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!

Who Speaks For The Church – Or At Least The General Assembly?

In my time doing this blog and watching global Presbyterianism, one of the things that has caught my attention has been the variation between different traditions about who speaks for the denomination.

Now, it is first worth noting that when it comes to pronouncements, particularly social witness stands, many branches recognize that a governing body (judicatory, council – whatever term you use) speaks only for itself and can not bind the next meeting of that deliberative body to that statement or commit other levels of the denomination to it. This is not necessarily the case in all branches, particularly those with strong national infrastructure and definitive decision making at the highest level, but it is true for the polity of many branches that have placed the presbytery as the fundamental governing body and the authority of the other bodies derives from the presbyteries.

The question of who speaks for the church has been an active one recently in the PC(USA) as the Way Forward Commission has wrestled with this. (See the section on Communications in the Outlook article in the link) While not decided yet, something may come out in their final recommendations for consideration by the 223rd General Assembly in June 2018, particularly in the area of communications and the various agencies and offices speaking with one voice.

Globally Presbyterian branches fall into two categories as to who is the voice of the denomination. In general, American branches tend to hand that responsibility to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. However, elsewhere in the world the Moderator of the General Assembly or the General Synod tends to be the voice of that body.

I have been working with a semi-quantitative analysis of this over the last few months, but over the last couple weeks I realized there is a reasonable metric to do a quick sort on this. So here are the lists of who provided the official Christmas messages from different branches this year.

Moderators of the General Assembly or the General Synod

Stated Clerks of the General Assembly or the General Synod

Web sites checked where I did not find Christmas messages include the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, CCAP Zambia Synod, CCAP Blantyre Synod, CCAP Livingstonia Synod, Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (English site), Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago, Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), United Free Church of Scotland, Nonsubscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Presbyterian Church of Wales, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Free Presbyterian Church of North America, Presbyterian Church in America (but see below), Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Bible Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in Australia, Presbyterian Church in Australia in the State of New South Wales, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. If I have missed any in this group, or other branches not listed please let me know and I will update.

So the obvious conclusion is that most Presbyterian branches don’t post a Christmas message on their web site. A number of explanations for this: A few of the branches still hold to the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God which has an Appendix against celebrating festivals or holy-days. For others, it is simply the expectation of the denomination – it is a nice idea but that is not what the GA or GS is really there for. And for others, the greetings are distributed in other forms and do not appear on the web site.

The other obvious conclusion is that while this quick analysis shows two obvious trends – Christmas messages are posted by the big institutional Presbyterian branches and they come from the Moderator unless you are an American branch – the other part is that a lot are left out. So back to the drawing board and maybe the semi-quantitative approach. (And this shift in focus to the stated clerk in American branches is an interesting phenomenon I am interested in reading more about, or tracking down more historical details if it has not been done yet.)

A few additional comments:

While the Presbyterian Church of Australia did not have a Christmas message, the web site does have a dedicated page for the Moderator’s comments.

The state branch, the Presbyterian Church of South Australia has begun functioning as a presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, but their Christmas message last year was written by the last Moderator, the Rev. Gary Ware.

The Presbyterian Church in America did not have a specific Christmas message, but their By Faith news arm does have a piece featuring one of their theology professors that does touch on Christmas theology.

And for the Church of Scotland, the advocacy and discussion of social witness policy is routinely delegated to the Convener of the Church and Society Council. Here are a couple recent examples of Kirk press releases related to “Church welcomes minimum pricing for alcohol ruling” and “Kirk hopes for a budget that will make Scotland a fairer and more equal society.”

Finally, something that was tracking with my other analysis but maybe is best considered an appendix here – a short case study on speaking for the denomination, in this case the PC(USA).

As the top continuing ecclesiastical officer the Stated Clerk speaks for the General Assembly, and not for him or herself, on matters related to policy of the PC(USA). This is covered in the Manual of the General Assembly.

Recently the Stated Clerk, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, preached in South Korea as part of an ecumenical visit. The headline of the article said “Stated Clerk pledges repentance for No Gun Ri massacre: Nelson: ‘We’ll not let the silence continue’ about Korean War atrocity.” So the question is, as part of the sermon was he speaking for himself, or as the ecclesiastical officer of the PC(USA) was he speaking for the General Assembly?

Again, this was included as part of a sermon and the headline writer latched on to this for the article. Here is the full context of what the Stated Clerk said when he preached:

I cannot apologize for the government of the United States. However, we who are here today from the United States can pledge to not let the silence of this massacre continue. Just as the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse has called on the denomination to both acknowledge and repent of our silence as a denomination, we [the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)] must call upon the United States government to publicly repent of its actions at No Gun Ri.

