Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Let's Hear It for the New Yorkers!

Two presbyteries voted on amendment B today, Long Island and Northern New York. Both presbyteries have been consistent supporters of equality and continued that great trend voting YES!

Score 64-81. We're climbing!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just Shit

Religious Truth

Taoism: Shit Happens

Buddhism: If shit happens, it really isn't shit.

Hinduism: This shit has happened before.

Islam: If shit happens, it is the will of Allah.

Catholicism: Shit happens because you deserve it.

Protestantism: Work harder, or shit will happen.

Materialist: Whoever dies with the most shit, wins!

Judaism: Why does shit always happen to us?

Atheist: I don't believe this shit.

Agnostic: I don't know shit, and neither do you!

Eco-spiritual: Compost happens. It's all good shit.

Rastafarianism: Let's smoke this shit.


"religious truth. one dozen different perspectives.
religious intolerance. narrow thinking. no sense of humor. bad shit.
celebrate spiritual diversity. coexist!
think globally, shit locally."


h/t an unnamed presby

Spiritual Violence

Michael Adee's lastest article, Re-Imagining Marriage, Gender, and Confronting the Religious Violence of Defending Marriage has received some response. Michael links to this article by Jon Pahl of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Pahl writes that the Defense of Marriage Acts, passed now in 37 states are a form of religious violence.
The rationales for such defensive laws are often couched in neutral, "secular", or "naturalist" language. But the move to establish such laws came from religious groups, notably conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons. And the logic and appeal of these laws also originates in religion, and functions as a form of violence.
He offers six theses to "clarify the contours of the religious violence embedded in these laws."

1) DOMA Laws violate sacred texts.
2) DOMA Laws elevate heterosexual marriage to idolatrous status.
3) DOMA Laws scapegoat gays and lesbians.
4) DOMA Laws sacrifice homosexual rights, and damage civil society, in the interest of religious purity.
5) DOMA Laws confuse legislation with religion, and violate the First Amendment...
6) DOMA Laws perpetuate an association of sex with power, and thereby do damage to any sacramental sensibility that might remain in association with even heterosexual marriage.

Read the article for an explanation of each thesis.

What raised eyebrows among some is the use of the phrase "religious violence." The article (and posting by Michael Adee) has received some response, here and here. These two respondents take exception to the term religious or spiritual violence.

What is spiritual or religious violence? If you go to Soulforce and search "spiritual violence" you will come up with 429 hits. The first is from Rev. Jimmy Creech. He writes:

I believe the greatest injury done to lesbian and gay persons is caused by spiritual violence. Spiritual violence is assault upon the integrity and dignity of a person when that person is told that, because of who she or he is, she or he is not loved and accepted by God, and is in fact rejected and condemned by God. Damning, judgmental words cause massive and deep wounds that are hard to heal. I believe the spiritual violence must stop.
No one likes to be told that their religious beliefs are violent. These religionists go to great lengths to show that their reasons for discriminating against gays and lesbians and calling them sinners and whatever else isn't their decision but comes from some supernatural authority to which they think they have unique access.

What I find astounding is how quickly these people hand over personal responsibility for their beliefs and actions. It isn't me! It's God! It's as if they are saying, "I am actually a decent person who wants to love everyone. But my imaginary, invisible friend who controls the planet--he wants to kill you."

I personally think the term "spiritual violence" is an accurate one. I think Jimmy Creech defined it pretty well.

Damning, judgmental words cause massive and deep wounds that are hard to heal.
Yes, they do.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sermon: The Silence Beyond Idols

Here is today's sermon:


The Silence Beyond Idols
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 29th, 2009
Fifth Sunday In Lent
Surah 6:74-79

One thing I miss about Montana is the sky. It seems to stretch farther there than in most places. As it stretches the blue deepens in the day and the stars brighten at night. The sky stretched to its limits allows more stars to be seen. All of them loom larger and brighter than they do in most places.

I miss the Montana stars. I remember many nights lost in them. I wondered about them. The desire to somehow go to them was so strong that I often felt trapped on Earth. At other times I felt at peace. Amidst all the struggles of life and amidst all our limitations, the unlimited vastness of it all was in a sense, a comfort.

I think that I might have entered a career in theology because of the stars. While astronomy might be a more logical choice for a person who worries about the stars, I knew I couldn’t get there physically. Perhaps through theology I could get there metaphysically.

In any case, I have been acquainted with the night, a star gazer.

So I was delighted to find this story about Abraham contemplating the stars in the Qur’an. It is the story of Abraham’s spiritual awakening.

On one level, the story is a communication to the Prophet regarding the truth of monotheism over against the polytheism of his adversaries. The point of the story seems to be that Abraham, too, discovered the truth of monotheism as opposed to the polytheism of his time. In the Qur’an, Abraham tells his father, “"Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error."

In a similar way, Muhammad saw his father and his people in manifest error.

Monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are suspicious of idols. To worship an idol is to mistake the created for the Creator. Theologian Paul Tillich talked about faith as the quest for the “ultimate concern.” In one of his dialogues, Tillich said:
“The object of ultimate concern has many names. And we call all what is not concerned with the truly ultimate — that is something finite but worshiped as ultimate — we call that idolatry.”
Tillich also adds:
“…the decisive thing is that even monotheism can be idolatrous, which means that the God of monotheism, the theistic god…can become an idol.”
We tend to worry about the speck in another’s eye, not seeing the beam in our own. I remember growing up and hearing and believing that Catholics were idol worshipers because they had statues of Mary and the saints and so forth. Likewise the many gods of the Hindu tradition were idols. I later realized that I misunderstood how those icons functioned. They were not idols. They were not ends in themselves but vehicles to the Mystery, the Ultimate Concern, beyond them.

We all make idols. We do this when we insist that our conception of God, our religion, our beliefs and so forth are ultimate. Spiritual awakening is the ongoing process of realizing that what we thought was ultimate is not ultimate. What we thought was permanent is temporary. What we thought was real is an illusion.


The story in the Qur’an of Abraham and the stars is larger than the movement from paganism or polytheism to monotheism, even though that may have been the historical situation in Muhammad’s time.

It is a story of spiritual awakening. It is a delightful story. Abraham is shown the stars and he says, “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, they are not it.” He contemplates the moon. “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, this is not it.” He feels the warmth of the sun. “This is it!” Then, “No, this is not it.”

Finally, he declares: "For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah."

In other words, he commits himself to the task of “setting his face” toward that which is Ultimate, not temporary. He will not allow himself be satisfied with confusing his temporary conception of God with God. Abraham is thus a hero. The quest of the hero is to discover the Mystery beyond all description of Mystery. Or as Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

This story in the Qur’an echoes another story about Abraham. It is found in the Book of Jubilees which was written about 100 years or so before Jesus and 700 years before Muhammed. In this story, Abraham sits all night watching the stars to see if they can tell him anything about the coming year.

In his intense contemplation, the text says, “a word came into his heart.”

What a wonderful phrase. That is the experience of insight. A word came into his heart and he comes to a realization that he doesn’t need to worry about it. “All are in the hand of the Lord” he concludes.

We aren’t told what that word was that came into his heart. Both the story in Jubilees and the Qur’an are wisely silent about the content. We just read the effects of it upon Abraham. Touched by the Mystery beyond words, addressed by the Sacred Silence beyond all the noise, Abraham submits.

Like Job, who wrestles, questions and demands, and finally, (finally!), the Holy One addresses him from the whirlwind and refuses to answer Job’s questions. But Job, is satisfied.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Nothing else is needed. He is given that rare, fleeting, yet searing glimpse of the Mystery. Job, too, submits. “I repent in dust and ashes.”

As I read these stories of the heroes who stay up all night….

Abraham who contemplates the stars until morning...

Job who refuses to be satisfied by conventional answers to suffering…

Jacob who wrestles with the angel and refuses to loosen his grip…

Thomas who demands to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side…

Muhammad who waits for years in the cave for the word…

Hagar with her son Ishmael, cast out into the wilderness….

Mary, in the stable with her newborn, who ponders all these things in her heart…

All receive a word, but not an answer to their specific questions.

They are confronted ultimately, I think, with the Holy Silence, the presence of Mystery beyond words, beyond answers, and beyond their idols.

They are heroes because they don’t dismiss their questions. They don’t give up in asking.

You and I, too, have many questions. Through our own personal struggles with illness, with uncertainty, with grief, with loneliness, with limitations, with idols…

May we too discover a word that comes into our hearts.

A word that is not an answer, but instead a Presence.

The Presence of the Holy in whom we live and move and have our being.





Saturday, March 28, 2009

Crossan on Fundamentalism

Living the Questions is a series we have been viewing and discussing in our adult forum in between the times we have a speaker. It is a great series that provides material for lively discussion. Check the First Pres Living the Questions blog for upcoming programs.

One of the participants in the series is John Dominic Crossan. Here is a clip in which he discusses fundamentalism.



h/t Rev's Rumbles

A literalist is someone who says everything that could be taken literally in the Bible must be taken literally.

A fundamentalist is someone who says if you are not a literalist, you are not a Christian and if you say something in the Bible could be taken metaphorically when it must be taken literally, then you are against God.

If you are against God, you are evil.

Where does this lead?


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Three for B!!

Update 9:44 p.m. Make that six for B! Six presbyteries voted. Six voted yes on B. Just received reports that in addition to those below, Susquehanna Valley, Genesee Valley, and New York City also voted yes today.

Score: 62-81

Great news from Michael Adee of More Light Presbyterians:

March 28. Three more Presbyteries approved the 218th General Assembly's Ordination Amendment 08-B including 2 more presbyteries flipping from opposition in 2001-2 to approval today.

The presbyteries of Western New York, Grace Presbytery (northeast Texas), and Philadelphia voted YES today on 08-B. While Western New York is a traditionally supportive presbytery, Grace and Philadelphia presbyteries became the 24th and 25th presbyteries to flip. Western New York took "No Action" in 2001-2, so this presbytery could indeed be considered the "third flip" of the day.

We are working to verify the official votes in each presbytery, and the counts reported so far are:

Grace Presbytery: 202 YES, 183 NO, with 6 abstentions.
Philadelphia Presbytery: 152 YES, 139 NO.
I am really thrilled about Philadelphia and Grace. Both of these presbyteries, until today, have consistently voted against equality.

