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Faith Sharing – My GA Experience

July 10, 2014

Faith Sharing, Sunday June 29.

White Plains Presbyterian Church member Leslie Mardenborough served as the elder commission from the Hudson River Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Upon her return she shared some of the challenge and joy of experience with the congregation on a Sunday morning. Here are my words of introduction to this uniquely Presbyterian experience, followed by Leslie’s Faith Sharing.

Psalm 13          Matthew 10:40-42

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

In just a few short sentences of power and compassion, we are challenged to think more deeply about what it means to welcome one another. Because it is only after doing so that we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us. In today’s reading, we hear of compassionate welcome or hospitality as a form of service to Christ. This kind of welcome can and should be performed by us at any time and is not confined to large heroic acts by those eligible for sainthood. The simple, basic act of kindness we perform in genuine welcome of one another are all that God asks of us. We must look around us to see who is in need and then do something about it. And yet, since in our culture simple decency and respect can no longer be taken for granted, one must sometimes think like a hero, to behave like a merely decent human being. (from Feasting on the Word)

The Gen. assembly at the Presbyterian Church (USA) is the most inclusive counsel of the church. It meets every other year, and is made up of teaching and ruling elders commissioned by each of the 173 presbyteries that make up our denomination. It is also guided by advice from our youth, from theological students, and from missionary and ecumenical delegates. The purpose of the General Assembly is to discern where God is leading the church and find ways to follow. All of the questions addressed by the assembly originate in local congregations like ours, congregations who have asked for guidance in their ministry, who are addressing needs in a way they believe may benefit the whole church in our attempt to be faithful, or who have heard the cry “How Long, Oh Lord?” and believe they hear God saying “now is the time.” (Psalm 13)

Some of these actions always make newspaper headlines. This year, the embrace of same gender marriage and our divestment from three companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. Other actions don’t appear in the newspaper, but are no less important. Addressing gun violence, climate change, a new translation of the Heidelberg catechism, and a discussion of fossil fuel dependance. As you can imagine, this kind of churchwide discernment is often contentious. But the biggest story coming out of our general assembly this year as you will here in just a moment, was the welcome shown by delegates to one another, the careful listening,  the prayerful speaking, and a clear understanding that though we may not always agree, God is called us together, to be together, in this one church.

This year’s General Assembly met two weeks ago in Detroit and our own Elder Leslie Mardenborough was a commissioner to the Assembly. She’s going to share with you this morning what it has meant and means for her faith to have participated in this assembly and be a part of this church.

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Let me start with my Thank Yous. First, I thank and am thanking God for answered prayers. At the orientation for the HRP’s Commissioners and Overture Advocates a host of people – Thank you Hudson River Presbytery — have been praying for me and for my concern that I would have the stamina to withstand the grueling General Assembly schedule. When Pastor Jeff asked you to pray for me during our worship under the tent a few weeks ago, he brought you into this unceasing prayer. Thank you, White Plains Presbyterian Church.

The Wednesday morning before I left, when I had reached the end of my energy rope, I followed the example of our sister in Christ, Alice Pala Englert, and put it all in God’s hands…my anxiety about my fatigue; about leaving my mother alone for 10 days, the longest I would be away since her diagnosis of vascular dementia – and I that hadn’t done everything I thought I should to make this comfortable for her and her caregivers; about whether my convictions going into the Commission on Civil Unions and Marriage were God-led; about my unfounded and anxiety-produced fear that my friend who was to drive with me to Detroit would drop out at the last minute.

Oh, I was a mess that Wednesday morning. But I stopped myself before I got out of bed, and prayed simply something like this: God, I can’t do this on my own. I am putting myself and the work before me in your hands. I have been praying for discernment and guidance, now I’m praying that you will renew me spiritually and physically…take away this debilitating anxiety and mitigate my fatigue, get me to and from Detroit without harming myself or others, speak clearly to me if I am not acting or speaking in your will…lead me, guide me along this way.

Immediately I felt less anxious, and I never felt either exhaustion or anxiety during the next fortnight. (Wow, always wanted to use that word, fortnight.) I continued to pray unceasingly throughout the assembly and the trip home. Yes, there were plenty of times I was concerned about this or that. Yes, I felt sleep deprived, especially on the last day when we were in session from 8:30 in the morning to late into Friday night. But, there was no time when I felt that I couldn’t go on or that I was lost as I did the previous Wednesday morning. So, Hallelujah, I’m praising and thanking the triune God.

