Speaking and Loving

Speaking and Loving

And who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:29

If you are like me, you spent many hours on Friday and Saturday planted in front of a screen, watching the condensed, online 224th “Baltimore” General Assembly. There is a series of news articles on the GA if you missed it. It was quite an experience, and by God’s grace we got through it. Congratulations and many, many thanks to Ruling Elder Commissioner Maria Cacarnakis and Teaching Elder Commissioner N’Yisrela Watts-Afriyie for their active and discerning engagement throughout.

In several ways, this GA was like any other. Leadership was acknowledged with the election of new Co-Moderators, Elder Elona Street-Stewart and Rev. Gregory Bentley. Worship was held, committee members were elected, and a budget was passed—though for the first time in some years, the budgets for the Office of the General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency were unified. And unlike last General Assembly, there was very exact scrutiny put to the budget. And, of course, there was some controversy, some attempt to address the issues of the day, and some progress and disappointment, enacted within the confines of Robert’s Rules of Order, made more difficult by the limits of technology.

Because of the lack of in-person deliberation in committee and then in plenary, nearly all the overtures were referred to the 225th General Assembly, which is scheduled for July 2-9, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. The recommendation was to review the referred overtures, as well as actions of prior GAs, and pray, discern, and see whether some of the suggested actions could be implemented at the local level. That is, rather than wait for the General Assembly to make a pronouncement, new mission can happen now, at the grassroots. We can stay home and look around our doorstep, and realize that there are people right near us who are experiencing injustice, and who can teach us about their perspective and their history.

It became clear to me that several people seek to become commissioners or YAADs specifically because they want to be part of a national commentary on the issues of the day, and they were very disappointed that this was muted in 2020. So there was a mostly successful attempt (led by some folks from Southern California) to strengthen a statement “On the Church in This Moment in History” by naming certain groups who have been ignored even in discussions of justice, including Black women and girls. There is a task force on Black women and girls whose report was referred to 2022, but can be found here.

The discussion also raised a term that may be new to folks, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). The term highlights the unique challenges that African-Americans and Native Americans have within the context of the history of white privilege in the United States, while advocating for solidarity among all people of color.

There was little ability to interact with individuals in this General Assembly, but I led a small Bible Study group on Wednesday night that gave me a bit of perspective. There were six commissioners, and four of them were white pastors from “purple” areas who didn’t seem to have much contact with people of color in their context. One expressed disappointment that GA would not be able to produce guidance on how to fight racism in their lives. One commissioner, a black man, suggested that the best thing they can do is to just get to know the people in their local areas, and they will find the right way to respond that works for their particular situation.

It does seem to be true that GA is an opportunity to educate and empower Presbyterians to do justice in the world, and my prayer is that the commissioners and all the denomination take seriously the action of this GA, that we read carefully the various overtures that are waiting for 2022, and see how they can inspire and guide us to live faithfully in our local context. But the cynic in me says that the overtures, and all the discussion in this GA, will go the way of countless GA overtures before them—they are fought over, wordsmithed and researched, and then bound into the minutes and largely forgotten.

The cynic in me says that too many Presbyterians, even those who are proud of their social justice awareness, find it more comfortable to come together with hundreds of other Presbyterians every other year and make well-worded statements, rather than taking the direct and risky action of befriending the “others” in their very towns and cities and acting to directly impact their lives, every day of the year.

In all times, we Christians are guided by the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) And of course, the retort came swiftly: “And who is my neighbor?”  I confess this question came up often for me during this GA, because I fear that it is easier for many of us to write strong statements about whole peoples, than it is to sit down and share our hearts with an individual person who is not like us.

I understand the value in developing guiding documents that help people learn the issues of the day. But my hope is that we go beyond “book learning” to getting to know persons in our neighborhood, and with the help of the Holy Spirit we come to love them so much that their pain is our pain, that injustice against them is injustice against us all. It’s hard to do this, and hard when we don’t have guidelines that assure us that we will be successful. But the path of faith does not ensure success—all we are ensured of is grace. I believe our recent forays into the unknown territory of online church life help us practice this. But outgoing Co-Moderator Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri shared a poem by Antonio Machado that includes the statement translated as “Wayfarer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

May we walk with our neighbors, listen to their stories, and as we go forth in love, may we create new paths of righteousness, which together we may walk humbly with our God.

