Lament into Hope

by | Jun 26, 2020

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old.

Lamentations 5:21

We are in the middle of General Assembly week, but rather than gathering in Baltimore as planned, the commissioners gathered on Friday via Zoom and PC-Biz. In the opening session, we found that some things change, and some things remain the same.

The change for San Gabriel Presbytery came on Thursday. I was sitting in the parking lot of my dentist, waiting to be allowed in, when I received the text from Teaching Elder Commissioner Jennifer Ackerman that she was diagnosed with a blood infection and was on her way to the hospital. Could N’Yisrela Watts-Afriyie step in at this late stage? Amidst the drilling on my tooth, we were able to convince the Office of the General Assembly to break their rules (no one could participate without going to the training—but alternates were not allowed to attend the training!), and N’Yisrela was registered on the spot. And congrats to her, for managing to participate and vote in the Assembly from the start of business!  And please pray for Jennifer, who is still in the hospital; she is not in pain but the doctors have not found the right antibiotics to stave off the infection.  And congrats to her, too, for having earned her PhD!

As the Assembly started on Friday, there were relatively few technical glitches, though it became clear how much time and energy was spent by the Presbytery of Baltimore for a meeting that would not happen in their midst, and the technology does not allow for individual side conversations that allow the commissioners to form a more cohesive discerning body. (Though frankly, a typical GA has such an avalanche of data that most commissioners are not able to discern all the decisions anyway.)

However, the intricacies of Robert’s Rules of Order were exposed unchanged amidst the technology. The dispute between SFTS and COTE came into view, to the surprise of most of the commissioners, who probably didn’t know what SFTS and COTE were. For those of us on the West Coast, the dismissal of SFTS without Assembly consideration is problematic. The issue will be brought up again on Friday.

On the plus side, the Assembly elected, on the first ballot, Elder Elona Street-Stewart and Rev. Gregory Bentley. In a time when the Church and society are seeking ways to learn about and repent for the racism that infects us so thoroughly, it makes perfect sense to elect these two veteran leaders of our denomination who have worked on racial justice their entire lives. As too many church leaders continue to speak about the PC(USA) as white people trying to learn about racism, I am grateful to hear from this Delaware Nanticoke woman and African-American man, who gently made it clear that they are aware that churches in the PC(USA) reflect a rainbow of peoples.

Within San Gabriel Presbytery, we are also seeing change, as we adjust to this new virtual normal, as important transitions that had been delayed are starting to take place. A week ago, Arcadia Community Church had its first virtual congregational meeting, to elect their Pastor Nominating Committee.

Yesterday, First Presbyterian Church Altadena had theirs, to say good-bye to their pastor Mark Buchanan, who is retiring as a pastor and moving into hospital chaplaincy. Other churches are progressing in their pastor searches. And a promising new church start, and an exciting new life for our Baldwin Park property, are being discussed via Zoom.

I had an odd and wonderful experience in worship yesterday. Some of you may have noticed that Zoom keeps updating (without alerting us), so little things happen, like the sound going out in the middle of a meeting. This happened to N’Yisrela during General Assembly (she managed to vote anyway!), and it happened to me while I was liturgist for a Zoom-based worship service. The preacher’s image went awry on occasion, but he delivered an effective sermon. After the worship service (they fellowship via breakout rooms), we shared how I, the liturgist, was deaf—and the preacher said that he couldn’t see anyone, so he was effectively blind. But God is good, and works through us if we are willing to keep trying. It reminded me of the time I preached in Kyoto, and sat at table with the pastor and a few other people, including a seminarian who had been blind since birth. Since he was the only person who could speak both Japanese and English, he was by far the most able person at the table for that moment!

This year’s General Assembly reminds us that there is much to lament, but with God’s help we can learn new ways to be faithful.  As we become more aware of racial injustice, of the isolation of people who are not able to leave home or come to church, of the limits of virtual communication and our health care system, we are grateful of all the ways that God works through us to do what we have resisted in the past. As we look ahead to continuing uncertainty, realizing that we may not go back to the days of old, may we take comfort that perhaps in this uncertainty we find humility, and in humility we seek the face of Christ, who will yet again reach out a hand to save us. As will be prayed in this Friday’s GA opening worship,

We come believing that the divisions of today do not have to be the reality of tomorrow.

But in confession and repentance,

moving beyond empty rhetoric into consistent action,

we continue, as Christ’s body, into the beloved community. Amen.

Praying for peace,