but not destroyed.

I personally do not want to see the Book of Order changed, and I will remain with the PCUSA. I pray daily that, regardless of the outcome of the tediously continuing debate over ordination, my particular congregation will also remain; I would find it very painful to not have this group of people as my church home. But I cannot run from my responsibility as an Elder and General Assembly Commissioner to work toward the peace, unity and purity of the denomination. It is the faith of my upbringing; it is much of my identity; it’s my spiritual DNA and a big part of the “auld sod” of my soul. I know there are some, perhaps even many, in the congregation who feel as I do about it, too. I hope we can stand together as the branch of the PCUSA in our community. I hope my colleagues on our Session will pray, re-consider, and then pray a lot more before embarking on such a decision. I likewise hope the congregation will take a similar routine of prayerful consideration. I pray that each of us confronts our own sinfulness, and that we ask ourselves why the “sin” of human sexuality is so much worse than say, the “sin” of judging people on their expression of human sexuality. The denomination has weathered such storms before; it will go through this one, too, and I intend to be right with her, working within the system to keep her on the correct path. We have too much of God’s work to do to spend any more time involved in this battle that will result in no winners.

The enemy is not at home; a jealous green streaks down this faulty diamond. No bloody boots or crucifix can ever hope to split this emerald island. And I never saw a braver place than Belfast.

Within this decade now coming to a close, a new government was installed in Northern Ireland. For the first time in many decades, it is a shared one. The parties representing the Crown sat down with Sein Fein/IRA representatives and posed for photographs with the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Ireland in Belfast at its inception. All were smiling. All were poised to cooperate and work together. Historical statements of intractability were laid aside on both sides. As the Irish and British get about the business of running their countries that co-exist on the same island, we Presbyterians need to take a page from the same book of cooperation. We, like they, will not always agree, and will continue to debate matters of polity and policy for a long time. It is time for us to get about doing God’s business and stop this squabbling amongst ourselves.

And it’s sad when they sing and hollow ears listen to the smoking black roses on the streets of Belfast; and so say your lovers from under the flowers: every foot of this world needs an inch of Belfast.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


It is probably presumptuous of me to think that many people read this blog, but it is serving as an outlet for my thoughts and feelings. It has virtually nothing to do with my employment, or “day job”, as I refer to it. It has everything to do with the rest of my life.

For most of my adulthood, I have sought for the truly spiritual experience, but looked for it in places where the spirits encountered might not necessarily be ones I should have been seeking. Somehow, religion and family were all tied up together, and for too long, I was in a slow process of rebelling against all of it to find my own way. I lived across the country from family, although I went through the motions for a while, and even attended a church. I allowed myself to be elected Deacon of my congregation, but it didn’t take long before I realized I wasn’t ready for that responsibility, hit the eject button and jettisoned myself out into the world of the so-called New Age movement. I spent hours in now closed Shambhala bookstore on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, reading about Eastern Christianity, astrology and mysticism. I took meditation “classes” and learned about “out of body experiences”. It was all interesting, even fun sometimes. I kept myself active with places to go, things to do, and people to see, except when I had nowhere to go but the living room couch, never changing out of sweats with the remote and whatever food I was using to try to fill up the huge hole in my soul, and with nothing to do but numb my brain with television or music. Those would be weekends where I said nothing to anyone. Sometimes, on Friday nights, I’d light my candles or even light a log in the fireplace, put Pink Floyd or Moody Blues on the stereo, turn the ringer off on the phone, extinguish the lights, and just stare into the flames while the music carried me away somewhere in my mind.

I’m probably lucky that each of those following mornings, I found myself back on the couch or lying on the living room floor where I had gone to sleep when the stereo cut off and the log or candles burned out. Of course, then it meant I would have to face another boring Saturday with myself for company. If I did anything at all, it usually meant grocery shopping; or maybe down the block for some bagels, sometimes to the Safeway. Sometimes I dated, but the relationships wouldn’t last long, and I finally decided it would be o.k. if I stayed single, and decided to just be comfortable. I wrote silly poetry about dreams I had, commemorating the deaths of each. My manufactured existence evolved into my thinking I was actually successful, and I even fancied myself to be happy. After all, I WAS living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Certainly, there was something about the area keeping millions of people - - myself among them - - resident there when the entire nine-county area is built upon a maze of dozens of seismically active faults! It has taken me a while to realize that it was the city itself that I loved - - the hills, street patterns, landmarks and, of course, the fog - - rather than its people; the “prestige” of having that San Francisco address and actually adoring my flat, rather than feeling particularly great about my job or about the neighborhood, its six Irish pubs in walking distance notwithstanding. I just never envisioned myself leaving; I had become a Californian. It took a 7.1 upheaval to literally shake those realizations into my head; when I became aware that just as easily, I could have been on the Bay Bridge or on the Nimitz Freeway, or out at Candlestick Park, or in the Marina District. Instead, I was safe and sound in my office, listening to the shattering windowpanes, and watching my little knick-knacks falling off the shelves and the lateral file drawers opening and closing. Some fifteen months later, when my plane flew north over the “bay” and I looked out the window to the west, locating Highway 101 in the street light pattern and looking a block and half past it to where “my” flat was located, I sobbed, weeping for a good fifteen minutes before I finally stopped and decided that sleeping would be a better use of the “red eye” flight. I tear up even now just thinking about it. That was nearly twenty years ago, and I haven’t been back. Part of me is still there; whether it is my heart or not is debatable, but it was a little bit of something valuable, I think.

