Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Going to Camp

I'll be away for the next 10 days.

I'll be at scout camp with my son, between 15 and 30 other leaders (at various times) and close to 70 boys. We'll be staying at a wide spot in the Osage River (more commonly referred to as Truman Lake) .

If you draw a triangle from Iconium to Osceola to Clinton MO and back to Iconium, the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation is roughly at the southeast vertex.

If you click on the image you might be able to read the flag I planted at the camp.

Before H. Roe Bartle became mayor of Kansas City, he was a long-time Boy Scout executive starting in the 1920s in Wyoming, transferring to St. Joseph and finally serving in Kansas City. The H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation hosts three camps on its 4200 acres and serves 6,600 boys and 3000 leaders yearly.

It lacks an internet connection, so I doubt very seriously I will be posting anything over the next week and a half, but I will be back Saturday July 9th. It'll be rough, but I have gone similar periods without internet. It's the lack of air conditioning that I'm more concerned about....

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Customer Service 101 for churches

Customer Service 101 for churches:
Presbyterian Outlook (Free registration required to read the entire article)
"...Combatants believe their causes just and necessary. But I wish zealots would consider the impact of their fighting. Nondenominational churches are thriving on people driven away by relentless bickering within denominations.

So are restaurants serving Sunday brunch. ..."
This article by Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest, is not just about you-know-what. It is about all the trivial, arcane, and downright petty things that dominate our discussions and turn people off.

The sixth of the Great Ends of the Church (Book of Order, G-1.200) is "The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World." What does our version of the Kingdom of Heaven look like to onlookers?

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Born Again and Again - Christianity Today Magazine

Born Again and Again - Christianity Today Magazine:
Jesus gives us strength,' says a Congolese pastor.

by Isaac Phiri

"Goma lies beside deep-blue Lake Kivu surrounded by majestic mountains, so it looks like it could be home to a resort. But endless border conflicts make it a battleground for its 600,000 inhabitants.

Natural forces also threaten Goma. The picturesque Mount Nyiragongo hurled smoke and unleashed rivers of lava through Goma in January 2002. Much of the city was burned and buried.

But one thing seems to keep Goma growing: the church. There is a house of worship around every corner. Or so it seems. Many are simple wood- and zinc-roofed structures. ..."
This is a sidebar to an article in Christianity Today that tells a story of hope in the Congo, where 3.9 million people have died, and 40,000 have been raped since 1996. People have been born, lived and died without knowing anything but warfare.

From the main article:
"...The statistics are depressing. The country's 62 million people live with an infant mortality rate that is ten times higher than that of the U.S. Nearly 50 percent of the population is under age 16, and few will celebrate a 50th birthday. Ten years of war exacerbates the brevity of life. More than 3.9 million have died since 1996, when perpetual fighting first broke out. ..."
How has Christianity dealt with this? A turning point was in 1964:

"...DRC's missions history is equally grim. The nation is the graveyard for hundreds of Western missionaries. In 1964, American Paul Carlson, a medical missionary with the Evangelical Covenant Church, was shot and killed while trying to escape rebel killings. He stopped to help another missionary climb over a wall when machine gun fire ended his life.

Carlson's sacrifice and that of others is enduring in Congolese minds. "We killed them," laments Lusi, "but they kept on coming." Missionary persistence has been rewarded. Today, 72 percent of the population confesses historic Christian faith: 50 percent Catholic and 22 percent a blend of mainline Protestantism and evangelical Pentecostalism. Another 20 percent mix indigenous beliefs with Christianity. ..."

They kept on coming...

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Wrap-up to General Assembly

I went to bed Wednesday thinking the evening Plenary was over, but it turns out that Committee 9, the Social Justice Committee delivered their report and GA did not adjourn until after midnight.

In what I am sure was a very unusual occurrence for this General Assembly, the Plenary rejected the committee recommendation to disapprove on Item 9-20 by a vote of 189-299-6 and, following debate and an amendment, passed the item by a vote of 348-120-1. This was a commissioner's resolution that asked the General Assembly to declare suicide bombing a "crime against humanity". This was amended by the Assembly to add "terrorism" to the statement. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Committee for Racial and Ethnic Concerns spoke against it in committee.

According to the Presbyterian Layman, a motion to reconsider Item 11-1 (the revision of the 216th General Assembly's statement on divestment) was made and rejected during the Thursday morning Plenary session. The original action stands.

I ran across an interesting site, linked by PresbyWeb -- Maynard Pittendreigh has been a blogger for at least 6 years, and has links on his Blogger Profile (click on his name) to his blogs for the 212th, 215th, 216th, and 217th General Assemblies. He and Apostle John, who has also been blogging General Assemblies since 2000, could be a great resource for GA blogging history. Apostle John wrote that he seemed awfully lonely 6 years ago, but there was a lot of company this year.

I read a lot of blogs this year and there are a few I would like to highlight for not only their reporting and analysis, but because the discussion is continuing on their blogs: The Gruntled Center, Quotidian Grace, Apostle John, The Eagle and Child, The Kruse Kronicle.

I am proud to share their love of the Church, and willingness to engage each other on issues where we don't all agree, but we can keep the discussion decent and in order.

Finally, I would like to say how much I appreciate PresbyWeb who has linked to many more Presbyterian bloggers, and whose reporting has been evenhanded since 1998. Access to PresbyWeb is by paid subscription, but there is a 30 day free trial available. The cost is what the user feels it is worth, although there are suggested minimums. I have been reading PresbyWeb since it started, and I recommend it highly.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Where was the Holy Spirit?

The three men I admire most;
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost;
They took the last train for the coast;
The day the music died.

