March 17, 2020
Dear Saints of St. Mark’s,
I hope this letter finds you all safe and well in these anxious days. Notably, I don’t think any of us expected the season of Lent to look like it does now, yet, the reality of a global pandemic hasn’t made Lent go away. In the interest of having a faithful perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic as a congregation, I want to remind us of the four disciplines of Lent and how they can be helpful for us in times like these.
Alms Giving – Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-4
When Jesus began his teaching this way, he wasn’t prohibiting us from public worship or requiring that everything be done in secret. Rather, he was reminding us that our spiritual disciplines need to be practiced for the right reasons. As far as our charitable giving is concerned, do we give to feel better about ourselves? Do we give to make ourselves look good in front of others? Or, do we give as a thankful response to God’s grace and mercy made known through Jesus Christ? Do we give to be part of and in support of what God is doing in our lives, in our congregation, in our community and in the world right now? My fervent hope is the latter.
As a congregation, we are continuing to do ministry and putting our gifts (financial and otherwise) to use. For instance, our preschool is closed but we have told those families that they won’t be billed for the next two weeks. If these families need to use that tuition money to pay for alternative childcare, they can. We have told the part-time, hourly staff who depend on their paychecks that we are working to figure out how they will still be paid for these two weeks. These steps are important ways we are being faithfully generous in response to real needs right now. The Coronavirus also means that while we aren’t gathering for worship in person (the time when many of our generous financial gifts are given), faithful generosity is still needed. You are encouraged to mail your offerings and tithes to the church office. Our congregation still has financial obligations to meet because there are still costs to doing ministry, which don’t stop.
Prayer - I am continuing to keep you all in my daily prayers. I try to make this a regular discipline anyway, but times of global emergency demand that this discipline be nothing short of rigorous. Let me encourage you to discipline yourselves to pray. Pray for one another and pray for others. Pray for medical professionals who are working to create a vaccine and for those who are treating and caring for the sick and dying. Pray for those who are traveling and for those whose travels have been curtailed. Pray for the students who are out of school and for the educators who are trying to instruct them while schools are closed. Pray for those who are quarantined and for those who are restricted from seeing their loved ones in person. The need for prayer is as clear as ever. If it is helpful, let me offer this prayer from our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal. If you have no other words you can start with these:
“O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, grant courage and hope. Where anxiety is infectious and widening, grant peace and reassurance. Where impossibilities close every door and window, grant imagination and resistance. Where distrust twists our thinking, grant healing and illumination. Where spirits are daunted and weakened, grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.”
Repentance - “‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” Mark 1:14-15
I have taught in a variety of contexts that repentance means more than simply saying, “I’m sorry,” or expressing sincere regret for wrongdoing with promises to do better. It’s no accident that following the proclamation to repent, Jesus called the disciples to follow him. In other words, repentance means taking on the discipline of giving up what we have been doing to be part of what God is doing. Repentance is a life-long discipline of responding to what God is doing now and faithfully trying to be part of it.
What does that have to do with us now? If, for instance, you find yourself saying, “I’m not sick and neither is anyone I know. I’ll go about my business as usual,” then I would say repentance is in order. God’s way is for us to do what is in the best interest of the community ahead of ourselves. If you are doubtful, consider what Martin Luther wrote in 1527 in a letter titled, “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.”
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God."
Fasting – Fasting as a spiritual discipline is an ancient practice. Through the centuries, it has been practiced as an expression of grief and mourning as well as an expression of restraint and self-control. During Lent, we often choose to “give something up.” This is what Lenten fasting looks like for many of us these days. Its purpose, though, is to help us focus on our relationship with God, to be reminded once more of our dependence on God and to trust that God is providing for our daily needs. What, then, might our Lenten fast look like now?
As fear and anxiety have spread because of the unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery store shelves have been stripped bare. Perhaps a good Lenten fast would be to abstain from taking more than is needed at the grocery store to help make sure there will be enough for others. Personally, I am committing myself to fast from the distractions and tasks that have gotten in the way of me caring for you. I am being reminded of what’s really important. The point is that we take deliberate steps to be focused on what God is providing for us and calling us to do and to fast from those things that are distractions from it.
I know that this is a difficult and frustrating time. We are having to be creative in how we move forward together as a congregation. I want to be gathered in person with all of you in worship as much as you do. I want to share in fellowship in person as much as you do. Let me assure you of some things:
Above all, write one another, call one another, and pray for one another, trusting that the living Lord Jesus is in the midst of this pandemic with us.
All worship and other in-person activities are suspended through April 4. We anticipate being able to use online resources for meetings and worship. Details about how to access and participate in those activities will be available in the coming days. We will continue to update the website and Facebook page as new information becomes available.