By the time that flight landed in Charleston, South Carolina, I had managed to reapply my happy face, and assured my folks that I was just tired; that they didn’t call them red-eye flights for nothing. Over the next couple of years, my spoiled-brat-kid issues with my family dissolved, and we forged the intense, rock solid bond we now have. Initially to make them happy, but later because I really loved it, I started attending worship services at the Presbyterian church in which my folks were members. Over time, some of the other singles in the congregation and I joined with some from other churches in the area, and attended various and sundry events and activities together. My philosophy by this point was to get a group together to do stuff I liked to do. If I met someone to date, great; if not, at least I got to have a good time. No surprises, I met my husband there and following our wedding, came to Virginia. Our life here has been pretty happy, on balance; we all have good times and not-so-good times.

In all things, God works for good for those who love him and keep his commandments.

During my husband’s very serious illness a few years ago, I had my first real tangible, conscious experience of the Holy Spirit - - I know you were wondering what all this has had to do with the Holy Spirit - - when people and circumstances aligned in such a way as to be absolutely perfect for the situation at hand. These were not those experiences where one looks back at them and says, ‘oh yes, that must have been the Spirit at work’; no, I felt, I KNEW it while it was happening. And yet, I could say nothing; how can one explain it when one cannot perceive something with the five senses? I couldn’t articulate it because it was all too startling, too perfect to simply be the coincidences that other people might argue they were. The Spirit is the only explanation for what is otherwise a mystery.

The same sense of awe surrounds the process we commissioners went through last week at the 219th General Assembly. We disagreed agreeably; we worshipped collectively and prayed in small, table enclaves, usually as presbytery groupings; we frequently sang hymns or stopped for prayer as we moved through the items of business. Questions were simply that, questions. Generally speaking, stands for or against motions were expressed in terms of the ideas’ merits, and never degenerated into personal attacks against those who made the motions in the first place. Even the protest group that briefly interrupted the Assembly on Friday afternoon was peaceful, and was treated with respect. If not by the Holy Spirit, how else were the emotions of the 700-or-so -commissioners kept in check while discussing the “hot button” issues? How else could we disagree with each other in one breath, yet hold hands in prayer the next? In nearly each and every decision made, whether at the committee or plenary level, common ground was vigorously sought. How else could that have happened? We dealt with highly charged, passion-eliciting issues! I’ve tried to explain it in my mind as good planning, as it was; good moderating, as it certainly was; the orderly nature of our polity, well maybe; or was it the unshakeable duty to stay united in spite of, or perhaps even because of, our differences? Sure, and it was all of these, joining in what - - a marvelous set of coincidental occurrences? I know better. Each of them absolutely played an important role, to be sure. But the Holy Spirit is the love binding us to God through Jesus Christ. I know this because I am a Presbyterian, an elder commissioner and a true believer. The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was visited by the Holy Spirit last week in response to our invitation; and out of our hearts the rivers of living water will flow as we glorify the everlasting and all powerful triune God. May the LORD be with you!

Monday, July 12, 2010


written Saturday, July 10, 2010

Well, General Assembly has concluded its business sessions, the final worship service was held and our group of commissioners has scattered. It was almost eerie, the speed with which everyone cleared out, retrieving stored luggage and boarding the buses for the airport. I was able to finally share a meal with my brother and sister-in-law, after only being able to sort of hug them in passing during this week. In an unexpected way, I think we were all sort of sad to see it end. And it reminded me of the countless retreats and summer church camps I attended as a youth in Birmingham - - perhaps due in part to seeing a couple of folks who were also at those camps!! But now that I’m at the airport, at loose ends for a little while until my plane actually boards and heads back to Virginia, I’m noticing some of the emotion has given way to a sort of nostalgia. A wistfulness, perhaps.

