Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Presbyterian links to the RCA were underscored in many sincere hallway conversations. Our ties were formally acknowledged on the rostrum during the ecumenical report. The formula of agreement remains a continuing and viable form of exchange for ministry and witness. While the stance of the RCA on matters of homosexuality now differs from the PCUSA and other formula of agreement partners, those differences were not cuase for any diminuition of formal ties and ministry. Of course, during floor debate on some contested issues, there were broadly generalized characterizations of choices and consequences in our denomination and other partners. However, none of those comments appeared to sway the very positive spirit of cooperation and mutual appreciation that was facilitated by RCA staff and delegates.
Brian R. Paulson
Pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, Presbytery of Chicago
(Brian was appointed by the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, as the Ecumenical representative to the General Synod 2015 our partner communion, the RCA.)
Friday, April 3, 2015
When my son was in his first year, my wife took a photo of the two of us as I lying on the floor holding him aloft in my arms. It was one of those parental pure joy moments. But what we didn't consider is that the television news was on behind the scene of the tow of us. Onscreen was a photo of Sadaam Hussein during the runup of a middle eastern war. It was a kind of foreshadowing of the transition from conflict of ideologies in the Cold War that framed my youth to the conflict of religions and worldviews that predominates today.
There is a middle verse in a hymn by Ebeneezer Elliot from a time just prior to the founding of my congregation in the mid-nineteenth century. That hymn was written into Godspell some years ago. Here is that verse:
"Shall crime bring crime for ever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
That man shall toil for wrong?
'No,' say thy mountains; 'No,' thy skies;
Man's clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs;
God save the people!"
If only we could be saved from ourselves and our killing impulses. Friends introduced me to the rolling lyrics of Canadian, Bruce Cockburn some years ago. His song, "Justice," seems to capture the instinct of our age - "Everybody wants to see justice done on somebody else."
He wrote the song during the ideological battles surrounding the Central American conflicts. However, in this broadcast he sings from Canada along with the world grieving following the tragedy of 9/11.
On Good Friday, I find myself reflecting on so many dimensions of the cross. In many ways I find the cross to be a mirror of humanity and a mirror of my own soul. I have to confront the truth and reality that I too have placed "one who knew no sin" upon the cross. I always want to see justice done ... on somebody else.
In humility, we see a path toward salvation. It begins when we stop the "pointing of the finger" as Isaiah framed it. Good Friday is a mirror. Perhaps that is why so many painters would paint their faces in the crowd of those looking upon the cross (or sometimes even into the face of Christ). The cross is a convicting mirror.
Will it change us?
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Monday, May 5, 2014
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life!
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
- W. H. Auden (from his Christmas Oratorio :) )
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Within my own family, there are days when we wonder, "do I belong to THIS family?" Some days, we say, "yes!" aren't we fortunate. Other days, we say, "really?"
I am reflecting with a conversation being streamed online from Princeton Theological Seminary that is sponsored by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA. The title of the colloquium is "Unity with Difference." Currently the conversation is centered upon the question posed by Martha Moore Keish about how we Belong, Behave, and Believe.
I have been thinking about my family table and the table of our Session because I am reflecting upon the concept of belonging. How do we belong with difference? Well, I wonder if the notion of these tables identifies the reality of our behavior. - At times, we are perplexed in families - "why did they do that?" At times, we repeat the phrase that Will Willimon's mother used to put to him, "remember who you are."
Well, at the table, hopefully, we have a conversation. Then, the confessions (the witness of prior generations) and confessions of other Reformed families (the current witness of our cousins) enriches the conversation when we find ourselves at wits end with each other. The light of Christ at the center of our conversation serves as a kind of magnet that continues to draw us back and together. It reminds us that God is committed to us (while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us) so perhaps we could try a little harder at being committed to each other.
One of the greatest challenges we face is an age old challenge of religion. It is present also in the scriptures - How can we be more welcoming? How can we be more fully transformed into God's calling to us?
The confessions serve as a model for addressing that challenge. It is as if we can hear people of faith throughout the ages saying, "yes, but" after each assertion. - By the grace of God, we find ourselves moving closer and closer to a deeper sense of belonging because we have become more known to each other, disclosed in conversation - personal.
Current questions of debate surround LGBTIQ issues related to our relationships and how we belong to each other. Issues of strong disagreement are coming to the next General Assembly of the PCUSA.
If our commitment to each other is "a priori," then we can move to a place where our choices (specifically in this case covenanted relationships - marriage is the debate before us) are part of a personal conversation. Moreover in the church, it is a pastoral conversation. The call to pastors is to know our people. (We work at that. Knowing our flock better some days than on other days.)
