Cindy spent the middle of May in Northern California speaking about PTSD and veteran suicide, as well as visiting the Sacramento Presbytery and San Francisco Theological Seminary. Earlier this month we shared a new free resource on suicide prevention for faith leaders with the Presbytery of Boston, and this seems like an appropriate time to link to it again given the nature of this trip. Now from Cindy:
My trip to Northern California started at the Rockville Presbyterian Fellowship in Fairfield, California for a morning of conversation and resourcing around the crisis of veteran suicides and how the community can build a response.
Dee Cooper, Transitional Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of the Heartland, has been working with care providers in the Air Force for many years, offering resiliency training and self-care education, so she led off the morning. She had us work through our own reactions to suicide, asking us to notice in our bodies and in our breathing where our feelings reside so that we can be present in essential ways to people who are talking with us, but also to ourselves.
Next, Annamae Taubeneck spoke about the effects of PTSD on veterans, and the jarring surreal experience of returning from a field of combat or high risk to the United States. She shared that, while deposed in high risk areas, service people are told to avoid crowds, to avoid places where there is no clear or easy exit, to always be aware of who and what is around you, to always be assessing danger. After exercising that “alert” muscle for weeks, months, and even years, you can’t just put it down or stop doing it. You have built an internal muscle memory that is now instinctual and is triggered every time you enter a building, join a crowd, catch something moving out of the corner of your eye. As she shared, it can be simply overwhelming.
I learned from Annamae, who is also a Presbyterian pastor, that there is an organization called Vet Centers that cares for those who have experienced trauma in the military, in a combat arena, through sexual abuse, through handling human remains, and, most recently, through the operation of drones. This care is open to active duty, reservists who have experienced trauma, and veterans, as well as their families. It is also completely confidential, connected to the VA system but separate in terms of record keeping and any reporting. Vet Centers and VA establishments also work with local churches and organizations to do several kinds of programs and trainings to help reach out to veterans and people living with military related trauma in communities. The resources she shared were rich.
My role was to address the local church and regional context, and discuss how those of us who are outside of the military structure can be partners and collaborators in addressing veteran suicide. Given everything I had learned that morning, it was clear to me that there are no easy ways forward, so I chose to address the ways our various religious traditions talk about mental health, suicide, and military service. This is something we can control as religious leaders, and if we don’t begin to change our language around these issues, then we will continue to raise generations of young adults who believe that there are stigmas attached to these things.
Let’s be honest. The PCUSA is a denomination focused on peace-keeping, on ending wars, on redirecting our financial resources from military needs to community needs. I fully support those things, but I also support the men and women who see military service as a duty and an honor, and join for the hope of serving their country and the hope for better opportunities. If all of our language demonizes and shames military service, then we cannot pretend that service people who have seen combat will be welcome in our churches. It’s as simple as that. Can we hold both things together? Peace and care for the soldier who is in our midst? Or will we be more faithful if we help traumatized veterans find faith communities where they will not add a layer of religious shame to everything else they have experienced? It’s not an easy question, but I believe part of loving our neighbors as Jesus has commanded us to is wrestling with just such a reality.
I also challenged the religious leaders from the more conservative/evangelical side of the spectrum. The ways that mental health and suicide are discussed can often be harmful, proclaiming that if you only pray hard enough, you will be healed and stating that dying by suicide is an unforgivable sin. If this is what we teach our young adults, we should not be surprised when they don’t come to the church for help when the very things that are destroying them from the inside out are the things we have said are sinful and signs of weakness.
From the morning gathering, Rick Jones and I left for San Francisco Theological Seminary, where Scott Clark had organized a wonderful visit. We gathered in a classroom for a time of conversation with five students and one staff member, all of whom were women (you can read about the conversation here).
I love these opportunities for small group conversation because we can go deeper into whatever subjects are on peoples’ hearts. I also love being able to tell the story of the Moderator’s cross and pass it around the room. The group at SFTS was no different; the cross was passed from hand to hand while I recounted its history, and then I told them that they are now part of that history. Their fingerprints, their DNA, are now part of the story of the Moderator’s cross.
After our conversation, we got a quick tour of the main campus. What a beautiful facility, located on the side of one of the many hills around San Anselmo! Then we went to dinner, where a few different students joined us for conversation around the table and a wonderful meal.
