How Is Your Relationship?

How Is Your Relationship?

I heard the story about Peter’s denial of Jesus in worship yesterday morning. I don’t know why this was covered on the third Sunday in Lent, as this reading is part of the passion narrative usually featured on Good Friday. But the pastor believes that one of the things we should reflect on during Lent is, how have we shown-or failed to show-our commitment to serve Jesus Christ?

During the reading, I heard something I hadn’t noticed before. In this account, John emphasizes relationships. Jesus had just been arrested and taken to be interrogated by the high priest. Peter and one other disciple were with Jesus, but only the other disciple was allowed to go with Jesus, because the other disciple knew the high priest. Peter was allowed to come into the courtyard because this disciple spoke up for him. So it’s not surprising that Peter was asked about his relationship with Jesus, as he was allowed in based on the word of Jesus’ companion.

Once in, Peter tried to blend in with others hanging out in the courtyard, but he was questioned again. Finally, Peter was identified a third time, now by a relative of the man whose ear was cut off by Peter when Jesus was arrested.

It’s interesting that these relationships-Jesus’ other disciple with the high priest, or the relative of the guard Peter hurt-are mentioned, because they seem pretty incidental and unimportant. But perhaps these relationships are mentioned as a contrast to the most consequential relationship of all, Peter’s relationship with Jesus, which Peter betrayed.

So as we continue our Lenten journey, let us ask ourselves: how is your relationship with Jesus? Is it incidental? Is it central in your life? Is it important as long as you get benefit from it, but easily forgotten when the authorities put the heat on you? And how well do we relate with other disciples, including those we don’t yet know?

Tomorrow I leave for the World Council of Churches Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Tanzania. As delegates, our first priority is to relate with others, and learn from their experiences. Our delegation leader mentioned that we should avoid hanging out with each other, or with other North Americans, but to make an effort to connect with members of the body of Christ who are not familiar to us.

Relating with others can have its challenges, just as Peter was challenged when his beloved teacher was arrested and treated like a criminal. As we open our hearts to others, it’s harder to turn away when they suffer pain or injustice-but we also experience so much more of God’s great kingdom. That’s the amazing thing about being claimed by Jesus-we get to see who else Jesus is claiming, and as we claim them ourselves as our sisters and brothers, we get a better understanding of God’s magnificent creativity.

I will be out for the next two weeks; though I may not be available by phone you can contact Twila, and she can either help you or find someone who can. I appreciate your prayers for all those who are traveling to Tanzania, and I give thanks to God for this wonderful opportunity. Just as I can bring with me knowledge of our little piece of God’s kingdom, may I bring back stories and lessons gained from these new relationships.

In faith,


Whether We Agree or Disagree

Whether We Agree or Disagree

When I was growing up, I always understood ecumenism, even interfaith cooperation and dialogue, to be an integral part of the Presbyterian tradition. I think there have been certain times and places where this was challenged, but this commitment does live on. At the very least, many of our members work with other people of faith for the sake of compassion, justice, and peace.

It’s a little more challenging to study and dialogue about each other’s beliefs. As I prepare for the World Council of Churches conference next week, I found the list of workshops fascinating, reflecting membership that includes the charismatic tradition as well as other, more staid belief systems such as ours. Interestingly, the WCC does not include the Roman Catholic Church, though they do include Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Coptic, and Mennonite among their 348 member churches. (San Gabriel Presbytery trivia: the WCC’s second General Secretary was Eugene Carson Blake, former pastor of Pasadena Presbyterian Church.)

The PC(USA) has our own formal dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church; you may not know that one outcome of this dialogue is a mutual recognition of baptism between the two churches. There has not been the same level of mutuality on communion, but the dialogue continues. Locally, a priest in La Puente is leading a Lenten series on other church traditions, and he contacted me because he wanted to speak of the Presbyterian view of communion-inspired by Buzz Aldrin’s story of the communion he had on the moon. I didn’t know and had to look it up. Elder Aldrin wrote about it in Guideposts; I had to chuckle at the mention that they got approval from the Stated Clerk to make sure it was okay.

The corollary to these efforts to unite or connect across traditions is the continuing question about whether to leave the Presbyterian Church. It is difficult for me to know when it is necessary to break a relationship that some consider to be God’s will. But, like any other covenant, attributing something to God’s will does not mean we take each other for granted. Yet, also like any other covenant, one hopes that the roots of the relationship are deeper than simple agreement on various topics. And regardless of relationship, our witness is how we treat others even in disagreement.