-- Don MacLean, American Pie (1971)

In the 1990s there was a particular General Assembly where things seemed to go pretty much the way the one faction wanted, and one of the leaders was quoted as saying that the Holy Spirit had moved through this assembly.

I remember how appalled I was to hear that. Is the Holy Spirit to be found on the prevailing side?

A year or so later another faction narrowly won a key vote, and an opposing voice was quoted as saying that the Holy Spirit had not spoken clearly. Is the Holy Spirit found in the vote tallies?

In this year of so many people (and I see it on all sides) claiming prophetic voice, I am as disturbed as I was ten or more years ago. Prophetic voices are not self-identified, nor are they identified by their partisans. An implied "Thus saith the Lord" doesn't necessarily make it so.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. -- Exodus 20:7
Where was the Holy Spirit? Right there in the midst of it all, speaking in a still, small voice. And the Holy Spirit is with all Christians in every time and place.

The question is not whether the Holy Spirit speaks clearly, but whether people listen. A still, small voice may be hard to hear during the earthquake, wind, and fire of General Assembly. (I have already expressed the opinion that the PC(USA) is not undergoing a tectonic shift, but there certainly was a lot of wind and fire). But I have faith and hope that some listened.
"Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right." -- Abraham Lincoln

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Youth Advisory Delegates

Youth Advisory delegates are a long-standing fixture at General Assemblies. They are under 25 years old, and are commissioned by their respective presbyteries to attend GA along with the minster(s) and elder(s) from that presbytery.

They have been, at times, a heavily lobbied group, as their opinions and actions are often seen as a bellwether for the PC(USA). Several years ago the General Assembly staff went as far as to house them separately from the other commissions to insulate them from all the pressure. I don't know if that kind of control is still being excercised, but it was certainly controversial at the time.

Why are YADs so important? A few important reasons are (1) they have voice and vote in committee, and often determine what recommendations are made to the plenary; (2) they have voice on the floor of General Assembly; and (3) their votes are taken immediately prior to the commissioner votes (although only the commissioner votes determine the outcome).

YADs make an excellent point when they say "We are NOT the Church of the Future; We are the Church NOW!"

Over the years some have complained that the YADs monopolize the microphones, preventing commissioners from speaking to issues at the plenary. I did not see that when I watched the streaming video of the GA plenary sessions. Another complaint is that they are often too emotional to make clear points when they speak and that they are not organized with their thoughts. I saw emotional and incoherent statements while watching the video feed -- from voting commissioners, and yes, occasionally from a YAD -- but excessive emotion and lack of organization does not seem to distinguish the YADs from the commissioners.

What I DID see, for the most part, were Youth Advisory Delegates who were well-prepared and able to speak clearly and effectively to their Church. Seeing and hearing them (even on a laptop computer) gives me confidence that the PC(USA) is fundamentally healthy, even if we do have a little indigestion from time to time.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Wednesday Evening Actions

Item 3-17 of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly dealing with the records currently housed at the Presbyterian Historical Society at Montreat. The Plenary ultimately voted 356-147-6. The result of the vote is that the records will be moved to Columbia Theological Seminary. This was an emotional issue, and one that was not decided lightly.

Item 10-01 from the Committee on Health Issues dealing with late-term abortions. An early amendment to strengthen the pastoral issues passed 402-74-5.

A second amendment was proposed to change "supercede" to "added to" when describing earlier statements by previous General Assemblies. This amendment failed.

A third amendment to add the words "based on the choice of the mother" to the first sentence decribing the alternatives, including abortion. This amendment also failed.

A vote was called for the main motion as amended. The advisory delegates voted in favor and the commissioners voted 381-117-6 in favor of Item 10-1.

10:20pm CDT: Item 10-3 from the Committee on Health Issues was moved by the committee and passed 406-71-6. This asked that the plenary act "To commend the Presbytery of Mississippi for its use of group discernment concerning abortion, and recommend that all presbyteries create task forces to replicate their process of prayer and study, that hearts and minds may be open to God’s wisdom through Scripture, other resources, and one another, and to direct the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly to communicate this action to the presbyteries."

Item 10-4 passed on a show of hands. In its original form, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) asked that the General Assembly reaffirm the previous policies on problem pregnancies, and to approve the "Monitoring Report on the Implementation of the Problem Pregnancies and Abortion Policies." The actual action was answered in part by the action on Item 10-1 (which did not reaffirm previous policies and, in fact, superceded them), and the report was received, not approved. This was somewhat complex, so follow the link at the beginning of this paragraph for the "canonical" version of what was done.

That's it for the evening, and I am going to head for bed. Tommorow is going to be a short day for our hard-working commissioners. They deserve a break, and I sure hope no one pulls any last minute parliamentary shenanigans....

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Divestment Under Debate

Item 11-1 of the Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues is currently under debate. A presbyter from New York Presbytery moved substitute language that would back away from apologies on the grounds that there is no precedent for apologies to groups that are hurt by prophetic statements of previous assemblies, including fellow Presbyterians. The question was called, and debate ended. The amendment failed 120-383.

4:49pm CDT: A second amendment would add language to assure Palestinian Christians that we are not abandoning them in this time of trial for all sides. A call for all pending questions was moved, and the Stated Clerk is explaining the ramifications of this. The advisory delegates voted to end debate and the commissioners voted 403-91 to end debate. The amendment lost narrowly with the advisory delegates and likewise lost narrowly with the commissioners.

5:00pm CDT: The main motion is now up for a vote. The advisory delegates voted in favor, and the commissioners voted 483-28-1 in favor of the recommendation.

