Shuck and Jive

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Two Years

Sigh, June 28.

Hard to tell if the time has gone by slow or fast, yet it feels like a lifetime.  This was from our trip to Montana in 1998.  Yellowstone Park.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Evolution Resolution

My commissioner's resolution regarding The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday got two votes!   We will build on that.  The vote was 47-2 against my resolution.   Nowhere to go but up.   I am hoping that interested folks in other presbyteries might craft something that will work next time around.

Here is the resolution and comments from advisory committees on PC-Biz.

The only press it received was from my friends at the Layman. The Layman wrote two articles about it.  One before the debate and a second describing what happened.

Here is the text of the speech I gave to the committee to offer the resolution's background and intent.
I am John Shuck, teaching elder commissioner from Holston Presbytery.

I am the pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Here is the background for this resolution.

This resolution originated in our science and spirit discussion group of my congregation.  Our group meets monthly and explores the intersection of science and faith.    Three members of the group created this resolution.   Each is a science educator and has devoted his or her life to science education.

David Roane is a member on session and the founding chair of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Jeff Wardeska, also a member of session, is a retired Chemistry professor and former chair of the Chemistry Department at East Tennessee State University.

Julia Wade, a former member of session, is a retired biology professor at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee.
They are people of faith.  They are Presbyterians.  They are asking the PCUSA for assistance in their calling as science educators in regards to evolutionary theory.

This resolution is not about science in general, which the Presbyterian Church has affirmed.  This resolution is specifically focused on evolution.    It is evolution where these scientists face the struggle with churches and popular culture in regards to teaching evolution in our institutions of learning.  Evolution is where the cultural battle rages.  That is the place where the church is being asked to help.
Biologist Michael Zimmerman created The Clergy Letter Project, the letter you have before you, because of this struggle.   The struggle is with school boards and teachers facing pressure to teach creationism, now called intelligent design, as an alternative scientific theory to evolution, which of course, it is not. 

As professor Zimmerman points out, there is no controversy within the scientific community regarding evolution through natural selection.   The controversy is with popular religious culture.   Professor Zimmerman thought if he could get clergy to sign a letter in full support of evolution that might help people of faith who are struggling with perceived conflicts of evolution and faith to support the teaching of evolution in public schools.  There have been nearly 13,000 signatures.    Many Presbyterian clergy have signed this letter including me.   I believe it has helped.
Again, the background for this resolution comes from scientists seeking support from churches and other religious authorities.  They are asking churches to educate their people that evolution in particular, and science in general, is not incompatible with faith.
The intent of this resolution has three parts:
The first is to communicate to the Presbyterian Church and to bear witness to the larger culture that faith and evolution are not incompatible and that evolution should be taught in the public schools not as one theory among many but as a foundational scientific truth. 
The second intent is to communicate to our scientists and to our students of science that the church supports them in the struggle to educate the public in matters of science, and in particular, evolution.  One does not have to set aside one’s faith to accept evolution and one does not have to leave aside what they learn from science, and in particular, evolution, to grow in faith.

The third intent is evangelism.   Endorsing the Clergy Letter and establishing the second Sunday in February on the Presbyterian calendar as Evolution Sunday will bring people to church.    Next to Easter, Evolution Sunday is the biggest Sunday of the year in our congregation.   People come to our church because of Evolution Sunday.   People who have been alienated from church because of its negative attitudes toward evolution have found a home with us.   Through lectures, sermons, worship, and outings we worship God and celebrate in a sacred celebration what we are learning about our natural world.  The scientific theory of evolution through the mechanism of natural selection has transformed the way we understand our natural world.   
The overall intent of this resolution is to communicate that evolution through natural selection is not something for people of faith to fear, or even to tolerate, but to embrace as a sacred story.    It is good news. 
It is fitting to celebrate God’s ongoing creation through the mechanism of natural selection near the birth of the individual who founded it, Charles Darwin.  Because Charles Darwin and his work has often been vilified and misunderstood by the church, it is time to welcome Charles Darwin back to church with open arms and to honor his curiosity along with the curiosity of all scientists as a gift to the church.

Mr. Moderator, thank you for allowing me to provide the background and intent for this resolution.  I will be here for the discussion and at your pleasure, I am available to respond to any questions.