My brother, who has attended a lot of General Assemblies over the years, said that this one was among the best, if not THE best he has ever attended or heard about. Over lunch, he shared some of the behind the scenes stuff that goes on at these events, that contribute to the make up of the positions taken by some of the factions - - and no, I’m not going to share them here in this forum. Gradye Parsons quipped that he was considering writing all of the 173 presbyteries to request that the same commissioners and delegates be sent to Pittsburgh in 2012. Our moderator and vice-moderator were just spot-on when items were potentially getting contentious or perhaps worse, repetitious. And when we were disrupted by a protest group, Moderator Bolbach reacted perfectly. So many divergent factors combined to bring about the right decisions at the right times, that I cannot think that it was anything but the Holy Spirit working through all the hands that worked to make this event happen.

The names are entirely too numerous to list. They begin, of course, years in advance, and in the office of the General Assembly. GA staff works with the Committee on Local Arrangements, or COLA. And, oh, what a COLA we had! From the moment I emerged from the aircraft, made it to the baggage claims area, these volunteers were there en masse to assist us in finding our way through the airport which, for me, was unfamiliar. My fellow passengers and I were escorted through the hallways, to the tram and out to the buses; today, the process was essentially reversed, with the friendly folks wearing smocks with the Presbyterian Seal on the front and back and always, always a smile right there to bid us safe journeys. I could go on and on.

Of course, in a scant few hours, I will be on the ground back in Virginia. I’ll be reunited with my husband, and eventually, our dogs. I hope to attend church in Warrenton tomorrow and I’ll go about various and sundry chores. I’ll return to work this week, catching up with the goings on that occurred while I was away. I’ll need to write a report about the week, it’s events and my experiences. I can say now that I want to be more ecumenical and open to other faiths; I can say I need to confront my fears on certain issues, and perhaps my prejudices with others. And I can say that I want to go back again, and hope to have the opportunity again before too long.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


It is Friday night, and I have just packed my suitcase for the return trip to Virginia tomorrow. General Assembly has concluded the majority of its business, and as with most assemblies in recent years, some of the decisions we made were received well, while some were not. We will close as we began, in worship. Then we will depart and begin the real work of our jobs as commissioners.

By now, it is possible that you have read some accounts in the secular media about our work here. I am told we made the front page of the New York Times. The decisions we made might be questionable in your thoughts. I urge you to withhold making judgments about our work until you can talk directly to us, the commissioners. The secular press tries, God bless them, but unless they’re Presbyterians, they probably do not understand our processes. Unless they had listened to the testimonies in the open committee hearings, participated in the prayers and the Roberts Rules explanations, it is unlikely they understand it all well enough to write our story. It’s hard enough for us to explain what happened here. We are the church, and while religion editors of newspapers want to get these sensational headlines, we are called to be holy, set aside to glorify God, and not be conformed to the modes of secular society. We are the PC(USA) and our General Assembly speaks to the PC(USA) with regard to how we are to live, even as we are in the world. We are not to be of the world.

What I am taking away from the last few months of reading, and the past six days of intense deliberations and more reading, has been the experience of the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. There were impassioned pleas, there were stands taken, and yes, there were tears shed; there were also a lot of prayers for the gift of discernment, lots of hugs given, information imparted, friendships rekindled, laughter shared and other light-hearted moments such as the “Plenergizers” taught to the assembled adults of all ages by the Young Adult Advisory Delegates on Thursday and Friday afternoons. One was called “Istanbul” and the other was called the “Ants in your Pants Dance”. These young people are the present church, as well as the future, and we are truly, truly blessed to have them!

Our worship services were glorious. The opening service incorporated the music of a combined choir from the Twin Cities’ area, interpretive dance from different cultures - - a theme repeated on Friday morning - - and throughout the service, a “performance artist” creating a painting on black fabric, utilizing some type of paints in swirls of blues, golds, greens and whites; it was completed a little bit after the service was completed and once dried, was hung in the plenary hall for the remainder of the week.

We will finish our business meetings in the morning, and I’ll head out for the airport, where I will say “so long” to the Twin Cities and catch the flight back to Virginia. I think I will be leaving behind something of my self here, but hope I have put on something special here. I’ll get back to my routines next week, but I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same again. This has been a life shaping experience. As surely as I poured the waters dipped from the confluence of the Rapidan, Robinson and Rappahannock Rivers into the pitchers that were poured out at the beginning of each worship service and each business session, rivers of living water will pour from my heart, because I am a believer. I am a Presbyterian

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Children of Abraham

In this my second entry in my PCUSA General Assembly journal, I turn to committee deliberations. As I think I have mentioned, I was assigned to the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee. When I received this assignment, I was somewhat ambivalent, neither pleased nor displeased. We would not be discussing the “hot button” issues, and for that, I was both disappointed and relieved. But, I am nothing if not Presbyterian, owing my very Christian existence to what in 1983 became the PC(USA), and probably could rightly be accused of a sort of snobbery when it comes to Protestant Christian denominations. So, ecumenism? Me?

