Identity in the Body of Christ

What follows is a short essay shared with a group of colleagues who serve in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The goal of our papers was to generate reflection and conversation through the lens of theology and the practice of ministry on the topic of identity. We considered the First Catechism of the PC(USA), the Heidelberg Catechism, and two essays (chapters) excerpted from books: “The imago Dei and a Reformed logic for feminist/womanist critique” by Mary McClintock Fulkerson in “Feminist and womanist essays in Reformed dogmatics.” Amy Plantinga Pauw, Serene Jones, editors; and “Gender Identity” (chapter 4) in “Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation” by Miroslav Volf.; and “See Some I.D.” (chapter 6) in “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” by Carlos Lozada. This brief essay of mine provides a short overview of central topics in our readings, and then launches into a reflection considering the Body of Christ as a source of identity for members of a Christian community.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. – John 15:35 Painting – “Jesus washing Peter’s feet” by Ford Madox Brown

Our readings offer a few insights into identity. Many of the PC(USA) catechisms speak of identity in covenantal terms as we belong to the family of God. Mary McClintock Fulkerson invites us to consider transforming perspectives stemming from our identity in the image of God. Carlos Lozada outlines societal identity that is historically reactive, clannish, yet often becomes a diverse and fluid dynamic. Miroslav Volf describes gender identity embodied and exclusive when “sexed” yet potentially inclusive when considered in a Trinitarian frame.

My first instinct was to go with the language of the Heidelberg Catechism and the comfort it offers. I lean into the comfort of belonging to one who claims me with sacrificial love. Perhaps I go there because in many ways I now feel like an growing bird whose mother is plucking feathers out of the nest. My mentors are passing and the community they shaped and trained me to lead feels as if it is departing. It leaves me occasionally feeling adrift.

Preparing for this paper, the poem of Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled, “Who Am I?” kept bubbling up in my soul. Here are a few lines:

Am I then really that which other men (sic) tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself? …

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Yet life has a sweetness for me these days. Our daughter recently delivered our third grandchild. Holding and cradling that baby, I sang the same lullaby of love that I sang to her mother, uncle, and older brothers before. Over years of ministry, I’ve gained a reputation as a calming baby whisperer. I’ve also learned that holding a grandchild and singing can have a calming effect on grandpa too. I am reaching for Psalm 131 (my paraphrase):

O God, my heart is not proud, my eyes do not look too high.

I don’t engage with things too great or wonderful for me.

Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet

like a child in its mother’s arms,

as content as a child that has been weaned.

O Israel, hope in Yahweh, now and for evermore.

The last line of Psalm 131 reframed identity for me – from comfort to hope. And, as the Apostle Paul writes, “hope does not disappoint.” Even more, I believe that hope challenges us forward beyond our comfort into something stronger. What I learn from reflecting on this theme is that Christian faith does anchor but also transforms our identity.  

Knowing, along with Bonhoeffer, that I belong to God offers comfort. John Calvin reminds me that knowledge of God and knowledge of self go hand in hand. Claiming the transforming insights of Reformed theology spurs me onward and helps me adapt even as I remain grounded in the knowledge that I am God’s own.

“Moses Abandoned” by Sadao Watanabe.

The First Catechism of the PC(USA) asks and affirms, “Who are you? I am a child of God.”  This knowing shapes our baptismal liturgy. After naming a child, we announce, “See what love God has for us that we are called children of God, and so we are.” There is power in that moment of naming. In recent years, it seems that a growing number of people are choosing to change their given name. Yet more often than not, the gift of a name is a daily legacy of identity that silently frames our lives.

