The End of the World

The End of the World

So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:22

We are entering into Holy Week, and I have never felt the emotions of this week more than now.  There have been many parallels between the experience of Jesus’ disciples and our own lives in this time of Coronavirus. 

Now some of the symmetry might be in opposites as well.  The disciples were living their own lives, for good or for bad, until Jesus appeared and disrupted their lives with grace and challenge—telling them to leave their homes and families, and they witnessed amazing signs and wonders in this new life.  But then, things went terribly wrong when their leader was arrested and executed, and they were gripped with fear and confusion as their dreams were crushed.  Even though they were sure they were doing the right thing, the world seemed to stop when their savior died on the cross.

We were living our own lives, for good or for bad, until Coronavirus appeared and disrupted our lives with menacing challenge.  We were told to stay in our homes and families, yet through our faith and thanks to technology we witnessed some amazing signs in this new way of doing worship and caring for each other.  But now, we look ahead to a week when we are warned that there will be “a lot of death,” the worst week that we will have experienced in our lifetime.  We hear about the horrors of death and overwhelmed hospitals, and we are gripped with fear and confusion as millions of people lose their jobs, children lose their schools, trips are cancelled, and we have no idea how long this will last or whether we will be hit by the virus.  Even though we are trying to do the right thing, we are coming to the realization that even as we get through this crisis, it is likely that the world as we know it will never be the same.

When this crisis began, I noticed how folks responded to the situation in their own way, depending on their particular backup behaviors, and that was actually a good thing, because we could help each other through this.  I would liken it to grief, and how we all grieve in our own way, and we can’t and shouldn’t expect people to grieve along our own timelines.  A friend suggested that in fact we ARE experiencing grief now.  Some people have had their dreams stopped—lives lost, graduation ceremonies cancelled, restaurants closed down.  But for all of us, we wonder how we will be changed permanently by this forced and sudden world coma.  When we come out of it—and we have no idea how long it will last—what will we wake up to?

So in some ways we are more like Jesus’ disciples this Holy Week than in most years.  So much of life as we knew it has been taken away, and we don’t know what it will look like when the virus passes.  The trust we put into the pillars of our lives—the economy, the government, the healthcare system—has been sorely tested if not destroyed.  And the terror we see is unlike anything we have experienced, so we have few historical precedents to learn from.

But we are also like Jesus’ disciples in that we have been given signs of hope.  Jesus has told us that there is new life, which requires the end of old life.  Jesus has warned us that there will be suffering, but he also promised that he will protect us, and ask God to give us the Holy Spirit, and he offers us peace.  And Jesus gave us a job to do:  to love one another, just as Jesus loves us—which means we love until the end, and love never fails.

Even as we walk this very cold, rainy, menacing week—even as we know that when that first Good Friday came, the world did come to an end—may we also remember the promises of hope, and peace, and new life that have been told and shown to us our whole lives.  Let us remember that the rain brings green and protects us from drought and fire, which were recent cause for fear.  Let us love one another, and learn new compassion, as our energy dips and our tensions rise as the monotony of this homebound life sets in.

And most of all, let us hold on to our loving God, and give thanks with our whole lives to Christ who gave up his life for us.  And may we be open to the healing balm of the Holy Spirit, even as we are reminded of the frail mortality of our physical bodies.  As we continue to love and care for each other in spirit, not in physical proximity, as we yearn for reminders of Christ’s resurrection and ours, we declare—with confidence and conviction!—the words of brother Paul:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
      Where, O death, is your sting?”          1 Corinthians 15:54-55

As we walk this Via Dolorosa along with our Lord, let us never doubt that the power and wisdom of our God is bigger than anything we will face.  May the life-giving love of Christ infect your hearts and heal your minds and bodies, now and always.

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy

 

 

Terror and Amazement

Terror and Amazement

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said
nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:8

We are in a season when pastors would normally comment on the challenge of preaching on Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s hard to get the congregation to grasp the extent of fear that gripped Jesus’ disciples those three days, when Jesus was arrested, executed, and then his body disappeared from the tomb. It’s hard for us to experience that level of fear because we’ve heard the happy ending so many times, we can emotionally skate over Good Friday and even Easter sunrise, because we think we know what it all means.

