It could be, the Rev. Jihyun Oh said during this week’s Coffee with the Clerk, that fermentation has something to teach us about discipleship. She’s been thinking about both processes as she prepares to speak to a small church gathering in Presbytery of New Hope in January.
“There is a sense in which things have to die. It looks messy and gross and it smells stinky,” Oh, director of Mid Council Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly, told the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, during the weekly conversation he hosts, posted on Facebook by Spirit of GA. “But in the end there’s something really nutritious and amazing that gets formed — and it’s transformed. I think food science has something to teach us about faith.”
“You just took the success model right out of ministry,” Nelson responded with a laugh.
Oh, who’s been on the job since July 1, has served congregations and worked for more than five years a chaplain in a hospital that treats trauma patients.
“There was something about the way I learned to be present” in her work as a chaplain, she told Nelson. She learned to listen “for what’s being said and what’s not being said.”
What she’s seen so far in the PC(USA)’s mid councils — presbyteries and synods — are “so many signs of life in our denomination right now. I see amazing ruling elders and teaching elders and churches doing amazing things, being faithful to God’s call and making wise decisions.” After “living with life and death” while ministering to trauma patients and their families and friends, “now there’s always hope, and that’s a good thing. It’s given me a lot of perspective.”
However, “I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t had those experiences,” she said, adding that as a pastor in transitional ministry, she heard a lot of the same questions that were raised by the families of trauma patients: Why is this happening? Why now? Why us?
There’s trauma in churches as well as in hospitals, Nelson said, including in those congregations that struggle just to keep the doors open and the lights on. “Where is hope?” he asked Oh.
Hope can occur, Oh replied, when “we allow ourselves to really grieve and ask the hard questions.”
More than once Oh said she heard loved ones telling trauma patients, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “Don’t cry — everything will be fine.”
“Everything will be OK, but life will be forever changed,” she said, and a worshiping community can be there for people experiencing grief. Presbyterian worship can and should contain language of lament, and liturgy encourages us to be truthful in our confession — concluding with the assurance of God’s pardon and God’s love.
“I think that’s the hope,” she told Nelson. On another occasion as a chaplain, she heard a husband tell his wife she was being unfaithful by asking God questions following the loss of her pregnancy. Oh stepped in to tell the woman, “If you don’t believe there was somebody hearing your questions, you wouldn’t be asking those questions. God can answer our questions and our doubts and hang with us — more than hang with us — in the wrestling.”
“As you can see,” Nelson told his audience with a smile, “she’s a preacher, too.”
For mid council leaders and for others, “not having the answers can be exhausting,” Oh said. “We feel that we have agency and are intelligent people. We are ready to go and do.” What’s important for Presbyterians right now is “sitting with our discomfort and listening — and as leaders getting used to not having answers.”
“For Reformed people, perfection on this side of eternity is not something we can bring about,” she said. But “God is still active, and we believe that. As long as we continue to be faithful to God’s call, God will continue to call us and renew us. I think that is the great hope.”