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“Helping Hands” or “Why I Became a Presbyterian”

“How did you become a Presbyterian?” It’s a question I’m asked with some regularity, often with the assumption that I fall into one of two categories: I was born a Presbyterian, or I became a Presbyterian because they’re the only ones who ordain women. (P.S. We aren’t. There are Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Baptists who also ordain women… just to name a few!) To correct these misconceptions, I’ve come up with a witty reply: “I became a Presbyterian because John Calvin converted me.”

Needless to say, this raises a few eyebrows. For most of us, Calvin is an antiquated Father of the Reformation era – an unsophisticated time when Black Death kept popping up throughout Europe and the only way Christians could think to respond was to isolate, wear masks, and do what they could to help those suffering. For me however, Calvin is a wise friend with a deep knowledge of Scripture and an opinion worth hearing even if I don’t always fully agree. A man of deep insight and even (dare I suggest) progressive ideals, he bucked the trend by suggesting that women were not just capable of serving in what for the Western Church were traditionally male-only roles, but actively ordained them to them! But I’m getting ahead of myself…

At the age of 2, I was baptized in a United Methodist Church that my parents had selected largely on the basis of that having been the denomination my father attended as a child. From there, my family moved on to a series of congregations rooted in the Baptist tradition. One of the things I appreciate most about these communities of faith was their outward focus. Though few in our town had what one might consider to be “ample” resources, there was a constant attitude that no matter how little you had, there was always someone who had less. The mission of Jesus was to find that person, get to know their need, and extend a helping hand.

At the time, my impression of “mainline” denominations like the Presbyterians was that they were largely disinterested in these forms of outreach – particularly if one actually mentioned the name of Jesus while offering food to the hungry or water to the thirsty (Mt. 10:42). This, combined with what I would later discover were some substantial misunderstandings of what John Calvin taught allowed me to conveniently place Presbyterians and Presbyterianism in the category of near-heresy. Then 9/11 happened.

Awash in usually reliable Christian sources all arguing with one another over whether Islam was or wasn’t a peaceful religion, I decided to begin seeking answers for myself. I read the Quran cover-to-cover – twice. I sought out information about different Islamic sects (including those responsible for the attacks and others far less well-known). I read the work of various Imams and eventually even ended up with a few Muslim friends – none of whom, I discovered, were even marginally inclined towards acts of terrorism. And I found myself asking how many of the perceptions I’d formed in my childhood – especially those based on “reliable” sources – were accurate.

With this in mind, I began reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. My goal was to prove that at least my diagnosis of Presbyterianism was correct. It wasn’t. In fact, the man I’d once viewed as a hateful misogynist turned out to be gentle in his approach and well-reasoned in his arguments. So well-reasoned that even having committed massive portions of Scripture to memory, I couldn’t find good arguments against much of what he had to say. It turned out that I already was a Presbyterian – I just needed someone to show me!

I began exploring the Presbyterian tradition in greater depth, reading other authors and learning about various confessions. Shortly thereafter, I joined a PC(USA) congregation and several years later (finally convinced that it was biblically acceptable for a woman to hold a position of leadership) and, at the encouragement of others who had identified my gifts, began seeking ordination.

The result is that when I say I’m a Presbyterian, I’m not talking about having been born into a denomination or simply having chosen one out of a hat. Instead, I’m speaking about the culmination of a long process of growth and exploration – of openness to the ideas of others and to the possibility that I, myself, might be wrong. I’ve found a home in this denomination not because I perfectly agree with every doctrinal statement we embrace (our own confessions disagree with one another in places), but because overall, I find the Presbyterian understanding of Christ’s teachings to be in line with those teachings as presented in Scripture. And that includes our understanding of what it means to reach out to our neighbors.

During the Black Death, John Calvin led the other ministers of Geneva (elders and deacons) in the visitation of the afflicted. He was a stalwart supporter of immigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution in other European countries. He set an example by taking personal risks in order to demonstrate Christ’s love to those most in need. And we should too. Though our modern plagues look a bit different (COVID, homelessness, etc.), an embrace of the Presbyterian tradition calls us to a deep compassion for those in need and begs us to follow in the steps of Christ who “while we were still sinners… died for us” (Ro. 5:8).

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Redeeming the Day

This last Saturday, I had the honor of officiating my first wedding. It was an unusual event in that the bride and groom chose to declare their love for one another on the 20th Anniversary of September 11th. For them, this was just another date they’d memorized for grade school history exams, but for many of us gathered it still stung like an open wound. (I still remember every moment of the day in vivid detail.) The previous day had only deepened this painfully surreal sensation as the procession returning USMC Cpl. Page (one of the 13 U.S. servicemen and women killed during Kabul airport bombing) passed just blocks from the hotel in which we were staying.

In a private moment, the bride approached me to confess that she was beginning to feel a little guilty for choosing the date – as though she were being disrespectful by indulging such joy on a day that for many symbolized only pain. I suggested to her both then and again later in the ceremony that she was actually doing quite the opposite: she was redeeming the day.

In Ephesians 5:8-11, 15-16, the apostle Paul reminds his readers that “you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

Paul recognized that in a sinful world, there could be no escape from darkness – it penetrates us and surrounds us. That is, until we turn on the light. In marrying on a day so painfully burned into our collective memories, the bride and groom were doing just that – turning on the lights to remind us that even in the darkest moments of sorrow and suffering when the clouds seem most impenetrable, Christ is there: extending His nail-scarred hands to offer us a hope and a future.

This is a good reminder for us all, not just on September 11th but every day of the year. Throughout our lives, each of us experience events which scar us deeply – lost jobs, homes, children, or spouses. Broken promises. Shattered dreams. These events transform who we are and how we see the world. Yet on these days too, Christ is there for each of us, extending His hands through the darkness to offer us hope for a future – if only we are willing to accept it.

It would be nice if the charge ended there with Christ opening His arms to us in our darkest moments. But it doesn’t. In fact, for those of us who claim Jesus as the source of our hope, this is just the beginning. In John 15:2 (the Scripture passage chosen for the wedding ceremony), Jesus charged His disciples, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” In other words, His scarred hands should never be the only ones reaching through the darkness to offer hope to those who are suffering. Ours should be too.

This is no easy task. To live in true obedience requires perseverance in the midst of pain: a willingness not only to see the darkness, but like the many firefighters and EMS workers in 2001, to walk boldly into the midst of it. It requires us to place our lives and our livelihoods on the line as we extend our hands to our neighbors in a gesture of fellowship and support, as we shine the light of Christ amidst the darkness of the world. Only when we boldly embrace this charge will we too redeem the days.

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