Presbyterians and Pleasure


Protect me, O God; I trust in you for safety. I say to God, “You are my God; all good things I have come from you.”

How excellent are God’s faithful people! My greatest pleasure is to be with them.

Those who rush to other gods bring many troubles on themselves. I will not take part in their sacrifices; I will not worship their gods.

You, God, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in your hands. How wonderful are your gifts to me; how good they are!

I praise God, because God guides me, and in the night my conscience warns me. I am always aware of God’s presence; God is near, nothing can shake me.

And so I am thankful and glad, and I feel completely secure, because you protect me from the power of death, and the one you love you will not abandon to the world of the dead.

You will show me the path that leads to life; your presence fills me with joy and brings me pleasure forever.

–Psalm 16, A Psalm of David

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I should have written about the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) while I was there, but I was too busy being Presbyterian to stop and write about being Presbyterian. If you are not a Presbyterian, let me explain. If you are, then you can moderate my comments (or make a substitute motion!).

We Presbyterians like to work and work hard. When we get together for the General Assembly (GA) we do not mess around. We have a lot to take care of in a finite amount of time. We discern and discuss everything from how faithfully committees are doing their work to what needs to happen in the Middle East—and everything in between. That in between includes hot topics and contentious issues like whether the church should ordain people who are in same-sex relationships, abortion, and the definition of marriage. In the midst of all this business we pray together, sing together, worship, connect with old friends and colleagues, and meet new people. We gather for meals with people concerned about certain issues (like the Middle East) and hear people speak and teach us on these issues of concern. We celebrate good things going on in the church like mission and new kinds of ministry sprouting up around the denomination. And groups from all over the church come to tell people about who they are and how they can help your church, your presbytery, our world.

My days started around 6am and ended around 10/11pm some nights and I wasn’t even a commissioner—the ones working in committees and voting on things. I know they worked a lot harder than I did. I am thankful for all of their hard work and for everyone who worked to make the 219th Assembly happen and proceed “decently and in order” (that’s more Presbyterian talk for how we like to do things!).

So after all of this togetherness and hard work, I feel like I should have some treasure that I got from the experience, some new wisdom, some areas of growth, some hope, some something. What do I take away from GA after all the work and energy output?

I just happened upon this Psalm of David as I was sorting all of this out, and this line struck me in particular:

How excellent are God’s faithful people! My greatest pleasure is to be with them.

I have read this Psalm over and over again the last couple of days trying to sort out how this line fits into the rest of it for David (or whoever wrote it). The rest of the psalm is about his confidence in God, his trust, his assurance that God is present. God’s presence is what gives him the ground beneath his feet, safety, strength, steadiness, as well as joy, gladness, and pleasure.

This line about God’s faithful people precedes the rejection of those who “rush to other gods.” He says they get themselves into trouble and he won’t participate in that kind of worship.

All of these things raise questions for me as I sort out the GA and my experience there and what church is all about these days. Is a community of faith meant to be a place that gives us pleasure? Must people of faith find their identity in opposition to others unlike them? What does it mean when a faith community isn’t simply composed of those who give us pleasure? What does it mean when the “others” are part of “us”?

I think about the moments that fed me at GA—the worship on Sunday was a great blessing. I felt like a part of a worshipping community, especially during the baptism. I really felt the ties that bind. It was a wonderful outpouring of thanksgiving and praise. The vitality was palpable. I was also blessed by several one on one conversations with people about their ministries, their stories of faith, their trust in God. Those times of shared testimony strengthened my faith and were deeply joyful. Strangely enough, seeing all the activity on facebook about GA was a blessing. The connectional church really did seem more real because of that.

With all those blessings I still wonder about the “my greatest pleasure is to be with them” part of this psalm. I really don’t think I can say that and it’s not because it wasn’t good to be at GA. In fact, some of the other blessings of the GA were in the moments of tension and difference that I encountered. There were some hard moments, difficult conversations, and intense frustrations. More and more I think that figuring out how to stay in community in the midst of differences is what church is all about. That is not my greatest pleasure. In fact, it exhausts me and makes me feel confused and sad sometimes.

The pay off? I am not always sure, but it is something like staring down the things that conspire to distort and destroy life. If believers are really people who believe in life, life that keeps on going, life that doesn’t end, then we are going to have to stare down death, destruction of life, distortion of life at regular intervals. How else can we be good stewards of the vitality of life lived toward God? If the life of faith becomes stale, static, myopic, then it will surely languish. Even if I want to sequester myself with like minded people I am not sure God will let that stand for long. We can make choices about forming and living in communities of sameness, but God’s hand seems to always invite us into a more contested space. I trust that God’s invitation has a life-giving purpose. As David said in the Psalm, I say to God, “You are my God; all good things I have come from you.”

Faith isn’t just about surviving. Sure, there’s the faith that hangs by its bloody fingernails—that’s surely a way to be faithful especially in the midst of trials. There’s also the faith that walks tall through hostility and challenge. And there is the faith that takes what comes in life and finds a way to be thankful for it. We each need a bit of all these variations. But sprinkled in there, too, is this promise of joy and delight, of the pleasant feeling that comes from being together with people who seek to love and serve God. The pleasure may come from just how hard won that harmony in God is. No facile-smiley-face kind of faith gets at the heart of what this psalm is about and even at what GA is about. God’s creative power swirls in and among our fractured attempts to be together with this yearning for us to delight in each other somehow, some way.

The pleasure of being with my brothers and sisters in Christ is hard won, and sometimes it can feel like it is fleeting. And honestly, as good as it is to be at GA, there are other places I enjoy being more—places where life is easier to navigate and I can rest and breathe and not feel as much stress. Even so God calls us believers together over and over again with the kind of love that won’t let us off the hook for being who we claim to be. It is pleasant to know that God sees the best possible scenario and believes that we can be a part of that kind of life.

The treasure I have from GA is that all of us Presbyterians can surely say to God, “You will show me the path that leads to life; your presence fills me with joy and brings me pleasure forever.” Thanks be to God for that.

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