Saturday, November 30, 2019
This weekend is the beginning of the Advent season! I rarely use exclamation points, but I really love the season of Advent. Our theme this year is “Everybody Needs a Home.” Special thanks to our Worship Commission - as well as Brian Parker and Shane McCullough - who have worked very hard on our seasonal installation in the sanctuary. To get a sense of what this season is about, here is an excerpt from an Op Ed that I have sent to our local newspaper:
For those preparing to hear the Christmas story, there is one small feature that particularly deserves our attention this year. In a passing phrase, the Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph wrapped the newborn in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn. That slight reference to an inn with no vacancy is impacted with lots of meaning. For Luke’s story, it is a reminder that Jesus’ birth takes place under the umbrella of Roman dominion. Luke’s story begins with a reference to Caesar Augustus demanding that all of Israel return to their family hometown for a census. At the least, this census would be added to Caesar’s self-congratulatory list of conquered peoples. Beyond that, it would serve to show how many legions would be needed to maintain Rome’s control, as well as to provide a tax base for funding the next conquest. There was no room in Bethlehem’s inn because so many people were displaced by Caesar’s command. This moment of imperial, politicized displacement is the context in which Jesus’ birth takes place.
Since the Christmas story is grounded in the experience of displacement, we will listen to it through stories of displacement as well. Each week we will have a subtheme and will point toward a related event that will offer a way of living into this story today.
November 30/December 1: "Dislocation and Relocation"--When a home no longer feels like home (due to dementia, empty nest syndrome, loss of a loved one, children moving back, etc.). Our Health Ministries Commission will offer a Blue Christmas session at 11 a.m. on Sunday for those who are experiencing loss and grief during this season).
December 7/8: "Displacement and Replacement"--The challenge for refugees, immigrants, and castaways. On Saturday St. Mark will host a special event on behalf of victims of human trafficking. (Due to the need for confidentiality, this event is not open to the public. If you want to support it in some way, please contact the church office.)
December 14/15: "Homelessness and Housing"--Facing economic, situational, and chronic homelessness in our community. On Saturday we will have a “Synerjazz Christmas Party” in the Fellowship Hall following worship, and on Sunday we will have a Las Posadas event throughout the Fellowship Hall after worship.
December 21/22: "Unwelcomed and Welcomed"--Exploring the feelings of not being welcomed or not welcoming others. On Saturday there is a “Homeless Persons Interreligious Memorial Service” at Christ Cathedral at 8:00pm, to remember those who have died on the streets of Orange County this year.
I hope you make every effort to be part of our Advent season, as well as our Christmas Eve services at 4:00, 7:00, or 9:00. I’ll share more information about those services soon.
Mark of St. Mark
Friday, November 22, 2019
As many of you know, I have gotten involved with several attempts to address the homelessness challenge in Orange County during the last several years. Initially, we started the Orange County Alliance for Just Change (OCAJC), with the hope of working to identify and address systemic roots of injustice. Early on we decided to make homelessness our focus and brought Professor David Snow on board, who had just led a team that produced a groundbreaking study called Homelessness in Orange County: The Costs to Our Community. Dr. Snow’s team had been commissioned by the United Way of Orange County and demonstrated that the costs of “doing nothing” are higher that it would be for the county to house homeless persons, in order to provide wraparound services for those who need them.
About that same time that OCAJC was getting started by offering educational forums about the root causes of homelessness, the United Way was creating a new program in response to Dr. Snow’s study called United to End Homelessness (U2EH). Basing its structure on a model from Orlando, FL, U2EH formed a Leadership Council made up of persons at various levels of government, service providers, business leaders, and educators. And, after a time, they formed a Faith Leaders Council, on which they invited me to serve. I was asked to moderate the Faith Leaders Council in our second meeting, and as a result I was asked to represent the Faith Leaders as part of the Leadership Council. Subsequently, I was asked to be on the Executive Committee of the Leadership Council. Please understand, I’m not bragging about my resume – this is more of a testimony of my inability to say ‘no’ than anything else. And despite my reluctance to add more layers of meetings to my life, I wanted to take advantage of these invitations in order to represent St. Mark, OCAJC, as well as other faith communities in this coordinated effort.
