Wednesday, June 17, 2020

To Hug Again One Day

One of the endearing qualities of the church where I grew up was that everybody hugged everybody. Being a little boy, I didn’t think to pay attention to how this activity might play out for people who don’t care to hug for whatever reason. What I remember and appreciate greatly was how this congregation – most of whom were “working class” folk presenting fairly traditional gender roles – was the only place I regularly saw people hug, cry, talk about their hurts, and put their humanity out there. Hugging was a big part of that and, as a little boy, knowing that men could hug men, women could hug women, and that even people presenting different genders could hug – without romantic or sexual connotations – was a huge life lesson.

Since that time I’ve also learned that hugging can be an avenue of harassment, inappropriate, or simply awkward on many occasions. I’ve figured out how to read body language from others, but also that I’m probably not as good at reading body language as I think I am, so I should err on the side of caution. The “Me too” movement was a long overdue sensitivity awakening for many of us, and now the rules of engagement during COVID-19 has accomplished what consciousness-raising could not. We are not hugging now, at least not folks outside of our sheltering circles. And while that might be a welcomed change in many respects, it’s a real loss in other respects. I had a conversation with a friend this week who reminded me of the chemical reactions that hugs produce, releasing endorphins that heal, as well as dopamine and serotonin, which soothe and help relieve tension.

Tara Parker-Pope has recently written an essay entitled, “How to Hug During a Pandemic.” You can read it here. It makes the case for how many of us miss hugging and includes some marvelous illustrations of how to and how not to hug safely. It even has a drawing of a grandparent kissing the top of a child’s head from behind - always one of my favorite gestures of receiving affection. Even so, while the essay argues that a quick hug, done well, carries very low risk of transmitting a virus, it ends with the caution that people should choose their hugs wisely, preferring meaningful hugs over casual hugs.

I’m not promoting a hugfest. Heck, I’m not in favor of an anything-fest. Not yet. I only want to show that the pandemic offers us a chance to re-evaluate our practices and to re-discover what is genuinely meaningful versus what we’ve simply come to accept as “normal.”

One of the best ways that we can embrace our collective experience of COVID-19, as well as the “Me too” movement, as well as the “Black Lives Matter” movement, is to welcome the opportunity to re-evaluate the things we have accepted as “normal.” To do so is to live into the challenge from the Apostle Paul in Roman 12, “No longer be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” When many of our “normal” ways of doing things are being revealed today as unjust, earth-damaging, racist, and impoverishing; when many of our casual arguments are being exposed as solipsistic rationalizations of selfishness; and when we’ve shown the capacity to politicize even science and safety – we need transformation. Transformation into the “mind of Christ” is a radical change, predicated on giving highest priority to the least favored among us. It was a prescription for ridicule and rejection for the early church, so we can expect no greater reception today. But it is the path we are on when we follow the crucified Christ. Perhaps it all begins with learning how to hug again – safely, respectfully, mutually, and meaningfully.

Mark of St. Mark

Friday, June 5, 2020

There's Got to Be a Morning After

One of my life features – a source of endless entertainment for my family – is that I really don’t know much about popular music. That’s the little pie piece of Trivial Pursuit that I can never get. When I listen to the radio in the car, it has always been Sports Talk, NPR, or maybe KJazz – talk or instrumental music more than lyrical music. I think it goes back to my hearing, because for the life of me I have never heard lyrics correctly. 

This week is a good example. I’ve been thinking a lot about the song, “The Morning After.” First, I could not have told you the actual title of the song. I only know it because I googled the one line I know from the song: “There’s got to be a morning after.” Second, I guessed that it was sung by Crystal Gale, but it turns out that it was Maureen McGovern and frankly I can’t tell one from the other. And finally, since the first line of the song contains the only words that I actually remember, I was way off about what the song actually addresses. The lyrics are about holding on through the stormy night in hopes of a better tomorrow when the sun shines again. It’s metaphorical, of course, and to that extent it is a lovely song that echoes the message that we often turn to in the 30th Psalm: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” It’s a beautiful message, both in the psalm and in the song. 

