Reflection: United in Life and Death

As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion
for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 103:13-14

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson issued a message on the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I.  At that time the day was called Armistice Day, and he said:

The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.

We now call it Veterans Day, and I hope that each of us takes a moment to give thanks for those who have served our country and the highest goals of international compassion and cooperation and service, and to pray for God’s protection on all those who are in places of danger and instability, including those in active duty and those struggling to find safe, hopeful and productive lives when they return stateside.

At times I think about calls for a return to mandatory national service.  I feel guilty about considering it since I am far from the age group that would be impacted by this.  But I have grown to appreciate the benefits of this that go beyond swelling the ranks of military forces.

That said, I do have great respect for the military in the United States.  When I served in Hawai`i, I met several people in the services who attended community churches while they were stationed there.  They told me about the well-developed programs for leadership and skills training, the great diversity of the troops (including a high number of immigrants), the humor and camaraderie, the discipline that some of them confessed they needed to grow, and the integrity that they demonstrated in their work and in their church.  Veterans also speak about the impact of war in a way that none of the rest of us can imagine.  One current concern is now that active military are “voluntary” and have fallen to 0.4% of the population, it is easier for politicians to send our armed forces into dangerous places, as so few now have direct connection to the people being sent.  (In World War II, 9% served, and over half the economy was involved in the war effort, so most if not all Americans had some direct connection to the impacts of war.)

There are stories from every generation of people who learned to be more open to diversity while in the military.  The first time I attended a church conversation on sexuality over 25 years ago, I was struck that several of the people who expressed sympathy for gays and lesbians (back then we didn’t say LGBTQ+) were seniors.  They shared that they had gay buddies when they served in World War II or the Korean War, and when you live together, eat together, and face death together, you learn that we have more in common than one’s sexual orientation.  More recently, a friend who is an Army chaplain in Korea shared how he changed his views on sexuality when the Army repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  As the soldiers he counseled were able to reveal the gender of their loved ones back home, he learned that they spoke the same about love, and loneliness, and hope, whether they were gay or straight.

Several of our national leaders have shared how their military service gave them their first connections with people from different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds.  Wealthy kids learned to respect their working-class commanders.  The young first-term representative George H. W. Bush took the politically unpopular political stance in favor of the Fair Housing Act back in 1968, which opened housing to people regardless of color, reportedly saying “I served with these men in the Pacific and they should be able to live wherever they want to.”

The military is one of the few institutions besides the church where people from diverse backgrounds are to be welcomed into very close community, bound by a shared code of conduct and ideals that are bigger than any individual.  I’ve considered how the military’s approach to creating a cohesive group from disparate individuals may have something to teach the church.  While I would not adopt the hierarchy of the military, I do believe that we church types do need to be more alert to expressing and teaching shared values and practices (and not assume that we all “just know” because we are Christian) and how to demonstrate that there are things more important than getting your way in any particular argument, or any social construct that divides us.

The restatement of mandatory military service is mandatory national service, which might include work for the public good within the US in contexts outside the armed forces.  In my narrow frame of reference, the corollary would be our required internships as part of our preparation for ministry process.  Two goals that guide the internship requirement are the importance of practical applied learning, and exposure to churches that are different from those of any individual’s background.  Our CPM takes seriously that when they help to form and certify someone ready for ordination, they do so once for the entire denomination, so it’s important that the candidates learn that there is no one standard Presbyterian church.  

Yesterday I had the great joy of preaching for the 38th anniversary of Filipino Community United Presbyterian Church.  One of the things I noted is the number of traditions they have to encourage everyone to participate in the ministry of the church, from an early age.  One is the special anniversary offering, when they call people up by the month of their own birth to bring their gifts for the church.  As each month is called, I saw every member and little child of the church coming forward with joy, showing their love for this family of faith.  This is just one of the many ways FCUPC encourages members of all generations to practice their faith as a group, which deepens their church commitment to unity.  As FCUPC looks ahead to expanding their ministry to welcome people of all backgrounds in the Azusa community, I am excited to see how their creativity and infectious energy will grow and diversify their already vibrant church life.

As we look ahead to the holidays, and as we take this holiday to pray for and honor those who gave years of their lives to the service of this country, may we seek to serve our Lord through our churches, without guns but with passion and integrity for the cause of Christ.

Peace and blessings,

Wendy

 

Reflection: Sing to the Lord

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.