Here is what I ponder - can we articulate a "center" in Christ that draws us together, even in the midst of difference. A strong enough center - that allows pastoral conversation to shape relationships that are based upon personal knowing (the outcome of sincere and committed conversation).
I found conversation about both Baptism and Eucharist in a prior discussion to be helpful. Belonging in call and belonging in brokenness.
These are unformed thoughts at this point - written while observing this conference. (From a distance, this is my "hallway conversation.") I am glad that we are praying/talking/learning these questions together.
Monday, December 9, 2013
THE CALLING OF THE CHURCH
the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth. …
all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.
- Psalm 33:6-9 sel.
There are an abundance of spiritual voices in the world today. Societies are increasingly plural in speech about God. However the abundance of possibility being voiced has yet to satisfy an evident spiritual hunger among the peoples. The church “is in, with, against, and for” this plural world in multiple ways all at once. The church catalyzes the world in varied forms according to the divergence of settings in which it is found. Yet regardless of its circumstance, the church always exists in response to the call of God.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because
they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger.
- John 10:3-5
Here is the starting point for my understanding the Church. It is God’s creation. It is not simply another spiritual manifestation in the world. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ and is God’s creation by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls to us, seeks us out, and satisfies our spiritual hunger in pastures green with spiritual nourishment.
BORN OF THE SPIRIT
truly, I tell you, no one can enter the
without being born of water and Spirit.”
- John 3:5
The origin for an understanding of the Church is found in the power of the Holy Spirit. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is both the origin and the sustaining force of the church. Consequently a proper understanding of the Church requires a grounded understanding of sanctification. (Further on, I will offer some original biblical meditation upon the calling of the church. However, since this paper is written in the Jubilee year of John Calvin for the benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA), my primary source for foundational Reformed perspectives will be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.)
was a central emphasis of Calvin’s ministry in
The power of God manifest in the Holy Spirit is what shapes the Church. Vague and generalized talk about the movement of the spirit does not identify the Church. Christians are not called by inchoate spiritual winds. “Take away the Word and no faith will then remain.” The Church is born of the “ruach” - the “wind” of God’s breath. That breath, “the Word”, is established. It calls for response and blows in the world with the force of God as Holy Spirit.
The sanctifying work of God offers a framework for understanding the calling of the Church. God calls the Church into being and sustains the Church in mission. The call of God gathers us and the power of God sends us. The mission of the Church and the nature of the Church are united in its calling from God.
The Reformed heritage of the Christian faith has emphasized the sanctifying work of God always reforming our life together. As Harold Nebelsick wrote, "We are the recipients of the activity of the Holy Spirit which reforms the church in accordance with the Word of God." This transforming work of reformation is recognized: in clear proclamation of the Word; and as the sacraments are shared in accord with the grace of God.
We understand that a calling from God does not exist in solitude. The Holy Spirit came upon the gathered disciples on the day of Pentecost. Today the community lends its confirmation to every genuine call because each true call sustains an echo in faithful response that is audible for those whose ears are trained to hear the work of the Holy Spirit. This training to hear may be called the discipline of nurture in virtue – another true mark of the Church.
The Holy Spirit calls us toward a common destiny. The Church nourishes our lives by this training that is powered by the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is described by Calvin as the life changing work of repentance. This work of the Holy Spirit is regeneration by faith. Such transformation takes place in the Church as a kind of lifelong school of discipleship. The power of the Holy Spirit strengthens and sends the Church to teach and preach the Gospel in every place. This is not the work of a day, but of a lifetime. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that calls, transforms, and sends the Church in proclamation.
THE GREAT BANQUET
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
- Matthew 22:2
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke share a parable of Jesus about a great banquet that was prepared. Invitations had been sent out to guests so that they were able to prepare for the occasion. On the day of the banquet, servants were sent out to inform the guests that all was ready. Yet the invited guests did not arrive in timely fashion. So the servants were sent out again. Only this time the servants were sent to gather people from the roads and hedgerows so the extravagance of the banquet could be shared.
Since the gathered Church is a foretaste or exhibition of the kingdom of heaven, allow me to use the contours of this parable to reflect upon the calling of the Church.
Called to Celebrate
In our wired and highly interconnected world, there are barely a few places in the globe that have yet to hear about the Christian faith in some way, shape, or form. Even if the faith is understood as but a caricature laced with misunderstandings or apprehensions, most of the world has heard of Jesus and people who call themselves Christian. Just as most of the world has spent some time discussing heaven and what may await them after death. So also, most of the world knows that Christians live with an expectation of heavenly reward.
