This past week I was preparing for and then attending the General Assembly of the our denomination (PCA). It was held in the beautiful city of Greenville, SC which I enjoyed despite spending most of my time inside. So here are some of my thoughts in retrospect:
1. Visitor Status: Through most of the official business meetings I was not present. I registered as a visitor, not a commissioner (with the responsibility and privilege of voting). I went primarily went for networking purposes and had a great time connecting with a variety of people. While it is important for leaders to analyze, debate, and vote as we tackle various items of business, I’m so glad I was able to spend the time interacting with people. As I shared about our upcoming work in Worcester there were good question, thoughtful suggestions, and many who prayed right then for our work. Doing the “work” of the general assembly encompasses both attending meetings and building relationships. I was much more effective in the second category this year.
2. Take off the margins: In conversation with an older man who has been around the PCA for a while, he said, “If you take the 5% who are on either far margin of the PCA, we have a wonderfully centered and strong denomination” I have a relatively short history with the PCA and in most institutions it is the controversial or cantankerous that make the most noise. It was a great reminder to think about the wonderful center of the PCA and this was my experience in my face to face interactions. At times it is hard to know how to describe the PCA, other than it’s theology, but I think I have a better idea through the slice of people I interacted with in Greenville.
3. Strength and Weakness: Being a Presbyterian church has its strengths (rich theology, stable governance, vetted leadership) as well as its weaknesses (slow paced, overly academic, pride). I know these more on the level of the individual church and it was interesting to see them play out denominationally. I think the checks, balances, and avenues to address disagreement built into the governing structure of the PCA are necessary and rather helpful. The other side though is that we can get bogged down. In witnessing debate, it was amazing how much time it took to work through certain issues pertaining to our theology while much less attention was paid to some of the ministries of the denomination. It is good that we have the systems to work through disagreement and move change, but there are trade offs.
This may sound like the beginning of a joke but last night it almost happened. A friend is going hiking out West and will be carrying an ice axe on part of his trip so I offered to show him the basics of ice axe use. We were meeting at a pub and I was trying to figure out whether to bring my ice axe inside, wait outside with it in hand, or find some other means to make the exchange.
I had a great time hanging out and over the course of the night the subtext to couple different conversations was the question, “What do you want?” I remember asking myself this question mid-way thorough college and struggling with answers. This question that touches both desire and purpose still plagues me and many to whom I am connected. I think the difficulty with this question is that many “conventional” answers have been deconstructed and there aren’t clear alternatives to take the place. Here are some of the examples that come to mind:
1. I want to get married and raise a family: Divorce, living together, and the normalcy of sex without commitment push marriage further off the radar. While life long commitment still has a powerful allure there is some skepticism as to whether the “right spouse” will be found at the right time of life. When it comes to kids there are concerns about over population, consumption, and the ability to be a good parent.
2. Success and the American Dream: While there are still many who are driven to achieve and make money, there is a growing critique and almost sense of guilt associated with wealth and ceaseless consumption. While few want to embrace poverty there is a stigma with being part of the 99%. Add in a slow economy with less clarity about a career path and the questioning of direction grows.
3. I want to be a person of character: What does it mean to be a good person? Do you eat organic food, drive a hybrid car, mentor troubled youth, build homes in Haiti, vote along certain political lines, maintain your own ethical norms, or just try to care for those closest to you? The traditional morality that we might associate with the 50’s holds little power to capture the imagination and answer deep longings for purpose. “Doing good” is attractive end but it is hard to define good in a world of competing ideologies. With the normalcy of moral failure, corrupt business practices, and outbreaks of violence we wonder if we can be good.
4. Pleasure: While in my observation pleasure is an important part of the answer to, it is also recognized as too shallow. I’ll hear, “yeah, I did that in college but at some point you have to move on.”
The challenge for me is to embrace Jesus, as the object of my desire, the resolution of my questions. When asked what I want, I need to be able to answer with the Apostle Paul when he says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” Gaining Christ, being found in him; this is the central truth, the one answer that can hold together and reconstruct all the pieces that have fallen apart. I need to continue putting together the different pieces of my life in a way that reflects the centrality of Jesus and myriad of hopes that pull at me. What do you want?