Friday, June 22, 2018

Cold and Stiff

I am uncommonly cold for June in St. Louis and way more stiff than is usual even for 58. That’s what being on a concrete convention center floor for several hours will do to a body.
Twenty or so folks from Fossil Free PCUSA and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship staged a die-in just outside the entrance to the plenary hall this afternoon following the assembly’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies. As I lay on the floor my mind was a jumble of thoughts and emotions: disappointment; anger; and, ultimately, hope.
I am disappointed that my church chose a path that does not seem promising to me. I am peevish that the powerful central parts of the institution used – I might even say abused – process to ignore the voices of the 40 presbyteries that endorsed divestment and the committee that held hearings and voted 35-20 to support divestment. That’s more such endorsements than any other single item before the assembly, and yet the plenary session heard supporters of a minority report speak for almost a half hour while supporters of the main motion were essentially shut out.
I do not question the motivations or convictions of those who voted for the minority report. Unlike at previous assemblies, I did not hear a single commissioner questioning the reality of climate change nor the centrality of burning fossil fuels in driving climate change.
Instead, commissioners supporting continued engagement with the fossil fuel industry focused their arguments on three main points:
1.     The fact that money in the retirement fund – the Board of Pensions – actually belongs to members of the plan and not to the denomination (and that some members of the plan are not even members of the denomination).
2.     The suggestion that divestment from fossil fuel companies might cost retirees money.
3.     The desire to maintain a “place at the table” by virtue of being a shareholder.
At one level, each of these points is true. But truth, when partial, misleads rather than sets free. Each of these points is a partial truth, or, at least, was presented in a partial manner.
Opponents of divestment used the fact that Board of Pension money belongs to plan members to, in effect, blame individual plan members for not electing a socially responsible retirement savings option. There are all kinds of problems with that argument, including unanswered questions about how what percentage of plan members have any retirement savings plan beyond the defined benefits pension plan. But more to the point, while individual actions are important we have a board of pensions so that we can act collectively.
I wrote this reflection in a hotel restaurant. I took a moment this evening to suggest to the waiter that she ask hotel management to adopt a “straws optional” policy and told her a bit about how much straws contribute to plastic waste (another fossil fuel related problem). When she brought me my salad a few minutes later she said, “I stopped putting straws in drinks.”
I said, “cool; thanks for doing that!” and I mean it.
Individual steps are all well and good, but collective action is so much more effective. A ban on unnecessary straws would be a major dent in a significant waste problem. Jessica’s personal “no straws” policy? Not so much.
“Not so much” may also be the answer to what retirees stand to lose from divestment. I don’t know. Neither did any of the commissioners who voted today because nobody offered a guess. Guess, of course, is the operative word. Nobody knows how a stock will perform. Past performance, as they say, is not guarantee of future success. We do know, however, that fossil fuel is a lousy long-term investment because in the not-so-long term the supply will run out.
While we wait for that to happen, though, this general assembly wants to maintain a place at the corporate table to try to influence corporate behavior through our Mission Responsibility Through Investment board.
If we’d been playing a drinking game that compelled a drink every time “place at the table” was mentioned we’d all have been under the table. Yet that strikes me as the weakest argument of them all.
For one thing, the amount of money we have to invest is barely a drop in the oil barrel. I keep imagining the dialogue when MRTI calls on Exxon Mobile.
MRTI: be nice to the earth.
Exxon: who the hell are you again?
MRTI argues that, as part of a larger coalition of investors, they do have a reasonably significant voice. That remains to be seen, but it still does not give me confidence.
After all, fossil fuel executives ought to have exactly as much credibility as tobacco company executives have. As much as the latter lied about the health effects of its products the former have lied about the environmental health effects of its. Burning tobacco is lousy for your lungs. Burning fossil fuels is lousy for your planet. But we wouldn’t know it from listening to the lies and propaganda of the corporate executives. Why do we want a seat at a table where our conversation partners lie to us?
As one commissioner suggested during debate today, Jesus didn’t seek a seat at the table of the money changers, he flipped the tables over.
As I walked out of the restaurant this evening, I ran into a man in a kilt. John, a Scots Presbyterian who enjoys hanging out with the colonists at general assemblies, had been moved by the young adults advocating with Fossil Free PCUSA and the Peace Fellowship. He loved the energy and joy with which they advocated throughout the week. He was also struck by the powerful witness of our former co-moderators and our stated clerk. (He also said “clerk” with a Scottish accent and I nearly swooned, but that is a different post.) He noted a completely different feeling about this assembly compared even with two years ago in Portland.
“It’s like you know who you are now and you’re walking with confidence into the future.”
I’ve seen the same thing this week, as we walked through the streets in threat to civic order. So, despite being down on the floor for a few hours this afternoon, I believe that, together, we are rising up to something new in the church. We will, inevitably, divest from fossil fuels, because we are learning who we are even as we become something new.
We are, slowly, decently and in order, becoming a people who value justice more even that the process that we prize, and who are beginning to trust the One who taught us that where our treasure is there are hearts will be as well.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tuesday: Justice in the Streets

