Monday, July 21, 2014

2014 General Assembly Newsletter Reflection

Abound in Hope

From June 12-21, 2014, I was lucky and privileged to attend the 221st General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit, Michigan. My service there was as an observer (rather than a voting representative of our presbytery) and revolved around a couple different responsibilities, mostly as the Vice Moderator of the Young Adult Volunteer Alumni Leadership Council, and as the intern coordinator for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF). I had a busy week, full of stress, struggles, and joy. To begin to reflect on the experience, I have to take a step back, to the General Assembly two years ago, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I was also an observer at the 2012 GA, working as an intern for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, serving as a committee monitor and helping with various PPF activities. Over the course of the week, I became schooled in GA procedure and policy: how overtures start at the local congregation, move on to presbyteries, and then finally are passed along from presbytery to the General Assembly. I learned how these overtures are divided into different committees, each focusing on different ministries and aspects of the life of the national Presbyterian Church, and then finally presented before the plenary session of 600+ pastors and elders casting the final votes. It was an eye-opening experience that connected me to the work of our national church in ways I never imagined possible.

That General Assembly, in 2012 in Pittsburgh, was a big step in my relationship with the Presbyterian Church, both nationally and locally. As I lifelong child of the Presbyterian Church, the grandchild and great-grandchild and great-great-grandchild and great-great-great-grandchild of Presbyterian pastors, I am invested in the PCUSA in the same way we invest in many of our familial relationships. I am wrapped up in the PCUSA, both in our local congregation and nationally. As with many relationships, I have hopes for the church. Great hopes. I don't set low, easy standards for the things and people I love. So I set big, bold goals, because I love our local church, and I love our national church. I love it enough to work in it even when it disappoints me.

At the 2012 GA, I was exposed to the disappointment of working and hoping for something that did not come to fruition. As happens in many of our relationships, I felt that our national church had let me down, had let us, its members in its many congregations, down. In a moment to show her maturity, to step out in faith and do something bold and prophetic, I was disappointed. That happens sometimes in all of our relationships. Shortly thereafter, I wrote this poem/letter:

To my church,

whom I love.

I am angry.

I am angry that we prioritize politics

over our relationships with each other.

I am angry that members of our community

threaten to leave when their

demands aren't met

the temper tantrum of a petulant child.

I am frustrated.

I am frustrated that hours upon hours

years upon years of work

done by so many different people

can be so quickly dismissed by those

newly educated on the subject

by those scared of change

or spending a little money.

I am disappointed.

I am disappointed that we

as a church

missed a chance to speak

the prophetic voice in our world

we could have no longer been a thermometer reflecting society

but the thermostat dictating change

I am disappointed that in efforts

to appease the loudest

we have allowed the silent to stay ignored.

I am sad. I am sad for our divisions.

I grieve for schisms rendered

and relationships broken.

I am sad we remain stuck

in neutral

able to go neither forward nor back.

But I have hope.

I have hope for the conversations I have seen

the dissimilar theologies and worldviews

committing to developing relationships

mending rifts

I have hope for the young voices I heard

voices that demand our ears

and our respect

not simply because they are young

but because they hold the 



and commitment to reconciliation

that will guide this church forward.

And I have faith.

Even at my lowest points

when I doubted God's presence in our midst

when I questioned the motives of voting members

even as the dreams and visions I held for this week

dissolved as chalk on sidewalk in the rain

I have faith.

For while I lament




I know it is not our will, but God’s will be done

and while we may not know where that takes us

my dear church

it's exactly where we need to be.

Even in

my anger

my frustration

my disappointment

and my sadness

my dear PCUSA,

I love you.

-Luke, 2012

I can admit it, I was carrying some personal baggage into General Assembly this summer. As I signed up to testify before the Middle East Committee on what I’d seen in Israel and Palestine this January, I was already cynical. At the last GA, we had worked hard, poured our hearts into our work, and seen it fail in the midst of politicking and threats. What difference would my words make? What difference would my work make?

Even when overtures passed in committee that I held dear to my heart, good things, great things, I kept my hopes at bay. This had happened last time, too, only for decisions to be reversed at plenary. I didn't want to be disappointed again.

But this time, my beloved PCUSA, our beloved PCUSA, came through. The Presbyterian Church, into which I was baptized while infant and in which I will someday die, has made me so, so proud. We stepped out on same-sex marriage, giving pastors the discretion to choose whether to perform marriages for same-sex couples in states where it is legal. We overcame fear and threats and chose to divest from three American companies involved in non-peaceful pursuits in Israel and Palestine. We passed an interfaith stance that allows local congregations to reach out to multi-faith partners around them. Some of these were tough, contentious issues. Many results brought polarizing joy and pain to various parties.

My pride, my joy in the events at General Assembly may not mirror everyone’s response. Even as the results were counted and displayed in plenary sessions, bringing laughter, joy, tears, and shock, I was thinking of our own church family. I knew not everyone would share my joy in these developments, and I grieved for the loss of trust or comfort that this news might bring. The results of this General Assembly may be shocking, may be painful. As is often the case with difficult moments of discernment, stepping out in faith can lead to uncertainty. Congregants may question the denomination or our place in it. Can we be a part of something with which we might disagree?

The final sermon at General Assembly talked about the role of wilderness in our faith. The ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness, John is a wild man in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. The wilderness plays a key role in each of our individual faith journeys and in our journey as a church. Those moments where we are uncomfortable, scared, and worried? They come right before moments of incredible faith and spiritual formation. The ancient Israelites are delivered, John prepares the way of the Lord, and Jesus refuses to give in to temptation. Perhaps we also are entering a wilderness where we feel uncomfortable, scared, and worried. Perhaps new opportunities and spiritual growth are ahead.

I know from a lifetime of experience in this church family that we know how to have difficult conversations. While growing up in this church I was lucky enough to have modeled in front of me differing opinions given with respect, differing theologies heard with an interest in genuine understanding, and differing pragmatisms embodied in joy together. Simply put, I have seen in this church that while we don’t always agree, we do always love each other. We do always seek to understand each other. We commit to each other to be family, to be church, in the midst of those differences. Our journey as a church continues, always together. Praise God.

-Luke Rembold, General Assembly Volunteer, 2012, 2014