Reflection: Familiar Strangers

by | Feb 3, 2020

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 

Ephesians 2:13

I don’t know if you have had the opportunity to watch any of the impeachment trial, but I have noticed that the sessions begin the same way:  an unnamed chaplain prays on behalf of the senators and their proceedings, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.  It is the same chaplain, and his prayers follow a similar pattern, and almost every time he ends with “In your ______ name, Amen.”  Each day he comes up with a new adjective:  strong, majestic, amazing, etc.

I have prayed along with this man, but never took time to find out his name or more about his background or ministry, except for the purposes of this column.  He is Barry C. Black, the first African-American and first Seventh-Day Adventist chaplain of the Senate.  Presbyterian trivia:  the last three Senate chaplains before Rev. Black were Presbyterians, most recently, of course, Lloyd Ogilvie, who was pastor of First Presbyterian in Hollywood before going to Washington.

But I digress.  Again, if not for the sake of this column, I probably would not have found out this chaplain’s name or anything about him, yet the repetition of his prayers made his voice, and his presence, somewhat familiar to me.  In the words of psychologist Stanley Milgram, he has become a “familiar stranger.”

Dr. Milgram is better known for his research on obedience (a chilling insight into the human idolatry of authority), but he also did some research on urban anonymity.  Specifically, he tested how well morning commuters come to recognize fellow commuters, even while never speaking with them.  He also found that people might even wonder about the other commuters, but they do not interact with them (except when their routine is broken, as with a medical emergency).

I have been proud of the cultural diversity of our presbytery, but as I speak with different churches and even presbytery leaders, I have come to believe that we do not benefit from our diversity as much as we could.  In some ways, we are familiar strangers—we might see each other at Presbytery meetings and nod and even shake hands or hug during the passing of the peace.  But what do we know about each other?  How well has our wisdom grown by sharing our different stories of faith, experiences of God’s will, or views on our shared neighborhood?  And do we wonder about each other’s churches, sometimes even coming to certain conclusions based on stereotypes or uninterpreted glimpses into another’s behavior?

One of the greatest blessings of my role with the presbytery has been the opportunity to visit our churches, and meet with the church leaders.  I have heard stories and wisdom borne of experiences that I have never had, and they inspire and challenge me, and expand my appreciation of our awesome God.  Just this past weekend, I had a conversation with Dr. Jenny Pak, the wife of Rev. Dr. David Pak, pastor of New Hope Church in Pasadena.  Now many assume that Koreans are not supportive of women in leadership, yet David has not only spoken out consistently in support of women’s ordination, I learned from Jenny of the ways he has taken pains to support her career.  And she is an amazingly gifted person who is doing ground-breaking work in her own field, to the glory of God and the service of all of us.  Now I have met Jenny before, but I had not until this weekend had the opportunity to sit down and learn about her own perspectives and transformative ministry.

I wish we all could learn more from and about each other, and we have received consistent feedback that we want to build relationships within our presbytery.  We have tried to support this through presbytery work days, mission projects, youth ministry, leadership opportunities, and presbytery meals.  But while people want to have better relationships, we don’t seem to have the time it takes to just sit and “talk story,” as they say in Hawai‘i.  I think there are other barriers, including language and awkwardness in making connections with people “who once were far off.”  But we are called to become one in Christ’s church, rooted in our shared love and gratitude for Christ’s life-giving grace.

This Saturday is Winterfest, our annual training day.  The focus for the day is learning to connect better with each other, and cultivate community that is richer than the collection of our individual backgrounds.  I hope to see you there, as I have immense respect for our plenary speaker, Dr. Charlene Jin Lee.  When she and I worked at San Francisco Theological Seminary, people of all races would tell me how she changed their lives.  I pray that her short time with us will bring us more insight and glimpses into God’s kin-dom as well.

You can still register for Winterfest at HERE.

Christ is our peace.  May we share that peace with each other and our world.