He is clearly recounting the actions of the General Assembly, with an overture originating from the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse. The problem is that the 222nd General Assembly did not actually call for repentance on the part of any body or government, as the Stated Clerk implies. The final alternate resolution 1) Acknowledged the actions of the US military in the massacre, 2) Directs the Stated Clerk to ask the United States Government to acknowledge the actions, issue an apology and statement of regret as well as considering compensation, and include training for future military members.  And 3) work with the ecumenical partners for resources and additional statements of regret.

In the whole action the word repentance is used only once in the original rational from the Presbytery, which carries the weight of action only to the extent that the final resolution asks for its inclusion in communication about the action of the General Assembly.

So the polity question is: Based on the actions of the 222nd General Assembly, did the Stated Clerk faithfully represent it when he spoke for their action?

So I will leave it at that. I have a lot of other articles in the works so it may be a while before I return to this topic. And to a large degree, this is a topic of debate for us polity wonks and presbygeeks, but does appear to be an issue for the Way Forward Commission.

Your mileage may vary.

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!

Moderator Designate For The 2018 Church Of Scotland General Assembly

As the build up to the next GA Season keeps moving, this past week brought another Moderator Designate announcement, this from the Church of Scotland.

Rev Susan Brown of Dornoch Cathedral.

The selection committee has decided and the Kirk has announced that The Rev. Susan Brown, minister of Dornoch Cathedral, will be the next Moderator of the General Assembly. She is a native of Penicuik, Midlothian, and did her ministerial training at New College, Edinburgh with a Bachelors degree and a post-Graduate Diploma in Ministry. Following her probationer work at St. Giles she was inducted at Killearnan on the Black Isle, near Inverness, where she served for 13 years. From there she moved up the coast a bit to Dornoch Cathedral where she has been for the past 19 years.

Rev. Brown has served the Kirk at the national level as the vice-convener for both the Ecumenical Affairs committee and currently the World Mission Council. She also served for ten years as a regular member of a lifeboat crew for a local association. And her love of the outdoors, and these days particularly golf, led her to write a spiritual reflection for each hole of the nearby Royal Dornoch course and these are included in the course guide and gained a bit of international attention. In 2011 she was appointed as Chaplain in Ordinary to HM the Queen.

Her husband Derek is also in the ministry, serving as a hospital chaplain in Inverness and as the lead chaplain for NHS Highland. They have two adult children, a son who is a novelist who was recently recognized by the Scottish Book Trust with a New Writers award, and a daughter who is a graduate in social anthropology.

Rev. Brown says of her moderatorial year:

My theme during the year will be walking alongside people. When you walk alongside people, you listen and you exchange stories. It gives us a chance to talk more deeply than when we are face to face.

This coming moderatorial year for Rev. Brown will have a number of anniversaries of note, not the least of which is the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Church of Scotland. (For those counting, she will be the fourth woman to serve as Moderator of the Kirk GA.) The year will also include some significant centennial anniversaries related to WWI, including the commemoration of the armistice in just over a year’s time.

And finally, no biographical sketch of Rev. Brown would be complete without noting another distinction that she has, that of being the pastor that married the entertainer Madonna and Guy Ritchie and later baptizing their son Rocco.

Besides the Kirk article, there is significant mainstream and Christian media coverage of her appointment including The Scotsman, BBC Scotland, The Northern Times, Daily Record, and Premier Christianity.

Susan Brown can be followed on Twitter at @VicarofDornoch. And you can hear her preach on the Cathedral web site, although it appears on the current sermon is available and no online archive is available. Today’s sermon is based on the calling of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and you have to see a bit of self-reference in her second line “The story offers a great reminder of how God can, and will, use anyone at all – no matter how young or old, no matter how full of wisdom or yet to learn.”

And so, as Rev. Brown begins her preparation for the Assembly in May and her moderatorial year as a whole, we offer our congratulation, prayers and best wishes. And if everything falls into place, I am looking forward to being present in person for your installation and your time leading the Assembly. May God’s blessing be upon you and God’s Spirit granting you wisdom and strength for what lies ahead.

Moderator Designate For The Free Church Of Scotland 2018 General Assembly

There is a certain cycle to each year as in the late months of one calendar year and the early months of the next we begin to anticipate the upcoming general assemblies with moderator designates and moderator candidates, overtures and memorials, and reports. We then enter Assembly Season and see what transpires in the meetings. That is followed by the time of reporting back and presbyteries voting on descending overtures to make changes under the Barrier Act or to the Books of Church Order, Order, or Forms. (Or the Code.) And somewhere in the midst of that it starts all over again.

