Cindy began June by traveling to Oklahoma for the Tri-Presbytery gathering of the Presbyteries in Oklahoma, which was initiated after the General Assembly began meeting every other year. The gathering includes a day of education followed by business meetings of the three Presbyteries. The next update will include Cindy's literal flight through Louisiana, which followed this trip.
This year, I was invited to give the three keynote addresses for the day of education during the Tri-Presbytery gathering, followed by reflections by Paul Hooker. The reason for my presence goes deeper than serving as co-moderator. When I was at Austin Seminary considering internship options, the one that grabbed by attention was offered by a church in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, north near Ponca City. This internship gave a student an opportunity to experience life as a solo pastor, living in the manse, preaching every Sunday, providing Bible study and pastoral visitations, and really doing everything except moderate the Session or administer the Sacraments. The Presbytery of Cimarron had given permission for a few ruling elders in the church to administer the Lord’s Supper and another pastor moderated the session, but everything else was in the student pastor’s hands.
I jumped at the chance. My sense of call as a Navy Chaplain had been shifting, and I felt that God might be calling me to the parish, but I wasn’t sure. The ability to test that call over nine months in a congregation was too good an opportunity to miss. So the Presbyterian church in Tonkawa became part of my formation for ministry, and Gordon Edwards, the pastor of the Stillwater Presbyterian Church, became my supervisor and mentor. Now, Gordon is the executive presbyter for Cimarron Presbytery, the first Presbytery I participated in, and he was responsible for connecting with me to extend the invitation to join the Tri-Presbyteries this year. To top off the trip, I even preached at Tonkawa on Sunday!
Anyway, Friday was a full and wonderful day, hosted by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. The room where we gathered for the day was packed, and even once I convinced some of the people standing in the back to sit down front, there were still people standing along the walls.
I took a three-part presentation I had used earlier and expanded it into three separate keynote addresses. The title is The Gospel Mandate: Beloved Communities, Neighborhood Churches, and Vital Congregations. The first segment, Beloved Communities, lays out my understanding of the Biblical mandate for what it means to be a follower of Jesus and part of the body of Christ. Using insights from books I’ve read and my almost twenty years of ordained ministry, I offer four mandates for Beloved Communities:
- Compassion in word and deed
- Partnership within and without the walls of the church
- Seeking after justice
Under the mandate to be incarnational, to live into the fullness of being bearers of good news in tangible ways wherever we go, I offer four characteristics of Christ-like incarnation:
These four characteristics help us steer clear of toxic charity and privileged relationships and encounters, keeping us from falling into the trap of knowing all the answers or applying our solutions without even talking with the people we think we’re helping. When we focus on where we are (proximity) and enter into a relationship that is truly mutual and not one sided, then our hearts are changed and we move towards being in solidarity, walking alongside, being led by those who know better. And, of course, all of that is grounded in humility, remembering that being followers of Jesus and incarnate bearers of Good News is all about God, and not in any way about us.
You’ll notice that the fourth Gospel Mandate I offer is seeking after justice. I see that commandment throughout the Bible, God’s desire for justice to be established across the earth. This is the work of the body of Christ, and that means getting involved with political and institutional systems to bring about change. It is not enough for the church to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; that’s holy work, but if we do not seek after justice, the same people will continue to be hungry and naked. Why are they hungry? Why are they naked and homeless and in prison? There are systemic injustices and oppressive policies that contribute to all of these things. For the church to truly be the body of Christ, we also have to advocate for changes to the system.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a beautiful example of how the Gospel mandates I have outlined can be lived out. The movement is established by relationships with real people where they are, hearing their struggles without trying to explain or discount, and then inviting the people who are living in poverty to lead the way in changing the system. Community by community, state by state, the Poor People’s Campaign is building partnerships that are seeking after justice, and already in some places, establishing new policies and structures.
My second and third keynotes offered an overview of the book Vilmarie and I have invited the church to read, Neighborhood Church, and the Vital Congregations initiative of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. After each keynote, Paul Hooker offered a reflection, including some of the poetry he has written through the years. At the end of the day, Paul preached a beautiful sermon focused on the ascension of Jesus as we closed with worship and communion.
Saturday was the second day of the Tri-Presbytery gathering, when each of the Presbyteries would conduct their own business meetings. Appropriately, the first order of the day was worship, so we gathered again in Room 103 of Westminster Presbyterian Church.
I preached on one of my favorite passages from the Epistles, Ephesians 3:16-20. This passage always unfolds in different ways for me, depending on the context of where I am and the content of the conversations I’ve had prior to delivering the sermon. In this case, I started by focusing on the use of the word “imagine” in verse 20. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite passages also reminds me of my favorite ordination/installation question.
“Do you promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” Isn’t it wonderful that we promise to serve with intelligence, and our God promises to do abundantly far more than anything we can ask or imagine? What would happen if we stretched our imagination muscles in relation to our work within the church, imagining ministry and mission in new ways, imagining worship and education that engaged multiple senses, imagining leadership and membership who helped us stretch our current sense of the body of Christ? We already know God’s imagination is immense, just look around creation! What if we stretched our imaginations just a little bit and let them take wing, meeting God’s creative imagination in mid-air and resulting in a burst of glory?
A second thing I love about this passage is that doing abundantly far more than anything we can ask or imagine doesn’t rely on our merit or abilities. It’s all about God. According to the riches of God’s glory. That we may be strengthened with power through God’s Spirit. That Christ may dwell in our hearts. The love of Christ that surpasses understanding. Filled with all the fullness of God. And, of course, it is God’s power at work within us that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. It’s all about God, what God can do, what God can provide, how God can equip, the promises God has made. When we rely simply on ourselves in the body of Christ, we will fail. We just can’t do it. Even if we stretch our imaginations, we can’t imagine what God would do if we try to figure it out on our own. It is God’s glory, the Spirit’s power, Christ’s love, God’s fullness.
