Category Archives: Personal Note

Another Comic Strip Mentioning Presbyterians

Well, Bruce Tinsley and his Mallard Fillmore comic strip are at it again with the reference to Presbyterians.  You may remember his previous reference a little over a year ago where he referred to “radical Presbyterians.”  Rev. Ed has preserved that comic and he and I riffed on it a bit.

The comic strip from today and the reference to “rogue Presbyterians” is not so amenable to the discussion of Presbyterian polity so I only note it for the reference.  (Then again, maybe it does fit the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria post I just finished — I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if one side or the other is “rogue.”) In fact, it appears that the use of Presbyterian is simply to make the rhyme work in the limerick.

But I will also note the… what shall I call it?  coincidence, irony, providence?… of being at work over my lunch hour on my previous post about Nigeria and Presbyterians only to have a phone call from my family alerting me to the fact that the comic strip had also made reference to both of those.  Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.


Q. What is the difference between in-laws and outlaws?

A. Outlaws are wanted.

Now, for the record I married into a great family and have always felt included.  But part of the deal with marriage is all the rest of the family, and just as importantly all of the Traditions, are part of the package as well.  I may be included but not always comfortable and at times I have to work at it to participate in the Traditions and customs that are part of the culture of my wife’s family, and probably never more so than at Christmas.  (And again, for the record, my wife has to handle the strange and different Traditions on my side.)

In the movie Fiddler on the Roof the main character Tevya introduces the song “Tradition! ” with the line “And how do we keep our balance?  That I can tell you in one word: tradition.”  And the rest of the movie deals with how Tevya, the family and the village copes with changes in tradition.

The traditions are important in families – It is not simply “this is how we do it,” but in doing it that way the consistency and shared experience of past celebrations provide the familiarity that many people cherish about holidays. 

On the one hand, whether it be our family celebrations, our circle of friends, or our faith communities, we have to first acknowledge that tradition helps us, like Tevya says, to keep our balance.  It provides a foundation and comfort zone to those who are familiar with the tradition.  On the other hand, just like a spouse integrating into a new family, we also need to acknowledge that to those entering the group often these traditions can be confusing or uncomfortable at best, and possibly come across as legalism and perceived exclusion at worst.  What is a balancing or stabilizing effect for some is a barrier or deterrent for others.

The challenge of course is that there is no simple solution to this tension.  Each community, be it family or congregation, must figure out the balance and give-and-take for itself.  How much does it value and find rootedness in the tradition and how things are supposed to be done.  And how much does the community want to make newcomers feel welcome, comfortable, and integrate easily.  Tradition is important for many reasons – but what traditions define the community and what limit it?  How can we step back and determine what is important and what is not?

So I wish you a wonderful Christmas Day and the blessings of this season.  And may you find comfort in your traditions while providing a welcome to those who are being brought into it.

One Day Of Giving Thanks?

I don’t do Thanksgiving well.

Don’t get me wrong.  On this day the American society sets aside to give thanks I can “do up” the day.  I spent much of it joyfully cooking up the feast for my family.  It is a day I can relax and do something I enjoy that I don’t normally have time to do.  (And Saturday I will defend my Dutch Oven cobbler championship, but that’s another story.)

But in the grand scheme of things I think I have problems with the complexity of the day.  I know it’s not supposed to be complex, its supposed to be simple – a day set aside to give thanks to God for His grace, mercy, provision and blessings. But every year it seems that some new layer of complexity is added to the day – usually in the form of something that has to do with the next season starting earlier and earlier.

So, among the complexities that I personally struggle with are:

  • Thanksgiving has become one of the high-holy days of American culture. (The good part here is that while commercialization for the next holiday season encroaches on, or even infringes on, the day, Thanksgiving has still mostly escaped commercial influences.)
  • By virtue of being part of our cultural narrative the holiday has been shaped by the culture.  With schools avoiding religion who do students think the Pilgrims were thankful to?  Only the indigenous people – the context of divine provision has been eliminated.
  • While one particular narrative is the one American culture celebrates today, my time living in New Mexico raised my awareness of other narratives, including earlier events.
  • Modern American culture has standardized on the one narrative, but earlier in American history a day of thanksgiving could be declared by civil governments at various times in response to some important event, including military victories.  (And likewise, days of prayer and fasting were declared in times of need.) While there was the tradition of Thanksgiving in the fall as a harvest festival, there was still a sense of cause and effect, or call and response rather than a date that could be placed on the calendar a decade in advance. (That is of course still acknowledging the Biblical parallel Feast of Sukkot which was part harvest festival which was also tied to a specific day on the calendar, Tishri 15.)
  • And finally, I probably dread and fear the sharp transition from a day of giving thanks to the mass celebration of materialism that the day following Thanksgiving has become.

