Ash Wednesday in miniature

Are you one of those miniatures collectors? Do you know any one who is?  Back in the days when printing presses would utilize little blocks of wood and metal, with forms of each letter with which they would lay out the type for their newspaper or an advertisement, they would put those letters in printers' boxes. That's how they sorted their  As from their Bs, Cs, and so forth.

Today, the letter blocks are long gone, but the printers' trays still sell.  You find them in antiques stores and flea markets. They get scooped up by collectors--miniatures collectors. They provide just the right sized cubby holes in which to display tiny cars, tables, chairs, dishes, figurines, and other decorative items that are less than a square inch in size.

Why? What's the value of having unusable tiny imitations of the real thing?

An international team of psychologists is studying this phenomenon, in the hope that an answer to this mystery could lead to solving countless other unanswered mysteries. All kidding aside, one part of the answer may be that collecting small items affords persons the opportunity to get their arms around their world, or literally, get their hands around it. When you look at miniatures, you get to see things more completely. You get a grip--literally--on life.

That may be one of the reasons that so many people have been so taken with the movie "The Passion of the Christ"--which broke attendance records almost everywhere that it has was released--including Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.  In just two hours and six minutes, that movie gave people a handle on Jesus. Frankly, it exposes the horrors of violence and evil that thrive in human hearts, but in the process, that movie also provides us a picture of the sacrificial suffering of Jesus.

A kairos moment?

It's one thing to obey God. It's another thing to obey God. Or to put it in the words of H. Russel Botman, "In retrospect we learned to decipher a difference between 'simple obedience' and 'complex obedience.'"  

Botman was speaking, along with colleague Dirk Smit, at the Sprunt Lectures at Union/PSCE in Richmond, outlining how the theological work of forming and adopting the Belhar Confession had helped his country find its way out of the practice of apartheid.  South Africa will never be the same, thanks to these two men and their colleagues who shared the task of writing Belhar--and thanks to the courage of their people who pursued a path of "complex obedience."

What's that? As in most other situations, the text carries with it a subtext. The text here is the Confession of Belhar, a potent application of Christian theology and ethics to the church's life in secular society. The subtext is another document, the Kairos Document, which emerged in the days that intervened between Belhar's composition and adoption.  

True to their denomination's policies, Belhar was proposed at a general synod meeting (1982), but it needed to be studied for four years before it could be adopted by the next synod meeting.  Three years into that process, the Kairos Document was published as "an attempt to develop ... an alternative biblical and theological model that will in turn lead to forms of activity that will make a real difference to the future of our country." Kairos was an uncompromising, prophetic call to action.  

Kairos lamented that, "the Church is divided. ... Even within the same denomination there are in fact two Churches. In the life and death conflict between different social forces that has come to a head in South Africa today, there are Christians (or at least people who profess to be Christians) on both sides of the conflict--and some who are trying to sit on the fence!" Specifically, the document outlines three competing kinds of theology in the church: "'State Theology,' 'Church Theology,' and 'Prophetic Theology.'"

Why Belhar? Why now?

Martin Luther reminded us we live in a world "with devils filled that threaten to undo us." This line from his hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, is a powerful image of the forces that seek to pull us apart. In our church, in our nation and around the world, hostilities and hatreds thrive and the peace and unity for which we yearn seem far away.

Does the church have a word to speak into this racial and political strife? In many times of crisis, the church has borne witness to the life-giving power of the gospel in living that takes up the cross of Christ. It has also borne witness in its confessions. One of those confessions has come to us from the suffering experienced by those in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church during the time of apartheid in South Africa -- the Belhar Confession.

So, before answering the questions why Belhar and why now, it might be better to first ask, "What is Belhar?" In response to the oppression of apartheid in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church proposed this confession of the Christian faith in a synodical meeting in the town of Belhar in 1982 and adopted it in 1986. It was not only a stance against the injustices of apartheid, it also provided a theological rationale for a way forward in its aftermath. The process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which focused on restorative justice rather than punishment, owes much of its motive power to the Belhar Confession.

