Friday, September 13, 2019

International Peacemaker

You have probably seen in various St. Mark missives that we will be welcoming an International Peacemaker from Palestine, Muna Nassar, to our area at the end of September. Muna will be presenting at the Saturday and Sunday worship services at St. Mark on September 28 and 29, and will offer a workshop at the Presbytery of Los Ranchos meeting on Saturday, September 28 at St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church (16911 Bolsa Chica St. in Huntington Beach) at 12:30pm. Muna will also be meeting with our youth and others from the presbytery during her stay here. 

A few introductory notes may be in order. 

1. “International Peacemakers” is a ministry of the Peacemaking Program of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). They invite leaders of partner churches to share their experiences from around the world as peacemakers. This is one of the missions supported each year by our Peacemaking Offering, which we receive on Worldwide Communion Weekend, the first weekend in October. 

2. Muna is part of a movement in Palestine called “Kairos Palestine.” The word “kairos” is from one of the two Greek words in the New Testament that refer to time. The other is “chronos.” “Chronos,” as you would imagine, refers to chronological time, the succession of seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc. “Kairos” has come to mean something more like “the right time,” a propitious moment that calls us to take a stand, offer a word, etc.  

3. In 1985 Christians in South Africa issued a document called The South African Kairos Document, issuing a call for churches to recognize the realities of life under Apartheid, to resist, and to demand change. Similar documents were written in other contexts, such as Central America, Zimbabwe, and India. In 1989, a group of Christian Palestinians issued the Kairos Palestine document, officially entitled, “A Moment of Truth: a word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” You can read the Kairos Document here. It is not a brief read, so you will want to give yourself time. 

4. In 2010, the General Assembly (G.A.) of the PCUSA approved a report from the Middle East peacemaking committee and commended the study of the Kairos Palestine document to all members and churches of the PCUSA. They also directed the peacemaking group to write a study guide for that document, which you can find here.

It is hard to find a topic that generates more controversy between Jews, Muslims, and Christians than Palestine/Israel. Even among PCUSA commissioners when the G.A. meets every two years, the conversations are difficult and decisions are negotiated very carefully.  In 2003, the G.A. approved a study entitled “Resolution on Israel and Palestine: End the Occupation Now.” In 2008, the G. A. approved a more moderate approach, arguing for the need not to “over identify with the realities of the Israelis or the Palestinians.” Even so, the PCUSA has consistently recommended studies that help to show the realities of injustice with which Palestinians live daily.  

When Muna Nassar visits us, we will have the opportunity to speak someone who can offer us a Palestinian Christian perspective on Israel/Palestine. I invite you to prepare for her visit by reading the documents that I have linked above, formulating your questions, and opening your heart to her testimony and witness to us. As the authors of Kairos Palestine said, “As Palestinian Christians we hope that this document will provide the turning point to focus the efforts of all peace-loving peoples in the world, especially our Christian sisters and brothers … We believe that liberation from occupation is in the interest of all peoples in the region because the problem is not just a political one, but one in which human beings are destroyed. We pray God to inspire us all, particularly our leaders and policy-makers, to find the way of justice and equality, and to realize that it is the only way that leads to the genuine peace we are seeking.”

Mark of St. Mark 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Y’all Come

I've decided to quit trying to swim against the current on this one. I’ve decided to listen to the wisdom of that felicitous King James translation of Acts 26:14, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” I’ve decided to throw in the towel and quit suppressing that which lies deep within. Rather than fight it, I’m embracing it.

I'm embracing the word “Y'all.” I have now for several years. But even more defiantly and more recently, I'm embracing the phrase “Y'all come.” 

At the risk of sounding like Gomer Pyle, I think the word “Y'all” is as acceptable as any other contraction. I don't tend to use the phrase “All Y'all” except for a very rare point of emphasis, particularly when someone has been previously excluded. But, I'm all about the “Y'all” and accidentally used the phrase “Y'all come” this weekend. 

