Category Archives: Personal Note

Looking Back, Look Forward

I like the association of the month of January, even if not universally accepted, that invokes the ancient Roman god Janus. Janus has two faces, one looking forward and one looking back, a fitting start to a new year. (And on a side note, Janus is also interesting in that his mythology is wrapped up in Roman history and is one of the few, maybe the only, Roman deity that was not imported from the Greeks or involved an emperor being promoted. See that first link for more. But I digress.)

So in that spirit, I wanted to wrap up the Christmas season – yes, today is the 12th Day of Christmas if you have not been counting – with a bit of a look back and look forward from a personal perspective.

Looking back, it has been a tiring year for me: I finished up of some significant volunteer duties, there have been more hacked computers to deal with at work, and as I noted in the Giving Thanks For The Saints post, we walked with my uncle through the valley of the shadow and continue to wrap up some of his affairs. There was also some significant excitement and blessings as welcomed this cute little one – our first grandchild – into the family.

In short, it was a demanding and spiritual draining year in some respects and exciting and promising year in others. In the grand scheme of things all years are like that to some degree, although this year seemed more so. And one of the bottom lines was that with so much going on I regretfully did not contribute to this blog as much as I would have liked. But life happens, some things need to be done and some things remain as partially written drafts. And in all that happened this year we felt God’s presence with us.

On the other hand we are also looking ahead expectantly as we pass into a new (Gregorian) year. I don’t do resolutions as such but try to plan goals and ways to meet them into the year. One of these, depending on what life throws at me, is to get back to blogging more and I hope my process to do that works out. There is the potential for a lot of exciting developments in this coming year and I will share some of those as the year goes along. However, one specifically related to this blog is my plan to cover the Church of Scotland General Assembly live in Edinburgh this year. And while I am at it I hope to visit the other Assemblies meeting there at the same time. Stay tuned for more on that as it gets closer.

Looking back, we give thanks for God’s provision and the blessings we have. Looking forward, we pray for what is to come and that we may know God’s constant companionship with us in whatever this life brings.

And so on this day I wish all of you, as appropriate, a merry 12th Day of Christmas and Twelfth Night, Epiphany Eve/Epiphany, and Eastern Christmas.

And of course, a Happy New Year!

Giving Thanks For The Saints 2017

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

As has become my tradition, on the First of November, celebrated in many Christian branches as the Feast of All Saints, I pause to remember and share with you those in my life who have inspired me and have joined the Church Triumphant in the past year.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

I remember and give thanks for:

  • Adam – The son of long-time friends of ours who loved life and joined the Church Triumphant at much too young an age
  • Bill – A member of the Greatest Generation who served his country as part of a WWII bomber crew and one I enjoyed catching up with on Sunday mornings.
  • Lois – Oh where do I begin? She is one of those who lived life on her own terms and one to whom God blessed with a full measure of years, living a restricted but vibrant life much longer than many of us expected. She was a strong Christian, and devoted Presbyterian quietly volunteering in our presbytery office for many years. When visiting her in her later years she always asked me for news of the presbytery.
  • Robert – A respected, faithful, energetic and committed leader in the church. A long-time pastor and later para-church worker who had a sense of call to the disadvantaged and the outcast, and to recruiting others to help in these areas along with him. I did not always agree with him in theological matters, but I respected his views and he respected mine. He was a good friend and kindred spirit in our shared quirky sense of humor.
  • Michael – A faithful and hard worker for the church who I knew from synod work. Another who I frequently disagreed with, but in our disagreement we respected each other.
  • Edward – A faithful church worker, active with me at the synod level. His work and resources benefited many racial ethnic pastors, including some well-respected teaching elders in the PC(USA).
  • Garland – A down to earth member of our men’s group, loving husband and faithful in his religious observance
  • Don – A pastor who had to go on disability due to a degenerative illness, but who was as full of life as he could be to the end.
  • Gordon – A faithful and hard working ruling elder in my presbytery and others before he moved here. Another who I differed with on some theological and polity points, but who I worked closely with, and with great mutual respect, on a couple projects for the presbytery.

