Don’t let it get you down

I’ve had more than a month to process this year’s General Assembly (GA). While each annual gathering of commissioners representing every presbytery from coast to coast to coast is unique in that never do we get exactly the same people each time, it’s still a fairly accurate cross-section of our denomination. I think of it as a vast potluck, where we are guaranteed of a variety of cheesy soufflés, a crock pot of meat balls, a few leafy salads, something sweet and sour and a surprise or two. In human terms, we run the gamut, from liberal to conservative, traditional to contemporary, casual to formal.

I love the moments at GA when we can genuinely bask in the presence of the Holy Spirit, enjoy the wonder of cultural and behavioural diversity, hear new voices, make new acquaintances and put faces to recognizable names. I look forward to seeing who will be at GA in the same way that I would eagerly open the morning newspaper to see what journalistic delights were produced the previous day.

And yet, those moments of joy were scarce during GA 2018.

Not that we didn’t try to see the roses among the weeds. A small group of us began each morning in Spirit-fueled prayer, gathered in a residence meeting room. It would last an hour. That was our foundation for each day as we prayed earnestly for the Holy Spirit to surround the assembly hall with protection from the enemy, a spiritual battle in which we pray for the spiritual armour described in Ephesians 6, while mindful that “we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age.” (Ephesians 6:12 GNT). “God’s will be done at GA,” we prayed early and often.

In the assembly hall, we heard words uttered by those who must have held a wildly different theological view. The particular issue being discussed was just a symptom of a deeper malaise. It was the attachment to human causes and the consequential detachment from holiness that opened my eyes.

More than once I asked myself, “Why don’t these people get it?” Can’t they see that they are marching to a cause of social justice at the expense of the Kingdom? Can’t they see that the sacrificial Lamb of Christ is nowhere to be found in their thinking? Don’t they recognize the lack of fruit? Why are they so blind?

All it takes is one encounter – whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or in a discussion group – with someone of a liberal theological view to realize that they’re thinking the same things about us and asking the same questions. Those who have abandoned the traditional beliefs of reformed theology feel they are as right as those of us who identify as apostolic, orthodox, evangelical and theologically conservative. It is a divide which is unbridgeable.

Now into all this goes a committee of former moderators to study the deep division over the appropriate and godly response to those who are same-sex attracted. Lord, be with them.

For months in advance of GA, Renewal Fellowship and our prayer partners at Dunamis and PSALT prayed for protection from those dark forces described in Ephesians and many other places in Scripture. Some at General Assembly didn’t get it and thought we were waging a war using our own devices. What don’t they understand about the difference between spiritual and physical? Why don’t these people get it?

Despite the potluck of diversity that I usually find so tasty and enlivening at large gatherings, I felt profoundly sad. I remain sad because I know that nothing that I can say or do will cause eyes to be opened. I’m sad because the enemy has occupied strongholds in our church.

I know that my sadness is, in a way, sinful. It’s a sign of my lack of faith. After all, getting down about what the enemy has done and is doing is only to be drawn into the same miasma, a quicksand of despair. “Don’t let the you-know-whats get you down,” I was told by a wise man some years ago. And he wasn’t even a believer.

Let us choose wisely from the potluck and accept that the diversity of choice is a condition of humankind. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4 NKJV). For the promise of the Kingdom awaits. And until that day, we rest on the Lord, we seek His face, we submit our lives to Him, reverently and with complete and enduring trust.

And until the day that the special committee of past moderators submits its report, we pray. We are called to pray regularly, daily, without ceasing, that God’s will be done, and that this unique gathering of leaders will have the wherewithal and boldness to humble themselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from any self-seeking ways so that we, as a denomination, may be forgiven and our land be healed.

Shelter and Strength – Pray for General Assembly

Aboard the Queen Of Cowichan – As I approach the bow on the outside deck, I am struck by a gale-force wind. I brace myself against the wall and reach out for the railing.

The furious wind seemed to come out of nowhere, but that’s life on the open water of the Strait of Georgia.