Every time we gather for the Lord’s Supper in our congregation, we anticipate the great heavenly banquet. Our lives are oriented toward this heavenly reward of communion with God and with the beloved whom God has called. The world knows that we anticipate this banquet - just as the villagers in Jesus’ parable must all have been aware that a banquet had been planned.
The rub of the parable begins when servants are sent out to announce the banquet was ready. Yet despite the fact that everyone knew the banquet had been planned no one deemed it worthy of their time to come. Could this tell us something about the Church and the world?
I realize that the parable at this point is addressing a different context and that tensions between Gentile and Jewish Christians can be seen in its exposition. But I would like to consider it in light of our own situation.
Could it be that the world knows of an invitation but, after watching the Church through the centuries, considers our banquet to be a tasteless meal? Or could it be that the Church has grown so familiar with its routine that it has forgotten to celebrate the life we have been given? I believe we are called to celebrate.
In my household the call goes out most every evening for dinner. Everyone hears the call and understands that there is an expectation involved in the call. My wife and I respond to each other’s call because we know that all is ready and we love the person who calls us. The call and the table define our lives in relationship to each other. The call sets our lives in motion to be gathered and nourished.
Like the call to dinner at home, God’s call brings us to the table and sets our lives in motion. Like at home, some days are more ordinary than others. Yet the call to every Christian is a call to celebrate. We are called to celebrate a meal that tastes like heaven. I believe the Holy Spirit gives us power to celebrate the life we share as Church.
Called to Change
Those who respond to the call of God come as they are, drawn by the power of grace. Just as billions of people around the world come to the Lord’s Table for communion every week, so the banquet hall in Jesus’ parable was filled with guests. The celebration began even without those who defined their lives by their excuses.
Yet even as the hall is filled in Jesus’ parable, a jarring note is sounded. Luke suggests that none who were invited would taste the meal, then Jesus, in Luke, goes on to tell us we cannot be his disciple if we do not take up the cross. Matthew tells the story with even more jarring impact. The king noticed that one of the guests was not wearing a wedding robe. When the man was speechless without excuse, he was bound and thrown into the outer darkness.
In our family, when we gather at table, there is an expectation of manners. This extends not only to the particulars of Emily Post, but also to the quality of the conversation we share. We are expected to be honest about our daily lives. We also are expected to encourage one another in our challenges as well as our successes. These and other expectations are rarely explicit except when they are noticeably neglected. The manners of Holy Spirit that we expect at table are as integral to our meals as our clothes are to our being. They are noticed in their absence.
How could the King expect a guest pulled from the hedgerows to have found a wedding robe in short order to wear? Likewise, how can the grace of God call us as we are and yet expect such dramatic change in our lives?
We are expected to change because the Holy Spirit has called us to “put on Christ.” Our baptismal gown is a wedding robe that engrafts us in Holy Communion with Christ. We are changed when we come to the table – not because of our accomplishments – but because the power of the Holy Spirit has made us part of the Body of Christ. The sanctifying power of God is a call to change.
Called to Announce
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” goes the familiar expression. Yet the poor messengers of Matthew’s parable seem to gain nothing but trouble. They are ignored, scoffed at, shamed, and even killed. In Luke, the messengers are met with nothing but excuses. Yet still the master sends them out to announce, invite, and even compel by word and deed. Why does the master keep sending them out from the banquet hall?
From the window of my dining room, I look out upon the birds of the air – as I try to gain the wisdom Jesus commends me to notice. Yet for all the beauty and the joy I gain by watching these birds, I have noticed a primary avian fixation – they are all about the food. The birds out my window are on an insatiable quest to eat every last seed from our bird feeders. The feast is prepared and they know it right well. Even ducks, with no pond in sight, come waddling up to the seeds that smaller birds carelessly toss overboard to the ground. At least the birds can appreciate a banquet – for them, it’s all about the food!
But in Jesus’ parable it is not all about the food. In many ways the banquet seems to be all about the invitation. Were we to arrive at this banquet, I believe the most important element would not be the dishes or decorations. It would be the place card prepared with our name upon it. The invitation – a place at the king’s table – that is what the banquet is all about. There is a place prepared for us all – family, friends, poor, blind, and crippled.
the banquet is all about the invitation, the servants are sent time and again
to announce that all is prepared.
