Presbyterianism from a Non-Presbyterian Perspective
July 14, 2020
Some of you may know that I am an avid listener to podcasts. Every minute I am doing something by myself that is idle—like driving, or folding laundry, or carrying stuff from my car to my office, or even grocery shopping—I have one of my three Bluetooth earbuds in my ear listening to something. Mostly about politics.
But when I am sick and tired of politics or just need a little relaxation for my emotions, I have a few other podcasts that I turn to. One of those is The Moth. Some of you may have listened to the Moth Radio Hour on OPB. It’s a show where people tell true stories about their lives in front of an audience without notes.
I heard one of my favorite Moth stories I think eight or so years ago. This particular storyteller said that growing up, she was raised with two religions. Her family’s official religion was Christianity. But then there was also the faith and hope they had in Mary Kay Cosmetics.
After she followed her roots and became a Mary Kay beauty consultant and a member of an evangelical church, she gradually found those worlds converging. She would be in Target striking up conversations with strangers about lipstick, but would think, what if what that person really needs is Jesus?
The conclusion she came to was this: “Whenever you have something that you think is the right answer for everybody, through that lens you can’t help but look at everyone in the world as if they’re broken and need to be fixed, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.” So she quit Mary Kay and she quit the church. In the process, she lost her identity, her belonging, and her sense of certainty about what people need.
Soon after that, she and her husband moved from Colorado to Brooklyn, where their new neighbors were all passionate about the Park Slope Food Co-op, either trying to convince her to join it or warning her against it. It all felt creepily familiar, as she put it. So when someone asked her if she was in or out, she looked her in the eye and said, “Sorry, I don’t do religions anymore.”
That story resonated deeply with me at the time and continues to do so now. When this woman said “I don’t do religions anymore,” she was defining religion as anything that someone thinks is the right answer for everyone. That’s not the only way to define religion, but for me, it’s a concise way of distinguishing between religion and spirituality. Religion sells a particular path as the right answer for everyone and portrays anyone not on that path as broken and in need of fixing. Spirituality is a quest for meaning and transcendence in life and can take vastly different forms for different people.
By those definitions, I personally am becoming less and less religious and more and more spiritual. As I’ve gotten older, I have come to know people who are more godly than I am who happen to be Muslim or Buddhist or not affiliated with a religion—and I just think there’s enough complexity in the world to allow for, and learn from, and celebrate many spiritual paths.
I haven’t checked in a while, but I think if you look up my profiles on social media sites, you will find that under “religion” I put “spiritual but not religious.” It just seems more authentic to me than to say “Presbyterian” or even “Christian”—because both of those terms are too limiting.
So here we are in the month of July, and the theme of the month is Presbyterianism, and I’m telling you that I’m not a Presbyterian. I have been a part of Southminster for nearly 15 years and was a member of a Presbyterian church in Spokane for two years before that. But I still don’t consider myself to be Presbyterian.
Last week, Don told the story of how Presbyterianism saved him in many ways. He’s been a Presbyterian for close to 40 years, went to a Presbyterian seminary, and served several Presbyterian churches. He also told the story of how progressive Christianity has been a bigger and bigger part of who he is over the years. I guess my story has the two elements switched in a way: Don came to progressive Christianity through Presbyterianism, and I came to Presbyterianism through progressive Christianity.
I grew up in an evangelical tradition, in a family that went to church every time the doors opened—Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. We lived in Lubbock, Texas—one of a number of cities that proudly called itself the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” Many of you have heard at least snippets of the story of how I got from there to here. I went to college and seminary at the church-related school my parents went to. While I was there, I preached part-time at a rural black church, and those folks taught me a lot.
My first and only “real” paid ministry job was at a racially mixed Church of Christ in the Bay Area. But two years into my time there, an issue came up that split the church. People started finding out that one of the young men who belonged to our church was transgender. Keep in mind that this was 1997. I and some of the other leaders in the church already knew Tony’s story, but when others found out it created a lot of drama. Half of the congregation wound up leaving, and the experience is what set me on the path toward progressive Christianity.
I moved to Spokane and cycled through three churches there—a newly planted Church of Christ; a newly planted, mildly Pentecostal church whose mission was racial reconciliation; and First Presbyterian in downtown Spokane. First Pres is not much like Southminster: they were a theologically moderate church that was not progressive at all on issues like LGBTQ equality. And even then, some of the things said in sermons was a bit conservative for my taste. But it was a nice respite from startup churches, and the result was that I looked first at Presbyterian churches when trying to find a church home here. My first wife and I landed at Southminster in 2005. I was a little nervous at first about how liberal this church was, but I quickly assimilated and realized that the theology here was what I had felt in my heart for many years.
And one of the first things Pastor Peg asked me to do after I joined this church was to serve on the interview committee for a position that wound up being Pastor Don’s first role here. And we’ve been good friends ever since.
No, I am not a Presbyterian, but I love Southminster. And I really respect the way the Presbyterian Church (USA) approaches a lot of things. I think it was 2012 when I was on Session and agreed to be one of our delegates to the Presbytery meeting where we would be voting on the amendment that would affirm that LGBTQ people could serve as clergy. The Cascades Presbytery is big geographically, and that quarter’s meeting was held all the way down in Grants Pass.
It was a contentious issue, and I really appreciated the way the moderator handled the discussion period. People were encouraged to line up behind the mic in the left aisle to make comments in favor of the amendment, or behind the mic in the right aisle to comment against the amendment. Then each side alternated one comment each until everyone had a chance to speak.
Those who were against the amendment mostly framed it as, “We feel left out, we feel marginalized, we feel like our voices are not being heard, we feel that our beliefs are not being taken seriously.” I had not planned to make a comment, but when I heard the way the other side was framing it, I stood up and got in line behind the left-hand mic. When I got to the front, I said, “You should not feel left out, as you will be able to continue practicing your faith according to what you believe. No one is requiring any church to have LGBTQ clergy. But if we pass this amendment, the rest of us will be able to practice our faith according to our beliefs on this issue—something we have been prevented from doing up until now. A yes vote affirms your conscience and our conscience.”
In other words, a “yes” vote would enable the largest number of people to practice their faith according to their conscience. I think that is a very Presbyterian concept—and of course, our Presbytery and the General Assembly passed this amendment. And a couple years later, we got marriage equality passed in the PCUSA. No church is required to perform any specific wedding, and no individual is required to marry a same-sex partner. But more people are able to live out their faith in an authentic way.
One of the great things about Presbyterianism—and especially about Southminster—is that we honor a variety of paths because we listen to each other. I know people here who are Presbyterian to the core. I know others who are not necessarily Presbyterian but they are fervently Christian. And I know there are others for whom it’s a bit more complicated. I think that is extremely healthy. And that’s why I have pitched my tent here for now and for the foreseeable future—in Christianity, in Presbyterianism, and most of all, at Southminster.