Pentecost and Peace

Pentecost and Peace

Some of you may know that I argued long and hard with God before becoming ordained.

Among the countless (and I mean countless) reasons I should not be a pastor was my intense stage fright. Even during seminary, my voice would shake if the Scripture passage I was to read was long, and every time I gave a practice sermon in preaching class, the first comment from the professor was a very concerned “Wendy, are you feeling all right?”

I figured I would not be ordained because in order to be ordained, you have to preach at least one time, and that was one too many. I imagined beginning my first sermon with the Jerry Seinfeld joke that when polled, the fear expressed by most Americans was that of speaking in public, even ahead of the fear of dying. So, Seinfeld reasoned, at any given funeral, more people feared giving the eulogy than lying in the casket. In my one and only sermon, I would tell the joke (which would bomb, of course), give a stultifyingly dry sermon, and walk out of the pulpit saying to God, “See?! I told you I couldn’t do it!”

Well, my first sermon was a miracle of the community of faith surrounding me with love, which is how I ended up where I am now-no great preacher by any length, but still trying. However, it was my SECOND sermon when I had the nightmare preaching experience I thought would kill off my ministry career. I was asked to fill the pulpit for a friend of mine who was serving a Japanese-American church in the Bay Area, a church whose stubbornness caused their large young adult group to break away and start their own fellowship; a church whose insistence on focusing exclusively on Japanese people severely limited their future ministry. My friend and I thought that I could say a prophetic word to these stiff-necked people because as a guest preacher, I could get away with it.

I focused on Acts 1:8, the very last words of Jesus upon his ascension and just before the day of Pentecost (which we will be celebrating this Sunday-I hope with the Pentecost Offering). My main point was that Jesus didn’t just say “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” but that he first directed them to witness on his behalf in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. I especially focused on Samaria, who I consider to be estranged cousins of the Jews of Judea, children of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who were subjugated by the Assyrians and then rejected by the Judeans as traitors and half-breeds. History shows us how invaders will use rape as a form of violence that changes the ethnic legacy of a conquered region, and this is how I think of the hybrid nature of Samaria. Unfortunately, as I interpret the legend of La Malinche in Mexico, the conquered are sometimes demonized as enemy sympathizers.

In his final words, I suggested that Jesus is telling his followers to first reconcile with estranged neighbors before going out to the rest of the world. By reconciling with those closest to us, we can be effective witnesses to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.

This thought comes to me on the day that the United States government opened its embassy in Jerusalem. As I write this column on Monday morning, 52 people have reportedly died in protests of this embassy move. Mainline Christian churches, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), have denounced this move as being premature, since it was understood that the resolution of Jerusalem would occur as part of the shalom, or fulfillment, of peace talks among the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who all see Jerusalem as a holy city.

When President Trump announced his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017, leaders of the Orthodox, Coptic, Episcopal, Lutheran and other churches in Jerusalem sent an open letter, saying:

Our land is called to be a land of peace. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a city of peace for us and for the world. Unfortunately, though, our holy land with Jerusalem the Holy City, is today a land of conflict.

Those who love Jerusalem have every will to work and make it a land and a city of peace, life and dignity for all its inhabitants. The prayers of all believers in it-the three religions and two peoples who belong to this city-rise to God and ask for peace. . . . We are certain that [the embassy move] will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. . . . As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the people of this unique and Holy City.

I have often believed that Jerusalem is the nexus of God’s peace for the world. If the children of Abraham cannot learn to live together in peace, what kind of witness do we have for the rest of the world of the reconciling power of our love for our Lord?

While I am gravely concerned for our nation’s role in disrupting the cause of peace, I always take comfort in the many times I have been wrong when discounting the power of God to overcome our shortcomings. Take a little thing like my fear of public speaking, to the utter miracle of our Presbyterian Mission Agency finding a new Executive Director in the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett in the midst of turmoil and distrust in the church-God can certainly do what we cannot do for ourselves. So I always pray that God’s will is much larger and more righteous than my fears.