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

I will conclude with my uncle, Bob. Not a “religious” man and he held some strong opinions on the institutional church and its historic failings, views that were a road block to him for traditional Christianity. But he was deeply spiritual and believed in something bigger – he was just not certain what. We talked and I prayed for him, and with him, over the years, especially during his final days. He had questions about what was next, and we tried to give answers to those questions. So being the Calvinist that I am I commend his soul to God and give thanks for his life and what I have learned from him. I do hope for his salvation and that the human frailness and failings of the church are overcome and he has eternal life in Jesus Christ through the Grace of God.
[The picture below was taken at sunrise on the day he passed away.]
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And so on this day I give grateful thanks to the Lord of All for having each of them in my life at one time or another and the witness and encouragement they have each been to me.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

A Milestone…

I would like to rise to a point of personal privilege…

If you will indulge me for a couple minutes I would like to take some time to reflect on this blog.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my starting to write this strange little piece of niche social media. And looking back I am both surprised and comforted to see that my very first post was a list of several General Assemblies and General Synods in 2006.

I had previously done a series of daily web updates as a commissioner to the 209th General Assembly in 1997. I have preserved that web site and on the archived page from the PC(USA) you can see that they were kind enough to include my coverage, although that link is now dead. And while we might consider it a blog in today’s terminology, that is a word that was not coined until two years later, at least according to the OED. But to my knowledge, I was the first GA commissioner to be posting daily updates on the web during the Assembly.

Nine years later I moved on to this crazy social media technology called blogging. In the last ten years I have posted almost 1100 articles on this blog and while it seems to me that there are almost as many unfinished drafts the stats tell me it is actually an order of magnitude less. And looking at the categories, about two fifths of what I have written somehow involve the PC(USA), about one third somehow relate to a general assembly, and the Church of Scotland comes in a clear second in the denominations with almost one fifth of the posts mentioning them. In all, I have discussed 35 different Presbyterian and Reformed branches from around the world and through history.

It should be no surprise that if I have kept it up for this long I have enjoyed doing it. I view it as one of my hobbies, not as a job, and it helps me process the news and polity developments by studying and writing about them. And being only a hobby, I can write about what I want, how I want and as my time permits.

But the real payoff has been getting to know a good number of you, my regular readers, whether it be in person or virtually. In both the scientific as well as the Presbyterian parts of my life review by others, be it peers or higher governing bodies, is not only appreciated but expected. A sense of accountability is part of our system and comment and critique are appreciated forms of feedback.

Looking to the future I have a lot of ideas and a lot of GA’s I would like to attend. However, I still have my day job as well so I will get to all of them as time and finances permit. I am hoping to make it to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) and leading up to that I have appreciated the opportunity to branch out a bit and write some polity articles for the Presbyterian Outlook, one of which was published online yesterday.

So in conclusion, a big THANK YOU for joining me on this weird journey through the polity and news of global Presbyterianism. Thank you for not just reading this blog, but your interaction and encouragement. That has made it what it is.

And now I will return to my seat and thank you for allowing me the privilege of the floor for a few minutes.

Back to our usual presby-geek agenda.

A Great Way To Start Off The New Year

I wish to rise to a Point of Personal Privilege.

7389_10153855943714108_956908591976056144_nIt is a pleasure to congratulate my son Philip (yes he is a ruling elder so there is some connection to my usual theme) and his new wife Rachel on their marriage this past Saturday.

The ceremony was a witness to God and made even more so as it was officiated by Pastor Paul, a good friend of our family and one of the best preachers I know. From the “Dearly Beloved” on it was a witness to God’s faithfulness, power and grace.

It is a joy to have our family expand and our best wishes as Rachel and Philip’s long relationship enters a new phase and they are joined together in the covenant of marriage before God.

Thank you for this brief digression. We now return to our regular programming.

