Framing the Shots

Address to the Commissioners’ Convocation Dinner ~ 221st General Assembly (2014)
June 13, 2014
The Rev. Dr. Randy Bush

Randy BushWhen I was in junior high, I took a photography course. This was a while ago, before digital cameras and Photoshop. This was in the days of Kodak Instamatics and rolls of film, which meant that you had to make every shot count. In this class, we’d decide to take a picture of something – a barn, a tree, a building. We’d all line up and squint through our viewfinder with our fingers twitching on the shutter button. But then the teacher would stop us and have us think carefully about how the photo would look when it was printed. What if we took a step back or a step forward? Did the picture’s composition get better? Was it more interesting? What were we choosing to leave in the frame of the photo and what was being excluded – and did we have a good reason for making those choices? Only after we had considered all our options should we hit that shutter button. Remember, back then you had to wait until the whole roll of film was exposed and developed at the drugstore before you could see the results of your efforts. That was why you wanted to think carefully about your photo before you clicked the shutter.

My mother, bless her soul, was not a good picture taker. By the way, whenever you use the phrase “bless her soul,” you need to smile and shake your head a bit. It’s a phrase you use when you’re about to say something negative about a person you love. Uncle Billy, bless his soul, was a great guy but he never learned how to chew with his mouth closed. Aunt Martha, bless her soul, was a lot of fun but she had a laugh like a crazed hyena. Anyway, my mother, bless her soul, was so serious about taking pictures that she would push the shutter button extra hard, which meant she invariably jostled the camera and cut off someone’s head in every photograph. Being the tallest member of my family, my head was cut off so often I had to be identified in the photo captions based on what shirt or belt I was wearing at the time.

While you’re here at General Assembly, I imagine you’ll be taking photographs with your cameras, smartphones or tablets: getting a shot of scenic Detroit – the river and convention hall – the volunteers in their aprons – the plenary hall with all the tables full of commissioners. Yes, you’ll need to document all these things for your family and friends and churches back home. But before you hit that shutter button, stop and ask yourself: What type of photographs are the most interesting to look at? What photograph can you take that captures the spirit of this 221st General Assembly? In truth, it probably won’t be of a building or the convention center hall. It will likely be a group photo of people – the people beside you now and the people soon to be beside you voting on issues before the PC(USA).

For a moment, I want you to think about photographs taken in history of famous people of faith – people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa. The iconic images of all those people rarely show them standing alone. Invariably you see King walking with his arms linked, marching for justice and the American Dream instead of Jim Crow promissory notes. Invariably you see Mandela surrounded by cheering crowds or standing in a packed courtroom naming the values for which he was willing to die. And when you see photos of Gandhi or Mother Teresa, aren’t they almost always bending down to help someone? And if Christ were ever to be captured in a photograph, wouldn’t we expect it to be a picture of him in a crowd – walking with his disciples – speaking to a group – calling out to Zacchaeus up in the tree, to Matthew behind the tax collector’s desk, or lifting to her feet the woman about to be stoned or the weeping woman who anointed him with tears and perfume?

What photos are you going to take of this General Assembly? What pictures will capture the spirit of our denomination – that capture the challenges and hopes of the Presbyterian Church and the church of Jesus Christ today? Some may tell you that this photographic task is a difficult one. They’ll say that the Presbyterian Church, bless its soul, is declining; that the Presbyterian Church is fundamentally defined now by conflict and threats of schism. When someone offers that line of thought to you – when someone suggests that the pictures of our church cannot be taken today with a wide-angle lens, then gently ask them to hold off a moment before they hit the shutter button.

It is a fitting coincidence that the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2013 was “selfie.” Selfies – those ubiquitous self-portraits awkwardly taken by holding a camera at arm’s length. Sometimes you can squeeze two or three people into the frame of the shot, but to do so, you’d better like them because they have to be all clumped together, cheek to cheek practically, to fit into the photo. And related to this topic, think about what we call the act of sneaking into someone else’s “selfie” – jumping or pushing our way into the background of someone else’s tidy little self-portrait. We call that “photo-bombing.” Pushing into a selfie is seen as an act of invasion, almost violent in its intrusion, crossing the self-defined, self-focus of a private photograph.

This is not a week for “selfies.” The Presbyterian Church cannot be captured in a selfie. It is bad photography – and it is bad theology. Taking photo after photo of self-centered shots, framed to capture only those we can comfortably squeeze in together with (and thus excluding a host of people with whom we may be less comfortable) is to fail to capture what it means to be the church. To believe that anyone who holds different views from us is photo-bombing our liturgical world and ruining our theological Flickr account is to misunderstand what it means to be part of the body of Jesus Christ. And folks, this happens to Presbyterians who feel threatened from the left as much as those who disagree with those on the right.

I would wager that in every one of your home congregations, at least once a year (especially when you ordain new ruling elders and deacons), someone stands at the lectern and reads from I Corinthians 12: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. We hear those words as meaning that churches are full of a diverse array of people – young, old, tall, short, new member, old member – and they fill a wide range of roles – clergy, laity, elder, deacon, usher, treasurer, choir member. Yes, yes, we know that we’re a diverse group of Presbyterians. Yet the danger here is that we assume we’re the ones creating the Excel spreadsheet listing off the varieties of gifts in the church. Because if we’re in charge of organizing the categories of diversity, we’re at risk of serving a church whose variety of gifts excludes the gifts of women, excludes the gifts of people of color, excludes the gifts of non-English speakers, excludes the gifts of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians.

But we’re not in charge of the diversity spreadsheet. The verse prior to the passage I read from I Corinthians 12 says clearly: I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. We profess Jesus is Lord, not by our own volition but by the grace of God. We are constituted as a church, not based on our own organizational models, but through the empowerment of Christ. We approach a baptism font because the Holy Spirit moves and renews us; we gather around a communion table because Jesus the host and substance saves a place of us; we step out into the world to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly because God the Creator is already at work ahead of us.

Suddenly the framing questions for the General Assembly come into focus. How can we gather here in Detroit if our hearts are predisposed to break away from all future gatherings? We cannot. How can we propose severing communion with one another if we are not the host of the table to begin with? We cannot. How can we consider breaking ties with the denomination if the very act of saying “Jesus is Lord” came not from any one of us, but by the Holy Spirit? We cannot.

When we take our pictures of this assembly, if the camera is narrowly focused only on us, then it is pointed the wrong way. And if the presence of people whose varieties of gifts near at hand makes us tempted to accuse them of “photo-bombing” the orthodoxy of our church, then we’re not framing our shot biblically or faithfully. Maybe it is time to take a step forward to people with whom we disagree not to reach easy consensus on human terms but to discern together what the Holy Spirit is leading us to say and do together. Maybe it is time to take a step backward, to expand our church’s frame of reference so that people far too long excluded are now fully included in the photo. It is time to take these pastoral steps of adjustment so that as a church we welcome all, honor and nurture all, and by God’s grace, be able to marry all. Now is the time to act efficiently on these goals by passing an Authoritative Interpretation, and to act effectively by passing an Amendment.

In a few moments, you’ll hear more about the priorities of the Covenant Network for this General Assembly. I hope you will take the information and goals we share to heart. I also hope that you take a lot of good pictures while you’re here. Strive to see every conversation, every committee meeting, every vote you take as a snapshot of the Presbyterian Church you’d be proud to hang on your wall – a church as just and generous as God’s grace. And to all of you, bless your souls.

Thank you.

Randy Bush is Pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, and Co-Moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

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