Thanks for Us

by | Nov 29, 2021

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

Philippians 1:3-5

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, and that it was easy for you to think of many things for which you are grateful.

For myself, I often remember the work that God has given me when I give thanks. I am thankful for my calling, and for the partners God has given me—those with whom I get to share in the gospel. I think about partners near and far, past and present. In short, I am thankful for the Presbytery of San Gabriel, and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

In our September Presbytery meeting, we talked about how to be a more inclusive Presbytery, and one recommendation is for us to know our own identity better, which helps us appreciate the identity of others. The identity we share is that of Presbyterian, so I thought I’d start naming aspects of Presbyterian culture for which I am grateful. (I suppose I can also point out aspects which I hope we can adjust or eradicate, but maybe later.)

So this column doesn’t get too long, I hope to name my “Top Ten” in two columns, and then in a third column, I’ll look at San Gabriel Presbytery. So let’s get started with the first five.

When I ask people why they come to the Presbyterian Church, the most common answer is the polity— and specifically, the equality of elders. I think you all know that “Presbyterian” refers to “elders” (“presbyopia” is the condition of farsightedness found in old age—basically, it means “old eyes”).

Whereas the Episcopal Church is named after bishops, we are named after elders, meaning ruling elders as much as teaching elders. Nearly all the work of the church is shared by all, and in ecclesiastical matters a ruling elder has the same authority as a pastor. Because of this, the PC(USA) enjoys the leadership of many exceptional ruling elders—and pastors are taught (and in some cases reminded) to respect the leadership of the session. The saying we used to share with people interested in ministry in the PC(USA) is that the only thing Presbyterian pastors may do on their own is to pick the hymns—and I now add “and often they don’t get to do that either.” For the most part, none of us make decisions on our own, which is rooted in our deep belief that we hear better the voice of God through the gathered body, which is the theological reason we are always in meetings!

It seems another priority of the Presbyterian Church that is mentioned often is social justice. This is complicated for me, because we talk about it a lot, and sometimes we take a stance that gets attention, but I don’t know if we do as much as we are called to do. I’m also aware that this has been raised as a critique of the PC(USA), especially from people who think social justice distracts us from devotion to God. I have heard pastors who were trying to take their churches out of the denomination saying that the PC(USA) is very justice-oriented, but this takes us away from the Bible. However, Presbyterian pastors—conservative and liberal—have pointed out how the Bible repeatedly speaks to God’s call to economic justice, including in radical ways such as the jubilee (elimination of debts and restoration of rights) and communal sharing of possessions in the Acts church. We also see the call of those with privilege and power to care for those on the margins, whether they be foreigners, the poor, orphans and widows, women, the disabled, or social outcasts. There is understanding that the Presbyterian Church has privilege, so it is our responsibility to use it for those without. Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson has shared that other Black leaders have questioned why he is Presbyterian, a denomination that is 90% White. He answered that it is his family church, but also recalled an economic boycott against a company that was mistreating its workers. The people in the boycott wanted to speak with the CEO, but the CEO refused. Then the CEO heard that there was a Presbyterian pastor in the group, and the CEO was willing to speak to the Presbyterian—and so J. Herbert could speak truth to power when others could not. As a denomination with pretty sizeable financial assets, we also lead in using our resources to try to impact just change; perhaps the most celebrated example of this was our participation in the economic boycott of apartheid South Africa.

A traditional focus for the Presbyterian Church is our adherence to the Bible. Now internally we have questioned how well we know the Bible because our speech is not peppered with citations. Also, our seminaries teach biblical criticism that is more academic than devotional in its orientation—to the point that some seminarians experience a crisis of faith when the depth and complexity of Scripture are revealed. Personally, I do wish that our actions are more clearly guided by the Bible—all of the Bible, not just the verses that we use to rationalize our human desires of greed and control. Having heard a few sermons from various traditions, I do believe that the preaching in Presbyterian churches is more biblically based than many, and preaching is a product of research, prayer, and consideration, which for me reflects our respect for Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and our people.

Speaking of preaching, this leads me to our priority for education. This focus on education includes a commitment to an educated clergy, but also our belief that education is empowering for all, and the best path out of poverty. So Presbyterians have established schools all over the world, most notably where education was not being offered. This includes schools and colleges for African-Americans in the South (the root for many Black Presbyterians in the Southeast), Indigenous girls in what is now Oklahoma, and for girls in Asia and all around the world.

I will close out this first five with mission. During our recent controversies, there were conservative Presbyterians who were being pressured to leave the PC(USA). Some who stayed expressed their appreciation for the PC(USA)’s mission tradition, and the resources dedicated to mission in the world. I confess that I smile whenever I hear about the big hospitals in New York City and Albuquerque, both still named Presbyterian. Most of our immigrant churches are established for Presbyterians coming from other nations, where Presbyterian missionaries taught and showed them the grace of God through their preaching, their care, their advocacy, and their expertise in medicine, education, and community organizing. Today, the PC(USA) continues to evolve in our mission orientation, now seeking to honor the authority of local church partners by sending mission coworkers only as requested. This has resulted in a smaller number of mission coworkers, and many of them are not preachers but lay people with the technical skills requested by our partner churches. This represents not a rejection of mission but a sign that the Word was planted by our mission forebears, and is productive today.

Thanks if you have read to the end. Do you recognize our Presbyterian identity in these priorities? Are you also thankful for them? Feel free to let me know if you agree, or more importantly what I have missed—and perhaps they will be mentioned in next week’s column!

In any case, I hope you have reason to be thankful for being part of this church. I am grateful that you are here.