And it has been an incredible experience so far. Let me share some highlights.
- U2EH has the goal of seeing 2,700 new units of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) in Orange County by 2025. For a great definition of and look at PSH, check out this page by Jamboree Housing here.
- U2EH began offering Homelessness 101 workshops that provide one of the best overviews of homelessness and responses to homelessness anywhere.
- U2EH, in cooperation with OCAJC, has just initiated a new Housing Champions training called Advocacy 101. The first training took place this week in Mission Viejo. The next two training dates are December 4 at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton and December 5 at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. For more information and to register, click here.
- U2EH began a program called Welcome Home OC, which works with apartment owners to provide “scattered site” PSH, which do not need approval by city councils, but do require initial costs to incentivize apartment owners to participate.
- Thanks to the leadership of Cottie Petrie-Norris, U2EH received a $2.9 million grant from the State of CA to address homeless veterans through the “Welcome Home OC” program. The outreach to veterans is called “Marching Home.”
- U2EH worked with the Santa Ana Housing Authority (SAHA) in August to provide 30 units in 30 days, in order to take advantage of 30 housing vouchers that SAHA needed to use, in order to qualify for potentially 300 more voucher. St. Mark was a huge part of that effort. U2EH needed to raise $500,000 of initial costs to house the 30 families, and St. Mark responded with over $115,0000, funding 7 of the 30 units.
And now, a new opportunity is at hand. The federal office of HUD has awarded 12 communities grants to house 18-24 year olds who have “aged out” of the Foster Care System. U2EH is working with The Orangewood Foundation and SAHA to house 25 former foster youth. The initial costs are over $12,000 each. U2EH has already secured funding to house 7 former foster youth through our WelcomeHomeOC Program and are working to raise $228,060 by December 31, 2019 to help to house the other 18. The St. Mark Mission Commission has already put some funding toward it, and you are welcomed to participate in addition. For more information and to make a contribution, visit U2EH’s GoFundMe page here.
Well, that’s enough for now. St. Mark has long been a leader in striving for economic justice in Orange County and I think the work of OCAJC, U2EH, and related organizations is an extension of what God has been calling us to do throughout our church’s 50+ years. It is a blessing to be a part of it.
Mark of St. Mark
Friday, November 15, 2019
Three quick announcements, then on with the show.
1. If you want to attend our Thanksgiving dinner, Thanksgiving Day at 4:00, please sign up today. Right now, even! Send a note to email@example.com.
2. If you were not in worship last Sunday, you may want to go to the St. Mark web site and listen to last week’s sermon. It was “Hagar’s Story, part 1” and this week we will hear “part 2.”
3. The Alternative Christmas Market is Sunday! This Sunday! Two days from now! If you’re working the market and have to miss worship, then come on Saturday and follow the crowd to Muldoon’s.
And now …
A funny thing happens when we leave our customary spaces and enter other spaces as a guest. Last Saturday, following worship, I was a guest speaker at the Islamic Education Center as part of their celebration of their prophet’s birthday. Our Muslim brothers and sisters know that many Americans view them primarily through the lens of news clips of violence, movie depictions of terrorists, or theories about their sinister intentions. They cringe whenever a mass shooting takes place, praying that it will not turn out to be a Muslim who is doing the violence or Muslims who were the victims. Many Muslims live with a constant shroud of fear that some random person will try to execute a kind of vigilante justice by harassing them or harming them. In truth, they are doctors, police officers, business persons, school teachers, and next-door neighbors, who follow Islam.
When I was at the Islamic Education Center, the Imam Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini condemned religious violence in the strongest terms possible. He argued that Muslims who terrorize, take innocent lives, or go to war in the name of Islam are misrepresenting Islam and misreading the Koran. He named names and argued that groups like the Islamic State were wrong. He argued that the best way to honor the prophet Muhammad is to live peaceably and helpfully with all of our neighbors. He honored Jesus Christ - not in the same way that I do, but with reverence and respect. He honored Moses and welcomed the Jewish persons who were in attendance. It was a meaningful experience and always is.
