Saturday, March 24, 2012

A bit of random mental gathering, ending up in a strange place (as random mental gathering often does)

Spring break, as well as "March summer," is over, and I've been a week back in class.  I've also attended the PC(USA)'s Compassion, Peace, and Justice training day in Washington, DC, which was alternately thought-provoking, confusing, stimulating, a little bit frustrating, and quite educational for someone like me, who has for a few years been distant from the heavier aspects of social justice issues.

I had to wrestle for a bit over whether to add the clause "not by choice" to that last sentence.  Part of me wants to, but a larger part isn't willing to let myself off the hook so easily.  Before embarking on this fool's errand I was of course a college professor, which the two or three of you who follow this blog already know more thoroughly than you care to.  A key modifier is missing; I was a tenure-track college professor.  Leaving aside the mechanics of tenure, the practical result for me was a fearful unwillingness to engage in any kind of activity that had the potential to involve a major time commitment.  It was fine to sing in the church choir, say, but anything that might represent an ongoing, intensive commitment that might require time and energy of me, I ran from like a scared cat.  Hey, I'm on the tenure clock!  I've got classes to create and books to write and other stuff to publish!  I can't be going off to the shelter or the soup kitchen every week for three hours at a time! I'm slow enough to write as it is!  Not saying it was right; in fact, I'm pretty sure I'm saying it wasn't right.  But that was how my mind worked.

At any rate, the current result is that I am playing catch-up on learning what is what with large issues like hunger, war and peace, and other big-ticket items that (I now can understand) the church had darn well better addressing if it wants to claim to be Christlike.  The event in Washington was something of a jump start for me in that catching-up process, for which I am grateful.

Other random bits; it was held at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which counts as one of its historical adherents none other than Abraham Lincoln, who was pretty regularly in attendance with his family during his administration.  NYAPC doesn't shy from pointing out that history, right down to rooms named the "Lincoln Parlor" and "Lincoln Chapel," the "Lincoln pew" maintained in its sanctuary, and the early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in its possession.  They even maintain a hitching post said to have been used by Lincoln when attending the church, though clearly the surroundings of said hitching post aren't what they used to be...
Far better historians than I have spilled much ink debating and dissecting Lincoln's spirituality and religious beliefs.  I won't pretend to add anything useful to the debate.  I can only note that (1) Lincoln evidently had a fairly vigorous and profound spirituality, no matter how unorthodox, and (2) at least while in Washington he found it most useful to work it out (or at least to show it) in a church.  That it was a Presbyterian church is kind of cool, too.

Interestingly, according to an aside in church history class, Benjamin Franklin also affiliated with a Presbyterian church for a time.  His spirituality is even less likely than Lincoln's for many historians, but at least for a time he did apparently affiliate with a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia (my bet is it was a way of getting a wife off his back?), because being a Presbyterian in the Philadelphia of the time was a good nonconformist thing to do.  Part of me can't help chuckling even as I type that.  How long has it been since being a Presbyterian anywhere was a good nonconformist thing to do?  Heh.

Of course, PC(USA) may well be heading into that territory.  Churches and presbyteries are still sizing up options and preparing to jump ship in the wake of 10-A, and the denomination wasn't exactly growing leaps and bounds before that.  Given time, being a Presbyterian, of the PC(USA) stripe in particular, may well be a fairly profound act of nonconformity.

It could be worse, I guess.  It isn't necessarily congruent with the hot 'n' heavy evangelicalism that defines so much of the religious (and political) discourse in this country these days.  If you want to be part of the power elite these days you don't run out and join a PC(USA) church.  That might have been true seventy-five or a hundred years ago (referring of course to the previous iterations of American Presbyterianism out of which PC(USA) appeared), but it isn't now.  Judging by the folks running for president this year you'd want to be a Catholic, a Mormon, or some kind of independent evangelical.  (Then again, this might not be the campaign to judge by.)  At the same time, it also stays away from the easy cynicism of too much secular discourse of the day.  It does require some level of faith commitment to be a member of this messed-up and fallible bunch.

Being an old-fashioned, un-trendy denomination which insists on churches connecting with and cooperating with other churches, PC(USA) doesn't have the "it factor" of the independent, stand-alone church that the cool kids prefer.  It isn't powerful, it isn't "cool," it isn't big or hip or growing or "next" or anything much to some people.  But it is, to my eye, faithful, even when doing risky and unpopular things.  For that I have learned to love it in all its vexing frailty.  For good or ill, it is my home.  

Union Presbyterian Seminary has two chapels.  Lake Chapel, the newer of the two, is a flexible space (in name at least; the pulpit and table and font aren't exactly what I'd call "flexible" to move) with a good airy quality and the latest technological capability, two good-sized screens for projection and so forth.  Watts Chapel, the older space, is very fixed.  Lots of wood.  A balcony extending all around the chapel space itself.  It creaks in places.  For gosh sakes, it even has an organ (though it is seldom used because it is rather out of repair; I'm sure Union would gladly accept a nice hefty gift towards its repair...anybody?).  Some might even call its space "gothic."

As to the exterior, see for yourself.
You can probably guess which space I prefer.  After all, I creak a bit these days myself.

So I try to learn what is what and where good missional justice-doing things happen, I keep wrestling with Calvin, and I keep listening, waiting, hoping, and praying (and blogging).  I suppose I feel a fit in this denomination to some degree; I would not particularly call myself trendy or cool or "next" in any particular way.  But I am (or at least want to be) faithful, even when that doesn't fit with other people's definitions of the word.  I suppose I'm not convinced that the past has no more lessons to teach us (duh, coming from a former music historian), or that all traditions have lost their power to move the soul towards faithfulness.  After, all, the idea of "reformed and always reforming" is pretty traditional.

My, but this must sound crotchety to some of you.  Pardon me while I go tell some kids to get off my lawn.  But I'm here anyway, and so far God has not lobotomized me, so I suppose I shall remain a somewhat old-fashioned (or at least tradition-respecting) pastor-hopefully-to-be in a world that probably doesn't see any need for it.  Still, to borrow from one of the speakers at yesterday's workshop, I see the opportunity to commit ministry, which is of course a subversive act.  So, onward.

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