So, since I don’t do Thanksgiving well I want to give you stories from two people who do.  These are both about thanksgiving when that seems like the last thing a person would be inclined to do.

The first is from pastor Mark D. Roberts who has a couple of very good Thanksgiving reflections on his blog.  But I want to highlight the story of pastor Martin Rinkart.  Rinkart ministered in Germany during the very difficult and devastating period of the Thirty Years War, but also wrote the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” a hymn that is now almost exclusively associated with Thanksgiving in our worship.

The second one if from elder Jody Harrington and her wonderful blog Quotidian Grace .  (And I take the time to plug hers since she has the job at Presbyterians Today of plugging everyone else’s blogs and should get some recognition as a blogger in her own right.)  As a nice antidote to Black Friday she has a post today about Bless Friday, but I wanted to highlight her previous post about “Thankfulness with a Heavy Heart.”

So I hope all my American readers had a good day of giving thanks and to all of you, wherever you may be, may we remember daily to whom we owe the greatest thanks.

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[Eph 5:18b-20]

The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
[Job 1:21]

How Bright These Glorious Spirits Shine! — Reflection On All Saints Day

How bright these glorious spirits shine!
Whence all their bright array?
How came they to the blissful seats
of everlasting day?
Lo! these are they, from sufferings great
who came to realms of light,
and in the blood of Christ have washed
those robes which shine so bright.

Once again I observe the Commemoration of All Saints.  In my reflections last year it struck me that the year was an “easy” one, if there is such a thing when remembering those that have gone to join the Church Triumphant.  That was not the case this year as there were more friends than past years that went on to their heavenly reward, and more close friends than any previous year. 

Now, with triumphal palms they stand
before the throne on high,
and serve the God they love, amidst
the glories of the sky.
His presence fills each heart with joy,
tunes every mouth to sing:
by day, by night, the sacred courts
with glad hosannas ring.

So this year I remember the following saints who left their mark upon my life and for whom I give thanks that I could share the spiritual journey with them.

  • Jim – A gentleman, in the true sense of the word, who well into his 90’s was in worship on the Lord’s Day almost every week and who had a smile on his face that reflected Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the House of the LORD'” He loved to be with the community in worship and it showed.
  • Melissa – A childhood friend. I did not know the quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the time, but in retrospect I recognize that she was the first of my peers to reflect what he writes in Life Together: “Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him… The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother(/sister); his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s(/sister’s) is sure.”
  • Sally – Who struggled with trials for several years but kept the joy of the LORD in her life.
  • Randy – A faithful servant of God who worked hard to spread the Kingdom.
  • Irwin – Another faithful servant, elder and leader who showed many of us the great wisdom in a simple word well and timely spoken.
  • Scott – A friend who loved music, and loved to play music to God’s glory.
  • Myrna – A people person who loved those in her care deeply and was deeply loved by them.  She left a very big hole in many lives.
  • Lillian – One of the quiet, faithful members who doesn’t attract attention but when they are gone their absence is felt.
  • Fred and Leonard – Two gentleman who were both members of “the Greatest Generation” and who both spent an incredible amount of time working with young people.  Although they lived a continent apart they both had the same big hearts, unselfish giving of their time, were an inspiration to many that they worked with, and passed away with a week of each other.

I add to that list a friend of many of us, the Rev. Howard Rice.  I had the great pleasure of getting to know Howard when he joined our presbytery, saw him regularly and in getting to know him had several stimulating discussion with him. We agreed on many points of Reformed theology and worship and we disagreed on a bunch as well.  But I will always treasure Howard’s smile and the deep respect he showed for every individual.

Finally, in an unusual step for me I would also add someone I did not know personally, I only met him once, but even at a distance his life radiated so much of the gospel.  When UCLA basketball coach John Wooden died a bit short of his 100th birthday we lost not just a great philosopher but a great role model, especially when it came to his marriage to Nellie and how he worked at it.  While much of his life was inspirational, the effort he put into his marriage impresses me the most.