There is now, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in the larger church, a renewed interest in the Belhar Confession. The Reformed Church in America, one of our Formula of Agreement partner churches, is currently considering whether it should be included among their confessional documents.

Is the “Big Lie” no big deal?

It's official. Fibbing is OK if it serves a higher purpose. Oprah said so.*

The queen of all media tossed this ethical grenade recently when she called CNN's Larry King to defend his guest, James Frey, author of mega-best-seller A Million Little Pieces. Frey's memoir of addiction and recovery was featured on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" when it was anointed the October selection of the world's most powerful book club.

The champagne went flat in January when The Smoking Gun, a Web site devoted to investigative reporting, posted a damning story with the tantalizing tagline "The Man Who Conned Oprah." What followed was an old-school piece of "gotcha!" journalism that showed how Frey had embellished and, in some cases, fabricated significant events in the account of his life. Frey admitted to King he had taken dramatic license but said he stood by "the essential truth" of his life. As King was about to sign off, Winfrey phoned to say the report outing Frey was "much ado about nothing."

What mattered, Winfrey said, was that millions of people struggling with their own monkey-on-the-back habits had read Frey's book and felt better. In a nation addicted to feeling good, she implied, swallowing a little pill of deception is a small price to pay.

Winfrey's take on lying is not new -- Machiavelli said it first when he wrote, "the end justifies the means," the greatest rationalization for bad acts ever -- and it appears plenty of Americans agree.

A woman’s “Where else?”

"If we leave the PC(USA), where are we going to go?" The troubled question came from an evangelical woman, a young leader and emerging scholar in conservative circles. At issue was the possibility of a split in the denomination, likely to be led by disaffected conservatives. "We know where the women stand in the PCA [Presbyterian Church in America]," she said. "The EPC [Evangelical Presbyterian Church] said women's ordination is optional, and they've opted to 'just say no.'" Then came the clincher. Referring to the testosterone-driven conference she and I were attending, she added, "Frankly, I hear these men saying they will do things differently, but I don't know if I can trust them."

How tragic it would be if, in the midst of a grand two-year celebration of women's ordination in the PC(USA), a long-threatened split occurred that would launch another denomination where women's leadership role could possibly be diminished. 

What celebration? Well, one hundred years ago (1906) a woman was first ordained a deacon in the UPCNA. Seventy-five years ago (1930) a woman was first ordained a ruling elder in the PCUSA. Fifty years ago (1956), the first woman was ordained a minister of word and sacrament. This convergence of anniversaries makes 2006 a fitting time to celebrate the ways we Presbyterians have promoted gender equality in a century long to be remembered for Women's Suffrage, gender-inclusive language, and The Feminine Mystique.

The ordination of women

I had just a short time with Courtney, a six-year-old girl who helped me clean up after church school. In a quick fifteen minutes, I needed to finish the job and put on my preaching robe to lead the worship service. I made small talk with her as we gathered the magazine pages and put the glue sticks away. Her parents did not attend the rural church in South Louisiana, but she visited regularly with a friend. I did not know her well, so I was in the middle of asking her those generic grown-up questions. I finished inquiring about her favorite subject in school and moved on to, "Courtney, what do you want to do when you grow up?" I expected the same answers that I usually hear: an astronaut, a ballerina or a teacher.

Courtney stopped. A smile began in the corner of her mouth that told me she was bursting with the news. "I want to I want to do what you do. I want to be a pastor."

"You do?" My excitement brimmed so that I was the one bursting. We stood in a tiny classroom in a country church, but it felt like Courtney and I had passed by a huge milestone and changed history. It caused me to look back to see the long stretch behind us and made me resolve to finish the road ahead. 