So, it turns out that I have been thinking a lot about the song, “The Morning After” this week, but for all the wrong reasons. I had it in my head that the song was about how, after a breakup, there is a morning after, when we begin to pick up the threads and start to rebuild life again. I had in mind, not a place “safe and warm” (as google tells me are actual lyrics in the song), but someone picking through the rubble, salvaging and discarding, hoping to rebuild after things had fallen apart. And particularly, I’ve been thinking this week about how I (and perhaps you) will wake up after the protests have been protested, the marches have been marched, and the speeches have been spoken. What will we do next? Where do we go from here? What will be the effects, or rather the after-effects of being “woke”? 

My line of thinking is less like the 30th Psalm and more like the stirring poem of Howard Thurman that says, When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among all, To make music in the heart. 

That’s what has been in my mind this week. I’m delighted that so many people are lifting their voices, waving their signs, gathering their bodies, and expressing their conviction that Black Lives Matter. I grieve that such a sentiment even needs to be expressed, but the litany of innocent black lives that have perished, black persons who have died while already subdued, or the repeated hung juries, verdicts of “not guilty” or pleas to lesser charges that all but exonerate the accused – they demand people of faith and good will to push past blanket statements like “All lives matter” and to pinpoint the systemic racism that has been this nation’s legacy since 1619. 

So, yes, the protests and rallies and Facebook posts and t-shirts are all part of being responsive to our moment and accountable to the call to justice. But, my mind is on the morning after. When the notoriously short public attention span has moved on, who is doing the long, difficult, introspective and prophetic work of changing the system? Will we be that church? We will be about doing the work that the prophet Thurman describes, “To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among all, To make music in the heart”?

Next Tuesday, June 9, at 7:00pm, we are invited to join with our friends at New Hope Presbyterian Church in a Virtual Vigil, the purpose of which is to talk and pray about racial injustice and reconciliation. If you want the zoom link, send a request to info@stmarkpresbyterian.org and if you have any questions please feel free to contact me at mark@stmarkpresbyterian.org.  

Mark of St. Mark 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

COVID-19 UPDATE

This week the Session of St. Mark made two significant decisions. First, the Session has adopted a Faithful Phasing framework for how we plan to approach the question of when and how to resume in-person worship together. This framework is an attempt to bring as many of the overarching concerns and related logistical questions that we face together in a coherent way and yet to remain flexible as more insight into COVID-19 and our community health becomes available. 

There are two things I want to communicate initially about this framework. 
1. We have not yet set a date for in-person worship. Please note that. The decision for when and how we resume in person worship falls to the Session – not the Pastor, not the Presbytery, not the PCUSA General Assembly, but also not the Mayor, County Supervisors, Governor, or President. Until the Session makes that decision, our worship will be strictly online. If you are unable to access our worship, please call the church office and we will enable you to do so. 
2. Our process for making the decision about in-person worship will begin with our Health Ministries Commission. We have asked the Health Ministries Commission – staffed by Pastor Hayes Noble, Parish Nurse Beth Schwarz, and Parish Counselor Gretchen Carrillo – to stay apprised of all of the best practices and latest studies regarding community health, in order to guide this decision in a safe and reasonable manner. And, while the Commission will initiate the discussion, the ultimate decision will fall to the Session. 

I know that many of you are missing one another and missing participation in an act of worship each week that means so much to your life, your faith, your family, and your church community. Me too. We are doing our best to stay connected through Zoom meetings, online worship, occasional drive-by greetings, and social media – and it’s not the same. But, in a week when the death toll in the US passed 100,000 we continue to be in the worst health crisis that many of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. So, we pray for wisdom for our leadership in our decision-making, we pray for patience with the process, we pray for those who are grieving losses, we pray for those who put themselves in harm’s way each day in order to offer care, and we pray that – even in these strange times – God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. 

In the meantime, we continue to be the church! As important as our in-person, gathered worship experiences are to us, our identity as a church has always been much larger than that. And that leads me to the second decision that your elders made this week. The Session has agreed to add $100,000 to our missional giving for this year, specifically supporting COVID-19 related organizations and other ministries that have been affected by the pandemic. Following the initiation of our Finance Commission and the work of the Mission Commission, the Elders were able to make this decision because you have been incredibly generous. Our finances are strong because of you. We are able to reach into our reserve funds and give extraordinarily because of you. You are being the church by serving the most vulnerable. Even at a time when many churches are feeling the crunch financially, your generosity has allowed your leadership to do something extraordinary. Well done, Finance Commission! Well done, Mission Commission! Well done, Elders! Well done, St. Mark! 