Psalm 98:4-5

It feels like we are experiencing the change in seasons (yes, we do have seasons in Southern California), and we are making the turn towards the holidays.  A week before Thanksgiving, we will have the last Presbytery meeting of 2019, when we consider plans for next year, including the budget and elections of Presbytery leaders for 2020, as well as remembering our loved ones who have passed on to the Lord this last year.  We will also elect our commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegate for next summer’s General Assembly in Baltimore.  We have only one ruling elder with a submitted nomination, so if anyone wants to be an alternate, that would be nice to have just in case.  And we have heard that a young person is interested in being a YAAD, but we haven’t seen the paperwork yet, so there might be a possibility of going to Baltimore if you’re 17-23 years of age on the first day of GA, June 20, 2020.

This fall I have been preaching more than usual.  I often preach during the summer (a few churches take me up on the offer to preach for free pulpit supply, or just to hear the latest from the presbytery), but I am finding myself preaching more weeks than not, at least through November.  I’ve had the opportunity to try some different ways to proclaim the word.  I believe that we should use whatever approach helps get the word across most effectively to a particular community of faith.  At one church, I was asked to preach on 1 Kings 12, the events that led to the division of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, which is a major challenge if the church isn’t well-versed in the Bible.  I ended up doing a history/geography lesson, with the help of maps and artwork to attempt to draw the narrative thread from Jacob and the 12 Tribes of Israel, to David, to Rehoboam and Jeroboam, to Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  Thank God for technology!

Yesterday I preached at the Korean-language worship service at PPC.  I was happy to do this because I had always wanted to express in worship my shame and regret that the people of Korea suffered so greatly from Japanese imperialism.  After worship, I was able to hear from some of the elders how the current state of politics in Korea and Japan have revived some of these old conflicts, but we are thankful that political rhetoric does not impact personal relationships, especially among Christians, and in the United States we share a similar minority status that softens any remaining differences in our heritage.  (I also shared how some Japanese have taken DNA tests that reveal how many of us have some Korean blood, so we’re not so different after all!)

I am grateful for the music ministry of PPC’s Korean Language Ministry.  They have a great praise combo (with keyboard, guitars, trumpet, and a nifty electronic drum set that is very versatile and not as overpowering as some traditional drum sets).  We also got to hear from the children, which is always a joy.  And their Trinity Choir is excellent, having made a splash recently at the Korean Presbyterian Conference music festival.  One of the growing connections between the English and Korean ministries at PPC is when the two chancel choirs join voices. 

I appreciated the Trinity Choir especially as they sang after the prayer of confession.  The melody and their voices expressed the gracious mercy of God in a lovely way.  But I was especially happy to hear an offertory solo by the choir director, Kayla Kim, who has a transcendent voice.  I confess that there have been times when I am thankful for beautiful music to follow the sermon, so that if the gospel isn’t heard through my faulty preaching, at least the folks will experience the awe of the glory of the Lord through the music! 

The days of the “worship wars” seems to have passed away some, for which I am very glad.  I do believe that the best explanation for the conflicts over worship music is the great power of music to touch our souls in ways that words cannot.  In our rather word-heavy Reformed worship style, music is often the only times our worship reaches beyond the intellect.  For myself, I would hate to limit our worship life to any single approach to music.  Instead, as with different approaches to preaching, the music we sing must serve to support and communicate the gospel for each particular context.  Just as language helps or hinders the understanding of the gospel message, so can music take us more deeply into worship, or confound or distract us from our focus on the Lord.

As we look ahead to the holidays, I expect that many of our churches will express our thanksgiving, Advent expectations, and Christmas joy through music.  Thank God for the blessed opportunity to join our voices with all the earth, the lyre and the horn, the sea and the hills, as we sing praises to our God!

And please continue to pray for Twila French, who is working from home during her recovery from knee replacement surgery that is more painful than was anticipated.  (Karen Berns is also having this surgery, so I pray that her recovery is not too painful.)  And prayers for Mark Carlson, who lost his mother this last week.  Mark and Catharine have been visiting her in New York state, and I am thankful that he has been able to see her several times in her last years.

Blessings,

Wendy

 

Reflection: Pentecost, San Gabriel Style

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.   

