As Cindy Kohlmann travels the country as part of her role as Co-Moderator of the General Assembly, a new series on this blog will follow her, featuring highlights of her journeys in her own words: sights seen, people met, and lessons learned. They will be edited together by our Communications Coordinator, Benjamin Chicka. This first post will be a little longer than will be typical, as we catch up with what she has been doing. Be on the lookout for future updates, as well as some highlights from her travels earlier in the year. If nothing else, keep coming back for the great pictures.
This post highlights Cindy's travel to Zephyr Point Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center on the shores of Lake Tahoe for the World Mission Consultation during the second weekend of May.
I was at the first World Mission Consultation in Nairobi, Kenya in November, and was invited to preach at the closing worship service for this, the last consultation. Because of other factors in this time of travel for me, where I was coming from and where I was going to next, coming in early was my best option. That led to a providential opportunity! It turns out the Synod of the Pacific was also meeting at Zephyr Point, and I would be arriving early enough to eat dinner with them and join them for worship Thursday evening. That connection opened up another opportunity, and I was invited to preach for that service.
Another gathering I had attended recently with my own Synod had focused on Mark 2:18-22, where Jesus responds to the question “why don’t your disciples fast?” with words about not fasting while the bridegroom is present. Jesus then adds comments about sewing a new patch on an old cloak and putting new wine into old wineskins, and how old and new crammed together results in a mess. The question that this passage sparked in me was this: are we living in the time when the bridegroom is present or are we living in a time when the bridegroom is absent? Are we in the feasting time or the fasting time?
As I asked the question in the room full of people from Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Northern California, I could see in their faces that we have been, and in many cases still are, living in the fasting time. It has been a hard time in the Presbyterian church, with schisms and dismissals, decline and conflict, and a fraying of relationships at local, regional, and national levels. Like the disciples after Jesus was arrested and crucified, we have been locked into rooms of fear and doubt, sorrow and anger, paralyzed by what has happened and is happening, and feeling like what we have given our lives to has turned to dust, crumbled, broken, perished.
This is a real part of our faith, and an important piece of our journey. But I do not believe that God intends for us to remain in a fasting time indefinitely. The wandering in the wilderness comes to an end, a child is born, and Easter is always true. Jesus did not remain in the grave and the disciples did not remain frozen behind locked doors. No, after a period of watching and praying and waiting, their fasting time turned again to feasting with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Body of Christ. It is time for us in the Presbyterian Church to put aside our mourning clothes, to wipe the tears from our faces, to let go of anger, grief, bitterness, and loss, and accept the invitation of Jesus to return to a time of feasting.
And let’s be clear, claiming our place at the welcome feast of our God doesn’t mean that every problem is solved, every challenge is answered, every difficulty suddenly disappears. Feasting doesn’t equal easy. Feasting is a reliance on the promises of Jesus to be with us, on the gift of the Holy Spirit who leads and guides us, on the abundant love, grace, and mercy of our holy God. Feasting means claiming again that we are God’s people, and that means we have work to do in the name of Jesus Christ. Feasting means opening ourselves up to the new thing God is doing in our midst, and letting go of old things in order to follow.
I also joined the Synod for their final plenary, which gave me an opportunity to hear a little about their work before bringing my formal greeting on behalf of the 223rd General Assembly. I learned that over fifty years ago, the Synod made a decision to become a savings and loans broker for the congregations and Presbyteries. Money deposited with the Synod earns interest, and also allows the Synod to provide loans for a variety of needs, such as purchasing, energy efficient updates, or renovating church property. And the committee that oversees those efforts is called the Mission Finance Committee, clearly tying the mission-oriented aspect of their finances to the work of the committee.
After I brought greetings, the Synod was invited to come forward, lay hands on me, and pray for me, Vilmarie, and J. Herbert, as well as all the mission and ministry of the Presbyterian Church. It is such a gift to receive such prayers, to feel the weight of hands and the warmth radiating out from the people gathered around me.
The Synod meeting ended with announcements and prayer, and then the commissioners left, heading towards home in an effort to stay ahead of the afternoon traffic. I ate lunch alone, looking out the window at the lake and mountains, a welcome spell of quiet between responsibilities.
After lunch, the third World Mission National Consultation began, which was the reason for my being at Zephyr Point. This gathering follows four international consultations with our mission partners in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and Latin America. We opened with multi-lingual worship and then an invitation to engage in the same process used in the previous consultations. It’s a diverse group of people who have gathered, and I’m looking forward to participating in the conversations tomorrow and Sunday. The decision was made to end with dinner, which gave us all an opportunity to watch the sun set. A beautiful ending to a blessing filled day.
Saturday dawned with a clear blue sky and no breeze, giving us the beauty of still waters. The mountains were glowing with the sun reflecting on the snowy peaks.
