“Why I am Presbyterian” by Rev. Don Ludwig
1 John 4:7-9; 11-12; Reading from Confession of 1967, Section 2, 9.43
July 5, 2020
On Becoming a Presbyterian
The spiritual theme this month is “Presbyterian.” That may seem odd for a spiritual theme, yet as we move toward electing a Pastor Nominating Committee and as we begin to deeply reflect on our mission as a Church—our past, present, and future—I think it will be helpful for all of us to consider what kind of Christian we are and what does it mean to be a “progressive” Presbyterian. Four years ago, someone said, “People are so shocked they find out that I am Protestant. In fact, I am a Presbyterian. And I go to church, I Love God, and I love my church.” Do you know who said that? Some of you may have guessed…… Yes, President Donald Trump. Hmmm. I have heard that groves of people thought about leaving the Presbyterian church in 2016 when they heard him say that.
I have told many people, “The Presbyterian Church saved me… Sociology and Progressive Faith liberated me… and as a result, I have become a progressive Presbyterian pastor and professor of sociology.” In today’s sermon, I want to give you some context for my journey of becoming and remaining a presbyterian. I realize that most people don’t know how to spell presbyterian nevermind understand it. And yet here I am on this twig of Christianity that has slowly been declining as a denomination over the last several decades. And here we sit on our particular twig—a liberal, progressive, Presbyterian Christian church; still connected to the trunk in the man named Jesus and the scripture we call the bible, but pretty distinct from all the other leaves and twigs in the enormous canopy that we call Christian.
My Spiritual Path
Let me begin by offering a disclaimer. I know that the Christian church has a shameful history. Great evils were perpetrated in the name of Christianity and indeed the Presbyterian sect. But any institution can be exploited for corrupt ends. Great harm has been done in the name of democracy, but we don’t abandon it; we keep trying to perfect it. People have experienced cruelty within the shelter of a family, but we do not say, “Let’s do away with families!”
In spite of how unscrupulous people have distorted the teachings of Jesus, the church has much to offer, and to me, it is worth it. So I take from Christianity what I love and what sustains me—truth about unabandoned love for all people and calling us to fight against injustice in all forms—and I leave the rest. And part of the goal of my ministry is to apologize for and correct those aspects that are oppressive and exclusionary. So, let me simply name some of the reasons that keep me on the Presbyterian train.
First, Christianity is my spiritual path because it is the means by which I approach the sacred. I love the music, the hymns, the corporate worship, the stories that connect me to the past and give me guidance in the present. The practices of Christianity lead me into mindfulness and a sense of being in community and a part of something bigger than myself. When the Dalai Lama was asked by a pilgrim how to become enlightened, he replied, “Go deep into your own tradition.”
My life has been forever changed by the story of “the man for others” as Albert Schweitzer called him. Jesus, the spellbinding teacher who caught the imagination of simple peasants and rich folks alike and welcomed them all into his circle; the powerful healer who reached out to the most feared outcasts; the wily rabbi who confounded the wise; the radical reformer who died because he loved his people and believed in his mission to set them free.
Presbyterians: Reformed and Always Reforming
Many of us who have found our way to Southminster Presbyterian Church were folks who had been wounded, in one way or another, by the Christian Church. We had been made to feel worthless and guilty by excessively judgmental theology; many of us have been demonized because we were gay or gay supportive, or we felt intellectually stifled by dogmatism. For many people in the world, these negative expressions of our faith became emblematic of all Christianity. And so we sought a church that would embrace all forms of identity and experience—a church that would truly be welcoming and affirming to all— in theology and in practice.
One major aspect that drew me to becoming a presbyterian was literally our “Book of Confessions.” Now I know that I am kinda sounding nerdy here. This is a book with many of the confessions that we have adopted as a church over the years. My favorite one has been the Confession of 1967 in response to civil rights unrest in the ’60s and our call to the ministry of reconciliation—if you have not read it—I highly encourage you to do so.
I have also thoroughly appreciated the Barmen Declaration of 1934—inspired by none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This statement of faith took a stand against the Nazi regime and has much to say to each of us as we think about matters today. And of course, I have appreciated the Brief Statement of Faith in 1983, written after the Presbyterian Churches, both North and South, reunited under the umbrella of PCUSA—a statement that eloquently calls for gender and other forms of inclusivity. I certainly do not believe everything in these confessions—but they point to the reality that faith should never be stagnant or merely dogmatic—our faith lives and learns and grows in each and every context we find ourselves.
Presbyterians: Committed to Open-Mindedness
Historically, Presbyterian Christians have been open-minded. When many of the presbyterian churches have lost sight of that reality, Southminster has always sought to be open and willing to learn and even change our perspective as we enter new contexts and spaces. One of our guiding principles for us has been to respect, learn from, and find value in many different religious traditions.
I am also a Presbyterian because of our commitment to inclusivity. I truly believe that I was born a liberal. My parents used to scoff at me when I would always use those dreaded words: “Not necessarily!” I could always point to another perspective or context when something they were saying to me was simply not true. Nothing has ever been absolute for me. How could it be?
I vividly remember, when I was in 7th grade, my sister who was in the army called home and announced that she was getting married – to a black man. My dad became so irate that he disowned her and told us boys that if we ever talked to her, he would disown us as well. My dad even used the bible as evidence that God would punish her. I don’t know how, but I knew that dad was wrong. At the time, I had no clue about the bible but I deeply knew that God could only be a God of compassion for all people, not just for the white folk! Somehow, I knew that God was a globalist not an isolationist. Somehow I knew, my dad was simply reacting out of fear and willful ignorance.
Presbyterians: Liberated by Love
Still, another reason that I continue to be a Presbyterian Christian is because our faith focuses on how we are ALL liberated by love. Let me tell a story. A Rabbi asked a man how he could tell when the night was over and a new day had begun. The man replied, “When you look into the East and can distinguish a sheep from a goat, then you know the night is over and the day has begun.” Then the man then asked the Rabbi the same question: “How can you tell that the night was over and the day had begun?” The Rabbi thought for a while and said, “When you look into the East and see the face of a woman and can say ‘she is my sister,’ and when you can look into the East and see the face of a man and say, ‘he is my brother,’ then you know that the light of a new day has come.”
I love that story. As Presbyterian Christians, we recognize God in others and we understand that love and compassion are the sources of liberation in our lives and in the world around us. Joanna Macy writes that “compassion and liberation can sustain us as agents of wholesome change.” As people of faith who have been touched by the grace of God—loved unconditionally by a man named Jesus and so many other prophets of old—called to live by the dwelling of Spirit within us—our accountability to love can give us the energy to transform:
- even the hate we see around us,
- even the operation of privilege that we discover inside us,
- even the despair of COVID-19 and the deaths that keep ensuing,
- even the gruesome and ugly fight for racial justice that occupies our hearts and minds these days.
Yes, love can give us the energy to transform! As Scripture tells us: God is love—and since we are god in the flesh—we are love—you are love—I am love—all of us liberated by love and called to liberate others by that same love. And for those reasons and more, I not only can spell it, I am glad to be a Presbyterian. What are your reasons?
I close with the words of Maya Angelou:
We, unaccustomed to courage
Exiles from delight
Live coiled in shells of loneliness
Until love leaves its high holy temple
And comes into our sight
To liberate us into life.
To liberate us into life.
We are weaned from our timidity.…
We dare be brave
And suddenly we see
That love costs all we are
And will ever be.
Yet it is only love
Which sets us free.