We had an opportunity to correct our mistakes of 2004, and we took it. Our policy is more just, recognizes that the problems are not limited to one side, and allows our denomination to be agents of healing and pastoral concern rather than agents of punishment.

Our commissioners are to be commended.

Several additional items were moved in a group, as they were answered by the action on 11-1. and they passed with a margin similar to the action on 11-1.

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Wednesday Morning Ruminations

As Beau Weston has pointed out, The Center is Holding.

This General Assembly is shaping up to more closely resemble the PC(USA) than in recent years. The members range from conservative to liberal (or evangelical to progressive) in a more or less bell-shaped curve, with a definite tilt toward the evangelical side of things, according to the Presbyterian Panel. Scroll down the page on the preceding link, and you can see the data presented in bar graph form. This skew to the conservative side is true for members, elders, and pastoral clergy. The specialized clergy skew is very pronounced toward the liberal side.

The actions of General Assembly so far seem to reflect the opinions of the PC(USA) membership, tempered by a healthy dose of centrism.

This afternoon the last of the "hot button" issues will come up in the form of a recommendation by Committee 11 (Peacemaking and International Issues) to modify the action of the 216th General Assembly with regard to divesting from multinational corporations that do business in Israel. This was a cause of hurt to the Jewish community, and many Presbyterians back in the congregations felt that the 2004 action was unduly punitive and one-sided.

The Peacemaking Committee is presenting a recommendation to the General Assembly Plenary this afternoon that would shift the focus from punishment to positive engagement, and would present a more balanced response to Middle East violence. This passed the committee 53-6-3, and I hope the Plenary follows suit.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Heartland Overture Disapproved

According to Les, the General Assembly Tracking software:

The Presbytery of Heartland respectfully overtures the 217th General Assembly (2006) to do the following:

1. Provide the following authoritative interpretation:

Interpretative statements concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the 119th General Assembly (1979) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and all subsequent affirmations thereof, have no further force or effect.

2. Direct the Stated Clerk to send the following proposed amendment to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes:

Shall G-6.0106b be stricken? [Text to be deleted is shown with a strike-through.]

b. Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W 4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The General Assembly approved the committee recommendation to disapprove by a vote of 405-92-4 -- so there will be no amendment this year striking G 6.0106b, nor will there be any changes to the Authoritative Interpretations.

[CLARIFICATION] The Committee on Church Orders recommended disapproval of this overture, and that is what the plenary voted on. In my original posting it was not clear what the vote represented. The remaining overtures to strike G-6.0106b were consiidered to have been answered by this action.

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PUP Voting Underway

According to Les, Recommendations 1-4 of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task force report passed the General Assembly Plenary by a vote of 459-41-7. Were they handled as a group? They had identical vote tallies.

Recommendations 5, 6, and, 7 have no action listed at this time.

3:41pm -- the minority substitute motion fails; A motion to refer recommendations 5 and 6 to the presbyterys was made and seconded and is now under debate.

Well, it's 5:45pm and I'm back from picking up my car from Firestone. Recomendations 5, 6, and 7 passed the Plenary by a vote of 298-221-1.

Two things are worth noting.

First is that recommendation 4, relating to using alternate forms of discernment, was amended to make it clear that this does not apply to final actions, which are governed by Robert's Rules unless otherwise provided for.

The second is that recommendation 5 was amended to provide for not only the process used by governing bodies to be subject to review, but to allow the results to be reviewed as to their constitutionality. The comment that accompanied this is as follows:
Comment: The success of this proposal is dependent upon all governing bodies taking all standards of the church seriously and applying them rigorously in the examination process. All governing bodies are encouraged to develop resources to ensure that this happens.
Recommendation 6, passed with 5, asks that all existing Authoritative Interpretations be retained, and that no new ones be passed, and further that no changes to existing constitutional statements on Christology, ordination requirements, and sexuality be proposed:

a. the 217th General Assembly (2006) to approve no additional authoritative interpretations, to remove no existing authoritative interpretations, and to send to the presbyteries no proposed constitutional amendments that would have the effect of changing denominational policy on any of the major issues in the task force’s report, including Christology, biblical interpretation, essential tenets, and sexuality and ordination.

b. all church members to acknowledge their traditional biblical obligation, as set forth in Matthew 18:15-17, Matthew 5:23-25, and in the Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order, “to conciliate, mediate, and adjust differences without strife” prayerfully and deliberately (D-1.0103) and to institute administrative or judicial proceedings only when other efforts fail to preserve the purposes and purity of the church.
For better or for worse, this is now approved by the General Assembly. I do not share the vehement opposition of some, although I respect their opinions. The two changes made to the recommendations improve the final product, and personally, I do not see a tectonic shift taking place in the PC(USA). Sessions and Presbyteries that are already inclined to ignore constitutional standards will, no doubt, continue to do so. Recommendation 5 takes note of this and (if I understand it correctly) adds the review of the outcome, in addition to the review of the process. Does this mean that an ordination can be set aside, if the process was unconstitutional? I'm not sure. We'll have to see how this goes down in practice.

In any case it was a busy and, no doubt, grueling day at General Assembly. Let's pray for forbearance and strength for all our commisioners.

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Random Reflections From Afar

Les has been very useful to me, and thus far I have had no problem getting logged in and retrieving information. Its user interface could use some work. My browser of choice for Windows and Linux is Firefox, and it works fine with Les.

Streaming video from GA this year is of higher quality than I have experienced in the past, and they do a good job of showing what is happening. The audio quality is excellent.

With Les and streaming video, and a broadband connection, information is available in real-time, thus allowing interested Presbyterians to know what is happening with unprecedented ease.