So a word of thanks to all these saints who in big ways and little, for a short time or an extended period, whether known or unknown to them, have touched my life and shaped my faith and life in positive ways.  As you have gone on to your heavenly reward this past year we are the poorer for your absence.  Thank you and I look forward to the great reunion before the Throne someday.

Hunger and thirst are felt no more,
nor suns with scorching ray;
God is their sun, whose cheering beams
diffuse eternal day.
The Lamb who dwells amidst the throne
shall o’er them still preside,
feed them with nourishment divine,
and all their footsteps guide.

‘Mong pastures green he’ll lead his flock,
where living streams appear;
and God the Lord from every eye
shall wipe off every tear.

How Bright These Glorious Spirits Shine!
Words by Isaac Watts, 1707
Versified from Scottish Paraphrases 1781
As used at the Church of Scotland 2010 General Assembly Closing Worship

Reflections On My Summer Stroll

Have you gazed on naked grandeur
   where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven,
    which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
    with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
    Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

[from Call of the Wild, by Robert W. Service, 1916]

I don’t know if the picture above does anything for you — maybe the picture is too small, maybe you have to be there, or maybe alpine scenery doesn’t stir your soul — but I will tell you that this landscape deeply moved me last week on my summer vacation.  It was my favorite vista of a great trip that included so many wonderful landscapes.

My time away was a week-long backpacking trip from near June Lake, California, going over 50 miles across the Sierra Nevada to Yosemite Valley, mostly on the John Muir Trail .  This picture was taken just after crossing Donohue Pass, which at 11,056 ft. was the highest elevation we attained on the hike.

While I am personally careful not to confuse the Creation with the Creator, I none-the-less am surprised whenever I do a trip like this how much the Creation stirs my soul.  And some of these quotes do a great job of putting into words those emotions, whether it be from Robert Service poems or a well known quote from John Muir:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

Something about these trips work deep inside me, give me an appreciation for the Creator, allow me time and space to think, and return me home with renewed energy.

This was a trip with family and friends and the camaraderie and companionship were as much a part of experience as the scenery and tired feet.

The emotional “high-point” of the trip was on the last day when we ascended Half Dome.  Here is my younger son and I on top with Yosemite Valley behind us.

One of the constant balancing acts of the trip was the competing interests of taking in the vistas and keeping moving so we could get to our stopping point for the night and set up camp.  The picture at the bottom of this post is a small part of my second-favorite vista of the trip.  We had just crested a ridge and now had an unobstructed view of all of Little Yosemite Valley and the south side of Half Dome.  I was asked “Ready to go?” to which I responded “No! I could easily spend another hour looking at this.  But I guess we better get going and get to the camp site.”

Whether it be our own spiritual journey or our Presbyterian way of doing things, in those areas we also hold in tension the reaching of a goal and the value of the journey along the way.  The end result is important, but how we get there can be valuable and rewarding as well.

(And I do realize that while on this trip both the journey and the destination were positive parts, there are times in both daily life and ecclesiastical government when the journey is not as enjoyable and edifying and there is an urge to get through it and reach the goal.)

Looking ahead, on the trip I did a bit of reading and a lot of thinking, but this year the reading and thinking raised far more questions than they answered so I’m not sure when, or even if, any of it will find its way into this blog.  Time will tell.

However, in whatever way works for you and at whatever time your schedule permits may you too find rest, refreshment and renewal in whatever ways God works through the Holy Spirit to provide it in your life.  May God’s blessings be upon you and those close to you.

Let us probe the silent places,
   let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
    there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling. . .let us go.

[Call of the Wild]

A Little Levity — Humor Delivered Via Twitter

In celebration of my transition point in the Summer from part-time teaching back to my regular gig, and because I can use it, I thought I would share with you a few of my favorite places to have Twitter bring you some humor.  To the twitter-intelligentsia out there these are probably already familiar to you, but maybe someone out there will find these new and entertaining.

The first is simply an acknowledgement of some very sharp and refined Presbyterian humor from PCAPresbyter during GA season.  While he does have amusing tweets during the off-season, how can you match such great lines as he had during the PCA GA.

The PCA has a strong theology of penal substitutionary amendments.

GA: God’s plan for cultivating perseverance in Presbyterians.

OK, so maybe only the other polity wonks are ROTFL with stuff like that but I always enjoy when we can take a moment to step back and not take ourselves too seriously.  Well done PCAPresbyter!

