New Beginnings

New Beginnings

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.

Acts 16:6

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is an ethnic church.  We are a child of the Church of Scotland, and even now there are still signs of our Scottish heritage.  The first time I realized this was at my seminary, where every commencement service began with a procession, led by a bagpiper.  At the General Assembly, the people often enter the first plenary session following a bagpiper.  Our friend and 1001 New Worshiping Communities staffer, Sean Chow, remembers with fondness his favorite childhood church event, the annual Highlands Games at 1st Presbyterian Oxnard.  Even our denominational revulsion of bishops may come from John Knox’ fight with bishops who challenged his reform movement and acted as agents of the English crown.  (A great insight for which I will always be thankful to the late great Robina Winbush.)

So our church family ancestry goes back through the Church of Scotland (with a nod to the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam, aka New York), to the Roman Catholic Church, to Paul’s trip to Greece, where he met and taught the first Christian convert in Europe, the businesswoman Lydia.  Some believe that the Philippian church was started in Lydia’s home, with her prayer circle of women.

As Acts 16 tells us, the only reason Paul went to Philippi was out of frustration.  He had been visiting existing churches to strengthen them, going to who was familiar, but his path was blocked.  In a dream, a man from Macedonia begged him to come and help them, and so he went, and got to Philippi.

We continue to struggle with the limitations that have been set upon us by the Coronavirus, and yet these restrictions have caused us to try new things, and live out our faith in new ways.  Several churches report that they have more people joining them in virtual worship than would come into the sanctuary on any given Sunday.  And now, as churches are being forced to hold congregational meetings by Zoom and phone, they are finding better attendance.  One clerk of session said that their recent meeting had better attendance than they’ve had in many years. 

And yesterday, Pasadena Presbyterian Church held a congregational meeting with great attendance, joining by Zoom and phone, held in Korean, Spanish, and English.  Again, heartfelt thanks to Rev. Ally Lee, who gave technical support for the meeting.  It was definitely the most complicated virtual meeting we have held in San Gabriel Presbytery, but recommendations were made, discussion happened, votes were cast, and PPC called Rev. Dr. Lisa Hansen as their new Pastor and Head of Staff.  We hope to receive her into San Gabriel Presbytery at our September 26 meeting.  And yes, the September 26 and November 17 Presbytery meetings will be held by Zoom.  Congratulations to PPC and welcome Lisa!

You can hear Lisa preach to the PPC congregation in English and with translation in Korean.  She also visited the service in Spanish before the 4 pm congregational meeting.  In the sermon, Lisa shared an experience climbing to the top of Mt. Sinai as an Air Force chaplain.  She was set to preach at sunrise, and they did arrive there in time to see the sun rise, and to kneel in silent prayer.  Though she had her message ready, she was struck dumb by the power of God, speaking to them in the silence.

This was the strong image I heard in her sermon, ironically as she spoke about being silenced.  We are descendants of Paul’s thwarted attempt to carry out HIS mission—but God had other plans.  And we cannot know right now what new ministries are being started in this time of restriction and frustration.  As has been said, God can make a way out of no way.  Our only job is to keep going, and follow.

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy

 

Blessed to Be a Blessing

Blessed to Be a Blessing

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Romans 12:12-13

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In other words, God has blessed us greatly, but not so we can kick back and enjoy the spoils; God blesses us so that we can share the good news of God’s abundant love with a hurting world.

As a Japanese-American Christian, I have felt this for many years, hoping that the Japanese-American community would acknowledge and share the resources we have received. We are in a very good position to do this, because we have in our memory the knowledge of injustice done against us, but we are now relatively well-placed to be able to use that knowledge and our current privilege to advocate for others who are facing injustice. This is the reason I was so happy to attend last Saturday’s vigil of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Christians for Black Lives. During the vigil, there was much to pray for, much to remember in ways that Blacks and AAPIs worked together in the past, much to repent from when AAPIs were complicit in anti-Black racism, much to hope for as we gather AAPI and Black church leaders together, including our own Neal Presa, who opened the day, and Neema Cyrus-Franklin, who gave the closing prayer. San Gabriel Presbytery was a co-sponsor of the event, and Charlene Jin Lee and I were there to represent us.

As Presbyterians, we have much to offer. The PC(USA) is one of the most affluent of Christian denominations; we and the Episcopalian Church are typically the two Christian churches whose members have the highest per capita income, and the highest education levels.

So the Parable of the Talents should speak most directly to us. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the story about three servants who were given money by their master. (Yes, “talent” is not what we think of as talents; a talent is a lot of money, about as much as a laborer would earn in 15 years.) The popular

term “Well done, good and faithful servant” comes from this story, as reward for the two servants who took the money and multiplied it. The third servant, whose fear caused him to hold onto the money rather than use it, was condemned.