Acts 2:4

First, let me share some news of the community:

  • We heard that Rev. Tom Duggan passed away last Monday night.  The celebration of his life is tentatively scheduled for December 6th at Pilgrim Place in Claremont.  Our hearts are saddened, and our prayers for comfort and peace are raised for Gail and Tom’s family and many friends.  I happened to see Gail at Claremont a few weeks ago, and she shared that Tom was aware that his time on earth was coming to a close, but it’s not easy for the family who are left behind.
  • Yesterday Pasadena Presbyterian showed their appreciation for the ministry of Rev. Dongwoo Lee, who is leaving his position as pastor of the Korean Language Ministry.  In his ministry at PPC, he introduced great new ideas for outreach, welcomed several new young families to KLM, hired some wonderful staff, and demonstrated how PPC’s leadership can work together across the language ministries.  This was poignantly demonstrated as most of the Korean members left, and several Latino members came to say good-bye, and circled him with prayer.  Dongwoo will now be able to return to his PhD studies, which he could not maintain in the midst of a busy pastor’s duties.
  • Last Wednesday Twila got a shiny new knee, and has been resting at home.  If you are reading this, it means that she is back at work.  However she will be working from home for the next two weeks, so if you want to reach her, best to do so by email.  She plans to be back in the Temple City office November 12th.

The last news item is to report the installation of Rev. KokThai “KT” Lim at Grace Taiwanese Presbyterian Church.  It was a joyous time for the church and for KT, and as I’ve been saying for a few months now, it is nothing short of a miracle that we have faithful, qualified, young pastors in all of our Taiwanese churches.  Thanks to God and our churches and Rev. Mei-Hui Lai, who until this year was the national staff person for Asian congregations in the PC(USA).  Mei-Hui did a huge amount of work for us, most notably helping to recruit pastors for our churches, introducing us to Pipi Dhali of GKI-LA, and even acting as moderator of session for Grace Taiwanese.  Now that Mei-Hui has retired, her successor is our own Rev. Ralph Su.  I was saddened to hear that Ralph was asked to work out of the Louisville office, though half of the churches he supports are on the West Coast—but since his family are still here, we still get to see him once in a while.

As you know, ordinations and installations are the responsibility of Presbytery, so the services are led by members elected by Presbytery.  For KT’s installation, the Presbytery elected Moderator Rev. Roberto Ramirez, Elders Ihab Beblawi and Lilian Chuang, and Revs. Ralph Su and myself.  I was asked to give the charge to the pastor, and I started by apologizing for my linguistic shortcoming.  I was grateful that KT speaks perfect English, and he was the audience for my words.

I then noted that if our commission spoke their mother tongues, our service would have been in Taiwanese, English, Arabic, and Spanish (perhaps with a little Filipino and Mandarin thrown in).  But we worshiped in the dominant language of the Presbytery, and the dominant language of the Congregation, settling on English and Taiwanese.

As always, the service was supported by many of our Taiwanese pastors from San Gabriel and neighboring presbyteries, including Grace’s founding pastor, Rev. Shui-Teng Chen.  Rev. Chen has had some health issues recently, so I was glad to see him looking well.  Knowing that he speaks Japanese, somehow one of the few Japanese words I know came to me, saying “Genki desu” (my garbled way of saying “you look healthy/fine”).  He then launched into conversation in Japanese, which led me to another phrase that I use quite often, “Wakarimasen” (I don’t understand).  He didn’t hear me, so one of the Grace members had to tell him in Taiwanese that I don’t really speak Japanese.  She then explained he was expressing how grateful he was that Grace has been able to find a new pastor.  Because Rev. Chen doesn’t speak much English, he then simply said to me “Thank you very much.”

I am grateful that in our network of churches we have leaders who speak many languages, so we can better relate to and support all of our churches.  I have bragged that our COM speaks seven languages.  Though we are missing Thai, Cantonese, and Indonesian, this means we can communicate with most of our churches in their main language.

So we in San Gabriel are a glimpse of today’s Pentecost church, because the ability to speak many languages has already been demonstrated.   But even with language ability, we know that there is more to becoming one body of Christ than linguistics—as one colleague put it, “it’s more than a vocabulary exam.”  Because of my work in the Presbytery, I have been blessed with hearing many inspiring stories of faith from countries around the world, and seeing many ways Presbyterians “do church.”  My hope is that we will find ways for our church members to connect with each other, so that our faith lives are enriched by learning more about God’s work in the lives of people of many different cultures.

Happy All Saints Day this Friday.  May we all take a moment to give thanks for our ancestors who helped bring us here—our ancestors of family and culture, and our ancestors in the faith.