In Christ’s love,



Lament into Hope

Lament into Hope

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old.

Lamentations 5:21

We are in the middle of General Assembly week, but rather than gathering in Baltimore as planned, the commissioners gathered on Friday via Zoom and PC-Biz. In the opening session, we found that some things change, and some things remain the same.

The change for San Gabriel Presbytery came on Thursday. I was sitting in the parking lot of my dentist, waiting to be allowed in, when I received the text from Teaching Elder Commissioner Jennifer Ackerman that she was diagnosed with a blood infection and was on her way to the hospital. Could N’Yisrela Watts-Afriyie step in at this late stage? Amidst the drilling on my tooth, we were able to convince the Office of the General Assembly to break their rules (no one could participate without going to the training—but alternates were not allowed to attend the training!), and N’Yisrela was registered on the spot. And congrats to her, for managing to participate and vote in the Assembly from the start of business!  And please pray for Jennifer, who is still in the hospital; she is not in pain but the doctors have not found the right antibiotics to stave off the infection.  And congrats to her, too, for having earned her PhD!

As the Assembly started on Friday, there were relatively few technical glitches, though it became clear how much time and energy was spent by the Presbytery of Baltimore for a meeting that would not happen in their midst, and the technology does not allow for individual side conversations that allow the commissioners to form a more cohesive discerning body. (Though frankly, a typical GA has such an avalanche of data that most commissioners are not able to discern all the decisions anyway.)

However, the intricacies of Robert’s Rules of Order were exposed unchanged amidst the technology. The dispute between SFTS and COTE came into view, to the surprise of most of the commissioners, who probably didn’t know what SFTS and COTE were. For those of us on the West Coast, the dismissal of SFTS without Assembly consideration is problematic. The issue will be brought up again on Friday.

On the plus side, the Assembly elected, on the first ballot, Elder Elona Street-Stewart and Rev. Gregory Bentley. In a time when the Church and society are seeking ways to learn about and repent for the racism that infects us so thoroughly, it makes perfect sense to elect these two veteran leaders of our denomination who have worked on racial justice their entire lives. As too many church leaders continue to speak about the PC(USA) as white people trying to learn about racism, I am grateful to hear from this Delaware Nanticoke woman and African-American man, who gently made it clear that they are aware that churches in the PC(USA) reflect a rainbow of peoples.

Within San Gabriel Presbytery, we are also seeing change, as we adjust to this new virtual normal, as important transitions that had been delayed are starting to take place. A week ago, Arcadia Community Church had its first virtual congregational meeting, to elect their Pastor Nominating Committee.

Yesterday, First Presbyterian Church Altadena had theirs, to say good-bye to their pastor Mark Buchanan, who is retiring as a pastor and moving into hospital chaplaincy. Other churches are progressing in their pastor searches. And a promising new church start, and an exciting new life for our Baldwin Park property, are being discussed via Zoom.

I had an odd and wonderful experience in worship yesterday. Some of you may have noticed that Zoom keeps updating (without alerting us), so little things happen, like the sound going out in the middle of a meeting. This happened to N’Yisrela during General Assembly (she managed to vote anyway!), and it happened to me while I was liturgist for a Zoom-based worship service. The preacher’s image went awry on occasion, but he delivered an effective sermon. After the worship service (they fellowship via breakout rooms), we shared how I, the liturgist, was deaf—and the preacher said that he couldn’t see anyone, so he was effectively blind. But God is good, and works through us if we are willing to keep trying. It reminded me of the time I preached in Kyoto, and sat at table with the pastor and a few other people, including a seminarian who had been blind since birth. Since he was the only person who could speak both Japanese and English, he was by far the most able person at the table for that moment!

This year’s General Assembly reminds us that there is much to lament, but with God’s help we can learn new ways to be faithful.  As we become more aware of racial injustice, of the isolation of people who are not able to leave home or come to church, of the limits of virtual communication and our health care system, we are grateful of all the ways that God works through us to do what we have resisted in the past. As we look ahead to continuing uncertainty, realizing that we may not go back to the days of old, may we take comfort that perhaps in this uncertainty we find humility, and in humility we seek the face of Christ, who will yet again reach out a hand to save us. As will be prayed in this Friday’s GA opening worship,

We come believing that the divisions of today do not have to be the reality of tomorrow.

