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March 25, 2008: No Skimming in the Deep End

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Boy, it takes quite a bit to switch gears from the resurrection to recommendations to the General Assembly. The time is ticking, however, and the material is growing.

The ability to define and parse words -- to read between the lines -- is a vital skill. It takes patience and discipline to read all the business carefully. Be patient. Take the time.

Consider as an example Recommendation #13:

The General Assembly Council recommends that the 218th General Assembly (2008) Grow God’s Church—Deep and Wide by

1. Declaring a church-wide commitment to participate in God’s activity in transforming the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) during the 2009-2010 biennium.

2. Encouraging synods, presbyteries, sessions, and all agencies, entities, and networks of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to commit to grow the church deep and wide in the following areas:

a. Grow the Church: Invite persons to attend. Baptize children and adults. Increase our congregations.

b. Grow in Discipleship: Rediscover Scripture. Nurture spirituality. Affirm our Reformed heritage. Embrace Stewardship in all of life.

c. Grow into Diversity: Welcome everyone. Learn from others. Reflect the world.

3. Encouraging the General Assembly Council to support the whole church’s commitment to grow God’s Church—Deep and Wide in its ministries and mission.

4. Inviting the whole church to commit their prayers, gifts, resources, and time during 2009-2010, to discern God’s call to grow the church.

Now, who could be against this?

Seriously, on first blush, this looks like we are voting on, "Are you in favor of mothers?" And, let me be clear: I agree whole-heartedly with the basic premise. And, it could be that simple.

And yet...

I am already shaking my head -- as will most of you -- as I walk through this next section. "Why?" you will be asking me (if not yourself), "why do you have to read the worst into everything?"

Well, very few things at the General Assembly are as simple as they seem. Either:

1) it is a statement to which everyone can say yes, they will say yes, and it will disappear because no one had to work on it; or,

2) it is a statement that seeks to make a change or will be used to support something else.

#1 is pretty harsh, but it comes from a lifetime of dealing with Presbyterians. Presbyterians are much like King David in that we will not make an offering to the Lord of something that cost us nothing. (2 Samuel 24:22) We remember the things we struggled to create, the things that took our time and energy to achieve. We forget the things that were easy. In other words, nice statements do not result in action. If commissioners have not been invested in the creation of the statement, it is likely to be forgotten as soon as it is passed.

#2 is the less attractive option, yet one that needs to be considered. Let me use two phrases to illustrate:

a. "Nurture spirituality." What does this really mean? It is undefined here but is somehow distinct from rediscovering Scripture and affirming our Reformed heritage. Does "re-imagining God" fit within this exhortation to "nurture spirituality?"

b. "Grow into Diversity: Welcome everyone. Learn from others. Reflect the world." Welcome everyone? Ok, yes; but we still require the profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in order to be a member, right? Learn from others? Ok, yes; but does that mean accept everything they say or leave it unchallenged? There are things we do not affirm. Reflect the world? In demographics, yes; in matters of faith and doctrine, thanks, no. It seems to me that the Bible says somewhere, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect."

Look, no one likes to be suspicious of everything. I don't either, despite all appearances on this site. Unfortunately ambiguity is a trap. The rule of thumb is: if you can construe the words to mean something, you can bet that someone will. So, if the proposed wording leads to an unacceptable conclusion, there is probably a better way of saying it.

To be clear: I am not accusing the General Assembly Council of trying to undermine basic Christian faith and doctrine. It is just a great illustration of the care with which commissioner and advisory delegates must read even the most well-intentioned pieces of business. You cannot skim anything.