Peace

Last week Jana and I attended a forum on free speech at the Heinz History Center. The event was hosted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and included a panel discussion led by the paper’s executive editor. Panelists included the rabbi from the Tree of Life Synagogue, a local imam, a Duquesne University law professor, a Rand Corporation scholar, a Post-Gazette editorial writer, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General. A packed house of 600 guests experienced a powerful, wide-ranging discussion. What are the limits of free speech in the Internet age? When does hate speech become criminal? When does censure become censorship?

As we’d approached the history center that night, we met folks handing out flyers. My first thought was that they were greeters for the event. I recognized one of the Post-Gazette writers who’d done a critical piece on me and the church five years ago. I suggested he come by the church to see what was going on today. Maybe he could see that he’d been wrong about us.

I glanced at his flyer. He wasn’t there to greet. He was picketing.

Newspapers, like churches, have been in decline for decades now. Great institutions with vital missions, gone. And the human toll has been great. Jobs lost; families disrupted.

I could feel for this writer. The flyer said he hadn’t had a new contract or a raise in years. But what to do? Hundreds of print organizations have closed, downsized, or gone to on-line only. The Post-Gazette has been trying to transform to meet these new realities. 

I was struck by the irony of a reporter picketing a free speech event, one hosted by his own paper, no less.

And I realized that the writer was doing to his employer what he had done to me and the church in his critical piece years before. Instead of seeking a new way ahead, he was tearing down. Couldn’t he see how the world has changed?

Change is personal, so change makers get attacked personally.

The flyer said he was fighting for the “heart and soul” of a great paper. Really?

When we become too certain that our goals and our ways are right, we move toward conflict rather than peace. We stop listening to others, and to God.

Pastors and Supreme Court Justices

Churches are often very conservative institutions. Churches don’t change easily or quickly. For the most part, this is a good thing. Churches handle the Word of God, which doesn’t change, so it’s entirely possible that churches will sometimes appear out of step with the world. So when something big changes in a local church, it’s important to take notice and celebrate.

This Sunday our church installs Dan Turis as associate pastor. Dan will become the first installed associate pastor here in nearly ten years. During that time, the church was served by an excellent interim associate pastor, but not an installed one.

In our tradition, it usually it takes a church a few years to decide what it needs in terms of pastoral leadership. A committee is then formed to work out the details and interview candidates. The congregation votes. Then the presbytery votes. It all takes about two years. The process of hiring a new head football coach or a Supreme Court justice is trivial by comparison.

Installation of a new pastor takes place during a service of worship. And it’s not the leaders of the church who preside, but a special commission of the presbytery. The music and words are different from Sunday worship.

I hope folks will come this Sunday at 2:00 to celebrate Dan’s installation.

Something bigger than any of us is taking place. This is God’s doing.

 

The more things change…

This week I looked back in our church’s history to the time 200 years ago when Francis Herron was called as pastor. Herron’s dream was to transform the church which would then transform Pittsburgh and the frontier. The fact that streets and landmarks in the city still bear the name Herron suggest that he and his prominent relatives succeeded in many ways.

But there were challenges.

Pittsburgh was a frontier town known for gambling and drinking. Even the church was a hub for those kinds of things. What’s more, the church was bankrupt, the property up for sheriff’s sale to pay back taxes. Herron bought the property himself for $2819, and later sold a portion to the bank for $3000, settling the debt and making a profit for the church.

Herron and another minister took the outlandish step of meeting regularly to pray. They didn’t dare meet at the church, because the elders believed that prayer meetings were only for fanatics. But slowly, the prayer meetings began to grow.

Herron knew nothing about music, but when he gave young people permission to form a choir, one elder insisted, “They shall never have an instrument—no never!”

A century later, the survival of the church was again in doubt as people were leaving downtown for the suburbs. But instead of moving the church to the suburbs, where many parishioners now lived, the new pastor, Maitland Alexander, embarked on a bold plan. He tore down the 50 year old church building, dug up the church cemetery with the bones of Pittsburgh’s heroes, re-interred their remains with honors, and built an even bigger church, which he dreamed would transform Pittsburgh into a city of God.  Alexander insisted that:

  • The church provide more than social services. Everything the church did had to be based on God’s Word.
  • The church must never become a class church. Everyone would be welcome.
  • Everything the church did had to come out of its relationship with Jesus Christ.

First Presbyterian is well into its third century. The city has gone from frontier town, to steel city, to technology magnet. The challenges still demand bold vision and outreach. But the dream hasn’t changed: transform the city for Jesus Christ.