Bloggers are providing us with news and analysis to a greater extent than ever before. Two years has made quite a difference in the bloggosphere.

Nearly all bloggers covering GA 217 from Birmingham or from a distance are "doing it decently and in order."

This is not to say we all agree, nor is it to say we always get it right. (although I am confident in saying that we do a far better job than the average newspaper reporter)

I like what I have seen of our new moderator, and having read her book Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers, she DID write the book on polity (as one of her nominators pointed out).

I am evangelical in my theology and a member of what Beau Weston calls the "Loyal Center". As such, I am used to not getting my way all the time. Given a choice between getting my way and having the Presbyterian Church hold together, I lean toward staying together. Thus far I have seen many actions in past years that irritate me, and even anger me, but I have also seen actions that pleased me. My threshhold for schism has yet to be reached, and I do not go from year to year looking for excuses to leave my church home.

Vigorously advocating for one's beliefs is one thing; an "all or nothing" stance is quite another. In our diverse denomination no one is going to get their way all the time, and to expect it is unreasonable.

Let's all continue to pray for the General Assembly, and pray that our unity in Jesus Christ overcomes our self-centeredness as we speak and interact with each other.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Sexuality Curriculum Recommendation

Along with everything else going on, there was an overture by Shenango Presbytery that revisited a similar attempt several years ago to bring the youth sexuality curriculum in line with Biblical and Confessional standards. As I recall, this passed a General Assembly in the late 1990s and seems to have been forgotten, due in no small part to the reluctance of the Congregational Ministries Division to comply.

In any case, while I was browsing on Les (the GA information and tracking system) I found the following item (12-11) that was discussed by Committee 12 (Church Growth and Christian Education):

“The Presbytery of Shenango overtures the 217th General Assembly (2006) to direct the General Assembly Council (Congregational Ministries Division) and all other PC(USA) entities to use the biblical and confessional teachings that sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage of a man and a woman as the standard for the development of any future materials or recommendations for materials in print or in its website. [The curriculum should include information on reproductive health to allow for an open discussion between teachers and youth in light of our understanding of God’s plan for sexuality.]”

The material between the square brackets and underlined was added by amendment.

The Committee recommended approval by a vote of 29-17-0. The Congregational Ministries Division and Advocacy Committee for Women's Concerns both testified against the Shenango Overture.

This all sounds familiar, and if this passes, I hope that those charged with implementing it actually do so, rather than waiting to see what the next General Assembly will come up with.

[UPDATE] This overture passed in the Plenary session 381-108-6, according to Les.

[UPDATE 5:26pm CDT] A motion to reconsider was defeated approximately 70% to 30%. The afternoon Plenary session is adjourned until 8:15pm CDT this evening. (observed via streaming video)

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

GA 217 Peacemaking Committee Votes to Replace Divestment Language

GA 217 Peacemaking Committee Votes to Replace Divestment Language:

The Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues voted last night 53-6 to make the following change in the previous General Assembly's directive. The PC(USA) news release said that this issue could be revisited today (Sunday), and that a minority report may be forthcoming.

"We acknowledge that the actions of the 216th General Assembly caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion. We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.

To these ends, we replace the instructions expressed in Item 12-01 (Minutes, 2004 Part I, pp. 64-66) item 7, which reads

"7. Refers to Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action."

with the following:

To urge that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal."

I feel the Peacemaking Committee has made a choice that will lead to peacemaking. Our Jewish friends have been hurt and bewildered by the apparent one-sided action of the 216th General Assembly and felt that they were being unjustly blamed and punished for the problems that exist in the Middle East. Joining the Jewish community are many Presbyterians who feel that the actions of 2004 need to revisited in light of intervening events as well as concerns for justice.

I see in this action a shift from a punitive approach to a pastoral approach -- one more in keeping with what it means to be a peacemaker. I hope the lopsided vote truly reflects the committee's wish to correct the mistakes of 2004.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Trinity paper approved with amendments

Trinity paper approved with amendments:

By Bill Lancaster

BIRMINGHAM, June 17 — The Theological Issues and Institutions Committee of the 217th General Assembly approved, with amendment, the paper entitled, "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing." The vote was 42-16-3 (for-against-abstain). There will be a minority report. ...

The paper affirms Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the church's anchor language for the Trinity, but lifts up other biblical images of the Trinity for study and use in worship.

One approved amendment adds a paragraph affirming that Jesus Christ is the very image of God. The full text, to be added at line 436 in the paper, states, "We must always bear in mind that Scripture affirms Jesus Christ is the very image of God. This means the Triune God has chosen to reveal the Divine identity in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Christ is the mystery of our salvation and the revelation of God in the world." ...

This was shaping up to be a controversial topic, and may well prove to be, as a minority report will also be sent to the plenary. The additions seem to make it clear that the Trinitarian doctrine is in little danger of being set aside, but there are many who are looking very carefully at what this document says.

The final version of The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing (prior to GA) is available as a pdf file

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GA 217 Committee Actions This Weekend

PresbyWeb, The Presbyterian Layman, More Light Presbyterians, and several blogs are reporting three committee actions on fairly controversial issues:

The Baltimore Overture (which would require per capita assessments to be remitted by congregations) failed in committee by a rather lopsided vote of 37-8-3.

The Heartland Overture to remove 6.0106b from the Book of Order as well as to nullify all authoritative interpretations related to ordination of self-affirming homosexuals failed in committee (on a motion to disapprove) 30-28.

A trio of overtures which would put the PC(USA) on record as affirming marriage as being between one man and one women failed. All of these appeared to cast their reach into the civil realm.