Our daughter, Annie, and her husband, Scott, named our granddaughter Quinn Margaret. Our grandson, Matthew, believes his parents got the name wrong. He is convinced that his sister should be called, Miles. He’s been on a lobbying campaign for months, claiming that it was about time for him to be given the privilege of naming a baby. Who gives us a name and what does it mean for us? tells me that, “The name Quinn is primarily a gender-neutral name of Irish origin …” Recently, my parents informed me that our Norwegian relatives were shocked to learn that I had been given an Irish name. Later in life, my father-in-law wasn’t sure I should marry Jill because my people “hadn’t come over on the Mayflower.” (I wish he was with us now. One reason I have that wish is then I could share the recent genealogical news that my 11th Great Grandfather, Francis Cooke, did in fact arrive on the Mayflower.)

What is in a name? Who am I? Who are my people? A name can define who we are and to whom we belong. I recall hearing a friend question his mother for naming him after an absent father. He would hold that question as she would remind him whenever he was going out through his teenage years, “Remember who you are.” Nevertheless, years later, my friend chose that phrase as the title of his work on baptism.

I turn to naming at baptism because there is one transforming name that Christians claim, Jesus Christ. We baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity and claim to be with Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. This process of engrafting into the Body of Christ establishes a self-correcting spirit of hopeful transformation. The family tree of Christian faith is ever changing and renewing. The image of God is dynamic and hopeful, particularly when seen through the life of the one who suffered, died, and is risen.

One challenge for our reflection was to consider writing a question and answer for a catechism. I suppose that if I were to reflect on further on identity, I would want to ponder deeply the many dynamics of being the Body of Christ. Here is a catechism question and answer I would write:

Question:        How are we the Body of Christ?

Answer:           The strong love of God connects many members into a common life. The body of Christ is God’s reconciling presence and purpose in Creation. Our baptism is a grace-filled act that unites us with the embodied life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We place discipleship in Christ on our shoulders like a garment of gratitude as we seek to demonstrate God’s presence and purpose. With every heartbeat, God joins our lives in this shared identity until the completion of our baptism in death and our joyful communion with the risen Christ.

© Brian R. Paulson – February 2023

Our Moral Imperative

Civility is more than being kind. It is the currency of a healthy society and a moral guardian for our character.

Civility is more than being kind. It is the currency of a healthy society and a moral guardian for our character. After a week of mass shootings, I speak as one holding responsibility for the character of a community and as a witness for moral wisdom sustained across generations. The deepened recent coarsening of public discourse obligates my conscience to speak. I do not want my kindness and discretion to hide the sense of moral peril that I believe our nation is enduring.

We have grown tragically accustomed to mass shootings in our communities. Some of these events are now being fueled by attitudes and rhetoric that has been normalized by our president and embraced by a growing number in American communities. Leadership for a society requires moral rectitude.

Pejorative and stigmatizing speech may be allowable in a free society. But moral restraint and character are required for a free society to be sustained. The rebellion against political correctness has evolved into affirmations by many in our society for the acceptability of “saying it like it is” – even if there are many and various perceptions in our community about the “way it is.”

Civility creates space for differences of opinion to be aired and weighed with both conviction and care. It is wrong and morally reprehensible to demean or dehumanize a person who holds a different point of view on matters of reasonable public debate. For example:

  • It is reasonable to disagree about the most appropriate immigration policy for our nation. It is morally wrong to speak about immigrants as inhuman animals [1] or to foster governmental practices that challenge international norms for human rights.[2]
  • It is reasonable to disagree about the best means to assure public safety and allow for constitutionally acceptable uses of firearms. It is morally wrong to promote using the second amendment as a means to “do” something about people with whom you disagree. [3]
  • It is reasonable to disagree about current consequences and remedies for our legacy of slavery and racial division as a nation. It is morally wrong to refer to those who rally, chanting “Blood and soil,” “You will not replace us,” “Hail Trump,” and “We will be back,” as somehow being “good people” on an ethical par with those who advocate a tolerant society. [4] Likewise it is morally reprehensible to broadly refer to majority African American urban centers in a manner that infers sub-human status on communities “infested” with “rodents.” [5]

As in all things, this is a matter worthy of our prayer. I support the effort affirmed by our president in his August 5 statement, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. … Hate has no place in America.  Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.” [6]  Indeed, my prayers are for our president and all elected leaders so they might sustain their energies in support of this affirmation.