After the silliness surrounding the Lisa Larges decision (gotta know exactly when to scruple) people are realizing that we must remove these obstacles for ordination rather than make qualified candidates run through endless gauntlets. We are still in this.

The score is 59-81.


The Muslim Next Door

Tomorrow is Qur'an Sunday. The text will be Surah 6:74-79 where Abraham considers the stars, sun, and moon and realizes that God is beyond them all.

For April, read Surah's 6, 7, and 8. The following summaries are from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an.

Surah 6 "The Cattle" is from the late Meccan period. "The nature of Allah and the method by which He reveals Himself are first expounded, and the weakness of Paganism is exposed." p. 293 It contains the story of Abraham considering the stars.

Surah 7 "The Heights" is similar to the Surah 6 in terms of chronology and argument, "...but it expounds the doctrine of revelation and man's spiritual history by illustrations from Adam onwards, through various Prophets, and the details of Moses' struggles, to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, in whom Allah's revelation is completed." p. 344

Surah 8 "The Booty" contains the lessons of the Battle of Badr and touches on "(1) the question of war booty; (2) the true virtues necessary for fighting the good fight: (3) victory against odds; (4) clemency and consideration for one's own and for others in the hour of victory." p. 413.



Recommended reading:
The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali. (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2008).




Synopsis: "What if you could sit down at a kitchen table with an American Muslim mom and ask anything you wanted about her faith and religious practice? The Muslim Next Door clears away the misconceptions about Islam and why they flourish--media distortion, confusion about what is cultural rather than religious, the language barrier, and the old tall tales that still persist after thirteen centuries."

This is an excellent book that I read over vacation. She addresses the stereotypes, media images, and answers honestly and forthrightly questions that non-Muslims have about Islam. She concludes her book with this:
I live inside my religion because it is sensible, simple, and it teaches good things like forgiveness, generosity, tolerance, and compassion. I live in America because I believe it can be a nation of many faiths. As people of all religions have urged, it is time for genuine understanding and dialogue, not media hysteria and anti-Islamic racism. If we can separate the daily distortions from the reality, perhaps we can break out of that medieval framework of domination and hostility. Instead of working toward a "clash of civilizations," perhaps we can avoid a "clash of ignorances." (p. 247)

Friday, March 27, 2009

From Gore to Goodman: The Tri-Cities Hears Progressive Voices

People write off Northeast Tennessee as a conservative place. Well, sure. But, there are many progressive voices here. A whole gaggle of them turned out to hear Al Gore on Thursday at ETSU. The Johnson City Press has that story:
Gore spoke on global warming and the dangers it poses to the public’s health. In his approximately one-hour address, Gore began by discussing the threat it presents.

“It is the largest and most serious challenge human civilization has ever confronted, and yet we have not reached a point where the world’s political systems are ready and willing to really do what’s necessary to solve this crisis,” Gore said.

For the real news you'll want to read this report from Steve Denton, one of the writers for Open Pen, a slick new blog featuring a variety of viewpoints on local and national politics from local writers.

One of the treasures in our area is our NPR affiliate, WETS. They are in the midst of their fund raising activities which will be assisted by none other than my idol, (gravelly-voiced, get the truth, take no bull, send me to jail then you fascists) Amy Goodman. She is the host of Democracy Now! which airs on WETS weekdays from 6-7 p.m.



Amy Goodman is coming to Johnson City on April 7th. She will be at the Culp Center on ETSU's campus. Snad has details at Concerned Tennessee Citizens.




DN! is probably the most popular and certainly the most controversial program on WETS. In a media world saturated with the likes of Limbaugh and crowd, this program is exactly what this area needs.

Amy has written a new book, Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times.

Standing Up to the Madness not only is a timely, inspiring, and even revolutionary look at who wields the greatest power in America--everyday people who take a chance and stand up for what they believe in--but also offers advice on what you can do to help.

Where are the millions marching in the streets to defend human rights, civil liberties, and racial justice? Where is the mass revulsion against the killing and torture being carried out in our name? Where are the environmentalists? Where is the peace movement?

The answer: They are everywhere.

The award-winning sister-brother team of Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, and investigative journalist David Goodman traveled the country to detail the ways in which grassroots activists have taken politics out of the hands of politicians. Standing Up to the Madness tells the stories of everyday citizens who have challenged the government and prevailed.

They are right here in the Tri-Cities. Who? The one reading this blog right now, that's who. You.

To make sure this important program stays on the air, an organization called Democracy Now! Tri-Cities was formed. It is the brainchild of Joseph Fitsanakis. He blogs at Intelligence News. (If you scroll way down on the sidebar you'll find me and the monkey as proud non-intelligence links).

We are the organized listener base of Democracy Now! radio program in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and west North Carolina. We aim to (a) ensure that our local NPR station, WETS FM, will continue to broadcast Democracy Now! in the future; and (b) utilize Democracy Now! as a powerful vehicle for bringing together progressive people and organizations in our area. Democracy Now! is America’s most successful progressive news program, airing weekdays from 6-7 pm on WETS FM. Join us today!
When you make a pledge to WETS, make sure you tell them how much you appreciate Democracy Now! Here are other ways to help.

If you are near our mountain, make sure you catch Amy Goodman in person at ETSU on April 7th.

