June 16 to 23, 2018, I went as a part of a team of delegates and commissioners representing the Presbytery of St. Augustine to the 223rd PC(USA) General Assembly. Before and after each of us posted our musings, both profound and silly, about the event. The full list of musings from all the team can be found here. Below are my posts from the event.
Preparations – Thursday, June 14, 2018
Until about a week ago, I thought of General Assembly in the abstract as a bureaucratic machine, an engine chugging along, mostly silent, but with the occasional warning whistle or mechanical groan, an engine which has the purpose of keeping the wheels of our denomination ever-moving towards the future.
I volunteered to participate as a cog in this machinery in part so I could grow my knowledge of this denomination, which has been so much a part of my adult life, and in part because I thought it would be a semi-vacation, an early-summer break in the everyday challenges of my life as pastor, software developer, and parent.
After I received my committee assignment and I was sent information about the overtures and issues with which I needed to become conversant, the seriousness of the week ahead began to sink in.
Sometime around then, I also learned that they entire event would likely be broadcast for all to see. Then a fellow St. Augustine clergy person, upon hearing that I was going to GA, advised me in a rather loud and expansive voice: to – “don’t do stupid!”
Confronting my own growing nervousness, I began to worry that the week might become an exercise in witnessing my own or other’s social anxiety or narcissism or, worse, I’d become a witness to deep divisions and intractable conflict. What was I getting into?
Then to my astonishment, during the training event last week, I heard someone I deeply respect who has attended several GA sessions describe the experience of GA as “One of the most joyful experiences of my life, an experience in which I felt whole.” What I remember most is not her words but how her face changed while she spoke them. I could see her face relax, her eyes sparkle with a calm joy, as for a moment she seemed lost in a memory, some moment maybe among many, from a previous General Assembly session.
What is General Assembly? An abstract bureaucratic machine as I first thought? A time of self-conscious apprehension, conflict and/or grand-standing, as I had begun to fear? Or a place to find glimpses of joy, wholeness, connectedness and purpose?
While I pray for wisdom and discernment while I study the resources provided to me and pack my luggage in preparation for the trip, this is the question on my mind.
Day 2 – Sunday, June 17, 2018
Settling in for the night, I stare at my computer screen to research the overtures I’ll be voting on as a part of the Social Justice Committee. But I can’t focus on the words displayed in the PC-Biz program in alternating blue rows.
Interrupting my contemplations are series of faces:
The face of a YAAD (Young Adult Advisory Delegate) who radiated so much fun and humor while gesturing to a friend across her table at the first night reception that several of us standing behind the friend thought she was gesturing to us. When she realized what happened, she came over and introduced herself, then shared with us her story about going through YAAD training in the days before GA started. She semi-humorously, semi-seriously admonished me to take great heed of YAAD advisory votes because what we decide now, in the present, affect her life in the future,
The face of a ruling elder delegate from another presbytery I sat next to when getting a quick bite to eat. “Now don’t get me started,” she said after I mentioned something in the news. All it took was “Oh? Tell me?” for her to share with me how the events in recent headlines have affected her, her family, and her community.
The face of a woman who sat next to me on the shuttle bus from airport to the hotel. She was not a delegate nor a commissioner, but someone who has spent much of her time volunteering in Palestine and Israel as a part of the peace effort. She shared with me stories of what she had seen of the Gaza border: 17-year-olds who had been issued guns. An elderly dignified matron getting her face and hair smeared with peanut butter against her will. Women giving birth in the dust in front of the guards because they were not given permission to cross the border to get to a hospital.
I tried again to push the faces aside so I could focus on the issues presented before me on my computer screen, then the faces of the YAVs (Young Adult Volunteers) instructing us during the Plenary floated up in my mind. I chuckled to myself when I remembered the rather humorous training vote we took on which were better: Star Wars, Star Trek, or the newer Marvel Universe movies. Engage in relationships, we were told as a part of that same training; be willing open to the stories told by others.
I closed my laptop. The faces floating in my mind interrupting my studies are not a distraction, but my work. I will have time to study the overtures at length before my committee next meets. For now, my task is to pray for the people I met and ponder the stories they tell.
Day 3 Morning – Monday, June 18, 2018
The work starts here in a half hour.
More than half the room is designated for overtures advocates, resource people, press, and observers
Day 3 Evening – Monday, June 18, 2018
Note to self: When writing an amendment to an amendment in longhand using carbon paper in quadruplicate, be sure to get the grammar and punctuation correct.
Day 4 Morning – Tuesday, June 19, 2018
The atmosphere as we gathered in the now oh-so-familiar conference room was relaxed and quiet. Our deliberations lasted until nearly 11 p.m. last night – which meant yesterday we all endured a 14-hour-plus day. We heard heart-wrenching testimony from overture advocates as they spoke of experiences of injustice and abuse, offered pleas for healing, and shared with us their prophetic visions for the future.