Well, as it turns out, yeah! There is merit to engaging with our Christian brothers and sisters in dialogue and action where no issues of deep conviction compel us to act separately. This is included in a document from the 1950’s conference in Lund, Sweden, that has come to be known as the Lund Principle, and that was recommended in an overture. We dealt with 11 overtures, reports and recommendations involving these interactions. One, in which the behavior of the Evangelical Presbyterians was studied, the reports of the EPC “recruiting” congregations of the PCUSA to disassociate with the PCUSA and connect with the EPC were determined to be mostly unfounded. We heard inspiring reports from the newly formed World Communion of Reformed Churches, in which the body moved from a loosely allied group of Reformed Churches to a covenented body of Reformed Churches! This represents a much strengthened bond among our brothers and sisters of the Reformed tradition. Hopefully, Calvin would be proud!

We then moved into the three overtures that would serve as the “meat” of our discussions. We reviewed recommendations and an overture involving two reports, or papers, one involving Christians and Jews, and the other about Christians and Muslims. We heard impassioned pleas from Middle Eastern Presbyterians who bemoaned their exclusion from the deliberative process that went into the composition of these reports. Simply put, they were hurt and resentful that these reports were written without their input, yet understanding that the reports' publication would have direct impact on the day to day lives of Palestinians, whether Jew, Christian or Muslim! The Presbytery of San Francisco had made overture to General Assembly, asking that the two reports not be forwarded, but be retained for further study. Our committee delved into each of the papers, ultimately forwarding for approval the paper involving Christians and Muslims, but referring the paper on Christians and Jews back to the Office of Theology and Worship and Interfaith Relations for further input from the Middle East Presbyterian Caucus and any other stake-holding group. (“Stake-holding is my characterization).

Why did we “split the baby”, as it would seem that we did? It’s actually pretty simple. The recommendations accompanying the paper on Christians and Muslims presented it as an introductory study; a well written first step requiring and inviting further input and interaction among the groups. In fact, the recommendations directly addressed that need. On the other hand, the paper on the Christians and Jews was presented as a completed document, and we were concerned about the absence of input from the Middle East Presbyterian Caucus in the paper’s composition. So, in summary for this matter, we agreed with the portions of the San Francisco Presbytery's recommendation that the document involving Christians and Jews was not ready for widespread use, but disagreed that the paper on Christians and Muslims needed to be retained. We felt it was ready for use as introductory material and “conversation starter”, and therefore removed it from the San Francisco overture.

It is important to remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their origins back to Abraham. It is vital to remember that Ishmael also benefits from a covenant with God; and we recognize (I hope) that the Jews’ status as the “Chosen People” was not “trumped” by the covenant in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also important to remember that all have claims on the land area roughly defined as Palestine, where the nation state of Israel was established in 1948, but where Palestinian Arabs had been living for hundreds of years. Some of these Arabs are Christian - - and many, perhaps most, of the Christians are Presbyterians! And yes, many of the Palestinian people are Muslims. Palestine has no world recognition as a nation with land and borders. As we know, the land is but one point of contention, but it is a huge problem; one that has often degenerated into violence and bloodshed, with outright warfare breaking out several times in the past fifty-plus years of my life. The two papers were written from different perspectives, with the Christians and Jews paper focusing primarily on the similarities between our faiths, while the paper on Christians and Muslims highlighting the areas of disagreement between us.

Am I still ambivalent on the subjects of ecumenical and interfaith relations? No. It is possible to engage, individual to individual, and group to group, in the spirit of welcome and with the intent to understand each other. One might think of it as a step toward the ultimate family reunion as descendents of Abraham!

Monday, July 5, 2010


Whew! The past couple of days have been something of a whirlwind, and I have just pulled up to the banks of rivers to review tomorrow’s business and get a bit of rest. To the extent that my writing is ever coherent, this may not be the best example. More likely, this will seem more like a journal.

Friday, July 2nd. My wonderful husband took me to the airport for my flight to Minneapolis. After negotiating the borderline humiliating security lines, I walked to the gate to wait. And with numerous others who were either reaching their destinations in Minneapolis, or merely using it as a connection point, wait we did. The plane arrived at the gate, its passengers started to disembark and I noticed that outside, there was a man with a green shirt and khaki pants standing in front of one of the engines talking with some of the ground crew. I wondered what that was all about, and whether it was a matter of concern. As baggage was being loaded (or offloaded, in some cases) I assumed the cabin was being cleaned, too. Sure enough, they began boarding what used to be called “First Class Passengers”. And then something odd happened: one of the flight crew led the people who had just boarded back up the jetway, said something to the gate agent, turned on his heels and disappeared from whence he came. We were told first that some maintenance issues needed to be addressed, and it would be just a few minutes. Then we were told that the flight had been selected for a random FAA inspection, that it would only be about ten minutes. After about a half hour or so from that announcement, with the gold van still behind the aircraft, we were allowed to board. We finally pushed back from the gate house a full hour and a half late. Those who were using Minneapolis as a transfer point were disappointed, angry, and otherwise emotional. My row-mate, a young woman going to see her mother for the first time in 2 years, was in tears. I learned that her mother had made the trip from Japan, and was meeting her daughter in Boise, where she was staying with other relatives. Due to work, this young lady only had the weekend and Monday to spend with her and the FAA Inspector had ensured she would not get to have as much time; it was not likely that she would make her connecting flight. I said a quick prayer for her as she headed for the jetway. It was all good news for me, though; I encountered the first bit of hospitality put on by the Committee on Local Arrangements when I entered the baggage claim areas and met the welcome committee with the smocks decorated with the Presbyterian Seal. Everything was smooth from that point and I got to bed about 12:30 am Eastern time. It was comforting to know, through this “ordeal” that planes are routinely and randomly inspected, and that when caught early, little mechanical difficulties are readily repaired.