And, First Presbyterian of Elizabethton
is excited to have Joseph Fitsanakis speak at our adult forum on April 12th and 19th. The title of his presentation is "We Can't Accomplish our Middle East Objectives with War." Join us Sunday mornings at 9:45.


Test the Waters Tomorrow!

No church is for everybody. We don't try to be. But we may be for you.

We are an unabashedly
Progressive Christian Community. You will find us listed on The Center for Progressive Christianity's website.

Check out the Eight Points.

Check out our Mission Statement.

Explore the website. You will find podcast sermons, our newsletter, all kinds of cool stuff, and we are trying to get more web-friendly (which is not easy for a non-hip old guy like me).

We really care about open minds and getting our hands dirty doing justice and engaging in acts of compassion.

We are also affiliated with More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network. We are inclusive and a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals along with everyone else!

There are very few congregations around here like us. Curious? Interested?

Come Test the Waters this Saturday from ten a.m. to one p.m.!

If you have either visited us on occasion or have been attending regularly for awhile, or if this is your first time here, we would like you to find out more about us!

We would like to welcome you and give you an opportunity to learn more about our congregation, tour our facilities, become acquainted with our ministries, meet a few of our fine folks, and enjoy lunch together. It is a chance to test the waters and see if this congregation is a match for you as you search for a church home.

We are excited in that we have recently renovated our facilities with a newly remodeled fellowship hall, an adult education room, a nursery with separate rooms for infants and toddlers, a secure fenced play area for children outside, two wheel-chair accessible restrooms, and a renovated bell choir and choir room. We installed and dedicated our wheel-chair accessible labyrinth.

Many people regard our congregation as an oasis. We are an inclusive, tolerant congregation that celebrates diversity and encourages open-minded reflection.

Please come this Saturday, March 28th from 10:00 am until 1:00 pm. This is for you, your partner, your family, and even invite friends.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Green Presbyterians

Our denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today gave my blog a mention this month. Thanks for the shout by Jody Harrington who writes a column about blogging. Here is the mention:
Among the pastors who regularly comment on the controversial issues from the progressive/liberal viewpoint are Shawn Coons and John Shuck.
Controversial is good, right? Thanks, Jody! Jody, by the way, blogs at Quotidian Grace.




Presbyterians Today is a good little magazine.

The cover article this month is How Green Is Your Church?






From small congregations (of which there are many) to big-steeple churches, Presbyterians are becoming more interested in “going green.” It’s a term that some critics say is over-used, but whatever the motivation, more churches are doing it.

“Presbyterians are getting involved, asking questions, asking for resources at a much higher rate,” says Rebecca Barnes-Davies, former coordinator of Presbyterians for Restoring Creation. “We’ve seen a pretty drastic increase in the number of people who are worried, particularly about climate change.”

They are embracing the call to be responsible stewards of God’s creation...

The article is filled with examples of congregations who are enacting energy-saving and eco-friendly measures. There are also links to many caring for creation resources.

You can also subscribe on-line to PT and save a forest.

Our little club of greenies is trying its best to do our part. We have a Green Team that helps the congregation think about ways to do things for Earth both as a congregation and as individuals. Our peacemaking committee has helped to get that rolling. We have a ways to go, but it is a start.

How green is your church?





A Refreshingly Positive Social Experiment

Snad posted this over at PFLAG Tri-Cities. Very informative!



Moral of the story:

Speaking out makes a difference!

Lisa Larges in the Advocate

The Christian extremist right, which has increased its influence in mainline churches, must be countered.... While the Christian right is regrouping, reviewing the payout of its last homophobic spending binge, and wearing that deer-in-the-headlights look, now is the time.

Check this great piece from Lisa Larges in the Advocate:
Like a colonoscopy or head lice, the word Christian is a conversation killer among LGBTs. So I will admit up front that whatever it is you’re thinking right now about Christians -- hypocritical, antigay, anti-sex, anti-women, anti-choice -- you’ve got plenty of evidence to back you up. Let’s also say, while we’re still here in the first paragraph, that whatever the church or its representatives did to you -- whatever abuse, whatever violation of trust, whatever was said to make you believe that you were not a child of God in your whole beautiful queer self, whatever the silence in which you did not hear how infinitely and immeasurably God loves you -- whatever drove you out of the church is simply inexcusable. But unless our community changes the “God vs. Gays” paradigm, we will never achieve full equality. Nor will it be possible for so many of us to live out our truths. My truth, strange as it may be, is a calling to ministry. It’s also the truth of a lot of fierce and beautiful gay people I know, whose stories aren’t told often enough. (Read More)
The church should be ashamed of itself. Anyone with a smidgen of conscience would see the lives we have torn apart because of prejudice reinforced by mistaken religious dogma.

One at a time, individuals begin to see the truth. When they see the pain they have caused, the ignorance they have spread, the silence they have maintained in the face of abuse, they are ashamed. I feel ashamed for the times I allow my hetero privilege to speak for my conscience.


Most people have some sense of shame. Most people have a smidgen of a conscience to which human decency can appeal. Most people eventually can be won over when they can finally connect with the life of another human being. That is what is happening in the moderate Presbyterian Church. Slowly. Slowly. Dear God, is it slow. But with one single light bulb after another, people are seeing more clearly, at least in part. This latest voting on amendment B is showing that.

