Reflection: They are us

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19

This last week I was shocked twice.

The first shock came on Tuesday, through a short message from Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, our Stated Clerk:

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Robina Winbush died today in New York.  Robina, who served as Associate Stated Clerk and Director of Ecumenical Relations with the Office of the General Assembly, was traveling with a PC(USA) delegation to the middle east when she collapsed while deplaning a flight.  Emergency personnel were unable to revive her. 

I knew that Robina was out of the country, because as recently as a week ago, I had written her asking for advice.  Robina was a very wise woman who somehow managed to connect with the world, as a big part of her job was maintaining relationships with our sister Presbyterian churches in all the countries around the globe.  She was also one of the core leaders of the World Council of Churches, and she was a gracious and helpful guide for myself and others when we attended the Evangelism Conference in Tanzania last year.

My personal favorite memory of Robina was a major “aha!” moment she gave me a few years ago.  I served for a short time on the GA Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, and we were discussing how the PC(USA)’s pronounced distaste for bishops was a hindrance in our work with Churches Uniting In Christ, a major ecumenical movement that grew out of the initiative of then-Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake.  All the other partner churches accepted an episcopal structure for CUIC, even those churches that did not have bishops.  But the Presbyterians could not imagine participating in any organization that would require us naming any individual as a “bishop.”

I knew that there are other Reformed churches, even some called Presbyterian, that have bishops, so I wondered aloud why we have such a negative reaction to them.  Robina suggested that it grew out of our roots in the Church of Scotland, whose violent rejection of bishops stemmed from the role of bishops as agents of the Church of England, and of the English king.  That clicked for me with the importance of the cause of freedom—and freedom of religion—that our Scots-Irish forebears brought as a foundational value for the United States, and the PC(USA).

This belief in religious freedom has been sorely wounded by the second shock, the anti-Muslim terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand.  The thought that people could be gunned down as they gathered for prayer is almost beyond my imagination, and yet it has happened too many times these recent years—in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and now this.

As horrifying as this action was, I was able to find hope in the swift and strong response of the people of New Zealand and around the world, offering love to drown out the hate.  New Zealand’s Prime Minister expressed her solidarity with the Muslim community, many of whom had come to New Zealand to escape violence in their homelands, declaring that the Muslims are integral and beloved citizens of New Zealand:  “they are us.”

Closer to home, the first email I saw regarding this shooting was from Benjamin Ross, a Jewish rabbi in Los Angeles, sending his love to the leaders of the Islamic Center of Southern California.  Rabbi Sharon Brous then shared the following:

My heart hurts for my Muslim brothers and sisters. You have been targeted with a crude and shameless bigotry . . . Your faith has been desecrated for political gain, your bodies and holy sites threatened by an unapologetic hatred. I am a Jew and a rabbi. I reach out to you with love and in solidarity.

I also found that within a few hours, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up an emergency fund for the victims of the New Zealand attack—if you’d like to give, you can find them at jewishpgh.org.  And New Zealand Jewish synagogues closed their services, in solidarity with the mosques that were told to stay closed out of concerns for their security.

I was struck with the speed and strength of the Jewish community’s response to this attack on Muslims.  But, just as God told their ancient forebears, they know what it is like to be oppressed as the “stranger,” and from that history comes compassion.  As they were once strangers in the land of Egypt, Jews—and, later, Christians—are called to welcome the stranger in our midst.  As they have suffered attacks for their faith, Jews step forward to support Muslim victims of hatred.  As they know what it feels like to be unsafe in their own place of worship, Jews and Christians in Los Angeles and elsewhere went to local mosques, showing with their presence their support and concern for their Muslim neighbors’ safety.

And just as we give thanks this Lenten season for Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and just as we take comfort that in Jesus, God has chosen to feel our pain, may we be moved to show compassion to others—not just those who are like us, but even those who are not.  If nothing else, let us all pray for comfort and safety for those who are being treated as strangers.  Let us pray for Christ’s peace for Robina’s family and friends.  Let us pray that again God would stay the hand of tyrants and abusers, here and around the world.

Blessings to you and yours.  I am in Georgia this week, and may be hard to reach for some days, but Twila knows how to reach me, and I will be back on Monday March 25.

 

In faith,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: From Dust

You are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

Genesis 3:19

Last week was Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded of our own mortality.  If someone put ashes on you, it’s likely they also repeated this snippet from Genesis from the end of the punishment God stated to Adam at the time of the Fall.

