Saturday, March 28, 2020

Friends, we are at a point in this pandemic when we will begin to hear more and more of family and friends who will have contracted this virus. Many will do well, others will struggle, some will not survive. God have mercy. 

As the news comes in and gets closer and closer to home for us, may we remember these things: 
1. None of us is in this alone. Your church family, though physically distant, is spiritually connected with you in ways that few of us realize. Please contact the church office if you want us to remember you in prayer and especially if you want someone to contact you with information or care. 
2. Faith, hope, and love are not virtues that only apply in times of security and comfort. When the Apostle Paul wrote of them as chief virtues, it was a time when the early church was facing many struggles. Faith, hope, and love abide, and are far more powerful than our fears and insecurities. 
3. Every life is valuable. Some hospitals in New York are facing some of the ethical dilemmas that usually are only in theoretical textbooks – a shortage of necessary equipment and a plethora of needs. Even in tragic situations, we still need to say that every life is valuable. Some folks are worried about how an extended quarantine will affect the economy in the long run – and while many of those worries are wrong-headed aspirations to retain privilege, when the economy tanks the poor, the undocumented, and those who are barely hanging on are the ones who take the hardest blows. We will have to give our economic habits a thorough look when the worst of this pandemic is over. But, one thing we must say aloud and without condition: Every life is valuable. 

Meanwhile, most of us are not facing those ethical dilemmas, but are continuing to get accustomed to “Sheltering in Place.” We are probably losing some old habits that we ought to have lost anyway, picking up a few new habits that we may regret in the long run (mostly having to do with the refrigerator), and wondering what it will look like when we eventually get back to something like what we call “normal.” And while the market’s volatility and the stoppage of many businesses have had immediate impact on many folks, many others are not there yet and have been able to weather the impact fairly well so far. 

If you are able, here are some meaningful ways that you can do positive things during this time. 
- Of course, I invite you to continue your support of St. Mark, even as we continue to look at how our expenditures need to be adjusted during this crisis. 
- Homeless Shelters (you can find one in your town here) are in need of folks who can supply meals. One way to help is to offer to pay for a meal from a local business that is trying to survive my moving to catering, rather than in-house dining.  
- Cards and letters: Do you know of someone who is unable to visit their family? If you have time, a handwritten card or letter is a lovely gesture and gift. 
- Make masks. Some of our Care Team folks have found patterns and instructional videos that show how to make masks with replaceable filters. They are not up to the standards of what medical teams at Hoag might use, but they are very good for at home use, particularly if someone has a cold or other symptoms. 

With any of these ways of reaching out to others, please remember to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, cough into your elbow, and do everything you can not to spread any of your germs even through physical objects. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

St. Mark Worship

If you would like to view St. Mark's March 14 worship experience, click here.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Flattening the Curve

I’m guessing that you have heard the phrase, “flattening the curve” recently. It refers to a diagram that was developed from a CDC paper projecting the effects of COVID-19. The solid purple curve shows anticipated effects if there is no mitigation. The striped curve shows anticipated effects if there is mitigation, such as washing hands, keeping social distance, and avoiding large-scale crowds. It is this bottom, longer curve that is intended by the phrase “flattening the curve.” (If you want to read the paper itself, it is here.)

In many respects, the presentation and accompanying graph were the kind of analyses that
are done many times over. But, something happened that changed this analysis from being the domain of a small group of experts into becoming a catchphrase. Dr. Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, added a critical marker to the graph, based on his experience with epidemic and pandemic cases. Harris drew a dotted line that showed the capacity of the US healthcare system, “to make clear what was at stake.”[1] 

It is incumbent upon people of faith to do what we can to “flatten the curve.” But, that approach flies directly in the face of our customary way of making decisions based primarily (if not solely) on the question of our own self-interest or our family’s self-interest. Flattening the curve requires a “neighbor-first” mentality, precisely the kind of mentality that we try to cultivate as followers of Christ.

Of course part of me is thinking, “This feels like an overreaction!” From my time in Iowa I was accustomed to cancellation decisions during a heavy snowstorm because the roads were hazardous. This is a very different case: I feel fine; you feel fine; we’re out and about; our children are busy licking the very surfaces we’re trying to sanitize – it would be easy to dismiss precautionary cancellations, even to belittle them. And, for reasons that I find puzzling beyond measure, the whole response to COVID-19 has been politicized from many different directions. 

Even so, a faithful response in times of unknowing is to consider the least, to bear patiently with those who feel differently from us, and to do the best that we can with trust that God gives us the right wisdom for the right moment. 

For that reason, St. Mark will not have gathered worship services this weekend. We will host a Facebook Live worship service on Saturday at 5:00 p.m., and we will try to capture it for our web site, which you can access any time on Sunday. And, as usual, your Staff and Session are working to be faithful and wise in moving forward. 

Friday, March 6, 2020

EPIC Lent: Why Do We Do What We Do?