Except of the course for the right wing. The right wing has no shame. They want lgbt people and their children, parents, friends, family and allies to shut up completely. They are full of panic and bluster. They are driven by their rigid ideology. It becomes more extreme the more that ordinary people with conscience see how the church has been wrong in its treatment of God's lgbt children.

Thankfully, at least in the PC(USA), the right wing is becoming more and more of an isolated fringe full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we become the church we are called to be. We need to make the political changes that will open the doors to full membership including ordination for all people.

When told to shut up, the faithful response is to speak out. We will keep coming back and offering the church the opportunity to see the light and to do the right thing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Achmed: The Classical Presbyterian

1. Call upon all those within the church who cannot teach what we have repeatedly affirmed about sexuality in accordance with Scripture to cease their disobedience and be silent on this issue.

Or in other words....


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Lisa Larges Responds

Lisa Larges has made a statement in response to the PJC decision. Check out the complete article at That All May Freely Serve.

"This decision makes it abundantly clear that the Presbyterian church must remove the current prohibitory language that denies ordination to openly LGBT people and adopt a new policy. The amendment now being voted on across the country properly aligns our understanding of ministry with the mandates of first following Jesus. It gives presbyteries clear authority to recognize the gifts and call of candidates for ministry they believe are fully qualified, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Candidates, presbyteries and committees who have sought to act faithfully under the current constitution have only been rewarded with challenges and allegations. This decision fosters on-going confusion and demonstrates clearly just how unworkable the current policy is for those seeking a fair hearing.

"More than anything, I'm mindful of all the other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) candidates for ministry who only want to serve our church. The way forward for them need not be this complicated. This ruling, though technical in nature and limited in scope, nonetheless has deeply personal and painful repercussions for my life and in the lives of other LGBT people earnestly seeking to serve the church. For me, this ruling has already delayed my candidacy for ministry for over one year. I believe the best possible outcome of this decision would be that it will clarify the ordination process for other LGBT persons whose gifts, calls, faith and leadership the church cannot afford to lose. Procedural decisions like this, while important, pale in comparison to the greater urgency of removing all barriers to ordination for those who are called to freely serve the church. Right now, our Presbyteries have the best opportunity yet to vote for fairness, inclusion and welcome."

"The way forward for them need not be this complicated." Exactly.

Nit picky crap about the appropriate time to scruple a discriminatory law is the height of Phariseeism in the PCUSA.

Let's get out the vote on Amendment B now. Even If amendment B does not pass this year, then we will send another overture to the 2010 GA. Let's have 50 presbyteries send delete G-6.0106b overtures. Let's do it again.

If anyone dares to say, dares to say, that pushing for change is divisive then read this from a commenter in my last post:

The problem with the concerns over division is the failure to fully count those who are already excluded, disenfranchised, gone. The church divided back in 1978. The only difference was, those folks didn't have tall steeples and pricey properties. To not count them is to reinforce the idea that they are less-than... We need to make an already divided church whole again, by treating all equally.

Doug Oldenburg on Amendment B

I received permission from former PC(USA) moderator, Doug Oldenburg, to share some of his thoughts regarding amendment B.

1) I happen to believe that the argument about dividing the church is the strongest argument against the amendment. I am deeply committed to the unity of the church and I don't want a church all like me or all like you or anyone else. I preached the morning of our presbytery meeting a sermon entitled, "Celebrating Diversity and Affirming Unity." Our GA said a few years ago that our diversity was our greatest asset in discerning the mind of Christ. I join others in fearing that we could encounter a schism in the church much as has happened in the Episcopal Church, and I would deeply regret that.

2) However, having said that, I am convinced that the arguments for passage of the amendment carry far more weight than our fear of division. I learned long ago that as Christians we cannot live our lives on the basis of fear or make decisions out of fear. Of course, we need to be realistic, but fear must not drive our decisions. To a large extent, we make our decisions on the basis of what we believe is Christ's will for the church and then trust that God's Spirit will hover over the fall-out.

3) I well remember that the same argument was used over and over again in the South years ago when debating racial issues. "We must not take a stand on racial issues for fear of losing members or members reducing their pledges." As you know, the argument of fear was used when debating the ordination of women - at least in the South. Yes, we did lose some members and some financial support over those issues, but no one regrets our taking a stand on what we clearly discerned to be the mind of Christ. At Columbia Seminary, my home church at Signal Mountain, Tennessee (I am a son of that church!) stopped giving the seminary $10K each year because I took a public stand on the ordination of gays and lesbians. Yes, we needed the money, but I never regretted the stand I took.

4) No one can be sure just what the fall-out will be if we pass the amendment, but I think those who use that argument often overstate their case. After our surprising vote in Charlotte Presbytery, I called a pastor friend who is very conservative (on the other side of this issue) just to express my pastoral concern for him and his colleagues and their churches. I knew he was hurting. He was in a group of about ten pastors that took out a full page ad in the newspaper some months ago expressing their deep regret about the direction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) over this issue. They did not explicitly threaten withdrawal from the denomination, but came close. When I called recently, he was very cordial and thanked me for my call and concern and assured me that neither he nor anyone else in his group has talked about leaving the denomination. Sometimes our fears are unwarranted.