So I close with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter written from prison, when all might seem lost:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:4-7)

Praying for peace on this Pentecost, for all nations, Wendy

Naboth’s Vineyard

Naboth’s Vineyard

I don’t know if many of you know the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21); I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon on it in any Presbyterian church. It is the scriptural basis for Queen Liliuokalani’s appeal to the American people to restore the Kingdom of Hawaii. (Did you know that President Grover Cleveland actually agreed that the US overthrow of the Queen was an unlawful military invasion, and unsuccessfully requested to Congress that her sovereignty be reinstated?)

For myself, Naboth’s vineyard became the symbol of my seminary experience. One of our great Old Testament professors, Marvin Chaney, an expert in Biblical economic justice, introduced to us the term “latifundialization.” The term was used to describe the way large landholders could use their power to overtake the lands of neighboring small local farmers. Nowadays it might be a precursor to corporate agribusiness, but when Prof. Chaney first described it, I said “Oh, Starbucks.” That was 20 years ago, when Starbucks was entering new markets by boldly moving right next to a local coffee house, using their marketing power to push the local coffee house out of business. They even eclipsed their own inspiration, Peet’s, whom I love.

Thus, I never liked Starbucks. So it would seem simple for me to avoid Starbucks after that distressing incident when two men were arrested upon the complaint of the Starbucks manager, even after the person they were waiting for appeared and protested the arrest. I didn’t have a hard time boycotting Carl’s Jr. for their sexist policies, because honestly I would get an upset stomach whenever I ate their hamburgers anyway. And since I don’t go to Starbucks that much (can’t justify paying that much for coffee on a regular basis), I made a casual commitment to avoid them.

It was surprising and not a little disappointing to realize that several times a day, I had to stop myself from thinking of Starbucks for something-for a quick coffee or cold drink, to hang out at the airport, even to go to the bathroom when on the road (the reason, of course, for the men’s arrest). Even though I didn’t go there often, even though I don’t even like them, and now even though I have good reason to protest them, their pervasive presence has enabled them to infiltrate multiple aspects of my life.

This struck me as a new example of the challenges we Christians face to live in the world, but not of the world. When we attempt to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, we must unlearn the rules of the worldly kingdom that have surrounded and guided most of us since birth. How am I supposed to confront hatred with love, injustice with mercy, fear with the courage of faith, and self-interest with self-giving trust in God’s providence if I can’t even let go of this also-ran coffee company that I have settled for, due to its easy presence in the world around me?

What’s worse, sometimes our worldly prosperity as a church makes me wonder if I am more Ahab than Naboth. In order to complete the sale of the South Hills property, we have had to escalate our efforts to close down the community garden that has thrived there for 25 years. Now part of me can become irritated that some individuals have dared to demand to stay after the church has allowed them to work this land for decades without any fee but to pay for the water. But thanks to our new president Maria Cacarnakis, who can speak not only in their language but also with grace and respect, we have been able to speak with more of the gardeners in person, who have responded with the same grace and respect, but also showed how they had been misinformed. Now that we had to post a legal sign demanding that they leave, most of the gardeners we have met seem to understand that the garden must close. And we encouraged some of the gardeners to advocate for a new garden at Cal Poly Pomona, as has already been discussed by Congresswoman Norma Torres. (If you live in her district, please also give the office a call-ask for Mario-and lend your support for the Cal Poly Community Garden. Their phone number is (909) 481-6474.)

As Dave Tomlinson said, when we talk with the gardeners and see their very productive plots, we are saddened that the garden must end. Our prayer is that the new land at Cal Poly, which is larger, permanent, and accompanied by a healthy eating grant from a large healthcare company, will come to fruition soon.