Blessings,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Learning about China

I am writing you from Baltimore, where our Stated Clerk Diane Frasher and I are attending the Mid-Council Leaders Gathering in anticipation of GA224 next June.  It looks like it might be a fairly quiet GA; there don’t seem to be many big issues percolating but who knows what might arise in the next 8 months.

This event (which used to be called the Polity Conference, an annual meeting of the Office of the General Assembly) is now co-sponsored by the Board of Pensions.  So some of us were able to thank Clayton Cobb, who is retiring this month as our regional consultant, and to greet Rev. Kristin Leucht as our new regional consultant.  Kristin is our neighbor, as she has served for over 20 years in various pastoral positions with La Canada Presbyterian Church.  Kristin’s email is kleucht@pensions.org, and her work cell is 267-815-1329.  She will be coming to a Presbytery meeting soon to meet us.

But for me personally, the most interesting event happened on the day I left for Baltimore.  Karen Sapio and I were invited to meet with the Foundation for Theological Education in South East Asia (FTESEA), who was hosting representatives from the China Christian Council (CCC).  FTESEA is supported by ten mainline denominations, two in Canada (the Presbyterian and United Church of Canada) and eight in the United States (the “Seven Sisters” and the Reformed Church in America).  The China Christian Council is the main Protestant institution in the People’s Republic of China.

One of the legacies of the Church Missionary Society and ABCFM is the CCC’s partner “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”  This is the Chinese application of three principles of self-governance, self-support (i.e., financial independence from foreigners), and self-propagation (i.e., indigenous missionary work) for the establishment of indigenous, or local, churches in what were considered overseas mission fields.  The CCC’s relationship with the Chinese government emphasizes this approach, as the government is obviously concerned with unwelcome influence from Western nations, perpetrated through Western missionaries.  It has been unfortunate when Western missionaries became conscious or unwitting agents in suppressing the self-determination of non-Western peoples.

This three-self identity of the Chinese indigenous church extends into attempts to articulate and teach the Christian faith in authentically and distinctively Chinese ways.  With this helpful approach, and in its relationship with the state, the CCC (and Nanjing Union Theological Seminary) reminded me greatly of the opportunity when Karen Sapio and I were invited to Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cuba.

So Karen and I found ourselves meeting with these Christian church leaders from another Communist country, with other ecumenical partners.  In the midst of the meeting I noticed that I was the only person who used the term “Mainland China”—everyone else simply said “China.”  No one said anything, but during lunch I spoke with the Episcopal representative about my professor who served as the theological adviser to the Anglican Archbishop in Hong Kong.

I asked the Episcopal official about the relationship between the Anglican church in Hong Kong and mainland China, and the official said in a rather pointed way, “there is no relationship; we are ONE CHINA.”  I was a bit puzzled and asked him to clarify; he stated again “there is One China, which includes Hong Kong.”  I said “you must talk to different people than I do,” and he responded with what seemed to me to be a “look.”

Karen and I went to sit with the person who spoke English the best, and learned a great deal about Christianity on the mainland—the fact that they do not have denominations and resist attempts to assert denominational identities, the connections between Confucian thought and the church in China, and the impact of the growth of urbanization, individualism, and materialism in today’s China, including the impact of the “one-child” policy that resulted in generations of young adults who were the protected center of their parents’ lives.  This is amplified because virtually all pastors have been born after the Cultural Revolution, so all they know is the last few decades of cultural and economic development.

Obviously there is too much to discuss in this column, but the epilogue occurred here in Baltimore.  Mienda Uriarte, our area coordinator for Asia with World Mission, told me that the PC(USA) and CCC have experienced some tension over the CCC’s assertion of the One China policy.  Because of our strong relationship with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, we cannot ignore the desire for sovereignty or at least some local identity for the Taiwanese (or, for that matter, the people of Hong Kong).  This has resulted in a stalemate of sorts, as the CCC representatives would like the PC(USA) to either leave the Taiwanese behind or report to the CCC who we are meeting with in Taiwan.

Whenever I think of God’s dream for the nations of the world, I think about how God chose to bring salvation through a small child in a small town in a small and relatively powerless nation, and because of that, we Presbyterians have stood with small nations as they attempt to defend their rights against the forces of empire through the centuries.  As I lived in Hawaii, I came to appreciate the outsized impact of aloha that comes through that very small island nation that has been absorbed by the empire of the United States—and yet they strive to retain their distinctive culture, which I think is universally considered to be a gift to the world.

May we pray for all the peoples of the world, especially those whose identity and even their lives are being threatened by the forces of aggression and domination.  And may we, even we who are citizens of the empire, appreciate and defend the gifts of the small nations of the world.