Saturday, July 3rd. Following a seven hour nap, I awoke on Saturday, showered and dressed and headed over to the Minneapolis Convention Center. Aside from an over supply of Coca Cola products, the MCC is beautiful and perfectly set up for a meeting of this kind. The Riverside conversations started at 8:30 am, and I selected first to listen to the presentation of the task force on Civil Unions and Christian Marriage and then to the excellent presentation of the Form of Government task force. A quick tour of the Exhibit Hall followed and on to the first plenary meeting.

I have to do a flashback at this point, so allow your eyes to go out of focus for a second and then refocus a few weeks ago. When my materials arrived to begin my preparations for being a commissioner, one of the instructions was to bring a small amount of water from a local river to the assembly. I was able to prevail on a couple of my colleagues at work who were going on a canoe float to collect a small amount from the confluence of the Rapidan, Robinson and Rappahannock Rivers. OK, back to the present, this water was combined with other samples from other rivers and some was poured in a bowl as the opening prayer of the first plenary session was delivered and the opening passage of Scripture - - John 7:38-44 was being read. “Out of the hearts of believers shall come rivers of living water…”

We heard reports and accepted certain consent agenda items then broke for dinner. It was at this point that I located a Pepsi machine! It was all o.k. again! The MCC is now a perfect place for such a convention!!

When we returned at 7 pm, we listened to the candidates’ for moderator: six individuals, any one of whom would have been good, but one whom I am happy to report is someone with whom I have been acquainted through hearing various presentations from the FOG Task Force. Cynthia “Cindy” Bolbach, from National Capital Presbytery, was elected after numerous ballots and then test votes with our cool little voting machines (we had some issues with them!). Once the Cindy’s election was secured and our evening prayers concluded, we were in recess. Once again, it was after midnight before I got to bed…

Sunday, July 4th. Independence Day arrived with my awakening, startled, that I had overslept. The plan was to meet my brother and his wife for worship. A quick call to his cell secured my saved place, and I nearly sprinted one of the more glorious worship experiences of my life ensued. The rivers were again in use as, for the first time at General Assembly, a baby was baptized. I had wanted to describe this experience, but I do not have the words. I commend to you my brother's blog:

Lunch followed worship, and immediately after that, our committee meetings began. As you may know, I am assigned to the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations committee. We began with some fun team building exercises and heard a couple of presentations from General Assembly staff.

I could have participated in a picnic and fireworks display at Nicolet Island, but I felt too tired for a picnic and I’ve never enjoyed fireworks. Following a quick nap, I am now writing to you and reviewing committee business for tomorrow morning. As I write, I hear the popping of fireworks…

So. Here we are. Cindy Bolbach is moderator, God is in His Heaven and we Presbyterians are in Minneapolis, prayerfully requesting the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we seek to do the business of the PCUSA and further the glorification of Jesus Christ our LORD. Please keep us in your prayers! To God be all the glory, honor and praise!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Summer Heat

Wow! Summer has arrived in Virginia clothed in all her fiery, humidity-driven misery! Ever since I left California, I have had difficulty with extreme heat. I thought the heat in Charleston, South Carolina was the worst I’d experienced, even worse than in Florida, until I moved to Virginia. Out here in the north central piedmont, we do not get the breezes off the ocean, nor do we have the altitude of the mountains to provide lower temperatures. At night, the temperatures cool down, but are not deserving of the adjective, “cool”. At least Charleston had a breeze from time to time down near the point where the Cooper and the Ashley Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean. (That last bit is true; ask any local the next time you visit there; they’ll tell you!) This week, the temps have not gone below 65 at night, nor have they stopped climbing during the day in the comfortable seventies; not even the 80’s, no, today, they shot right up past the century mark! We’ve been promised thunderstorms on a daily basis, but alas, none have materialized in our area.