I am enroute from West Vancouver to Nanaimo, midway through my first road trip as Executive Director. I am being graciously hosted and greeted by many believers. It’s an opportunity to bring the Renewal message of 2 Chronicles 7:14 to three congregations, several General Assembly commissioners and whoever else the Holy Spirit places in my path.

When you’re on a watercraft of any kind, you are at the mercy of God’s natural forces. We’ve all been faced with the kind of wind that bowls you over. Had I not crouched low and held on to the rail, I would have been flattened. I held on to my glasses. Any hat would have been lost at sea.

I didn’t remain long at the bow, but I wanted to remain outside as it was a sunny day. I circled the upper deck, looking for refuge. After a few minutes I found it – a bench at the open end of a shelter, which enabled me to bask in the sun while feeling very little wind. It was a remarkable contrast to the brutal breeze just a few metres away.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, the psalmist writes.

After sunning for as long as I could, I went back inside. How many able-bodied people didn’t even bother to venture outside, sitting instead in comfy chairs and at sturdy tables. Some didn’t even leave their vehicles. Sad.

The experience recalled a conversation I’d had the previous day. I left my zone of comfort and met with someone whose theology was markedly different. Yes, he was a follower of Christ and we probably had 90 per cent of our faith in common. Funny how that 10 per cent can drive wedges between us. Yet the meeting was informative and thought-provoking. I left inspired and richer.

My West Coast trip was nine days, with a different roof over my head each night. I had significant conversations with 36 people and brief meetings with probably a dozen more, plus the lively folks at a Victoria B&B. Most of them were strangers at first; they are now acquaintances or even friends.

This is all foreshadowing of General Assembly, June 3-7, where 229 commissioners will be sitting around tables, listening, thinking, voting, and praying. Many will be out of their comfort zones: politics will rear its head, in natural opposition to spiritual forces. Motions from the floor, amendments upon amendments, tabling and rulings from the Moderator with the inevitable challenges. You can run below deck and hide, or you can find shelter.

We need to pray for General Assembly. Pray that God’s holy and perfect will is done. Not our will, not our selfish desires. Pray that Moderator-Designate Daniel Cho will be submitted enough to the Holy Spirit that he will preside and rule in a godly manner.

Pray for godly recommendations to be approved. Pray for ungodly recommendations to fail.

The Book of Reports is available online. I haven’t read the entire thing as yet, but there is some good stuff in the report of the majority on the Committee on Church Doctrine, which is recommending that we maintain our current definition of marriage. Good news indeed.

Pray that we emerge from General Assembly a step closer to a church that reflects the Body of Christ. Pray that we will be able to withstand the winds of change which threaten to bowl us over. Pray that we will remain attached to our firm foundation.

Showing Them Christ

By Rev. Andy Cornell

Did you see the screaming headline? “Major Canadian Church Abandons the Gospel to appease LGBTQ lobby.” And with it, a photo of people marching in the Toronto Pride Parade holding signs saying “Presbyterian pride God’s love includes everyone.” What followed was a holy tirade of condemnation of a once-biblical denomination which has, apparently, fully accepted same-sex marriage.

Yes, they’re talking about the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC).

No, you didn’t miss anything.

The object of the unfortunate rant in LifeSite News (the online news by Campaign Life Coalition) was the February letter from General Assembly moderator Peter Bush seeking repentance for our sins of homophobia and hypocrisy against individuals and communities who identify as same-sex attracted and transgendered. It was written at the direction of 2017 General Assembly to fulfill a promise made by the church in 1994 to publicly admit the church’s admonition of hate on the one hand while turning a blind eye to the unChristlike way many in our fold have treated the LGB communities over the years. They have been ignored, cast out, ridiculed, marginalized, bullied, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually harmed. We have condemned the sin without listening to their struggles and pain. The result is a legacy of hurt, violence, and mental and physical illness. This is not what Christ called us to do. Moderator Peter Bush wrote a thoughtful, loving, and pastoral letter that was long overdue.