So last Wednesday, I was thinking of my own mortality as I awaited the ashes.  I am now of the age when I think of mortality once in a while.  It occurred to me that I now have an opportunity to be reminded of my mortality—or more precisely, my physical frailty—because I’ve been having trouble with my eyes for several weeks now.  I was diagnosed with moderate glaucoma a few years ago.  It doesn’t impact my eyesight; the only reason I know is because my cousin told my sisters and me about the incidence of normal-pressure glaucoma in our family (it’s more common in Japanese).  Due to an allergic reaction to my current prescription, my eyesight is affected as I try new eye drops I can tolerate.

As it happens, several of us on your Presbytery staff are being reminded of our human limitations.  This coming Wednesday morning is the funeral mass for Twila’s mother, Loretta Guimond.  And this last Friday, Lauren Evans had emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder.  Twila will be out of the office Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and Lauren was told by her doctor to take two weeks to recuperate. 

This is tough for us, because as one pastor noted, we are a “get it done” kind of staff.  Lauren was especially disappointed because she just started her work with Monte Vista Grove, and the people there were so welcoming to her as she began to meet with them.  So I ask for your prayers for healing, and ask your patience as we need to slow down somewhat, and tend to some earthly cares.  (Also, I will be in Georgia all next week, doing continuing education with my cohort of presbytery executives.)

So it’s getting easier for me to spend the Lenten season contemplating our mortal weakness.  But because we live on this side of Good Friday, we know that we are not condemned to be dust for eternity.  We are an Easter people, living in the hope and promise of eternal life that Jesus brings.  In his resurrection, Jesus Christ vanquished the death sentence that this world gave him, and he saved us from the punishment that God gave Adam:  “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”  (1 Corinthians 15:49)

This last weekend, several things happened that gave me hope even in my Lenten disciplines.  First, Char Sevesind, former leader of South Hills Presbyterian, finally got to go home from a month in the hospital, recovering from surgery.  Prayers of healing for her and her home nurse, husband Don (who has been a godsend for the presbytery, especially helping with the properties of South Hills, Baldwin Park, and West Covina). 

On Sunday, Northminster Presbyterian Church called Charlie Campbell to be their pastor with great optimism and gratitude.  They have experienced significant transformation in recent years with Jake Kim.  As they move forward with their installed pastor, they hope to build on their new outlook and lessons they’ve learned. 

And on Saturday, I attended an event at Chapman University.  I was looking forward to the event, partly to see Cisa Payuyo, associate director of Chapman’s Office of Church Relations and a national leader of the Disciples of Christ for many years.  Cisa shares a common link with Dave Tomlinson, David Cortes-Fuentes, James and Charlene Jin Lee, Diane Frasher, Frank Hsieh, Bong Bringas, Zihong (Bob) Huang, Deidra Goulding, Brian Gaeta-Symonds, Jack Rogers and several other former pastors of this presbytery (and many others I am failing to mention), and myself—we have all been teachers or students at SFTS’ Southern California campus.  I have not seen Cisa for several years, so it was a blessing to reconnect.  I also heard briefly of the events of her life, which included a medical issue that blocked her ordination path.  But the joyous news is that from this life-threatening crossroads, she has emerged as strong and vibrant as ever, and she is scheduled to be ordained this Pentecost!

Indeed, we are mere mortals, created out of the stuff of this universe, imperfect and subject to illness and grief, pain and sin that cause fear, anger, and oppression.  And yet, we are created by God who is almighty and creative beyond imagination, and in Christ we are loved beyond our shortcomings and mortality.  So even as we accept our frailty and need for God, let us also hold fast to the faith and our own experience of God’s life-giving love in Jesus Christ.  And, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us go out and share Christ’s good news of new life to all the world.  

In faith,
Wendy

 

 

Reflection

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

But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

Psalm 22:6

This coming week is the beginning of Lent.  You probably know that traditionally, Lent was a season of preparation for people before they are baptized on Easter Sunday.  A big part of that preparation was self-examination, as we reflect on the sins we’ve committed for which we confess and give up to God’s mercy.  Nowadays Christians use the season of Lent to practice some form of spiritual discipline, including prayer and fasting, as a way of recommitting to God.