I was reminded of this when I happened upon the moment in the 2008 presidential election when a woman told presidential candidate John McCain that Barack Obama could not be trusted because he was “an Arab.” McCain immediately shook his head and said, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

It reminds me of the former pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church. This evangelical church was known to be opposed to ordination or marriage for gays and lesbians, yet they probably had more gays and lesbians in their membership than any other church in their presbytery. The pastor, Mark Brewer, even had been asked to officiate at a gay marriage, which he declined. He said, “the gay members of the church know that I love them, but we happen to disagree about this.”

Too often, disagreements in the church are expressed as a win-lose, right vs. wrong, heaven or hell contest. What I appreciated about Rev. Brewer’s approach was that he led with love. He did not insist that the gay members needed to change in order for their relationship to continue, and he did not claim God to be on his side of the disagreement.

This does not mean that we can never change relationships. One might consider that the ability to voluntarily form new churches and denominations has contributed to the continued vitality of the Christian faith in the United States. But whether we remain in relationship and disagreement, or we end old relationships, my hope is that the dialogue be guided by mutual respect, even love, and the unshakable knowledge that all who look to Christ with faith and gratitude are united beyond our differences.

As we continue in the season of Lent, and consider our own need for God’s mercy, may we approach each other with an appreciation that we are all sinners, yet also beloved children of God.

In faith,


When There Are No Words

When There Are No Words

Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of Jonah Hwang. Jonah was an 8-year-old child of First Presbyterian Church of Pomona. On February 20, 2017, Jonah and his family were at a dinner at the home of some other church leaders, the Robinson family. Jonah was playing with five other kids in the living room when a man drove by and shot at the house. A bullet went through the wall and killed Jonah.

The police arrested the man who killed Jonah, but it’s not clear why this happened. The man did not have a record of violence, yet he shot at this one house four different times (the other three times no one was at home). As a Pomona Police captain said, “We don’t have a relationship or the motive. [Jonah’s parents and their friends] are very good families. They go to the same church. Everyone involved is a teacher.”

On Sunday their church, our church, held a service of lament. It’s been a hard year, and the grief continues to weigh heavily on the families involved, their friends, and the church. For some, their faith in God has been severely strained. The church and friends are doing what they can; one person said, “The people of the church have been great. It’s God I’m having trouble with.”

For many reasons I love the story of the man whose friends carried him to Jesus. One of several unique aspects of this story is the place of faith. Unlike other healing stories when Jesus says that the faith of the person in need leads to their healing, here Jesus comments on the faith of the friends. So I have at times considered that for some of us, we may not need to be carried for physical disabilities; for some of us, we need to be carried by our community of faith when our own faith is weak.

While we all hope for the gift of faith-certainly Jonah’s friends and family continue to wait for God to offer just a glimpse of hope or understanding of how such a horrible tragedy could occur-perhaps this sharing of faith is another way that God shows grace even when we don’t ask for it. If Jesus bears our sins to the cross that we may be free, then we as the body of Christ can hold up each other before the throne of grace and pray for comfort and a renewed faith in the face of unspeakable pain.

As we go through the season of Lent, I think of this as the time when we reflect on who we are, and who God is, and the great lengths God will go to save us. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion begins with the premise

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

The 12-Step version of this is, “There is a God, and I’m not Him.”

When sitting with Jonah’s friends, I confess I kept hoping to come up with some words that would help, but there are no words for this pain. All I could dwell on is that God’s horizon is so much wider and farther out than we can understand, and to give thanks that our sister church is carrying these families in the meantime, holding them in their own broken hearts.

This tragedy is mirrored and magnified with the senseless killing of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. One of the responses of some of the survivors is a rejection of offers of prayer, because they see it as a way of avoiding action. As I consider the grief of First Pomona, and the burden our brother Adam Donner is carrying as their pastor, I offer prayer because I believe in prayer, and because I can think of nothing else to offer. I am grateful that First Pomona has in fact offered prayer, in many forms, while they also act-by helping the survivors in tangible ways; through worship and Bible study and partnerships with other churches; and by continuing their ministries in the community through Pomona Hope, their partnership with Syrian refugees, a community art space and garden, and community organizing.

