Friday, October 16, 2020

On Election, pt.3

 Note: I have heard that some of you have been reticent to sign up for in person worship because you do not want to take up a space that someone else might want or need. What a beautiful concern! Here’s how you can address it. So far, we have not had to deny anyone because we’ve reached our max capacity. Even so, when you register there is a space for you to add a note. Simply indicate that, if we reach our max, you would be happy to yield your seat to someone else. Then, if that is necessary, we’ll contact you with thanks. If not, you’re in!

 

During this month I am addressing the topic of election. You can read the two previous essays on my blog here. Today I want to address the most common way that people think about election: “Election means that we are predestined to go to heaven or hell regardless of what we believe, how we live, or what we choose.” If election is that automatic, we appear to be nothing more than programmed robots, and here we are imagining that we have lives of passion, conscience, deliberation, and choice. 

 

First, let me say, this common presentation of election is simply not biblical. Biblical election is when the texts express confidence in God’s power and God’s goodness together. And, biblical election is found in texts that deflate human arrogance by reminding us that some folks have ears to hear and some don’t; some folks have hearts that are hardened and some don’t; and that God is free to initiate, rather than dependent on our invocations or incantations. So, something as simple as beginning a prayer with “God is great, God is good” reflects part of the biblical tradition that ascribes sovereignty and freedom to God. Still, it is overspeaking to describe election as God’s whim that takes away human agency. There are too many texts, stories, testimonies, and claims in the Scriptures that express the human capacity to participate in, to follow, to trust in, and to respond to God. Claims about God’s power and goodness do not preclude human choice and will. In fact, the name “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” That’s not a robot. 

 

Also, the chief way that God is described – perhaps the only claim that tries to get to God’s essence – is that “God is love.” The nature of love, insofar as we understand and experience it, is that for love to be genuine it requires freedom. Therefore, if God’s love is important to us, then God’s freedom to love (or not) is important to us. And love not only requires freedom to be given, it grants freedom to be reciprocated. God’s freedom to love and our freedom to respond are expressed and implied repeatedly in the most repeated phrase of Scripture, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” 

 

So, election, as God’s free choice to love, really is a thing in the Scriptures. All of the great stories then begin with God’s free choice: Creation begins with “Let us make ….” The promise to Abraham begins with God’s choice. God consistently exercises freedom by choosing the younger over the older (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau), inverting the typical means of allocating power in the Ancient Near East. And, of course, in the New Testament, it is God who sends God’s son to bring salvation. 

 

However, while the idea of “election,” as God freely choosing, is the foundation for the biblical stories, that is far different from a definition of election that makes God an arbitrary power and that reduces us to robots. Love requires freedom, yes, but it also requires vulnerability. And that is where we’ll pick it up next week. 

 

Mark of St. Mark 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

On Election, pt. 2

As you might remember from last week, I am spending October talking about election. Last week I invited you to think of all of the “givens” in your life – the abilities, proclivities, qualities, and other traits that were given to you long before you made any conscious decisions or choices about your life. And, as I said last week, the ‘givens’ have enormous consequences for who you are, how you live, what you do in life, who you love, and how you roll. That part of your life is primarily what the doctrine of election aims to address. Paul’s question, “What do you have the you did not receive?” invites to approach our faith with the starting point of “the givens.” 

 

One implication that starting with “the givens” has for us is that our theology – our inquiry into who God is before us and who we are before God – is grounded in humility. The 19th century Reformed theologian Friederich Schleiermacher articulated this starting point in a way that has always been helpful to me. Speaking of religion in general, Schleiermacher argued that the beginning of religion is “the feeling of absolute dependence.” The very fact of my existence, of existence itself, is a reality into which I am thrown prior to any exercise of free will on my part. Is existence itself not worthy of wonder? And not only the fact of existence itself, but the capacity that you and I have to wonder at existence is another given for us. Rene Descartes expressed the philosophical conclusion to his method of doubt as, “I think, therefore I am.” I would express the religious starting point as “I am, therefore I wonder.” 

