by | May 10, 2021

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Ephesians 1:17-19

Lately, I have been thinking about Hawai‘i more than usual. I was reminded of some fun experiences, and of concepts and values that expand my understanding of living in the world and being a faithful follower of Christ.

One word I always appreciated is “kuleana.” The word is usually translated into English as “responsibility.” But, as happens regularly in translation, there is much more to it than however each of us might understand “responsibility.” I heard it stated in the context of an assigned task (“It’s my kuleana to make sure the kids are safe”), or authority (“You have the kuleana to guide us.”). It may be an inheritance; one of my friends was the son who inherited the bulk of his parents’ estate, which meant he had the responsibility to manage the estate on behalf of his siblings. Frequently, Hawai‘i residents are reminded of their kuleana in caring for the land. Their relationship with the land allows them to benefit appropriately from its gifts as they care for it with gratitude and respect.

While there may have been some codification to enable people, especially outsiders, to live within healthy relationships with each other and with nature, I think “kuleana” is best appreciated within the larger framework of community. This is easier to appreciate when you live on a small island like Kaua‘i, where it’s relatively difficult to leave or to hide, so your behavior sticks with you and impacts you in a much more pronounced fashion, and people also learn how to live together through differences, and to forgive. So it seemed there was greater focus on maintaining healthy relationships over following the letter of the law. One of my favorite examples of that involved the beloved piano teacher in Waimea, who had moved with her husband to the island from the mainland in 1947. In 2000, a local police officer stopped her for a minor traffic infraction. He recognized her (everyone knew her), but he still needed her driver’s license to complete his report. She handed him her driver’s license—from the Territory of Hawai‘i! She had never bothered to get it updated. The police officer looked at it, gave it back to her and said, “Oh, Mrs. Cassell! That’s quite an antique, but please, you really should get a new driver’s license.  We’re a state now, you know.”

In North America, we are so much bigger and diverse, we cannot assume that people will make judgments based on commitment to shared community values and relationships, so we rely on written rules and regulations to create environments that may or may not be peaceable, but at least they are less dangerous. It would be great to develop a spirit of community and love for each other, and to develop good discernment practices to support them, but in lieu of that, the laws are there to keep some level of order. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of the role of religion and education to teach morality and love, but until that happens, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.”

In the Presbyterian Church, we have tended to rely on rules and regulations to guide our life together.

Sometimes we have held to these rules even when they failed to address every situation with mercy or understanding. Even though our polity is deeply rooted in our theology and the experiences of our people, the rules can become so complex that too many people follow them not because they understand them, but because they are there.

Many Presbyterians became so dependent on the Book of Order that when it was stripped back for greater flexibility, there was widespread panic. Some presbyteries attempted to insert the old Book of Order into their policies, in order to reinstate control. A few other folks took this new freedom to maximize their personal profit, to the expense of the gospel. We had to be reminded that with freedom comes responsibility. In times when the rules aren’t clear, you can’t be paralyzed, nor should you look for ways to ignore your responsibility to ensure a safe, just, and mutually beneficial environment.

Why do I reflect on this? Because the great low numbers of COVID transmission is leading public health officials to change the regulations at a dizzyingly rapid rate. As a presbytery, we are trying to provide guidance and updates, but there will naturally be a lag time, and the public health guidelines sometimes conflict with each other. We will continue to try to track and interpret the guidelines as they evolve, but every church session has the freedom—and the responsibility—to make the best decisions for your church, considering a few general guidelines:

  • The session should know best the needs of your congregation—and the session has the responsibility to watch for the safety of your members, and your community
  • You do not need to change every time the public health (or presbytery) guidelines are relaxed
  • Feel free to consult with the Presbytery staff, and your sister churches, about how to phase in new plans
  • Know that Jesus is in charge of the church, not the pastor or the loudest session member or your neighbor or the big church down the street—and God will bless your church as you seek to be

As we exit pandemic conditions, there will be some uncertainty for months to come. New strains could arrive, and there is added risk when the fall comes. So it is all our kuleana to stay alert, stay agile, and be faithful and sensitive to the many responses our communities have to the changing, hopeful conditions. This is a “good” problem to have, and with God’s help, we will weather this historic pandemic with renewed faith and better focus on the essence of our ministry.

Blessings in your discernment and your prayerful leadership in your church and your life,