5) As you know, the ultimate basis for making decisions is seeking to discern the mind of Christ as revealed in the whole of Scripture - not just a few selected passages. As I read the Gospels, Jesus was always reaching out to those on the margins, those who felt excluded (Samaritans, tax collectors, lepers, the adulterous woman). His strong bias was weighted toward inclusion, not exclusion. And so it must be our bias too!

6) As a child and young person, I thought that all gays were promiscuous and child molesters. One day a gay man confronted me with the question: "Why can't you understand that child molestation is as offensive to me as it is to you?" And "why can't you understand that I want the same kind of monogamous relationship of fidelity, "till death do us part" that you have with your wife, but I want it with another man." That was a turning point for me. It also became clear to me that none --- NONE -- of the passages in the Bible referring to same gender sex are referring to two people of the same gender in a monogamous, loving, faithful, life-long relationship. Instead, they are referring to prostitution, pederasty, and exploitative relationship. All of us are opposed to those relationships, be they heterosexual or homosexual.

Be of good cheer! "Be faithful unto death (not win every time!) and you shall receive the crown of life."

Doug Oldenburg

Good, good thoughts, Doug. Thank you!

Meanwhile, I was thinking about Lisa Larges and the ruling of the PJC that the presbytery did a premature scruple. Always a disappointment when that happens.

There will be a time to declare your scruple. To the tune of "Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley:"


You must go and state your scruple.
You must state it by yourself.
Ain't nobody else can scruple for ya,
You gotta scruple for yourself.

A Silver Lining for Lisa Larges?

So far I haven't seen any of the pundits weighing in on the Lisa Larges decision. I am no expert on polity, but I am wondering if there might be a silver lining around this temporary cloud. The complainants had a number of complaints. None of them held water but one. The Synod PJC ruled that the presbytery erred by saying she was ready for ordination "with departure." According to the PJC, the presbytery should have just said she is ready for ordination.

At the ordination examination itself is when the candidate can state a departure or scruple or whatever it is. The ordaining body can determine whether or not to accept it at that point.

The silver lining here seems to be that there is no legal means for keeping lgbt candidates from entering candidacy or being certified for ordination. If you can't declare a departure until the examination time, then you cannot say a candidate departed (and therefore prevent them from being ready for ordination) until that time either. That is the logic of the decision is it not?

The course for Lisa, it seems, is to request the presbytery to certify her as ready for ordination. Period. The course for lgbt candidates for ministry is to do the same.

Even when we remove or change G-6.0106b, it will still depend upon the makeup of the ordaining body as to whether or not a candidate can be ordained. Removing G-6.0106b will not open the floodgates and enable lgbt candidates to be ordainable everywhere.

The news should be more and more clear to us. The floodgates are open now. It takes brave and bright candidates like Lisa to pass through them and brave and bright allies to walk with our lgbt sisters and brothers in solidarity.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lisa Larges Decision

The Synod PJC has made a ruling regarding the Lisa Larges case that I reported on Saturday. Presbyweb posted a copy of the decision. I am still trying to figure out what it means. The complainants against the presbytery cited a number of errors and only one was sustained by the PJC.
The presbytery erred when it voted to certify the candidate as "ready for examination...with a departure" because the examination for ordination is the proper time for Presbytery to determine whether or not a candidate's departure constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity....The debate and vote on January 15th was not an examination for ordination.
OK, so...
In response to the requests for relief in the complaint:
1) The Synod Permanent Judicial Commission grants the request to rescind the Presbytery's certification that the candidate is "ready for examination."
The ruling is that she is not at this moment ready for examination.

It seems to me, who thank God is no lawyer, that the presbytery jumped the gun regarding the scruple. Lisa should have just been approved without scrupling and saved the scruple for when she is examined for ordination itself.

I am curious what you think, but it seems to me that the next time the presbytery meets they can simply certify her as ready for examination.

This really is a pain.

This is why you need to vote in the new amendment B and change G-6.0106b that simply serves to put stumbling blocks before faithful candidates who want to serve the church.

Today's votes were as expected and reason to celebrate. Five yeses and one no!

Yes!
Boston 54-42
Western Reserve 107-42
Geneva 44-29
Elizabeth 91-53
Denver

No
Beaver-Butler 21-92 (but they actually had some votes compared to a 'no' voice vote last time)

Score 56-80.

We are still in this.

Let's do this for Lisa.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Gore Lecture Moved to Mini-Dome


This is good news. Al Gore is going to speak Thursday at ETSU.

If you thought you missed your chance to get tickets you are in luck. Here is the scoop from the Johnson City Press:


Additional tickets to see Al Gore speak in East Tennessee State University’s Memorial Center Thursday night will become available Wednesday, the school said.

Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States, will deliver “Health Threats and the Climate Crisis” at 7 p.m. Thursday as part of the College of Public Health’s Leading Voices in Public Health Lecture Series.

Originally, Gore was scheduled to speak in the D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The university had provided for about 800 free tickets to the auditorium and about 900 more for additional broadcast sites on campus. All those tickets were gone within one hour of becoming available this past week.

By moving the venue to Memorial Center about 3,000 people can attend the lecture.