Well, with the first Moderator Designate announcement the cycle begins again…

Late last week the Free Church of Scotland announced that The Rev. Angus MacRae had been selected as the Moderator Disignate for their 2018 General Assembly in May.

Rev. MacRae is the pastor of Dingwall and Strathpeffer Free Church in Ross-shire where he has been for the last sixteen years. He was ordained to a call at Kilwinning Free Church, Ayrshire in 1992 and came to his present placement from there. His higher education was completed at Edinburgh University and Free Church College (now Edinburgh Theological Seminary). He was born in Glasgow and grew up in Laxdale, Isle of Lewis.

Rev. MacRae has been serving as the chair of the Board of Ministry, experience that is reflected in his published statement where he says:

This decade has seen vibrant growth and renewal in many local churches and the denomination as a whole is united and encouraged. I am thankful for a steady stream of new leaders in training. Our churches and Seminary are working together to meet the needs of existing churches and an exciting movement of new church plants around Scotland.

He continues in his statement to talk about the ongoing work of the General Assembly:

The General Assembly is not just a talking shop. It is an opportunity for leaders to meet together in God’s presence. Our vision is to work together to bring the message of an unchanging gospel to all the people of our land. We do this individually, together in our local churches and in gospel partnership with all those who respect the authority of the Bible as God’s message for truth for every age.

The press release also tells us he “supports international mission and has a particular interest in East Asia and the work of OMF International.”

You can see more about his parish ministry on the Dingwall Free Church Facebook page as well as their YouTube channel of sermons, most delivered by him.

Rev. MacRae’s wife Ann is a doctor specializing in the treatment of addiction. They have three adult children.

Our congratulations to Rev. MacRae on his selection to this unique form of service to the church and our prayers and best wishes as he prepares for his moderatorial year. And on a personal note, I hope to be present in the gallery when he is installed in May and look forward to worshiping with the GA that evening.

May God’s blessing be upon you as you undertake this ministry.

Teaching Young Children About The Reformation: It’s Complicated

As the magical date of October 31, 2017, rapidly approaches the opportunities around Reformation 500 abound. In particular, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has gone all-in and, as you can see from this article, has an opportunity with many of their ministries and programs to celebrate the anniversary. It may be a bit of overkill, but remember that their unofficial motto is now “We are not dying. We are reforming” so there is some sense to it.

Among these resources are curricula for every age group including “The Protestant Reformations” for adults, “The Protestant Reformation” for youth and young adults, and for ages 5-10 a one Sunday lesson as part of the “Growing in Grace and Gratitude” curriculum titled “Luther Learns from Paul.” That last one you can download and look at for free so I downloaded a copy and what follows are some of my thoughts about it.

Bottom line: Generally a nice, age-appropriate overview of Martin Luther’s journey and thinking that led to his work to reform the church. But, I have to add that in my opinion in constructing this curriculum they have missed an opportunity to more fully demonstrate Luther’s ideas and have perpetuated a common and subtle error. Back to that in a minute.

Now, before I go further it is helpful if I make two disclaimers that you should keep in mind as I go through this review. The first is that I am involved in higher education and not elementary education so I will be expressing my personal opinion about age-appropriate content which is not technically a professional opinion at this level. Second, my background in higher education manifested itself as “teaching up” to my own children as they were growing up and the bottom line I will come to at the end is predicated on my own experience with family discussions and what our children experienced and participated in. (We have a standing joke with good friends of ours, also involved in higher education, that “Other families don’t have these discussions at dinner, do they?”)

So with that, let’s dive in.

As I indicated above, this is a curriculum for ages 5-10. While there are some sections which refer to an activity or approach for the older or younger children, for the most part the material is the same across the whole age range. The lesson follows a traditional lesson plan with a welcoming and gathering activity, a brief worship section, the story with preparing and reflecting questions and discussion, and a selection of responding activities that are participatory for the children. The scripture passage for the lesson is Ephesians 2:1-10 with an emphasis on the portion that says “…God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love God has for us, saved us by grace.” The story tracks the life of Martin Luther from childhood, through his thunderstorm experience, his journey into the monastery, his challenge to the sale of indulgences and finally to his nailing the 95 theses to the castle church door.

The object lesson from the story and activities seems to be well presented and has good focus on the important truth that Grace is a gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to earn it or attain it by ourselves. So it strikes me as overall a nice lesson that helps to teach the scriptural lesson and historical context of Reformation Sunday.

