Sin

Sin

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,

Wendy

 

Languages

Languages

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,

Wendy

 

Worship

Worship

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
     I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

Psalm 146:1-7

Last week I mentioned the challenge of attempting to follow the guidance from multiple levels of government and public health officials as they learn about the Coronavirus, and apply their guidance to our communities of faith. This last Friday, the President of the United States added his voice to the discussion about worship by asserting that governors do not have the right to prohibit in-person worship gatherings.

Of course, by the same token the President does not have the right to force churches to participate in a style of worship that would endanger not only members, but our neighbors with whom we are in relationship. We enjoy the rights of freedom of religion, which means that our churches decide for themselves how to practice their faith. Most of our churches have continued in worship in new, creative ways—ways that are not only faithful, but enlightening and illustrative of how our old ways of worship may have been lacking. It’s as if we had an instant Reformation, a revolution of evangelism that showed us that the Holy Spirit is very much alive and powerful, enabling our pastors and church leaders to adapt to sudden changes that we never anticipated.

Not that it’s been easy! A few days ago, I found myself fantasizing how easy it would be to be able to walk into a sanctuary, get behind a microphone in a pulpit, and preach just like before. I recently heard that some church members have somehow, inexplicably, assumed that because a pastor is preaching on- line, their work was somehow greatly lessened. Nothing can be further from the truth. I have been amazed how our pastors sprung into action, fighting their own fears and anxieties about the uncertainty of the pandemic in order to recreate their church’s worship life, pastoral care system, and governance and church leadership processes overnight. In fact, before President Trump’s comments on Friday, I was set to write about the fear that many denominational church leaders share that our pastors will “crash” under this pressure. I was ready to recommend two short but insightful articles for pastors and those who love (or wonder about) them. To keep this reflection short and focused, I’m putting notes on this topic in a separate column called “Coronavirus Survival Guide for Pastors.”

Also, I have heard from a few of our retired pastors that they have grown weary of virtual worship. The sad thing is that even if in-person worship is reinstated, the churches are being encouraged to continue to provide virtual worship because it will still be considered unsafe for certain people, including retirees, to come into the sanctuary for worship.  In fact, just to be clear, we are posting the CDC’s listing of “people at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19”—and honestly I would not be surprised if the people who qualify constitute a majority of our membership! So I am grateful that we have creative and sensitive pastors who continue to share ideas on how to offer worship that is inclusive and meaningful to members whether they are at home or in the sanctuary.

However we worship, in our tradition it is the session of each congregation that guides the worship life of a church. But they do not do this in a vacuum. The Presbytery is expected to educate and guide sessions in their oversight of worship, of course the pastor is a Teaching Elder who offers wisdom and insight to the conversation, and we have the Directory for Worship which offers direction on how we Presbyterians understand and plan for worship. The Directory is rooted in Scripture, of course, as well as the Book of Confessions, which is the primary part of the Constitution of the PC(USA).

If you don’t want to read the latest version of the Constitution, or chase after the various public health orders, I have attempted to integrate the relevant guidelines and summarize them in a draft of a set of guidelines for San Gabriel Presbytery churches as you consider the requirements for opening up in- person worship. Please take a look and give me feedback, which can be used as the Presbytery leadership attempts to develop more formal guidelines, hopefully by the beginning of June.

My hope is that as sessions discern their future worship life, they do not forget the lessons learned in this forced experiment in worship that transcends buildings. To paraphrase an ecumenical leader, “Our faith is essential. Our buildings are not.” We have always asserted that the church is not the building, and worship can happen in all places, for wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is among us. In fact, I have recently been talking with folks about how this pandemic has brought worship back into our homes, breaking down the artificial division between our public faith, neatly compartmentalized away from our family life into one particular hour, in a separate building, with a professional worship leader, often with the children sent to a different space.

However we worship, wherever we worship, may we always remember the most important aspects of worship: to glorify God, to build up the church as the body of Christ, and to feel the free winds of the Holy Spirit that reaches all of God’s children, whether or not they are able to enter our church buildings. May our contemplation on the Word strengthen us to be Christ’s hands and heart on earth, not for our sakes, but for the people crying out for salvation.

Because we consider worship to be the work of the people, our Presbytery meetings are always set in the context of worship. So I look forward to worshiping with you, via Zoom, this Saturday.

Always connected in the Spirit,

Wendy

 

Rest

Rest

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

This last week I kind of hit a wall in the Coronavirus marathon.  (Yes, in case anyone is wondering, dealing with this pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint.)

