A Moment for Reflection

Robert Bohl

Pastor, Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, KS

at the Convening Gathering of the

Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

19 September 1997


This is titled "A Moment for Reflection," a reflection on some of what we have done together
today, but also a reflection on the life of what we call the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

As I sat listening today and as I have for the last 36 years of my ordained life, I have become
more and more convinced that not a single one of us could define, to the exact measure of
degree and satisfaction, of what it means to be a Presbyterian. We have diversity the likes of
which we have not known in the history of the Presbyterian Church, I think, since it began in
this country. We're not just liberals or conservatives. We are people biased to a fault in favor
of what we think pure Presbyterianism is. And we have so many groups that can tell us what it
means to be a pure Presbyterian. We have little brand loyalty in America today as far as
denominations are concerned, even in the Presbyterian Church; 60% of our current members
come from non-Presbyterian backgrounds. That in itself encourages what has not been
creeping Congregationalism, but rampant Congregationalism, all, I think, at the expense of the
connectional church.

There is mission being done in congregations that bear the label of Presbyterian that are
absolutely marvelous, but many times, it, too, is done at the expense of the connectional
governing body. Even in this day, as I speak, there are those in this Church who are still
determined to get their way by withholding or redirecting funds. And I said it once before, and
I will say it every moment of my life when the occasion arises: It is still an ecclesiastical sin to
withhold money from the Church of Jesus Christ, and we belong to the Presbyterian family.

In 1989, Jack Stotts was invited by the Theology and Worship Unit to write a little piece called
"Beyond Beginnings." It was six years after Reunion, and he recalls as Reunion was in the
making in the early 1983 period before the vote, someone asked him, "Jack, when do you
think will Reunion occur?" And, not flippantly, Jack says, "I think it will occur in the year
2023." If Jack were here today, he might say, "In the year 3023."

Rightly suggesting that traditions and generations must give way to a common bond that ties
us together in our faith, especially in a country where there is not slow selfishness in the
making, but rapid selfishness in the making, Jim Collier's book in 1991 called "The Rise of
Selfishness in America" was speaking not only about our natures of collecting or garnering
things we want, but more so in the selfishness of our own opinions about who we are as a
Church. Collier's conclusion is that, to get out of the mess, we've got to go to the trouble to
find out what caused the mess.

Later in that same piece, Stotts makes the observation that the Presbyterian Church today is
much like the period of the Judges in Israel's history. You may recall it: it was a period where
there was no king in Israel; there was no centralized authority. There were simply tribes of
people with diverse opinions, behaviors, and practices, and to put it very simply, they did
their own thing. All they shared together was a common language and a common history.
Their loyalty to God was manifested in parochial ways. They were not concerned with anyone
except their own viewpoints and themselves. The tribes came together when there was a
common challenge or a common threat, much like we Presbyterians come together at a General
Assembly when there's a common threat, a common challenge, and then the tribes would go
back to their normal routines of life. And that's very much what we've done in this Church of
ours.

During the period of the Judges, the cry of the Israelites was: "There is no king in Israel.
There is no king in Israel." And my conclusion today may not be one which you share, but we
have, bear me out, listen closely, don't misunderstand me: We have no compelling leaders in
the Presbyterian Church, not because there aren't persons who are competent, but simply
because there are people in this Church who are suspicious of anyone who tries to lead. And
so we find ourselves at a time in the life of the Presbyterian Church when serious reflection
must take place about what it means to be a Church.

Hans Kung wrote a little piece titled "The Church of the Future," and he raised this question:
"To what kind of Christian, to what kind of Church, does the future belong?" And then he
answers: "Not a Church that's lazy, not a Church that's shallow, not a Church that's timid and
weak in its faith, not a Church that expects blind obedience, not a Church that's fanatical in its
loyalty to one question or another, not a Church that's a slave to its own history, always
putting the brakes on, suspiciously defensive and critical of others, not a Church that's
quarrelsome, not a Church that's impatient, not a Church that's unfair in dialogue, not a
Church that's closed-minded. In short, the future does not belong to a Church that's
dishonest. But the future belongs to a Church that knows what it does not know, to a Church
that relies upon God's grace and wisdom and has, in its weakness and in its ignorance, a
radical confidence in God, to a Church that's strong in its faith, joyous and yet certain that it
can be self-critical and survive, to a Church that has the courage of initiative, to a Church that
has the courage to take risks, to a Church that's completely open to the world in which it lives.
The future belongs to a Church that is completely committed to Jesus Christ."