But nowhere does the moderator’s letter affirm the LGB lifestyle. Nowhere did it declare that the PCC has changed its official, traditional stance on marriage – because we haven’t. And nowhere did it signal that any such change is coming.

The opinion writer gave in to the temptation to read what she wanted to read and believe what she wanted to believe. Never mind the facts getting in the way of a good story; she took a Christlike, pastoral gesture and turned it into something manifestly ugly.

Among her comments: “Compromising Christian beliefs and the core tenets of the Bible in order to appease LGBTQ leadership, will do nothing but undermine the authority of the church and the Word.” What? Basic research would have revealed that nothing of the sort happened. In fact, it’s the opposite.

If we are to call LGB people to a lifestyle of biblical purity, then the least we can do – the very least – is to acknowledge their natural desires, accept them as a burden and tell them that we do not condemn them. We need to love them more.

And how about this comment: “There is not a single reference in the letter to the many passages in the Bible that forbid homosexuality.” Well, that wasn’t the purpose.

Some in the PCC have criticized the moderator for not stating clearly in the letter that – notwithstanding our repentance – our traditional definition of marriage has not changed. That’s unfair. The whole purpose of a pastoral letter is to be generous in love, accepting one’s human condition without judgment. It’s always the first step in evangelical witness: getting to know the person, listening to their stories, making a connection. Not judging.

Finally, this: “The letter itself reads like an extreme act of verbal self-flagellation and deprecation.” Wow. If only she knew.

Rev. Christine O’Reilly, the moderator’s chaplain, says this: “Peter remains solidly orthodox theologically; his love for the Lord, for Scripture and for the church is deep, strong, and true.”

The irony of LifeSite is that, in general, it follows a conservative, evangelical biblical orthodoxy. Just like Renewal. But it’s the tactics that differ. I don’t see much love in this misinformed, poorly researched, unprofessional rant.

One positive thing: the headline calling us a “major Canadian church”. So encouraging that we are still seen as a player!

Those who read Peter’s letter in context found gracious words: “We will reach out, rejoice together in fellowship, and seek holiness as we worship, pray, sing, eat, and listen together for God’s Word speaking to the whole church.” Holiness, which I understand to be biblical purity, is far removed from the lifestyles chosen by those who choose to act on same-sex attraction. If only the critics saw that – and not what they wanted to see.

As we continue to pray for General Assembly 2018 to do the right thing and re-affirm the godly definition of marriage, may we go forth with this letter of repentance and proclaim our love for those who are same-sex attracted. And rather than condemn, let us simply show them Christ and point the way in love.

The moderator’s letter can be read here.

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Eyes Wide Open

I love following electoral politics: the leadership races, debates, speeches, campaigns, the who’s who, the cabinet and its rising stars, the leaders in waiting, and the has-beens who are hanging on.

I’ve worked for candidates in municipal, provincial, and federal campaigns. I am a member of a national party. In my university days, I was president of the youth wing of my party’s provincial riding association. (It doesn’t matter which one.)

And it carried into my first career calling. My years as a reporter were devoted to municipal government; I was the one-man bureau and it was pretty much all I wrote about.

And now, strangely but not surprisingly, it’s followed me into ministry.

We live in a political age. It’s human nature, and it’s infused our denomination to the extent that every move we make – whether on the floor of General Assembly, in presbytery and its committees, even on sessions – seems calculated.

It’s what happens when the house is divided. And that’s where legislatures, parliaments, and the courts of the church are similar: there are two or more parties or factions competing for control and influence.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada is no different than other denominations, which are fraught with liberal and conservative theologies in conflict. It’s a centuries-old tug of war. I don’t remember when the Presbyterian Church in Canada was predominantly conservative in theology, but it had to be have been at one time for our main subordinate standard, Living Faith, to have a relatively orthodox outlook. Check out Section 3, in which Jesus Christ is proclaimed as “truly God, truly human, Saviour, Lord” and the source of salvation. And of course, Section 8.2.3, the definition of marriage. Given the widespread lack of support for this one section, particularly so at 50 Wynford Drive these days, it’s clear that a new wave of thinking has emerged. It didn’t happen overnight.

