It was early summer 2012, just before the 220th General Assembly. Standing in the kitchen with my mother, I found myself somewhat absently leafing backwards through an issue of the Presbyterian Outlook as she listened to the radio. Skimming a page near the front cover, four words snagged my attention: Don’t send anything controversial. The piece was an op-ed that entreated commissioners to GA not to send anything back to the presbyteries that would be in any way controversial. After all, churches were still leaving the denomination in some places, and in others there were plenty of raw wounds and shaken hopes for the future of the PC(USA).
I could (and can!) certainly commiserate with this point of view.
I have no desire for us to commit denominational suicide, and I am a firm believer in our Book of Order’s statement that, “Division into different denominations obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ.” Words like, “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity, and is willing to seek and to deepen communion with all other churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” nourish my own desire that we remain in fellowship and community with one another, even when we have fundamental disagreements (F-1.0302a). But…
But I couldn’t quite stop my thoughts from wandering to the Gospels and to Acts. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus had a lengthy conversation with a Samaritan woman. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus died on a cross and then rose again on the third day. Through the Spirit, Jesus called the early church to welcome Gentiles without making them first convert to Judaism. The bottom line? Well, Jesus was controversial. And throughout Acts, the Spirit challenges the disciples right and left to do things that are controversial too. The results often aren’t pretty – there are arguments, there are imprisonments, and there is death. But somehow, out of all of the hurt and the grief and the mess, God creates something beautiful: the promise of the resurrection, of new life and a new creation, and a community that witnesses to those promises through their abundant living.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a fan of controversy – I would prefer that things be peaceful, filled with harmony. But when it comes to this year’s General Assembly, I cannot ask the commissioners to refrain from sending anything back to the presbyteries that would be controversial. Somehow, to me, that doesn’t feel faithful. Rather, my hope is that our commissioners would be bold enough to be controversial, if that’s how they feel that God is leading them. My prayer is that the assembly would courageously follow the Holy Spirit, even if that means heading deeper into a period where things aren’t all that pretty, where there is heartache and grief and mess.
Because, like the church in Acts, we are that community that holds onto the promise that heartache and grief and mess don’t get the final say. We are that community that holds onto the promise that our Lord can bring new and abundant life out of just such seasons of death. We are that community that holds onto the promise that our Lord can fashion us as a denomination into a new creation. And to me, that is a terrifying, hope-filled thought indeed.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.