I often hear people worry and wonder about the future of leadership in the PCUSA. Yes, we have fewer people going to seminary, and as long as a three year, residential degree is the standard, I don’t think that will change. But the people who are in seminary, the students I met at SFTS and last year at Columbia, they are amazing. Gifted, intelligent, passionate, hopeful, and wondering what their role will be in the changing church after graduation and ordination. I left my time at SFTS with deeper hope and joy because of these future leaders.
Next up was our gathering at Travis Air Force Base for the Presbytery of the Redwoods assembly meeting. It was a unique situation, with car after car of Presbyterians being cleared at the gate to the base and traveling to Twin Peaks Base Chapel for the morning. The two military chaplains who are members of the Presbytery, one Army and one Navy, were there in uniform, and the Moderator of the Presbytery, who is a police chaplain, also came in uniform, adding a visual depth to the gathering that is often missing.
After learning from the Presbyter/Stated Clerk that the Presbytery was exploring themes of racism during 2019, I had decided to preach on Ephesians 2:1-22. A longer passage than I would usually choose, but, for me, the two parts were necessary to build the sermon. The first part of the chapter, verses 1-10, focus on the grace of God. In fact, multiple times the author proclaims “it is by grace you have been saved!” This is a good news starting point for me. My salvation, and the grace of God that accompanies me every day of my life, does not depend on what I accomplish, what titles I may hold, what successes I may lay claim to, or the failures, hurts, and embarrassments of my life. No, God’s grace is only linked to God’s love for me, for you, for all of the people of the world. It is not by works we are saved, so that no one may boast.
Good news indeed! I believe that if we can claim that promise, believe in it and abide in it, rest in God’s grace instead of the push of the world for success and power, then we can begin to be open to the work that Christ calls us to do. When we abide in grace, then we are not threatened by what other people have or what other people have accomplished, because grace is abundant enough for all.
The second part of the chapter, verses 11-22, focuses on the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles because Christ has broken down the dividing wall, the wall of hostility between the two groups, making them into one. Because it is by grace we are saved, not by works or following the law, then it is not faithfulness to the law that determines membership in the body of Christ. This is another piece of good news. It is Christ who has the power and the mercy to break down the dividing wall between us. We can’t do it ourselves, we can’t do it by our own will or intellect. Christ alone can bring reconciliation and forgiveness, humility and renewal between us who have built walls.
Ah, but this good news comes with a twist. Who does the work of Christ in this world? Who sees that the love of Christ is shared and the abundant life Christ offers is proclaimed? We are the body of Christ, we are the hands and feet of Christ, and while it is the power of Christ that can break down dividing walls of hostility, we are the ones called to do the work for the sake of and in the name of Jesus. And we are good at building walls. We are so good at gathering stones and piling bricks and mixing mortar and adding layer to layer to layer. We build small walls of resentment and jealously, we build medium walls of inclusion and exclusion, and we build walls to the sky of hate, anger, and fear, mixing into the mortar of those walls all the “isms” and supremacies and us vs. them ideologies that hide in our hearts. We build walls based on race, language, color, identity, orientation, gender, class, ability, affiliation, etc, etc, etc. The list is long and the walls are everywhere we turn.
I asked the congregation, and I ask myself, is this the world we want our children and grandchildren and their children to inherit? A world divided by walls of hostility, hemming us in forward and behind, cutting us off from one another and ultimately also strangling the love and grace of God? Do we want to live in a world where it is the divisions that define us?
I don’t want to live in that world, though it is the world that we are building almost as fast as we can. I want to live in a world where differences can at the very least be accepted and at the best be celebrated because the basic human worth of each person is respected. Where we can disagree about method or process and still sit and share a meal together with love in our hearts. Where the things that divide us can be faced because of the grace of God and be broken down because of the power of Christ.
As we were finishing up the tour of the base, I asked Rene Myers, who was also visiting for the meeting, where she was heading next. She’s the Mission Engagement Advisor for the region for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), which means she travels to Presbyteries to interpret the work of PMA, how mission money is used, and how to be involved. Her answer to my casual question opened up a new opportunity for my time in northern California.
“Sacramento Presbytery is meeting tomorrow, so I’m joining them.”
I looked at my host for the weekend, and she said, “Oh, you totally have to go.” So I got a copy of the docket from Rene, emailed the Presbytery leader, and made new plans for Saturday morning.
The meeting was being hosted by Parkview Presbyterian Church, a historically Japanese congregation with a 107-year history. They have an almost five year gap in their minutes from the period when the members were displaced and in internment camps during World War II. Now they are a diverse congregation but there are glimpses of their Japanese heritage everywhere you look.
The Moderator of the Presbytery added me to the docket, and I gave a brief greeting before sharing those words of encouragement and prayer with the Presbytery. Before the meeting, I’d spoken with the chair of the search committee for the next Presbytery leader, and she told me that they were using the word “coddiwompling” to describe their process. Coddiwompling, according to the Oxford Dictionary forum, means “traveling in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.” Sounds like a great description for Christian life in general! I’m never quite sure where Jesus is going to lead me next, but I’m striding in that unknown direction in a purposeful manner! Anyway, I encouraged the Presbytery to continue in their coddiwompling, trusting that God would be shaping the path as they continued to move forward.
The other blessing of the morning was participating in the commissioning of the Presbytery’s Triennium group. They had a huge group of youth and adults preparing to travel to Purdue in July for Presbyterian Youth Triennium. I asked if I could be part of the commissioning, and was given the honor of asking the delegation and then the Presbytery questions of commitment.
My host and I slipped out after worship ended because she had planned to take me to Monterey Bay to see the aquarium and give me some time off. I’m so glad that my casual question the day before resulted in the opportunity to visit briefly with Sacramento Presbytery, though. And the pastor who had approached me earlier in the year came up to me before we left. “How did you come here?” she asked as she gave me a hug. “It was God,” I answered. It truly was.
The rest of the day was a blessing in another way. I love nature and, something many people don’t know about me, am a scuba diver. Going to an aquarium and marveling at the incredible variety of God’s creation is something that fills me with joy and wonder. In addition to that, as my host Joanne and I spent the day together, it became clear that a new friendship was emerging.
Sunday morning brought me back to Rockville Presbyterian Fellowship, this time for worship. When I arrived, the choir was beginning to gather to rehearse their pieces for the morning. It was their last Sunday singing before the summer break, so they had two anthems and a special guest percussionist. Beat box and steel drum! Pretty awesome.
When I preach on Sunday mornings, I try to follow the lectionary, especially if that is the practice of the church where I’m visiting. For this Sunday, I focused on the Acts and John readings, pairing Jesus’ words in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion with the third recounting of Peter’s vision and subsequent meeting with Cornelius.
I began my sermon by exploring the context of Jesus’ words in John 13 about the commandment to love one another. I wondered if the disciples gathered in the room (and the women who were surely around the edges, because you know the men did not cook the meal or serve it) understood Jesus’ words to only refer to those in the room. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Who is “one another?”
Given the passage in Acts and the fight in the early community following Jesus about who was in and who was out, I can say with some certainty that the disciples thought Jesus was only referring to them, and perhaps to the rest of the Jewish people. Though they often didn’t understand what Jesus was saying or doing, they did come to a belief in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but just for them. Just for the chosen few. Just for the “in” crowd. That’s why Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius is so important, and why that story is recounted three different times in the book of Acts. This turned the early faith community upside down because now the Holy Spirit has descended on the Gentiles, the outsiders, and God had clearly indicated that they were no different than the ones who were on the inside.
While I was preaching the sermon, a thought dropped into my head. How many miracles did Jesus perform for the disciples? Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, and Peter brought in a catch of fish that strained the nets after Jesus’ resurrection. I can’t think of any other examples of Jesus’ miracles directly benefitting the disciples once they were following him.
Jesus granted healing and freedom, life and justice to those who were outside. They weren’t disciples, and often they were on the very fringes of society. Jesus showed love and compassion, “love with skin on it” as Diane Moffett says, to the people that others, including the disciples who were “in,” would discount. In fact, in The Message’s interpretation of Matthew 25:40 substitutes “someone overlooked or ignored” for “the least of these.” That’s who Jesus loved; that’s who Jesus commands us to love as well.
After worship, it was time to head towards San Francisco. But before we headed to the hotel, we indulged in a high tea at a little, cozy corner shop called Dartealing, walked across most of the Golden Gate Bridge, and shared a light dinner at the Cliff House overlooking the ocean. What a wonderful visit it has been, full of opportunities to connect and encourage, and time to rest and be refreshed. Thank you!