But in confession and repentance,

moving beyond empty rhetoric into consistent action,

we continue, as Christ’s body, into the beloved community. Amen.

Praying for peace,





So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5:17

When I was in seminary, my pastor liked to tell the Presbyterian version of the old light bulb joke: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?


Yeah, it doesn’t quite translate in writing. But it’s quite true that the corollary to our reputation as the “Frozen Chosen” has been our approach to change. It seems that our very polity was designed to keep change moving at the speed of a glacier.

But we are in very different times. (Sadly, even the speed of a glacier has changed, due to global warming.) On a regular basis, I often think about how our actions will be recorded in history books 50- 100 years from now (assuming, of course, that “books” would be the primary method of recording history). From climate change, to the rights of sexual minorities, to global political dynamics, to technology, to #MeToo, to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now Black Lives Matter . . . while I usually resist hyperbole about such things, I do believe we are in some kind of pivot point in history.

I have to say that when Mr. George Floyd was killed, and the initial protests began, I was one of those who didn’t think things would change. There have been too many unarmed Black men killed by people who have been given authority by the government, or who assumed they had their own authority, and there was no change. The names are too many to mention, and the few times their deaths were reported in national news, the stories were forgotten with every new news cycle.

But these protests kept happening. And some veteran, respected civil rights leaders said that “this is different.” What made it different this time? Some of the leaders pointed to the leadership of young people, though that didn’t seem all that different to me. Many point to the presence of people of all races participating in the protests. It seems that there’s a light in their eyes when they mention the number of White people, and people of all races, rejecting racist violence against Black people. Their reaction feels to me like they are so relieved that for the first time, other people believe them; for the first time, other people care.

A couple of times people reference the restlessness and attention that came from our state of Coronavirus semi-quarantine. That makes me think this is a God thing, a kairos moment when God puts together several factors that enable us—maybe force us—to experience a breakthrough.

But maybe it’s just another moment, and it’s up to us to respond to God’s call for justice and liberation that come from repentance. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” In any case, let us not shy away from this moment when we can step forward in faith and seek the healing that has eluded this nation for 400 years.

We are gifted with faith, and the promise of grace and salvation that Jesus Christ gives us. In that, we share the same faith that has been so foundational for the Black American community—faith that has

persevered through so many years of persecution, faith that empowers believers to seek and work for justice, faith that enables African-Americans to ask for peace and to offer forgiveness even in the face of hatred and death. Countless times African-Americans have voiced forgiveness, even after the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston South Carolina. And even today families of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks appeal for peace, and so many times they do so in the name of Jesus Christ.

In the face of this faithful perseverance, can this nation have the courage and faith to repent of the racism that seems so integrated in the fabric of this society? It’s like the reason John Calvin put the prayers of confession after the sermon, because we are assured through the preaching of God’s word that God’s grace allows us to confess openly of our sin. Are we convinced enough that God can make a way out of no way, God can do what we could never do on our own, God can indeed give us new life that is so compelling that we are able to allow everything old to pass away?

My hope is that we can engage in faithful dialogue and worship that opens our hearts to the healing that Jesus Christ offers us. I am consulting with various people, and hope to have several different options for anyone who wants to take this historic time as an opportunity to go deeper in faith by learning more about God’s children in our midst. We step forward not because we know that this will be easy, or predictable, or pain-free, but we step forward and speak our truth—and more importantly, we listen— that we may hear God’s wisdom speak through the community of believers.

And if you want one more glimpse into what’s possible, see the video of Black Lives Matter protestor Patrick Hutchinson, who saved a White man he believed to be a racist anti-protestor who got isolated from his group and was being attacked by protestors. Mr. Hutchinson mentioned how he thought about the three policemen who failed to take action when George Floyd was being killed. How do we live fully and faithfully, bringing the light of Christ into the moments that God puts into our lives?

Let us take whatever opportunity God gives us to do what’s right, and perhaps we will witness a new creation.

Praying for peace,





If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, the One who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:8-9

Sin! We never talk about sin!

In general, we mainline church types tend to shy away from using the word “sin.” Even though most Presbyterian churches still have a Confession of Sin in our worship services, we would prefer to see ourselves as struggling and imperfect people in need of healing—which, of course, is not mutually exclusive, but we just don’t like being called “sinner.” For myself, I had an especially hard time with the concept of “original sin” and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. How can we believe that the most innocent of beings, newborn babies, are conceived and born in sin?