Love counters hate and is a bulwark that creates space for dialogue. I live in such a space working as Pastor for a spiritual community that is comprised of faithful citizens who hold a wide variety of perspectives about the most effective ways to live together as a society. In this daily work, I invest in spiritual practices of Christian love which create generous space for people to live responsibly and prayerfully with one another. Such space for civility allows us to share differences and disagreements in a way that helps us learn from each other while working to build a better community and society.

Like many pastors trained in my generation, I was schooled in the lessons that church leaders acquired from two significant world events impacting humanity in profound ways: The rise and fall of European fascism; and the divisions and progress of the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s. Furthermore we began our ministries confronting the ills of apartheid in South Africa, and seeing a spiritual revolution for human dignity in formerly communist lands. As a consequence of my lessons and experience, I ask my friends not to be surprised that ethical alarm bells are chiming in my conscience. Please do not confuse what I see as a civic moral peril with what is often dismissed as a pastor merging religion and politics.

I believe it is a moral imperative for responsible citizens – especially we who claim a spiritual core – to speak reasonably and with conviction to counter demeaning, dehumanizing, or hateful speech in conversations with family, friends, and co-workers. It is not a virtue to uncap the lid on inner voices fueled by hurtful resentments or uninformed presumptions. Even more, it is faithful in this age to assemble, speak, and write our elected representatives in support of leadership that confronts any coarsening of public discourse in a way that demeans or dehumanizes people of varied perspectives.

Jesus sent his disciples into the world charging them (Luke 10:5) to proclaim peace wherever they went. I encourage all whose conscience calls for civility to join me in seeking practical ways to listen and learn from one another as we seek peace and the promotion of the common good. I believe this is a moral imperative for us today.



My hope is that this personal witness will be received in a spirit of prayer with an opportunity for sincere conversation. I have turned off comments because I would prefer any conversation on this issue to be face to face. As many of you are aware, social media often becomes a platform for shouting at one another instead of serving as a vehicle for genuine sharing and listening. It grieves my spirit whenever I hear of alienation among our congregation caused by aggressive social media comments. We are not immune to the tone of shunning and exclusion that currently afflicts the American body politic.  I always hope we can do and be better in our witness.

It is my hope that you read my comments and understand I strongly respect a historic Presbyterian conviction that people of good conscience differ. Such a principle is inherent within the moral imperative to which I am bearing witness. Thank you for your prayerful and thoughtful attention.



[1] – New York Times, May 16, 2018. “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants Animals in Rant” by Julie Hirschfield Davis. – And – New York Times, August 5, 2019. “How the Trump Campaign Used Facebook Ads to Amplify His ‘Invasion’ Claim” by Thomas Kaplan.

[2] – The Guardian, January 4, 2019. “US halts cooperation with UN on potential human rights violations” by Ed Pilkington.

[3] – New York Times, August 9, 2016. “Donald Trump Suggests ‘Second Amendment People’ Could Act Against Hillary Clinton” by Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman.

[4] – Southern Poverty Law Center, October 10, 2017. “When White Nationalists Chant their Weird Slogans What do They Mean?” by David Neiwert.

[5] – Associated Press, July 28, 2019. “Trump attacks majority black district represented by critic” by Zeke Miller.

[6] – Transcript from – August 5, 2019, 10:08 A.M. EDT Diplomatic Reception Room “Remarks by President Trump on the Mass Shootings in Texas and Ohio.”

Post Image – “Conversation Abstract” by Siddesh Rane


“In Our Time” – A statement on relations between the Presbytery of Chicago and the Jewish community in metropolitan Chicago

This post carries a link below to a pdf document that was approved by the Presbytery of Chicago. It serves as a theological and relational framework for the Presbytery of Chicago to pursue an engaged and constructive relationship with the Jewish community in metropolitan Chicago (city of Chicago and suburbs). At a time of growing anti-Semitism in our society, and in week that has witnessed deadly violence in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I offer this tool for reflection and conversation.

“In Our Time” – A statement on relations between the Presbytery of Chicago and the Jewish community in metropolitan Chicago

Marc Chagall - America Window
One panel of Marc Chagall’s “America Window” that can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Report from the 2015 Waldensian Synod

The 2015 Synod of the Waldensian Methodist Church of Italy was filled with challenge, possibility, and joy. It was a privilege to observe both the Synod and the preceding gathering of the Corpo Pastorale (Pastoral Body). Every Synod gathers to address important matters of the day, but it also serves as a powerful reunion of sisters and brothers in faith from across Italy with ecumenical visitors from around the globe.

Revs. Tomassone, Tenclay, and Natoli lead the walk to worship.

Opening worship this year offered a challenging word on Luke 11:29-32 from Pastor Erika Tomassone about the signs of this generation. Eleonora Natoli was ordained into pastoral ministry after a long journey to faith and a new chapter for her life in a “second career.” In many ways, Eleonora represents a vision of hope for the church as new members come to faith through the Waldensian/Methodist church. Rev. Tim TenClay was received as a pastor from the Reformed Church in America to serve in mission at Palermo, Trapani, and Marsala in Sicily. Tim is married to J.J. TenClay who also will be in mission working in social service with Pellegrino della Terra serving immigrant women in Sicily that are making a new start in life. The worship concluded with a moving benediction in song whose lyrics were penned by the beloved Pastor Caterina Dupre, immediate past director of the Agape Ecumenical Center, who died much too young due to cancer this year.

Rev. Eric Noffke, Ph.D., Rev. Cristina Arcidiacono and Rev. Daniela diCarlo  

The Corpo Pastorale preceded all of the Synod’s opening activities. The pastoral leaders received some in-service boundary training, reflected on the impact of the resurrection on practical ministry and heard a report on the pastoral formation opportunity in America (“EFFE”) supported by the American Waldensian Society. They also considered a new liturgy being developed for blessings of same sex unions. As the weekend activities transpired, there clearly was great emphasis on the refugee and immigration crisis – including an open air presentation on the street in front of the Foresteria in Torre Pellice. This presentation covered the subject of ministry to immigrants who found themselves incarcerated. It was an emotional beginning to the gathering of Synod.

Mediterranean Hope was the subject of a moving evening presentation early in the week of Synod before a packed house at the Waldensian Church of Torre Pellice. Paolo Naso moderated the presentation that featured several speakers on the situation of refugees and immigrants as Mediterranean Hope opens new avenues for compassion and service. The speakers were Marta Bernardini, who directs the observation post of Mediterranean Hope on the island of Lampedusa; Yvan Sagnet, an organizer and recent immigrant from Cameroon; and Mario Marazziti, former director of the parliamentary commission on human rights, who also is a member of the Roman Catholic Mediterranean Hope partner, Communità di Sant’Egidio. Each told a moving story with a challenge for insight, companionship and solidarity. This emotional challenge resonated throughout the entire week in conversations and decisions. Also, the valley town of Villar Pellice became home to 60 new immigrants in a structure converted for hospitality by the diaconal work of the Waldensian Church. A local town hall kind of gathering in Villar Pellice engaged the issue in practical terms as they received the challenge of the gospel from Moderator Eugenio Bernardini and other leaders.

Moderator Bernardini and Elder Sergio Velluto present a historic Bible to Pope Francis 
Ecumenism took center stage throughout the gathering. The Synod responded to greetings from Pope Francis and considered a response to his request, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, for forgiveness – relating to past church actions that most consider, in the words of the pope, un-Christian or even inhuman. The Synod after much debate responded graciously with a desire to begin a new chapter of reconciliation and dialogue in relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Also of great ecumenical significance was the 40th anniversary of the federation of the Waldensian and Methodist churches in Italy. To mark the occasion, there was a wide range of Methodist ecumenical guests from around the world who joined in their greetings throughout the Synod and at the annual ecumenical dinner.
Dr. Paola Schellenbaum (left, re: “Family”) and Rev. Mirella Manocchio (right, re: Liturgy)
Liturgy and Family took center stage both at the Corpo Pastorale and during the Synod as the leadership worked to inaugurate material for use in worship in response to the prior Synod’s affirmation of options for blessing same-sex unions. There will be one more year of study and reflection before the liturgy is formally adopted. These conversations at the Corpo Pastorale and during the Synod included a very thorough review of the changing family realities of Italy. A commission had extensively studied the ways in which the church can walk beside the varied expressions of family in our modern world in a way that is faithful and helpful. The commission’s findings were carefully reviewed by Synod.
Casa Cares at Regello, Tuscany, was approved for a dramatic renovation and expanded focus for ministry. The diaconal leadership of the church was given oversight and responsibility for the center. The goal of this oversight will be to identify an expanded clientele in renovated facilities with new leadership to be found upon the retirement of Paul Krieg at the beginning of 2016. Both Paul and his wife, Antoinette, were commended warmly for their devoted length of tenure and valuable service of Christian love. In addition, the other diaconal centers were reviewed carefully as is common practice. The opening of a new museum and reinvigorated ministry at Riesi, Sicily, were celebrated as well.

Kevin Frederick (left) and Brian Paulson (right) being interviewed by Radio Beckwith
It was a joy to share observations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) ecumenical delegate – Valdese, North Carolina’s own Pastor Kevin Frederick of the Waldensian Presbyterian Church. I had to depart just prior to closing sessions because of the length of my stay for the Corpo Pastorale. However, Kevin was privileged to observe the Synod engagement with leadership of the Roman Catholic Church as a continuation of the ecumenical discussions earlier in the week. Kevin reported being particularly well impressed by the length and warmth of applause afforded to the Roman Catholic ecumenical delegate’s remarks to the assembly.

Rev. Davide Ollearo (with his new Cubs hat after worship in Pramollo) with Brian Paulson. 

As anyone who has attended these gatherings will attest, there is so much more to express that simply will not fit into a brief report. The days began early and ended very late every day of my attendance. Friendships were renewed and projects prepared. My congregation was able to plan a youth service initiative with a congregation in Milan next summer. Leadership of the EFFE project was able to discuss hopes for next year’s project. I find myself joyfully exhausted after it all. I hope this report gives all of you a sense of the Synod. I am always happy to talk about further details with any of you individually in the days ahead.

Report on the General Synod meeting of the Reformed Church in America – June, 2015

It was a privilege to serve as the ecumenical representative of the Presbyterian Church, (USA) at the gathering of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America as they met from June 11-16 on the campus of Trinity Christian College outside of Chicago, Illinois.  What follows is a summary of the actions I observed and some of the dynamics I perceived from the meeting.

Human sexuality and in particular issues related to homosexuality took center stage in primary actions and hallway conversations of the delegates.  There was a recommendation from the President of the Synod to create a special council that would propose a constitutional way forward on many of the issues of concern and disagreement amongst members of their communion.  The special council was approved after debate that demonstrated two opposing perspectives: one perspective was eager to define an unambiguous set of boundaries regarding human sexuality; another perspective was concerned to allow sufficient time for deep discernment and consensus without a rush to action.  Hallway conversation perceived the special council as a means by which more timely definition would be accomplished with many pleased and many concerned about that prospect.

Transformed and transforming leadership was the goal and theme of much of the Synod gathering.  There were many examples of ways that the leadership of the RCA was building initiatives that would change patterns and practices of Christian witness that would more effectively engage the society in which we minister. One action of particular note was the acknowledgement of “Missional Impact Partners.”  Many compelling stories were shared of ways that ministry was entering communities that have been otherwise neglected to be reached through new patterns of innovation.  One fascinating story described a ministry in Benton Harbor set in a neighborhood rife with drug dealing.  So much activity was going in and out of the Pastor’s home that the police came knocking with false assumptions, not knowing that there was a lively and active bible study taking place each day with ex-convicts, dealers, and others from the neighborhood.

Judicial actions of the Reformed Church of America do find their way to the floor of the General Synod.  As such, there were some decisions undertaken with regard to homosexuality that elicited much heartfelt debate.  The frustrations shared during debate reflected some of the eagerness involved with the choices made for the special council on constitutional action.

An ecumenical panel was center stage on an evening in which I joined other ecumenical partners for a valuable dinner of sharing and prayer.  The ecumenical panel included representatives of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal traditions that were widely well received by delegates to the Synod.  This panel was unique for the RCA in the sense that its focus was not upon the formula of common agreement partners such as the PCUSA, UCC, and ELCA (all of whom were represented along with a representative of the CRC).   Also, during the Synod plenary meeting, an inter-religious task force was established for the first time to explore relations between Christians and people and groups of other religions.

Chiapas and a few other regions of the world were given special focus and recognition.  The ministry in Chiapas was a thorough and historic effort by the RCA.  That mission was acknowledged as having established a robust indigenous ministry and thus the RCA missionary effort was completed and celebrated.  The commitment and imagination of these retiring missionaries was remarkable and impacting.

Armenian genocide was acknowledged and lamented by special action affirming solidarity with the Armenian people both victims and survivors.  This action paralleled the efforts of the PCUSA and other ecumenical partners.

Presbyterian links to the RCA were underscored in many sincere hallway conversations.  Our ties were formally acknowledged on the rostrum during the ecumenical report.  The formula of agreement remains a continuing and viable form of exchange for ministry and witness.  While the stance of the RCA on matters of homosexuality now differs from the PCUSA and other formula of agreement partners, those differences were not cuase for any diminuition of formal ties and ministry.  Of course, during floor debate on some contested issues, there were broadly generalized characterizations of choices and consequences in our denomination and other partners. However, none of those comments appeared to sway the very positive spirit of cooperation and mutual appreciation that was facilitated by RCA staff and delegates.


Brian R. Paulson

Pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, Presbytery of Chicago

(Brian was appointed by the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, as the Ecumenical representative to the General Synod 2015 our partner communion, the RCA.)

Justice Done on Somebody Else

The news from Kenya spiked another deep sorrow in me this Good Friday.  I say “another” because I find myself overwhelmed by the way religions have been co-opted by those who bring violent harm during the course of my adult years and ministry.

When my son was in his first year, my wife took a photo of the two of us as I lying on the floor holding him aloft in my arms.  It was one of those parental pure joy moments.  But what we didn’t consider is that the television news was on behind the scene of the tow of us.  Onscreen was a photo of Sadaam Hussein during the runup of a middle eastern war.  It was a kind of foreshadowing of the transition from conflict of ideologies in the Cold War that framed my youth to the conflict of religions and worldviews that predominates today.

There is a middle verse in a hymn by Ebeneezer Elliot from a time just prior to the founding of my congregation in the mid-nineteenth century.  That hymn was written into Godspell some years ago.  Here is that verse:

“Shall crime bring crime for ever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
That man shall toil for wrong?
‘No,’ say thy mountains; ‘No,’ thy skies;
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs;
God save the people!”

If only we could be saved from ourselves and our killing impulses.  Friends introduced me to the rolling lyrics of Canadian, Bruce Cockburn some years ago.  His song, “Justice,” seems to capture the instinct of our age – “Everybody wants to see justice done on somebody else.”  

He wrote the song during the ideological battles surrounding the Central American conflicts.  However, in this broadcast he sings from Canada along with the world grieving following the tragedy of 9/11.  

On Good Friday, I find myself reflecting on so many dimensions of the cross.  In many ways I find the cross to be a mirror of humanity and a mirror of my own soul.  I have to confront the truth and reality that I too have placed “one who knew no sin” upon the cross.  I always want to see justice done … on somebody else.

In humility, we see a path toward salvation.  It begins when we stop the “pointing of the finger” as Isaiah framed it. Good Friday is a mirror.  Perhaps that is why so many painters would paint their faces in the crowd of those looking upon the cross (or sometimes even into the face of Christ).  The cross is a convicting mirror.  

Will it change us?

Paul Gaugin – “The Yellow Christ”

A Convicting Mirror from Auden for Holy Week

“Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.” W. H. Auden, in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Some Auden for Eastertide

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life!
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

– W. H. Auden (from his Christmas Oratorio 🙂 )

PCUSA Moderator’s Conference on Unity with Difference (Reflection 1)

At the meetings of the governing board of our church, “the Session,” a candle is lit and burns at the center of our circle (I suppose it is really a square of tables).  We are intentional with one another regarding the candle.  It reminds us that our speech must pass through the refining fire of God’s Holy Spirit as we discern with each other.  Likewise, we remember that the presence of Jesus Christ is at the center of our shared life.  Even more, we remember that believers of every place and time are joining us around the tables as a “great cloud of witnesses.”  We discern God’s leading within a covenant community of belonging.  This practice encourages us to remember the wider circle of the Church as we undertake a wide range of decisions.

Within my own family, there are days when we wonder, “do I belong to THIS family?”  Some days, we say, “yes!” aren’t we fortunate.  Other days, we say, “really?”  

I am reflecting with a conversation being streamed online from Princeton Theological Seminary that is sponsored by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA.  The title of the colloquium is “Unity with Difference.”  Currently the conversation is centered upon the question posed by Martha Moore Keish about how we Belong, Behave, and Believe.

I have been thinking about my family table and the table of our Session because I am reflecting upon the concept of belonging.  How do we belong with difference?  Well, I wonder if the notion of these tables identifies the reality of our behavior.  – At times, we are perplexed in families – “why did they do that?”  At times, we repeat the phrase that Will Willimon’s mother used to put to him, “remember who you are.”  
Well, at the table, hopefully, we have a conversation.  Then, the confessions (the witness of prior generations) and confessions of other Reformed families (the current witness of our cousins) enriches the conversation when we find ourselves at wits end with each other.  The light of Christ at the center of our conversation serves as a kind of magnet that continues to draw us back and together.  It reminds us that God is committed to us (while we were  yet sinners, Christ died for us) so perhaps we could try a little harder at being committed to each other.

One of the greatest challenges we face is an age old challenge of religion.  It is present also in the scriptures – How can we be more welcoming?  How can we be more fully transformed into God’s calling to us?  

The confessions serve as a model for addressing that challenge.  It is as if we can hear people of faith throughout the ages saying, “yes, but” after each assertion.  – By the grace of God, we find ourselves moving closer and closer to a deeper sense of belonging because we have become more known to each other, disclosed in conversation – personal.

Current questions of debate surround LGBTIQ issues related to our relationships and how we belong to each other.  Issues of strong disagreement are coming to the next General Assembly of the PCUSA.  

If our commitment to each other is “a priori,” then we can move to a place where our choices (specifically in this case covenanted relationships – marriage is the debate before us) are part of a personal conversation.  Moreover in the church, it is a pastoral conversation.  The call to pastors is to know our people.  (We work at that.  Knowing our flock better some days than on other days.) 

Here is what I ponder – can we articulate a “center” in Christ that draws us together, even in the midst of difference.  A strong enough center – that allows pastoral conversation to shape relationships that are based upon personal knowing (the outcome of sincere and committed conversation).

I found conversation about both Baptism and Eucharist in a prior discussion to be helpful.  Belonging in call and belonging in brokenness.

These are unformed thoughts at this point – written while observing this conference.  (From a distance, this is my “hallway conversation.”)  I am glad that we are praying/talking/learning these questions together.