The same is true whenever I visit the Shinnyo-en Japanese Buddhist Temple in Yorba Linda, the Temple Bat Yam, the Jewish Collaborative of Orange County, or any number of worship spaces where persons of other faiths gather. When the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council or Orange County Interfaith Network meet, they are respectful gatherings with progressive Christians, lots of Mormons, Jews of many kinds, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Universalist Unitarians. What is curious to me is that the most underrepresented group – at least from the Christian denominations – are Evangelical churches.
The primary reason evangelicals are underrepresented is fairly clear. Theologically, if one is convinced that professing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the only true way to salvation, then there is a problem with interfaith work. It would seem like one is validating a lie. I spoke with an evangelical pastor recently, who is a great guy who pours himself out in service to folks that many others would simply ignore. He said that whenever he tries to convince himself that other religions are siblings and perhaps have their own pathway toward God, he gets hung up on the stories of the Old Testament, where God demanded absolute intolerance of other religions and exclusivist claims that are in the New Testament on occasion. I disagree with his reading of these texts and -more importantly - with the presumptions through which he reads biblical texts generally. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I mourn his conclusions because of what they do not allow him to do. He is not able to enter the Islamic Education Center with an open heart, free of thinking that he is somehow compromising his faith by being there. He cannot enter a synagogue or temple without feeling that the people there are blind to the real truth of their own religion. I am not judging him. I am only speaking from my own experience, having been raised in a way of Christianity that could not encounter other religious expressions with openness. I still struggle against ingrained tendencies of religious intolerance.
When I was invited to the Islamic Education Center for the prophet’s birthday, I was asked to speak about interfaith relations. I raised the question of why some Christians read the New Testament exclusively and others expansively; why some Jews read the Torah exclusively and other expansively; why some Muslims read the Koran exclusively and other expansively. The only sorts of answers that I could offer were roughly this: The lens through which we read Scripture is shaped by our theological predispositions. My journey has led me to have a large view of God, to where God is free, able, and willing to act in ways that lie outside of my own way of faith; and a small view of humanity, where each claim I/we make about God is proximate at best. For me, “truth” about God is less about the proposition that we formulate, and more about the hunger that drives us to search, hope, and believe.
Or something like that.
Mark of St. Mark
Friday, November 8, 2019
Let me begin with Two Quick Notes:
1. Did you notice the announcement that we’re going to have a St. Mark Thanksgiving dinner this year? If you’d like to come, and are willing to help with the before-during-after stuff, please drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. The Orange County Alliance for Just Change is working with United to End Homelessness to offer three “Advocacy 101” opportunities between now and the end of the year, to advocate in our cities for more Permanent Supportive Housing. For South County, Wednesday, November 20, at the Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo. For North County, Wednesday, December 4 at the Muckenthaler Cultural Arts Center in Fullerton. For Central County, Thursday, December 5 at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. All event open registration at 6:30 and you will want to arrive by then so you can register and be ready to start promptly at 7:00pm. If you want to attend one of these workshops, sign up, at https://www.eventbrite.com/o/united-to-end-homelessness-19985632942.
And now, for the Weekly Missive:
A recent article in the Huffington Post said, “It may be the most familiar dream in the world.” They were speaking, of course, about the “Suddenly realizing you are in your underwear in public” dream. Dream studies folks reckon that the dream is either prompted by what you’re wearing (or not) when sleeping (so let’s not talk about it). Or, they say it may be a subconscious expression of feeling unprepared and risking being exposed in some way (Let’s talk about this one).
Based on my own sleep experience, which I actually experience every single night, I happen to think that the ‘underwear in public’ dream is just one expression of ‘anxiety dreams’ in general. Beyond physical exposure, those anxiety dreams often tend to be specific to our job, our daily routines, or our deepest fears. For example, as a pastor I often have the anxiety dream of being in a crowded church building and discovering at the last minute that I’m supposed to preach from a text that I had not even given any consideration sermon-wise. I don’t have that dream every weekend, but often enough to know that I carry within myself the feeling of not-quite-prepared anxieties.
