Wednesday, May 24, 2006

May 23, 2006 - Presbytery

This evening I go to church – not Point Pleasant Presbyterian, where I’m pastor, but the church of which I’m a member.

I’m speaking of the Presbytery of Monmouth: the forty-six Presbyterian churches here in central New Jersey that form a regional administrative unit. (Well, maybe it’s not a congregation, technically speaking, but it is the part of the church in which we Presbyterian ministers have our membership.)

Presbytery meetings, in our denomination, are composed of equal numbers of ministers and elders. Tonight we meet at the First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown, near Princeton.

It doesn’t feel much like a worshiping congregation, of course – most of the meeting is devoted to legislative-type actions, governed by Robert’s Rules of Order – but we do begin with worship.

First-time visitors to presbytery typically remark on the quality of the hymn-singing, which far surpasses that of local congregations (no surprise, since this “congregation” is composed of ministers and very active church members – we know those hymns through and through).

Instead of having coffee and cake after everything’s finished, as local congregations do, we gather for fellowship as we arrive, before things get under way. It’s kind of like going out to dinner and having dessert first.

This is my first public appearance among my colleagues in all my bald, post-chemo glory. (Well, maybe “bald” isn’t the right word, because I defied expectations, and never did lose all my hair – and what I did lose is only just starting to grow back in again.) My appearance is much altered – I lost my beard as well as most of my head hair – but most people seem to recognize me anyway. There are lots of warm greetings and encouraging words.

“You’re looking good,” I hear, over and over. Well, I sincerely doubt that – but I take such expressions in the kind spirit in which they’re meant. It sort of reminds me of that old Billy Crystal line, when he’s in his “Fernando” persona: “You look MAH-velous!” It also reminds me of something Bill Cosby sometimes says in his standup comedy routines: how, the older he gets, the more often he hears his kids say, “You look good, Dad.” (Cosby’s enough of a realist to know that, at his age, “looking good” is a relative term).

I run into Steve, and thank him again for the time he and his wife, Cindy (an NHL survivor) spent with Claire and me, early on. I smile at David (another NHL survivor), who did much the same for me in a one-on-one conversation. Gary comes up to me with a big smile, and promises to come down to Point Pleasant this summer with his wife Ella, and take Claire and me out to dinner. Sue, having read in my blog about physical therapy, surprises me with a small gift: a book of stretching exercises. It’s all good.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), like many mainline Protestant denominations, is experiencing a certain amount of ongoing conflict, as we’re rocked by the ecclesiastical equivalent of the red-state vs. blue-state “culture wars” that are dividing America. Sometimes our debates get rather heated. Over coffee and cookies in a church fellowship hall, though, all that’s put aside. I suppose it’s the concrete living-out of the old Reformed doctrine of “the perseverance of the church.”

Yes, I think we Presbyterians will make it, after all.

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