Jesus once said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Christians have been trying to revise that statement for years, arguing that we need to get our hearts in a good place then we can attend to putting our treasure to work for compassion and justice. But, I like to think that Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. So, if someone asks you whether or not St. Mark is “open,” I invite you to respond this way: “Our hearts are open. Our hands are open. Our lives are open. Our community is open. Yes, we are open; we’re just not worshiping in-person yet.”

Mark, proudly of St. Mark 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Sheltering, Isolating, Seclusion, and Cloistering.


 The New York Times has a series of articles that are simply fascinating in word and picture, called "The World through a Lens," where they are focusing on remote places. Yesterday’s essay was about an island in the south Atlantic, Tristan da Cunha, that is reachable by boat from Cape Town, but they say that you should pack to stay a while because that boat only makes a handful of trips a year. One Islander summed it up this way, “Tristanians will do business with the world; we understand it’s important to be in the world if you want something from it. … But the world can keep its bombs and bird flu. Whatever we’ve got here is under our control. It’s the remoteness of the island that has jelled us and brought us all together.” 

A month ago there was an article that you really may want to read, savor, then cut and paste for future reference. It's about a convent, the Phoka Nunnery of St. Nino, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of the Republic of Georgia. I love the photos, black and white, which is entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Here is an example. It's the church that the nuns rebuilt there and it's perfect.

These stories are speaking to me right now, for various reasons, but likely because we are in a weirdly mixed space of virtual interaction and grids of interdependence, as well as isolation and separation. And yet, this space, this odd, odd space, can be where grace finds full expression. It's hard to imagine grace on a day when everyone in the house is sick of each other, or when someone really, really needs your presence and all you can do is make a phone call. There is confusion and there are problems, yes. But isn't that precisely the platform on which grace happens? 

I hope today your isolation can become cloistering; your quarters an island of depth and meaning; and your quiet a spirit of prayer. 

Mark of St. Mark

To read the essay about the Convent, click here.  


Friday, May 8, 2020

National Day of Prayer

Yesterday I had the chance to join the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council online for a National Day of Prayer event, which featured a presentation by Dr. Michael Hurwitz, Chief of Staff at Hoag Hospital. It was a fascinating review of what is happening at Hoag and a stark reminder of how blessed we are to have hospitals of this caliber and a medical community of this caliber in our area. I am convinced that one reason Orange County has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well is because of institutions like Hoag and personnel who take such a conscientious and informed approach toward our public health. 

It was impressive to hear how Hoag had planned their equipment and personnel for the worst-case scenario, such as deputizing some anesthesiologists and pulmonologists to be backup “intensivists” (intensive care specialists). It was disconcerting to hear that N95 masks, which cost about 53 cents each prior to the pandemic, can cost as much as $6.83 now. It was maddening to hear how some patients and even some doctors, using information from outside of the normal bounds of proven research, would demand certain drugs and treatments that the hospital staff was not accustomed to using. It was helpful to hear how the CDC made some of its early recommendations – such as not requiring masks for every encounter from the start – based on the concern that requiring masks for every encounter might have depleted the initial supply, which were needed for critical cases. And it was sobering to hear that Hoag had assembled an Ethics Committee to help establish thoughtful guidelines just in case the pandemic forced our area hospitals to make difficult triage choices. Thankfully, the local case load never came anywhere near that critical junction. 

In the end, the moderator of the meeting asked Dr. Hurwitz if there was anything that he would like the faith leaders to communicate to our congregations. The answer: When we see on newscasts how overwhelmed hospitals in New York City and some other large cities are, we are often left with the impression that hospitals are hotbeds of COVID-19 infection. Dr. Hurwitz argued that this impression is far from the truth at Hoag and other area hospitals. The extra-precautionary process for separation, disinfecting, disallowing visitors, and attending to the health of the health providers themselves means that Hoag is probably as safe as a public building can be. And that is important because, at the outset of the sheltering-in-place order, non-essential surgeries, treatments, and procedures were delayed for 4-6 weeks. That delay has now passed. Dr. Hurwitz specifically wants you to know that if you have a medical need – even if it is not life-threatening or COVID-related – you should not deny yourself out of fear of being in the hospital. Of course, elective surgeries will continue to be more of a judgment call, but for now there is no compelling reason to avoid addressing real medical needs. 