Unfortunately, the committee didn't discuss the resolution when I gave this address.  They heard my speech then debated other matters and didn't come back to it until three hours later, the last thing they did before adjourning.   When the discussion finally happened, comments about it were sparse and went like this:
  1. "I think this is probably a good idea, except the Evolution Sunday part."
  2. "Will this require all clergy to agree?" 
  3. "Not all scientists agree on evolution." 
  4. "Evolution Sunday isn't a religious day." 
  5. "Evolution Sunday is the second Sunday in February and that used to be Black History Sunday. Now we have Black History Month. So I vote no." 
  6. "I have people in my family who believe in evolution and those who don't.  Why add fuel to the fire?"
And that was the show.  47-2 against.

Hey, it was a first try.  Suggestions for improvement might be to eliminate "Evolution Sunday" (even though it is so dear to my heart) and ask the GA to endorse the Clergy Letter Project alone as the United Methodist Church has already done.   Of course, we need more overture advocates and the support of presbyteries.   Other ideas?

We need to be clear on the focus:

We need help from the church in this cultural battle over science, particularly, evolution.

This article offers a reason why.   Neil deGrasse Tyson v. the Right:  Cosmos, Christians and the Battle for American Science.

Here is my interview with Blaine Schubert of the ETSU Natural History Museum who also knows the importance of science education!

Do check out Michael Zimmerman's articles in the Huffington Post and if you are a clergy person and you have not signed the Clergy Letter, please do, and consider celebrating Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend next February!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

We Are Going to Make This Place Your Home

Lovely and I returned from GA at 1:30 this morning.  I am going to take a few days of R and R and then write some blog posts about my experience at General Assembly and the actions taken by the assembly.

Presbyterians are enjoying and enduring their 15 minutes of fame and pundits of all varieties are posting opinions of the actions.   Have fun reading all of that.  I am exhausted and will wait to offer my thoughts as I process them later this week.

I will also host a conversation about GA probably next Sunday evening (June 29th) at my church.  I will present the actions of this assembly and allow people to ask questions and voice their thoughts.  More details on that to come.  But...I do need to post this picture from the LA Times.

That is me in the back hiding behind the orange sign.  The reason I kept my sign low is not because I am particularly bashful, but because I didn't want to capture the moderator's attention until the opportune time.  When that time came I raised the sign to catch the moderator's eye, called the question, and thus moved the assembly to vote.   We defeated a measure that would have delayed action for two more years.   I had a speech prepared, but felt my role was to move the proceedings in a good direction rather than offer my opinion especially after so many others had done a great job doing just that. 

What did we decide?  We got everything we ever wanted and could get.

We approved an "Authoritative Interpretation" of the constitution allowing for teaching elders (clergy) to officiate at any wedding in states in which that wedding would be legal.  It allows churches to host those weddings in their sanctuaries.   So for example, the wedding for Katy and Amber at which I officiated in New York City would fall under this ruling.   This is in effect now.   PCUSA ministers can officiate at same-gender weddings without fear of disciplinary action.  Here is the text:
“When a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place, teaching elders have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions and readiness of the couple to be married (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.

“Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian workshop.”
It was approved by a vote of 371-238.  Regardless of what happens in the second action the assembly took, the above ruling will stand.  The second action was to change our Directory of Worship to reflect marriage equality.   Here is the key text:
“marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”  
The phrase "traditionally a man and a woman" was an amendment made by the leaders of Covenant Network and More Light Presbyterians (the two leading LGBTQ advocacy groups) for the purpose of being conciliatory.  Nothing is lost with this amendment and it is true.  Traditionally marriage has been "a man and a woman" in our denomination, and now it is between two people.  This vote passed 429-175. 

Because this requires a change in our constitution, it will be sent to each of our 172 presbyteries for a vote.  If 87 presbyteries vote in the affirmative the constitution will change for the entire church.  That is our work for the next two years.  This will be a significant move for marriage equality.   We have our work ahead of us, but now, we celebrate!

Speaking of celebration, next Sunday is More Light Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee!   It will be a party, Beloveds!   Get the word out!