Now, for religious humor that is not quite as refined, but that can also be a very funny insight into our foibles and idiosyncracies, I would point to the well know religious humor outlet XIANITY.  While this source puts out several satirical posts a day, a few of my favorites aimed at the Reformed folks include:

ROME: Reformer gored during the Running of the Papal Bulls.

MIRACLES: Report of entire Presbyterian congregation being raised from dead turns out to be everyone standing to sing hymn #78

FOOD: Calvinists pressure General Mills to change name of popular cereal to Providential Charms®

And of a more general theme:

CHURCH: Shabbat riot ensues as Messianic Jew replaces shofar with vuvuzela. #worldcup

LOCAL: Sunday service delayed after Pastor loses keys to “Church of the Open Door”

BREAKING NEWS: Bizarre kindergartner responds with something other than “Jesus” to Sunday School teacher’s questions.

Moving on to the refined, but secular, the writers and journalists out there probably already know about FakeAPStylebook, a twitter feed that satirizes that bastion of journalistic and literary advice, the venerable AP Stylebook.  Recent gems include:

there/their/they’re – What,seriously? This confuses you?

Sprinkle the word “quantum” throughout science articles, particularly if you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Never say anything about a colleague in a private e-mail that you wouldn’t put in print, since it’s going to end up there anyway.

Real estate listings should not describe a building as a “murder house.” Be specific: ax murder house, chainsaw murder house.

And finally, moving from twitter accounts to hashtags and the satirical to the ridiculous, in a play on the Wikileaks drama, there is now a Star Wars send-up called #wookieleaks:

DiscordianStooj: Empire covering up evidence that bombing of asteroids damages the habitat of endangered space slugs. #wookieleaks

FireLifeSafety #Wookieleaks Investigators claim sprinkler systems would have prevented Death Star explosions.

peterhau RT @KendalCole: Skywalker rumored to have spoiled Christmas for Vader, “I felt his presents.” #wookieleaks <- now that’s a good twitter joke!

Some Twitter humor that I follow that I pass along for your reading enjoyment.  Your mileage may vary.

So, having gotten that little bit of ardor out of my system we return to our regularly scheduled order here on this blog. Have fun!

A Little Fun With The General Assembly

While the whole idea of using “fun” and “General Assembly” in the same sentence is probably foreign to many Presbyterians, we have a whole genre of humor that revolves around the gatherings of our governing bodies and poking fun at our fascination with parliamentary procedure.

As evidence of that the representative of a group of Presbyterians who are not afraid to have some fun at the expense of our polity recently sent me a drinking game they came up with during one of the Assembly meetings this Spring.  With their permission I will share that in a minute, but it got me thinking about this.  Considering that a game of this nature would probably not work in the observer galleries of our Assemblies and that the near-by hotel lounges are not likely to live stream the meeting I have borrowed from their idea with the inspiration of a cartoon which has become a classic in academic circles.  Just in time for the resumption of plenary sessions at the PC(USA) Assembly, I bring you

General Assembly Bingo

So here is a bingo card for you to play along with your favorite meeting of the highest governing body of a Presbyterian branch.  I have tried to make it as generic as possible so it can be used at all the different meetings.

(I have also made a downloadable PDF copy.)

So let me know of other things that might be included or if any of these are too rare an occurrence to be worthy of the bingo card.

Now, as I said at the onset, this was inspired by a drinking game that others proposed.  These drinking games are their own genre as well — for example there is a Star Trek game.

But for General Assemblies, here are their suggested rules:

  • Point of Order — 1 drink
  • Moderator takes a drink — 1 drink
  • Moderator reminds someone to identify themselves at the microphone — 1 drink
  • Moderator makes a joke — 1 drink
  • One of the “polity police” rises to speak — 1 shot of stronger stuff
  • Call for Division — stand on one foot and drink
  • A substitute motion is offered — switch to a different drink
  • Substitute motion is defeated — switch back
  • Somebody from the back complains that they can’t hear or haven’t gotten the distributions yet — buy a round for everyone else
  • Reminder of being inside the voting area — trade drinks with your neighbor
  • Move to recess — bathroom break

Of course, this is presented for entertainment purposes only and I must emphasize the responsible consumption of whatever beverage.  As for me, after a enough drinks of coffee and a couple shots of espresso I’ll probably have a hard time standing on one foot to down the next cup of java during a division of the house.  However, the switch to decaf during the substitute motion will help.  🙂

But however you do it enjoy a bit of irreverence and ardor with your order.  Force yourself to not take the parliamentary procedure too seriously.