We concluded the meeting with prayers and songs from many different faith traditions that are represented here in our communities. We prayed for the world, our nation, our state, our county, our cities, our families, and each of us as individuals. When we say there are over 270,000 deaths around the world and almost 75,000 deaths in the US, the bulk numbers easily become statistics. When we remember that each life lost is a grievous event for family and friends, the numbers become more of a tragic reality. On top of that, the shutdown of so many businesses and schools, the tedium of sheltering in place, and the prospects of an economic shock to come gives us all justified concern. 

My prayer for you is health, hope, and an abundance of joy as we make sacrifices for the good of each other, serve one another with compassion, and live as a light in the world that has tasted the pain of darkness. 

Mark of St. Mark

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Urgent and the Important

Years ago I heard Charles Swindoll make a critical distinction, which he attributed to Dwight Eisenhower. Apparently Eisenhower ordered his assistants to put matters on his desk into two stacks, one marked “Urgent” and the other marked “Important.” 

Both stacks are very important. Both stacks need attention. It would be as irresponsible to ignore one pile as it would the other. However, it is often the case – in matters ranging from public policy to personal health – that urgent matters scream for attention while important matters quietly end up on a back burner. What Eisenhower recognized – at least with regard to this arrangement on his desk – is that we have to be deliberate to ensure that we do not lose sight of the important by, what Swindoll called, “The tyranny of the urgent.” 

The “Urgent” is screaming like a Banshee these days and cannot be ignored. Of course and appropriately our news cycles, business concerns, religious practices, daily work, home life, and common chatter are all about matters related to COVID-19. Safe practices, social distancing, caring for the most vulnerable, and considering what kind of sustainable life will emerge when we eventually see ourselves on the other side of the pandemic are all urgent, necessary, and difficult conversations that deserve our attention. Likewise, just getting by another day in a household of persons whose routines have been thoroughly disrupted can be exhausting. For those who are actively engaged in serving by providing healthcare, food, essential services, and the like, just getting the job done while minimizing the risk of contracting or carrying the virus is a tall order. The urgent feels more urgent right now, more of a common fixation at every level of community, than ever before in most of our lifetimes. 

And then there’s that “Important” stack, sitting over there, quietly and unobtrusively. The extreme urgency of the now almost makes the “Important” pile seem like items for when we have the luxury of time, the leisure to attend to them, not matters with which we can bother at the present. But, this is the stack where the long, slow, daily-monthly-yearly work of justice usually ends up. Environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, food insecurity, educational disparity, voting rights, immigration policies, LGBTQIA protections, disability access, national security, international peacemaking – all of these incredibly important matters can easily be swept aside as we focus on getting the paperwork of an SBA loan into the right hands, retraining ourselves to keep a mask in the car, grieving a loss, or trying to adjust to extreme amounts of solitude and family time. The irony is that the urgency of COVID-19 has brought many of the longer-term inequities into bold relief. 

So, here are some important matters to which you can attend today. I do not suppose that we all share equal conviction about each of them, so this is just a representative sample of how we can ensure that we do not lose sight of the important in the midst of the urgent. 

-       If you haven’t done so already, fill out your Census and send it in. An accurate count is important, since the 2020 Census will influence community funding and congressional representation for the next decade. Information collected in the census will inform the allocation of more than $800 billion in federal funds for states and municipalities each year. If you have filled in and sent in your Census, someone you know might need help or encouragement in filling out their Census.
-       One way to stay engaged in matters like Palestinian-Israeli relations, US policies toward Iran, and underlying causes of racial disparity in COVID-19 cases, is to sign up for Action Alerts from the Presbyterian Mission Agency Office of Public Witness. Find out more here.
-       You can join Bread for the World in ensuring that vulnerable populations will continue to receive SNAP essential needs. Find out more here
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What are other ways that we can ensure we do not lose sight of the important while attending to the urgent? I’d love to hear from you. 

Mark of St. Mark



Friday, April 24, 2020

Tragedy and Pandemic

Quick Announcement: On Sunday from 1:00-2:00pm, our Parish Counselor Gretchen Carrillo will be offering an online Zoom Resilience Workshop for those who are feeling stressed out by the Corona Virus. Click here in order to request the Zoom information.