Extra tickets will be available for pickup Wednesday from noon until 6 p.m. at the information booth on the second floor of the Culp Center on campus. Tickets will be limited to two per person and be available to ETSU faculty, staff, students and to members of the community.

Check ETSU's website for more information.


When the Preacher's Away the Leprechauns Play


I was on vacation last week, but that didn't mean magic didn't happen at First Pres. We hosted a fundraising dinner for the Shepherd's Inn of Elizabethton. This is a domestic violence shelter for women and children that is directed by one of our members, Paul Gabinet.

The Shepherd's Inn provides a critical need for Carter County and they need the finances to do their work. Last week a St. Patrick's Day dinner netted some cash. Two of our church's youth, Dillon and Rion, helped serve.


Thanks to the Johnson City Press for promoting this event and for the great pic! To make a donation or to inquire about services at the Shepherd's Inn, call 423-542-0180.

Dillon and Rion will join eight other youth on an Appalachia Service Project week in June. We are having an auction to raise funds for that this coming Sunday after church. The youth will provide a meal for that. Check our web page for some of the auction items. Y'all come!


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Seminary Daze

This fall marks 20 years since I first entered seminary. It is hard to think that much time has passed. I talked about my experience of seminary life in my earlier conversations with Bob.

This story caused me to wax nostalgic. It is a story about Carmen Fowler, the new editor of the Layman. We attended Princeton at the same. After I read the story I looked her up in my old PTS picture directory (we called it the 'fundie finder') and there she is. I don't remember her but according the 'finder' she was a middler when I was a senior. My picture is in there too. It was a long time ago.

In the Layman article, Carmen spoke of her relationship with then president Tom Gillespie. He was a mentor for her. I liked him, too. I didn't know him personally. He wouldn't remember me from Ishtar but I did manage to make it to chapel on Wednesdays when he preached. I liked what he had to say.

He was the guy who was the driving force behind the 1978 authoritative interpretation which the General Assembly finally rendered as having 'no further force or effect.' So I disagreed with him about that. I chalked it up to his generation. On graduation day, he still handed me my diploma even as I sported a lavender ribbon supporting ordination equality.

At my graduation we had the fun of welcoming Peter Gomes to speak at the commencement. Between the invite and the speech he came out as a Republican Baptist (oh, and gay). That created some chit chat.

Carmen sounds like she was quite involved in seminary life and the politics of the church. Her article is in part about a statement she drafted and for which she received President Gillespie's encouragement. I think all that happened the year after I graduated.

I did find this sentence worth a chuckle:

Although she spent four years at the thoroughly secularized University of Florida, where she majored in business, she says she "never met a radical feminist" until she got to Princeton.
I suppose it is a matter of perspective. I don't remember meeting any radical feminists at Princeton. Perhaps there was a hidden coven. Maybe she is speaking about me. I took the one feminist theology class offered and it was taught by a guy, Mark Taylor. It was pretty tame. I really have to think that the University of Florida would have a more substantial women's studies program than PTS.

We attended the same seminary at the same time and yet had remarkably different perspectives. I thought the seminary was pretty conservative and the students especially so. I usually thought of myself as the most liberal person in any of my classes. Go figure.

On a survey that I had to complete upon graduation, it asked for my view of the theology of the seminary. I ended up selecting neo-orthodox. The seminary was as we cynics put it, The Center for Barth Worship.

Weird, huh? The same seminary producing two people with quite divergent opinions. Both committed to our cause. Both thinking we are in the minority in a seminary (and church) filled with "the others." Yet both part of one body, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all," Eph. 4:5-6.

The radical feminist in me might say, "One G-d and Mother of all."

Now Carmen is the editor of the Layman. I suppose I should stop writing LayMAN now.

Diversity is a frustrating thing. It makes me snarky at times. I wonder how we can possibly hang in there together. But I think the seminary, the church, and I are all better for it. It is after all, life.

Blessings upon you Carmen in your new position, and I really mean that. Maybe one day our paths will cross. When that happens we may come out prepared for an argument. But then again, maybe we will just enjoy a sweet tea and rehash our seminary daze.





Sermon: I Need a Hero

Here is today's sermon. The texts included the lectionary text from John where Jesus is the good serpent. And I used a Hindu story where Shiva drinks the world's poison to save humankind and it turns his neck blue. And I played the first verse and chorus of Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero just because I think the world needs to hear more 80s songs.

I Need a Hero
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 22nd, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 3:14-21


Where have all good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
--Bonnie Tyler, “Holding Out for a Hero”

Over my vacation which was very relaxing and just what I needed, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This was the book that inspired George Lucas to create the Star Wars films.

Published in 1949, Campbell surveyed mythology using the insights from depth psychology to show that the great myths tell the same story with different characters. The stories of myth are our internal stories projected outward.

The story of the hero is the individual who follows some kind of summons to enter the darkness, battle the dragons, face crucifixion, and discover the other side. After uniting with the divine realm, the hero returns, via resurrection or some other way, to the everyday realm to lead, to teach, or to live with an enlightened awareness.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus functions as the hero. The legends attributed to Jesus and the theologies created about him are part of the heroic mystique. If we read the Jesus stories as heroic legends and myths they make a lot more sense than if we try to historicize or to literalize them.