It needs to be noted that our Constitution (and the underlying Scripture from the New Testament) already defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. There are many fights worth fighting; is this really one of them?

What will happen now?

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the Baltimore Overture is going nowhere.

With regard to the Heartland Overture, no prediction here. Just a hope that we don't have to keep fighting this every two years...

The marriage overtures are probably not going anywhere.

Anything can happen in the Plenary Sessions, though, so we have something to look forward to.

I checked the official GA 17 web site, and as of this moment, none of the above are being reported by the PC(USA), but we need to keep in mind that these are recommendations to GA, not actions of GA.

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The Eagle and Child: Excursis -- Things the PCUSA is doing right

The Eagle and Child:
"One of the great blessings is being able to connect with mission folk from all around the world. Some of our least recognized missionaries in the PCUSA are our military chaplains. ..."
In this short posting on The Eagle and Child, Russell Smith gives welcome encouragement to those Presbyterian ministers who feel the call to serve God by serving those who serve in our nation's Armed Forces.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could be opposed to the military chaplaincy, yet, like Russell, I have heard such sentiments expressed. Are our men and women in the armed forces to be denied the "shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God?"

My father was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. The first stateside churches I remember were Presbyterian, but while we were overseas we attended the Protestant Chapel. I grew to respect the chaplains who helped me along in my spiritual development. My confirmation class was conducted in Heidelberg, Germany by a Lutheran chaplain, who unbeknownst to me had contacted the Session of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church in Virginia, which received me in absentia into communicant membership in the UPCUSA.

I also developed over the years a great respect for my father, who was drafted in 1951 and served in Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Germany, as well as stateside postings. When he went to Korea I was less than a year old, but I was in my 12th year when he went to Vietnam. He served well and honorably in war and in peace, and when he retired in 1971, he embarked on a second career as a teacher. I am proud of his service to our country, his dedication to his students, his dedication to his Church, and his dedication to his family. And I am proud to be his son.

Happy Father's Day!

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Friday, June 16, 2006

GA217: Surprise announcement electrifies Assembly

PC(USA) receives historic $150 million gift for church growth

by Evan Silverstein

BIRMINGHAM, June 15 A Colorado businessman and elder has contributed a historic $150 million gift to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) aimed at helping presbyteries start new churches, transform struggling congregations and develop new racial-ethnic congregations.

The money from Stanley W. Anderson of Denver, CO, for the new Loaves and Fishes Church Growth Fund will be distributed to presbyteries through grants ranging from $250,000 to $1 million each.

Presbyteries will be required to apply for the grants and will have to match a portion of it.

Word of the money came through a surprise announcement Thursday that electrified those attending the opening of the PC(USA)’s 217th General Assembly here, prompting commissioners to stand and cheer.

Presbytery mission causes and Presbyterian seminaries will also benefit from the money. ..."

This is astounding, and I hope it will be used wisely. While this is a designated gift, it does seem to fit in with the recent General Assembly Council actions in shifting the locus of action away from Louisville and closer to the congregations.

It does boggle the mind to realize that this gift is 50% larger than the entire GAC budget....

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PC(USA) - 217th General Assembly (2006) - Atlanta pastor is elected moderator

PC(USA) - 217th General Assembly (2006) - Atlanta pastor is elected moderator:
by Jerry L. Van Marter

"BIRMINGHAM, June 15 — The Rev. Joan S. Gray, a pastor in Greater Atlanta Presbytery who said she doesn’t have many answers for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s problems but is willing to let God lead the way, was elected moderator of the 2.3 million-member denomination’s 217th General Assembly on June 15. ..."

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has chosen a new moderator, favoring the centrist over the two conservative and one liberal candatates. I'm personally hoping that this sets the tone for how the next 10 days go. Joan Gray won on the third ballot with 62% of the vote.

Among other things, Gray believes that "...Jesus is the way, truth and life, but I’m willing to give God a lot of leeway in matters I don’t fully understand." In addition she is unwilling to change ordination standards in light of what she believes to be true.

The photo is by Danny Bolin, one of the photographers at General Assembly.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Is this the Year of the Blog for the PC(USA)?

Two years ago we had the last of the annual General Assemblies, and today the first of the biennial General Assemblies begins.

I have been following these meetings online for about 15 years and have seen how internet technology has developed in providing us with rapid information and even real-time access with streaming video. (or is that "screaming video"?)

Ten or fifteen years ago our choices were limited. There were the official statements of the PC(USA), but they were infrequent and not particularly informative. For too many years, the average Presbyterian heard about actions of General Assembly weeks after the fact. Whatever else you can say about The Presbyterian Layman, they were one of the first independent groups to provide information to rank-and-file Presbyterians. Such other groups as the Presbyterian Forum, The Witherspoon Society, More Light Presbyterians, the Presbyterian Coalition, and others followed suit, and by the end of the 1990s we had more information than we could process. The PC(USA) made serious strides in telling their story, because quite frankly, others were already doing so -- and not necessarily accurately.

The one drawback in all this was that most of the non-official content over the past 15 years has been provided by special interest groups, with their own agendas. One notable exception has been PresbyWeb, which has provided balanced, independent reporting of news around the Presbyterian Church since 1998. Personal web sites were not common enough to have much of an impact outside a fairly limited geographical area.

But that has changed rapidly over the past few years. Blogs, with their easy-to-use editing interface can be updated rapidly, and we have the potential to see even more information and analysis coming now from a greater diversity of people. The Gruntled Center, The Eagle and Child, Dave Ayers, Quotidian Grace, and many others are blogging this week and next on the 217th General Assembly. Some are going to be "on the ground" in Birmingham, and some will be following the action from their home base -- but all of them have voices that deserve to be heard.