 

To me, this starting point of ‘existence that leads us to wonder’ is the chief purpose of any doctrine of election. “But wait!” you may be thinking, “Isn’t ‘election’ all about whether we are destined to go to heaven or hell?” That is indeed how most conversations about election go. I do not think that is exactly how Augustine of the 4th-5th century or John Calvin of the 16th century – the two most prominent theologians who are invoked in conversations about election – intended for it to go. But, that is how the conversation has normally played out, whether by advocates for the doctrine of election or opponents to it. I find that unfortunate, but history rarely asks my opinion about things like that. 

 

So, next week let’s look precisely at this question of whether the doctrine of election means that I am personally destined to go to heaven or hell, regardless of how I live, what I believe, or what I want. It is a compelling question in many ways, a misshapen on in others (in my humble opinion). 

 

Until then, Cheers,

 

Mark of St. Mark

 

On Election, pt. 1

I am going to spend the month of October talking about election. No, not “the election.” I have plenty of opinions about that, but this is not the place for me to share most of them. I really don’t talk about partisan politics a lot, but I do address matters of truth and justice that have often been politicized. There’s a significant difference. 

 

Still, that’s not what I am talking about this month. I’ll be discussing the doctrine of divine election that has been part of Reformed theology from its inception and part of many theologies prior to that. This topic has been in play much longer than democracy and electoral votes. And it aims to address something quite different than our electoral process. In the electoral process, we exercise our voice and we choose leadership, policies, and directions. The doctrine of election rests not on our choosing, but on our having been chosen; not our initiative, but God’s initiative; not our will, but God’s will. And, frankly, because it does not rest on our choosing, our initiative, and our will, many people reject or simply do not like the doctrine of election. 

 

If you are someone to whom ‘election’ and its sister-term ‘predestination’ give the heebie-jeebies, I hope to persuade you to reconsider it over this month. Here I go. 

 

I invite you to begin by thinking of some of the most significant things about your life, some of which seem essential and some accidental. You are human, not a rabbit. You are male, female, transgender, non-binary, or your gender is fluid or unique. You may be attracted to males, females, both, all of the above, or none of the above. You were born into a family (for good or for ill), into a particular national identity, with a particular ethnicity. You are tall, short, or of medium height relative to others. You are left-handed, right-handed, or ambidextrous. You can roll your tongue or not and cilantro may taste like an herb or like soap to you. Except for rolling a tongue and eating cilantro, most of these distinctions have enormous consequences for who you are, how you live, what you do in life, who you love, and how you roll. And, you did not choose a single one of them. They were given to you, either via your DNA or by the happenstances of your birth. Perhaps you have made many choices related to these given qualities of your life. But, long before you made any of those choices, your identity was shaped by all of these “givens.” 

 

If nothing else, the doctrine of election invites us to pay attention to the “givens” – dare I say, “the given-ness of the givens.” That’s what the Apostle Paul was encouraging those feuding Corinthians to do when he asked, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” 

 

So, if nothing else, let’s start this conversation where it belongs: Not with the question, “What about my freedom?” but the question, “What do I have that I did not receive? And if I received it, why do I boast as if it were not a gift?” 

 

Then we’re on our way to talking about divine election. 

 

 Mark of St. Mark

 

 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Reign of God and Pool Noodles

 As we look ahead to in person worship beginning October 4, below are some of the practices that we will follow in order to gather safely as a community that cares deeply for one another. Please remember: We will continue to offer livestreamed worship on Saturday evenings and post the recording of that worship on our website by Sunday morning. If you are at all concerned about your health, exposure to others, or the risk of exposing others; if you are at all unwell; and if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, please feel free to continue worshiping virtually. And, if Orange County experiences another wave of infections, we will respond accordingly. 

