being Presbyterian

There is something I need to get off my back.   One of the topics I realized recently that I haven’t dialogued about on the blog is where I find myself theologically – in short, what I believe about God.  People I am around are usually trending toward one of three vectors:

(1) Those for whom some abstracted religious exploration animates their everyday life and touches on some aspect or combination of themes drawn from fairly traditional religious traditions.  In this I am fortunate beyond belief to have such a wide range of friends and colleagues who represent just about every imaginable belief system under the sun: atheists, religious libertarians, agnostics, fundamentalists of every stripe, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, reformed and orthodox Jews, and one friend who calls herself a Zoroastrian but only because she didn’t know what else to put in the “religious views” section of her Facebook profile and thought it sounded cool.

(2) Another group of folks would be the majority of the people I swim around with day to day:  people who would call themselves Christians of one persuasion or another: cultural and devote Catholics, liturgically geeky Lutherans, heady Pentecostals, loads of Methodists of every stripe, herds of self-described non-Denominational folks and Evangelical types, and thoughtfully Biblio-centric Episcopalians who dig on KEXP.org, the Bible, and vestments that smell of incense.

(3)  The last group are a jumble sale of secularists of every stripe – those blissfully indifferent to spiritual things (“whatever floats your boat”) or product-centric consumers enraptured with the transcendence of buying things where the warehouse sales  and 1-click web purchases take the luminous place of grand cathedrals and daily devotions due for the pious or politicos whose sense of justice and human potential is best met in Ira Glass aphorisms, reading Harpers in indie cafes, and populating FB status updates with stump quotes linked to key broadsheet periodicals.

No one is a purist in this life and all who find home in Western culture is tainted (for better or worse) by all three vectors – religious seeking writ wide and abstract, the blessing and curse of Christianity’s dominance in culture, and secularism found in government, consumerism and indifference ebbs and flows through most everyone life.

I too am a composite located in the midst of these vectors – a theological geocache of sorts – and yet still frame much of my heritage around my work as a theologian and, more specifically, a Presbyterian.  This Scottish tradition of the Reformation holds a particular view on Christianity and culture at large.

Much of why I am a member of the PC (USA) is summed up in the following three areas of theological focus – the three ‘C’s of Presbyterianism:

I. Christ centered – meaning making finds its center in the Christ event

Presbyterians have a theology that places all of life in the hands of God.  While this is in no way distinctive in the religious marketplace, the notion and vital position of God’s sovereignty is the cornerstone of Reformed Theology after John Calvin and a key orienting concern for my tradition.  The geocache of this is the movement of God’s reconciling presence within humanity through the incarnate life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that God is intimately involved in the details of daily human life as seen in the incarnate Christ (Emmanuel = God with us) and continuing the in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We recognize how easy it is for people to place idols of all kinds in the place of God (Calvin called human beings “idol making factories”), to worship many things before the worship of God. As a result of this assertion, Presbyterians hold that humanity has a predilection to sinful behavior – a desire to be isolated and removed from God (Sinatra’s “I’m going to do it my way” is the modern version of John Milton’s notion of Satan’s fall from grace framed in the exclamation “it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”). However, the truth of this is not the entirety of our lot in this life:  at the same time humanity strives toward isolation Presbyterians assert that we also hold that humanity is loved and forgiven by God in ways that are inexplicable, undeserved and utterly surprising. God’s grace  is the cause of our daily renewal and therefore we – all of humanity – is invited to live in the fullness of hope and mercy regardless of our desire to be in isolation.  All we have to do is accept the invitation to love – to be loved and to return this love with an intimacy that is found between where a vine grows and binds itself to a branch. In all of this, as the reformer Martin Luther described himself, Presbyterians hold that we are “justus et peccator”, “made righteous and yet a sinner.”