We Presbyterians are rooted theologically in the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, especially as defined by John Calvin.  In his Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin begins with the following statement, which comes back to me on a regular basis:

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

Now we know that we can never fully know God, though we can get glimpses through reading the Bible and our own witness to God’s actions.  But even as we try to know ourselves, I sometimes think there’s a paradox:  are we worthless creatures, dead in spirit and helplessly caught up in sin, or are we heroes in the world and even the divine agents of God’s power and will?

It seems that the Bible speaks about us both ways.  It’s funny that I looked back and found that the last two years, I have referenced this passage from Isaiah on the Monday prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  (It is an alternate reading in the Ash Wednesday lectionary, along with Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.)

Apparently there’s part of me that yearns for this passage to describe our role in God’s world as one of high responsibility and positive impact.  It also happens to be the scripture that is guiding our theme of reconciliation throughout our Presbytery meetings this year.

But how does that fit with our tradition of lamenting our sinful and worthless nature during Lent?

I wouldn’t presume to claim wisdom about who we are as worthy or worthless beings, but it’s apparent to me that we are both.  We are created and loved by God, and so have the imprint of God’s glory in us, and the inheritance of doing our Father’s will, as led by God’s beloved Jesus Christ. Yet we are deeply flawed, with a tendency towards attempting to claim dominance over our lives, which turns us away from God, the source of life and righteousness.  Like ancient myths of Icarus and Venus/Lucifer, we are powerful enough to think we can come too close to God (or the sun), and suffer grave consequences for striving to replace God with ourselves.

However, if we are clear about our role as servants of God, gifted and entrusted by God to do God’s mighty works, then we can do great things, as God works through us.  As agents of God, we can rebuild the ruins of our lives, we can raise up our families and communities, we can facilitate reconciliation and care for those trapped in poverty and despair.  But when we confuse these God-directed miracles for our own, we do great damage, not only to ourselves and as an offense to God, but to those who are misled to think it’s us, and not God, who are to be trusted.

Unfortunately we have a tendency to repeat this mistake in our own churches.  We put too much emphasis on the pastor as having the power of God’s grace in his or her own person—or we attribute every bad thing that has happened in the church to the failure of the pastor.  We tend to reduce individuals to saints or sinners, when in fact we are both:  we are ALL sinners, yet because Christ has claimed and saved us, we are saints, not for what we do or what we’ve earned, but simply because we acknowledge that we are loved by God, and we try to love God and God’s children.

So as we enter into the season of Lent, let us be clear-eyed in our self-examination, and see that we—and our siblings—are both blessed and empowered to do the work of the Kingdom, yet imperfect and helpless to do good without the guidance and Spirit of our Lord.  Let us be humble enough to always turn to God for direction, and humble enough to do what God tells us, even if it seems more than we can safely do on our own.

In faith,

Wendy

 

Reflection

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

Psalm 139:1

I am reminded that February is Black History Month, and I’ve wanted to recognize it in a column before the month runs out!  Wikipedia gave some background, including the reason for February.  The historian Carter G. Woodson introduced its precursor, Negro History Week, in 1926 for the second week of February.  That is the week that marks the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14).  Dr. Woodson noted that African-Americans and their contributions were not recognized in the history curricula of our schools, and he hoped that African-Americans could gain strength as they learned more about their history.

The reason I’ve been reminded about Black History Month this year is the sad irony that the pervasiveness and deep roots of anti-Black racism have shown up so vividly these days.  The issue has shown itself most recently with the violent hatred of a Coast Guard officer who proudly calls himself a “white nationalist,” and the self-hatred that is demonstrated in the possible staged hate crime where a Black man reportedly chose to use a noose in his hoax.  This last action reflects conflict with a tragic element of Black history, that of lynching. 

Another conflict with history has been demonstrated by too many political leaders who have perpetuated demeaning stereotypes through blackface, seemingly ignorant of the pain this causes African-Americans who know how effectively blackface taught America the negative stereotypes that haunt our nation through unconscious bias.  This bias is so insidious that it has led to the abhorrent frequency of innocent African-Americans being reported to the police for simply living their lives, or by those who think “I don’t see color” is the solution to racism.  I guess they think it’s a compliment to not acknowledge one’s race.  But this is no more a compliment than if they say they can’t tell that you are a woman.   