We might even critique those silly disciples, they of little faith. As often as Jesus attempted to warn his friends about his death and resurrection, when confronted with unprecedented and disorienting tragedy, their faith failed them. They didn’t see the shadow of the cross on Palm Sunday; they didn’t have to come up with creative ways to evoke the shock and horror they lived through when seeing Jesus writhing in pain on the cross; they didn’t wake up before dawn thinking about the pancakes they will eat after a sunrise worship service. They lived through that last week in Jerusalem, with every day, sometimes every hour, revealing one confusing experience after another.

It occurred to me this last week that we might learn a little empathy for the disciples, as we are living through unprecedented and disorienting times of our own. This surreal, virtual life we are all managing from our homes, afraid to see anyone or touch anything, with new tragedies popping up overnight first in China, then in Seattle, then in Italy and Spain and New York City and New Orleans and Detroit—and here in LA. And now we are being told that 100,000 Americans might die in the coming weeks—and that would be a good thing, because the alternative is 2,000,000 dead Americans. At this moment, with 2,500 having passed away in the US, can we really believe all that death is before us? On the other hand, can we fully accept that it was only a month ago when the very first American passed away of this mystery disease?

But some of us do have faith that this will blow over. It will be horrible, but it won’t be forever; in our case it might be a matter of months, which isn’t that long, really. Can we ride through these very choppy rapids without panicking, trusting that we will come out of the rapids, perhaps changed but for the most part alive?

And here’s one more parallel with the Easter story—when Jesus rises from the dead, when we do see that happy ending, does that mean we go back to life the way we always knew it, or will the world never be the same?

Some of us are seeing hints that life will not go back to “normal” once this horror has passed. We are seeing glimpses of things that never occurred to us, or we didn’t think possible before. Jeff O’Grady told the people of San Marino that by streaming worship, people with disabilities who didn’t feel comfortable coming into the sanctuary before can now join on equal footing with everyone else. Puente de Esperanza’s Facebook worship attracts and connects people from many nations, and is reaching more people than they would see on a typical Sunday morning. Taiwanese churches join together every Sunday for one joint worship, with leadership coming from multiple different pastors and congregations. And I get to more fully experience the rich ministry of San Gabriel Presbytery, as in one day I can join worship held in Arabic, Taiwanese, Spanish, and English, all without leaving my home or our presbytery family. Truly this crisis has sparked more creativity in the old mainline church than I think I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.

This has also tested the way we relate to church finances and stewardship. Many if not most churches automatically assumed their offerings would evaporate, perhaps forever. I don’t yet know what will happen, during this alone-together time, or once we are able to gather again. I do know, and am so grateful to be able to announce, that the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii is offering financial help for presbyteries to help our churches weather this storm, up to $150,000 for each presbytery. Our Presbytery Executive Commission is meeting tomorrow night to discuss how we will implement this, so keep tuning in.

And I have noticed that we can invite people to give in different ways, and the churches who figure out how to make it easier for their people to give, will likely be able to continue to receive offerings far into the future. Just make sure you let folks know, like for One Great Hour of Sharing:

And I also noticed that it’s easier to ask people to remember to give to someone else’s church, so just as Paul asked for funds for the saints in Jerusalem, just as the Taiwanese joint service urged attendees to remember to continue supporting their own congregations, I can urge you to continue to show your faith and gratitude by continuing to give to your church, even during this quiet time. You can even give to the Presbytery of San Gabriel and some key missions of the Presbytery, as we have also streamlined our own online giving portal, at https://sangabpres.org/donate/.

Some of us are also trying to figure out how the Federal government’s recent bill can help our churches. We have posted some information on our website, and continue to listen to webinars and find other resources. But if in fact this is a temporary stall, then depending on the amount of funds you need, it may not be worth the trouble, but you can certainly try, with the forgivable loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA), or worst-case working with the State Employment Development Department (EDD) on cost sharing for staff if your church cannot afford your payroll. But I would ask that you contact me before you lay anyone off.

One final note: as the stress of this uncertainty creeps up, and as you are unexpectedly cooped up with your family and the only place you can act out your frustration is at home, as this situation pushes different buttons in each of us, I ask you to pay attention to your spiritual and emotional concerns, and to reach out if your stress is becoming a gathering storm. My first full-time job was with a battered women’s agency, and we knew that Christmas holidays usually led to increases in domestic violence, mostly because everyone’s in the house. Already two pastors have mentioned family tensions they had to deal with, and I want you to know that domestic violence services are continuing as usual.

We have information on the Board of Pensions’ counseling network (where members and/or family can get 6 free sessions), as well as the names of counselors in our San Gabriel family who are willing to take a call from pastors, and will help identify a referral. It’s all on the sangabpres.org website.