That’s when I knew I was doomed to say it. So now I’m embracing it. 

My grandmother used to say, “Y'all come see us” or the reductionistic, “Y'all come!” all the time. It drove me crazy because she'd say it repeatedly as people were leaving her house. At the time my thought was, "We just came to see you! It's your turn to come see us!" But, still she'd say it without hesitation, “Y’all come.” I would think to myself, “That’s something I’m never going to say.” 

Then, it happened. In St. Louis. Last weekend. We were saying goodbye to folks whom we had not seen for years, the end of the kind of joyful reunion that weddings can be on occasion. We really did want people from our past lives to come see our current lives and all of us were hoping to see them again. That’s when I realized I was saying, “Y’all come see us” or at times “Y’all come.” 

I was becoming my grandmother. 

In retrospect, I can see that she had a gift for hosting people. That would explain why so many family Thanksgiving celebrations were populated by a sailor from the Naval base or an airman from the Air Force base or a soldier from the Army base who was stationed nearby, far away from their home, and she had met them at church and offered them a family for the holiday. Most of them ended up getting free room and board for a year or so. 

When Margaret Adams said, “Y'all come,” she meant it. And now, despite the protestations of my youth, I'm embracing the “Y'all” and even the “Ya'll Come.”

This weekend, we begin our new season of what functions for St. Mark as “ordinary time.” On Saturday we will worship and our Youth Group will begin worshiping with us as they move their weekly meetings to Saturday evenings. On Sunday, our choir will be back in the loft, our children will be back in their Sunday School classrooms, and one hopes that our Summer activity travelers will be back in their seats. During worship on Sunday we will distribute Bibles to various ages of children and after worship we will have an All Church Picnic filled with good fun and good food.  

So, “Y’all Come!” 

Y’all come, just as you are. Y’all come, even more casual than you are. Y’all come ready for worship and a picnic. 

Bring a friend and make it “All Y’all.” 

And if that's not enough of an invitation for you, give this a listen:  

Mark of St. Mark 

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Thank You, St. Mark

The results of our contribution toward the United to End Homelessness (U2EH) “30 by August 30”* campaign are being finalized today. St. Mark has contributed well over $100,000, making us the largest contributor to this campaign. We set a goal to assist four households and in the end we received enough to assist seven householdsinto homes. By the end of the day, I’m confident that the overall campaign will be a success as well, raising over $500,000 and meeting the needs of all 30 families. As a reminder, because we have met this goal, one of our partner organizations is able to apply for 300 more vouchers for the future. 

Thank you for being such a responsive and compassionate congregation. I applaud our Finance Commission, our Session, and especially those of you who have been able to be so generous for our county’s most vulnerable and needy persons. 

There is one thing about our fundraiser that I want to reflect on with you briefly. When I first made the announcement about the “30 by August 30” campaign, there were – both on Saturday evening and Sunday morning – some persons in the room who are currently homeless. Over the five and a half years that I’ve served here, we have had several of our members who have been homeless, often living in their cars. Sometimes you would know it at one glance; sometimes you would never guess, because homelessness has many looks. 

So, a question arises whenever we are engaged in advocating for solutions to homelessness, or contributing of our resources to help people we may not know: 
Why don’t we just help the people who are right here, within our own church community by providing them a place to stay? 

It is a good question, but there is also a good response to it. If you are not already familiar with it, I encourage you to get to know the meaning behind the phrase, “Toxic Charity.” If you want to read about it, Robert Lupton was a featured speaker at a NEXT Church annual gathering a few years ago, and he has a lot of wisdom in his book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It

“Toxic charity” describes attempts to help, which come from a good place and never intend to be harmful. But, the reason it is toxic is because the lasting effects can often be more harmful than helpful. Someone who has a mental illness, for example, may never be able to live on their own, without a very deliberate and capable network of support services. To simply give someone with a severe mental illness an apartment, or to take them into your home, might feel like “the Christian thing to do,” but it is almost never helpful in the long run. For someone who is mentally ill, homelessness can be a symptom of the illness as well as an exacerbating factor of the illness. But, providing that person with a home is only “helping” if there is also a set of services in place that can address the mental illness itself. What is often missing from “toxic charity” are support and accountability. 