Perhaps you might think it’s a step up to pretend not to see the color of one’s skin.  But that implies that color must mean something negative.  The fact is, people of color are not ashamed of our color, or feel disabled because of our skin color.  We just wish others could see our color and have a positive response, with some appreciation for the cultural gifts, traditions, values, experiences, wisdom, music, food, and so many other offerings different cultures bring to God’s big table in the church.  And that’s why Black History Month is important to me—it’s the annual reminder that there is more I can learn about why I’m glad that African-Americans are, and continue to be, and continue to grow, in influence, in the United States—and in the Christian church.

I am so happy that our presbytery is joining with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus Southern California Chapter (NBPC-SC) to explore a new ministry in our neighborhood, a possible new church that welcomes all but celebrates and utilizes the gifts and traditions of the Black church to communicate the love of Christ and the power of the Gospel.  Our Vision and Strategy Team will be focusing their efforts on this, and I ask your prayers as we take steps to deepen and broaden Christ’s mission through this work.  VST Chair Jonathan Hughes and I participated in NBPC-SC’s annual meeting last week, and presented this project idea, which was received well by the members.

As we go forward with this new ministry, we give thanks for the legacy of South Hills Presbyterian Church, which will provide the seed funding for this work.  I would also ask for your prayers for Char and Don Sevesind, who were long-time leaders of South Hills.  Char is struggling to recover from the first of two planned surgeries, and Don has been a great support, as he has been in many ways for our presbytery.  And speaking of great support, please continue to pray for Twila French, who is away this week for a long-planned time away, a week after her mother’s passing.

There is much that we can learn about each other, to our benefit and growth in faith.  Perhaps we can take a moment or two before February 28 to learn about Blacks, including their history in the Presbyterian Church and the moments when we Presbyterians stood with our African-American sisters and brothers.  And perhaps we can go on through the year and learn about our varied histories and cultures, called together by Christ.

And on a day-to-day basis, I ask that you see yourself, and each other, and every person you meet, for who God made in you—each of you, for all that you are.  A while ago I came across this covenant, and occasionally use it for church members to offer to each other.  The last time I used it I tried to find a source so I could properly cite it—the only source I found was, coincidentally, as the covenant of the national organization of Blacks in Government (www.bignet.org).  Yet another reason to give thanks, and to share in the wisdom and love that God offers for and through all of us.

A Covenant for All God’s Children

I regard myself and you
As being created in the image of God

I see your beauty, I sense your power
I celebrate your potential

I support your prerogative to sing your song
I share your pursuit of the high quality of life

I will tell you the truth, and I will have your trust
I will listen to you with my heart
And I shall speak to you with my smile

I shall care enough to confront you
And to comfort you

In you I see God, and in God I see you
You are my friend, and I love you.

Blessings,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:7

 

This Saturday is a great opportunity to hear about key issues in our world, and to hear from our own sisters and brothers how they are responding.  The event is called “Peace-ing It Together: How Individuals and Congregations Can Bring More PEACE Into Our World” and is being held at:

 

Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019
8:30 am registration, 8:50 a.m.—4 p.m.
Lunch included at no cost
Knox Presbyterian Church
225 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena 91106
RSVP at PeaceConfSoCal2019@gmail.com

 

The event begins with worship at 8:50 a.m., with the phenomenal Rev. T. Denise Anderson preaching.  Denise just completed her term as co-moderator of the General Assembly, and is now Coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  She is a dynamic and inspiring leader in our denomination, and if you ever wonder whether there’s a future for the PC(USA), you should meet Denise.  Even her experience in the denomination gives us a clue as to where we are as a church:  she did not grow up Presbyterian (like more than half of all PC(USA) members), and was in seminary at Howard University when she met Presbyterian faculty.  It was their openness and humility in responding to her questions, not with pat answers but with openness and respect, that drew her to the PC(USA).  While preparing for ministry, she served as Pastoral Assistant at Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Washington, DC, leading their English ministry.  A woman of many talents and experiences!

Another speaker is Sara Lisherness, Senior Director for Compassion, Peace & Justice.  Sara comes out of San Fernando Presbytery, and her mission area includes Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian offices of Public Witness in Washington, DC, and at the UN in New York City, and the Presbyterian Hunger Program (which helps to fund our own Mission Advocate, Wendy Gist).