We are making this place your home.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Open and Discerning Mind

In preparation for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I used my radio program, Religion For Life, to inform the public and commissioners to the General Assembly about resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine that will be coming before the assembly.   I produced four shows.

Two interviews were with Rachel Fish, the Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.  One interview was with Jonathan Kuttab of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, and another with Brant Rosen of Jewish Voice for Peace.

I provided equal time to opposing views and allowed each guest to speak his or her truth.  Each was passionate, articulate, and intelligent.   I personally learned a great deal from each guest.  You can hear all four podcasts on the Religion For Life podcast page.  I trust you will listen to all four programs with an open and discerning mind.  

My "Thursdays with Jesus" study group also spent eight weeks with Zionism Unsettled, the study guide produced by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA).   The phrase used most often as we discussed the text and video clips was "eye-opening."   Again, if you read the study guide and watch the dvd, I trust you will do so with an open and discerning mind.

As a commissioner, I will hear a great deal of opinion regarding issues of divestment and opinion regarding this study guide.   I promise to hear it all with an open and discerning mind.   What more can we ask of one another?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Good Is In the Listening

In two days I leave for Detroit to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I have been elected a commissioner from my presbytery to vote my conscience on a wide range of issues that will come before the assembly.

There are overtures to divest from fossil fuel companies, advocate against factory farming, ban the use of drones, lift travel restrictions to Cuba, support efforts to end sexual violence in the military, develop a comprehensive social witness policy on human trafficking, allow pastors and churches to officiate at same-gender marriages, amend the definition of marriage to include same-gender couples, take meaningful action to reduce gun violence, abolish the death penalty, end discriminatory policies in the Boy Scouts, promote food sovereignty, educate against and help prevent voter suppression, make our tax code more just, develop a churchwide antiracism policy, and the list goes on.  And all in one week!

I will add a resolution of my own to the mix.  A friend and colleague who is also a commissioner will join me in signing a resolution that was created by members of my congregation to endorse The Clergy Letter Project and to establish on the PCUSA calendar the second Sunday in February as Evolution Sunday.   I can make no prediction as to how far it will go.  You can read it here.

One might ask what good does this do?  In fact, a recent opinion piece in the Presbyterian Outlook by ministerial candidate, Jonathan Sauer, asks just that, "Opinions, Debates, Resolutions:  What Good Do They Do?"  His opinion is that they don't do any good:
General Assembly does not have to state an opinion on everything, and the last thing we need is to give General Assembly more divisive topics to argue over.
I cannot say what good will come of the General Assembly discussing, debating, and making statements on any of the above issues.   Maybe no good will come of it.   Then again, as a preacher I ask myself a similar question each week:
What good will come of my sermon?  Will anyone care?  Will any action be performed?  Will any hearts be moved? What good does my preaching do?  
Maybe I should just forget it and get a job mowing lawns instead.  Then I have to ask myself what good does mowing lawns do?  The grass will just grow again.  What good does anything anyone does ever do?   In the scope of things we are dust and to dust we shall return.

I cannot embrace the nihilism in that line of questioning.  While I cannot predict what good will come from anything we say from the pulpit or from our deliberations at General Assembly, I realize that is not my job.   My job each week and as a commissioner at General Assembly is to listen for Spirit and to follow my conscience guided by Spirit to respond.  I will let Spirit figure out what good will come of it, if any.

I do trust that our task is to listen.  General Assembly is the opportunity to listen to a wide variety of voices.  Many of these voices have been marginalized, ridiculed, dismissed, and silenced.   As I said in my sermon Sunday:
Voices will be speaking for the recognition of love between people that the dominant society has long dismissed as irrelevant.    I think those voices are speaking from Spirit.    Spirit calling us to act.

