Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
One of the most useful things I learned in seminary was the root meaning of the word “discern.” The literal translation of the Latin discernere is “to separate apart.” When we make a choice, we are not only figuring out what we are saying “yes” to, but we are also identifying what we will say “no” to. We do not like to think this way, but as we become more clear about the will of God for our lives and our churches, this means we must turn away from the call of the world. We have to be willing to run against the way of the world, which often leads to rejection, and worse.
This also can mean sacrifice, as we let go of popularity, or the comfort of conformism, or financial success in order to stay true to God. We have to tune out the very loud and persistent voices that tell us what everyone else is doing, or how we have to look out for ourselves, or to fear being left behind or taken advantage of.
This week, if you were watching the news, you were bombarded by discussions about “re-opening.” Even in California, where we prided ourselves on our early and strict “Stay Home” order that most definitely saved thousands of lives, Gov. Gavin Newsom has given tantalizing hints about opening that will come in “weeks,” then in “days.” He may be just trying to offer hope when the conditions for opening things up will take weeks or months. But he also uses the terms “days” and “weeks” to differentiate from the point when in-person worship will be allowed, which he said would be “months, not weeks.”
Now even if we have to wait until, say, the fall before going into our sanctuaries, it might be a good exercise for Session to consider what we’ve been learning these last couple of months. What will we keep? What did we not miss? What will we do differently? Who will be impacted by the decisions we make?
For instance, there may be a time when we cannot go into a closed space, but we can meet, properly spaced out, outdoors. Or if it’s very important to meet someone in person, there might be need to hold multiple sessions with smaller groups, rather than one large service or meeting. One thing is for sure, our churches have been able to share God’s love with many more people by providing online worship, so if you stop offering worship online, you will lose some people.
Lately I have been wondering what would happen if the guideline comes down that we can worship in the sanctuary, but people of a certain age or with underlying health conditions need to stay home. (One doctor just said that anyone over 55 should stay home—since I will be turning 60 this summer, that means me!) How do we tell our senior members—who are often the core members of our churches— that they should not come to church, no matter how healthy they feel?
Yesterday I brought this up with three churchwomen who are 45, 75, and 85 years of age. The 45-year- old, who has three children and a husband in the house, loves not having to get the family ready and on time for church, so she may have the hardest time getting back into the sanctuary! The 75-year-old has serious health concerns, so she knows she will not come in. The 85-year-old said she has no problem with the restrictions, and she will come to church. When I asked how it would feel if it was recommended that she not come to church, THEN she had a problem.
The 45-year-old, who is in leadership at the church, said that they decided to stop in-person worship because they did not want to tell only the older members they could not come in. Though the older members do not make up the majority of the church, the leaders decided they would prefer having everyone in Zoom worship rather than have some people able to come into the sanctuary and others not.
How do we make decisions not just for the majority, or the powerful or outspoken, but for the vulnerable in our community? In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little classic Life Together, he stresses the importance of remembering that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. . . that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” (1 Corinthians 12:22, 25) I’ve already mentioned how online worship is including church members who have disabilities or for various reasons do not feel comfortable in the sanctuary; how can we make sure they continue to be welcomed and affirmed, even if others have come into the physical worship space?
You may know that San Gabriel Presbytery has been called the smallest geographic presbytery in the PC(USA). We are also considered among the most diverse. This last week, we became smaller in membership, as the dismissal of Alhambra True Light Presbyterian was finalized on April 30th. I am saddened by this, but thankful that the process was truly gracious. But the presence of immigrants in our family—and our care and shared ministry with them—was also made more apparent. We have received three grants from PDA this month, to support three categories of immigrants who are facing increased need due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though they are in different situations, they all struggle with lack of resources, and they are often the first to lose work:
- recent but settled refugees (Mideast Evangelical, who grew dramatically a few years ago as they welcomed refugees fleeing the violence of the Middle East),
- people actively seeking asylum (people who are being released from Adelanto to decrease the population density, but who have no resources when they are released), and
- settled but undocumented residents (seven of our churches are being given grocery gift cards for more than 200 undocumented members and friends).
I have been so thankful that we have access to resources to help our churches in our ministries, and also members of our communities who are more vulnerable in this time of Coronavirus. And it’s most wonderful to hear that our efforts have been rewarded. For instance, you may remember that several of us were able to accompany a young man from Cameroon named Bertrand. On almost no notice, he was released from Adelanto, with nothing but a plastic bag with his Bible and a jacket, and he was wearing a sweatshirt that the Adelanto staff gave him. Brian and Ally Lee hosted him for a couple of nights before he flew up to North Dakota, where he is now living with his half-brother. Bertrand just received notice that he was granted asylum! He is now eligible to receive a green card in a year. All of us who met him could recognize the great gifts of intelligence, judgment, faith, and perseverance he brings to this country, and we are all the better for having him here. Thank God we got to meet him.
As we seek to be faithful to God, not only do we discern God’s will for us, but we also become discerned
—separated apart from the world around us. We no longer go with the world’s flow, because we now go with God’s. That may mean we go with a different rhythm, and we spend the extra time and effort to make sure that everyone is included and honored as God’s gift to our family. May we continue to recognize God’s grace in our life together.
In Christ’s peace,