A Pastor responds to the Spiritual But Not Religious

UCC colleague Rev. Lillian Daniel has written a few pieces recently about the growing Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) community.  She has even written a book on the topic.  Her Huffington Post included in the title the words, “stop boring me,” and says most SBNR folks just want a personal spirituality rather than the messiness of faith in community.  The post does include many uses of the phrase, “these people,” perhaps too many times for my personal liking since it sounds like a form of “othering.”

I must admit that I did find some resonance in the post the first time I read it, especially the sentences,

“You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.  Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.”

Sister Lillian’s September 2011 article in the Christian Century was a bit less harsh, pointing out the diversity of religious experience among the folks we meet everyday.  For the good folks that make it out of fundamentalism, very few find a good, safe, progressive religious home they can call their own.  There  just aren’t enough of them everywhere yet.  For the man who did find a warm and welcoming community, his divorce cut him off from his only spiritual home.  In response to him saying that he has now found God in nature, in experiences at feeling at one with nature, in reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings, rather than hearing sermons, she writes:

“The spiritual-not-religious are likely to say they see God in their children, at least when they are doing loving things or saying something winning about God. These spiritual-not-religious adults don’t want to hear about God at church, but they seem never to tire of hearing about God from their own children. These are the people who keep sending out the e-mails with “cute things kids say about God.”

“My kid said, ‘Mommy, I think God is like the rainbow.’ Can you believe the wisdom of that?” says the proud spiritual-not-religious parent. These people’s children are always theological geniuses.”

Something about her overall approach has turned me off.  Perhaps it was her response to Marcus Mumford’s cover story interview with Rolling Stone.

“I know what it feels like to want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word.

A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.

Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.

Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.

They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.”

Even Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist on the Pantheos Blog Portal makes a good point:

“The problem isn’t that we look at Westboro Baptist Church, or conniving televangelists, or Ted Haggard and assume all Christians are just like them.

The problem is that we’ve seen the best of what Christianity has to offer and we still want nothing to do with it.

Too many “good” Christians still believe homosexuality is a sin.

Too many “good” Christians still believe women aren’t wise enough to make decisions about their own body.

Too many “good” Christians still believe in Satan, hell, heaven, miracles, prayer, and zombies.

Too many “good” Christians still believe Jesus is coming back in their lifetime.

Too many “good” Christians still believe the Bible reveals more truth than science and they want to rewrite school curriculums to say so. (Hell, nearly 80% of Americans believe in either Creationism or God-guided evolution.)

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned Mark Driscoll yet.”

For his part, Marcus Mumford (whose song Awake My Soul we will be singing later this month at my church) was asked in his Rolling Stone interview,

Does he still consider himself a Christian?

“I don’t really like that word,” he tells senior writer Brian Hiatt in his band’s first Rolling Stone cover story. “It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome’ – they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus. I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.” Mumford emphasizes that while his spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” he’s never doubted the existence of God.”

Perhaps the real issue here centers around two very different things:  God talk in America and increasingly around the world has been seen as an expression of the Christian Right, and the death knell for rock bands (even soulful rock bands) is being labelled in the so-called “Christian Rock” section.

Second question first.  What rocker with any amount of success wants to follow the path of the many promising and yet failed music careers of those whose careers was scrapped in the Christian Music Market.  I can’t blame him one bit for eschewing such a designation.

But yes, let’s admit it.  There is a genuine difference between the Christianity of rational fallacies, spiritual abuses, and political/communication empires of the patriarchal Religious Right and the Christianity of historical critical hermeneutics, inclusion of women and other sexual minorities in leadership, and progressive social justice agenda of the Religious Left.  But both groups are using the term “Christian,” a term first used of the followers of Jesus in Antioch, Syria in the first century.  After 2,000 years of schisms between East and West, Catholic and Reformed, and now Pentecostal, Mainline Liturgical, Dispensationalist, Emergent, Fundamentalist, Mainline Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, Eastern Orthodox of 13 varieties, as well as the big tent within the Roman Catholic Church’s expressions.

I don’t think that Pastor Lillian would argue with these differences, but why should she attempt to make anyone take on a label that they are no longer comfortable with?

Let’s admit it, there is a problem with the Church.  It’s not just that the church is dying, but there is such diversity among religious experience for so many people that finding a community that will usher someone into an experience of the divine is not always available right around the corner.  As a Pastor of a local ecumenical congregation and the Executive Director of our local Interfaith Council, I’ve seen some unique religious communities become regional rather than local churches.  But because it is difficult for congregations to survive without meeting the needs of their local communities, this has made it harder for these communities to survive in our latest depression.  (Ask your local church Treasurer whether this is a depression or not, I won’t argue it here.)