We will hear voices of those who have been oppressed by those who we have regarded as friends and whose oppression is connected to us.   It is complicated.  It is messy.  But even that is not an excuse to dismiss the voice of Spirit and not to act on behalf of justice. 
We will hear voices on behalf of Earth groaning under the weight of the toxicity of our energy consumption, voices on behalf of those sold into slavery today, in this modern world, voices on behalf of death row inmates, voices on behalf of animals suffering in factory farms, voices on behalf of victims who experience the terror of  drone strikes that supposedly stop terrorism, voices of victims of sexual violence in the military, voices of victims of gun violence, and the list goes on. 
I don’t say this enough, but I am glad to be a Presbyterian.    We have a lot of problems, but we do try to listen.    I am hoping for a Pentecostal uprising, a messy wild spirit fest, in which those without voices speak out and we hear them in our own language and our hearts are moved to act.     I hope that happens not only at General Assembly but here in this congregation and in our larger community.     
I hope we embody the words of our own Brief Statement of Faith and receive Spirit’s courage: 
to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Life Calls

I am bringing back Shuck and Jive with a new domain name,   My Zach blog is on the sidebar.  It is available for anyone to read those posts.  I have decided that my period of mourning is over.   My grief will always remain a part of my life, but I am not "leading" with my grief.     It is now more private than public.

I am coming back to Shuck and Jive and I hope to make posts again.  It is fitting to do this as I prepare next week, once again, for General Assembly.   I am consciously gathering myself.   I am starting to put some pieces of that shattered stained glass window that is my life together.   Some color is coming back.

I am appreciative of those who stayed with me.   I understand those who didn't.  It is all good.   A woman who came to church noticed that every pew had its own tissue box.  When she asked what that was about, not wanting to get into it I told her that we were a weepy bunch.   In reality, those tissues on every pew are a sign of solidarity and love for me.   This congregation has wept with its pastor and family.

It has had to have been hard to watch and wonder.   My sermons with their bluntness and their sharp edges have had to be a challenge to hear at times.   I have held nothing back regarding my views on God and what all.   I can't say whether or not anything was "grief speaking."   It is all real to me.   One Sunday when celebrating communion, I could literally muster no more than,

"This is bread.  That's it."  
"This is wine.  That's it."

That is what it was.   Like I said, there is some color coming back.  Taste too.    I am ready to move beyond autopilot and take some control again.   It could be filled with starts and stops.   Life does beckon.   I'll follow.

Evolution Overture

Submitted by
John Shuck
Teaching Elder
Holston Presbytery

Teaching Elder, John Shuck, overtures the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to

1)  join with the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Southeast Florida Diocese of the Episcopal Church, the Southwestern Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and with 12,794 members of Christian Clergy, 482 Rabbis of Judaism and 251 Clergy of Unitarian Universalists in endorsing the Clergy Letter Project and the Christian Clergy Letter printed below:

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

2)  to designate the 2nd Sunday in February as Evolution Sunday to recognize the influence that the Theory of Evolution has had in changing the world view of our natural environment.


This overture is brought in the spirit of faith that joyfully acknowledges

  • that God brings all things into being by the Word. (W-1.2001),
  • that God transcends creation and cannot be reduced to anything within it (W-1.2002),
  • that God created the material universe and pronounced it good, and
  • that the material world reflects the glory of God. (W-1.3031), and,
  • with the understanding that in prayer we earnestly thank God for creation and providence. (W-3.3613)

Evolution has been wrongly viewed in some Christian communities as contrary to Christian beliefs. As a scientific theory based solidly on extensive scientific evidence, it has shaped our thinking in the natural sciences and has become the underlying theory for numerous medical advances. As a scientific theory it does not contradict the existence of God, but can be seen as a natural, creative process in God's creation.

In a recent study of why young people are leaving the church, 29% of the youth reported being discouraged by the church's antagonistic view of science, and that many young people are “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” The research also “shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”

(Ref. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church...and Rethinking Faith. David Kinnaman, 2011, The Barna Group.)

The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stated that it:
  1. Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.
  2. Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
  3. Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community.
  4. Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and scientific educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable knowledge.

Other denominations have also recognized the compatibility of modern science and theology. For example, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2008 states, in part, "We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology."

The Clergy Letter Project, founded by Dr. Michael Zimmerman, and signed by nearly 13,000 Christian clergy has helped clergy and congregations present the scientific theory of Evolution in a manner that respects and engages a thinking faith. 

Thus it is fitting to endorse The Clergy Letter Project and to set aside the 2nd Sunday in February as Evolution Sunday to celebrate the importance of evolution by designating the birthday (12 February 1809) of the founder of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, as Evolution Sunday.

Signature 1: _________________________________

Presbytery __________________________________

Signature 2: _________________________________

Presbytery __________________________________