Presbyterians ground much of our thinking in this regard in our structure of governance – that if how we choose to worship, to gather in community, to support one another, to love the world and sacrifice for the sake of others.  Where some Christian sub-traditions are named and therefore framed around a personality (John Wesley for Wesleyans, Martin Luther for Lutherans) – Presbyterians are akin to Episcopalians and Catholics by framing the tradition around its governance structure.  One document that holds us accountable to is the Book of Order which articulates these key theological values: God alone is the Lord of the conscience. That is, people, being prone to error, are going to be wrong a good portion of the time. Conscience cannot be coerced by any human agency, but only persuaded by God. All power in a Christian body, we believe, is persuasive.

Another way that Presbyterians keep this Christ centeredness core is through worship that is renewed yet traditional – we worship together using new music and old music, new prayers and old prayers, new ways and old ways, using the freedom given to us by our Book of Order.  Preaching and teaching is a big deal and for some Presbyterians get a bit heady in their worship services.  Education has always been a high value from the Scottish reformation (Scotland has four universities founded in the later medieval period while England had only two) and as such this is a tradition that places a high value on preaching that stimulates our minds and moves our hearts, instructs as well as inspires.

Presbyterians are a ‘big tent’ tradition in that we hold (as our system gives us the freedom to hold) a variety of views on scriptural authority and theology, yet we are one community, united around the grace and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  One of the things I greatly appreciate is how diverse our tradition is… even when it is difficult to be in the same room together.  Yet isn’t that how family is?

II. Creedal

Presbyterians govern themselves by a constitution, based on our Reformed theology that gives  us direction and insight for doing things “decently and in order.” This constitution contains the historic and ecumenical confessions of faith of the church from the earliest days of Christianity (The Book of Confessions) including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds which join us to the Church universal.  This creedal affirmation is not to replace Scripture nor denounce our personal and corporate experiences of God, but likened to a lens, it gives us clarity in reading the fullness of our lives and only helps to frame the Scriptures and traditions of the Church better.  This also is to help frame the rules for the day to day business of being the church outlined in the The Book of Order which I mentioned previously.

III. Connectional

Lastly, Presbyterians do not try to be the church all on our own in their local gatherings, but are connected together in a web of relationships that extends accountability to the larger church. Likened to concentric rings emanating outward from a rock hitting the water that once they hit the shore return in waves back toward the center, our sense of community in local churches reaches out to the larger family of believers and the larger collective is always viewing its business in light of the local congregation.  A collection of churches in a region are joined together as a Presbytery. Each congregation in the region sends its pastors and elects Elders to represent it at Presbytery meetings which occur every other month on average. As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament I serve as part of Seattle Presbytery and also participate in the life of my church – North Creek Presbyterian. A collection of Presbyteries in a region are joined together as a Synod. Each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it at Synod assemblies and there is a nationwide General Assembly to which each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it (the General Assembly – or GA – is occurring in July 2010).   Rather than a system of endless committees and administrative nightmare (which some people see our church tradition as being… and at times guilty of!) this is a system that provides the means of accountability at all levels. There is always in place an approved method of dealing with disputes, complaints, unhappiness and inappropriate behavior by officers and/or members.

One of the things I celebrate most about the PC(USA) is that we have a form of government that encourages us to be the “Priesthood of all Believers.” We are a representative democracy, electing our leaders in administration, spirituality, and service on a regular basis. In fact, the form of government of the United States of America is based so heavily on the Presbyterian form of government that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the King of England was known to have called it the “Presbyterian rebellion.”

We are one of the few denominations that ordain lay people, thus placing our clergy and our laity on an absolutely equal footing. We ordain people to the office of Elder (or Presbyter, from the Greek) to be leaders in spirituality and administration. We ordain people to the office of Deacon to be leaders in service. We ordain people to the office of Pastor to be preachers, teachers, and administrators of the sacraments. We are a denomination that has ordained artists, writers and musicians to their respective callings for the service of God’s people. All our ordinations are equal and all are for life.  The fact that I serve a denomination that sees the manifold ministries of the Gospel broadly expressed and corporately supported in such incarnations as children’s television (Fred Rogers of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was a PC(USA) minister) to novelists (Frederick Buechner) brings me joy.

What about you?

Where do you trend on these three vectors I described in the beginning?

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