The lectionary text for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is from John’s Gospel. The author here is speaking about his version of the atonement myth. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.

Once you start talking about snakes you know you are in the realm of mythology. Snakes are everywhere in myth. They are life-giving and life-taking. They represent rebirth with the shedding of the skin. The king of snakes, Muchalinda, guarded and protected the Buddha when he was meditating.

In the Garden of Eden the snake tricked Eve (or told her the truth actually) about how her eyes would be opened when she tasted the fruit. It was kind of a half-truth in a sense. The snake didn’t tell her that knowing good and evil has consequences. That is why the snake has a forked tongue. Snakes are jam-packed with symbolic meaning.

In the Moses story, the Hebrew children are wandering in the Wilderness. They have gone on the heroic quest, perhaps grudgingly, but nevertheless they are there. The Wilderness is where you are tested. In Wilderness you face the beasts. You are naked in the elements. Your only comfort is to trust in the god or in the spirit guide who led you there.

The Wilderness is harsh. Understandably, the people complain. No food. No water. They long for the good old days in Egypt. They were slaves there, they reason, but at least they had their needs met. They long for their old attachments. But of course, they cannot go back. That is not their destiny. The god, in this case, Yahweh, needs to remind them of their destiny and the importance of trust.

Yahweh is a hard teacher. He sends poisonous snakes among them. It is important not to take this story historically or literally. It is a story designed to awaken us. Here is the text:
Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So why doesn’t Yahweh just take away the serpents? That doesn’t work in this world. In the realm of atonement legend and myth the suffering is never eliminated. Instead a path is provided through it. The antidote to the poison is the poison. We look upon the serpent, our own suffering, as the cure to our suffering.

In the Hindu myth, the ocean or the universe is churned by using again, the serpent. From the churning, poison comes out threatening the universe itself, like the serpents that threatened the existence of the Israelites. In this case, Shiva comes and drinks the poison. Shiva does not die but his throat turns blue.

When you look upon the blue-throated Shiva, you look upon the suffering, the poison, and the sacrifice required. The blue—throated Shiva is like Christ with the stigmata. You have always an image of the suffering of the hero. This is a reminder of the cost the hero undertakes in order to save the world or herself or himself.

The author of John’s gospel takes the story of the snake in the wilderness and applies it to Jesus. Look upon the crucified hero. In looking we see both the suffering of the world and the sacrifice before us.

If you want to get to the Promised Land, you have to go through the Wilderness. If you want resurrection you must go through crucifixion.

What does this mean? It is the crucifixion of our attachments so that we can discover rebirth. Campbell writes what the hero story represents psychologically:
The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity. The Law lives in him with his unreserved consent. P. 236-7.
The myths then, properly understood, including the Christian myth, are guides not ends in themselves. They provide for us characters and narratives to bring to consciousness what is unconscious. The myths serve to wake us up. If we open ourselves to them and take them seriously and playfully, but not literally, they can be helpful. The myths awaken us to the unconscious forces that drive our lives.

Yet we live in a time in which we think the myths come from an unenlightened past. Surely, we have surpassed childish myths and fairy tales. The mythic past is past.

We wish it weren’t so. As Bonnie Tyler sings:

Where have all good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?

Science and her daughter, technology, have swept the gods and the goddesses from the skies, earth and the sea, therefore eliminating them.

So we think. That is not quite true. The gods and goddesses have not been swept away or replaced by science, technology, and reason. They have been submerged. Our modern consciousness has put a lid on them, but they bubble below. They are alive and well and doing mischief. They live in our unconscious and haunt us in our dreams.

We have lost the vocabulary, ritual, and narrative to recognize them and to come to terms with them. Yet we live in a time in which we may need these guiding myths to awaken us from our slumber.

In saying #70 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
We need to bring forth, that is become aware, of what is within us.

I read this past week a report of a Gallup poll that said 40% of Americans are anxious about their own personal futures. This anxiety level has increased from just a few months ago. These are real fears based on real circumstances.

The advertisements on television have reflected these new anxieties. Corporations and financial service institutions are attempting to capitalize on these fears. They acknowledge them and offer the cure--to purchase what they are selling. I am not convinced of their cures.

The question remains. What do we do about all of this anxiety?

We need a hero.

I need to mention a couple of disclaimers.

1) The hero we need is not a political figure or a movement. Nor is the hero society itself. These heroes always disappoint. History is replete with stories of the heroes who have become tyrants.

2) The hero also is not a mythical figure literalized, such as the return of Christ or some other supernatural fantasy.

In both of those cases, the hero is projected outward with tragic consequences.

The hero is within.

The theme song for Lent this year is “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.” He walked it and so do you and so do I. No one can walk it for us. The hero’s quest is our own. Joseph Campbell concludes his classic book with this paragraph:
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair. P. 391.
We are entering the Wilderness, grudgingly perhaps. But the Wilderness is not a bad place. It is a necessary place. We have been summoned there to undertake the hero’s quest. The summons is to come to terms with our own fears and hopes. Fear is not a bad servant. It is, however, a destructive master. We are summoned to name our fears, attachments, limitations, and idiosyncrasies so that we may control them rather than having them control us.

Joanna Macy described our situation in this manner:
The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world-we've actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.
For that awakening we need a hero. Let us consider ourselves summoned.