 

There will be a day when each of us has an “all clear” to gather safely without extraordinary precautions. Until then, here are the covenantal agreements that we will practice when we gather at 9:30 or 11:00. 

 

-       By attending, we will attest that we are not feeling sick and have not been exposed to someone with COVID-19 over the last fourteen days. 

-       We all wear masks. 

-       We will register ahead of time to ensure a safe number of attendees. 

-       We will honor social distancing before, during, and after worship.

-       We will practice non-touching ways of greeting one another. 

-       We will expect Ushers to offer reminders or corrections and respond kindly. 

-       We will be patient with each other as we all figure out how to do this well. 

-         

In addition, there are some modifications to worship and gathering that we will need to accept. 

-       We are unable to sing, serve communion, pass the peace, or pass offering plates. 

-       Restrooms are for emergencies and one person at a time, if possible. 

-       We will not offer child care, nursery, or Sunday School. 

-       There are no pew Bibles, so you should bring one if you like to read along. 

-       We will not have printed bulletins. 

-       We will not have our beloved “Patio Time” following worship. 

-       We are limiting the number of worship leaders using microphones. 

 

Our Ushers are meeting and focusing diligently on how to enable us to turn our ‘on paper planning’ into ‘in person practice.’ You are free to seek their direction or help at any time.

 

We will use six-foot pool noodles to ensure safe, social distancing during worship. We have staggered noodles on the pews, so that some folks can sit by themselves, while other families can sit together. Our pews are spaced so that every other row is six-feet apart. What that means is that if the space on the pew immediately behind or in front of you is empty, you are safely distant in those directions. Then, if you honor the pool noodle on either side of you, you are safe in those directions. Unlike ribbon or taped signs, the noodles will allow us to make small adjustments to accommodate larger families or to ensure your comfort. And, when the pandemic is a distant memory, we will have a pool party and pretend they are swords.

 

As I was spacing out the noodles this week, it did occur to me that sitting six feet away from others in every direction can feel a bit lonely. Then, a friend shared a story of her friend who felt isolated during worship because he was unable to sit closer to others. It is a reminder that even when we gather in person for the first time since March, it will not be the same experience that we have had for many years. So, we will give it some time, we will practice patience, and we will make adjustments along the way as we learn better. 

 

Registration for October 4 worship begins on Monday morning at 10:00am. You can click here to register. And please feel free to contact the church office if you need assistance (info@stmarkpresbyterian.org; or 949-644-1341). 

 

Thanks for being the church,

Mark of St. Mark

Friday, September 18, 2020

Hopeful Realism and In Person Worship

 There’s a really wonderful announcement at the end of today’s message. Don’t miss it! 

 

But first, I want to begin with a moment of what the theologian Douglas Ottati calls, “Hopeful realism.” That’s how I invite you to think about our forthcoming in person worship services. We will approach them with joy, but also with a clear-eyed understanding that we continue to live in the midst of a pandemic, so we glorify God and love one another best by practicing self-denying precaution. I want to be very clear that we are not gathering as a kind of brazen defiance of science. We’re not “sticking to the man” or baptizing arrogance by calling it faith. And we’re certainly not lending any credence whatsoever to divisive nonsense being perpetuated by QAnon and those who glibly perpetuate their lies. I hope that is clear. There are plenty of things in this world that are protest-worthy and plenty of causes worth living or dying for, but impatience with public health precautions is not one of them. 

 

Here’s what we are doing: We’re listening to science. We have an epidemiologist on our Faithful Phasing Team, who has helped us to understand Orange County’s recent movement from ‘purple’ to ‘red,’ in the State’s tracking system. We can safely gather, under very deliberate circumstances. Here’s what we are doing: We’re continuing to offer online worship. We know that some folks are more susceptible to this virus than others, some are more cautious about the possibility of exposure than others, some folks don’t agree with the fact that we are offering in person worship. If you are one of those folks, you matter, your opinion matters, and your health matters. So, the right thing for you is to stay home, stay safe, and participate in our worship online. And here’s what we are doing: We are demonstrating that a community of faith can gather and, at the same time, practice caring responsibility for one another. But, we can only do that if each of us subjects ourselves to the health and wellbeing of others. And this is key: If the county’s numbers change for the worse, we will change course. We mean it when we say that we are listening to science and practicing responsibility. 