Emily Dickinson had a little line which goes this way: "Truth is such a rare thing, it is
delightful to tell it from time to time." Maybe that's what we need to do in this time of
reflection: to begin to try to tell the truth to each other.

One of the greatest books in terms of its impact upon me and my ministry is a book written by
Stephen Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University, an African-American, the book titled
"The Culture of Disbelief." He spoke at Stanford University at its graduation exercise two
years ago, and I want to quote him, because I think it's about who we are.

Carter said to the graduates of Stanford: "Let me make a modest proposal. Let us wage a war
to bring integrity back to American life. You see, if we lack integrity, the rest of our beliefs
don't matter. If you lack integrity, it doesn't matter what your beliefs are because if you lack
integrity, you will not be able to live up to it. That's what integrity means. To possess true
integrity requires three steps: First, you must know what you believe. Second, you must be
willing to act upon what you believe, and third, and perhaps the hardest of all, you must be
willing to say openly that you are acting on the basis of what you believe."

Those three points, I think, are at the very heart of our crisis in the Church today. Many, if
not, can I say, the majority in the Presbyterian Church don't have the foggiest notion of what
it means to believe in Jesus Christ. If they did, then why do we count 30% of our membership
as active? If you don't know what you believe, you can't act upon your beliefs, and if you
don't know what you believe, you can't speak about it to anyone. What would you say?
Professor Carter also said: "If your integrity prevents others from living with integrity, maybe
it is because you have the wrong kind of integrity."

And then he chose this illustration to bear his point. Each time I read this, I am filled with cold
chills from the inside of my body out. Carter illustrates his point by telling a story that Justice
Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court told about himself. It was at a time in the height of
the civil rights crisis in this country. During that time, Justice Marshall and other lawyers were
handling criminal and civil rights cases throughout the South. And one day, he happened to
stop in a small town for a fundraiser, and when his formal remarks were over, he was taken
aside by a black man from the audience. "Lawyer," said the man. "Yes," said Marshall.
"Lawyer, you're educated, aren't you? You've been to college." "Yes I have," said Marshall.
"Well then, tell me, do you know anything about this thing called reincarnation?" "A little bit,"
Marshall said. "Well, if you do," said the old black man, "and if it's true, there's something I
want you to try to arrange for me. I want you to fix it so that if I do indeed come back, I come
back as a pig or a goat or a cow, anything but a Negro."

The truth is, any system: social, political, economic, religious, any system that is so
oppressive that it generates the kind of self-hatred that causes a person so to hate himself that
he'd rather come back as an animal is an unacceptable system.

When the disciples were gathered around Jesus on that one occasion that he was trying to get a
reading on what kind of an impression he was making on people, you remember that scene so
well, where he asked them, "Who do people say that I am?", but that wasn't really the issue at
hand. The real question was: What kind of an imprint was he making on the disciples?, and to
them he raises that poignant question, as to us, "Who do you think that I am? Who do you say
that I am?" And one of them, Simon Peter, declared boldly: "You are the Christ. You are the
Son of the living God." Jesus says, "On this confession, I will build my Church and nothing
will ever be able to destroy it."[Matt. 16: 13-20]

Not even a group of determined Presbyterians on the side of whatever the issue.

Finally,Loren Mead, I think, is putting us into contact with some reality, transforming
congregations for the future. "I deeply believe," he wrote, "that the storm we are in presents
the greatest opportunity for the Church and religious leaders. I also believe it's a deeper
challenge and threat than religious leaders have faced in many centuries. We are in serious,
serious trouble, and we shall not soon get out of it, nor will it be easy. When we get clear of
this storm, our religious institutions may bear little resemblance to those with which we grew
up, and even to those for which we have a profound love." Then he wrote, "We are the
generation whose gift to the future may be not a complete vision of a new society or even of a
new Church, but the example of holding steady and faithful in the time in a crisis. If we will
but hold steady, we can trust God to provide us with a new vision for the new Church."

This Church does not need a new theology. This Church simply needs to reaffirm the
commitment of Peter's confession. "You are the Christ." And Jesus responds, "On this
confession I will build my Church and nothing will ever be able to destroy it."

"You are the Christ. You are the Son of the living God." That should be our confession, this
day and always. Thanks be to God.


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