Wednesday, July 04, 2012

July 4, 2012 – Preaching from a Wheelchair

I’m spending the Fourth of July in Pittsburgh, at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 220th  General Assembly, which is meeting all week. Presiding over the General Assembly is an elected Moderator, an officeholder who’s sometimes an ordained minister (a position we sometimes call “teaching elder”) or a lay leader (a “ruling elder”).  For the past couple of years, Cynthia Bolbach, a ruling elder from Washington, D.C., has been our Moderator.  On Saturday, as planned, she passed the Moderator’s cross and stole to the Rev. Neal Presa, whom this Assembly had just elected as her successor.

Cindy has served the church during a difficult time.  At the 2010 General Assembly, the church opened the door just a crack, removing a constitutional provision that barred those in committed same-sex relationships from ordination as deacons, ruling elders or teaching elders. Now it’s up to the ordaining bodies – presbyteries in the case of ministers, or local-church sessions, in the case of ministers – to decide who’s suitable to serve.

Because it’s the Moderator’s job when the Assembly’s not in session – which is most of the time – to travel around the country, even the world, promoting and interpreting what the church is doing, Cindy’s had to deal with more than the usual number of angry Presbyterians who just don’t understand why the national church would allow such a thing.

By all accounts, she’s done a marvelous job. As with no other issue, the question of the ordination of gays and lesbians  brings out the worst in some people. Again and again, Cindy has walked into confrontational situations and faced anger, in some cases even outright meanness, with patience and grace.

She’s not walking much any longer. During her moderatorial tenure, Cindy was diagnosed with cancer.  She’s not shared the particular type of cancer she has, nor her prognosis – preferrring to keep that information private – but she did let it be known that her swan song here in Pittsburgh is taking place during a round of chemotherapy treatments.

Cindy preached, and presided over the opening session of the Assembly, from a wheelchair. This is something she chose to do.  She had a very able Vice-Moderator, the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, who could certainly have carried on in her absence, but it was obviously important to her to finish the job herself.  On both days when she was in front of the Assembly, Cindy seemed low on energy, but she fulfilled her role with grace and good humor.

Cindy simply did what people with cancer most want to do.  She kept on living.

I don’t think she’ll be much in evidence during the rest of the Assembly.  Having passed the mantle to her successor, she may have gone back home to continue her treatments, for all I know. Or, she may be simply taking it easy, conserving her energy for the things she most wants to do.

Whatever the case, whether here in Pittsburgh or back home in Washington, Cindy is surrounded by the prayers of a grateful church.  We admire her strength, perseverance and faith.

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