Apparently, after leaving the Vineyard movement’s dispensationalism Marcus isn’t willing to be associated any longer.  Still, you can’t escape the inherent spirituality that gets expressed in his music.

We also have to admit that for the last 50 years the church has been at the center of one of the largest cultural and religious wars we have seen since the Second Great Awakening (1830-50’s).  This time around, instead of arguing around just “historically theological” issues we have allowed the churches to have been drug through the wedge issues of the political parties on the issues of evolution, creationism, civil rights, abortion, immigration, women’s rights, housing rights, employment non-discrimination, marriage equality rights.  Some churches have even been conscripted into these debates by arguing that their “Religious Liberty” to discriminate in the public square has been restricted when they lose their federal grants for social justice programs when it doesn’t agree with their doctrines.  Can you tell the difference between the freedom of religion and imposing your doctrines on the whole country?  Social justice for all people is a different thing.  Keep doing that, but make sure it’s for all people – even LGBTQ families.

I think our culture has hit the height of its pendulum swing toward individualism.  I see good signs that we are ready to ride the pendulum back towards communitarianism.  Unfortunately, it is the economy that is forcing us into bartering and community sustainable agriculture, but perhaps we will use these new economies as a way to teach us how to create new communities.  Ironically, this has been the fodder for many Emergent communities who have found the call toward smaller, more informal and accountable communities so attractive.

We can admit that most of our churches are really country clubs full of the same kinds of folks.  But when we are ready to create truly inclusive communities with people of diverse thoughts and feelings, we may really then become the Church.  Pretending that this is available everywhere, especially for the musical child of Dispensationalist Pastors, is ludicrous.  While Lillian and I may pastor progressive congregations that have a history of social justice, liberation theology, and is conversant in inclusive theology, I have found that the group that has the hardest time being welcomed into my congregation are the newly out LGBTQ people from Fundamentalist and very Conservative church histories.  They love seeing other Gay and Lesbian couples worshiping together with a diverse racial-ethnic mix.  They experience our radical welcome, but some of them don’t know our theological language.  Some of them don’t stick with us long enough to learn it.

Church isn’t just a place where we “put up with each other.”  It’s a place where we are challenged into being the best follower of Jesus we can be.  If that’s the only title someone can accept at that particular moment, then so be it.  It took me six months of ministry to recognize that what I was being asked to be was an Interfaith Chaplain.  It opened a window into my ministry.  Titles don’t matter.  I can love the Taoist as much as I love the member of the Jesus Seminar.  I can minister to those who do Yoga every week as much as I can serve the traditionalist who cries when Mozart sings from our organ.  I can do Christian centering prayer along with my Buddhist friends.  I can love the Republican as well as the Democrat – though both groups have issues with me as a Green.  It’s all church to me and I don’t have to demand that any one of them calls themselves a Christian in order to be a part of the family.  I don’t think Jesus had such labels, and I don’t think we should either.

But here is the kicker for us at this moment in time.  How we talk about the SBNR will be a greater indicator as to whether they will feel welcomed in our midst when the pendulum swings back towards community.  We are in the midst of significant cultural, scientific and narrative change.  All of our institutions are in the midst of momentous change and transformation.  Perhaps when we have a common cosmology again there will be an opportunity to win back some of these hearts and minds.  Perhaps when the Church stops the physical and spiritual abuse of our colonial predecessors we can earn back the trust necessary to do real ministry.  Perhaps when the Church becomes followers of the ways of Jesus again – both as individuals and as congregations – then we will not have to endure the words of Mumford and Ghandi:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

It’s up to us, not those who struggle with us.  We must be the Christ, living for others and serving the world if we expect anyone else to take on the title.

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A Landmark Day For LGBTQQ Candidates for Presbyterian Ministry

Today, Sunday, July 10th, is a landmark day in the PC (USA) for many reasons.