Even as I begin this new week, I am still fatigued by the prior week.  Nothing bad, and in fact I’m trying to figure out what is tiring me the most.  It could be the fact that for the first time, the meeting schedule approached a pre-pandemic meeting schedule—and Zoom meetings exhaust me!  I don’t know why, but I know that three Zoom meetings in a day is my max.  It could be that I preached for the first time on Zoom, which wasn’t as traumatic as I feared, but still preaching does take time for preparation (more than many in the congregation realize!).

I’m also aware that leadership during this time of great uncertainty is tiring.  We all want to know what is ahead of us, and we would like advance notice so we can prepare for it.  The problem is, we don’t know what is ahead of us, and we certainly have no idea on the timeline for implementation.  We are all part of a huge game of dominos, and nearly all of us play some part in receiving and relaying the news.  It’s exhausting to keep tracking the news because others are seeking guidance from us, whether they are church members, children, employees, or friends.

Even the County officials shared how they are constrained by State regulations.  In fact, it was at a County telebriefing that I realized that Governor Newsom issued an update on May 7.  It seems that he, in turn, was responding to challenges from rural counties who were resisting the State plan for reopening which was given on April 28.  So Newsom allowed for a county to relax the State requirements, as long as they can attest to the following:

  • No COVID-19 deaths in the past 14 days
  • No more than 1 case per 10,000 people in the last 14 days
  • Minimum daily testing of 1.5 tests per 1,000 residents
  • At least 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents
  • County or regional hospital capacity to accommodate a minimum surge of 35%.

Just the first requirement is a show-stopper.  Los Angeles County has been averaging 40 or more deaths per day for several weeks.  But then Newsom hinted that the statewide limitations may be lifted sooner than we think.  Hence the exhaustion—mind-boggling statistics, followed by ever-changing messages.

As mentioned, the County is following State regulations, and we have to follow County regulations.  So the County pointed at the State when confirming that church services—even opening the church office or having any gathering (except for 12-step or therapeutic groups), indoors or outdoors—are classified as Stage 3. 

Even when the State allows in-person worship, there will be specific requirements that have to be met, including occupancy kept to 25-50%, easy access to hand sanitizer or handwashing stations, masks available if anyone arrives without one, proper physical distancing, regular cleaning of common areas, proper signage instructing people of the requirements, and—this one is new—registration of all attendees.  Church gatherings (including funerals and choir rehearsals) have been the source of several hotspots around the nation, so even when people are eventually allowed into gatherings in the building, the church will be expected to keep records of who attends, for possible contact tracing in case an attendee tests positive for the virus.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with the uncertainty, the new learnings we keep stumbling on (like now there may be a serious delayed response to the virus in children, in very rare cases), the new requirements, and the suspended grieving as we are unable to hold funerals as usual or visit with our ailing or elderly family members and friends. 

It’s times when we are overwhelmed that we can take comfort in remembering that all of this does not fall on our shoulders.  We have our place, but we are in the care and guidance of Jesus the Christ, who loves us more than we can understand.  We learn what we can, but our wisdom will never approach the wisdom of God, who sees this “marathon” through the lens of eternity.  And we have our power, but it is miniscule compared to the power of the Holy Spirit—power that comforts and heals, teaches and challenges and empowers. 

We are all going through this time of isolation and quiet, confusion and fear, in different ways and with different rhythms, so you may be in a very different place than I am this week.  That’s fine.  All I can suggest is that you’re all right.  Be gentle and forgiving with yourself, as Jesus is gentle and forgiving with you.  And remember that you can always let someone know if and when you need help.  Call your pastor, or friend, or me, or one of several hotlines if you need to talk or have questions.  Call 2-1-1 if you need help or a referral for a service, such as help with domestic violence questions, or if you’re a senior who would like nutritious meals delivered to your home each day through the “Great Plates Delivered” program.  That program is a perfect example of how your asking for help gives others (like underused restaurants) something to do!  So we’re all interconnected.

And if you’re looking for something to do, there are ways you can help—or get involved with singing for our May 30th Presbytery meeting!  Contact Jennifer Ackerman if you want to participate, and remember the sangabpres.org website is frequently updated with new resources.

Blessings to you.  In the words of the apostle Paul, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  (Ephesians 4:1b-3)

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy

 

Reflection: Reopening?

Reflection: Reopening?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

John 20:19

This last week nearly every state in the country has practiced some form of “reopening,” following its own set of phases and preconditions to determine the safest way to allow for more mobility and business interaction.  You can review the slide presentations for the State and the County.