And as our Church Doctrine Committee and our Life and Mission Agency and Committee consider the feedback to all those papers dispersed by the 2017 General Assembly, we see divided presbyteries battling over nominees to committees and positions on theological papers. In one Toronto-area court which voted in support of Option “B” (a wholesale change in our marriage standards), we saw the brave witness of presbyters registering their dissent.

So, is all this a good thing? Despite my love and fascination with politics, I’m not so sure. What I do know is that it’s part of human nature. Yes, God wants us to stand for what is right. And He wants godly women and men to bring their faith into our legislative assemblies and not be afraid to declare it. Like those dissenting elders, we must stand and be counted.

As the Church Doctrine Committee and the Life and Mission Agency and Committee pore over stacks of responses and prepare their reports to 2018 General Assembly, we pray for their eyes to be wide open to see the light of Christ. 1 John 1:5-10 tells us that God is light and if we claim to be followers of a triune God, then we will remain in the light, declare our innately sinful nature, seek forgiveness, and declare that we are steeped in sin.

May all of our eyes be opened.

Pray for each member of the Life and Mission Agency Committee (see page 33 of the 2017 Acts and Proceedings for members’ names) and the Church Doctrine Committee (page 31) as they prepare their reports to 2018 General Assembly. Pray for staff at the Life and Mission Agency and the General Assembly offices. Pray for our 2018 commissioners-in-waiting. Pray for God to open our eyes to which of the three candidates for General Assembly moderator would be best to lead us to submit to God’s will.

Just pray.

Pray for our eyes to be wide open to the enduring truth that Christ came to bring life to its fullest and that life is not to be lived in the flesh but in the Spirit, which is as pure as light and white as snow.

When Reforming Isn’t Good

We love what’s new – cars, homes, clothing, technology. It’s what fuels the entertainment industry and the news business. It explains the vast success of the Internet, social media, fashion and entertainment industries, and our appetite for news.

It also (partially) explains why many in the church are so vocal in their campaigns to change the church to be in tune with the times – or die.

It’s really about reform, they argue.

Ah yes: we are reformed and always being reformed, according to the Word of God. Every Presbyterian believes in that.

Trouble is, there are too many who see that dictum more as a rallying cry for the church to be an agent of social justice rather than a motivation to maintain or rediscover a purer expression of the church as the Bride of Christ.

Look no further than the two opposing documents produced by the Committee on Church Doctrine and referred by the 2017 General Assembly to the church for study and report. To those who search for a purer expression of the church, the paper which advocates a change in the definition of marriage was theologically flawed and is a step back.

Assembly asked for responses by January 31, 2018, and provided three options in the paper, “Where from Here?”

Click here to access the committee’s documents:

Click here to complete the survey:

Purity is Option ‘A’ in the “Where from Here” paper. Social justice is Option ‘B’ or even ‘C.’ Respondents are also invited to propose their own solution in 500 words or less. Purity might also be found here. One proposal being advanced is to reform the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) into theological houses, in an effort to regain purity by association.

Sadly, I am discovering that many people in the PCC have not responded.

But there is time.

It’s vital that the Committee on Church Doctrine hears from those who believe reform is good if it helps the church come closer to purity of doctrine and practice.

This is real renewal. Anything else plays into the hands of the enemy.

Change or die? With the issue before us, changing doctrine to mesh with secular culture and law flies in the face of peer-reviewed research which finds conservative theology is a driver for growth and liberal theology leads to church decline.

There is change which results in true renewal: it’s a rediscovery of the church in a purer form, which recognizes our innate sin, our weakness in the face of temptation, Christ’s pure witness, the presentation of the sobering truth that “wide is the avenue that leads to destruction”, and the mission of the enemy to ask the same question over and over: “Did God really mean that?”

Let us speak the truth in love while we still can.