What has received the most attention in the press and the social media outlets is the passing and implementation of Amendment 10-A, which returns the church to our historic pattern of recognizing the gifts officers bring to the church.  Since 1997, with the imposition of an unclear, and seemingly discriminatory paragraph into the church constitution, there has been an official excuse to discriminate against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer and Questioning candidates for ministry as Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.  What some saw as a clear reading of scripture that such officers in the church should be chaste in singleness (read celibate, despite the Confession’s multiple polemics against clerical celibacy), or defining covenant fidelity as only within a marriage between one man and a woman.  The way this paragraph was worded, it included defining anything which the confessions call sin as barring one from service in the church (such as usury, gluttony, avarice, etc.) though the intention was to bar the LGBTQQ community from open service in the church.  Of course, LGBTQQ people have always served the church, but they just couldn’t be honest about who they are and who they loved without putting themselves at risk of being censured or removed from office by the church courts if someone found out.  As you can imagine, this paragraph has kept many from keeping the 9th of the 10 commandments – not only for those who bear false witness against others – but also for those who have not felt safe to be honest about oneself.

Also approved at our last General Assembly was a hotly contested new Form of Government, or the governance portion of our church constitution.  Such changes to the constitution include a few legal changes, such as a change to preclude double jeopardy in our church courts.  But these changes also include a reclaiming of terms for our officers once used in the past as well.  The United Presbyterian Church (USA) used the terms Teaching Elders for pastors and Ruling Elders for those elected from the congregation to serve on the church Session (now a Council).  Deacons continue to be those officers in the church that serve the community through hospitality, support, and nurture.  Every member is a minister or servant of God’s purposes in the world.  At the reunion of the northern and southern strands of Presbyterianism in 1983, pastors were given the title of Ministers of Word and Sacrament.  Perhaps this title was used to emphasize their role in leading in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as being the primary teachers in their community.  Or perhaps, this title was used to bring the terminology of Pastoral leadership closer to those of our ecumenical partners whose clergy served in more sacerdotal (priestly) roles.  Whatever the case, I believe that the return to the historic terms of Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders is an important corrective to the “Clergy-Laity divide” to which many pastors have contributed, and so I as a Teaching Elder will celebrate this change.

But today also gives us a more important movement within the Spirit of God among us.  As one of the Gay Ruling Elders at the church in which I serve has noted on his Facebook page this morning, “Let the healing continue.”  Today also offers us the opportunity toward healing the church.  Over the years, I have seen over a dozen wonderful, creative, trained, Candidates for pastoral ministry in the PC (USA) (and more orthodox than I am) give up on their call among us not only because of the perceived constitutional barriers, but also because of the culture of fear and disdain which that part of the constitution has created among us.  By returning to our historical principles local congregations and presbyteries (regional bodies) – those governing bodies that know the candidates best – will now be able consider candidates based on their life and faith, their calling and discipleship, and their promise to live into the constitutional questions to which they vow.  It has always been a principle among us that congregations and presbyteries have the freedom to call those whom they feel called to serve them.  But by removing those discriminatory words noted above, we have allowed those congregations and presbyteries who choose to ordain and install an LGBTQQ Elder (Ruling or Teaching) or Deacon.  This moves the decision making back to the community in which the ministry of the person will be received.  This allows each of us to live out our freedom of conscience, so carefully preserved for individuals and congregations in our constitution.

But all of this context brings me back to my own experience of this last weekend.  From Thursday to Sunday, I was honored to be invited to meet and support a group of around 25 of our Presbyterian LGBTQQ Inquirers and Candidates for ministry at a rural retreat center in Colorado.  I am a member of the National Board of the More Light Presbyterians, a movement working for the full inclusion of all people in the church since Rev. David Sindt stood up at the General Assembly in 1974 with a sign that said “Is anyone else out there Gay?”  We at More Light Presbyterians have always worked with Presbyterian Welcome (NY City Area welcome ministry), That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS – begun with the ministry of Rev. Janie Spahr, Lesbian Evangelist and continuing under that apt leadership of Lisa Larges), and The Covenant Network of Presbyterians (organized to overturn G-6.0106b and work for equality for all in the church).  In this special weekend held each year (organized by Presbyterian Welcome), members of all of these groups together support those Inquirers and Candidates that have been most at risk of being ignored or excluded from leadership in the church.  We come together to hear each other’s stories, to support one another in whatever context we find ourselves, and to worship together.  As you can imagine, because not every congregation or presbytery is as supportive as another, strict confidence is kept about where each gathering occurs and those in attendance.