That is why I am totally on board with two things to which U2EH is committed: 

First – and this is true of most of Orange County leadership – U2EH is committed to a “housing first” approach to chronic homelessness. While housing aloneis never an adequate approach, housing is a very important first stepthat provides a stable environment for wraparound support services to be effective. 

Second, the best solution to chronic homelessness is Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). PSH can be found in intentionally-built communities that have on-site clinics, offices, and other places for support right there on the premises; or it can be scattered site housing where the support services go out to the homes wherever they are. The point is, there are supportive services and accountability built into the housing. I have seen U2EH put a project on hold until they could ensure that the support services would be up to high standards, because the last thing we want to do is to put someone in a position where their care might be compromised. 

It would be an example of toxic charity for us to house someone who is chronically homeless without the supportive services they need to thrive. A more effective and compassionate response is to support approaches that assist when assistance is needed, empower when empowerment is needed, and have an accountability system in place to recognize the difference. 

That’s the kind of effective compassion to which St. Mark has contributed so generously in the “30 by August 30” campaign. Bless you for your continued generosity and commitment to this work of justice and hope. 

Mark of St. Mark

* It took a while for us to land on the best name for our campaign. “30 by August 30” was one way to state our goals and not to confuse what we’re doing with other projects that bear similar names.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Permanent Supportive Housing

Thank you for the very generous outpouring of support and donations following my announcements last week about the United to End Homelessness (U2EH) “30 in 30” campaign. I will share a final tally next week. Below are some stories that the Santa Ana Housing Authority (SAHA) sent for me to share with you, about households that have moved from a transitional shelter (The Link) to Permanent Supportive Housing. The persons in these households have given their consent for making these stories public. 

Laura, Dathon, and their son Patrick arrived on the night of January 3rd2019.  Upon arriving to The Link the family had reservations regarding the type of housing options they could qualify for seeing how Laura’s son was a teenager.  Nonetheless, the family kept a positive attitude and made it a priority to meet with their Navigator weekly.  Several weeks into their stay at The Link, the family was deemed eligible for the Mainstream Voucher Program through Santa Ana Housing Authority in partnership with   Illumination Foundation.  The family would need to collect required documentation before their first meeting with SAHA. Through a collaborative effort, Mercy House was able to assist the family to obtain California identification, birth certificates, and link them to a medical provider that assisted them with the disability documentation getting them document ready for their interview with SAHA. In addition, Mercy House was able to link Dalton to employment resources and Dalton was able to secure a part-time job while his stay at The Link.  The family received their voucher on March 1stand on May 16, 2019 the family successfully moved into their two-bedroom apartment in Irvine.  The family is eternally grateful all these wonderful agencies were able to help them find their new home.    

Alicia and her son Alexander were referred to The Link on January 30th2019 by County of Orange Health Care Agency Outreach workers. Alicia had been homeless since 2015 and was familiar to Mercy House through the Armory Program. Alicia was matched to housing through the MVP program on February 8thand with the help of her housing navigator, she was able to gather all the necessary documents to receive her voucher from Santa Ana Housing Authority. Alicia was diligent at working her housing plan and soon found a unit that would accept her voucher. With the help of the City of Santa Ana’s Homeless and Housing Division, Illumination Foundation, and Mercy House, Alicia was able to furnish her apartment and moved out of The Link into housing on May 31st.