I want to share some personal views about our moment, by thinking about tragedy. We often use that term as a description of something very unfortunate or a situation that has gone very badly. However, the classic use of “tragedy” has a particular meaning to it. Reinhold Niebuhr described it with regard to the irony of ancient Greek tragedies, where over and over we see “the hero’s deeper involvement in his own fate through his very efforts to extricate himself from it.”[1] A biblical example would be Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus begins that prayer by asking God to take “the cup” - the impending rejection, betrayal, and crucifixion - away from him. Jesus ultimately relents to say, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours.” Karl Barth describes the tragedy of that prayer as Jesus knowing that in order for God’s will to be done, Jesus’ enemies had to succeed. 

On the whole, we Americans don’t do tragedy well. The plot to almost all of the hero movies, comic books, cartoons, novels, and stories that I consumed as a child was the same: The hero would be minding his (yes, his) own business just trying to be a good person. The villain would ceaselessly bully the hero, or the folks whom the hero defends, with what seemed to be an insurmountable advantage. There would be that poignant moment when the hero would reach the end of his (yes, his) patience and call on his courage/six-shooter/super power/can of spinach and finally “make it right.” It was like getting a Ph.D. in what Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.”[2] I not only consumed it as entertainment, it became the lens through which I saw the world, history, and even the Scriptures. Of course, I saw Jesus agonizing in the garden, but the church taught me to treat Gethsemane and Calvary as that moment when the hero Jesus is down, leading to the inevitable climax of Jesus coming back on a white horse, full of righteous violence, and taking no prisoners in the end. Instead of seeing the cross as central to the Scripture’s message of “redemptive suffering,” I was taught to see it as a passing moment in a story of redemptive violence. The classic use of “tragedy” has very little room to mean anything when we are conditioned to think that the hero inevitably will join the battle and inevitably emerge victorious. 

By relegating “tragedy” to a passing moment in the inevitable flow toward redemptive violence, we have left ourselves ill-equipped for facing something like a pandemic. Not only did we, early on, start drawing on the analogy of “war” to shape our language and our mentality toward the virus, we are so impatient to get to the victory parade on the other side that we are not able to hold the moment at hand. Here is a simplified look at our tragedy: Prolonging the “shutdown” really does pose an economic disaster for many folks. While we might dismiss the people who insist that they have to “get their hair done,” it is less easy to dismiss the effects of the shutdown on the hairdresser, the table server, the janitorial service, and the production line worker. The shutdown has real serious economic effects that fall disproportionately on the service industry, those who are already living on the edges of the economy. At the same time, our service industries often expose workers to precisely the kinds of conditions that optimize infection. The best means of weakening the effects of a novel virus is not to charge forward and hope for a quick fix that works like magic, but to practice separation, isolation, flattening the curve, and keeping it that way. It is a classic tragedy: Opening the economy prematurely will have devastating, deadly effects on our health; prolonging the shutdown may have devastating effects on the economy and will certainly punish the poorest the most severely.  

I should be clear in what I believe: We have not reached the point to where we can end the shutdown; we must only begin opening businesses when we can do so in a smart, gradual, and safe manner; and I am not willing to accept the inevitability of “collateral damage” as a way of referring to those who suffer the worst effects of the virus. Tragedy does not mean moral equivalency. It means that doing what one must has devastating consequences. 

My training taught me to either scream and holler at rallies or ridicule those who scream and holler at rallies on social media. The gospel is calling me to a better use of my energies: Nod my head with understanding toward those who are anxious about the economy, affirming their anxiety while resisting their solutions; look for ways to attend to the needs of those most affected by the shutdown instead of simply making sure that ‘me and mine’ are protected; err on the side of caution, because the virus I contract may have its worst effects on others and not me; and do everything within the power of my voice and vote to live toward a more just and sustainable society in the future. I feel like tragic faithfulness has this kind of shape, particularly in our current moment. 

Mark of St. Mark


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, "Greek Tragedy and Modern Politics," The Nation 146 (January 1938): 740. 
[2] It was also a training in privilege. Many persons of color in the US did not have a sense that heroic action would ‘inevitably’ lead to a righteous victory or a happy ending.