On Friday June 6, 2014 I offered these words (and images) to Albany Presbytery as my first expanded conversation with them as the new Transitional Presbyter. We spent last weekend retreating on Lake George, New York at the Silver Bay YMCA. The theme for the weekend was A Place at the Table, after the beautiful hymn that we all love to bits and pieces that is in the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God. We gathered around the communion table, thought about the theological image of together that is offered to us in our eucharistic theology and also watched the documentary A Place at the Table to talk about hunger, poverty and advocacy as people of a faith. A rich and powerful time. Together.
A Place at the Table.
This our theme for the weekend.
What does it mean to sit at table? I have beautiful memories from my childhood of the family dinner table, of my parents who cultivated conversations about ethics and who my brother and I were in how we related to current events of the day, debated with us and helped us to hone our voice(s).
We do this in congregations.
What tables do we sit at?
Tables of our congregations or faith communities.
Tables of family, of larger community, of the culture we are a part of.
Who gets to sit at these tables?
Whose voices are prioritized?
Whose voices are excluded?
These are important and holy questions for us a people who follow Jesus. God’s Table for us is abundant and offers a different Story. A story of hope, of expansiveness, openness. A place where we gather up all the disparate and diverse parts of ourselves. These are the themes we selected for this weekends’ retreat. We are using the hymn, a Place at the Table to close and end our time together–we will watch the film A Place at the Table to talk about this idea and what is our role at expanding tables here in this part of the State of New York as Reformed Christians.
A place at the table. Your place, my place, here.
I love Diana Butler Bass, she oftentimes has her finger right on the pulse of what is going on in our world and how that affects the lives of the faith communities we love and live in. This is a quote she posted earlier this year on Facebook, about some of the work she is currently researching.
This is a time of much change and our brains, our souls can only handle so much. Oftentimes we are on overload, we are over functioning or we are unable to take it all in.
One idea to illustrate this, some people believe that today, in the lives of our faith communities, our pastors are doing more funerals than they have in many generations. The age of our congregations is the reason behind this. But this is exhausting pastoral ministry, difficult emotionally. Not just on the pastor but on congregations as they do more and more funerals. I certainly experienced this in my last two calls in ministry. At both I did more funerals than weddings and baptisms combined.
How do we live in this tension, this in-between, shifting time.
How are we gentle with each other in the faith community–rather than being doom-and-gloom, rather than beating up on each other?
Oftentimes we feel at a loss, as if we do not know how to communicate or what to do. The ground has shifted, culture has shifted and many in our communities do not know how to speak the new language(s) or engage in new technologies.
How can we as Presbytery step into that void? How can we be of help? How can we as “church” become a community of learners once again for the sake not of ourselves but for the lives of our communities, for the great needs around us, so we can re-ignite our prophetic core and be evangelists in a different way?
What is the role of a Presbytery, a governing body in these changes, to be the place where learning and retooling takes place?
What is the role of a Presbytery, a governing body in these changes, to be the place where imaginations are sparked once again, connections made, and pathways can be cleared for fresh new ministry?
One of the great “anxieties” of our time is around funding for ministry. How can we leverage the institution that we have in a new way?
How can we be less like the Pharisees and more like the Jesus-movement?
I want to caution here that there are many voices who want to throw out the institution, downsize at all costs, merge too quickly or in a way throw the baby out with the bath water.
I do not believe in these things.
I believe in smart re-alignments and smart changes. But I also believe in the institution. We just had examined a Candidate for Ministry today. Her journey of faith did not happen without the deep good of our institutions.
There is a role for our institutions to play. They must change and reorganize, structure in new ways and we as a Presbytery must as well. But our institutions also ground us, they give us space to move and grow and they provide resourcing that we do not have individually.
They will have to change, but they are more essential than ever.
The other question this brings up for me is one of unity. I am not sure I like the word unity but I do like the world together.
Together, it seems to me, conveys the idea of walking alongside.
I think together is harder work than unity.
We are about to head to the 221st General Assembly in a week. We will debate and we will argue. Marriage is one of the “hot-topics” of the Assembly. But what if we looked at what our theological language about marriage offers us?
There is a beautiful section I love in the Book of Common Worship in the marriage liturgy that says:
Make their life together
a sign of Christ’s love
to this sinful and broken world,
that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt,
and joy conquer despair.
Isn’t that what “together” might offer to the larger Church?
What if we practiced “together” here in Albany Presbytery, with all our heart?
What would the sign of Christ’s love be that we would offer to the larger church? That we celebrate each other’s diversity, that we hold each other even if we disagree? That we have chosen to be together, and that we cannot function if we are separate? What sign would that be? I may not agree theologically with everyone here or in the other places I have served in ministry. We might vote a different way.
But I have loved them.
And I saw my life as together with theirs.
What might “together” mean for us in the Presbyterian Church in this season?
An image to meditate on….
What would it mean to be a church that sails rather than drives?
Many of us drive from maps or GPS and I know some boats have GPS these days but in a boat originally you mapped your way from the stars and the wind. What would a difference like that mean for ministry today?
When you drive a car you (hopefully!) steer from the front. But in a boat you steer from the back, you can see more. What would this idea lead us to in ministry today?
In a boat you tack off the wind. In a car you follow the road. Sailing you have less control, the wind has some of the way forward. What would it be like if we took our hands off the steering wheels a bit? Let God put the wind back in the sails? Relinquished our need for control? Rode the waves? Tacking versus driving….
And here is the truth! You can get carsick or you can get seasick! That is going to happen to all of us here as we go through this Transitional time. You and I will get either carsick or seasick or both! That’s what it means to live into change and renewal. It’s messy work. It’s going to happen…you and I are going to get a little sick sometimes…
(Part 2 of my talk-notes will be posted tomorrow….stay in touch….)
What are you thoughts about the role of Presbytery and middle-governing bodies for this season of ministry we find ourselves in?
Images are from Shannan Vance-Ocampo and were taken during the Presbytery Leadership Formation event in May 2014 and the Certificate in Executive Leadership class at McCormick Theological Seminary in November 2013. Sailing image is from Creative Commons.