A Church Seeking A Pastor…

I rise to a point of personal privilege…

I rarely bring personal items into my blog stream, however on this occasion I would like to pass along the information that my church, La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church, is seeking a pastor. The Ministry Information Form is posted on the Church Leadership Connection system and the Pastor Nominating Committee has begun reading applications. The classified in the Presbyterian Outlook reads

Would you like to pastor a PC(USA) church that is highly missional in practice, committed to spiritual formation, evangelical in spirit, and reformed in theology? Consider La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church near Pasadena, California. Visit to learn more.

La Verne Presbyterian Church
1040 Baseline Rd
La Verne CA 91750

Job Type: Full-time

For background information our long-standing mission statement is:

As a people committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit we nurture and equip each other to be disciples who perceive and carry out God’s call to our mission: to share the Gospel and address community and world needs to the glory of God.

Also from the MIF, how this position will help the church accomplish its mission:

The pastor will:

  • Model the serving, caring heart of this church.
  • Along with the Session, hold the mission and vision out before the congregation and regularly ask the question of all ministries, “How does this support the advancement of our vision?”
  • Lend direction and leadership in the effective interworking of the staff, ministry groups, and administrative committees.
  • Appreciate the advantages of our ministry group model while helping to ensure that the unique and varied ministry of each group effectively contributes to fulfilling the overarching vision of the church.
  • Attend to the administrative integrity of the church’s ministries.
  • Guide us in development of thoughtful, effective leadership training for all leadership positions within the church, helping to uphold the integrity of these positions.

Self-referral information is on the MIF.

An important note: I am not on the PNC and while I can answer general questions about our congregation I have no direct involvement in the hiring process.

It is left as an exercise to the reader whether having me in the congregation is a positive, negative or neutral feature. 😉

And now back to our regularly scheduled polity wonkishness…


On Saturday I Took My Daughter For A Short Walk…

…Down the aisle of the church.

No profound reflections for today on the event — I am still enjoying and not analyzing the day. Sometime I might have processed it enough to make some more comments. I will simply add that it was a beautiful ceremony using the traditional liturgy that honored and praised God. As a bonus almost everything went as planned.

So my summer distractions will be over shortly and hopefully my blogging will return to normal, whatever that may be. And thank you for allowing me to go a bit off-topic and share this personal note.

My congratulations to Rebecca and Isaac.* May God bless your marriage giving you many happy years together and we are very pleased to have our family expand.

*[Notes: (1) The biblical parallels of the names are not missed by us and others. (2) Pictures by my son Philip and his friend Rachel.]

A Giant

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. [Romans 3:22-24]

Yes, tomorrow is the high holy day of American civil religion. Enough chicken wings will be eaten to circle the world more than twice. (Although putting them on a cupcake seems to be taking both these fads too far.) And with my interest in social media, the ways that it will be used this weekend are fascinating. Maybe more on that another time.

You know it must be a high holy day when there is a movement to make it, or more specifically the Monday following it, a holiday. (Got to have time to recover I guess.)

And I guess in the midst of all this there is a football game…

What is interesting about this game is that at one time or another both teams tried to hire a certain college coach by the name of Joseph V. Paterno. One of the teams almost got him but after initially saying yes he thought about it some more and decided not to sign the contract.

Lots has been written about JoePa over the last couple of months, but yes I thought I would add my voice to conversation. I am a graduate of Penn State and have always thought very highly of Joe. I still do. I am still processing a lot of what has happened recently and being a deliberative Presbyterian I am withholding final judgement until more of the facts are known.

Let me be clear right up front — I am not here to apologize, ignore or explain away Coach Paterno’s failings with respect to the recent scandal. As the quote I started with, and many more in scripture say, none of us are perfect. Joe apparently had a moral lapse which helped facilitate the abuse of young children. That will clearly leave a major dark mark on his legacy.

But consider his work on balance – and not the work on the football field on Saturdays. Coach Paterno was an icon, a giant, for good reason.  And it went beyond the high graduation rate of his players and his clean record with the NCAA. How many other coaches do you know have given over $4 million dollars back to their school for academic and spiritual causes. But to characterize him like this, while good, misses both the big picture and the small details.