I grew up in the seventies, when little girls were told that they could do anything. I clearly remember when I was Courtney's age and my grade school teacher informed me that I could become the president of the United States, if I wanted to. But I did not want to be president; I, like Courtney, wanted to be in the ministry. Of course, during that time women struggled to have it all and I saw glass ceilings shatter every day in boardrooms, on the Supreme Court, and in Congress. Yet I had never seen a woman pastor before, so I could not conceive of leading a congregation. I did not know that it was an option.  

Women Ministers (1955-1966) and Margaret Towner

In October, 1955, fifty plus years ago, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A voted in General Assembly to ordain women to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. In 1956, the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in New York ordained Margaret Towner, the first women clergyman of the denomination. In 1965, the Hanover Presbytery in Virginia ordained Rachel Henderlite the first woman to be so recognized in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. These ordinations marked a climax in the history of Presbyterians among whom the role of women in the church had been growing for well over a century. Lois A. Boyd and R. Douglas Brackenridge* told this story in Presbyterian Women in America, Two Centuries of a Quest for Status (1983) published by the Presbyterian Historical Society.  On the fiftieth anniversary of the extension of this ordination right to women it is appropriate to recall the women's progress in the life of Presbyterians.  

Over the centuries in our male-dominated country, women have been identified and treated in different ways in both society and the church. Early on they were considered mostly "ornamental," as it was put. But males could not do without females. In those early days, a woman named Mary Wollstonecraft published the explosive A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1772), printed in Philadelphia shortly before Americans had adopted a Declaration of Independence in 1776. A Presbyterian woman (turned Unitarian), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, helped write the "Declaration of Sentiments" (1848) based on 1776 male-oriented document. Stanton published The Woman's Bible (1895) in which she and other women celebrated the noted females whose contributions may be found throughout the Scriptures.

In August 1920, Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson signed into existence the XIX Amendment to the Constitution of the United States granting women the right to vote. At the same time women were gaining ground in public matters, they gained ground in ecclesiastical affairs. In the nineteenth century they had started women's organizations apart from males. Women became deeply involved in the support of and participation in educational endeavors such as Sunday Schools, home and foreign mission work. They formed their own societies to further causes that interested them.

Moreover, because of the "unrest" in the churches, the PCUSA granted the right of women to serve as "brother deacons" (as they were called) in 1922-1923, and "brother elders" in 1930. Ruling elder and mission executive, Robert E. Speer, together with Katherine Bennet and Margaret Hodge, played important roles in this movement in the PCUSA, demonstrating a kind of "de facto" equality in the process. Later on Eugene Caron Blake led the movement in the General Assembly to ordain women as ministers of "Word and Sacrament."

Enter Margaret E. Towner. Towner, a New Yorker, left a career as medical photographer at the Mayo Clinic to study education at Syracuse University prior to assuming the call of Christian education at the East Genesee (N.Y.) Church. Towner then pursued the three-year Bachelor of Divinity Degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She believed such training would be helpful to her in Christian Education. And she flourished as Christian Educator in Allentown, Pa.

Political agenda, threats spoiled realm of marshmallows and ‘Kum Ba Yah’

Special to The Tampa Tribune, used by permission


Editor's note: Derek Maul, a Presbyterian free-lance writer who has written for the Presbyterian News Service and Presbyterians Today magazine, wrote this piece shortly after a church camp supported by Peace River and Tampa Bay presbyteries was forced by threats of violence to cancel a leadership event for Muslim youth (see news story on page 6.)  -- Jerry L. Van Marter, coordinator of Presbyterian News Service.

TAMPA, FLA. -- (PNS) My friends run a church camp. You remember church camp? Campfires, marshmallows, best friends, starlit nights. "Kum Ba Yah," holding hands, cookouts, rain every day.

Church camp. You know, the place that's all about people coming together, prayer, hugs, surmounting barriers, spiritual breakthroughs, learning to listen to God. It's about as far away from politics as you can get. Or at least it should be.