Lent is the season when I am most aware of how limited we are-frail, mortal, and broken by sin and fear. And yet, God sends us Jesus, who loves us even to the point of death- and who calls us to love others in like fashion. May we open up our hearts, our prayers, our resources, our lives, in order to show God’s love to all who need to know the peace of Jesus Christ-in our churches and in the world around us.

On a totally different note, I want to share that I have been given the opportunity to attend the World Council of Churches Conference on Mission and Evangelism as part of the delegation from the PC(USA). The conference is in early March in Tanzania, so I will be out of the office and possibly out of communication for the first half of March. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier but I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I am very excited about this opportunity; I have always wanted to go to Africa but this will be my first trip. Of course the continent is huge so one trip to one country will barely scratch the surface, but I am most grateful to be able to experience even this much. James Lee, member of our Presbytery and President of International Theological Seminary, visits Africa regularly, as several of our partner churches in Africa send students to ITS. He recently shared that:

According to a recent Pew Research study, by 2050, the number of Christians in North America and Europe will account for only 25 percent of the world’s Christian population. Sub-Saharan Africa will account for close to 40 percent, Latin America 23 percent, Asia-Pacific 13 percent.

Surely, as we reflect on who we are as individuals, as local churches, and as the global church, we see that while yes we are small and fallible, Christ who calls us can do amazing work through us. To God be the glory.

In faith,


Entering Lent

Entering Lent

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:12


This coming week is the beginning of Lent. It’s been mildly amusing hearing pastors wonder whether they need to adjust their plans this year, since Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and the Western Day of Resurrection falls on April Fools’ Day. (The Orthodox Church celebrates Easter on April 8th.) I know of several churches who will hold their Ash Wednesday service in the evening; I thought some might consider moving it to earlier in the day, so folks can take their ashen foreheads out to Valentine’s dinner. Millason Dailey mentioned that last year, Calvary Presbyterian in South Pasadena held their Ash Wednesday service VERY early in the morning. They had a terrific idea to hold a Mardi Gras party at a local restaurant late at night, and then at midnight they walked to the church to commemorate Ash Wednesday.

Celebrating the party nature of Mardi Gras right before the beginning of Lent reminds me of the many ways the Bible warns us about the “shiny objects” of the world distracting us from the profound connection of faith and obedience that God calls us to. For some of us, it is easy to get distracted by our culture of materialism and self-indulgence, especially in affluent societies like the United States. Because of this, many practice some form of fasting and self-denial for Lent. But we are reminded that God does not want a show of sacrifice as much as our commitment to follow God’s will for justice and care for the hungry and the oppressed:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)

Each year, the PC(USA) produces a Lenten devotional. You can purchase the 2018 version, focusing on the prophets and Jesus as bearers and the fulfillment of God’s will for justice and restoration, at the newly-consolidated PCUSA Store here. There are certainly countless opportunities for our churches, as the body of Christ in the world, to call for and live into Jesus Christ’s ministry of justice, restoration, and reconciliation. Just as we can point to the empty nature of worldly self-indulgence, if we honestly assess our brokenness and need for grace, we can appreciate the miracle of Christ’s victory over death, knowing that God will go to any length to save us even from disasters of our own making. So as we enter into the season of Lent, as we contemplate the great gift of Jesus being willing to give his all for our sake, perhaps we can adopt Lenten practices not only of sacrifice but also identifying ways we can further Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.

As an example, the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has been emotional for some of us. There have been hopes for reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and I imagine that the idea of reconciliation in Korea is not just a geopolitical act but also a family one, including for many Korean Christians. You may know that the Presbyterian Church in Korea started over 130 years ago, mostly in the north, centered in Pyongyang. But many (or most) Korean Christians had to flee to South Korea to avoid persecution. So many of our Christian Korean brothers and sisters have family roots in North Korea. Following Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s saving will for Israel, the Presbyterian/Reformed Church in Scotland, the United States, Taiwan, Korea, and elsewhere helped to support the cause of sovereignty for people who faced oppression from outside forces. I believe that this yearning for restoration of nation, church, and family is strong in the heart of Korean Presbyterians, and I pray for the shalom that comes when God’s saving will is realized. I pray that God shows us how we all may be reunited, in spite of past hurts and threats of violence, through the peace of God which surpasses all our understanding.

So as we enter into the season of Lent, may we all see God’s light even in times of darkness, and may we also resist the shiny objects of the world, that we may hold to the eternal power of God’s grace, for ourselves, for our families, our churches, even to all the nations.