Phil Sheridan, of the Philadelphia Inquirer does a great job of capturing the big picture:

To say he was the Nittany Lions’ football coach would be to say that
Steve Jobs worked in computers, or that Walt Disney was a cartoonist.
The man was larger than the university where he worked, than the sport
that he coached.

That was both his greatest achievement and, in the end, part of his downfall.

And Rick Reilly, my favorite sports columnist, in his ESPN commentary captures the details in his piece titled “Joe Paterno’s True Legacy.” It is about Joe and Adam Taliaferro, a player who was paralyzed in a game in 2000. Here is a small part of that article about the care Joe showed for his player:

And every other week, Paterno would fly to Philly to see him.

“He’d bring our trainer and a couple of my teammates,”
Taliaferro says. “Nobody in the hospital knew he was there.” Paterno
would tell him all the dumb things his teammates and coaches had done
lately. Pretty soon, Taliaferro would be laughing his IVs out.

“I can’t tell you what that meant to me,” says
Taliaferro, now 30. “I’m stuck in that hospital, and here’s Coach
Paterno bringing a piece of the team to me, in the middle of the season.
How many coaches would do that?”

But you have to realize that this was not an isolated case and he cared about people beyond his circle of players. Many people have contributed recollections over the last couple of weeks about the small things JoePa did. As Cory Gieger, the host of a radio sports show, put it on Twitter after a call-in honoring Joe: @corygiger: There’s no question those small gestures by Paterno made tremendous
impact on so many people, giving them stories & memories for a

And I don’t think Coach Paterno would object to my using that quote at the beginning — he was a religious man and a faithful Roman Catholic. He was a man of quiet but not silent faith.  His was a firm but not flashy faith.  In an article on the Catholic Review web site his bishop remembers him for his faithfulness and his support of the spiritual center and a local school.

My most vivid memory of Coach Paterno, at least off the field, was a political rally on campus.  A congressional candidate had gotten JoePa and a former President of the United States to come out and endorse him.  I don’t need to tell you that the Coach got by far the loudest applause when introduced. (But I don’t remember if the guy won the race.)

And on Penn State’s University Park Campus one of the highest honors you can receive is to have a Creamery ice cream flavor named after you.  In the last two months sales of Peachy Paterno have dramatically increased.

The point is that while football was important, it was not the most important thing in his life. His family, the relationships with his players, the university community and the world at large were important too and he did not neglect them.

History will ultimately be the judge in this world. But as the scripture above says about the next one “all are justified freely by his grace that came by Christ Jesus.” And while our salvation does not depend on our works, for a lot of people Coach Paterno made their lives better. As his son Jay said at the public memorial service…

“Among the things he accomplished in his life, it was the games he won that counted the least.”

Passings — William H. “Bill” Hopper

Last week I lost a good friend when Bill Hopper transferred his membership from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant.  Those that knew Bill know that he sure fit the description of a member of the Church Militant.

Bill had a long and distinguished career in the PC(USA) and its predecessor branches as a missionary in Iran and Pakistan and in his service to the church on every level from the congregation to the General Assembly. To the wider church he may be best known today for his co-authorship, with Clifton Kirkpatrick, of the book What Unites Presbyterians.

To me Bill was a coworker in our presbytery — we would regularly see each other at presbytery meetings and events and exchange greetings and briefly catch up.  But more than that Bill had the spiritual gift of encouragement. It seemed like every conversation we had, somewhere in it he slipped in some comment about how well I handled some report to presbytery or what a good job I did with a particular presentation. In the 15 years that I have been serving in various positions in middle governing bodies he was constantly encouraging me and supporting me in each new role.

But what I will remember Bill the most for was that he was a strong and vocal supporter of the joint governance by teaching and ruling elders. In a presbytery meeting if a ruling elder prefaced their remarks with something like “I am only a ruling elder but…”, he would soon be at the microphone encouraging them with something like “There is no such thing as ‘only an elder’ in the Presbyterian church,” and he would continue with a brief refresher on the nature of our joint governance.

