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.