One good age-appropriate touch to note at this point is that in one of the activities the children are introduced to three of the solas (solae?) – faith alone, grace alone and scripture alone – while in the take-home sheet for the family all five of the solas are included for family discussion. One critical point I would mention now is that the scripture lesson is from Ephesians and while it is an appropriate passage to teach that we are saved by grace alone, it is my understanding that the breakthrough in Luther’s thinking came from studying the Letter to the Romans.

Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, there are two points in the story of Luther as the curriculum tells it that really jumped out at me where the authors and editors used some license to make the curriculum age-appropriate. To me, these two points present certain historical and theological compromises that the teacher should be aware of and maybe should be addressed with the children. I will certainly admit that this is a tricky balance when dealing with complicated topics as these are: On the one hand the material must be understandable to the intended audience within the targeted time frame of the lesson. On the other hand, the question arises whether a particular incident, while complex, presents both a teachable moment as well as should be presented in a manner that won’t need to be untaught or corrected at a later date.

The first item is the classic account of Luther in the thunderstorm. The curriculum talks of him being caught in the storm and crying out to God that if he comes through the storm all right he would become a monk. The actual account is that he cried out to St. Anne, the family patron saint since his father was in the mining business.

The editorial change is understandable since the reference to St. Anne would necessitate some introduction for the children to the concept of saints, especially patron saints, and compounded even further by the fact that her identification as the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus is based upon the apocrypha. So yes, it is a complicated concept to teach.

On the other hand, this strikes me as a teachable moment as the message of the lesson is that we are saved by grace alone and not by the good works of any other except the atoning death of Jesus. And a key component of the Reformation was that we can speak directly to God and do not need to go through intermediaries like priests and saints.

I reached our to Congregational Ministries Publishing about my concerns and received a gracious reply from Dr. Mark Hinds, the publisher. Regarding this concern he says:

As you surmised, the two questions you raised highlight intentional editorial revisions based on the supposition that, in a story for children, certain details might prove to be more problematic than helpful.

In a review of children’s stories, “God” often replaces “St. Anne” in the thunderstorm story. In our view, this is a wise choice. Praying/crying out to St. Anne in our version would have introduced a detail that would have required interpretation that we weren’t prepared to include, especially given the limits of word counts and varying abilities of children to process non-contextualized data.

The second detail that jumped out at me is admittedly even more complex and in making it age-appropriate the curriculum introduces what I see as a notable inaccuracy. This is the topic of indulgences. The curriculum says:

A monk named John Tetzel began selling pieces of paper, called indulgences, that he claimed would bring God’s forgiveness. People actually used to think they could earn God’s forgiveness by buying a piece of paper.

OK, there is a lot here to unpack – I said this was complicated – so let’s begin with the nature of indulgences themselves. According to the church dogma an indulgence does not bring forgiveness, but rather the shortening or release from purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia online says:

[A]n indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.

Now, on top of this is the question of how the papers conveying the indulgences were worded and how Johann Tetzel promoted them. There seems to be broad agreement that Tetzel did not tell people that buying an indulgence would directly grant them personally forgiveness. The limited eyewitness accounts and later researchers agree that for the living the indulgence was to be viewed in conjunction with confession and penitence. There is however some evidence that Tetzel was outside church dogma when he promoted the indulgences for forgiveness of sins for the dead and the Catholic Encyclopedia has a good summary of that. However, a paper by J. N. Lenhart presents the argument that if Tetzel was promoting forgiveness for the dead, and not just remission of the temporal punishment, it was because that is what was printed on the indulgence.

Finally, implied in the statement is that indulgences are a thing of the past. Indulgences for acts of mercy, contrition and faith are still very much around and lists can be found on web sites like this one and this one, and they have in fact made the mainstream media. And in his article Lenhart talks of indulgences that were for sale within the last 100 years.

Looking at the 95 Theses it is easy to conclude that the purchase of an indulgence might forgive sins when Luther writes “21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.” But also among the theses is “34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.”

Again, Dr. Hinds was kind to respond to my concerns here and said:

We did not intend to affirm anything about the Textzel [sic] encounter other than Luther saw the practice as a problem, mostly about the church’s power over the poor, illiterate Christians of that era. Nor did we intend to treat the matter of indulgences beyond the story; however, the concept of earning one’s salvation is addressed in the lesson and shown to be an error.

Again, besides the problem of confusing forgiveness of sins with reduction of time or release from purgatory, is this a teachable moment? As the message of the lesson is that we are saved, and fully saved, by grace alone through Christ alone, is this an opportunity to present that message and further that no refining fire is necessary following our death?