Just as the disciples had gathered in one place for prayer, the wind of
Pentecost sent them with power into the streets for proclamation. In the gospel of Mark, the Holy Spirit
descended upon Jesus and he was immediately sent into the wilderness and his
first spoken words were these, “the
Presbyterians acknowledge two sacraments because they are the actions Jesus commanded us to do. We come to the banquet table as Jesus commanded us in remembrance of him. We then are sent to announce a newness of life and reconciling grace as we baptize in the name of the Triune God. A calling from God sets our lives in rhythmic motion to and from the table where we are nourished and changed by the grace of God.
DESTINED FOR GLORY
begin in the present life, through various benefits, to taste the sweetness of
the divine generosity in order to whet our hope and desire to seek after the
full revelation of” the glory of the
– John Calvin, Meditation on the Future Life
Every meal at our table begins with prayer. While we have taught our children how to “pray in all circumstances,” the first posture of prayer has been to bow our heads. Then, as each prayer finishes with an “Amen” our heads are lifted.
The head of a believer is lifted. The Holy Spirit elevates our vision from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The “epiclesis” – the bidding of the Holy Spirit – in our prayers of thanksgiving welcomes this vision into our sacraments.
When believers have “once lifted their heads above everything earthly,” with mind intent upon heaven,
“before their eyes will be that day when the Lord will receive his faithful people into the peace of his Kingdom, ‘will wipe away every tear from their eyes’, will clothe them with ‘a robe of glory … and rejoicing’, will feed them with the unspeakable sweetness of his delights, will elevate them to his sublime fellowship - in sum, will deign to make them sharers in his happiness.”
We exhibit the kingdom of heaven in the Church because we expect the kingdom of heaven at the last.
Jesus Christ “unites himself to us by the Spirit alone.” “Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.” The Church “belongs to the realm of faith” and nourishes that faith with its being. “The proper object of faith is God’s goodness” and we begin to taste the sweetness of that goodness in the life of the Church.
At least, that is God’s intention. Yet all too often, our life together in the Church breeds contention and discord. We do not eat together. We do not invite others to our tables. We do not change our behavior toward one another. Have we neglected our calling?
When I learn I will have to sit beside someone at dinner, I become more thoughtful about my behavior. How might our behavior as Church change if we would not only acknowledge our common baptism but also embrace our common destiny at the heavenly banquet?
Presbyterians are regularly dragged into conversation about predestination. Then, our speech often devolves into discussions of who is in and who is out. Yet would it not be more profitable to consider our common destiny? If the “pre” of every Christian is being born of water and the Spirit, is not the “destination” of our lives the great banquet feast where we are to glorify and enjoy God forever?
“Yet, to embrace the unity of the church in this way, we need not see the church with the eyes or touch it with the hands. … For here we are not bidden to distinguish between reprobate and elect – that is for God alone, not for us, to do – but to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession; and that when we are of their number we share that great grace.”
Since, “even the best and most excellent plan of the present life is only a progression, we shall arrive at that goal” (of being spotless and blameless before God) “only when, having put off this sinful flesh, we cleave wholly to the Lord.” This is our destination by the power of the Holy Spirit – to be sharers in the happiness of God. Shall we not embrace the union we share in Christ and encourage our daily progressions with heads that are lifted and vision that is fixed on our glorious shared destiny?
“Let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses … What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”
The calling of the Church is born of the Holy Spirit and establishes a glorious destiny. Our senses are often dulled to the vitality of faithful life in the Holy Spirit. Yet still the call of the God is gathering us, renewing us, and sending us to flavor the world with hope. We dare not become salt that has lost its taste.
“The faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of sanctification – to this end we are justified – that afterwards we might worship God in holiness of life.”
The banquet is ready. Let us come, be refreshed, and announce good news to the world.
 Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 372ff.; referenced in John H. Leith, Basic Christian doctrine (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 187, n. 4.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.1.1, 537-538.
 Ibid., 3.3.1, 592.
 Ibid., 3.1.4, 541.
 Ibid., 4.1.1, 1012.
 Ibid., 3.2.6, 549.
Harold Nebelsick, "Ecclesia Reformata Semper Reformanda," Reformed Liturgy and Music (Spring
1984); quoted in
 Ibid., 4.1.9, 1023.
 Ibid., 3.2.6, 548-49.
 Ibid., 3.1.4, 541.
 The Scots Confession, in The Book of Confessions, Part I of The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church
 Calvin., 3.9.3, 714-15.
 Ibid., 4.1.6, 1020-21; Gal. 3:2
 Calvin’s New Testament Commentary Series. ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. John W. Frasier and J.G.W. McDonald, vol. 6, Acts of the Apostles 1-13 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 32.