We now return to our regular being decent and in order.

Presbyterian Government And American Government — The Same Only Different

It is common among American Presbyterians, when trying to explain our system of Presbyterian Government, to appeal to the structure of our Federal government to help explain how we do things.  This is for good reason because the two governmental systems have strong similarities in their elected representative forms, the presence of checks and balances, and the appearance of different branches of government.  The parallels are not coincidental — while it is often said that the U.S. Government was patterned on the Presbyterian system, several authorities I have consulted prefer to say that the two systems developed at the same time in the same cultural and philosophical climate.

It can not be denied that there is a strong tie between the two.  James Madison was one of the most influential members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, possibly the individual having the greatest single influence on the government structure in the Constitution.  He was also a graduate of the Presbyterian College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and following his graduation in 1771 he remained there for another year or two as he studied with the college president, the Rev. John Witherspoon, who had recently arrived from Scotland to serve as the college’s sixth president.  While Madison himself seems to have affiliated with the Episcopal Church, his education clearly included heavy influence by Presbyterians.  (For reference regarding timing, the Presbyterians instituted multiple synods and brought them together in the first General Assembly in 1789 in Philadelphia.)

However, while I have used the analogy between the Presbyterian and American systems of government in the past I have moved away from that because the differences between them are just as important to our polity as the similarities.

One of the big differences is that Presbyterianism is a different sort of representative government.  When a teaching or ruling elder participates in the deliberations of a governing body they may be there as the representatives of the members that elected them to that position, but they are not there to represent the views of those people.  The Presbyterian church is not a democracy or a republic, it is a theocracy.  The very first thing the PC(USA) Book of Order says is:

All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body. [G-1.0100a]

And lest you think they are alone the PCA Book of Church Order begins in a very similar way.  Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church and those in governing bodies are there to seek God’s will and do it, not to follow the opinion of the people.  I would first note that this Book of Order section is a constant reminder to me of what the purpose of church government is and this probably explains why I really don’t like that the new revised PC(USA) Form of Government has moved this away from the opening lines of the Foundations section.  My second note here is to clarify that I am not saying that the opinions and views of those we represent are not important — they are very important.  But they need to be considered as part of the discernment process and possibly held in tension with the leading of the Holy Spirit.  As the Book of Order says “Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ.” [G-4.0301d]

Maybe the most serious error frequently made in trying to explain Presbyterian government is to describe it as having three branches like the Federal system.  It is tempting to equate the full Assembly as a legislative branch, the judicial commission as the judicial branch, and an executive as the executive branch.  The truth is that a Presbyterian governing body has only one branch and that is the body itself.  We have single bodies which are mostly legislative, or deliberative, and the executive or judicial functions exist not to be branches in their own right but as parts of the governing body to assist the body in carrying out its mission.  Not to put too fine a point on this, but remember that judicial commissions are just that – commissions.  They are empowered or commissioned to act on behalf of the governing body with the full authority of the governing body, within the limits specificed by the governing body.  A commission is an extension of the body to do a particular job, not a separate body.

And this brings me to a third difference, the system of checks and balances.  In the Federal system the primary system of checks and balances is between the three coequal branches of the U.S. government.  Another system of checks and balances exists between the Federal government and the state governments but how strong a system of checks that should be is a matter of discussion by constitutional scholars.  In the connectional Presbyterian system the checks and balances are in “governing bodies (traditionally called judicatories or courts) in regular gradation.” [G-4.0301c]  Our governing bodies are not independent but each sends representatives to the higher one and each higher one has the responsibility of review on the lower ones.  Governing bodies are not independent and autonomous but have come together to be the Body of Christ together in this time and place.

And so, on this 234th anniversary of the Rev. Witherspoon and his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress affixing their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, with a Presbyterian General Assembly underway, we acknowledge the deep connections in history and philosophy the two systems of government share. But we also recognize that these two governments have two different purposes and serve two different ends and so there are also structural and philosophical differences between the two reflecting how their purposes diverge.

So where every American Presbyterians find themselves today, be it in Minneapolis or somewhere else, have a very good Fourth of July.

It Is Never Easy, And Sometimes Ugly

This has not been an easy Spring for me as several close friends have joined the Church Triumphant.  As I put together my annual reflection on The Saints last year it seemed that the list was shorter than usual.  This year’s list has already exceeded last year’s and many of these saints are, as I said, close friends.  The reality of death was part of my reflection when I preached the Easter Sunrise Service at my church.  (Yes, I refused to start with the resurrection because you need to know the bad news before you can understand the Good News.  If you are really interested the church might post the audio of the sermon shortly.)