So what are the options? On one end of the spectrum is the “all in” option and you can use the curriculum as published and figure the editorial changes are appropriate and helpful for the audience. On the other end is the option to not use the lesson, or use the lesson but drop the story. In between you have a number of options which might include using the lesson with the details more accurately conveyed with appropriate explanation for the children. Or use the story but drop those two items from the story. And for either of these latter two you could prepare a guide for the parents that goes home with the take-home sheet helping to interpret the historical and theological context of the parts that were modified.

So yes, it is complicated. I will readily acknowledge that there may not be a perfect answer to how to present this material to the 5-10 age group. I will leave it up to others to decide how they want to present it and what appropriate editorial license is useful or necessary. As you probably figured out from my thoughts above, I would lean towards an approach that, if the material were to be presented, would include some of the complexity to more tightly hold to the historical and theological details. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out the appropriate approach for your situation.

My thoughts on the topic. Your mileage may vary.

Happy Reformation 500. More to come over the next few weeks.

Last Week In The Presbyterian Church In Ireland: Everyday Disciples And Essentials

Last week was a busy one for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with their Special Assembly on Everyday Disciples and in that the roll-out of the new Essentials discipleship program. A close look at the Essentials material in a moment, but first a brief review of the Special Assembly.

Beginning on Monday of last week, over 600 people gathered at Ulster University in Coleraine for this Special Assembly around the theme Everyday Disciples and focusing on discipleship. It was not a deliberative assembly but a four-day event to prepare and energize members in their own discipleship walks as well as reaching out to others. In the church’s news article in advance of the Assembly the Moderator of the GA, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely is quoted as saying:

As Christians, Jesus calls us to be His disciples in all aspects of our lives. The title and theme of our Special Assembly is in recognition of the increasing necessity for today’s followers of Jesus to be equipped by the Church to be effective disciple-makers in their various spheres of everyday life.

Many of us however, recognise that we have perhaps concentrated too much on programmes and activities in our churches and have not been as strong on providing the essentials to facilitate making mature disciples.

The daily keynote addresses from our two principal speakers and the range of seminars available will help us to consider seriously the need for daily discipleship. It will also help us to understand better how we can be involved in a 21st century reformation of church and society.

The two principal speakers were pastors from U.S. churches who spoke on the theme of discipleship with an emphasis on a believer’s life and the local church. The first speaker was Rev. Randy Pope, pastor of Perimeter Church (with the PCA) in Atlanta. The second speaker was the Rev. Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr., pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. More on the speakers from both the PCI news article as well as one from the Belfast Telegraph.

I saw no indication of a live stream of the event but there was a healthy (OK, one non sequitur has crept in) and helpful Twitter presence so I would encourage you to check out the hashtag #everydaydisciples. And tracking there, from all that I saw the conference had a laser-sharp focus on the topic of discipleship and good quality keynote sessions and workshops. I appreciated the high quality of the stream of tweets but have resisted pasting any in here.

At the end of the Special Assembly a new discipleship program called Essentials was rolled out. I have purchased a copy and am favorably impressed with the focus, quality and helpfulness of this resource.

So, for your £12 you get the eight videos and five participants books with additional books £1 each. There is also a leader’s guide and a preaching plan included. And with the purchase you get access to the videos online for download in a number of different formats.

As you might have guessed it is an eight session program with each session taking the participants through a step in the journey of Jesus with his disciples. Here is a breakdown of the sessions:

  1. Come – COME AND SEE: Discipleship starts with awareness of Jesus before activity for Him
  2. Call – FOLLOW ME: The essential call of discipleship is to follow our Master Jesus
  3. Community – SHARE LIFE: We can’t do discipleship alone. We learn to follow Jesus as part of His church
  4. Culture – STEP OUT: Disciples don’t escape or embrace culture, but engage with it as they follow Jesus
  5. Courage – SPEAK UP: Disciples aren’t just called to live well in culture, but also to speak up for Jesus
  6. Cost – DENY YOURSELF: Following Jesus brings a cost in every area of our lives
  7. Challenge – GO MAKE: The challenge of becoming disciples who make disciples
  8. Continue – LOOK UP: We never graduate from needing Jesus but continue following him in every age and stage of life

I really liked this progression and thought it was a useful and logical way to develop the concept of discipleship. And it should be clear from the progression above that this resource, like the Special Assembly, was about both our own discipleship as well as equipping disciples to make disciples of others. I also liked that this is not a prescribed formula for doing discipleship but a journey and way of life from which helping others develop as disciples is an integral part.

Each session has a Before You Watch opening discussion with some intro questions and the Bible reading. The book gives a basic idea to keep in mind during the video and provides space in the book to jot down thoughts or comments. And in the After You Watch section a time to respond and discuss based on the five concepts of React, Reflect, Apply, Story, and Respond.