It was a scant four months ago that we had over two feet of snow piled up in our yard, and as it melted, the ground became very soft. (I am reminded that I have difficulty with extreme cold, too!) The mud was strong enough to literally pull the shoes off one’s feet! The same muddy area is now just a bunch of cracked and dusty clay. All the bodies of water to which I am routinely a witness are way, way down. The Rappahannock has a “sandbar” reaching almost from bank to bank in the mornings when I cross the Chatham Bridge on my way into the beautiful city of Fredericksburg’s old town area. We could really use some rain - - not the afternoon thunderstorms that sends brief, torrential downpours only to stop within a few minutes, and the water running down the hill taking topsoil along with it. We need a good, soaking, gentle, all day shower that lasts for a full day or two.

The parched, dusty ground and ever diminishing bodies of water that I see every day remind me of the encounter our Lord had with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, record in the 4th chapter of John’s gospel. It was the heat of the day, and Jesus was tired, hot and probably a bit thirsty; he had sent his traveling companions ahead to make the preparations for the evening’s sojourn. While He’s resting there, a Samaritan woman brings her water jar to the well. She is unnamed and nothing is known about her beyond what the passage eventually describes, but she suffers from a dryness of the soul, and of course, Jesus knew it. In the course of their conversation and her providing him with a drink of water, Jesus told her everything she had ever done - - all her foibles, warts and other blemishes of the soul - - yet, offered her the kingdom by saying that all who drank of the water she pulled from the well would thirst again, but those who drank of His Living Water would never thirst again. The woman saw the wisdom in accepting the gift, as she recognized that Jesus was, at minimum, a prophet, and might actually be the Messiah, and so she ran to tell her acquaintances in the town. Some believed based on her story, others followed, heard Jesus and believed.

On Friday, I will board an airplane heading for the General Assembly meeting in Minnesota to which I have referred before in this venue. I am excited and anxious, hoping that God will guide me in the decisions I have to make, even in the comments I may have for topics at hand in committee. It is my fervent hope that I will be able to have such clear direction that I will wonder why on earth I was ever unsure. (That’s the dryness in my soul at the moment.) I am hoping that out of my heart indeed will come the “rivers of living water” promised by our Lord, and recorded in John 7:38.

I plan to share herein some information each day as the meetings proceed next week. I do ask that you hold all of us - - the commissioners, delegates, and presbyters - - in your prayers as we go about our work starting Saturday, July 3rd through Saturday, July 10th. Please pray for our safe travels into and out of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Most importantly, please pray that the Holy Spirit take up residence in our hearts, that our discussions are filled with agape rather than rancor; that we are able to provide a clear message from the General Assembly to the members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. This message will have to do with the mission of the church according to the direction of the Holy Spirit and how it has guided us to be a denomination of the larger body of Christian believers in the United States. This message will somehow inform us as the PC(USA) how we are to go about being part of the Church IN the world, but not OF it. May we truly glorify the Lord, and enjoy Him forever! Let the rivers flow!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In the Boatman’s Lap

This week, the Rappahannock was out of its banks again. Several days of rain, preceded by warmer temperatures that melted off the remaining snow patches, filled the streams, lakes and rivers to overflowing. From my favorite vantage point of Ingleside Drive, I looked back down at the curve of the river. The tidal currents pulled the water in violent splashes over the boulders, making actual whitecaps and reminding me of a painting I have hanging in my office. To be accurate, it is a print of a painting; the original, I am told, hangs in an old mansion in Nashville, Tennessee, that has been converted to a museum. The title of the painting is “Boatman and Child” and was painted by an artist named Robert Payton Reid.

As you would infer from the title, the picture is of a man dressed in rain gear, a 19th Century version of a slicker like garment, probably oilskin, and a rain hat. It is apparent from the front left periphery that he is in a sailboat, and the water is white-capped. The Boatman also wears a countenance speaking of determined control; his left hand is firmly grasping the rudder and the other encircles a little girl as his hand grasps the rope line of the sail. In addition to the dark traditional dress and coat of the period, the little girl is wearing a plain, white cap that fits closely to her head and is tied underneath her chin. Her little hands are pressed, palms together, and brought up to cushion her head against the Boatman’s chest. The expression on her little face indicates she is frightened, but it also conveys trust. She is huddled against him, taking both shelter and rest as the storm’s waves rock the boat.

One is struck by it. The colors in the piece are shades of browns and grays, adding to the somber mood of the scenario, yet it does not convey an entirely gloomy feeling. In fact, whenever I look at it, I am drawn in by its calm, and by how I identify with that little girl; safe in the arms of her protector - - perhaps her father or grandfather - - while being tossed about by the menacing combination of wind and waves. She is calm and settling to rest in the comforting power embodied in the Boatman.