That Difficult Fruit

We know the fruits of the Spirit. Drummed into our heads – either by memory or by that catchy kid’s tune – you can probably rhyme them off: “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Galatians 5:22-23).

We have no problem embracing and working on the first eight fruits. But that’s where the fun ends. It’s that self-control thing that most of us wrestle with.

Self control? Take stock of our lives and most of us register a “fail”. Not that we’re perfect performers with the first eight. But doing what we do not want to do, and not doing what we should do is arguably the biggest challenge in the “How now shall we live?” department.

Take our fascination with everything online, particularly social media. The news has been awash in recent weeks with stories of tech leaders hanging their heads in shame, admitting that the industry has known for a long time that we are latched to smartphones in the same way addicts are slaves to their substances: the technology relies on the same neural pathways.

The former president of Facebook admitted that they rely on dopamine, which is released when the brain expects a reward or gains knowledge. “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he was quoted as saying. Another ex-Facebook VP told a business school audience that he “felt tremendous guilt … we are destroying how society works.” We are becoming antisocial, unhealthy, addicted and less intelligent. Sobering stuff. And quite possibly true. But does it have to be this way?

I get a lot of my news online, but I also read newspapers the old fashioned way. Old and new. Hmmm. Here’s a suggestion: what if we opened our eyes to our human frailties and tendencies and recognized all this as temptation and refused to give in?

Enter that crazy little thing called “self control.” As I admitted to my congregation last Sunday, I frequently get lost on a bunny trail of click bait. But when I become aware of my human nature (and the guiles of the devil) I take control. More than that: social media actually helps me focus. For example, I typically read a newspaper with a smart device at my side. When I want background, I tap and click and I get enlightened. But then – and here’s the key – I don’t go further. I return to the article in question and carry on. No rabbit hole.

Self control takes time, practice, endurance, and discipline. Imagine that. What’s old – taught by our grandmothers – is suddenly new again.

Deceived by Packaging

How often do we stop and consider the meaning of our words – the absolute and true meaning? Take the word “resolution”. In everyday use, especially at this time of year, it refers to a New Year’s decision to change. Frequently, the resolution dies within a few weeks or months. Life goes on. But check out the deeper meaning. “Resolution” is one of those words used in different contexts. One meaning provided by the Oxford English Dictionary is “The smallest interval measurable by a scientific (especially optical) instrument; the resolving power.” I like that. A high-resolution photo is sharp, no matter how much it is enlarged. Technically speaking, the highest-resolution photos are the best quality.

I recently read Faith Undone by Roger Oakland. It’s a scathing dissection of the emergent church. His argument is that while the movement may appear to be the wave of the future – some even call it a new Reformation – it’s rooted in ancient spiritual practices that are at odds with sound, traditional, biblical Christianity. Even those in the movement who brand themselves as conservatives and evangelicals have been deceived by Satan, the author suggests. There’s no use condensing the book’s message or even reviewing it in this space, as I could not do it justice. I do urge you to read it. For me, it was an eye-opener.

I am now listening and reading more closely, more critically. I have a minister friend who always listens intently to what I say. More than once, he has caught me speaking untruth, tossing out nuggets of wisdom as if they were Scripture. But does the Bible really say that? Uh, no. Guilty. While annoying and somewhat embarrassing, I have come to appreciate his attention to detail. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17 NIV). We need to be there for each other.

I recall visiting a church where I got talking with a man who had been a member for more than fifty years. On the wall behind him were photos of every minister who had served during his time. I asked if he remembered them all, and he said that he did. I asked if one stood out above all the others. He pointed to one. When asked why, he described his theatrical style, his voice, and his pulpit presence, bringing Scripture to life like an actor on a stage. Lacking in his description was any reference to content, theology, proclamation of truth, or calling sinners to repent. In this dear gentleman’s mind, it didn’t seem to matter.

I have a strong sense that we are all subject to such deception – myself included. So, my resolution is this: that 2018 be the year in which I learn to listen closely, to read carefully, and to pay close attention to the content and less to the packaging, all with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

I think I can? I know I can!