So, here’s a funny thing. The other night I had a very different pastor-anxiety dream, the first of its kind that I can remember. This time I was prepared: The bulletin was ready, the accompanists were in place, the sermon was in hand and mostly in head, and the time was nigh. As I got up to begin worship, there were maybe ten people scattered throughout a cavernous-looking sanctuary. Ten people! And most of them were family to the paid staff! While I know that worship is about the glory of God, not a popularity poll of the preacher, that moment was devastating for me.
So, it leaves me wondering why my usual anxiety dream of being unprepared took on the form of being prepared but irrelevant. Here are some theories.
1. I once read that genuine prophetic preaching results in driving away most people in order to build upon the truly committed folks. That may be true in some churches, but I don’t buy it at St. Mark. For many years my predecessors preached the unvarnished gospel of grace and justice, so it does not fall to me to separate the wheat from the chaff. I just try to maintain that faithful legacy.
2. Perhaps I am feeling the weight of all of the church studies about how the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ are outnumbering the folks in the world who affiliate with some kind of organized faith. I actually happen to think that there is some encouraging news in those reports, but they certainly raise some concerns as well. I’ll reflect on my reading of those reports some other time because it is too nuanced for this post.
3. A theory that may have legs falls under my general maxim that dreams reflect the dreamer – in this case the dreamer’s anxieties – more than any of the persons who might appear in the dream. I can’t wake up mad at someone because they mistreated me in a dream, but I can explore whatever mistrusts or anger I might be harboring toward that person because of the dream. In the case of the “Ten People in Worship” dream, perhaps it is an expression of my feelings of inadequacy.
4. The most convincing theory I have is that I am still adjusting to the “new normal” that many people now practice “occasional attendance” instead of “weekly attendance,” that children have activities whenever there is space and no longer is “worship time” considered off limits; and that our weeks are so over-scheduled that many people choose St. Mattress or St. Arbucks over St. Mark when they have the leisure of choice. (You may now say, “OK, Boomer” if you wish.)
When that is the case, it seems to me to be similar to when a family sits down to share dinner and one or two members are not there. They may have perfectly good reasons and so there’s no need for judgment. It’s just the case that those who are there miss the joy of their company and the family misses the continued strength that comes from being together. That’s how I feel when we haven’t seen someone in worship recently. No judgment, just a tinge of sadness from missing a valued companion. I don’t know how God feels, so I won’t speculate on that.
Having said all that, I hope to see at least 11 of you on Saturday or Sunday this weekend! It’s a family thing.
Mark of St. Mark
Friday, October 25, 2019
This Sunday, October 27, we will have a Congregational Meeting at the conclusion of the Sunday morning worship service (around 10:30am). The purpose of this meeting is to elect new Elders and Deacons, to elect persons to serve on the Nominating Commission for 2020, and to approve the 2020 Terms of Call for Associate Pastor Hayes Noble and Pastor Mark Davis.
That upstart community in Antioch had some wonderful qualities: They were willing to bend religious traditions in order to allow the religious truth behind them to emerge. They were open to accountability and the one sent to check on them ended up joining them. And last week we saw how they really stepped into loving an enemy, by welcoming Saul of Tarsus – a force of persecution against the church before his transforming experience – as a resident teacher for a year. That way of living into the gospel may be why the narrator of Acts was able to say, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
I’m trying to imagine what the absolute, unique, central quality of a community must be in order to take the kind of radical steps that the community in Antioch took. Of course, we have to say it was the work of the Holy Spirit – that’s the central theme of the book of Acts. But, even so, the question remains: What is the central quality of a community when the Holy Sprit is at work? I don’t want to pretend that there’s only one answer to that question – that would be a Spirit-quenching sort of thing to do. But an answer, it seems to me, would be this: A community, where the Holy Spirit is at work, would be a people who are able to as moved by the experience of someone outside of their narrative as they are moved by experiences within their own narrative. This quality is perhaps nothing more than another way of expressing “love your neighbor as yourself,” but let me explain how I’m thinking about it.