Each video is about 15 minutes long (plus or minus about one minute) and are all follow the same pattern, opening with a brief intro, then the Bible passage followed by a couple of individuals commenting and reflecting on the Bible reading. Finally, just under half the video is a member, or in a couple cases two members together, telling a part of their spiritual journey relevant to the topic of that session. The videos are well produced, the timing of them and the segments in them right for the audience and generally interesting to watch. The almost four minute promo video on the web page uses segments from all the videos and gives you a flavour for them.

It is worth saying up front that this series is not intended for a world-wide audience as it is produced for individuals from Ireland with themes and stories that resonate within their cultural setting and experience. For example, near the beginning of video three as the speaker talks about Christian community he makes reference to a number of experiences in that society in saying “Doesn’t Jesus know this is Ireland… We do division really well.” The cultural focus is definitely a benefit in getting the material out to the intended audience. For me it detracted little from the videos but if used in another setting some interpretation may be necessary if viewers are unfamiliar with the cultural themes.

Overall I was very favorably impressed with this resource. High quality and well thought out. I can only say that I went through the whole thing on my own and not with a group but it seems like it should work well. It is not high-pressure and the spiritual journeys shared in the everyday members of the church are well chosen and engaging and would seem to give plenty to talk about in a group discussion.

There were a couple of minor items that did jump out at me: One was that the scripture passages which, while appropriate, were not in chronological order. While session one and session two did come from early in the Gospels, session 3 then jumps to the end of John and the High-Priestly Prayer to talk about community. If the over-arching framework is disciples on their journey being developed by Jesus something more in order might have been more powerful. The second is pretty minor and that is a mention by the person in session 5 in telling his story talking about leading someone to Christ and the Sinners Prayer. It is a quick passing reference and not in the spirit of “this is how its done” but in some Reformed circles that particular prayer is not highly regarded for various reasons. (e.g. Ligonier, TGC)

Finally a couple of nice touches I liked in the series. First, the series is bookended in forming disciples – at the beginning the call to become one and at the end the commission to go and make them. And second, the final session ends in prayer – a good conclusion and reminder of where, as disciples, we are grounded.

Bottom line – I liked the series and found it a good framework and model for such a resource. Clearly some significant thought and testing has gone into designing it and producing it. Yes, it is produced with a particular cultural setting in mind but I think the value of this outweigh’s the downside of portability. And you can’t argue with the cost and I have not figured out if the production budget is depending on volume of sales or subsidy, but I suspect the latter. However, I can say I enjoyed working through the series on my own and can say I was stretched a bit by it.

My thoughts for what they are worth. Your mileage may vary… (to use one of our cultural idioms 😉 )

Info Related To Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief From American Presbyterian Branches

As the catastrophe of Hurricane, now Tropical Storm, Harvey continues to develop, American Presbyterian branches are responding with aid and prayers. Here are links to the latest information I am aware as well as a brief summary from each branch that I have found has posted online:  [Update with MSM links and some church info 8/30/17; more MSM links and church updates 8/31/17]

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
In a pre-landfall update they named the leaders and members of Good Shepherd ARPC in Houston, Hope Presbyterian ARPC in Pearland, and Faith Fellowship in Cypruss TX for prayer. A post-landfall report yesterday gives an update and a link to donate through their Good Samaritan Relief fund.

Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
Nothing obvious on the web site but an email/Twitter bulletin when out before landfall seeking prayers and updates. After landfall they have retweeted to help with relief through World Renew. You can get updates from World Renew on Twitter from @WorldRenew_net.

Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Information on donations is in both an EP Connections article as well as on their Emergency Relief page.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church
They have posted a number of resources for prayer and contributions including the article on the main site, the OPC Disaster Response Facebook page, and the OPC Short-Term Mission and Disaster Response web site. They ask us to keep in prayer the leaders and members of Cornerstone OPC in Houston and Providence OPC in Kingwood, TX. For updates keep an eye on the Facebook page.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is deployed on scene and beginning their work. There is PC(USA) coverage in a couple of articles posted on that site – Aug 27, and Aug 28. The Presbyterian Outlook has just posted a detailed article about PDA’s work there and options for supporting the efforts. The PDA site also includes worship resources for churches including a bulletin insert about the recovery work. Updates from PDA can be seen on their Twitter feed @PDAcares. Update: New article from PC(USA) on the work by PDA

Presbyterian Church in America
The PCA’s Mission to North America (MNA) Disaster Response team is also deploying to the area. There is a page with Disaster Updates that also has information for Prayer, Giving, Sending Supplies, and Preparing to Go to serve. Updates can be found on the Twitter feed @pcamna. Update: New update added to the Disaster Updates page.