This weekend has been a kaleidoscope of experiences in my life in the Presbyterian church. I was blessed to be able to serve communion (wearing a robe from Tanzania) at my final meeting with the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. Bong Bringas and I concluded our work on the PMA Executive Director Search Committee-and I am thrilled with the result. I can’t reveal the name of the candidate yet, but in any case I would ask your prayers for the people serving the national church, especially with the too-public wrangling over the future of the PMA as we head towards General Assembly in two months. Coming home at midnight on Saturday, I spent Sunday at the Community Garden with Maria and Dave, then went to a choir rehearsal, then witnessed a major step forward for Pasadena Presbyterian Church. PPC has been working hard to discern as a full church how they envision their future, in anticipation of beginning a pastoral search this year. The work at PPC has been complex, challenging, and multifaceted, but I can see the emerging clarity and hope for their next phase of ministry.

One small glimpse of the future came as this multiracial community of faith could hear and feel the personal prayers of joy and hope from their Korean brothers when they spoke of the possibility of reunification. We all join in prayers for a reunified Korea, and the restoration of peace on their peninsula.

I know most of you are fully invested in the ministry of your local church, as you should be. But know that you are part of a much, much larger family of God-the Presbyterian branch, the North American clan, our current global relatives, and the eternal cloud of witnesses, followers of Jesus, fellow citizens of the kin-dom of Heaven. Thanks be to God!

Your sister in Christ, Wendy

Becoming More Faithful Servants

Becoming More Faithful Servants

This weekend we had a Presbytery meeting at Claremont Presbyterian Church, and we thank them for their warm welcome. The meeting did not have big surprises or conflicts, but we confirmed several transitions that have been discussed:

–we officially approved the sale of the former South Hills property in Pomona, which has been marketed for months;

–we approved Roger Shervington’s retirement and prayed for him and wife Sandy as they are both facing health issues;

–we transferred out John D’Elia and Steve Yamaguchi as they are already serving churches in neighboring presbyteries;

–we commissioned the 9-person team going to Lima in May for a Living Waters for the World installation;

–we celebrated the positive resolution of the fraud faced by our Baldwin Park church;

–we heard updates on the move towards negotiations with Alhambra True Light if they are to be dismissed;

–we considered ways to support our veteran members of small churches who can no longer manage the property, and look ahead to serve underserved communities; and

–we heard about Pomona Hope’s efforts to secure a new location for their Center Street Community Garden, and we gathered over $1,000 for this important productive and green space in the city, in loving memory of Jonah Hwang (this includes at least one on-line gift; you can still give at saveourgarden.org).

But most of the meeting was dedicated to sharing knowledge about becoming better stewards of Creation, and witnessing to God’s love and justice with neighbors as close as Pomona and as far as Peru. I think this was the most educational meeting we’ve had (other than WinterFest, of course)-I can tell by the number of people who followed up with questions about urban farming and food security (as mentioned by Claremont and Pomona), or PILP’s Restoring Creation or Accessibility loans with reduced interest, or ways we can reduce landfill waste.

I am especially happy with a fresh way of looking at our vision as a Presbytery, which the Vision and Strategy Team will use to guide them as they consider how to support and form healthy congregations. They found the vision of the Presbytery-and the marks of a healthy congregation-in our existing mission statement, focusing on how we “work for the transformation of the valley by sharing our faith in Jesus Christ, becoming a mosaic of Godly diversity in a deeply divided society, and by demonstrating our faith by engagement in public life.” In other words, how do we transform our communities by making disciples of Jesus Christ, by reflecting God’s creativity in making us diverse but one, and by bringing the love of God into the world?

Early in the meeting, the Presbytery also voted to offer new 3-year contracts to Diane Frasher as Stated Clerk and myself as Executive Presbyter, effective on our anniversary of May 2nd. Thank you for your confidence and commitment, and I pray that we can continue to serve you well in the coming three years.