This year’s retreat was a special experience for us all, where hope, peace, and love were celebrated because of the possibility that Amendment 10-A (now G-2.0104b in the new Form of Government) will make a difference in the way we Presbyterians treat each other.  I heard that many of those who were close to giving up on the church, or thinking about continuing their ministry in the church as academics rather than in pastoral ministry, now find themselves reconsidering God’s calling on their lives given the new openness within the church.  While everyone’s story was different, a significant number shared the experience that the congregation in which they were born and baptized rejected them when they were honest about who they are or whom they love.  These are Seminarians who have studied our scriptures, and have a Reformed understanding of the theology of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the covenants that a congregation makes to welcome, accept, and nurture those who have come to maturity in the Sunday Schools and Youth Groups of our churches.  They have been to Triennium and they have served as Young Adult Volunteers around the world, and seek to give back the grace they have received to those around them.  The church at large needs to hear that these future ministers, who have read section G-4 on the Church and it’s unity and G-5 about Membership and Ministry in the church in our former Book of Order, have been rejected by their own church families – and biological families – for religious reasons.  While some of the Candidates have found the courage to find another congregation or presbytery in which start over (which can mean an additional 3 years or more of delay to one’s ordination process), others are fearful of trying again.  One only has to consider how many years Lisa Larges has been a Candidate in my own presbytery (since 1983) to conjecture about the number of baptismal covenants we as Presbyterians have not kept to our own children.

I trust that I understand many of the reasons and rationales of my colleagues who grieve at the passage of Amendment 10-A.  They have been articulated in my home Presbytery, as well as the Layman and Presbyterian Outlook.  Many of their views are ones I too have held at one time.  I  grew up as a Son of the Utah Pioneers, and was an active member of the LDS Church until a year after my two-year mission in New England came to a close.  I grew up with the strict gender norms of our U.S. culture, though women weren’t included in the formal leadership of the LDS faith.  I heard the biblical arguments against same-gender-loving people, but I also knew of a member of my Young Men’s group who had taken his own life because of the lack of options for his life.  After marrying Becky, two of our LDS nephews came out of the closet, and we found ourselves among their only supportive family members.  After our conversion to Protestantism, we swam in the waters of Radical Evangelicalism and eventually found a wonderful Welcoming and Affirming American Baptist Church where I felt the call to volunteer Youth Ministry.  A Youth Minister friend compelled me to consider a full-time position in Youth Ministry at FPC Salt Lake City.  While considering the position, I read the whole book of Confessions, and as I admitted to the group this weekend, when I got to the Confession of 67, I finally realized that I could be a Presbyterian.  I thought, “If this was a group centered about living out its faith in peace, justice, anti-racism, gender equality and love, then I was all for joining up.”  Of course, there are times since that initial reading of C67 that I feel as if there was a “bait and switch” based on my experience in the church, but this is still my church, and I will continue to live C67 out, despite the protestations of others in my presbytery, synod, or those throughout the church, for I find the ways and actions of Jesus of Nazareth expressed within that Confession like no other.

So, I understand those who see 10-A in the context of desiring to preserve biblical authority, but after this weekend I have to wonder if my colleagues understand the level of pain, oppression, grief, and even PTSD that members of the LGBTQQ experience when what is most natural about the way they love another child of God is described in terms of sin or abuse, rather than the ways that the ancients described the idolatry of worshipping foreign gods through temple prostitution in a Canaanite or Greco-Roman temple.  What was most interesting for me, as a now self-avowed “off the charts liberal” pastor in the church, was the high level of orthodoxy and connection to Presbyterian tradition that I found within these candidates for ministry.  I found men, women, and transgender siblings of every generation whose only goal is to live out their Reformed faith.  I found a community that is ready to live up to its own theology – and living faithfully together as colleagues with their straight siblings of every theological stripe.

While I hope my presence and support wash helpful to them, the blessing was all mine for the time I was able to spend with them.  Based on our larger group conversations, the plethora of ideas for new ministries shared over meals, and the depth of worship lead by these siblings in Christ, I have great hope for the future of our church, if we live into this considerable moment in our history together.

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What the PC (USA) confessions say about marriage

In December, 2009, Carmen Fowler, the President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and Executive Editor of its publications wrote an article in The Layman: Raising the Standard entitled “What the PCUSA confessions say about marriage.” (find the article at http://layman.org/Editorials.aspx?article=26597)

In this article, Fowler uses the analysis of Alan Wisdom of the Institute of Religion and Democracy to note that the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s “General Assembly Task Force on Christian Marriage and Civil Unions ‘pays no attention to major sections on marriage in three of the church’s confessions.’

Portions of the Second Helvetic Confession (5.246), the Westminster Confession (6.131-.136), and one paragraph (9.47) of the Confession of 1967 were cited, all of which support heterosexual norms as expressed in Euro-American culture.

Fowler then writes,

“Our Confessions could not be more clear. We are not free to lead the people of God according to our personal preference or even our conscience. We are bound to lead the people of God according to the Scriptures, and our interpretation of the Scriptures is to be instructed by our mutually agreed upon confessional standards. I took a vow and so did you. As we consider the definition of marriage inside the Presbyterian Church (USA), let us be found faithful.” 