Anna entered the Link last December when she was found homeless on the streets by Santa Ana Police Department HEART Officer. She was accompanied by her 7-year-old child and husband who is on Dialysis and suffering from several medical ailments. A Mercy House Case Manager immediately met with Anna upon arrival at the shelter and began linking her to supportive services such as employment programs and housing search. At the Link, Anna began attending Employment Skills classes by Second Chance OC, a recipient of Santa Ana CDBG grant. Second Change OC provided Anna with one on one mentoring, resume building, interview skills and job placement through community connections. Below is a picture of Anna with her Case Manager at North Italia where she just landed a job in the restaurant business! Anna and her family were able to move into an apartment with through the MVP vouchers from Santa Ana Housing Authority. Anna has been a model citizen at the Link!
I marvel at the tenacity of these persons, the capabilities of their supporting organizations, and the generosity of people like you, who make these lovely moments possible. 

Mark of St. Mark

Friday, August 16, 2019

Faith and Doubt

There has been quite some buzz lately about some prominent Evangelical leaders who have renounced their former teachings. A leader in the “Christian purity movement,” who had argued for years that abstaining from intimacy before marriage was the key to a successful marriage, announced his own impending divorce. Among other things, he had been a fierce critic of the LGBTQIA community, for which he has now apologized. Other leaders who had fought the good fight and had made resounding declarations about what one had to believe in order to be Christian over the years have recently announced that – according to the standards they had helped establish – they no longer could call themselves “Christian.”  

The responses to these renunciations have been fairly predictable. Some more progressive persons have gloated a bit. (When I see that, I am reminded of Proverbs 24:17, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls.”) Some evangelicals are wondering if this is actually a God thing – a test of sorts. (These arguments are reminiscent of the kinds of arguments I heard in my church growing up, when for a few years it seemed like one well-known televangelist after another was embroiled in a scandal.) And, of course, there are the Fighting Fundieswho have declared the persons who have renounced their former teachings to be “apostates,” using the same venom and self-certainty that those who now renounce their faith once employed themselves. 

Many – and I would guess most– people from all across the Christian spectrum who have heard about these renunciations have been much more sympathetic. Who among us is not guilty of having been over-zealous at times? Who among us has not confused ‘believing strongly in one thing’ with ‘utterly rejecting all other possibilities’ at times? Who among us has not encountered doubts – not just at a level where doubt can actually spark the imagination and lead to greater faith, but at a deep level where it seems that the entire house of cards will fall if this one supporting card should go? There is plenty of room for sympathy here, even while one wishes that these “Christian influencers” had showed much greater humility and moderation when they were busy casting aspersions on everyone else. 

I cannot speak to the personal dimensions in each of these cases. What I can say from my own experience is that many expressions of evangelical Christianity lend themselves to precisely this kind of dilemma. When “faith” is treated as “certainty,” there is little room for doubt, questions, or even wonder. One is either in or out, a “believer” or not. And “to believe” seems to mean to subscribe to a set of doctrines, which eliminates some of the more invigorating dynamics of faith, such as wondering “why” doctrines say what they say and whether there is something deeper to them than taking them literally.

Let me illustrate. A friend of mine – a writer who is incredibly active on Twitter – recently stated that it is possible to believe in the resurrection of Christ without necessarily believing in his literal bodily resurrection. She was arguing that it is wrong to declare that anyone who does not ascribe to the physical bodily resurrection is not Christian. I took her point to be that believers today can believe in the real living presence of Christ today, which is actually the point of those historic creeds about the resurrection. Wouldn’t believing in the real presence of Christ among us be a much more vivid way of speaking of resurrection, than to declare that one’s faith hinges on whether Jesus’ body was revivified for a short time in between the resurrection and the ascension? But, no. According to the comments that she has received, she is the devil in blue jeans for suggesting such a thing. And that’s the theological conundrum of some (not all) of evangelical Christianity. I think the danger that the Apostle Paul was describing when he talks about “the dead letter of the law” was precisely the danger of faith becoming a matter of subscribing to propositions, rather than trusting in a living reality that enlivens the life of faith.  

Here’s my take: It takes a lot of faith to doubt. Even in those times when we begin to question long-held beliefs and to ask forbidden questions; Even in those times when we wonder if we are simply participating in a historic, much-ballyhooed delusion; Even when we allow ourselves to ask whether anything like “God” really exists in our world; Even when someone who once proclaimed certainty is now renouncing that certainty – there is something at our core that enables us, maybe even compels us, to dare those questions, doubts, and wonderings. What if that willingness to dare such a thing is, itself, the seed of faith? 