I’ve known a number of folks who were incredibly anti-gay, ostensibly based on their faith. (I happen to think there’s a deeper psychological motive that causes them to gravitate toward a particular way of expressing their faith, or to embrace it with a particular kind of fury. But, I need to let people tell their own story.) And I’ve known a number of those incredibly anti-gay folks who have changed their tune dramatically, usually because they have either come to terms with their own sexuality or because someone in their family whom they love dearly has come out. The journey from ‘virulently anti-gay’ to ‘open and affirming’ is hard, serious, and very courageous. I just wonder why so often it takes someone we know and love, before we can be open and affirming. The person that a virulently anti-gay person condemns with the harshest of words is somebody’s loved one. A church where the Holy Spirit is at work will not limit its empathy to their own relatives, but to recognize that everyone is someone’s beloved child, sibling, parent, or friend. It is that ability to regard the stranger as favorably as we regard our own that demonstrates the meaning of loving one’s neighbor as ourselves.
That is why it is so important for us to invest time, energy, attention, and money in prophetic and compassionate outreach ministries. That is why we need our Deacons to lead us into our relationships with Glenn Martin elementary school, the Irvine Adult Transition Program, Project Hope Alliance, and so forth. It is why we need the Peace and Justice Commission to lead us in our advocacy on Gun Violence, Human Trafficking, Immigration, and the plight of Farm Workers. It is why we study the world in our Great Decisions program. It is why we need our Mission Commission to guide our investments into CEPAD, AMOS, and the Orange County Alliance for Just Change. It is why our Adult Discipleship and Nurture Commission leads us in a panel discussion on Transgender Issues and Bible Studies on the depth and meaning of our faith. It is why our Youth and Children’s Ministry provides opportunities for our younger church to learn the faith and, in turn, to teach us the faith. And it is why we need our Worship Commission to provide us with weekly worship services, designed to allow us to worship God as well as to come before God with hearts open for transformation.
In the end, it’s all about being a church so full of the Holy Spirit that we love God by loving our neighbors, even our enemies, in ways that are as natural to us as loving our closest family and friends. By God’s grace, let’s be that church.
Mark of St. Mark
Friday, October 11, 2019
This weekend we have a lot going on at St. Mark. In addition to continuing our October theme “The World Where It Happens,” we will be welcoming new members and meeting our new Parish Nurse Beth Schwarz during our Saturday and Sunday worship, following Saturday worship with “Meet Me at Muldoon’s,” and following Sunday worship with a workshop on Parenting as well as a study of the Gnostic gospels. If you think that was a very long compound sentence, just imagine what the weekend is going to be like. Jump in and enjoy!
Speaking of #TheWorldWhereItHappens, I invited everyone in worship last week to use their cameras of every sort in order to look for and to try to capture images of where the Reign of God is taking place in the world. When you do so, please send them to email@example.com and we will collage them, post them on social media, etc. And please feel free to post them to your own social media sites, using the hashtag #TheWorldWhereItHappens. The primary goal of our month-long theme is to live into our faith by participating in what God is doing in the world. In order to do that, we are training our eyes to see glimpses of where God is at work, particularly in moments of resistance and liberated, or when walls of prejudice and bigotry come crashing down. We are taking our cue from the church in Antioch, which was established when some of the believers broke with the habit of speaking only to people like them and began to share the joy and justice of the gospel to people they perceived as ‘others.’
Some of the responses that I’ve heard since we began this week’s journey is, “It is hard to see where God is at work when the world is torn by violence and genocide and separation walls and glass ceilings and environmental destruction and constant divisiveness.” Indeed that is a valid response. If our goal were to pretend none of those things is taking place and only to focus on sunsets and kittens, then we would be reducing our faith a comforting illusion or even a distraction. So, allow me to offer three responses to the real difficulty of the task before us.
First, as difficult as it may seem, our task of looking for signs of God’s reign is vital to really living into the rhetoric of our faith. The familiar expression, “May your will be done on earth as in heaven,” shows that our faith is built on trusting in God’s real presence in our world. And, frankly, it is tempting to assume a kind of baptized atheism, which more or less sees “God’s will” as a good aspiration, but does not expect Godself to have anything to do with it. It is hard to see where God is at work in our world, but I suspect that developing that kind of vision comes through being a lifelong disciple, who practices the skills again and again day after day, and only achieves the skill after failing at it over and over. Think of a beginning dancer, a student of martial arts, or an aspiring writer. It is a trained eye, not a simple glance.