Presbyterians took to the streets of St. Louis today to deliver some $47,000 to the city's justice center to pay bail for hundreds of folks caught in a cash-bail system that is unjust and, if we still believe in the quaint notion of "innocent until proven guilty," also unconstitutional. Hundreds of us marched a bit more than a mile through the scorching heat from the convention center to the jail to bring liberation to the captives and to show the world what church looks like.
My friend, Bruce Reyes-Chow, received the following tweet as he marched:
"Hello! I live on Washington Avenue in St Louis. I am used to conventions happening down here, but I am not used to being moved to tears by the members of the groups. The message of that march was beautiful. I am not used to seeing a religion actually live out messages in the way you guys did today. Thank you for opening my mind, eyes, and heart to both the problem of cash bail and to the Presbyterians of the USA."
It's not all polity at GA. We're doing justice, too.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Monday: God Alone is Lord of the Conscience

“God alone is Lord of the conscience.” That’s the bedrock upon which Presbyterian polity rests, and it’s always good to hear it articulated at General Assembly. This morning I am sitting in committee 11 – social justice issues.
The committee is holding hearings on about 20 different pieces of business over two days. The day begins with open testimony. Dozens of people sign up to speak to the committee on the array of concerns on its docket. Anyone can sign up to speak – Presbyterians, non-Presbyterians, people of any faith or of no faith – because we believe that the church must listen to the world.
We also believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience – that no institution can stand between an individual and their conscience nor compel any individual to proclaim a belief they do not sincerely hold.
So we just heard back-to-back testimony from a doctor who is a woman speaking against an overture on religious freedom that, she feels, would require her to act against her convictions or be labelled a sinner by her church. She was followed by a pastor, also a woman, who shared the story of her ectopic pregnancy. Their views on abortion – and, probably, a whole lot more – were diametrically opposed, but they both were free to tell their stories, to speak their truth.
Now the church, embodied by the 50 or so individual members of committee 11, must discern the church’s truth. Moreover, whatever truth the committee discerns today (and the full assembly discerns later this week) individuals within the church will be free to follow their consciences; indeed, within our polity, individuals are called to follow where the Lord of their conscience leads. In that following lies salvation.
The challenge, of course, lies when faithful folks feel led in contradictory directions. The work of the church comes in working out our salvation together day by day in fear and trembling.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Remembering Peg

I’m in St. Louis for the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and over the next few days I’ll post a fair bit about the important business of the assembly. But, in the way of things, life and death will disrupt even the decent and orderly plans of Presbyterians.
So, instead of spending the first day of the assembly doing orientation work with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship interns I am helping to support, I spent most of yesterday in the hospital keeping vigil for a dear friend and colleague in ministry.
Last evening, the Rev. Peg True joined the church triumphant, and it will never be the same! She was surrounded by the prayers of countless friends, and her hands were held in a small circle that included her older brother, Fred, and sister-in-law Betsy. I am comforted in my own grief imagining Peg already serving on the Heaven Innovation and Transformation Team.
Peg, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a fall Friday evening and never regained consciousness, was a life-long part of the congregation in Arlington that I’ve been privileged to serve for the past 15 years. Our fellowship hall is decorated with a mix of photographs of the community over the years, and in one taken around 1945, an 8- or 9-year-old Peg is sitting at a Sunday School table with a twinkle in her eyes that suggests she was up to something. She had that same twinkle Friday afternoon as we chatted on the flight we shared from DC.
Behind the twinkle lay a sharp, deeply thoughtful and creative mind buoyed by a warm and compassionate heart. Peg was an educator, a vocational path she followed as a young adult when, in the late 1950s, her call to ministry was blocked by a church still far from ready to support women in their calls.
Nevertheless, she persisted, and, a quarter century later, encouraged by my predecessor at Clarendon, the Rev. Madeline Jervis, Peg was among a group of five women the small congregation supported in seminary. Peg was ordained by National Capital Presbytery and served congregations in NCP and Baltimore Presbyteries until her retirement in the early 2000s. In retirement, she served as parish associate at Clarendon, where her deep wisdom helped the community through several significant transitions and innovations.
In fact, the mission discernment team on which she served for the congregation over the past five months, just gave its final report to the session two weeks ago, and the congregation will be making some significant decisions this summer that will become part of her great legacy to Clarendon.
All of that, however, is a bit like a resume (and, being far from session records this morning I don’t vouch for the precision of any of this). Peg was so much more than even the most impressive curriculum vitae could cover.
She invested in relationships, and a walk with her through her retirement community was like walking with a celebrity. She knew everyone there, even though she’s only lived there for the past few years. In the short while she lived at Goodwin House she’d already been deeply involved in several groups working to make improvements for both residents and the staff. That was simply the way she walked through life: paying close attention to people and situations, and using her immense gifts to help them get better.
After she died last evening, I made some calls to folks who I hoped would hear the news from me rather than via Facebook. Among those, were my three young-adult children. Peg was part of each of their confirmation journeys, but more than that, she was part of their lives. When I reached Martin, my 24-year-old middle child, he simply said, “aw, Peg was the best.”
That pretty much captures it. Margaret ‘Peg’ True was the best. Well done, good and faithful servant.