Today would have been Bill’s 86th birthday. We will miss him but we rejoice that he has entered into his eternal reward.

There is another recollection of Bill by Sonnie Swenston-Forbes, and Sonnie has also posted a letter many of us got from Bill’s family.

Passings — Tom Gillespie

Over the weekend the Rev. Thomas Gillespie Ph.D., immediate past-President, of Princeton Theological Seminary passed away. If you want the formal notices and full biography you can read ones from Princeton and the Presbyterian News Service.  I knew President Gillespie only through the good fortune of meeting and working with him on two different, and very Presbyterian, occassions. I found him to be a most gracious and humble individual, full of life and good humor, and truly a pleasure to work with.  As you will see, both of these were formal occassions so he may have been on his best behavior. None the less, I came away from each with a very high regard for the gentleman.

In reading the Princeton news piece I did have to chuckle. Our Presbytery has a good-hearted standing joke about which is the best seminary – one of the two in our Presbytery, Fuller or Claremont, or Princeton. Well, Tom got his M.Div. from Princeton, his Ph.D. from Claremont, and then returned to Princeton as president.  He covered the bases.

The first time I met and worked with Rev. Gillespie was when I was a commissioner to the 209th General Assembly (1997) and on the Theological Institutions Committee. One afternoon our committee broke up into a number of groups to meet with the presidents and students from the PC(USA) seminaries.  It was a good discussion, lively and open, and a great chance to hear this informal reporting from our schools.  I have to admit that I don’t remember who the other seminary president in our group was but I do clearly remember Rev. Gillespie and his participation.

The presidents met with us for much of the committee time, particularly since we were dealing with the tricky question of denominational doctrine in tension with academic freedom. In no small part it was Tom Gillespie who helped us navigate that issue and use the presbytery overture as a starting point for compromise action by the Assembly.

The second time I worked with Rev. Gillespie was almost a decade later when I was the Moderator of Presbytery and he was the preacher for an installation. In my time as Moderator he was probably the best known pastor that I shared the pulpit with at an ordination or installation. As we were preparing for the worship service he and I had a brief but wonderful conversation about the presbytery, our mission programs and what else what happening.  He was not an “ivy tower” academic but showed a genuine concern for what was happening in the churches around the country. But the most enduring thing to me was his positive affirmation of my leadership position in the presbytery and his comments about the nature of shared leadership between teaching and ruling elders. It was clear from working with him that day that ruling elders are just as important in the Presbyterian system as the teaching elders and his affirmation of my work in the church is something I have carried with me since.

I give thanks for his life and the brief times that we have worked together in the life of the church.  My deepest sympathies to his family and prayers in this time of loss. If others have had the same experience as I have the PC(USA) is a better denomination because of how he has encouraged and contributed to it. Godspeed.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Well, it is not exactly Scylla and Charybdis, but the Mid-Atlantic states of the U.S. found themselves in the shaking of a moderate earthquake Tuesday while keeping a watchful eye on Hurricane Irene.

I want to talk about the relative risks later in this post, but first a little bit on the earthquake itself.

As you can probably imagine Tuesday was an interesting day at work for me.  The day began with hearing about the other significant earthquake in Colorado. When I heard about it on the radio I was expecting it to be a bit further west in the more active seismic belt where I have worked (fifth from top and third from bottom if you really care).  But I found it was to the east along the front of the Rocky Mountains.  An interesting location but not completely unexpected.

Then about 11 AM PDT my computer ground to a halt.  Checking around I found that my Twitter feed for earthquakes had gone crazy and that a 5.8 had occurred back on the east coast.  At about the same time my email sprung alive with notes from college friends with questions or comments.  Now here was an interesting event. And it was the largest earthquake globally on Tuesday.