Last week, the Presbytery Executive Commission met, and discussed the results of the Coronavirus Relief Fund program that ended June 30th. With the help of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, the Presbytery was able to give $250 grants to every church and fellowship, and as each church and fellowship requested it, a $5,000 grant and $5,000 loan was given. Fifteen churches received

$115,000 in grants and loans through this program.

Because the Presbytery and Synod both contributed to this program, there are additional funds available. A few things became apparent in our review of the program:

  • Different churches define “need” differently. Many of our smaller churches defined “need” more literally and critically, and would not request the grant and especially the loan unless they were close to not being able to keep the lights
  • Churches that run their own preschools or day care centers faced an extraordinary challenge. Due to COVID-19, it has been extremely difficult to cover payroll costs for the workers with no or little income. Since most churches do not participate in the State Unemployment Insurance program, preschool workers do not have credits to draw from. How can the churches continue with any livelihood or at least benefits during this shutdown time?
  • For whatever reasons, it seemed that dominant culture churches more readily participated in the program. In several cases I had to push churches to request the grant, whereas other churches applied

In order to provide for churches with greater need, and those who are shy to ask, the Executive Commission approved the following grant program for August:

  • Each church and fellowship will receive $2,000. It is up to the church leaders to decide the best use of the grant, to the greatest benefit to God’s mission, either within the congregation or in the community. The PEC wants to encourage churches to think creatively in using these funds, including partnering with a community group or a sister church, investing in something that will move your ministry forward in this very changed world, or encouraging your church members to do something inspired and fed by the
  • Loans from the first round of the Relief Fund have been forgiven, so they do not need to be paid
  • A new round of grants will be given, up to $10,000. The application will be sent to each church and fellowship pastor and clerk and must be submitted by August 31st. Churches who received funds from the first round are eligible to apply for this round of

Even in these uncertain times, it has become clear that we are blessed with resources. May we be good and faithful servants of the Lord, and use what we have to the service of God’s mission, and to reflect God’s glory and abundant grace to a fearful and hurting world. May these grants show our gratitude and sharing in the life of our Presbytery, and our churches.

As this virus continues to impact us in our lives and our ministry, as we turn to God in all things, may we feel the blessings of the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the healing power of the Holy Spirit. And out of our gratitude for God’s blessings, may we be a blessing to others.

In Christ’s peace,

Wendy

 

Zoilita and Osvaldo Garcia

Zoilita and Osvaldo Garcia

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Ephesians 4:15-16

It seems that marriage has fallen out of fashion these days, and the COVID-19 pandemic might further suppress it. The marriage rate in the United States fell to 7.9 per 1,000 people in 1932, down from 12.0 in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression. The marriage rate reached an all-time high at 16.4 per 1,000 people in 1946. The marriage rate has been falling since 1982, and in 2018 the rate fell to 6.5, the lowest level since the government started keeping track in 1867.

So the concept of an enduring marriage—a long-term partnership in life and love and, in our case, ministry—seems mythic, almost like an unattainable goal.

As I write this, many of us are praying for Shirley and Charlie Castles. Shirley suffered a massive brain aneurysm in the night between Friday and Saturday this weekend, and though she was sent by ambulance to Huntington Hospital, she has been in a coma and is now in palliative care. Given the COVID-related restrictions on hospital visits, it was all Charlie and his daughters could do to get in to visit, but they were able to spend one hour with her, and brought in an iPad so that Shirley’s mother and a few other family members could join them virtually. On last report, Shirley is resting on a bed of morphine, and while they would love a miracle to happen, the family is bracing to lose this life force of love, energy, and care for so many, including many at Monte Vista Grove Homes, where the Castles live. Once Diane Frasher and I were talking about a group activity she was planning to start at Monte Vista that Shirley had once led, and when I asked if Shirley could help with this, Diane said “Well I can ask, but she’s already doing like 75 other things right now.”

Charlie shared how he is grateful for 43 years of life together, for their two daughters, for some travel they have done recently, for enjoying their first grandchild (who is all of 7 months old), and for the perfectly lovely day and weeks before the aneurysm, which came with no warning at all. We pray that the Spirit of healing and comfort may fill the hearts of Shirley, Charlie, and all who love them.

Along with this prayer of concern, we also have much to celebrate. On July 21, 1960, Osvaldo Garcia was ordained into ministry, and on July 25, 1960, Osvaldo and Zoila were married. This last weekend, Zoilita and Osvaldo’s loving and lively family held a “drive-by” 60th wedding anniversary celebration, marking six decades of love and family and ministry.

Zoilita told me that it was important that Osvaldo was ordained first, if only for a few days. Back then, the Presbyterian Church in Cuba was part of the Synod of New Jersey, and Zoilita’s father was the superintendent of the Cuba ministry for the Synod. The expectation was that seminarians should not be married, so he needed to be ordained before their wedding! Then as now, they did things in an orderly but very efficient manner.

Osvaldo graduated from Matanzas and was ordained to serve the Presbyterian church in Sancti Spíritus in Las Villas Province, Cuba. This was a large church with a Presbyterian school, with good Cuban Presbyterian teachers. Zoilita remembers with gratitude the strong witness of teachers and pastors, and the wonderful fellowship and gathering of churches each year for an intensive week of fellowship, fun,

and studying the Bible. All this laid the basis for a strong spiritual life for many, a fruitful ministry that continues today. This was noted when several PC(USA) leaders visited the Sancti Spiritus church in 2018. A Presbyterian News article describes the work—and dance!—they are doing with children in a poor barrio in the city.

The Garcias came to Southern California in 1972 and served Emmanuel for 30 years, and they thank God for this long life of joint ministry, enjoying great company and great fellowship in the Presbyterian Church, in Cuba and here in San Gabriel Presbytery.

In my few years with this presbytery, I have many reasons to thank God for their joy and energy, ever present in the life of San Gabriel. I love seeing them at every Presbytery meeting, and presbytery events such as a celebration like La Verne Heights’ 50th Anniversary, and the Presbytery Work Day. Here is Osvaldo clearing cobwebs as part of the 2017 Work Day team, sprucing up Puente de Esperanza’s new home in La Puente.

But I have also witnessed Osvaldo’s sensitive and articulate way of explaining our peculiar Presbyterian approach to the world to a pastor new to our tradition.

What a wonderful witness to God’s faithfulness and love! May we ever give thanks to God for the beautiful partnerships of love and ministry that we see in Shirley and Charlie Castles, and in Zoilita and Osvaldo Garcia. We know their love will last an eternity, and we pray that we all may enjoy their love for many years to come, in spirit and here on this earth. We know that they have made their own loving and faithful imprints on their world: on their children and grandchildren, on their church members, and on all who came to know God’s grace better through their lives.

Whether we are blessed with a life partner or not, we can all enjoy and love and learn from each other in our family of Christ. Thanks be to God!

In Christ’s love,

 

Wendy

 

John Lewis

John Lewis

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;
  he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice,
  or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,
  and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
  he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Isaiah 42:1-3

Last week, I touched on the challenges of churches as we try to become more inclusive of all people who seek Christ’s face. The good news is that I think we have moved beyond the tokenism of pointing at one or two people of color (who are often treated as trophies or perpetual guests), and we are now looking to become one family, working together to utilize a broader collection of perspectives and gifts, which empowers our witness and God’s mission in our community.

I have always believed that one of the stumbling blocks to becoming one intercultural body is technical. If we don’t know how to be with people from different cultures, we will shy away from them, or we will be so cautious that we cannot develop authentic relationship.

In recent months, one of the great lessons coming from COVID-19 is our ability to adapt and be creative if we let go of our attachment to perfectionism. While we have traditionally been afraid of trying something new unless we could be guaranteed we will never make a mistake, we are now forced with a choice: either we risk trying new things, or we cease to exist as a church.  Thankfully, our churches have tried all kinds of things to continue to worship God, care for each other, and care for the world.

And we have made our mistakes along the way, and learned that God is gracious.

Note I said God is gracious—and I pray that people are gracious too! This is our fear, that we cannot tread into unknown territory when it comes to other people, because we aren’t always sure that people will be gracious. I have been saddened to hear white and Asian people speaking of their fear of going into traditionally Black neighborhoods. If I had my wits about me, I would ask what is the basis of their fear? Perhaps because old-time Japanese-Americans in LA lived in Black neighborhoods, we know there is community, faith, and grace, along with the challenges of poverty.

This is why I am happy that the AAPI prayer vigil for Black lives will be held August 1 near the Crenshaw district, which is traditionally one of those Black-Japanese neighborhoods. My grandfather lived there; Steve Yamaguchi’s roots were there. I, of course, grew up in the Black-Japanese neighborhood of West Altadena, where First Presbyterian Altadena is.

Anyway, there are some guidelines for crossing the racial divides. There are many, many books, and I am hoping that we can provide opportunities for folks to get to know each other as people. I hope we can care enough about each other that we will do what caring friends do—we will listen and learn and pray, we will allow ourselves to share our pain, and we will care when our friends are hurt.

This last weekend we have been celebrating the life of Representative John Lewis. The news of his passing brought me back to my one visit to Montreat, the great Presbyterian conference center in North Carolina. There was a massive Presbyterian event there in 2015, commemorating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at Montreat 50 years prior. I have several highlights from that weekend (including meeting Dean Thompson for the first time). One was seeing John Lewis.

What I remember was not just his words and the enormous respect shown him. What I remember came after his talk. Now I have to preface this with my prejudice, because Rep. Lewis always looked kind of tough to me, like Winston Churchill or the actor Edward G. Robinson. And given his decades of suffering, taking on vicious blows that risked his life so that we might have better lives, given his fame and great work in civil rights and in Congress, I was somewhat intimidated.

What I remember is what I observed, and that is the love and even delight he had in meeting people, all people. His humility and love of people made him the most faithful servant of our servant Lord. And what I’ve learned since then is his adherence to non-violence throughout his life; Bernice King said he was perhaps the only one of her father’s colleagues who upheld non-violent his entire life. Though Rep. Lewis himself had been jailed 40 times and beaten almost to the point of death for the sake of civil rights, he did not fight back against those who beat him, nor did he file charges. His faith also allowed him to be forgiving, to the point of graciously receiving the repentant apology of Elwin Wilson, who had beaten Rep. Lewis almost 50 years prior.

Yes, there are skills of intercultural relationships that we can learn. But the most important thing is to begin with a heart of humility, a heart of faith, a heart of love, a heart for justice. May we live out the Bible we read, and seek to live the grace and peace that has been given us, through Jesus Christ, the same Lord whom John Lewis loved.

In Christ’s love,

Wendy

 

Siblings

Siblings

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:28-29

If you are like me, you watch the daily Coronavirus map to see which states have rising, decreasing, or steady cases of COVID-19. During the lockdown I would take comfort, even pride, in the ways that California, and LA County, would hold steady, send federal resources home, and maintain a very low rate of positive tests. As the state started to reopen, California went into the “Increase 10%-50%” category, and I would hope that we were at the low end of that range. Then, in the last few hours, California showed up deep red, meaning the cases rose by over 50% from just a week ago. That struck fear in my heart.

This Wednesday there will be a new telebriefing by LA County. Last week’s briefing was quite confusing because the message given during the briefing was much stricter than what was on paper, so I hope that this week’s briefing will clarify some things. They gave us enough notice that you can listen in as well, if you want. I do not know whether there will be new information (sometimes they just do it for people to ask clarifying questions), but given the increasing numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in our area, I cannot imagine they will be loosening any restrictions.

So I pray that you are finding ways to get used to staying at home, participating in online worship, and keeping your masks on.

The controversy over masks has been perplexing, but the most troubling is the ways public health leaders keep trying to figure out how to convince people to wear a mask, not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others. After weeks of this, they have finally started to say that wearing a mask will partially protect you from exposure to the virus. I don’t know if this is helping the cause, but it does seem that the appeal to care for others was not compelling enough to elicit universal usage.

In contrast, we are also seeing a major change in race relations because people are speaking in support of others. When asked if this season of protest is any different, several Black leaders point to the diversity of the protesters, and they seem honestly surprised and delighted to see many White faces among the groups saying “Black lives matter.” What I have noticed, as well, is the number of Black leaders who are also speaking about indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ people, seeming to want to bring more people into the boat once they are allowed in.

Even when DeSean Jackson hit a major speed bump with his anti-Semitic post, I was touched by the response from Zach Banner, a young offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mr. Banner is probably seen as African-American, though he also has Chamorro roots in Guam.

From his time at USC, Mr. Banner met and came to love Jewish people (he said some have become members of his family). Not only did he become emotional remembering the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, but he asked that no one “flip the script” by stepping on the backs of others to achieve equality, even as he acknowledges the need for this nation to allow all people, including Blacks, to rise.

One of the basic demonstrations of the Christian faith should be the ability to reach across old barriers of race, class, gender, and religious tradition as we all accept our status as children of the Most High God. While the barriers are erased, we can still recognize and even appreciate and utilize the varied perspectives and gifts that come from our varied backgrounds, just as we do with family members that bring their individual perspectives and gifts to a family enterprise.

I have often thought about how families are able to receive members from other backgrounds through marriage or adoption, and how the military develops esprit de corps among the most diverse population of any institution in the USA. What can the church learn as we seek to be unified in love among diverse members?

So far, here’s what I have observed:

  • The new members learn about and are willing to abide by the values of the group
  • The group is intentional about helping the new members understand and participate in the group
  • The group is willing to receive, accommodate for, and promote the new members, usually based on the new members choosing to contribute to the well-being of the group
  • There is general acceptance of the values of the group that is stronger than individual differences
  • There is support for the values of the group, even within the context of a larger culture that may or may not uphold the values of the

This column is getting too long, so I will continue next week!

In the meantime, consider what makes your church distinctive from the world, and what special ways has God formed your church to be a unique witness to that world. How well do you receive newcomers, and love and respect them as family, so that your unique witness can be refreshed and reformed into the future? More later.

Blessings on your ministry,

Wendy

 

Burdens

Burdens

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Matthew 11:28

This last weekend was, of course, 4th of July, and it seemed different than just about any other 4th of July. This weekend was marked by several massive outbreaks of COVID-19 around the nation, dozens of shootings (including some that killed children), the beginning shots of a bitter political campaign, and few actual fireworks. It seems that only my dog enjoyed the weekend, since she’s not bothered by national news anywhere near as much as fireworks.

In California, the surge in COVID-19 cases has resulted in stricter guidelines for gatherings, including worship services. While the state continues to prohibit interaction between children from different households, and there is a more general requirement to wear masks all the time when in public, indoors or outdoors, there is now a strict prohibition of all singing in worship:

Discontinue singing (in rehearsals, services, etc.), chanting, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.

Consider practicing these activities through alternative methods (such as internet streaming) that ensure individual congregation members perform these activities separately in their own homes. (emphasis from original document)

In response to this, the County of Los Angeles held a telebriefing to give their updated protocol in order to comply with the State guidelines. This briefing was held on Thursday, July 2, with a promise that the written update would be posted on the County website. In the briefing, the County Health Officer, Dr. Muntu Davis, gave very specific guidelines, stating that there is to be no Bible study, Sunday School, or youth groups, and no singing or “group recitation.” Several church leaders attempted to see where there might be some flexibility, and Dr. Davis was more strict than in prior briefings. At one point, one pastor said “so we can walk into church, and be very quiet, and then walk out” and he said, essentially, yes.

The one improvement is that the State figured out that funerals (and the County added weddings, apparently) should be treated the same as other worship services.

At the briefing I personally pointed out that the update currently residing on the website, dated June 29, differed when it came to singing, and made no mention of Bible study, youth groups, or Sunday School. He said that the new update would be posted, and would address these activities.

Over the weekend I kept checking to see when the update would be posted, but it never showed up. A colleague from another presbytery contacted me to see if I had access to it but I didn’t. She ended up sending me the revision, which she received from a Methodist pastor in San Pedro, who got it from a staffer for one of the County Supervisors. I was quite frustrated to read it, because it is not very clear about activities that usually surround worship, though the State guidelines speak to “children.” If you want to hear a recording of the County briefing, it is available for a while by calling 1-866-207-1041, then keying in the access code 6854355#. The new protocol can be accessed here—but I’m still not 100% certain about this update, since I received it through an unofficial route.

All of this makes me very tired. Our pastors have expressed the burden of attempting to guide their congregations through these turbulent waters, as every day we learn new things about this pandemic. Regional administrators are burdened by attempting to track and transmit changes from the community.

Even the County Health Officer sounded burdened by attempting to comply with State guidelines, some of which he doesn’t hear about any sooner than the public. And we are all burdened by the sense that there is no foreseeable end to this time of isolation and uncertainty.

It is at times like this when we are comforted by familiar promises from the Bible such as Jesus saying, “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)

Honestly, I have always been a little mystified by this image, since I have never considered a “yoke” to be light. But in the context of this passage, we find that Jesus puts a gracious spin on the work of the world, and of the church. He notes how the leaders scorned him for partying with his friends, and he allowed his disciples to pluck grain on the sabbath, showing how God said “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6).

I have noticed that the work of the Lord can be more joyful and uplifting than what we might expect. For instance, I had a wonderful time recording a sermon for First Presbyterian Church Altadena, as they have said farewell to pastor Mark Buchanan, who is retiring from pastoral service. The church always had a strong musical tradition and creative members, and I witnessed this in the worship leaders. I was able to use the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s virtual choir from around the nation and the world singing “This Is My Song,” a hymn that makes me cry, because through all that we are, and all that we are not yet, I do love this nation, this land of my birth, and the hymn enlarges my heart when I am reminded that “other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”

I know if you look around, you will see ways that Jesus is making your burden light—or perhaps you have not yet given up your own yoke, to take on that which God has fashioned. May we virtually, collectively, carry on the burden of God’s mission, with eating and drinking, praying and singing—and let us find ways to do so, safely!

In Christ’s love,

Wendy