I tell people that the print is my faith statement, and to some extent, it is. On those occasions when I feel that my little corner of the world is disintegrating all around me, I can look at that picture and rest secure in the knowledge that God has the world under His control. It also reminds me of the physical sensation in centering prayer. That “resting in God” is physically akin to the relaxed and trusting serenity of a child climbing into the lap of a loving grandfather, and simply leaning against his chest. Words are unnecessary. While there is not a serious resemblance between the two, the Boatman reminds me a little bit of my own maternal grandfather. Not that I spent all that much time sitting in his lap, although I’m sure I did here and there, but more that I loved and trusted him almost more than anyone else in my childhood.

As I write this, we Americans are watching as our federal government is grappling with many topics in legislature that will have major impacts on our population. There has been unusual harshness between the two major political parties in the past few years and the rancor with which the business of legislating is being done has been unprecedented. Or maybe it’s the press coverage of the verbal sniping that is unprecedented. I’m not certain. Similarly, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is also poised to debate and make landmark decisions for the denomination. Each needs our prayers; and we could all probably also use some time in the Boatman’s lap as he steers the vessel to safety.

So, select a quieting word or phrase to signal to Him your intent, sit comfortably, with all distractions off or at least in silent mode. Now, close your eyes, take a deep breath and let it out very slowly, thinking gently of your special sacred word or phrase. Breath in again. And again.

May you know the peace that comes from letting it all go, and resting in the love and presence of God through His Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Today was not a lot of fun. Everyone has those days from time to time, and today was one for me. I’ve been in pain all day, and work events could have fallen together more smoothly than they did. Still, as my Forester climbed the bluff on Ingleside Drive, I managed to quickly sneak a glance down at the river below. It is swollen from the melted run-off from all the snow, and it was drizzling, too. The currents strong, the extra water rushed along, splashing against the huge boulders and bubbling over the smaller rocks hidden beneath the surface.

Suddenly, I was transported back in my memory to a time almost thirty-four years ago in June, when I joined a group from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Tennessee for an afternoon of “tubing” in one of the rivers up in the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee, just an hour or so east of Knoxville. I had heard others talk about how much fun it was, but had never done it myself. All I was told was to wear my swimsuit under cut-off jean shorts and T-shirt, bring a couple of towels, Band-Aids, and to definitely wear sneakers. So, appropriately attired and adequately warned about the icy temperatures of the water, off we went. Once at the river, I was instructed that I would need to sit across the inner tube, as opposed to down in it. There were other instructions - - forgotten as soon as inner tubes with their assigned bodies slapped down onto the water and pushed away from the banks. We started our descent from just below Cades Cove, moving downward toward the placid pool that awaited us further down. It wasn’t long before I discovered the reasons for the instruction to sit across rather than down in the middle of the inner tube. The downward rush of the water propelled the tubes on varying speeds over, around, into and occasionally over some rather large boulders. Sometimes, one could get lucky and get a hand or a foot in position to push off of the boulder, rather than crashing into it. Once in a while, you’d just get stuck on a rock. More than likely, however, contact between boulders, vulnerable rear ends and the backs of thighs would result in marks of the encounters for a week or so thereafter!

Among the other dangers of this little trip were these little eddies created in the spaces between boulders where the water would pool and spin against itself. When these are large enough and in larger volumes of water, they’re called whirlpools. Of course, I fell off my inner tube just where one had formed, got sucked under, and ended up needing to be pulled out of the water by some of my friends. This marked the second water related near-death experience in my life. Once safely on solid, dry land and still shaken by the whole thing, I looked back at the inner tube, speedily spinning where I had been separated from it only a moment before. My friends were able to retrieve it from the water and I carried it up the hill to the waiting van; it and I were done for the day, never to meet again. I stuck to hiking in the Smokies from that point forward!

Rivers rushing along their courses to the sea, splashing over and around the rocks are hypnotic and beautiful. They sparkle and shimmer whether in sun or moon light, occasionally rushing loudly enough to disguise the sounds of the American version of the Lorelei that entice one to ride along only to be dashed against the hidden perils or pulled under to perform an eternity of underwater somersaults. I’m an old pro with these, turning over and over under the water, seeing the light that marks the surface, but never quite able to reach up to it or get one’s head above it or one’s feet on the bottom. Perhaps it’s the danger that intrigues us, motivating us to hop aboard that ship (or inner tube) instead of allowing it to just float on by.

As I mentioned in my previous missive, the river flowing along beside us in our prayers is analogous to our stream of consciousness. When we go to God in our centering prayer, we are saying to him that we accept the invitation to be in His presence. We are saying that we will try to remain as quiet as we can so we might experience him in the stillness. I can tell you from experience that the stream can be as welcoming as that first dive into the pool on a sticky August day in the mid South. After all, the initial sessions of centering prayer function in ways similar to a psychological spring house-cleaning and fumigation. Who wouldn’t rather go for a motorboat ride or a quiet, yet invigorating sail?