I mentioned during our Young Church time last week that, in our home, we always precede a family meal by taking hands and saying a prayer. Sometimes we might freestyle it, but usually we say a blessing that we’ve learned to say together through the years. We even follow this practice when we have guests. It’s what we do. 

I’m a bit of a dork, but I like to think I’m not a fool. I have no doubt that whenever I’m closing my eyes during this prayer there are other eyes that are either peeked open or fully open. And, at different points along everyone’s faith journeys, I’m sure there have been times when those open eyes were rolling at how ridiculous this family ritual is. Sometimes the prayer has been spoken, other times muttered, other times mute. And, there are many occasions when I catch myself thinking about something other than what I’m saying in that moment, even though it often falls to me to kick the prayer off. We’re not always fully engaged in this family ritual. 

Nevertheless, we persist. 

Why? Why do we continue to do something knowing full well that not everybody is fully on board? Isn’t that the epitome of an “empty, meaningless ritual”? 

Taken in isolation, yes, I suppose the ritual is empty and meaningless for the person who is rolling their eyes or muttering reluctantly. But, the nature of rituals is that they are not isolated incidents. They are rituals, repeated acts the meaning of which is as embedded in their repetition as it is in the words or gestures themselves. 

We do this ritual, even when it can be meaningless and empty on occasion, because we strive to be thankful people. We strive to acknowledge grace, to be receptive, and to appreciate the invisible giftedness of community. If we take a moment every time we sit together for dinner and acknowledge how blessed we are to have this gift of food, perhaps we would never be the kind of folks who pretend to be self-made independent, atomistic people. Perhaps we will always see ourselves as part of a larger, abundant world. And, when that thankfulness is directed toward God, perhaps we will ever see ourselves connected to a world that is much larger than our immediate surroundings. Peeking or no peeking, we need that ritual to become who we are.

Throughout this EPIC Lenten season, we’re paying attention to the Experience, Practice, and Identity Circle that shapes us. Sometimes it is made up of what feel like “empty, meaningless rituals” – worship each week, daily prayer, giving generously of time, treasure, and talent, advocating for peace and justice, working on our privilege blinders, and expanding our inclusivity circles. Sometimes we say the same things over and over: God is great, God is good; you are a beloved child of God; good overcomes evil; love overcomes hate; do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. It is not the case that these acts and words are only genuine if you feel them deeply in your heart 100% of the time. In fact, sometimes when we feel them the least is when we need them the most. 

Mark of St. Mark  

Friday, February 28, 2020

Doubly Marked

And so, they gather. 

With hastily washed foreheads, 
their disfigurement would not 
be a public spectacle. 
Yet, traces of ash remained. 
They were a people doubly marked. 

The first mark was a watermark, 
generously bestowed on many of them 
at an age when they don't remember. 

Time and again they hear the words, 
"Remember your baptism," 
assuring them that memory is more than 
what the mind retains. 

The second mark was the ash, 
one year oily; one year dry, 
each year a reminder 
in a solemn moment. 

"Remember you are dust, 
and to dust you shall return." 

And so, they gathered. 
A community of the doubly marked. 
Declared on one occasion 
"A beloved child of God." 
Declared on the other occasion,
"Mortal, finite, destined to die." 

Both are true and one is 
as inescapable as the other. 

And so, they gather. 

With varying degrees of 
doubt and certainty, 
pain and joy, 
confidence and fear, 
hope and despair, 
they gather. 

They gather under the spell 
of a biblical wisdom:  
It is only by embracing our 
sure and certain death 
that we begin to live.

And so, they gather.

A body, as it were, 
where each member is 
a microcosm of the cosmic truth:
In life and in death, we belong to God. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Human Condition, Pt. 2

Last week I began reflecting on a question that someone asked at the Los Ranchos Presbytery Pastors Retreat: What does our current political situation tell you about the human condition? The answer I offered last week (which you can read here) was that our current political situation discloses how given we are to what I call “practical atheism,” the practice of living as if there are no real values, truths, or justice other than those that we simply negotiate with one another. I ended by noting that this predilection is not a ‘red’ or ‘blue’ phenomenon. It is a human phenomenon and is rooted in our finitude. 

The Christian tradition has long reckoned with the practical atheism to which we are inclined. We reckon with it best when we remember that we always reflect and speak from within this finite condition, not as if we can somehow float above it. At the same time, we are heralds of “The Word of the Lord,“ a phrase which points to something more profoundly and eternally true than the truths that we negotiate with one another. In other words, “The Word of the Lord” is that which does originate outside of the human condition, but it always spoken into the human condition by those who are within the human condition. What emerges from a fully finite and limited human community called “the church” proclaiming a “Word of the Lord” are two things. 