So is it OK to be afraid? Yes. Will there be an end to this confusing time? Yes. Will we soon go back to the way things used to be? Probably not. Will there be help, and companions on the way? Yes. Will God continue to provide for us and save us, as God has always done? Yes. Are we able, through the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in many ways, and perhaps in new ways that will reach broken people who didn’t think the church would welcome them? Yes, by the grace of God, yes.

May this season of confusion and creativity, even of terror and amazement, give birth to a new awareness—of the living Christ in our churches, of the abundant blessings God has in store for us as we seek to serve, and of the gifts that arise among us as we work together for the gospel, as the one body of Christ. May we have eyes to see the risen Christ in our midst, now and always.

In Christ we live and love,

Wendy

 

 

 

Disruption: Cookies and Toilet Paper

Disruption: Cookies and Toilet Paper

Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Mark 1:13

With all the overload of ever-changing data about the Coronavirus, I sometimes forget that we are still in Lent, which if you think about it is the perfect season for this time.

As you probably know, Lent has been styled after the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Now Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of this time in the wilderness involved fasting and multiple tests presented by Satan. But Mark simply gives this short reference, with the intriguing comment that “the angels waited on him.”

Personally I have often thought of Lent as a time of holy disruption—we change our habits (usually by fasting from something familiar or dear to us) which wakes us up to the things we take for granted. When our comfort zone is disturbed, we often become more aware of our need for God—and God’s ever-present care for us, even when we are out in our own wilderness.

This time of physical separation has truly been a time of disruption. I would call it holy, except I don’t want to forget the suffering of the thousands who have contracted the virus, those who have died, and those who do not understand why their families are no longer visiting them. But my colleague in San José Presbytery reminded me of the ethos in Silicon Valley, which sees value in disruption. “Disruption” is the flip side of “breakthrough”—and we all know how breakthroughs in technology have impacted our lives in so many ways. Another lesson from my days in Silicon Valley is the value of failure, the flip side of learning and creativity. In pursuit of breakthroughs, mistakes get made, and clumsy early examples of new technology are celebrated, because they help us to learn, and adjust, and refine rough ideas into something many of us can use.

I have to confess that this time at home is not really a disruption for me. Since my natural tendency is that of a hermit, this has been a time of peace and rest for me. But I know that as with grief, there are multiple ways people are reacting to this disruption. Some folks—pastors included—have gone into overdrive, especially as our churches find ways to stay connected, care for those who are struggling, and find ways to worship, by any means necessary.

What I found on Sunday morning is an explosion of creativity. Even with shifting rules—the churches who did a great job livestreaming on Facebook last week now had to figure out how to lead worship from their respective homes—several of our churches have shown anew what it means to be church.

This disruption strips us down to the question: what constitutes worship? Several churches offered truly beautiful, meaningful on-line worship experiences. La Verne Heights takes advantage of the fact you can pause (and repeat) at points during the service. Churches like Claremont and Knox are holding prayer times throughout the week. Iglesia de la Comunidad committed to continue their food pantry, serving over 150 neighbors last week—and Pasadena is also continuing their ministry with the homeless. Deacons at West Covina and Westminster Temple City are calling church members weekly or daily. Sessions are meeting weekly to keep up with the needs of the church. Church members are posting prayer concerns on Facebook. At one church, who was trying a Zoom-based worship service for the first time (which means it didn’t go exactly smoothly), it was shared that one member posted on Facebook that she couldn’t find toilet paper, so another member dropped off a package of toilet paper—and cookies.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones responding to this crisis with creativity, compassion, and hope. You probably heard about the Choir Festival of the Chino Valley Unified School District getting cancelled, leading the kids to become world-famous through their on-line alone-together performance. And as I mentioned, not every attempt was totally smooth, which made it all the more real and engaging for me. I can’t tell you how inspired, uplifted, and yes sinfully proud I was in worshiping with many of you. And, by the way, this is opening your ministries up to those who might not make it into your sanctuary; I have heard that MEC, Westminster Temple City, and Claremont are now reaching folks they do not see in person on Sunday mornings.

I was planning to write this Monday about using this time to rest in the care of our Lord—and I would still suggest that whether you are slowing down or revving up during this disruption, please be gentle with yourselves and each other, and know that God will be there no matter how you worship and pray. But now I just want to say thank you for revealing your hearts full of worship, and for letting the Holy Spirit work through you in all sorts of ways!