Oh, great, now I’ve gone and given myself a lot more to think about today. Oh well.

Mark of St. Mark 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Heroes and Villains: Names Matter

Last week our “Heroes and Villains” story was from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is like the “Curiosity Shop” of the Old Testament and I am deeply suspicious of anyone – scholar, preacher, or writer – who pretends to have it all figured out. There are historical references in it – the stories cross the times of four different kings representing three different kingdoms. There is tragedy in it – the primary characters begin the story as captive exiles after the fall of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem. There are political references in it – it speaks of the rise and fall of kings and others in power. And there is protest in it – we might call it “protest history” because it refuses to buy into the self-promotion that usually accompanies history written by the victors. This book speaks of history, but from the perspective of the defeated, the exiles, the ones whose God is thought to be suspect but who ends up being exalted and praised. 

Unfortunately, the reason many preachers and popular writers style themselves as experts on the book of Daniel is because of the “prophecy” in the book, particularly the last half of it. Even that, though, is a curiosity. Daniel is usually placed among the twelve “minor prophets” in Christian Bibles (with “minor” just indicating the size of the book, not its significance). In the Jewish Bible, Daniel is notlisted among the books of prophecy, but among the Ketuvim, which would be a collection of books like the Psalms, Esther, and Job, that aredifferentfrom the Torah and the Prophets. And Daniel was originally written in two different languages, which seems to indicate that it is not as old or as far-seeing into the future as those who regard it as prophecy think it is.[1]The book of Daniel is a curious book in so, so many ways. 

However, there’s another thing about the book of Daniel – both within the book itself and in how we remember the book – that I’ve always found curious. There are four Hebrew young men whose stories are gathered in the first six chapters. The curious thing is how we remember their names. When they were in Judah their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. When King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace master went to Judah and sought out their best and brightest to become trained in the ways of the Babylonians, he gave them Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My guess is that most of us in this room are familiar with the Hebrew name Daniel, but not his Babylonian name Belteshazzar; and those of us who are familiar with the Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, may never have heard of their Hebrew names Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. We wonder: Why don’t we just know them all by their Hebrew names, since that would be a great way of sticking one’s thumb into the Empire’s eye and resisting their power to rename? Or, if the Babylonian names are good enough for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, why didn’t we just learn Daniel’s Babylonian name of Belteshazzar as well? I don’t have the slightest answers to those questions, but I can say that the confusion of assigning the names actually belongs to the book itself. As you read the first six chapters, there is very little consistency, which suggests – among other things – that there were many hands involved in writing these stories. 

So, last week I could have told the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and the Fiery Furnace, using their Hebrew names to show that old palace master who’s in charge. Or, we could tell the story of Belteshazzar and the Lion’s Den, using his Babylonian name to roll with the unfortunate consequences of war. And while the book of Daniel itself initially bounces back and forth between the names, it does eventually seem to land on what we’ve come to learn – the trio’s slave names and Daniel’s given name. 

In the end, despite all of the curiosities that are found there, the book of Daniel is replete with acts of heroism, as Belteshazzar/Daniel, Shadrach/Hananiah, Mishach/Mishael, and Abednego/Azariah find ways both to advance through the chambers of power in the empire and to maintain their faithfulness to God. Perhaps the best approach to this curious book would be to see it as a leadership manual. 

Mark (please don’t call me Donald) of St. Mark 

[1]I believe that the second half of Daniel was written during what we often call the “intertestmental” period, so that some of the events that seem “prophesied” years before were actually accounts of what was taking place near the time of its writing. For example, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig to Zeus on the holy altar, this “abomination of desolation” that Daniel refers to was more of an account of what was happening in 168 BC than a prophecy about it from centuries before.  