One of my more favorite memories of Charleston, South Carolina, in the months I lived there prior to meeting my husband, was an afternoon of sailing on a beautiful, windy afternoon in November. I had my camera, and wanted to take photographs of the City from the Harbor. So, leaning against the mast and looping my arm around it for balance, I did snap some pictures, but soon abandoned the photography for the pure thrill of the sail. The wind whipped the sails back and forth – ditto with my hair -- and the vessel was slightly tossed about on the choppy surface. Here and there, salt water would be slung up in a spray by the wind. The sun’s rays were warm on my back, balancing the chill of the air. In those few moments, for it seemed as if the entire afternoon only lasted an hour or so, I think I felt more alive, more present in the moment, and closer to God than I had felt in a long time. The elemental power of the wind, the fiery energy of the sun, the being away from the solidity and nurture of terra firma, and on the water, medium for the most delicate of sea creatures, yet a liquid cemetery for all non-gilled and non-swimming creatures all came together in those fleeting moments, and I wondered how could one experience this confluence of nature and deny the omnipotent, unmitigated glory of its Creator? What was I that He cared enough about me to allow me to be a witness to it?

We are awakened into these revelations by the grace of God. He puts into us the desire to be with him; the yearning for spiritual nurturing through Bible study and the longing to seek and find Him in all the created order. We don’t do this of our own accord; He provides the impetus, and if we’re astute enough to understand it, we are given the freedom to act in imitation of His life and ministry embodied in Jesus Christ, His only Begotten Son. May the Grace and Peace of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit be with you, now and always.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sitting on the banks

Hello! You are the first to be reading my blog. I never thought I would actually create one, but I have found that sometimes I have opinions to share. This may provide a forum for them.

Why am I calling this "Watching the River Flow By"? Well, rivers (and other bodies of water) have been present in my life at most, if not all, important points in my life. When an infant and small child, we regularly crossed the Cumberland River on our way to visit our grandparents. And these same grandparents used to take us fishing on the Harpeth River. Our father's family had annual reunions on my uncle's property at Old Hickory Lake, a reservoir off the Cumberland River. As a teenager in Alabama, I dated a boy from Decatur, on the Tennessee River. On one occasion, I recall us going out on that river to water ski, and I looked up at the bridge my family and I crossed on a routine basis going between Birmingham and Nashville. I felt pretty small, and became quite aware of the depth and flow of the water, and the potential dangers it held. In college, of course, the University of Tennessee campus backs up to Fort Loudoun Lake, off that same Tennessee River. My career took me to cities with bays - - Tampa, Florida and San Francisco, California. In Tampa, my friends and I would go to Clearwater Beach on many occasions, and in San Francisco, I lived 30 blocks or so from the Pacific Ocean. I used to walk on the beach there, and frequently watched the sunset from above the Cliff House. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Ashley and Cooper Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean, and it is at that point that I used to go sailing with friends, once even disembarking at Pinkney's Castle - an island in the middle of the Charleston Harbor. I met my husband in Charleston, and we frequently included the beach at Isle of Palms, or walking along the harbor at Waterfront Park or the Battery as part of our dating routine. In school I had read many times about Virginia locations, and George Washington's surveying. I remember reading about the Rappahannock River - - I now cross that river about 4 times per day going to and from work in Fredericksburg. I've seen it (and the Hazel River) flood; I've seen it nearly dried up. Most of the time, though, it just flows along, seemingly smooth yet possessing a strong undercurrent, splashing against boulders in some areas and becoming glassy in others.

There are obvious metaphors provided by rivers in our lives. I'm no exception to those experiences. As an adult, being dashed about against the rocks of human experience, I've sought serenity and tranquility that I mistakenly thought religion and meditation would bring. In that process, I stumbled upon Centering or Contemplative Prayer. I say "stumbled" because I was going down a path that, had I stayed on it, probably would have resulted in more bumps and bruises. But back to Centering Prayer. I attended a lecture of his, and then purchased his books, and in the imagery used by Father Thomas Keating, the process has to do with quieting the noises and settling the extraneous thoughts so that one's focus can be on God's presence - - or, more accurately - - one's intention to answer God's invitation to be in His presence. Everything else can be thought of as boats flowing down the river. That absolutely resonated with me. (Another image he used in his books is that of a small child climbing up in a parent or grandparent's lap and sitting quietly, calmly trusting in the protection of that person's arms. That is another subject I'll hopefully have time to explore later.)

Sometimes with this outlet, I will be trying to characterize the boats, distinguishing them from essential thoughts. (Occasionally, God does speak to us, even if we're not listening) Sometimes, I may jump on one of the boats and take a ride. Other times, I hope to find something that is meaningful to me - - a Presbyterian elder, Sunday School "teacher" , and first time commissioner to General Assembly from Shenandoah Presbytery. At all times, the opinion expressed herein will be my own. I hope that on occasions, they will be worthy.

May God bless you!