In Christ we live and love,
Wendy

 

 

Coronavirus: A New Kind of Lenten Fast

Coronavirus: A New Kind of Lenten Fast

The Lord said to Moses:  You yourself are to speak to the Israelites:  “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.”

Exodus 31:12-13

It seems an eternity ago that we sent an update to churches on living in the age of Coronavirus (it was Friday).  If you missed it, you can read it HERE, as most of the information is still relevant.

But we receive news just about every hour, with increasingly more stringent guidelines.  Apparently there will be even more guidelines issued today, but as of last night, the latest message came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which “recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”  Additional comments from health officials include recommendations that people of all ages avoid physical contact and cancel elective air travel as much as possible; the city of Los Angeles is ordering all restaurants be closed except for takeout or delivery, as well as bars, gyms, and theatres.

This all seems extreme, especially as Southern California has seen relatively few cases—69 as of yesterday, though every day the number of cases is increasing exponentially.  Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti addressed this well, though.  He said that of the tests taken in LA, 75% of the public tests were negative, and 96% of those who got tests through private medical facilities were found to be negative—evidence of the “worried well” among us.  But even so, the time to take action is now, even if it feels early.  If we wait until there’s a problem, he said, that’s too late, since the disease can be transmitted before people even realize they are sick.

So we are all in a fast of sorts—fasting from going out to eat, fasting from visits to our beloved senior citizens, even fasting from gathering in worship.  As I contemplated this sudden interruption in our very busy lives, it occurred to me that this is an opportunity for us to take a sabbath mentality, relying on God’s providence rather than trying to do everything ourselves.  It is also an opportunity to sacrifice our own activities in order to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to find new (old) ways to reach out to loved ones, such as using the phone or snail mail to send a card or two.

Many of our churches decided to curtail in-person worship services for the rest of March.  But since the recent CDC guidelines go to at least MAY 15th, I would recommend all sessions consider how you will bear witness to the Resurrection without gathering in person.  We are trying to be helpful by offering tips on livestreaming your worship service; there are several platforms but perhaps the simplest and most accessible is Facebook’s livestreaming feature.  To get started with live-streaming click here for a helpful article. For some help thinking through how to plan worship services like this read this Sojourner’s article here.

I have to say, it was kind of fun surfing on-line worship services yesterday!  I managed to attend three services, roughly simultaneously—all in my nightgown.  Not only was it an opportunity to touch base with folks far away (it was Josey Saez Acevedo who invited me to Claremont’s service—from the Dominican Republic!) or folks I haven’t seen for a long time (from Immanuel in Los Angeles, my internship church from 23 years ago).  It also showed me a bit of what God hears on Sunday mornings—I’ve often wondered what that’s like, having all sorts of people praising and singing at the same time.  What surprised me was how lovely it was—one church seemed to sing a lot, so they often were the musical backdrop for the prayers and preaching of the other churches!

Based on my limited experiences, here are a few observations on livestreaming:

  1. Make it easy for folks to find you. The best was an email that included a link to their Facebook page, and the time when they went “live.”  Of course, it’s also great to have the link on your church website.
  2. Have good humor about it—one church somehow put their phone at an angle so the picture was sideways! And monitor the comments, which can be poignant and hilarious.  Knox Pasadena did great as always, with many folks and families on-line, including Bryce Little and Tod Bolsinger, and I was able to relay a prayer request for retired pastor Dan Newhall to Immanuel’s prayer time.
  3. People don’t need Facebook to view the livestream, but if they do have FB, they can add to the comments—which means if you account for the lag time, people can send in prayer requests! You will need Facebook and access to the internet (wonder if using the phone as a hotspot would work?), as well as a smart phone and tripod.
  4. Claremont did a “hybrid” service, which means there was a congregation on-site in addition to the Facebook participants—it felt nice to hear the responses of other worshipers (especially the kid who squealed with delight hearing Karen Sapio say “toilet paper” in church!). That might defeat the purpose of social distancing, but since most churches have at least a few people on-site to lead worship, perhaps at least they can be near the microphone.
  5. The sound—even when just using an iPhone—is surprisingly good, especially for your first time, but there are ways to improve it, either with an added mic (one church got a good price and advice from Samy’s Camera, and even a church discount), or by tapping into your sound system.
  6. If you haven’t signed up for online giving yet (or even if you have), you might consider registering as a non-profit with Paypal—they don’t charge a service fee, donors can use credit cards and even Paypal credit (for $100 or more), and they even issue tax-exemption letters on your behalf (you will get information on the donors unless they ask to be anonymous).