This moment prompted me to reflect on where we’ve been and where we might be going. I found a summary of my first report to the Presbytery four years ago (I have been here four years, as the first year was an interim year). I listed four priorities for my work in San Gabriel:

 

  1. To look at who we are now, and how to have our leadership better reflect our membership.
  2. To identify gaps in our ministry coverage of the region in which we are responsible for proclaiming the gospel.
  3. To assess our financial and property resources with the goal of ensuring they are aligned with our current needs and opportunities.
  4. To make structural changes (such as coming out of a long sabbatical period) so we can focus on the needed work of Presbytery support and leadership.

Of course, we must continue the core part of our work as a presbytery, which is supporting and walking with our congregations as we all seek to follow God’s call for this time and this place.

As I look back and consider future priorities, I see the following:

  1. Our leadership does look more like our membership in race and ethnicity and age, as we have people of diverse backgrounds and younger leadership while we continue to rely on active and retired leaders to serve. The one area we are still lacking is ruling elder leadership. We Presbyterians are big believers in shared leadership among all of God’s people, especially the importance of balancing ruling elder and teaching elder authority, but we still have far too few ruling elders in elected presbytery leadership.
  2. With the departure of several churches, we need to look at the communities in the center of our Presbytery, and how we can better serve them. Several of our Presbytery leaders are considering this, including the ACs of Community West Covina and Baldwin Park, the Administration and Finance Committee, and the Vision and Strategy Team. We are starting to look at redevelopment for our existing churches and properties, while seeking to start new ministries.
  3. We do have financial reserves and active participation from member churches to sustain the Presbytery, though we are using restricted funds in a way that is cautious but not sustainable long-term. We are also looking at new ways of managing property, to free up new and older congregations from the burden of maintaining buildings, and to provide some income, which lessens the financial need for our congregations to cover the costs of the Presbytery.
  4. One of my first tasks was to work with others to rewrite the bylaws. In doing so, we created three committees (Justice Peacemaking and Mission, Education, and Vision and Strategy) that have provided great leadership for the Presbytery while also offering new entryways to leadership. Most of the members of these committees have never served on a Presbytery committee before. Looking at this last meeting, most of the new learning came from these committees. In addition, we utilize ACs more extensively, not as a weapon but as the best way for the Presbytery to commit gifted leaders to work more deeply with a congregation, and there are many examples of how the ACs have already helped congregations deal with issues that would have been too complex or painful to handle on their own.

There has been a lot of great work and progress over the years, and much that needs to be done. I look forward to continuing to move forward with you as we seek to be ever more faithful servants of God in this valley.

Caretakers of Creation

Caretakers of Creation

Last week I wrote about the vastness of Creation, and how we are but a small part of it. (Those who need a reminder can go to Google and type in “milky way you are here” and you’ll find many images illustrating this fact.)

Since then-even looking at this lectionary text for next Sunday-I keep getting reminded of the flip side of our relationship with the rest of Creation. I started the week at the vet with my cat, who suddenly seemed to lose control of her limbs. She had three short episodes of this in two hours, two of them while at the vet’s office (though, of course, they occurred when the vet and vet tech were out of the room). They took blood tests and said she seemed fine, and she hasn’t had one of those episodes since. She does have an overactive thyroid, which I had already suspected, so I’ll be taking her back in soon.

But for the last several days I have been worrying over one of my dogs, who has had severe back pain. After another visit to the vet, I have been trying to get him to take multiple drugs to ease the pain, and then to give him Prilosec to ease the pain that comes from taking the drugs. I can’t help but feel stressed by this. As a child I remember my mother’s great compassion for pets, and while in seminary my first cat died, which was devastating because I felt that God had given me this small life to care for, and I lost her.

We all have the opportunity to fulfill our role as caretakers of Creation, as God commands us. For me, it’s pets and my responsibility to you all as members of the Presbytery (remember, I think of people as part of Creation too). For others, it’s people healing from injury in hospitals and physical therapy offices, or tending to those who are on their way off this mortal plane. I cannot guess at how it feels to be responsible for one’s own children, though there is so much more in that relationship than just responsibility. Certainly Jesus’ comment about giving one’s life for those we are called to care for is most apparent in a parent’s love for a child.