The only thing we are asked to do is to be rooted and grounded in love. And even that is somewhat passive: “as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Our work here, after Christ’s hands have planted us in the soil of love as his followers, is to nourish that soil on a daily basis. To keep returning to the soil of Jesus’ love and fertilize it, tending to the soil of our souls so that the love we are rooted and grounded in grows deeper and stronger and wider. So that the soil of our lives begins to mirror the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.
It is out of this rich foundation of love that we grow, and it is there that all the glory, power, love, and fullness of our creative God meet us.
I read these verses as a promise to us, a promise of what God will do in and through us if we just say “yes” to the offer of being filled and grounded in this way. If we say yes, if we open our hands to receive this promise, if we reach out in faith to take Jesus’ hand, then the fulfillment of that promise is God doing abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
What would that look like? What would abundantly far more than you could ask or imagine look like in your life? In your congregation? In your community? In your Presbytery? For the sake of this gathering, in the state of Oklahoma? What do you think would happen if all those gathered for the Tri-Presbytery meeting in Oklahoma grasped God’s amazing promise and demanded to see God’s power at work? If all of us, across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), out of the love of Jesus Christ, opened our arms and, waiting with the sure expectation that God is faithful and will fulfill God’s promises, began anticipating God doing abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, what do you think would happen?
I don’t know what would happen, but I know it would be abundantly far more than I can imagine as I visit here in Oklahoma. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has already done far more than I could ever have imagined in my life, and I have seen what abundantly far more can look like in churches and Presbyteries across our denomination. If we all took hold of this promise, not only would we be changed in the depths of who we are, the world would be changed through the power of God at work within us.
Sometimes you have to make travel decisions on the fly, or because the flying isn’t going the way you’d planned. Just as I as about to leave my hotel, I got a text letting me know my flight from Oklahoma City was delayed, and would cause me to miss my flight to New Orleans. A quick check revealed that the only available flights out of OKC would have me arriving Monday instead of Sunday, something I wasn’t content to accept. Since my flight from Dallas was still on time, and I had a rental car and enough time to make the drive from Tonkawa to DFW, that was what I decided to do. Decision made and necessary calls completed, I headed north to Tonkawa for Sunday morning worship.
It was almost exactly twenty years ago that I preached my last sermon in this church, where I served for nine months as a solo student pastor. The experience was a gift to me in so many ways, solidifying my sense of call to be a solo pastor, deepening my love for weekly preaching and worship planning, and developing my early skills in pastoral care and leadership. There was only one member present from twenty years ago, but the congregation that gathered was significantly younger, which was exciting to see. It’s still a small group, but now all generations seem to be represented.
I focused on the lectionary, my practice for Sunday mornings, looking most closely at the story of Paul and Silas in jail. I asked the children who were present how they would feel if they were in jail. Then I added the elements of Paul and Silas' experience: they were in a strange city in a different country, they had been stripped and beaten, they were in the innermost (aka darkest and dankest) cell, and they were strapped down, their feet locked in place. That sounds pretty awful, and I’m sure if I was in that situation, all I would do is cry and tremble in fear.
But Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed. They. Sang. Hymns. Can you imagine singing “Fairest Lord Jesus,” which we sung right before the sermon, while locked in a dark cell and bleeding from a beating? I can’t.
In such a dire situation, Paul and Silas chose to live in faith and not in fear. They chose to praise God instead of shake their fists. And when the earthquake opened the doors, granting them freedom, they even chose love for the jailer, saving his life by staying in the cell and calling out to him to prevent him from harm.
They chose faith, praise, and love in the face of injury, imprisonment, and the possibility of death.
What do we choose when the world tells us to choose fear? What do we choose when the loudest voice cries out to choose suspicion? What do we choose when we are being urged to put ourselves and our desires first?
American culture, more and more, is a culture that chooses fear, selfishness, suspicion, anger, and entitlement. More and more, our choices are driving deeper wedges into the fabric of our society, and the chasms are getting harder to bridge. What is especially heartbreaking to me is that Christians who claim to follow Jesus are some of the quickest to close doors, build walls, and choose hate. I truly don’t understand how believing in the Prince of Peace who told us to love one another as God loves us can lead to such vitriol. If God chooses to follow our lead, to love us as we love one another, we are doomed.
If we believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God and to die in Christ is to gain the world, then we have nothing to fear. I think Paul and Silas believed that to the depths of their souls; ultimately, they had nothing to fear because their lives were in God's hands. Most of us live as if we have everything to fear because our lives are in our own hands. That’s a pretty flimsy foundation.
I want to be someone who chooses faith in the face of fear, praise in the face of distress, and love in the face of hate. And I want to be part of a church that does the same. I know I can’t do this alone; I need companions, I need the body of Christ to teach me, encourage me, pick me back up when I fall, and walk with me along the way. If we can do that for each other, if we can choose faith, praise, and love, then we could be the yeast in the flour of society, helping us all rise through the power of Christ to a better world.
After worship, I mingled with members and the Commissioned Ruling Elder serving the congregation. Then it was time to start the drive to Dallas for my flight to New Orleans. A 4+ hour drive isn’t unusual for me when visiting a church in Maine or Vermont, so this felt a bit like business as usual. Next stop, the Presbytery of South Louisiana!