Last week my friends had their lives and their children threatened and their patriotism questioned. They had to close the church camp and take their children to a safe place. They had to make other arrangements for a group of -- this is ironic -- international students, visitors from overseas celebrating Christmas and learning about America.

So why did my friends and their guests have to leave in such a hurry? Because their safety and their lives were threatened by Americans who wanted to carry a political agenda into the realm of marshmallows and "Kum Ba Yah."

Is the Presbyterian Church (USA) Anti-Semitic?

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has received intense criticism since July of 2004 when it passed a resolution calling for "phased selective divestment" from companies that are profiting from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in Israel/Palestine. Most of this criticism has accused the church of being anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is a problem throughout the United States and throughout the world, so the question of whether the PC(USA) is contributing to such an evil needs to be taken seriously. Yet some of the harshest criticism has come not from outside the church but from within it.

One Presbyterian minister who has been outspoken about the PC(USA)'s actions wrote what many other pastors have expressed from their pulpits, "We are profoundly disturbed by our leaders and by the delegates who favored these anti-Israel, anti-Semitic actions." ( /module/displaystory/story_id/23583/edition_id/468/format/html/displaystory.html ) In an e-mail correspondence, one pastor went so far as to say, "The Presbyterian church must come to terms with the fact that it is an unrepentant denomination of anti-Semitism and hubris in its pronouncements." Ouch.

Yet even if most critics within the church aren't willing to go as far as this pastor, many more are concerned that while the church may be well intentioned, our actions may yet be perceived to be anti-Semitic. Those of us who are involved in Jewish-Presbyterian dialogs find this criticism puts us in a bit of a pickle because, while we are attempting to accurately represent the church's position, such criticism certainly lends credence to the expressed concerns of our Jewish partners. So the question that begs to be addressed is what might it mean for the PC(USA) or the actions of the church to be anti-Semitic?

A hearing heart

About a year ago, chest pains and breathing troubles prompted me to see the doctor. The diagnosis proved to be minor and the course of treatment easy. But the diagnostic process was memorable, to say the least.

The family doctor determined to run some tests. He marked a few items on his page-long checklist, placed the clipboard on a door hook, and while walking out, said, "I'll check back with you after the tests." 

A few minutes later the nurse marched me to the x-ray department where the technician took a few photographs.  She took me to another room, where I blew into a clear plastic thing that looked like an inverted saxophone. Then she took me back to the examination room, looked at the checklist, twisted her nose a bit, looked at me, twisted her nose again, shrugged and then asked, "Are your ears feeling plugged?"

"Not really, but maybe a little in my right ear."

She pulled out an otoscope, studied both ear canals, and commented, "Well, I see a little extra wax in your right ear." One warm water ear rinse later, she made a few markings on the chart, placed it back on the door hook, and walked out.

Upon his return the doctor looked at the first chart. "You're x-rays look good.  The lungs are clear." He looked at the next chart. "Your breathing is strong." He looked at the third chart. He twisted his nose a bit, looked at me, twisted his nose again, and then with a most puzzled look, asked, "Did the nurse flush out your ears?"

"Yes, sir."

"She was supposed to give you an EKG, not an ear flush." He looked at the checklist, saw that his mark was a bit off the mark, and said, "I'll send her back in to do the EKG." He shrugged and smiled. "For what it's worth, you just got a free ear flush. Hope it felt good."

A sheepish nurse returned, rolling in an EKG machine. Her embarrassment quickly turned into our shared laughing.

As I left the office my laughing turned reflective. Dumbstruck, I realized that in the spiritual life, plugged ear canals cause sick hearts.

What hardened the heart of Pharaoh? What hardened the hearts of Israel's enemies, and at times the hearts of the Israelites themselves? What hardened the hearts of Jesus' detractors? One simple answer: their hard-hearts grew out of their deaf ears. Referring to that history, three times the book of Hebrews warns believers, Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts as in the day of rebellion.