Friday, August 2, 2019

Biblical Fools

In my childhood home we were not allowed to call someone a “fool” because the Bible says not to do such a thing. Curiously, the biblical writers themselves seem not to share that compunction, because they say that naughty word a lot. This past weekend, as part of our “Heroes and Villains” series, we heard the story of wise Abigail and surly Nabal, whose name actually means “fool.” By the time of Shakespeare, “the fool” had been elevated to a job in the King’s court. 

The journey from Nabal to Shakespeare’s fool is such that perhaps an overview of fools and foolishness may be in order. Here’s a brief one: 

The Psalms have the phrase that may be the most recognizable and difficult appraisal of a “fool”: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1 and 53:1) As I mentioned last weekend, I do not read that to signify theoretical atheism or agnosticism. There are plenty of reasons to doubt the existence of God – starting with the fact that so many pathetic descriptions of God bandied about in churches these days. No, I think this description is much more about practical atheism – someone who lives as if there is no meaning to existence, no justice beyond what the pretenses of those in power, and no ultimate purpose to human life. To declare the world “godless” in that sense almost always ends up leading to a “might makes right” philosophy of life. Notably, the book of Proverbs begins by recognizing that reverence for God is the beginning of knowledge (1:7). 

The story of Nabal widens the definition of “fool” from someone who thinks the world is independent of transcendent meaning to someone who thinks he is independent from everyone else. Nabal imagines himself a “self-made man” indebted to no one, while wise Abigail realizes their interdependence with the likes of David and his band of warriors (I Samuel 25). Putting the psalmists’ definition and the Nabal story together, the “fool” sounds tragically contemporary: One who exchanges transcendence and interdependence for the pipedream of a self-willed, self-made, thoroughly self-centric life. (I’ll circle back to this below.)

The mother lode of biblical references to foolishness is found in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, along with the Apocryphal books The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. That should not be surprising, given that these books are part of what is called collectively “Wisdom Literature.” The writers of those books seem most focused on the habits and consequences of foolishness, among which is the shame a fool brings to parents.

In the New Testament, the idea of a “fool” continues to morph. The reason my parents forbade us using the term “fool” about someone else is because in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus prohibits it (Matthew 5:22). As a child, it worked well enough to imagine that the word “fool” was simply a naughty word. The prohibition, however, seems less about bad words and more about taking away one’s ability to fully participate in community. I wonder if declaring someone a fool were a 1stcentury way of declaring them insane, therefore incapable of rational participation in matters of faith, business, governance, and so forth. Perhaps declaring someone a fool in public at least put them on the defensive and under suspicion. I think we have to go beyond thinking of “fool” simply as a bad word, because Jesus himself used it later to critique the “blind guides” who assigned more value to gold of the sanctuary than to the sanctuary itself (Matthew 23:16-23). 

The most curious twist of the word “fool,” however, comes in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul uses the word in two ways, one in his letter to the church in Rome, and another in this first letter to the church in Corinth. In Romans, Paul uses the word “fool” similarly to how I interpret the psalmists’ use – those who exchange the glory of God for images resembling humans and animals. That sounds like a description of idolatry, but it helps to remember that idolatry is not simply someone who thinks magic thoughts about idols, objects made of wood, stone, or metal. Idols tend to reflect the image of the ones who make them, so idolatry is typically a form of self-worship, akin to the self-centric life I mention above. In I Corinthians, Paul embraces the term “fool,” particularly as it contrasts with what he calls “the wisdom of the world.” I think the lynchpin here is the message of the cross, which is “foolishness” to a world devoted to retributive justice. To imagine that, in Christ, God conquers sin by subjecting to death rather than through violence was a ridiculous notion in the 1stcentury. So, Paul embraces the ridiculous with a promise that the “foolishness of the cross” would ultimately overcome the “wisdom” of the world. 

It brings to mind the lyrics of a song I remember from the 1980’s: “If I’m a fool for Jesus, whose fool are you?” 

Mark of St. Mark a.k.a. Foolius Maximus