For my part, I will do my usual reading of the various traditional sites. I will be relying more on those who blog decently and in order for what I expect will be accurate reporting and cogent anlaysis.

A suggestion -- at the top of this and other BlogSpot blogs is a link to a blog search engine. One button searches JUST the local blog, and the other searches all blogs. The search engine technology is, of course, Google (who owns BlogSpot). They do, however, index all blogs and not just their own. I'll leave formulation of good search expressions as an exercise to the reader...

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Does being Presbyterian matter?

Does being Presbyterian matter?:
by Dave Ayers
"The 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) starts tomorrow in Birmingham, AL. I plan on giving you a view of what transpires from here in Quincy, while Pastor Bakker will be observing on the ground at the Convention Center in downtown Birmingham. ..."
Dave Ayers, who usually blogs at The Orlop, is posting his impressions of GA217 during the next week and a half on the web site of the First Presbyterian Church of Quincy, Illinois.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Quotidian Grace: The Church's One Foundation

Quotidian Grace: The Church's One Foundation:
"Tomorrow the General Assembly of the PCUSA begins meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.

I have a friend who attended a GA several years ago. He came back shell-shocked from the experience. "There was nothing there that seemed anything like my church back home," he told me. " I told my wife I felt that God had left the PCUSA and was hanging out at the Starbucks on the corner across from the hotel. " He felt mobbed on all sides by special interest groups and besieged like a Congressman running the gauntlet of aggressive lobbyists, as he struggled with his responsibility as a commissioner. ..."
Along with this anecdote, Quotidian Grace has some good perspectives on the PC(USA) and how it chooses to spend its resources.

At least two Youth advisory Delegates of my acquaintance have confirmed the intense lobbying that goes on. One likened it to a tug-of-war with the YADs as the rope.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Gruntled Center Goes to Birmingham

Gruntled Center:
"For most of the next two weeks I will be an observer at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). My particular task will be to follow the ups and downs of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. ..."
Beau Weston is going to be doing his blog from Birmingham, Alabama.

I look forward to reading his description of what happens, especially as it relates to the PUP.

It has been my impression that the independent voices at previous General Assemblies have tended to be from the fringes of the PC(USA), thus it will be good to hear from Beau Weston, a true centrist.

Bookmark The Gruntled Center and visit it over the next two weeks for what promises to be a fair and well-reasoned view of our 217th General Assembly.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

PC(USA) life and ministry after downsizing

PC(USA) life and ministry after downsizing:
Presbyterian Outlook (free registration required)
Leslie Scanlon, Outlook national reporter

So where does the church go from here?

The recent $9.1 million downsizing of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s national staff and the reorganization of what’s left leaves people asking questions.

Among them: In a shrinking denomination with fewer members and less money, but with significant enthusiasm for mission work at the grassroots, what’s the role of the national church structure?

And specifically, where do Presbyterians want to focus their energies in evangelism and international mission work?

Those are big questions. But some of the outlines on the map are as follows:

  • The downsizing includes the loss of 75 staff members and 40 missionary positions. Those cuts are provoking unhappiness – but also conversation about how money for international mission work can be raised in different ways, including through a newly-created Presbyterian Global Fellowship , a networking group established in May. Increasingly, some Presbyterians are pursuing international mission endeavors with minimal involvement of the PC(USA).
  • The PC(USA) has ambitious goals for becoming more racially diverse and multicultural. But it’s far from clear how, or if, that goal of becoming at least 20 percent non-white by 2010 will be reached. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics were available, just over 92 percent of the denomination’s members were white.
  • The General Assembly Council does not seem satisfied with the denomination’s current efforts at evangelism. It has instructed the staff leadership team to come to the council’s meeting in September with a plan for “alternative programs that will directly speak to communicating the gospel in clear ways.” ...
Leslie Scanlon of the Presbyterian Outlook has posted an analysis of that the recent budget cuts and reorganization of the General Assembly Council will mean for Presbyterians at the local level.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

PC(USA) - News Service - For men in church, problems start with flowers and lace

PC(USA) - News Service - For men in church, problems start with flowers and lace:
by Kristin Campbell
Religion News Service

"MOBILE, AL — Men don’t need pirates in the pews. Then again, the presence of such swashbucklers might not be the worst thing to happen Sunday morning.

So goes the thinking of David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to

“We don't have to have hand-to-hand combat during the worship service to get men there,” Murrow said. “We just have to start speaking (their language), use the metaphors they understand and create an environment that feels masculine to them.”

Today’s churches, Murrow argued, just aren’t cutting it. ..."
This reminds me of many conversations I have heard regarding how our language drives certain people away, and how we must take extra pains to ensure that we include everybody.

This article raises an interesting question: Have we driven away the men?

This article makes the point that this is not a particularly American problem, nor is it a modern problem.

I have accepted women's full participation in church governance for pretty much my whole life. It is not an issue for me. I accept the use of inclusive language in conversation, but I don't much appreciate rewriting hymns to conform to some particular group's idea of correctness. And I have always questioned the need to purge our church language of metaphors relating to a struggle or battle. Even Paul used sports metaphors....

We spend a lot of time arguing about the words we use, and not enough time discussing the issues. Can we accept each others' experiences and permit each other to use the language and metaphors that arise from such experiences?

If men are made to feel uncomfortable when they speak out of their experiences, then perhaps we need to engage in a little introspection.