Peace,
Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Learning from Our Ancestors

Rehoboam answered the people harshly.  He disregarded the advice that the older men had given him and spoke to them according to the advice of the young men.

Ephesians 4:15-16

Some of you know that the Presbyterian Planning Calendar prints readings each Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the three-year cycle of Bible readings that unite churches in worship all over the world, as we read and hear proclaimed the same Scripture lessons on the same days of our Lord.  The Revised Common Lectionary, or RCL, has its roots in the Roman Catholic Lectionary, but was adapted for Protestant churches such as Lutheran, Episcopal, Congregationalist, and of course Presbyterian.  If you want to follow the lectionary, Vanderbilt Divinity School has the best website on it at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//

Recently I came across an amusing article on the shortcomings of the RCL, and about the same time I fell upon a website for The African-American Lectionary (though it seems to have stopped after developing six years of readings).  This lectionary, which has been developed by a distinguished group of African-American Christian leaders and scholars, connects Scripture readings with events that are significant to African-American Christians.  It can be found at http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/readings.asp

One church now follows the Narrative Lectionary, which was developed at Luther Seminary, which not surprisingly is the largest Lutheran seminary in the United States.  It attempts to address some concerns with the RCL, for instance being a four-year cycle so that each of the four Gospels can have its own year.  It also provides much more emphasis on the Old Testament, partially to reflect the fact that the bulk of the biblical text is in the Old Testament.  As it is, the RCL also expanded the Old Testament coverage from the Catholic lectionary.

For those who are bored with or concerned about shortcomings in the RCL, the Narrative Lectionary is quite a change of pace.  In fact, I don’t like it!  Change is so hard.  But if you’re curious, the Narrative Lectionary can be found at workingpreacher.org, which also has the RCL.

Why all this preacher geekiness?  For some reason I’m being asked to preach a lot this fall, including at the church that asked that I use the Narrative Lectionary.  I found that the fall readings focus on telling the Old Testament story, and the reading about Rehoboam comes up later this month.  I have also been thinking a lot about All Saints Day, and how much I love that day, and the Communion of the Saints (as I always say, we Japanese love our dead people).  And it occurred to me recently how much—virtually all—of what I do is my simple application of what my family taught me growing up. 

Maybe that makes me a “good girl,” and some will say that I have been blessed with an extraordinary family, but the unfortunate story of Solomon’s son and successor Rehoboam tells the hard and universal lesson that there is wisdom in experience, and there is wisdom in heeding the advice of our elders and the stories of our ancestors—and we dismiss that wisdom at our own peril.

This last week, we have heard of tragic events that can happen if we fail to learn from history.  The world is now hearing of the casualties and terror arising from the abrupt withdrawal of US military personnel from Syria, leaving the Kurdish people to attempt to defend themselves against the Turkish military, which is larger and more powerful than the Kurds.  This seems to be a repeat of the prior administration’s action, or inaction, that left the Kurds to lose thousands of their lives in the fight against ISIS.

Closer to home, the mounting number of fatal shootings of innocent African-Americans by white police officers continues to become even more bewildering.  I feel for the neighbor of Atatiana Jefferson, who phoned the police to ask for a welfare check on the home where Ms. Jefferson was staying to take care of her ailing mother.  That welfare check resulted in a police officer shooting into the window of the house, killing Ms. Jefferson in front of her 8-year-old nephew.  This happened in Forth Worth, Texas, two weeks after the conviction of Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot Botham Jean as he watched television in his own apartment.

Even non-believers have appreciated the Bible as the story of a people, and these stories of God’s relationship with our spiritual ancestors are an immeasurable gift for us as we learn about God’s love for us, our failures to be faithful, and God’s mercy shown to us in the life-giving grace of Jesus Christ.  As with the young ruler Rehoboam, our failure in heeding the grace and wisdom of those who come before us can lead to tragedy, whether it be the division of the ancient kingdom of Israel, continued violence in the Middle East and wherever ISIS might strike, or more innocents sacrificed in a society steeped in racial fear and weaponry.

As the old adage goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.  We are gifted with the stories of our spiritual and cultural ancestors, and the sure knowledge of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Even in times of change, may we learn from our past, and with deep roots of faith grow to face the future with confidence and agility.

And let us pray for mercy for those who are caught in the crosshairs of violence when the wisdom of our elders is ignored.

Peace,

Wendy