 

I know this sounds awfully finger-waggy and I hope you know that I try not to use this tone very often. This tone is dedicated, not to the 99% who are well-intended, but to the 1% who might confuse liberty for license. And, as your pastor, I feel an enormous weight of responsibility regarding this decision and the process by which we will gather. So, let me be clear regarding my own role: If, when we gather, there is anyone not wearing a mask, not observing social distance, not abiding by the covenantal practices that enable us to gather safely, we will not worship. Back when the prophet Amos demanded that the people cease “the noise” of their worship, it was because they tried to offer worship while denying justice to others. I would rather risk my reputation, risk our friendship, and even risk my job, than to risk your life. Next week we will review some of these “best practices” that we will follow, enabling us to gather safely, while practicing justice and compassion toward one another. Thanks be to God. 

 

And now, for something completely joyous: We have hired DeJohn Brown, Jr. as our Director of Virtual Music Ministry here at St. Mark! DeJohn is a high school music teacher, who has been part of our choir for many years. We are delighted that DeJohn has agreed to take on this role, particularly during a time when we have to reimagine all of the traditional and familiar ways of being a choir and engaging in music during worship. Thank you, DeJohn, for leading us and thanks to all of you who supported this effort. It is so nice to have good news to share, and this is as good as it gets. 

 

Mark of St. Mark

Monday, September 14, 2020

Big News

 A Deliberate Step 


Friends, I have some very exciting and sober news to share. St. Mark will begin in person worship on Sunday, October 4, at 9:30 and 11:00am. Since the State of California has moved Orange County from ‘purple’ to ‘red’ in the color-themed tracking of COVID-19 data, we will be gathering in the sanctuary. So, for now, this is the news: In person worship resumes at St. Mark on Sunday mornings beginning in October. There are details below. Please review them so you will not be surprised and so that we can all work together to make this as smooth as possible. 


1. First and foremost, we will continue to offer our Saturday worship service via Facebook Live and post it on our website by Sunday morning. If you are unwell, if you are concerned, or if you need to sing in order to have a fulfilling worship service, the online service will continue to offer you a chance to worship with joy, gladness, and safety. 


2. If the County’s color code changes we will move worship outside. The staff and Worship Commission are preparing for either indoor or outdoor worship and the Faithful Phasing Team is monitoring the situation. Local epidemiologists have cautioned us that following the Labor Day weekend, with some schools opening, and with the usual flu season at hand, we may see a spike in our numbers, so we are prepared if that happens. 


3. We will be limited to 25% of our sanctuary capacity, which means 75 persons can attend a worship service. Therefore, we will have a registration process that you will need to use in order to attend. We can also use that information to contact you if we discover that another person in attendance subsequently has been diagnosed with the virus. We will make the registration process as easy to use as possible and you will always have a chance to call the church office if the online process is not feasible for you. The registration page will be up by September 21. 


4. Some things that you may be accustomed to in worship are not safe and will not be part of our services. They include: Passing the peace, communion, receiving the offering pew by pew, singing together, Sunday School, nursery services, and the doughnut hole-laden patio fellowship time. Bulletins will be virtual or on a self-serve table and we will need to be deliberate regarding how we enter and exit in order not to bottleneck around the doors. We are also exploring ways that one can sit outside and still hear the service. 


5. Families who shelter together will be able to sit side-by-side, but seating space will be staggered with proper distance beside, in front, and behind each other. 


6. Masks will be required. 


As you can see, we are trying to be attentive to the changing situation in Orange County while, at the same time, ensuring that we take every precaution possible. And, to repeat one last time, if the county’s situation changes for the worse, we will respond appropriately. 