Some of us are trying to reclaim another major role as caretakers of Creation, through farming. I know that in schools as diverse as Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, my alma mater John Muir High School in Pasadena, and Kanuikapono Public Charter School in Anahola, Kaua`i, there have been farming initiatives for the students. In

my own very limited experience in urban farming, there is something healing and of course life-giving in tending to and witnessing the life force of nature. I have heard that there are major new initiatives to support community gardens, as a way of promoting healthier lifestyles through the cultivation of fresh produce.

This Saturday, our offering will go to Pomona Hope’s efforts to continue their community garden. This garden has been part of the partnership First Presbyterian Pomona has with their immediate neighborhood. In good community organizing fashion, years ago they had a series of meetings with neighbors and talked about the needs of the community. Out of that grew Pomona Hope, which provides after-school educational and sports activities, support groups for parents, art activities, and the Center Street Garden. You can learn more about Pomona Hope.

Like many of our churches, Pomona Pres is looking ahead to their next phase of ministry, and they are especially concerned with supporting the next generation as they grow into young adulthood and leadership in the church. The church has been a wonderful presence in the community and its leaders live out their faith in remarkable ways. For instance, I happened to google two of their leaders, Tom and Bree Hsieh, and came across an article from the Orange County Register about how they live within the median income for Los Angeles County, which enables them to give away much more than that each year. (I’ve known Tom and Bree for years and never knew this.)

Our offering will be given in memory of Jonah Hwang, a child of Pomona Pres who lost his life a year ago from gun violence. Again, I cannot imagine the pain felt by Jonah’s family, but the joy of his life is his lasting legacy. As Christ gave his life for his people, we as Christ’s followers must know that to be faithful is not to be protected from pain; we continue to share the risk of living in this very broken world. As we take up our cross and give up our lives to follow Jesus, we cling to the Resurrection promise that there is eternal love and glorious peace on the other side of the cross. We get a glimpse of this by observing the cycle of life that is lived out constantly in the world around us.

I hope to see you all for our Presbytery meeting this Saturday morning at Claremont Presbyterian Church. Please let us know if you can stay for lunch, so that we have time to catch up with each other. And bring your checkbooks for the offering.

And even if you cannot come to the Presbytery meeting, you can always give directly to the Center Street Garden.

Giving thanks to God for planting me here with you, Wendy

Partners in Creation

Partners in Creation

I am a “cradle Presbyterian,” meaning I was born and raised in this church. Because my grandfather and two uncles were Presbyterian pastors who held leadership positions in the church and the community at large, because my father was a perennial Presbytery commissioner and a GA commissioner sent by this presbytery to the 1994 General Assembly in Wichita, I grew up assuming I was just like other Presbyterians.

It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I realized my way of being Presbyterian had a distinctively Japanese flavor to it. I came to this understanding during a class where each week we talked about Christian spirituality and our response to various issues in life. In one class, we discussed the environment. The White students talked about humans being in charge of Creation, as if we were separate and above the rest of Creation, with the power to destroy the Earth. Their perspective was obviously rooted in Psalm 8.

As they spoke, I thought of Japanese landscape paintings, where people and houses are put in proper perspective to the rest of Creation. In my mind, humans are but small members of the family of Creation. Now because humans are powerful, we have a responsibility to manage our power for good and not for destruction. (I learned this from my days working with battered women, that men have a responsibility to manage their anger, because of the destructive power of their physical strength.) While we are powerful, humans are not in charge of, or outside of, the rest of Creation. Also, I do not believe we have the power to destroy the Earth-though we certainly have proved that we can make Earth uninhabitable for humans and other forms of life. Though this perspective may run counter to Psalm 8, I would contend that much of the rest of the Bible highlights the greatness of God, and only God, who uses the universe as God’s footstool, and how humanity and all the rest of Creation are known and loved by God, and all forces of nature can be used by God to care for or discipline humanity.