My understanding of this concept came as I reflected on the insidious nature of racism in the United States. Like with the word “sinner,” White Americans react to the word “racist” with a virulence I cannot understand. Even Amy Cooper, the woman who called 911 to claim that an “African-American man is threatening me” because he dared to ask her to obey Central Park rules and put her dog on a leash, said “I am not a racist.” (The fact that the Harvard-educated, comic book editing bird-watcher she attempted to sic the police on is named Christian Cooper is proof that God has a deep sense of irony.)

But, like original sin and humanity, systemic racism is so embedded in the fabric of American history and society that every human born and raised in this country is infected by it—and new immigrants learn quickly how to survive within it. Racism hits us and infects us before we are aware enough to resist it. Studies have shown that children as young as 3 or 4 years old already apply differing perceptions of people of different races, and racist messages are so pervasive that even people of color absorb them against our own kind.

So I came to understand that one example of our broken state of sinfulness is our broken state of racism. Just as there are individual examples of sinful acts, there is also the mortal, imperfect state of human sinfulness that we all share. And while there is the KKK and other individual hateful individuals, we live in a state of racism. When Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, part of the outrage was elicited from his nonchalant way of killing the man, AND the ways that three other police officers stood by and allowed him to do it. They did not plan to kill him, but something in them somehow perceived this as normal, or acceptable, behavior. The fact that one of the officers is Asian sickens me all the more, but shows that none of us is immune.

Last week I mentioned to some pastors that while I have always likened racism to a virus that infects us as infants, before we can be innoculated against it, perhaps what’s happening now is a cancer diagnosis. We didn’t know the cancer was present until this violent pain aroused us out of the denial. And, like many cancer patients I know, once confronted with the diagnosis, we are given the choice to continue the denial, or take multiple steps to treat it. What I didn’t say is how scary the diagnosis is, and how the treatment can sometimes feel as destructive as the disease, because killing the cancer usually requires killing some of our own cells. Only with awareness, courage, faith, and the will to be healed can we proceed with the treatment to eradicate the cancer.

I am aware that this can be horrible, but like the cancer diagnosis, we are likely not to be healed if we ignore it or wait for the news cycle to move on to other things. But there is hope.

I have shared with some of you the most dramatic example of physical healing I have witnessed, from when I was a pastor in Waipahu. Leanne is a young woman I met in an apartment complex designed for people with disabilities. As the only survivor of a hereditary defect that killed her father and brothers at a young age, Leanne had an indomitable spirit, even taking an hour-long bus ride into town to work.

Paralyzed from the shoulders down, she had been in a wheelchair for 12 years. However, one day on the bus, she started to feel stabbing pains in her feet, so sharp that she cried in pain. After a couple of days of that, she went to her doctor, scared and confused because she had felt nothing below her shoulders, let alone sharp stabbing pain.

Well, the doctor did some tests, and gave her the diagnosis: it turns out that the pain was a signal that her nerves were regenerating. Within a few weeks of physical therapy, she managed to get back on her feet, walking with a walker . . . for the first time in 12 years!

As individuals, but even moreso as a community, God calls us back to life, and sometimes the signs of life may be painful and surprising. But God willing, it can be pretty miraculous too. My hope is that this time of painful awakening will be met with a brave and faithful commitment to face the collective sinfulness of racism, and with courage, faith, and the will to be healed, this broken and imperfect country that we love will be a place of hope and freedom for all. My hope is that we can have some conversations about this, as we walk together into God’s light.

Witness to the healing power of Jesus Christ,





So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

Galatians 6:9-10

Yesterday was Pentecost, and the day before that was San Gabriel Presbytery’s first Zoom-based Presbytery meeting. As we reflect on the many languages spoken on the day of Pentecost, several have noticed that in today’s context, “language” can mean many things. These last months, this time of Coronavirus, have made us much more aware of new technologies—Zoom, Facebook, email, phone— and modes of expression—speaking, singing, watching body language, touch—by which we communicate with each other.

In our Presbytery meeting, we experienced several new ways of communicating. In worship, we heard a few of the languages of our Presbytery, with a Call to Worship for Pentecost in Spanish, Filipino, Thai, Taiwanese, and English, and a virtual choir singing in Korean, Spanish, Taiwanese, and English. We welcomed Rev. Dr. Michael Spezio of Scripps College as a new minister member. Michael has integrated his theological training with his scholarship in neuroscience, focusing on neurodiversity and how we can appreciate and relate well to people who have been labeled “disabled.”

