Getting hugs in Pittsburgh

The Bolt family had the good fortune of attending its first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the 199th, in Biloxi, Miss. In 1987 – Julia was 2, Greg was 10. I was there covering the meeting for The Associated Press and the big issues were Christian relations with Muslims and Jews and where the headquarters of the reunited denomination would be located. (I’ll get back to that later, sort of.)

And there was, of course, discussion about human sexuality.

Fast forward to 2012 and most of the Bolt Family had the good fortune of attending the 220th General Assembly of the PC(U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh. Julia could not be there, but Greg, now the Rev. Greg Bolt, and his wife, the Rev. Heidi Bolt (both Presbyterian pastors serving churches in Oregon), and Margaret and I were in attendance. And it was the first of what I’m sure will be many GAs for TLO (2) and LB (7 months).

In the intervening years, I have been privileged to attend a total of 13 GAs in one capacity or another – AP reporter, The Presbyterian Outlook reporter, presbytery stated clerk.

My role (and Margaret’s) this time was as grandparent, and it was the most fun by far. (I’m not sure what it says about us that a General Assembly becomes a family vacation, but it’s the truth.)

Over the days in Pittsburgh there were friendships renewed, Twitter and facebook friends met IRL (that’s “in real life”), and hugs – lots of hugs.

And oh yes, business, lots of business – including issues related to investment in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and human sexuality – but you can read about that elsewhere: The Outlook, the denomination’s own recap is available here, The Post-Gazette had a thoughtful recap here. There are plenty of other options out there. (And if you want to follow the blow-by-blow, there’s always PC-Biz.)

But this is not about the business of the denomination. This is about family.

Despite the particular reasons any of us have attended GAs in the past, one thing has remained constant: it’s a big reunion with thousands of our closest friends – that’s only somewhat hyperbolic. One of the first persons I saw upon entering the David L. Lawrence Convention Center was a fellow named Chuck Proudfoot – a pastor I first met back in 1987 and who has been a friend ever since, even though we only see each other at General Assemblies. And there were friends I didn’t get a chance to greet – except to wave to across the expanse, or nod at during worship.

I’m sure that list can go on and on for us and for others.

It’s also a chance to roam through the Exhibit Hall and learn about many of the important things Presbyterians are doing around the world – and maybe buy a book or two.

Often, all we hear about our denomination are the struggles as we try to follow God’s path. That struggle can be messy – and feel very un-God-like – no matter which side of any issue we’re on.

It can get very discouraging, and decisions made by this and other General Assemblies have caused people to leave the church. But they have also attracted people to the church.

We have seen examples of both at First Church, Morgantown, WV, where I now attend.

I challenge anyone to attend a General Assembly and come away unchanged. Because what you really discover – and what was reaffirmed for us in Pittsburgh – is that the corner of Christendom we call Presbyterian is just a family – whether it be sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren, or new and old friends, or even people with whom we disagree with on important issues.

The next GA isn’t for two years: June 14-21, 2014, in Detroit. I’m sure some of the issues will be related to human sexuality and probably the Middle East, but it will also be a chance for the family to gather.

And to hug. I hope I can be there – and I invite you to try.

(A version of this appeared in The Good News, the monthly newsletter of First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, WV)

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