June 26, 2001
In his letter to Presbyweb (June 21, 2001), Jack
I felt compelled by empathy to respond to his sense of mourning and loss for his beloved denomination. I'd like to share my own feelings of loss, one experienced not at the highest levels of Presbyterian polity, but in the daily life of a congregation.
My wife and I are raising a 4th consecutive generation in the same church on rural Long Island, N.Y. A few years ago, our church celebrated it's 250th birthday, and with it our Puritanical roots, the beliefs and values which formed the basis of the identity of our denomination, indeed our very nation. Yet the process of reform that defines our faith is an ongoing one, never finished, never static . . . semper reformanda. We don't feel we've lost that much now that males and females sit together. Most of us joyfully acknowledge the spiritual equality of women and men. None of us regret the passing of slavery or of Nazi rule. We can view all of these changes objectively, without regret; the Traditions are not our own.
When I was born a half century ago, my community was smaller, more rural than it is now. My congregation was family, both literally and figuratively. I learned to love God and His world, and I learned many Traditions. We had covered dish suppers every month, and always had a good turnout. With more gender specificity in the workplace, church-related study and activity groups that seem to be impossible to schedule nowadays were common. I also learned to read the Bible. And in the days when I heard elders grumbling about how the denomination sought to free Angela Davis, I also heard memorable sermons about arcane, worldly subjects (with too many 50 cent words, to quote the same elders). In this environment, I learned to proudly, yet respectfully, proclaim my faith to schoolmates of other religions. I also learned to show respect for God in silent, prayerful reflection. There was no "Passing of the Peace" to break up our Sunday service. Respect for the sacrament of communion meant that children sat quietly, passively observing until they were confirmed as members. I admit my own horror at the thought of giving the elements to children too young to understand Christ's sacrifice. Some changes are unfortunate; others appear to be downright sacrilegious. Through them all, like those before us, our faith and fellowship in Christ proved to be greater than our personal issues.
Even as these images of the sacred were being imprinted in my personality, God had other plans for me: He made me to question. My Grandmother used to say, "Why can't you just take it on faith?" My mother would assure her that I was just growing into my faith in my own way. So my faith grew with my science. Once I was old enough to undrestand poetry, my grandmother and I could both appreciate the 23rd Psalm for it's beauty, it's Truth. We likewise could both love Genesis I. My grandmother never had to discriminate between spiritual Truth and physical facts. I had no choice.
Science deals with verifiable empirical facts and model systems, but not "Truth" or the "Reasons" for things. Meaning requires that we span the gap across individuals, and point to a higher cause or purpose. And so it was that Presbyterian Traditions fostered my faith AND my knowledge. There was never a conflict between understanding God's world and following Christ. Jesus Christ IS my Lord and savior. He IS THE way, THE Truth and THE life. To this very day, we affirm this wherever and whenever we worship. No matter how many confessions are added to our Book, our faith is true to Christ and our heritage. Our faith is also a compassionate one, a loving one, a faith of service and sacrifice, of dedication to Christ Himself, as revealed in scripture.
When Christ asks us to leave everything and follow Him, our first response is to turn our backs on Him and return to our churches. OUR Christ is a comfortable, Traditional Savior. Our Church family is "just like me!" The world changes, but we only feel comfortable when we know that OUR Bible will always mean just what it did when we were children, when our lives and the world was simple, and images through the glass seemed clear. But sometimes it's just no fun to follow Him.
And so it was that I felt shocked and betrayed when I first learned of the passage of G-6.0106b. We had always taught our children about our Traditions and our choices, but we also taught them to respect those who God made different from "us." While our Traditions got in the way of actually helping sexual minorities beyond speaking against hate crimes, we now were actually fueling the fires of persecution! Even more, it seemed to me that we had turned to the secular world and loudly proclaimed, "We are the good, the chaste, the Godly. The rest of you . . ." I had never believed it possible that MY church would ever raise Law above the authority of Christ, above the greatest laws cited by Him. Was salvation taken from my beloved church? Why did they mock my Lord so?
I did not leave the 250+ year old church of my forefathers, my heritage, or my Traditions, but I am now less ignorant of polity and more intent on discerning God's will. During the two year moratorium period, I actively solicited dissenting opinions and engaged in dialog and discussion centered around our unity in our diversity. What I discovered has left me humbled. Christ is, indeed, alive and well, even in the hearts of those I had believed to be hardened to Him. I have also learned that, just like "them," my own sensibilites are colored by a need to preserve my own idolatrous Traditions, rather than to simply serve the living God.
Jack Sharpe and I completely disagree about the issues he speaks of, but we are very much alike. I pray that together we may both mourn the loss of our own partial knowledge, and then get on with the work of Christ.
Yours in Christ,