Now, let me talk about my GA experience.

Some of you may have followed the Presbytery’s GA blog. Some of you don’t know what a blog is, and that’s okay. Basically the commissioners shared the work of posting periodic updates about what was going on in our committees and then, during our plenary sessions. If you are interested in seeing these blog posts, you can find it here.

On the second Saturday morning of the Assembly, after way too little sleep, I arrived at the last Assembly session and tried to write my final blog post during the opening announcements and recognitions. Never finished it as I got caught up in the business at hand. But, here’s what I would have, and may still, post:

Well, here we are in the last session of the 221st General Assembly. More work to do in the next couple of hours, but my focus is split. Not because I’m exhausted (and I am), but because my heart keeps switching between elation and mourning.

Once I again, I’m grateful to God to be part of the Presbyterian branch of God’s family. What seems like a long time ago, I taught confirmation classes where we studied the book of Acts to understand the foundations of the Christian church.   This week I have experienced what the church is meant to be: people who come together to worship God. People in continuous worship, fellowship, study, prayer and working to presage the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

Despite strong preferences on opposite sides of a host of issues, our consistent invoking of the Holy Spirit to be with us and to guide us, our constant focus on God’s will and being responsive to God’s love, our commitment to listening to and talking with each other, I believe that most of us walked away from the 221st GA loving each other and our church.

I know that all of us are struggling with how to bring reconciliation in our presbyteries and churches on the contentious issues, but that wasn’t the primary thing on my mind as I shared passionate goodbye hugs with Steve and Evan, who served with me on the marriage commission and were on the opposite side of the argument; with Dries, my teaching elder brother who immigrated from South Africa and taught me so much about apartheid and its continuing effects in the world; Wendy and Anne, and, and, and…

One of my blog posts described my GA experience as“not a pale image of Pentecost.” We came from across the United States and Puerto Rico as Commissioners and Overture Advocates. We had Ecumenical Advisers who came from other denominations and countries. We had Missionary Advisors. We had advisers from seminaries and representing young adults in our churches. We came advocating this and disapproving of that. But the Spirit descended and hovered over us like it did at Pentecost and when the Israelites struggled through the wilderness for 40 days. And we heard each other. We valued each other. We loved each other.

Yes, I mourned leaving this conclave. The only experience I can compare this to is leaving summer camp. Regardless of the time spent together, you always remember your summer camp friends…even when you can no longer remember their names. I may never see Steve, Anne, Wendy, Evan or Dries again. I may never see Marilyn or Betty with whom I shared a long late lunch on the day we arrived after Marilyn noticed us sitting alone at separate tables. But, I will carry them all in my heart forever. I will pray for them. If they ever need something from me, they have as much of a claim on my heart as any member of the White Plains Presbyterian Community.

I have always been an enthusiastic member of the connectional Presbyterian church. White Plains is my church home…but I am intimately connected to a host of Christians through our Presbytery and our national church. I’m delighted to work with other churches and with our Presbytery. There’s no way that I can respond to even the needs I know about here in the US or in the world. But, I’m called by Christ to meet those needs. And I have a connectional church that is equipped and ready to help me meet those needs.

Although the big news stories coming out of General Assembly have to do with divestment and marriage – admittedly hot button issues, I came away from GA so excited about the work our church is doing in this country and others. Who’s heard about “Educate a Child, Transform the World,” a commitment this Assembly made to improve the quality of education for 1 million children in this country and others. Who’s heard about our peacemaking initiatives or the measures we approved to prevent gun violence (without gun control provisions.) Who’s heard about the social justice issues we tackled: tax justice, how to advocate for more effective drug policies, the call for a moratorium on the death penalty and to initiate a study on end of life issues, measures to promote food sovereignty, action to counter a new wave of voter suppression, and so on. And, I couldn’t keep up with the reports on work by the Presbyterian Mission Agency and Presbyterian Foundation.

I’ve posted a copy of a PC(USA) bulletin, The Assembly in Brief, on our bulletin boards if you are interested in reading more about this work. The type is kind of small, so I’ve also written the web address on each copy so that you can access it through the Internet. [pcusa.org/resource/assembly-brief-221]

So, yes, I’m still tired. But, oh so excited about the work God is doing in his church. So excited about the hand the Presbyterian church extends to other churches and denominations for fellowship and partnership in ministry. So excited to have been part of this work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12) and excited about the unceasing invitation from our church for me…and for you…to engage in this work.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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