In faith,



Two Churches and Their Road to Recovery

Two Churches and Their Road to Recovery

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

Luke 17:33


This last weekend I attended milestone events in the life of two different churches. On Saturday, Union Church of Los Angeles celebrated their 100th Anniversary with a luncheon for 200 people. And on Sunday, a church I have befriended, Altadena Community Church, held a service of confirmation for a child of the church whose spirit offers more joy and energy in the worship service than her Down’s Syndrome allows her to offer through words.

When I was growing up, my uncle Don Toriumi was pastor of Pasadena Union Church (now First Presbyterian Church of Altadena). His brother Howard was pastor of what our family called LA Union. So I have always considered the churches to be sister churches. When I was Stated Clerk/Associate General Presbyter for Presbytery of the Pacific, I worked with LA Union, serving as Moderator of Session and working with them during a pivotal time in their ministry, as they called new English-speaking and Japanese-speaking pastors and incorporated “the Bridge” ministry into Union Church.

The Bridge is a new-generation urban ministry that was started by Bel Air Presbyterian Church, upon the invitation of Rev. Mas Hibino, who was Union’s interim pastor for several years.

The Bridge brings together young urban professionals of all races, wealthy Bel Air friends, Skid Row residents, Japanese-American Union members of all ages, and others (on Saturday I met a retired Chinese-South African couple who live in Anaheim who come to the Bridge). The diversity of the luncheon attendees reflected the impact of Union’s new openness, which is a striking contrast from Union’s earlier focus on Japanese-only ministry.

This change has not been easy, even though it probably saved the church from dissolution. When Mas reached out to Bel Air, the average age of the membership was in the 70s, and the number of members dwindled. There was tension between the Japanese-speaking and English-speaking language ministries. And the strong leadership of the church in the Little Tokyo community (Toriumi Plaza is a new open space, named in honor of their pastor) was almost gone.

The Bridge is now the largest of the three worship services, and the only one with children. As Union Church enters their second century of ministry, there is a vibrancy to their outlook, while they continue to deal with resistance from a few who thought they could control who comes into the church.

On Sunday morning I went to Altadena Community, a small church of about 70 members. As it turned out, there were three special events at the church that day-the confirmation of Eden, Boy Scouts Sunday which allowed about 30 young men see a church celebrate the life of this young person with severe disabilities, and a church member gave his faith story during adult education. The man who shared his faith story spoke of his battle with alcoholism, occasional homelessness, divorce, and the many ways the members of this church loved him through it all, including giving him a place to stay. I only knew this man to be a very friendly person who manages the sound board during worship and is always ready to help out at multiple events, so it was a surprise and an inspiration to hear the ways this church truly saved his life. Over the course of the day my heart was full as this little church revealed a glimpse of God’s kingdom, where grace extends to all, people of all ages, races, and persuasions are loved, and faith is put into very direct action.

As I prayed my thanks for the vibrancy and faithfulness displayed by these two churches, it occurred to me that in recent years, both churches seriously wondered whether they would survive. Both churches saw their long-time leadership group dwindle, either by age or with members moving out of the area, and there were no similar new leaders stepping forward to take their place. Even if new, younger members moved into leadership, they didn’t seem to last long, due to career/life volatility or stumbles over entrenched road blocks in the church’s ministry.

Perhaps they had to reach that point, when their very survival was at risk, before the churches opened up to God’s unpredictable will. Our churches, like our selves, like the PC(USA) as a denomination, have to be willing to let go of our own sense of control over our life in order for us to allow God to work in and through us. As Jesus was quoted multiple times in all four gospels, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”


Our PC(USA) Book of Order now begins with the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, which has become the favorite section for many of us, because it makes more clear the basic ideals that guide our governance-ideals so deeply held that in the past we failed to articulate them to those new to the Presbyterian church. One of the statements in this section is relatively new, but is quoted often by national church leaders:

The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life. (F-1.0301)

Truly, in order for our churches to thrive in the future, we have to be willing to lose our life for the sake of the gospel, in sure trust that our real life is in the eternal love of our Lord. May we all be a glimpse into God’s kingdom, in our love, in our welcome, in our grace, in our generous spirit, in our willingness to risk our all for Christ’s ministry. And may we feel the smile of God upon us as we do.


In faith,