Why Men Hate Going to Church
David Murrow
Thomas Nelson
2005 price $10.77

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Free, but Not Easy - Christianity Today Magazine

Free, but Not Easy - Christianity Today Magazine:
Why grace is so rare among Christians.
Reviewed by John Wilson | posted 06/08/2006 09:00 a.m.

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace
by Miroslav Volf
256 pp.; $12.99

"Miroslav Volf, the leading Protestant theologian of his generation, has written a book that might serve as a model for how to do "public theology"—a book that can be read with profit by any thoughtful Christian. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace is a sustained examination of the scandalous truth at the heart of the gospel: "God's forgiveness is indiscriminate." We've become dulled to this truth, Volf observes. We need to recover it again and again. ..."
This sounds like an interesting book. A little grace can go a long way toward ameliorating the tensions and conflicts in the PC(USA) part of the Body of Christ.

I linked the book title above to its listing.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

PC(USA) - News Service - What are the principles of modern Cumberland Presbyterianism?

PC(USA) - News Service - What are the principles of modern Cumberland Presbyterianism?:
Commentary by Jay Earheart-Brown
President, Memphis Theological Seminary
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
Reprinted from Perspectives

"MEMPHIS — I am proud to be a Cumberland Presbyterian. I am not proud of everything we do, and I do know pride can be a dangerous thing. The Scriptures counsel us not to think too highly of ourselves, but they also counsel us not to think less of ourselves than we ought.

As dangerous as too much pride can be, I think the greater danger for us as a church is that we don’t take enough pride in who we are, by God’s grace, and in what God is calling us to do and be in the world. I want to use this occasion to reflect on a few of the reasons why I am proud to be a Cumberland Presbyterian.

In a history of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches by Alan Sell, former executive secretary of that organization, Sell used three words to describe the work of the Alliance. Those three words are good descriptors of our heritage as Cumberland Presbyterians: evangelical, reformed, and catholic. ..."

Here is an interesting article for those interested in learning more about one of our sibling denominations.

Several years ago I had an opportunity to speak with a Cumberland Presbyterian minister who mentioned that the Cumberlands were ordaining women as both elders and ministers in the 1880s -- well before any of the predecessor denominations of the PC(USA). This was not a mandated practice, but rather more of a "local option" sort of thing. For more information, explore this link to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (which also has information relating to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America).

[Update 6/9/2006]

A quick Google search on "cumberland presbyterian church ordination women" pointed me to this web site:

History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches

It is quite interesting reading.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Science & Theology News - How bioethics leader learned from religion

Science & Theology News - How bioethics leader learned from religion:

By Kevin Ferguson
(June 7, 2006)
"In the wake of staggering news in February 1997 that Scottish scientists has cloned a sheep, President Clinton tapped the Princeton University president to chair the nascent National Bioethics Advisory Commission and weigh the moral significance of the announcement. In preparation for the committee’s report titled “Cloning Human Beings,” Shapiro crisscrossed the country, soliciting input from ethicists, theologians, scientists, physicians and concerned citizens. “I was very struck that the first reaction of people was to ask themselves what their faith might say about this,” he said. ..."
This interview with Harold Shapiro, former president of Princeton University, describes his learning process as he tried to get a handle on the issues of bioethics.

While Shapiro's theology is not particularly well-defined, he does believe that the religious voices need to be heard, and their absence in the early years of the debate deprived the debate of an important point of view.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

An Ugly Phoenix Reborn - Christianity Today Magazine

An Ugly Phoenix Reborn
by David Aikman

"...In the middle of the first decade of the third millennium, anti-Semitism in Europe has made a horrifying comeback. One of the most dramatic examples was the February murder in France of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cell-phone salesman. This young man was kidnapped, ostensibly because it was thought he would fetch a good ransom (his kidnappers said they thought all Jews were "rich"). ..."
The author of this piece goes on to point out additional evidence of a resurgence of anti-Israeli attitudes and actions that are not distinguished from anti-semitism. Wearing a yarmulke in public often elicits ridicule at best and physical attacks at worst.

"... A prominent British intellectual who has decided that Israel has "no right to exist" is A. N. Wilson, who has written several books virulently opposed not just to evangelical Christianity, but to a theistic worldview in general. In almost every country where anti-Semitism has a major presence, there is a hatred of America and in particular American Christianity. ..."
It seems very odd that the country that gave rise to the Balfour Declaration could give rise to such attitudes.

"..What should not be in doubt is the absolute Christian indebtedness to the Jewish people. They gave us the Scriptures and the prophets, and the Messiah himself. Christianity shorn of its Jewish origins simply would not be Christianity. It would be a collection of milquetoast ethics without a metaphysic, roots, or the semblance of any truth.

Christians may—indeed should—have a variety of attitudes toward the Israeli government. But to Jews as a whole—our "elder brothers," as Pope John Paul II called them—we owe far more than we can ever repay. In the face of Europe's rising tide of anti-Semitism, let us never forget it."

And this may be why anti-Semitic and anti-Christian attitudes seem so inextricably linked. As long as we believe and publicly acknowledge our debt, we expose ourselves to the same hatred that much of the world still has for the Jews. We stood idly by for far too many years while the events leading to the Holocaust occurred. When early indications of a horrible massacre started filtering out, we could not believe it.

Could it happen again? -- Darfur. Rwanda. Iraq. -- There seems to be no shortage of people willing to exterminate others who are of a different religion or ethnic background than themselves.

The outspoken anti-Semites are at least visible, and we know them by their words of hate. What is far more insidious are the subtle ways in which anti-Semitism finds its way into our political institutions, our schools, and even our churches.

The late John-Paul II hit it squarely when he referred to the Jews as our "elder brothers", and to accept that means we share the same parentage. Does this not imply an obligation to act as if we were "family"?