Our first work of the day centered on a Bible study of Matthew 25:31-46 led by Valdir França, with time given to exploring the context of the times as well as the larger context of the passage. We talked about the passage within the framework of mission both locally and globally. The conversation was deepened by the sharing of several Asian Americans that this text layered over a high standard of performance and expectation of near perfection feels like a burden, “It’s one more thing we’re expected to do in order to be good.”
From Bible study, the gathering turned to the questions being posed by World Mission at all the consultation:
• Where is God calling us to put our energy today?
• What does it mean to be partners in God’s mission today?
• What might this look like in practice?
• What resources are needed and what can we contribute?
The pictures below are from the five group discussions on the second question “What does it mean to be partners in God’s mission today?” and they had a lot of overlap.
The World Mission Consultation finished in just under 48 hours of intense conversation in this beautiful place. Our task on the final morning was to do our best at each of the five tables to distill all the ideas and suggestions into two main points. “What are the two main things you want the Office of World Mission to take away from this?”
Across the five tables, there was actually a general consensus that came through the answers. In terms of attitude and behavior, the words humility, mutuality, and “being with” were lifted up. More specifically, the need for World Mission to treat congregations, Presbyteries, and Synods more intentionally as partners both in terms of the wisdom and information they have through their own global mission efforts and as partners in the work the Office of World Mission undertakes. Communication continued to be lifted up as a necessary first step: improving communication, using different forms to communicate (not just email blasts), and intentionally working to make the communication a conversation instead of a monologue.
I had the honor of preaching the closing worship service. In the week or so leading up to the consultation, Jieun kept asking me if I had chosen my Scripture passage. The way I approach these invitations to preach is very prayerfully, asking the Spirit to lead me and help me know where to focus. Usually I have an idea pretty quickly, but for this consultation, I was still waiting for direction. So we left that part of the bulletin blank, and I continued to pray. By Saturday afternoon, the message began to take shape.
For me, there were two intense joys during the worship service, above and beyond the joy of gathering for worship, singing and praying, and feeling the presence of God. I’d asked Magdy to lead the pastoral prayer in his first language, which is Arabic, and it was beautiful. Then we all joined in the Lord’s Prayer, in at least six languages and several variations (sins instead of debts). It was a wondrous wall of sound, with different rhythms and intonations, all of our voices joining in one prayer coming straight from the language of our hearts.
The other joy was officiating at the table with Jieun. She has just been recently ordained, and because her current call is full-time within the Office of World Mission, she doesn’t have regular opportunities to serve communion. She led with such grace and joy shining in her face that my heart was touched deeply. Her service at the table was a gift to me.
First, I read Matthew 25:31-46 from The Message. This is the passage about the judgment of the nations, when sheep are separated from goats, and then told they either had or had not taken care of Jesus by feeding, providing drink, clothing, visiting, welcoming, and housing others they had met throughout their lives. The most significant language shift between The Message and the NRSV is this: instead of using “the least of these” to describe those who received care, The Message uses “someone who was being overlooked or ignored.”
This is a passage that we’ve focused a lot on these last several months, reading and re-reading it as the invitation to live into being a Matthew 25 church has rolled out. Because it has been in front of us so much, it is not what I would have picked to focus on today. But the Spirit nudged me, and as I listened, I began to hear that, as familiar as this passage has become, it was time to complicate it.
What I heard from the Spirit was a warning and a pointing towards danger. As we read this passage, and we receive the invitation to be Matthew 25 churches, we are envisioning ourselves as the faithful sheep, we are hoping that we will be the ones who are responding with care and compassion to the people around us. That is definitely something to hope for, but that is also where the danger lies. We are in danger of centering ourselves in this passage, making it about us and not about God, making it about what we do and how we do it. This is our tendency as white Christians, to center ourselves in the words of the Bible, to see ourselves first as the ones who do what is right and good. But if we center ourselves in this story, in the judgment of the nations, then we run the risk of making this all about our own work, our own actions.
Centering is the default of white privilege because we can barely understand a situation where we who are privileged are not at the center, not the linchpin that everything else revolves around. In this case, though, the centering extends beyond the white community. We have spoken bluntly about the wealth and power of the PCUSA this weekend, and while that wealth and power is less than it was, it is still significant. And for our members of color, our leaders of color, even when you have been and still are overlooked and ignored, you are still under the umbrella of this powerful denomination. The danger of centering ourselves as a whole in this story extends across lines of color in this case.
The second warning came through Valdir’s Bible study, challenging us to think more deeply about the context of the original listeners who passed this story on until it became Gospel. For those early followers of Jesus, the seemingly simple acts of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and visiting were not so simple after all. Doing any one of these things was full of risk and sacrifice, risk that could result in losing everything and sacrifice because these offerings were given out of scarcity, not abundance.