First, we are a humble community, because we know that this “Word of the Lord” is not simply an expression of our own brilliant ideas or an exertion of our own will to power. It is a word that convicts us insofar at it convicts anyone, saves us insofar as it saves anyone, and sustains us insofar as it sustains anyone. While we might be proclaimers of that word, we are not exempt from its effects. Ironically, our greatest strength lies in how open we are to letting the “Word of the Lord” humble us, even as we proclaim it. This humility is also what keeps us from being “Fundamentalist” whenever we proclaim “The Word of the Lord.” We remember that God’s Word is always spoken to a particular situation and cannot be simply parroted to a different situation without being distorted.

Second, on many occasions our proclamation of the “Word of the Lord” compels us to embrace perspectives that may seem utterly ridiculous to others, perhaps even to our own limited way of thinking. The cross is the primary example. The Apostle Paul said plainly that the message of the cross is considered foolish to the wisdom of our age. Of course it did in Paul’s day, writing to people living under the shadow of the boastful Roman Empire. And it still seems ridiculous today, to those of us living under the shadow of the boastful American Empire. The cross? Redemptive suffering over redemptive violence? Every action movie and most tales of political history argue otherwise. 

Too often “atheism” today is alleged to be whether one believes in a six-day creation, a young earth, or some kind of “man upstairs” who is pulling all of the levers of life. In the Christian Church, I think the challenge of “practical atheism” for our day is the same challenge that faced the Apostle’s community: Do we believe in the message of the cross? Or, to put it in other ways: Do we ascribe to nonviolence, do we believe that it is more noble to die than to kill, do we believe that it is better to give than to receive, do we believe in loving our enemies, do we believe in doing good to those who persecute us? Do we practice such things, or at least aspire to be discipled into this way of life? 

Lent begins next Wednesday and we will mark the season with an Ash Wednesday service at 7:00 pm. Throughout this season, the question will reverberate in my mind: What does our current political situation tell us about the human condition? We will be looking at how our experiences of grace and our practices of remembrance shape our identity as God’s people. 

Mark of St. Mark   

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Human Condition

At our Los Ranchos Presbytery Pastors Retreat, someone posed this question to a small group that I was in: What does our current political situation tell you about the human condition

It’s a hard question to answer for a number of reasons. The first is that none of us is above the current political situation. What we want to do is to focus squarely on what we find off-putting about those with whom we differ. But, since “the human condition” includes us, we cannot just answer about “them.” Whenever we take up this question, we can only answer from within the human condition. That’s the reason why the biblical phrase, “The Word of the Lord” is so important. However we understand the human element in the writings of the Scriptures, that phrase signifies a perspective that comes from without, not within the human condition. 

Another reason it is hard to answer the question is that it is hard to distinguish ongoing qualities of the human condition from our temporal phases – what philosophers call ‘essential v. accidental’ qualities of human life. Even Scriptural messages that begin with the phrase “the Word of the Lord” might be speaking to a particular moment, not addressing something that is eternally meaningful. 

So, back to the question. My own answer tries to dig beneath the superficial differences to which we give so much attention and to try to understand what the Word of the Lord – as it was given in a particular moment of Scripture – might say to our particular moment. And here is what I’ve come up with so far. 

Our current political climate discloses how given we are to atheism. (Don’t hang up, let me explain what I mean by that!) The Psalms say, on more than one occasion, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” What I believe the psalmists have in mind is not theoretical atheism – the disbelief in a theistic God “out there” that created the world in six days and intervenes occasionally and seem somewhat fickle about weather, who gets what disease, and so forth. In fact, in the Ancient Near East I don’t think theoretical atheism was seen as an option. There was such a sense of mystery that the question was more “Which god?” than “Is there a god?” So, if you’re someone who questions the metaphysical existence of a god out there pulling the universal strings, I seriously do not believe the psalmists have you in mind. And, incidentally, many people of faith question whether that kind of god exists. 

I believe the psalmist is addressing what I call “practical atheism.” By that, I mean the belief that nothing is inherently sacred, no truth is foundational to the truths we embrace, justice is merely a set of terms that we negotiate with each other, and so forth. It can be quite subtle, such as sliding easily from saying “As finite beings, our truth is necessarily perspectival” to saying, “All truth is relative.” It can also take the form of living as if one’s actions do not have meaningful, or especially eternal, consequences. It is the hubris of every tyrant and rascal who imagines that if we can get by with it, it’s okay. In the end, practical atheism places us – either individually or collectively – as the ultimate arbiters of the true, the good, and the beautiful, even though we may give lip service to higher ideals. 

I think our current political context makes clear the practical atheistic substructure of the human condition, particularly in the U.S. It is not a ‘red’ or ‘blue’ problem or a ‘left’ or ‘right’ problem. It is a manifestation of an ongoing challenge for humanity, because it is rooted in the limitations of our finitude. Next week I want to look at some of the ways that the Christian tradition has reckoned with this challenge. 

Thanks for stopping by,
Mark of St. Mark