When I went to Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, I had an experience of the Creation that I never had before. Because this is a true crater-the largest inactive and intact crater in the world-the little jeeps first circle the rim, then drive into the center of the crater by one very bumpy road. Reaching the floor of the crater, I could see the rim creating a fairly effective barrier from the rest of the world. It seemed as if this was a world unto itself, with its own order, safe from the excesses of humanity, as Tanzania has made this a conservation area, restricting access and of course hunting.

Blue wildebeest (gnu) with flamingos on Lake Magadi in background, Ngorongoro Crater, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

In this sanctuary, where humans are few and relatively unobtrusive, the animals seemed to live in peace. Zebras and warthogs gathered in large numbers in one area, with the zebras walking along with the jeep as if they thought we were some kind of mutant, wheel-footed animal. In other areas, wildebeests, gazelles, and ostriches gathered-with lionesses and their cubs on a raised ridge. The animals seemed to understand each other quite well; at one point two gazelles carefully stepped out to watch the lions, tails wagging, to see if the lions would come after them (the gazelles were far enough away that they could run if need be). The lions were otherwise engaged, so the gazelles walked by with a bit of confidence.

This order is not without danger. At one point we found a hyena eating some other animal with relish. But whether they be hippopotamus in the water, rhinoceros in the distance, elephants in the forest, or the crested crane looking stunning amongst them, my friends and I kept expressing the sense of peace in this place. If only we humans can practice moderation, that we may be partners in, rather than tyrants over, the rest of Creation!

In a week from this Saturday, we will have our next Presbytery meeting. Moderator Becca Bateman is shaping the 2018 Presbytery meetings along our priority to build relationships. So in January, we built relationships with each other, as we learned together in WinterFest, worshiped and sat at table with each other in worship, and installed our new officers for 2018.

On June 2nd, our all-Presbytery Day of Service, we will build relationships with our neighbors near and far, as we work at Westminster Gardens for this retirement community as well as other mission partners. In September, we will focus on our relationship with God, and in November we will hold another Self-Care Fair, as we build relationship with self.

Since our April Presbytery meeting is the day before Earth Day, this meeting will be focused on our relationship with Creation. It is also fitting to have the meeting at Claremont Presbyterian, as they have made significant investments in an urban garden and renovating their Christian Education building to be more energy-efficient.

We will also show support for Pomona Hope’s efforts to continue their community garden. As it happens, the Presbytery is involved in both Pomona-based community gardens. As we have a prospective buyer for the South Hills property, they are waiting for us to effectively close down that garden. And the City of Pomona has sold the property across from First Presbyterian, which means their garden will be closed down. Both sets of gardeners are working with public officials for a permanent, larger community garden, backed by grants from healthcare companies that want to promote healthier living. Pomona Hope is raising funds for a new garden (sadly, soon after it was announced that their garden is to close, their gardening equipment was stolen), and they are holding a fundraiser on April 14th; if you want to learn more about the event and Pomona Hope in general, click here.

For the April 21st Presbytery offering, we will give to Pomona Hope, the program of First Presbyterian Pomona that runs the Center Street Garden. We will give in honor of our relationship with Creation, in loving memory of Jonah Hwang, the child of First Presbyterian Pomona who loved superheroes and remains in the hearts of the Pomona Pres family, and in support of the Center Street Garden.

As we give thanks for new life this Eastertide, even in the midst of so much destruction and violence in Syria and in our own neighborhoods, let us pray for and nurture new life for all of Creation, whose care was entrusted to us, and whose bounty sustains our own lives. If you cannot come to the Presbytery meeting, you can always give directly to the garden at saveourgarden.org.

Praying for peace for all of us,

Wendy