It is easy and convenient for Fowler to mention what the Confessions say about marriage, but she neglects what the scriptures themselves say, and leaves out an important part of the Confession of 1967, which also places marriage among those relationships within society where injustice and discrimination, both racial and sexual orientation discrimination, occur. The Confession of 1967 (9.44) reads,

a.   God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his (sic) reconciling love he (sic) overcomes the barriers between brothers (sic) and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men (sic) to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen (sic), however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.  

The way I read this, we are called to defend the civil rights of all people, including overturning the discrimination written into U.S. law with the “Defense of Marriage Act” which separates LGBTQ couples from the 1,138 Federal benefits and responsibilities that come with Federal recognition of their marital rights.  As American Christians, taking any other stance denies our equal protection under the law and the social equity and justice to which Jesus called us.  We already have good policies on employment and housing protection for LGBTQ persons in the PC (USA), but you wouldn’t know it since our policies haven’t been shared widely by the denominational leadership.

Fowler also fails to mention that the form of marriage that is almost a biblical universal is polygamy, specifically, patriarchal male polygyny (multiple wives).  Jews didn’t begin to decrease the practice until the 10th century CE, and then mainly in Europe.  While there is a complex polemic in scripture about how such polygamist families struggle to find harmony in such relationships, especially around legitimate heirs to the throne, the practice of polygamy explains Mark’s recognition of Jesus’ siblings, most likely by another of Mary’s “sister-wives.”

Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.”  (NRSV)

In fact, instead of marriage, both Jesus and Paul encourage celibacy  unless one cannot control their sexual urges.  See Matthew 19:10-14 and 1 Corinthians 7:8-9ff.  Marriage, then, was the backup position for the weak.

What Fowler and others argue with their facile conflations of scripture is a cultural argument to uphold heterosexual privilege and superiority.  To pretend that the scripture is univocal in its support of heterosexual monogamy is to impute one’s own cultural biases into not only the confessions, but our present conversation about the authority of scripture.  The scripture is the higher authority, after all, and if the confessions contain historic, cultural misconceptions about the meaning and forms of marriage in the Bible, then they must be reconsidered, first in the light of the love of Christ, and then in light of the witness of scripture.

This conversation is most meaningful right now as the Presbyterian Church (USA) is on the verge of removing the most discriminatory language in its Book of Order (part 1 of the constitution) which attempts to bar same gender loving people and people of minority gender identities and expressions from leadership in the church as Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.

As we stand at the precipice of ordination equality in the PC (USA), let us prepare our hearts as a denomination to extend the full hand of fellowship to our LGBTQ siblings by fully accepting and celebrating the baptismal covenant of each and every child, by blessing and rejoicing in the covenant faithfulness of all couples seeking marriage, and fully embracing the gifts of all those called by their congregation or Presbytery for service and leadership.

For then, we may just be able to express “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (G-1.0200)  For we are called as a church  to a new openness to its own membership, by affirming itself as a community of diversity, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, and conditions, and by providing for inclusiveness as a visible sign of the new humanity;”  (G-3.0401b)

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PresbyMEME: Why I am voting yes on Amendment 10a

Questions for the PresbyMEME:

As you know, I’m a Minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have been debating the role and inclusion of LGBTQ persons since the early 1970’s.  Unfortunately, while this conversation has centered around who get’s to serve as leaders in the church, we have not had deep conversations about human sexuality, the diversity of sexual orientations (both historically and today), gender identity, gender expression, and those who are born with ambiguous genitalia, (who, a generation ago were just assigned a gender, but who, today are given more and more freedom to choose their gender identity).

I was fortunate enough to explore these questions in the safety of a seminary education and a diverse congregation whose loved ones stand up to include them.  I feel blessed to be better prepared to offer pastoral care that is more informed having learned from my LGBTQ siblings about their lives, hopes and dreams, their chosen families, and the blessing it is to be able to claim one’s identity for themselves.  If our church has any hope of living into our calling to be the Beloved Community, we have a long way to go.  My hope, as a husband, as a father, as a pastor, as a board member of More Light Presbyterians, is that we Presbyterians could be the family we say we are.  I have yet to see it, though I work and pray for such a kin-dom.

Thanks to Bruce Reyes-Chow for the invitation to participate in this meme.  You can see other, better responses at:  http://www.reyes-chow.com/2010/11/presbyterian-church-usa-amendment-10-a.html

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