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Presbyterian Global Fellowship organized; mission focus

Presbyterian Global Fellowship organized; mission focus:
[free registration is needed to view the whole article]
"Saying that Presbyterians should turn their attention away from denominational struggles and back out towards the world, a group of more than a dozen congregations are announcing the creation of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship ( .

While the exact shape of the endeavor is still being formulated, the new fellowship is intended to connect Presbyterian congregations in pursuing mission work and to encourage them to support the work they consider vital through designated, targeted giving.

Its organizers – who have been praying and talking about this for the last several months – include Michael Walker, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal; D. Scott Weimer, senior pastor of North Avenue Presbyterian church in Atlanta; and Vic Pentz, senior pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian church, also in Atlanta.

The website also states that the fellowship “will seek wisdom, support and other resources” from groups already involved in mission, such as Presbyterians for Renewal , the Outreach Foundation and Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship . ..."
I am in sympathy with the goals of this new organization, as I have been concerned for several years that the internecine fighting in the Presbyterian Church has weakened our mission in the world. I wish them well and hope they can be an effective means of shifting our attention outward.

I have two concerns -- the first is that in their Frequently Asked Questions, they list their feelings on sexuality issues. I hope they don't fall into the trap of focussing in the very thing they (and I) feel is hampering our witness to the world. It might be better to simply mention it briefly, and move on.

The second concern is another FAQ regarding designated giving, and the perception of non-accountablility at the denominational level. I hope this does not extend to withholding per capita. While it may be "legal" it certainly is not being good Presbyterian citizens. There is a new Mission Work Plan that seems to address those issues in a way that not only moves away from non-accountability, but also places the responsibility for the mission of the PC(USA) at the local and regional level. Let's see how this works out over the next year.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

PC(USA) - News Service - PC(USA) membership declines, giving up

PC(USA) - News Service - PC(USA) membership declines, giving up:
"...Of the 48,474 lost members, almost 35,000 were women. The number of elders, male and female, declined by almost 1,600 to just more than 97,000. The number of female deacons increased by 74, to 47,121, while the number of male deacons declined by 424 to just under 20,000.

Adult baptisms declined by 1,216 to 9,243. Child baptisms declined by 2,889 to 30,727. Church school attendance declined by more than 36,000 to 1,081,084. ..."
Jerry Van Marter has written an analysis of the recently announced membership losses by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

These numbers are broken down into a variety of categories to assist in understanding just where the changes are taking place. Answering the question "why?" was not in the scope of this news release.

The membership loss broken down by type of loss and by age and gender were interesting and to me, fairly pessimistic. Adult baptisms dropped by about 11% and child baptisms dropped by about 9 % -- while the denomination dropped by about 2%.

The figures on where the giving (which is up by 7% in adjusted figures) is going was somewhat of a suprise to me. 71% is going to local mission and program; 16.5% is going for capital improvement; per capita going to higher levels is 1.5%; PC(USA) validated mission is 4.7%; and non-PC(USA) mission is 3.3%. (this accounts for 97%, so something's missing). I had expected that the non-PC(USA) mission percentage would higher.

It does not bother me that the percent of local mission and program is by far the dominant expenditure, since whant makes the Church The Church is happening in local congregations. The PC(USA) is recognizing that, and I look forward to the implementation of the 2007-2008 Mission Work Plan, which has as one of its goals the empowerment of presbyteries and local congregation to carry out the mission of the Church.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Stated Clerk Releases 2005 Statistics

Office of the General Assembly:
Stated Clerk Releases 2005 Statistics
Membership is down, giving is up

"...At the end of 2005, there were 2,313,662 active, confirmed members in the PC(USA), a net loss of 48,474. The total membership was 3,098,842. This includes 318,291 baptized but not confirmed members (mostly children) and 466,889 inactive members. ..."

"...Total giving in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) topped three billion dollars for the first time. Total gifts to the church were $3,073,684,927, an increase of $146,872,634 (slightly over 5%). Adjusted for membership loss, the average church member gave 7% more to the church in 2005 than the year before. ..."
These mixed statistics were mentioned when the General Assembly Council issued its Mission Work Plan for 2007-2008, but the Stated Clerk has now provided figures.

The loss of 48,474 seems a bit higher than in years past, but I don't know for sure. In any case, even if the raw amount stayed level, we'd still be heading in the wrong direction.

At the same time, total giving increased by 5% over the previous year, and this is a sign of hope. We were told at our recent presbytery meeting that much of this increase goes for mission -- but is not passed through Louisville.

Mission IS being carried out, and the GAC and current moderator recognize that the central administration of the PC(USA) is not where it is happening, nor is it where it SHOULD happen.

The PC(USA) is in a crisis on more than one level, and I hope the Mission Work Plan is taken seriously at all levels, and that people work together to "exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world."

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Thinking Christian

Thinking Christian:

Here is an interesting blog hosted by the Houston Chronicle. It is fairly new, but the author has posted on a few topics including how we can use The Da Vinci Code to engage others as well as a thoughtful piece on a bit of civil disobedience by Christians that made the news over the past week.

His piece on the Da Vinci Code concludes with this:
"...As a Christian is there anything that we can do about it? To stop it, no. Making a scene about it will only make it bigger. It is up to us to keep ourselves informed about what they are talking about, and informed on what the Bible says. We can't be experts on the Bible, leave that up to the Phd.'s, but if we at least know what is and what isn't in the Bible then we can be better informed to discuss these shows with others when the occasion arises."
I'll be checking back with this blog from time to time. It sounds like it will prove interesting.

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