The first century Christians were persecuted fiercely, hunted down, jailed, even tortured and killed. The risk of opening your door to a stranger, to offering food to someone you did not know was immense. And the risk of visiting someone in jail, when you yourself are in danger of being arrested? That risk was immense. They could truly have lost everything by caring for those who were overlooked or forgotten.
This is the second warning and danger that I hear. When we engage in the activities described in Matthew 25, we do so out of our wealth and abundance. Even if our budgets are always in the red, the honest truth is that we have abundant resources at hand, and we are not risking much when we give a little. We give out of our abundance, and when we center ourselves in this passage, that leads us to believe we have done well.
The third warning and danger that the Spirit whispered to me through our deliberations is that when we center ourselves in this passage, when we act out of our abundance of power and wealth (even when we don’t recognize that we’re doing so!), then we remain as the ones who are in control. We are deciding how people are fed and clothed, we are determining how the sick and imprisoned are visited. As those centered and powerful, we protect ourselves from the risk of sacrificial giving and the risk of losing control.
I believe it is imperative for us to de-center ourselves, to take ourselves out of the active, dominant role, and to instead begin to learn from those who live into these actions every day simply because it is the only way they know how to live. If we can do that, if we can de-center ourselves, if we can learn what risk and sacrifice look like, and if we can open our hands instead of grasping our privilege so tightly, then we might begin to learn what I believe is the deeper message of this passage. As Americans, and as Presbyterians, we focus almost exclusively on the action, on the things to do. That’s what the center does. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” But the first step isn’t doing; the first step is noticing.
It is only in de-centering ourselves that we learn the truth. It is the overlooked and ignored, the forgotten and marginalized who are at the center of this story. Jesus centers them there by claiming their identity as his own. “When did we do this to you?” “When you did it to someone who was overlooked.” Jesus, who should always be the one at the center of everything we believe and do, centers the ones at the margins. And in this parable, how we notice those who we would usually look past or ignore is at the heart of judgment.
If we are to be a Matthew 25 church, and I hope we are, we must begin by removing ourselves as the heroes of the story, de-centering ourselves, and recognizing that the center belongs to the people Jesus identifies with most closely. We must refrain from rushing in to fix things out of our wealth, abundance, and privilege, and instead take the risk of opening our hearts to be transformed through loving our neighbors. Having risked loving, we then must let go of our need to control the process and outcome, to control the conversation, and allow Jesus along with those who are in the center to lead the way.
Once the World Mission Consultation ended, I enjoyed the gift of a few extra days at Zephyr Point all by myself. Well, there were other people there, but I was without a group to call my own. I had already planned a trip to Oak Harbor, Washington to see my parents, and a trip to Redwoods Presbytery for a co-mod visit. The consultation fell right in between those two trips, so instead of flying to Boston on Monday and then back to the Bay Area of California on Wednesday, I asked to simply stay put. It was wonderful.
I caught up on a lot of work and relaxed with a really good novel. For those who want to know what I’m reading, I love fantasy novels and am savoring the seventh and last book in a series by Sarah J. Maas. On Monday, I hiked up to a ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe. I also found a beautiful place called Rabe Meadows where I meandered for almost an hour. I listened to the birds, and let the scenery fill my soul with joy. For an introvert who operates as an extrovert a lot of the time, this was a blessing indeed.
This time apart was especially meaningful because it’s been an exceptionally full few months. In addition to my “day job” as Presbytery leader for the Presbyteries of Boston and Northern New England and my travel and responsibilities as co-moderator, I’ve also needed to travel to Washington state several times to be with my parents.
Sometime early in 2013, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which for her has manifested most notably in her ability to communicate. We knew something was wrong because, as I described it, she was losing her words, not being able to finish sentences or express her thoughts. There have been twists and turns on the journey since then, but on June 14, 2018, my parents moved into a retirement community with a memory care unit. It was the same day Vilmarie and I, with our husbands, arrived in St. Louis for the 223rd General Assembly, so it’s a date I won’t forget.
I am grateful beyond what I can express that I have such immense support from the leadership of the Presbyteries I serve, that in addition to my absence while serving the denomination, they also grant me time to be with my family. I’ve been on some video conferences at 6 am Pacific time as a result, but I’m never quite sure what time zone I’m in these days anyways. It’s a small price to pay. I also know that prayers are abounding, from OGA and PMA, from both Presbyteries, and from my friends and colleagues.
Up until now, I haven’t shared this publicly. Not because it’s a secret, but because, regardless of my public roles, I’m a fairly private person and so is my Dad. But with Mother’s Day having recently passed, and the complicated emotions that many of us feel around that day, and with my Mom’s continued decline, I desire more prayers for my family. Alzheimer’s is something too many of us know too much about.
These quiet days on Lake Tahoe were a balm to my soul and heart, refreshing me and refilling my well. My next visit is with the Presbytery of the Redwoods along with a panel on responding to veteran suicide and a visit with San Francisco Theological Seminary will begin. Stay tuned to hear more in the coming days!