Many of you are aware that the founder and original Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, joined the Church Triumphant on April 5.  This week his wife, Denise Day Spencer, posted a wonderful yet difficult reflection on Michael’s journey and final days.  It is a very tough read but very worthwhile — I highly recommend it.  Thank you Denise for sharing that.

You have to read the whole thing but I want to quote one of the final paragraphs:

In those first days and weeks after Michael left me, all I seemed to be able to recall of him was his grueling illness and his grim death.Little by little, memories of his life are returning. I want to remember him vibrantly alive, teaching and preaching and writing and podcasting.Talking and laughing and eating and studying. But whenever my thoughts turn to the starkness of his passing, I will remember: We may be born to die, but we were created to live.

Too often I also remember friends and family as I last knew them and not as the vibrant individuals they were earlier.  And I have found this particularly a problem for those that have been ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease.  Many have done amazing things and lived very full lives.  As the Archbishop responds to his assistant’s concern in Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – “I will not die of a cold, I will die of having lived.” 

So for those in my life who’s final days were not vibrant and lively but ugly and difficult, I pray that I too may remember you at your best.

How bright these glorious spirits shine!
Whence all their bright array?
How came they to the blissful seats
of everlasting day?
Lo! these are they, from sufferings great
who came to realms of light,
and in the blood of Christ have washed
those robes which shine so bright.
[from Scottish Paraphrases, 1781, source]

Update: After posting and reflecting on this I think my awareness was heightened by the latest installment in a series on NPR and the current storyline in a daily comic strip.

Following The FIFA World Cup – Or – As A G.A. Junkie What I Like About Association Football

For me it is a very unfortunate coincidence that the FIFA World Cup falls at the peak of General Assembly Season.  I must confess that my GA tracking has gotten a bit distracted by following the beautiful game.  Sometime I will blog about how being a soccer referee has informed my theology and how I turned that into a children’s sermon – but that is not today.  Right now I wanted to give a few more general thoughts about the game and, hold on, Presbyterian polity.

To give a brief background I grew up in a city known for its support of soccer with an NALS team and now a team in the “revived” NASL.  As a youth we played pick-up games, a couple of which resulted in injuries requiring significant medical treatment to friends of mine.  While I only played organized soccer one year on a Jr. High team I have followed local teams, college and professional, where I have lived.  I am a trained soccer coach and referee.  It is the latter that connects with my passion for Presbyterian polity.

The first point I want to touch on is the origin of the “organized” game.  While the exact origins of the game are debated, and many cultures seem to have similar style games, the rules that the present game derives from come from a series of rules developed between British public schools who played similar style games but each with their own specific differences.  (See where I’m going with this about different Presbyterian branches?)  The rules of what we now recognize as Association Football and the predecessor to the modern Laws of the Game were agreed upon in 1863 with the formation of the Football Association.  Some of the schools’ versions of the games involved the use of the hands and an alternate game, based on the game played at Rugby School , was codified in 1870 as rugby football. (Note the not-so-subtle inclusion of the rugby goal in the banner picture on the Rugby School web site.)  So bottom line for polity: rules were agreed by collections of individuals representing the different schools and where different rules were favored different branches of the sport developed.

Association Football is sometimes referred to as The Simplest Game because the objective and core rules are easy to explain.  As one colleague of mine puts it, you could give the whistle to someone who has never seen the game before and tell them to blow it when they see something wrong and they would get 90% of the fouls and restarts. (But they would not know what to do after they blow the whistle.)  There are 17 Laws of the Game which take 47 pages to explain in the official, nicely illustrated, rulebook .  And yes, there are also pages and pages of interpretation and other stuff that go with it.  But, it takes Major League Baseball 12 pages just to explain the Objective of the Game and the equipment.  Or, compare the rules for a soccer kickoff versus an NFL kickoff:

Soccer Football

A kick-off is a way of starting or restarting play:
    • at the start of the match
    • after a goal has been scored
    • at the start of the second half of the match
    • at the start of each period of extra time, where applicable
A goal may be scored directly from the kick-off.

   • all players are in their own half of the field
    • the opponents of the team taking the kick-off are at least 9.15 m (10 yds) from the ball until it is in play
   • the ball is stationary on the centre mark
   • the referee gives a signal
    • the ball is in play when it is kicked and moves forward
   • the kicker does not touch the ball a second time until it has touched another player
After a team scores a goal, the kick-off is taken by the other team.