I believe this has led to massive confusion.  Guidelines are developed state by state, sometimes by city and/or county, and they are not consistent.  I happened to go to an outdoor shopping area, to pick up some food at a very small takeout restaurant, who had two other customers, neither of whom were wearing masks.  Actually, I felt most uncomfortable with one customer who was “wearing” a mask, pulled down around his neck so that he could speak vociferously and constantly as he moved back and forth around the food counter, at one point almost bumping into me.

The State of California allows for some variance in county guidelines.  So, for instance, though the State allows for curbside retail business interactions, San Francisco does not.  Though the State hopes that schools and colleges and universities may welcome students back to the classroom by late summer or early fall as part of “Stage 2,” Los Angeles County is including schools as part of “Stage 3.”  And while the State lists FOUR phases, Los Angeles County lists FIVE—but on closer examination, it seems that “Stage 5” is simply the declaration of “fully normal operations,” whereas the State includes the opening of concerts, conventions, and live audience sports events as the “end of stay-at-home order.”

For churches, this has been confusing because, for instance, Los Angeles County does not mention in-person worship services.  However, the State does, as part of Stage 3, along with hair and nail salons and movie theaters.  Since the County lists salons and theaters in Stage 3 (along with schools), I believe that in-person worship is not allowed until “Stage 3,” and the State or the County are NOT giving any indication of a date for reaching Stage 3.  Though I hesitate to anticipate anything since things change from day to day, I would expect that Stage 2, which has just started, will be settled and analyzed for Coronavirus increases before Stage 3 is considered.

The County continues to state, in an overview of the May 8th revision, “All indoor and outdoor public and private gatherings and events are prohibited.”  And even though some retail shops have been allowed to open, they are not to allow customers inside the store.

As each sector reopens, the County has set protocols which will be tailored to its specific circumstances.  I expect that when it is time for churches to begin in-person worship services, guidelines will be developed along these lines, including things like (not a comprehensive list):

  • Protecting and supporting worker health and safety: supplying face coverings and requiring they be worn by all people coming onto the church campus
  • Ensuring appropriate physical distancing: blocking off seats/pews so that household groups are 6-10 feet apart from each other
  • Ensuring proper infection control: sanitizer dispensers everywhere; restricting self-serve food; reducing or eliminating contact in passing the peace, offering, and communion; restricting group singing or use of wind instruments; thorough cleaning of shared objects or spaces
  • Communicating with the public: educating and gently enforcing proper protocols
  • Ensuring equitable access to services for vulnerable populations: ensuring that all people are included in worship, including those who may still be discouraged from attending group events, such as people who are over 60 or have chronic health conditions.

At some point we may attempt to publish clear guidelines for reopening, but the guidance from the community has not yet settled, and I would hate to add to the confusion by making multiple changes in the time before in-service worship is allowed anyway.  It does seem wise to provide worship that is accessed remotely for the foreseeable future.  Several churches have already received requests that online worship continue even when in-person worship is restarted, and that would be great if churches can provide for both.  Some churches may choose not to meet in person for a while, even if the ban is lifted, depending on the needs of their people.  Last Tuesday, the pastors had a lively discussion of ways to make their worship services even more accessible, to people who do not have access to a computer, so people can listen to worship by telephone.  It is workable, and in one of our churches, half of the members participate in worship by phone.

Even as we face more peer pressure to consider “getting back to normal,” I hope that we remember our work as Christians is not to simply go along with the crowd, nor is our faith dependent on access to a sacred building or ignoring safety considerations.  In light of this time of Coronavirus, the familiar appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples reveals a couple of important details:  the disciples chose to protect themselves from perceived threat by locking themselves in the house—and yet, Jesus came in.

This time allows us—forces us—to reform our understanding of worship, faith formation, and community.  We believe that God is everywhere, so worship may occur anywhere, and providing for worship and faith formation at home is in fact a good thing.  Community is not just who we see on Sunday mornings in the church building; there are many people who are hungry for the Good News of Jesus Christ who for whatever reasons will not come into our Sunday morning services in the sanctuary—perhaps they are the mission field we’ve been reading countless studies about.

One of the most difficult things is honoring life events without gathering as a people.  This has been especially hard when people pass away, separate from their loved ones, and we cannot gather to celebrate their life as a group.  This last week, my mother’s oldest friend passed away, and on May 3rd, Rev. Charles “Chuck” Hammond died.  Chuck was a pastor of Trinity Presbyterian in Pasadena in the 1970s, and was elected General Assembly Moderator in 1980.  A memorial service will be planned when we can gather in worship and thanksgiving for his life and ministry.  While both passed away quietly at home, with family present, we pray for their families, along with all families who are mourning loved ones.  Let us find ways to remember them and the ways they have been a blessing to us.

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy