Fair Winds and Following Seas

by | Aug 27, 2018

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to 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 4:1-3

First, the good news—The South Hills property has been transferred to the new owners, after an incredible amount of work by former South Hills elder Don Sevesind, including days of painstaking work during the recent heat wave as Don and his crew had to individually take apart the dozens and dozens of individual garden plots, each bordered in a different way.  There are still some tasks that have to be dealt with, but my hope is that we can look back not on the recent troubles but instead, we give thanks for the 60 years of South Hills’ ministry, and their generous offer to their neighbors of garden use for over 25 years.  And now that the sale has been finalized, we can partner with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus and others to seek a new worshiping community that can proclaim the Good News through the gifts of the African-American church tradition, in honor of South Hills.

But I wanted to share a few events that caught my attention this weekend.  We are starting to look forward to the Presbytery meeting this September 15 at Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena.  This meeting has been unusual in a good way, because we have many pastors who are seeking to come into the presbytery, by ordination or transfer.  We had long planned to have a couple of guest speakers as well.  Elizabeth Gibbs-Zehnder will update us on her work as the only Protestant Chaplain at LAC+USC Medical Center, a joint ministry of Los Ranchos, Pacific, San Fernando, and San Gabriel presbyteries and the Synod.  We also have been planning to hear from Lt. Daniel Menza who wants to talk about opportunities for Navy chaplains.  He may need to reschedule to November, but in any case please find a flyer about this here and share with others who might be interested.

Through some various ministry experiences, I have gained great appreciation for military chaplaincy.

If you serve in Hawai`i, it’s likely you will have military families in your church.  And from them, I came to appreciate especially the excellent leadership development training the military offers their people.  And what little I have always known about the military was how it is a path for advancement for those who have been marginalized in civilian society, so this training and scholarship assistance is a key part of the opportunity the military gives to those who are willing to take the risk.  Now that the military is voluntary, many of the recruits are those who have this need, either from lack of education, poverty, personal trials, racism, or immigration status.

I know this because the Japanese-American community remembers the 442nd Regiment, the most decorated unit in the history of the US Army, made up of Japanese-Americans who came to serve either from Hawai`i, or from the internment camps that imprisoned 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II.  The motivation for these young men was to prove their loyalty to the United States, even if the United States did not honor their citizenship (2/3 of all the incarcerated were born in the United States).

The benefits offered to veterans, especially the education support, was utilized by the Japanese-American vets to overcome the racism they faced back home.  In Hawai`i, these vets took over leadership of the territory.  And I have heard from individuals who have credited the military not only with training, but also discipline and a sense of purpose that they needed in their wild youth.

I am also aware that many immigrants have gained favorable citizenship status by serving in the military.  In fact, of the six military chaplains I worked with in Pacific Presbytery, four of them were immigrants and became citizens soon after joining the ranks.  There have been some disturbing signs that this benefit is being revoked or distorted, but it is still a stated benefit.

This led to a poignant moment for me while serving on Kaua`i.  The Army reservists were being activated for deployment in Afghanistan, which was a shock for people like a young man in my church, who had thought it would be easy scholarship money to volunteer for the Army Reserve, assuming they would just march in some parades and maybe help out at the airport.  The pastors on the island were asked to come bless the reservists as they were preparing to go to Afghanistan, so I went.  One of the people I met there was a Filipino doctor, 60 years old and shorter than I am, and he was getting sent to the front lines.  I didn’t ask him why he had joined the Reserve though I could guess that he was attracted to the citizenship benefit, or educational opportunities, or both.

Those six military chaplains in Pacific Presbytery were great colleagues, and helped me learn more about their roles as well.  They reminded me of Rev. Hiro Higuchi, a pastor in Hawai`i who founded several churches with the help of the 442nd vets he served as their chaplain.  His records were recently given to the University of Hawai`i archives, and researchers were surprised to find that Rev. Higuchi was a pacifist and opposed entry into the war.  However, he joined as a military chaplain in order to care for his boys from his churches.

For these reasons, and its great diversity, I do have an appreciation for the military.  It’s not that I celebrate war, or am ignorant of the dangers and injustices that have occurred, but I do see some underrepresented strengths.  And especially with a volunteer army, I worry about the loss of personal empathy for the horrors of war that would guide the opinions of the general populace as we continue to send the “warrior class” to places of danger.

Now I’ve said too much, but within this context I have listened to the many tributes to Senator John McCain upon his death.  It is surprising how many people, who agreed with his politics or not, have referenced his generous friendship and willingness to work together for the good of the country.  One friend and colleague was former Senator John Kerry, who was also a vet but came to be an outspoken critic of the military.  These two Vietnam vets worked together to normalize relations between Vietnam and the United States.  The thought that a man who had been tortured as a prisoner of war for over 5 years would then visit this place of his capture several times, and work to normalize relations, is astounding to me.

In Sen. McCain’s own words, he seemed to be a man of gratitude and purpose who always referred to his service as imperfect, and regularly and publicly apologized for his mistakes, which he confessed were “many.”  Yet he was a leader wherever he was, spoke truth even when it was unpopular, and regularly spoke of the importance of having a purpose greater than oneself.

On Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at Knox, which has become the vision of church that we all hold dear:  a lively mix of faith and justice, praise and traditional music, a fairly even distribution from little children to seniors, active leadership, and some diversity.  I chose to reflect on Ephesians 4:1-16, because I think it’s perhaps the most succinct and compelling description of my understanding of church.  It’s not complete, but there’s a lot to it.  And as I prepared the sermon (and following McCain’s lead, I do have to confess it was far from perfect!), I saw several parallels between John McCain’s values and those represented in Ephesians 4.  He may not have been gentle or patient, but he clearly lived out his sense of call, and was humble and capable of upholding others in love for the sake of unity.  In Ephesians 4:14-16, there are warnings against being deceived by the winds of doctrine and trickery, and how we should speak the truth in love, and to gain maturity in faith.

If we were to use this passage as a standard for Christian maturity, it seems that maturity means not age or experience, but humility and honest self-awareness, a dedication to unity and love, and understanding that we must be“joined and knit together” in order to build up the body of Christ.  John McCain did not speak much of faith, though he was active with a Baptist church in Phoenix, but his values of obedience to call, humility, truth-telling, love, unity, and connectedness are consistent with the marks of a healthy church.

There are many things I pray for in thanksgiving this week—for the South Hills resolution, for those who risked their lives to serve in the armed forces, for Knox Presbyterian Church, for John McCain, and always for this Presbytery.  I trust you have many blessings for which you can give thanks.