If the kicker touches the ball a second time before it has touched another player:
   • an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team to be taken from the place where the infringement occurred * (see page 3)
For any other infringement of the kick-off procedure:
   • the kick-off is retaken


  1. In addition to a kickoff, the other free kick is a kick after a safety (safety kick). A punt may be used (a punt may not be used on a kickoff).
  2. On a safety kick, the team scored upon puts ball in play by a punt, dropkick, or placekick without tee. No score can be made on a free kick following a safety, even if a series of penalties places team in position. (A field goal can be scored only on a play from scrimmage or a free kick after a fair catch.)
  3. A kickoff may not score a field goal.
  4. A kickoff is illegal unless it travels 10 yards OR is touched by the receiving team. Once the ball is touched by the receiving team or has gone 10 yards, it is a free ball. Receivers may recover and advance. Kicking team may recover but NOT advance UNLESS receiver had possession and lost the ball.
  5. When a kickoff goes out of bounds between the goal lines without being touched by the receiving team, the ball belongs to the receivers 30 yards from the spot of the kick or at the out-of-bounds spot unless the ball went out-of-bounds the first time an onside kick was attempted. In this case, the kicking team is penalized five yards and the ball must be kicked again.
  6. When a kickoff goes out of bounds between the goal lines and is touched last by receiving team, it is receiver’s ball at out-of-bounds spot.
  7. If the kicking team either illegally kicks off out of bounds or is guilty of a short free kick on two or more consecutive onside kicks, receivers may take possession of the ball at the dead ball spot, out-of-bounds spot, or spot of illegal touch.

As a soccer referee I find the soccer rules simpler and shorter than other sports’ rulebooks.  And taking this one step further, you could almost consider the FIFA Laws of the Game as a confessional standard since that basic rulebook is applicable from the Jr. High games I referee to the World Cup.  An amazing continuity throughout the game as the Westminster Standards provide a document many Presbyterian branches look to.

The other thing about the soccer rules is their flexibility, intended like the new revised Form of Government for the PC(USA).  While certain things are hard and fast, like the procedure above for the kick off, other things are left up to the particular situation.  For example, in the Laws of the Game there is no specified size of field, only a range: 90-120 meters long and 45-90 meters wide.  The only requirement is that the field must be longer than wide.  Yes, for international matches there is a smaller range, at the larger end, and individual tournaments, like the World Cup, can specify exact field dimension.  Also, the referee is not to stop play for a foul if stopping the game would cause the fouled team to lose an advantage (unlike basketball which always stops for a foul which drives me crazy). And the famous (at least in the soccer world) Advice to Referees 5.5 says:

“The Laws of the Game are intended to provide that games should beplayed with as little interference as possible, and in this view it isthe duty of referees to penalize only deliberate breaches of the Law.Constant whistling for trifling and doubtful breaches produces badfeeling and loss of temper on the part of the players and spoils thepleasure of spectators.”

There is a degree on interpretation, like AI’s or PJC decisions, that a referee makes to strike a balance between flow and control of the game.  One would hope that our application polity would be similar.

Which brings me to my final point and that is to point out that in soccer a nil-nil draw is a perfectly acceptable outcome to a game.  A soccer game does not require a winner.  The exception is tournament situations where after the extra time (over time) we have the shootout which most soccer fans, players, coaches and referees consider a dreadful way to determine a winner — but nothing better has been worked out yet.  The reason that many find it dreadful gets back to the philosophy that the game does not require a winner.  It is among the lowest scoring of sports and the play for the 90 minutes as the players work to put the ball in the back of the net is just as important as actually putting the ball in the back of the net.  Like Presbyterian assemblies, the process is as important as the outcome.  How we discern the will of God together is important to our life together.

There is one more similarity between the two disciplines which is unfortunate.  The intent is that an Assembly is one team working together but with different members with different understandings that help inform the process.  It is unfortunate when an Assembly or Synod takes on the feel of a soccer match with two different teams on the pitch (field) each trying to push the ball over opposite goal lines.

I do not intend to argue an analogy between the two areas but only to point out a few of the parallels.  Something to ponder as I keep #ga219, #30ga and #pcaga on my Twitter feed while live streaming Brazil v. PRK over lunch.  Your milage may vary.  Play on!