Amid all of the precautions and adjustments, this is a very joyous occasion for us! There is something delightful about seeing one another’s faces, even if part of them are covered with masks. And I am especially happy to note that we will continue to make online worship available so that nobody is excluded. The amount of care, work, and consideration that your leadership have put into this decision is enormous. And while I’m sure that we all have some helpful ideas about how we navigate this change, please know that many of us have attended numerous webinars, read every article we could find, taken surveys, collected ‘best practices,’ and have spoken with others who have taken steps forward and backward to come to this moment. 


Thank you all for the patience that you have shown and for the ongoing support as we have taken a cautious approach to this pandemic. Your kindness and generosity have been key to bringing us to this moment. 


Blessings, 

Mark of St. Mark 



Friday, August 28, 2020

Moving Forward

 This week, the session of St. Mark made some important decisions that will affect the life of our church now and in the future. I’m going to share two of those decisions with you now, one of which is a done deal and the other of which is a work in progress. Next week I will share two other important decisions as well.  

 

First, the done deal: As of August 31, the St. Mark campus will be open for small group meetings, with10 or less people. We are specifically thinking of some of our commissions, forthcoming book groups, and other gatherings. We have a “Faithful Phasing” framework that clearly spells out the expectations that we invite those who gather to agree to, such as not attending if one is feeling unwell, keeping safe distance, and wearing masks. Our framework also invites meeting conveners to keep a zoom component to meetings, so that those who are not able or comfortable attending meetings in person can still participate. Each meeting will have a convener and the Faithful Phasing framework will be sent to each convener who will be responsible for ensuring that they are followed. It all sounds very cautious, because our goal is to ensure that the most vulnerable person is able to participate fully in the life of the church. 

 

If your commission or small group wishes to gather in person beginning August 31, you start by contacting the church office and scheduling the meeting with Sue-Ann Wichman.[1] The Church Office Staff will ensure that there is hand sanitizer available for each meeting, that you have a restroom available, and that the space will be sanitized before and after your meeting. Finally, we encourage groups to meet outdoors if they are able and have obtained shade umbrellas to make that feasible. 

 

Next, the work in process. We have a Faithful Phasing Team that meets every Tuesday morning, keeping an eye on how the numbers are trending in Orange County, what the State mandates and allows, as well as collecting resources about best practices for gatherings, worship, and so forth. The Session has set a process so that when the Faithful Phasing Team sees a three-week decline in important trend numbers, we can make a recommendation to initiate outdoor, in person worship gatherings. We have not set a date yet. We have set the process for making that decision and, meanwhile, the Worship Commission is working on how we plan to approach worship when that time comes. Even when we begin in person, outdoor worship, we will continue to have an online service for those who are not able or ready to begin gathering in person. 

 

In the meantime, the Membership Commission has put together a brief survey so you can let us know how you feel about our worship services going forward. The results of the survey will be collected and anonymous, so you are invited to be as candid as possible. Click here for a link to the survey.  

 

Finally, we know that the world is facing many challenges today, some far more severe than the question of when we can gather in person. There are fires in the west, storms in the east, and again we have witnessed an act of Police violence against an unarmed African American. Our call to pursue racial justice, and to begin by examining our own participation in systemic racism, is as important as ever. To provide a way for us, the Adult Discipleship and Nurture Commission will be starting a 4-week book discussion group on Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility starting in the first weeks of September. We will do our best to accommodate a range of schedules and hope that this will provide a congregation-wide opportunity to concretely engage on issues of race and racism. We only ask that you come with open hearts and a willingness to be challenged. Please email SueJeanne Koh-Parsons at suejeanne.koh@gmail.com if you are interested in participating or have any questions. 

 

Mark of St. Mark



[1] Sue-Ann Wichman’s contact: SueAnn@stmarkpresbyterian.org ; or 949-644-1341