The day includes workshops focusing on violence, interfaith relations, supporting immigrants, homelessness and housing, and confronting racism.  Each workshop includes not only leaders in the community, but also members of churches throughout the Synod who are working on that particular issue.  So, for instance, Nasimi Aghayev (Consul General of Azerbaijan) is present to discuss his country, which is mostly Muslim but whose constitution guarantees religious freedom.  But local Presbyterians include Christa Wallis from First Presbyterian in San Bernardino, who will speak on responding to local violence, as this church has responded actively to the 2015 killing of 14 people at the Inland Regional Center as well as other problems with violence in the San Bernardino community.  The panel on homelessness includes Amie Quigley, who leads the Lord’s Lighthouse, the homeless ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian, who is in fact a leader in the care for homeless people throughout Hollywood.

We at San Gabriel Presbytery are not only a co-sponsor of the event, but also through Knox we are host presbytery.  Even aside from the convenience factor, I urge you to attend this important event, as so many of our churches have expressed interest in connecting with their communities.  You will be inspired and educated, but also you will hear how churches like yours have made commitments to be a beacon of hope in their community in these areas.  And if that isn’t enough, there is even a quilt commissioned for the event, which will be given to some fortunate participant!

See below for the detailed schedule for the conference.  See you there!

Peace,
Wendy

 

Conference Program

8:30 –  8:50 Coffee and Registration
8:50 –  9:30 Opening Worship – reflection by Rev. Denise Anderson & music by Zehnder
9:30 -10:00 “When Did We See You?” based on Matthew 25 – Sara Lisherness

10:00 -10:10 Break

10:10 -11:10 Interfaith Peacemaking: Panel of different approaches
Nasimi Aghayev – Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles
Lisa Patriquin, Tahil Sharma, and Samia Bano – The Guibord Center
Carole Wheeler – First Presbyterian Church, Newhall
Jamshed Yazdani – Newhall Unity Center

11:10 -12:10 “Dismantling and Re-building: The Church Confronting Racism” – Denise Anderson

12:10 -12:50 Lunch

12:45 –  1:00 Music by Zehnder to bring us back together

Breakout groups

 

This is your chance to go more in depth with speakers on the topic that most interests you.

 

1:00 – 2:00 Breakout Session #1 (please choose one)

 

A.Addressing Violence – in the Sanctuary
Engaging Congregations in Preventing All Forms of Gun Violence: Virginia Classick (Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Episcopal Diocese of LA)
Churches Responding to Local Violence: Kyle Joachim (Silverlake Pres) and Christa Wallis (First Pres, San Bernardino)

 

B. Addressing Immigration Issues – in the Atrium
Matthew 25 Ministries: Matthew Colwell (Knox)
From Detainee Visitation to Post-Release Assistance: Merilie Robertson (Woodland Hills Pres) & Beryl Smith (St. Mark Pres, Newport Beach)

 

C. Housing and Homelessness Issues – in the North House Dining Room
Jill Shook, Lori Gay, Walter Contreras (San Gabriel), and Amie Quigley (Hollywood Pres)

 

D. Modeling Religious Tolerance & Peaceful Coexistence – in North House Lounge
Nasimi Aghayev (Consul General of Azerbaijan)E.

 

E. Interfaith Dialogue – in the North House meeting room
The Guibord Center’s Dinner and Dialogue Program: Lisa Patriquin, Tahil Sharma, Samia Bano
Muslim-Christian Study Groups: Carole Wheeler (First Pres Newhall) & Jamshed Yazdani

 

2:00 – 2:15 Break

2:15 – 3:15 Breakout Session #2 (please choose one)

 

A. Addressing Violence – in the Sanctuary
Engaging Congregations in Preventing All Forms of Gun Violence: Virginia Classick
Churches Responding to Local Violence: Kyle Joachim and Christa Wallis

 

B. Addressing Immigration Issues – in the Atrium
Matthew 25 Ministries: Matthew Colwell
From Detainee Visitation to Post-Release Assistance: Merilie Robertson & Beryl Smith

 

C. Housing and Homelessness Issues – in the North House Dining Room
Jill Shook, Lori Gay, Walter Contreras, and Amie Quigley

 

D. The Church Confronting Racism – North House meeting room
Denise Anderson

 

3:20 – 4:00 “Trimming the Wicks: Ready to Act” – Rev. Emily Brewer, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship