From Lament to Hope: For Such a Time as This; Reflections on the 224th General Assembly of the PC(USA)
by Louise Westfall
Let us pray: Surrounded as we are by the sounds of respirators, the cries of the grieving, and the raised voices of protest, help us hear your voice, O God, and rise from here with courage to respond. In the name and by the power of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
General Assemblies come and go, every two years, like clockwork. Commissioners (voting delegates) along with advisory delegates from young adults to theological students, global mission partners, and ecumenical representatives, gather in a host city for a week-long cycle of work and worship to develop policy and programs that witness to God’s redemptive mission in the world and in the church. More than one Presbyterian has called it a “family reunion”–relatives all, hailing from different contexts and holding different perspectives, yet meeting for common purpose, some of which was simply the joy of being together.
So when the pandemic struck and made an in-person assembly in Baltimore impossible, national leadership had to scramble to figure out whether or not–and how!–to conduct the business of this 1.7-million member, multi-million dollar organization. Some work was deemed essential and time-bounded in a way that couldn’t be held off for two more years. So the idea of a completely online Assembly was born with an on-ramp of about 3 months. The good news is they pulled it off: with stellar tech support, required online training for every commissioner, and a greatly-reduced agenda. Only items critical to the continuity of governance and mission were included on the 2 ½ day docket; most business, reports from Task Forces and detailed policy recommendations were simply referred to the 2022 Assembly.
So at first I thought I understood the motivation for the Assembly’s revised theme: From Lament to Hope. I anticipated a giant pep rally that would lift us from the lamentable losses of a world brought to its knees by a novel coronavirus, remind us of God’s presence and power, and get us energized and ready to resume the Church’s mission. The theme text seemed perfect: a couple verses from the Biblical book of Lamentations, written at perhaps the lowest point in Israel’s history (until the modern era). A deep cry to God for help and restoration when hope itself had dried up. A reading from the book of Lamentations, in the fifth chapter at the 20th verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and to the church. [Lamentations 5:20-21]
Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old…The Word of the Lord…thanks be to God!
The Central folks who explored this text in Faith Break (please join me on Zoom at noon every Friday!) quickly clarified the role of lament as essential for healing and reconciliation. Glossing over the depth of pain–or even ignoring the reasons for that pain–can short-circuit the path towards wholeness. Lament is not simply the experience of sadness or regret; it’s a full-throated, honest articulation of reality that falls short of God’s good intentions for the beloved creation. There’s no way to get to a better place without going through a hard place, one of the group noted. Lament–unlike complaint–acknowledges one’s own participation in the brokenness. It owns some responsibility for the problem, rather than looking to outside causes and scapegoats. It allows the tears and anguish to lead us to confession, and from confession into actions that will change the lamentable reality. It’s one part of a process–like gestation, or seed germination, or as Rev. Tim noted last Sunday being awakened to unconsidered dimensions of a particular moment.
And that’s what the Assembly tried to do. Of the myriad words used to conduct our business decently and in order, three stand out for me: Black lives matter. More than anything else, this cry and call characterized the 224th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. You heard it in worship; you heard it in the voices of commissioners addressing racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes; you heard it in the election of co-moderators Elona Street-Stewart and the Rev. Greg Bentley–a woman Native American elder and an African American male pastor; you heard it in the testimonies from the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington (online, and included in the Assembly as an optional activity), addressing inequities in education, labor, health care, and ecological devastation; you heard it in the wording of proposed actions and resolutions. Black lives matter.
And because they do, the church recommitted itself to racial justice and racial healing in the church and in the world. The major piece of legislation passed was a sweeping call to respond to the sin of racism and take concrete actions toward its eradication. Every sphere of church life–from national leadership to local congregations—was urged to consider its life and mission through an anti-racist lens so that our proclamation of the gospel has authenticity and relevance. Congregations and presbyteries were encouraged to read the Poor People’s Campaign “Open Letter to National Lawmakers about Systemic Racism” and use it as a guide for action. (I’ve referred it to Central’s Racial Healing Life Group and our Faith Formation Council to help us engage its broad concerns). The Assembly offering was designated for a Baltimore presbytery program of Black youth empowerment and entrepreneurship, and was close to $20,000.
And yet the old patterns persist. When a commissioner asked to name the particular impact of racism, violence, and oppression of Black women and girls, she was essentially ignored. Later when her proposal was introduced as new business, the Assembly declined to reconsider it. Flashes of resentment and impatience were exhibited by white people on more than one occasion, our privilege showing like a piece of toilet paper stuck to the heel of your shoe. We seemed more concerned about the relatively small expenditures for social justice programs than much larger, but far more general ones. We were too congratulatory in the passage of another statement calling the church to racial justice. We claimed “hope” too quickly, rather than staying in the uncomfortable place of lament. We have much more work, and a whole lot more listening to do.
Lament--unlike complaint--acknowledges one's own participation in the brokenness.
We tended to congregational life through stories from across the Church, about how mission is thriving during the pandemic. In pre-recorded messages played on breaks, members told how they were worshiping online, and caring for their community in supportive ways. One church had challenged its members to donate a portion or all of their economic stimulus checks and with those funds hired a part-time assistant for their overwhelmed community food bank. Another congregation mobilized members, masked, gloved, and socially distanced, to clear litter and debris from neighborhood streets. We learned that over 500 congregations–including Central–have signed on to the Matthew 25 vision of care for the most vulnerable in Jesus’ name. We approved special funds to assist with repairs and maintenance of the 92 predominantly-Native American Presbyterian Churches throughout the US, in recognition of the terrible disparity in the impact of COVID-19 on these communities. I was glad to hear that scores of smaller-membership churches are using resources developed by the denomination to become sustainable, vital congregations–defining success not just by numbers, but by significance to the community. There was plenty of lament about missing beloved friends during these days, but a hearty resolve to hew to practices for the safety and health of everyone.
Despite our hypocrisy and hardness of heart, I left the Assembly with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment. We are part of a diverse church still learning to value the voices of people of color, where young people are leading the way in proclaiming uncomfortable truths, and the vision is larger than institutional maintenance or simply returning to normal. I am even more eager that the Church be a light to our nation, testifying that true greatness comes from service. And yes, I call us, Central and Denver Presbytery to lament the realities of our Black women and girl siblings, the violence perpetrated against them, and to say in word and deed: This must stop! God is with us; and God is moving us from lament to living hope, so that the sickness and inequities of today may not be the realities of tomorrow.
There was a certain exhaustion at the end—partly from the intensity of technology, but even more from wondering why things never seem to change. Newly-elected co-moderator Greg Bentley told us a story in his charge to persevere. There was a Colorado mountain man known for his good deeds, honesty, generosity, and kindness. Day in and day out, year after year, he showed up to support people in need. A young seminarian was curious about his persistence and asked what kept him at it. He chuckled and pointed to his dog. One day that ole’ dog lit off after a rabbit. His furious barking and lightning speed riled up other dogs who joined in the hunt. They ran and ran and ran, but after a while the other dogs dropped off. Only my dog kept on. And why was that? He paused and finished: Because he was the only one who saw the rabbit.
Friends, unless we see what we’re going for, we won’t be able to do this work for the long haul. That’s why we come to the Lord’s Table again and again. We eat broken bread and drink from a cup poured out in love, a meal instituted on the night in which Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. But here we find what is essential to sustain a vision and nourish hope, despite the ways we continue to betray and abandon and deny him. Here we remember Whose church this is, Whose world this is, and gratefully, humbly receive the gifts that will make us whole.
May it be so.