That is the information I have found at this point. Let me know if you have additional resources and I will update as appropriate.

Our prayers and support go out to all those affected by this disaster.

UPDATE: Adding some links from the mainstream media that involve Presbyterians. Plenty that mention Presbyterian disaster relief organizations in where to give lists, but beyond that, some others I have seen:

 

2017 National Youth Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland

As I write this the 2017 National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be getting underway in Stirling. This event is a bit different than the rest of the Assemblies on my list in that it is not the highest governing body of a Presbyterian denomination. However, I appreciate this event because it is Assembly-like in its process and provides a forum for young adults (ages 17-25) to gather and discuss contemporary issues and how they interact with society and their faith. Furthermore, their discussions and conclusions are presented to the Church of Scotland General Assembly the following May. (If you are interested in more detail, have a look at the National Youth Assembly report to the 2017 Assembly as well as their Joint Report with the Church of Scotland Guild related to inter-generational initiatives in the church.) In addition, other entities within the Kirk, like the Church of Scotland Guild (as indicted above) and the Go For It initiative work with the NYA and its leadership.

So this year’s Assembly convenes this evening, Friday 21 July and will adjourn mid-day on Monday 24 July. It will be meeting again this year at Gartmore House in Stirlingshire. The Kirk put out their story on it yesterday.

The discussion topics this year are Young People and Discipleship (which is tied in to Year of Young People 2018), Interfaith, and Priorities of the Church. The NYA Facebook page is one way to follow along with these discussions and has links to some videos related to the discussions. For Young People and Discipleship, there are some additional themes with video links, such as Participation and Leadership, Education, and Health and Well Being. There is also a video introducing the organization Interfaith Scotland related to the second discussion topic.

A belated congratulations to the incoming leadership of the NYA. They were introduced in a press release a couple months back and will begin their one-year term this evening. The incoming Moderator is Robin Downie of Lochcarron who is currently a hospitality employee – a barman to be specific – but plans to pursue a career in nursing. He has been active with church work including volunteering for six months at Blythswood Care and working at an orphanage and teaching English with the Roma community. The incoming clerk is Catriona Munro originally from Paisley but now calls Stirling home. She is active in many ways with her home church as well as with the NYA team over the last couple of years. And she has been presented with her sign of office.

Besides Facebook the best way to follow along is probably Twitter so keep an eye on the hashtag #nya2017. You should also be looking at the official NYA account (@cosy_nya) as well as the NYA Moderator Account (@nyamoderator).  The NYA will be covered by the curated account Church Scotland Voices (@churchscovoices) under the operation of Gigha Lennox for the weekend who can also be found on her personal account, @Little_isle23. The incoming officers can be followed on their personal accounts as well with Robin at @robin_downie and Catriona at @atrionacmunro. We will have an appearance of the Church of Scotland Moderator, Rt. Rev. Dr. Derek Browning, who tweets at the official account (@churchmoderator). Might see something on the Moderator’s official Facebook page as well. Other groups include the Go For It initiative who will probably be there (@GoForItcofs) and the Kirk Guild (@cofsguild). There are some foreign and ecumenical delegates to the NYA so maybe the representatives from the United Reformed Church’s Youth Assembly in January (@URC_youth) will be there again. I will also include the official Kirk account @churchscotland. Finally, keep an eye on the outoing clerk Lyndasy Kennedy (@GhettoSmurf90) and the soon-to-be former Moderator Andrew MacPherson’s personal account (@StAndrewMac).

And so, with that, we begin another exciting weekend with NYA 2017. Best wishes to the new Moderator and Clerk and to all those in attendance. Our prayers are with you. It will probably take a bit for some of their deliberations, decisions and recommendations to be processed and reported, but we look forward to hearing about those when they are ready. Have a wonderful weekend of fellowship, discernment and spiritual renewal.

 

186th Synod Of The Reformed Presbyterian Church Of North America

We are on the eve of the opening of this Synod which has a particularly heavy schedule to pack into a three day meeting. But as we prepare for this meeting let me comment on the origins of this branch, with apologize to those for whom this is familiar territory. The U.S. is so full of “split-P’s” that it is worth reminding ourselves that the Reformed Presbyterians and Associate Presbyterians have their origin story in the Covenanters and Seceeders in Scotland and came across to the colonies as independent branches. And while they have their own convoluted history since then, it should be remembered that in their tradition they stand on their own apart from the mainstream/mainline of Presbyterian branches in both Scotland and America.