Second, the Christian faith has long sought a way to name how the reality of God’s reign is here, and yet the fullness of it is not. Theologians speak of God’s reign as a “Yet, but not yet” reality. Liturgists have shaped the season of Advent as pointing toward the “first Advent,” the first coming of Jesus, and anticipating the “second Advent,” when the reign of God comes in all of its glory. Biblical scholars focus on “the Word” that “became flesh and dwelt among us”; as well as the invocation, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Pastoral Caregivers have spoken of God as “a present help in times of trouble” and “our only comfort in life and in death.” When we look for signs of God’s reign and struggle to see them, we are not alone. The paradox that God’s reign is here and that God’s reign is yet to be fulfilled has always been a challenging part of the church’s entire ecosystem.
Finally, I want to lean on the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr for a moment – at least as far as I think I understand him. Niebuhr spoke often of achieving the “proximate good” as opposed to “ultimate good.” Any language about the “ultimate good” here and now in our lifetime is arrogant and blasphemous. At best, until the Reign of God comes in its fullness, even our best efforts are tainted by human sin, human finitude, our failure to see future consequences fully, etc. If our greatest achievements are, at best, proximate goods, then we can continue to find hope, encouragement, and purpose in doing justice, even if injustice is rampant around us. And for those of us who say at times, “The World Where It Happens” and are tempted to say at other times, “The World Where $#!& Happens” – here is small ray of hope. Injustice is also proximate, never ultimate. That is the point of our longing for the “second Advent,” the fullness of God’s reign. The “real world” has an arc that bends toward justice, even when injustice is rampant.
To live into the fullness of God’s reign, to discipline ourselves to see it, to name it, to capture it, and to share it – no matter how awkwardly we do so – is a way of resisting evil and living in faith.
Mark of St. Mark
Saturday, October 5, 2019
We're up to something during the month of October. I’ll start with a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song “The Room Where It Happens,” from his brilliant musical “Hamilton.” (You can listen to it here.) Our theme for October is “The World Where It Happens.” By studying the brief history of a church in Antioch (Acts 11), we will set out each week looking for where the “kin-dom” of God is taking place in the world. While it is good to be ‘the church gathered’ on Saturday or Sunday, to worship, regroup, share our stories, encourage one another, etc., our real focus is what happens when we are ‘the church scattered’ throughout the rest of the week. Our faith proclaims a God who is always redemptively present in the world, transforming life, changing practices, challenging injustice, practicing compassion, and living into the Good News of the Gospel. That’s where we want to be. Much of what we do when we are the church gathered is to prepare us to participate in “the world where it happens.”
So, come on Saturdays or Sundays during October and re-discover this new church that arose in Antioch and did amazing things. Let’s pray together that God will awaken us to what God is doing in the world. Then, let’s go out together to be active participants in the world, where the kin-dom of God is taking place, the world where it happens.
And here’s how you can be particularly active for the month of October. Grab your camera, your smartphone, and any other device you have that takes photos. Capture a photo of something that shows the kin-dom of God in the world. It could be two children of different ethnicities playing side-by-side, it could be someone marching with a sign calling attention to climate change, it could be someone caring for a pet or helping a neighbor. Heck, it could even be a sunrise that calls us to worship! Actions both big and small, presence both radical and supportive – use your theological imagination to see where God is present in our world. Of course, we will have to consider the privacy of others, so please give that consideration before you take someone’s photo.
After you’ve captured the photo, let’s display them. If you send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, we will display them on our various forms of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. (Again, please be sure that you have permission before sending them to us.) We will display them with the hashtag #TheWorldWhereItHappens. In addition, you can display them on your Facebook page, tweet it, or put it on your Instagram timeline. When you do, please use the hashtag #TheWorldWhereItHappens. We will use this month to sharpen our vision to see where God is at work, and to sharpen our message to share where God is at work.
Let’s jump in.
Mark of St. Mark