Thanks to Zoom we also had a running conversation via chat, and so we heard from the breakout groups that most churches are exercising caution about coming back into your sanctuaries, reflecting on the new learning—and new participants—you have seen through online worship. Those who responded said you will be taking several weeks or months before coming back in. (This is prudent, also, because the State and County will be reevaluating this allowance in three weeks, so there may be changes come June 16.)

And we were able to hear from and talk with Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, whose positive energy came across clearly from Boston, giving us words of encouragement and prophetic wisdom as we consider our calling as the Presbyterian Church (USA).

We also received an offering for ICON, the Inland Communities Organizing Network, as they organize community members for affordable housing in the Pomona area. If you want to learn more about ICON, go to http://www.icon-iaf.org/, and you can give by going to https://sangabpres.org/donate/ and using the drop-down menu to give “to Presbytery Offering.”

Not only was the meeting Zoom-based, we utilized for the first time a new Facebook account, https://www.facebook.com/SanGabPresbytery/ where we could livestream events such as Cindy Kohlmann’s message and Q&A—and we can also store and access a recording of Cindy’s talk, as well as videos that were created for and since the Presbytery meeting.

I cannot thank enough our Presbytery leaders who put countless hours, expertise and love into making this Presbytery meeting a truly inspiring and hope-filled experience: Diane Frasher, Ally Lee, Jennifer Ackerman, Lauren Evans, Beau Wammack and musicians from Calvary Presbyterian Church, and of course our moderators Karen Sapio and Deborah Owens.

This meeting was a needed oasis for me, as we continue to walk through this time that has become even more painful than dealing with the Coronavirus. As we have been dealing with the uncertainty of this unknown, we were slapped, maybe gut-punched, with the all-too-certain reality of racism and violence, most recently illustrated by the violent and totally unjustified deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. One cannot view the way Mr. Arbery was hunted down and shot, or how a police officer kept his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd for almost 9 minutes, with his hands nonchalantly resting in his pockets, without knowing that the lives, the very humanity, of these children of God were totally ignored. There is so much to say about this, and yet words cannot fully express the pain that has erupted into demonstrations and sometimes violent acts of protest and fury.

The sad thing is that for many, this pain is not new; in fact some recall Fannie Lou Hamer, who described the vicious 1963 beating in a Mississippi jailhouse that left her with severe kidney damage,

a blood clot behind one eye and a permanent limp. She said about that, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But for every generation, and for all who for whatever reasons are not aware, it’s important to speak, and communicate, from various perspectives. Over the weekend many presbytery leaders have been engaged in sharing thoughts and concerns, resulting in a video cry of lament and also many letters, including one from former San Gabriel executive, Ruth Santana-Grace, speaking from her Latinx experience, and a beautiful message to Detroit Presbytery from their Associate Executive, Charon Barconey, who speaks as a church leader and as an African-American mother of two young black men.

CNN commentator Don Lemon said, almost as an aside, that one way to learn more about what’s happening in this world is to make friends with people who are different from you:

If you are Black and you don’t have a White friend, get one, and tell him what’s on your mind.

And if you’re White and you don’t have a Black friend, then get one, and let him tell you what is on their mind. Because that is the only way we’re going to solve this.

Actually, I think there’s real truth to that. I remember many years ago watching a news item about a famous actor who accused a young man of assault. The actor happened to be White, and the young man was Black, and from Pasadena. While watching the report which assumed the young man’s guilt, my mother said of the young man, “That’s not true. I know his family, and I know he isn’t like that.”

How well do you know people different from you? Do you know them well enough to know better than to trust the lies and misconceptions that spread like a virus among us? Do you love them enough to care what happens to them and their families? Do you take the time (and maybe courage) to see and show your love for other children of God beyond the walls and myths that have been used to divide us?

In our Presbytery, we have people from so many different backgrounds and perspectives, we have a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other in this family of faith, knowing that however different we may be, we stand on the solid common foundation of our mutual love and faith in Jesus Christ. May we continue to build these relationships that enable us to be a shining beacon of light in this dark time.

Empowered and bonded in the Spirit,