These unforgettable lines from the 1930 children’s classic, The Little Engine That Could, became a motivational mantra for generations.

And they are just as powerful today. I read the story – via PowerPoint – at our after-school kids program recently. It was an illustration of Proverbs 28:20: “A faithful person will be richly blessed.” I was taking a chance. Would the message come through despite the dated language and lifestyle? I delivered it with dramatic punch – and it worked! The kids chanted the lines with me. Timeless messages can shine through ancient illustrations.

In the same way, it’s worth knowing that an old-fashioned small group gathering retains its power in an age of online everything. That’s how my congregation, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Dresden, Ontario, is tackling the reports handed down by 2017 General Assembly for study. We have partnered with Knox Presbyterian Church, Wallaceburg, and have contracted a recently-retired Presbyterian Church in Canada minister to take the lead. We started with two evening discussions on physician-assisted suicide. We heard intelligent questions, profound insight, and powerful stories. Four evening presentations and discussions on sexuality and marriage are on tap.

As moderator of the Presbytery of Essex-Kent, I took privilege and closed our September meeting with a pep talk. Our denomination’s action on sexuality and marriage will change us in a profound way, no matter what we do, hence the importance of these conversations at the congregation level.

Yes, the volume of documents is heavy, in every sense of the word. Yes, many of our minds are already made up. But we still need to gather, pray, and talk.

At the 2017 General Assembly, some commissioners were opposed to the additional motion to add the Life and Mission Agency (LMA) report to the document pile. We already have four documents, and the challenges of predominantly aging and declining congregations are already a burden for our ministers. I will never forget the final speaker, a young minister of a small-town charge: “I have no problem finding the time for important theological reflection,” he told assembly.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the conclusion of the LMA paper or are passionately opposed; we are called to study it. The Apostle Paul’s command to submit to governing authorities demands it. In Dresden and Wallaceburg, we are committing an entire evening to it.

On the issue of finding the time, our Saviour’s words in Mark 9:24 come to mind: “Anything is possible if a person believes.” Jesus was chastising His disciples’ inability to cast out an evil spirit, but this truth can be applied to any ministry. We can get through it. We can do it.

Gathering in person to pray, open the Bible, and apply its timeless truths to postmodern problems may be considered old school. But with faith, it will happen. We can wade through lengthy documents and provide Reader’s Digest versions on PowerPoint or in print, as many have done in recent weeks.

The Renewal Fellowship is encouraging all congregations, whatever their theological bent, to study these documents. Earnestly pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal truths and untruths.

I think I can? I know I can, for anything is possible if a person believes.

Speak Up!

At first glance, 105 pages of reading isn’t all that much.

But not all reading is equal. The stack of documents each congregation is being asked to study and report on by the end of January contain some profound and hugely divisive material. We know that many in The Presbyterian Church in Canada pay no attention to matters sent down from General Assembly each year, and this year the temptation is even greater. They may say “It’s too much for our brains and schedules to handle” or “We can see the writing on the wall and our voices won’t matter.”

Wrong and wrong.

If there is ever a time to speak up, it’s now.

Renewal Fellowship exists, in part, to encourage The Presbyterian Church in Canada to be strong and courageous in the face of secular and liberal forces which say we are on the wrong side of history.

I believe too many evangelicals with a healthy respect for biblical purity are afraid to speak up. It’s easy to get the feeling that we are on the margins, even in our own congregations and presbyteries.

But here’s the good news: The Holy Spirit-fueled, apostolic, conservative, and evangelical elements of the PCC are larger and more vibrant than we may think.

Twenty years ago, it took real guts for a hetero person to publicly support the gay community. Now, it takes the same courage to stand up for traditional beliefs.

Be counter-cultural in a Christlike way. You have many friends. We are here to pray for you and with you. We are here to encourage you and listen. This is a time of great decision in The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Make your voice heard.

God’s will be done.

Rev. Andy Cornell, Executive Director