OK, on to what is happening this week.

The 186th Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America will convene bright and early tomorrow morning, June 28, at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, IN.

This is not a meeting with a livestream so we are out of luck there, but so far there is a bit of Twitter chatter so that will probably be our connection. In addition, there is so far no site I have seen with posted dockets, schedules or reports. I will update if that changes. The Constitution is available for download to see their confessional and polity standards.

There are three official places to look for information. First, they have an active Facebook page and I would expect that to have a nice variety of updates and pictures from the meeting. Second, their official media group, RP Witness Magazine, has a nice web site of news items where daily updates will be posted. There is also a Flickr channel, however that has not been updated in two years so we will have to see if there is any new activity this year.

Finally, there is Twitter. Still not sure if the hashtag for the meeting will be #rpcna or #RPSynod2017 and there is an official feed for the RP Witness Magazine (@RPWitnessMag). I would note that there is indeed an official Twitter account for the RPCNA (@RPCNA) but there have been no tweets. Looking at the early action it appears that Nathan Eshelman (@pastoreshelman) will be actively tweeting so might be worth a follow. [*I have added a note related to Nathan at the end.]  Finally, in the category of “there is one in every crowd,” you just might want to keep an eye on John Knox (@fakeRPCNA) and see if he weighs in on Synod. And I will update all this info as warranted when the meeting gets under way.

As I mentioned above, this looks to be a very busy meeting as discussed by the RP Witness in their Synod Preview article. The article begins:

Recent Synods have worked to make the business of Synod more efficient and effective, partly in the hope of requiring less time of delegates and making it feasible for more ruling elders to attend.

This is a year that will test the practicality of shorter Synods, as there is a mountain of work to handle in a three-day schedule, including some very important issues.

The article gives a list of several important items to be considered by the Synod in the allotted time. Here is that list and my attempt at a brief description about each of them:

  • Special Committee on Vocalized Prayer: Is the Directory for Public Worship prescriptive or descriptive when it speaks of elders leading prayers in worship?
  • Special Committee Addressing Ruling Elder Participation at Synod: As noted in the quote above, recommendations on how to get better participation of ruling elders in Synod. Interesting that the ARP also reflected on this issue.
  • Special Study Committee on Gender Identity: Presents the paper “Gender as Calling: The Gospel & Gender Identity” for adoption as a standard for the church.
  • Special Committee on the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ (interim report): An interesting and timely report in progress dealing with the difficult issue of whether in civil elections to only vote for those who live lives that truly follow Christ.
  • Judicial Review of Communication 2016-2: complaint by members of a session and presbytery regarding the beverage used in the communion cup: The presbytery requires the use of wine in communion, a decision that belongs to the session. The Review recommends to drop charges and that all parties seek unity. (And that is simplified way too much.)
  • Judicial Review of Communication 2016-4: appeal of a presbytery’s actions by a retired RP minister: The teaching elder submitted a paper to his presbytery regarding his favorable views on ordination of women to the eldership. The presbytery found them outside the standards and recommended removing his ordination. A Special Committee reviewed the proceedings and recommends that the presbytery be found to have acted with “undue haste.” Presbytery says views are clear and due process was followed so Committee’s primary recommendation should not approved. Teaching elder accepts primary recommendation with concerns. Alternate recommendations are provided.

This list does not include a Special Committee that looked at the Directory for Church Government section of the Constitution and is making the recommendation that all sections related to establishing churches be consolidated into a single, new chapter.

A few other items of business caught my interest. The report of the Board of Trustees of the Synod which brought to the attention of the Synod issues in at least one state with the church’s Trust Clause and that it would not always stand up to neutral principles of property law. The Trustees will be looking at ways to make language in property documents more robust. A communication from a presbytery asks for a slight but notable rewording of the quorum requirements for meetings of a presbytery and the Synod to be very clear how many church must be represented and how many of the commissioners must be ruling elders. Another communication from a presbytery deals with a specific church which is unable to make its assessment payments to the Synod multiple years in a row and asking if there is a solution. They propose paying the presbytery assessment first and the Synod only if the church’s finances that year are good enough.

As I noted at the beginning, the quantity of the business before this assembly is high and the importance of many items is notable. So as the Synod begins our prayers are with the elders, ruling and teaching, who have gathered and we ask for the Spirit’s leading in their discernment of God’s will. We wait to see how they are led and the decisions they make.

 

*Off topic side note related to Nathan: He is one of a quartet of pastors that host a podcast called The Jerusalem Chamber that is walking through the WCF one section at a time. I have found it to be interesting listening for confessional Presbyterians.