A young boy’s voice grew hoarse while offering his reflections on the death penalty, making it hard for us to hear, so an adult re-read his appeal later in the day on his behalf. A spouse spoke of the life-long effect of clerical child abuse on his now deceased wife, stating simply that it’s not just the survivor who is the victim when this happens, but the family and the community. A Teaching Elder proclaimed: “I’m living the life I dreamed, but I know there are others who still can’t.” A presbytery rallied around the words of an 80-year-old parishioner who wrote a poetic creed, an affirmation of identity, flawed maybe, but beautiful. The love of those who rallied around the poet spoke as loudly as the words themselves.
A commissioner broke our hearts when he loudly, but with self-reflective humor, confessed that his hope was broken. “Don’t vote on this,” he told us, “not because it’s not true, but because it won’t make a difference.” We felt his pain and our hearts resonated with his despair.
The sun was long gone when we closed with a benediction last night. So exhausted were we that many of us could no longer make sense of the words in front of us on our computer screens.
We have experienced much together, and now we are back for another day.
Day 4 Afternoon – Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Hurricane Season ’17 Associate for Emotional and Spiritual Care.
This may be the second-longest title in the PCUSA. It belongs to Kathy Riley who sits in the back of the Social Justice committee room.
There’s another word for this title. The word is: “Love.”
Day 4 Evening – Tuesday, June 19, 2018
A PC (U.S.A.) GA 223 experience I will never forget:
Composing poetry as a committee.
Day 8 – Sunday, June 24, 2018
The plane’s wheels hitting the runway at the Gainesville Regional Airport jolted me awake.
I am back. I have seen our decision-making process in motion, a press of overtures and amendments pushing themselves forward through the schedule, with very little time to reflect back on the whole as one decided and voted. I saw Robert’s Rules of Order brought alive, bringing order and progress out of chaos.
I have seen some of the invisible workings, literally “behind the curtain,” when I wandered into the temporary office space set up behind the stage, and figuratively as I watched networking between pastors and the various advocacy groups encouraging, guiding, and supporting commissioners and advisory delegates throughout the process.
I have wandered the expo and bought some beautiful stoles… and was gifted with seminary-labeled swag.
I have guzzled can after can of caffeinated soda.
I have worshiped with marvelous song, with dance, and with words of praise.
I have seen the community at work, all eagerly sharing their voice and viewpoint, all eagerly seeking God’s leading for our lives and denomination.
As the plane slowed down and started navigating to the gate, my eyes closed and I gained a few more moments of rest and ponderings about how I can use what I learned in my corner of the world. Snippets of liturgy and song flowed through my mind. Books that I had purchased during the event were already waiting for me at home.
The closing benediction has rung out in voice and song… but the impact of the event for our lives and communities has just begun.
Afterward – Thursday, June 21, 2018
GA 223 was a whirlwind of conversation, new friends, earnest faces, and visionary ideas, beginning the moment I stepped into the baggage claim at the St. Louis airport. There volunteers gathered newly arrived participants together and shepherded us into busses to the various hotels. My seatmate on the bus was a volunteer worker from the Gaza border; elsewhere on the bus was a missionary from… somewhere… but our conversation was cut short as we were hurried to our seats.
The days were unexpectedly grueling. Substantive ideas, both new and old, both interconnected and independent, seemed to float through every conversation and overture, enticing one’s mind to stay active and nimble. One’s body was primarily still: sitting at a table at plenary, sitting at a table in committee, sitting at a table for meals, always sitting from early in the morning until late at night. Posting the blog entries on the Presbytery Musings page for all the delegates at GA was a delightful activity, and so was knitting, but neither could substitute for a long leisurely walk or jog. About every other day I was able to hit a treadmill for a few minutes, but it didn’t seem enough. In a humorous mood, I considered suggesting for the next GA that they install treadmills in the huge plenary hall along with the tables and chairs for those of us who like to keep moving, but that’s not the most realistic of ideas.
The stories told by overture advocates in the Social Justice committee room seemed to come straight out of Biblical times, reminiscent of the people who approached Jesus with their pleas, often one by one – a father pleading for a son, a young boy bravely standing up on principle, visionary women sharing with us their experiences of hope and change. We stayed at our seats through each story, asking questions that often seemed impersonal. The system seemed to embody the stern grimace of justice more than the gentle touch of mercy, yet there were those who sat at the back of the room who were there to hug, to listen, to care. They, too, were a part of the system so that justice and compassion were in tandem, neither forgotten.
Worship was both gloriously emotionally moving and utterly intellectually fascinating. Sounds and colors, fabrics of different textures, music and spoken voice all blended together to a whole. I eagerly stayed through the last moments of the closing worship, though many had to leave to catch early planes and other transportation home. I wanted to savor every moment. As exhausted as I was, I was reluctant to leave.
As homework before the event, I had to read overtures and resolutions. As I flew back on Sunday, I realized how much homework I have before me afterwards to share ideas and liturgical snippets and research odd references to books that I have yet to read. It may take me fully the two years to unpack all the meanings and ramifications, and – by then – it will be time for us to send another group of people to GA, and the cycle will begin again.