For a comparison of this earthquake to previous eastern US events you can have a look at the USGS Historic Earthquake list.  The largest east coast earthquake is the 1886 Charleston, SC, earthquake at 7.3 and there are no other east coast earthquakes over 7 on the list. There are no earthquakes on the list in the magnitude 6 range. The next earthquake is an 1897 event in western Virginia which appears to still hold the record as the largest earthquake in the state. In total there are thirteen earthquakes in the magnitude 5 range in the coastal states.  Then there are seven more earthquakes for which there is not complete enough information to accurately estimate a magnitude, but we know that the intensity of shaking was strong enough that we can safely consider them to also be in the magnitude 5 or larger range.

So, for the eastern seaboard that are 21 earthquakes in about 300 years or an average of one earthquake about every 14 years. The previous one? Nine years ago in northern New York.

It is interesting to look at the seismic hazard map for the contiguous United States.  An experienced Presbyterian will appreciate the seismic hazard zones for the central and eastern US.  With only a few exceptions we don’t know where major deep faults are and which of the myriad of faults are inactive and which might be reactivated. Therefore, where there is higher seismic hazard is where something has happened in the past, just like some sections of the Book of [Church] Order are there because something happened. In that part of the world seismic hazard analysis is reactive.

The western US is a different story.  We think we know where active faults are, can measure their activity and put hazard estimates on specific geologic features and not just broad areas. Hazard zones are more narrowly defined and we believe have better known values.

So with that quick intro to seismic hazard estimation, lets consider how it compares to other natural hazards.  The bottom line for much of the country is that earthquakes are the least of your worries.

A good comparison comes from an analysis by Barton and Nishenko for the USGS. They find that for the United States the probability of having 10 fatalities for an event in a given year is 11% for an earthquake, 39% for a hurricane, 86% for floods, and 96% for tornadoes. For a graphical representation of where you would expect these consider this map from Insurance Center Associates. There is a similar one from the New York Times. (And it is worth pointing you to Robert Simmon’s critique of how this map represents the data.)

Now, let me make what will seem at first to be a quantum leap…

One of the thing’s I appreciate about our Reformed heritage is the concept of Vocation. What this means in my field is that when I talk to people about earthquakes I recognize that there are usually emotional issues underlying many of the questions they ask me.  In a sense, I am not just an earthquake geologist but I become a counselor or therapist as well.  In other words, I am doing ministry in a particular and unique way.

What I have found in doing this is that to a given individual the type of natural disaster is just as important as the risk of a disaster itself.  It is clear to me from talking with dozens of people that the different numbers only matter to a point and that people have different personal comfort levels with different types of risks. This is brought home nicely in a split-panel cartoon that ran right after the Northridge Earthquake — in one panel a guy is up to his eye balls in snow reading a newspaper headline saying “Earthquake hits California” and in the other panel a Californian, with debris behind him, is reading the headline “Record Cold Grips Northeast.” And each of them is thinking “Why would anyone live there?”

Why would anyone live in earthquake country? Because they don’t like tornadoes, hurricanes or blizzards.  Likewise, I know people who have left California for the Midwest because they are more comfortable with tornadoes than earthquakes.  Some people like predictability. Some hate waiting for the unknown in a tornado warning and would rather not have the suspense and have an earthquake hit out of the blue.  Some have a sense of security knowing that hurricanes have a season when they hit and you get two days notice.  Some would rather have an earthquake and get it over with.  I think that I have heard it all.

Likewise I sometimes wonder if different Presbyterians have preferences for different risks in the church. I will leave the development of that idea as an exercise for the reader.

So to those between the rocking of the earthquake and the hard place of the hurricane, may you know God’s solid presence in the midst of earth’s uncertainty. To all of those who are in the path of Irene, whether it has already gone through you or is still headed your way, we lift our prayers.  To those in the epicentral region of the earthquake we pray that your damage is not substantial and is easily repaired and give thanks that there was no loss of life and no serious injuries. To those currently meeting in Minneapolis we pray that no tornadoes will go through town. And to all affected by the many different types of natural disasters we pray for God’s comfort and peace for you in the midst of it.