MARCH 17th CONFERENCE CALL

Tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17 at 10:00 am, you are invited to join a conference call to share questions, concerns, ideas, and best practices with sister churches.  If you have questions, you can call Ally Lee at 626.614.5964.

  • Click here for the details on joining the ZOOM call.
  • Click here for a video on how to join a ZOOM call.

MARCH 28th PRESBYTERY MEETING

Over the weekend, the Presbytery Executive Commission voted to cancel the stated Presbytery meeting scheduled for March 28th at Korean Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church.  We will have to enjoy their hospitality—and great Korean food—at a later date.  In the meantime, the PEC will schedule a special meeting to take any needed actions.  The only substantive, time-sensitive actions anticipated are to concur with two General Assembly overtures:

Last week I referenced the overture on the Philippines, and if time allows, I will speak to the overture for ministry with veterans next week.

WHERE’S THE PRESBYTERY STAFF?

Finally, I was scheduled to be on vacation this week.  Though I have decided not to travel, I will be trying to take the time to rest and do some housework.  And I suggested to Ally that she work from home, which she will be doing—but you can always call or email her, and if you need to see her or go by the office, just check in with her and she’ll arrange for it.  For the time being, we will hold future meetings via Zoom, and will plan to have this capability for our May 30th Presbytery meeting if needed.

As we consider life at home, may this be a time when we can be gentle with each other—and care for those who are most vulnerable, in body or in shelter.

Peace,
Wendy

 

 

Caring for Our Communities in Response to COVID-19

Caring for Our Communities in Response to COVID-19

Dear San Gabriel Presbytery family,

This has been a stressful and confusing time as we all try to come to terms
with the rapidly-changing guidelines regarding Coronavirus. The current
thinking is for all of us to sacrifice our busy lifestyles for the continued
health of our community, especially those who are most vulnerable. To that
end, and since we cannot know who is carrying the virus and thus risking
spreading it, it is important to consider how to restrict direct interaction
with others as much as possible, at least for the next month or so.
This weekend the Presbytery Executive Commission is considering whether
to cancel the March 28th Presbytery meeting; if so, we will announce in the
Monday Morning Update.

Please consider the following for your churches:

  1. Whatever you do, please consider the elderly (65 and older) and
    those with compromised health (heart and lung problems, diabetes,
    those taking medication that suppresses immunity or have
    compromised immunity). This means not only limiting physical
    exposure, but making phone calls and other ways to make sure they
    do not feel forgotten.
  2. The State of California has limited gatherings of over 250, and the
    City of Los Angeles is warning against gatherings in confined spaces
    of over 50. Remember to keep at least 6 feet away from each other
    when possible, and wash your hands whenever you can.
  3. For many of our churches, in-person worship is being curtailed, as
    well as most meetings. Several sessions are deciding to suspend inperson
    worship for Lent; others are looking for other ways to pray
    together by phone or email; others are still offering in-person
    worship but adding livestreaming and strongly encouraging people
    to stay home and joining via livestream. Click HERE for information
    on livestreaming (midway through the article).
  4. Many churches are suspending communion (or having only servers
    handle the elements and using individual cups), and offering plates
    should not be passed from person to person.
  5. Please look for ways to help others who are being more severely
    impacted. Make sure your church’s staff are not penalized for taking
    sick leave. Consider ways your church can support families with
    children whose schools have shut down, or elders who are isolated or
    worried about their retirement communities. Pray for and seek ways
    to help the most vulnerable neighbors, such as the homeless.
  6. Consider offering online giving for those who want to continue
    regular tithing. Your bank may offer an option for online giving or
    you might choose to use Paypal. Also, the Presbyterian Foundation
    can help you set up online giving.

MORE INFORMATION is available through the attached resources and
links. LA County has a section with resources in many languages, including
Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, etc. Go to
http://www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/Coronavirus/, scroll down
to “Information For” and click “Other Specific Audiences,” which includes
“Faith Based Organizations.”

JOIN US FOR A GROUP CONFERENCE CALL on Tuesday, March 17 at
10:00 am to share questions, concerns, ideas, and best practices with sister
churches.

Click here for the details on the ZOOM call.
Click here for a video on how to join a ZOOM call.

Blessings and constant prayers of thanksgiving and concern for your
caring leadership.

Wendy

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Guidance for Faith Based Organizations

PC(USA) Resources for Churches Coronavirus: Faith, Not Fear