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Rolling with the holy punches


A reflection on hope

November 5, 2022

iStock photo

I was recently watching reruns of “M*A*S*H” — the iconic 1970s sitcom chronicling the lives of the nurses, doctors and even clergy working in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War — when I came across an episode titled “Dear Sis.”

The episode starts with an altercation between a patient who is flailing and fighting the nurses, refusing to accept their help or care. Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, who oversees the unit’s nurses, calls for the chaplain, the Rev. Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, simply known as “Father Mulcahy,” to help. When the good father steps in, the patient acts out, saying to Father Mulcahy that he is not qualified to help. He then punches the chaplain, and hard. In an unexpected moment of both self-defense and anger, Father Mulcahy punches the man back!

He then spends much of the episode dealing with that instinctual response.

He apologizes to the man and tries to explain his response, but the man will not hear it. He continues to verbally attack Father Mulcahy, saying he is in no way a holy man and must have gone to seminary at the YMCA. The patient cannot see his own actions as having been part of the problem, and he has no ability to offer grace or forgiveness.

As I listened to this interaction, I found myself struck deeply by this conversation both from a personal place, but also from a communal place. While we are not living through a literal war, like our siblings in Ukraine are, in many ways we are living through a metaphorical one.

Our war is against this tiny little virus that has many tricks up its sleeve and that appears to be using them all. We are in a constant state of stress and fear. Will we be the ones to get it next? How will it affect our families? Our loved ones? Our communities? We think we see the end of the pandemic, and then something else happens and it goes on with more violence and damage than before.

A MASH jeep (iStock photo)

At this point, I think few of us have avoided losing a loved one to this disease. Even fewer have remained unaffected by the illness. As Hawkeye said, “We don’t sleep. We don’t eat. And every day a truck dumps a load of bodies at our feet.”

Holding on to hope right now is difficult. Everyone remains tense, many are grieving, people are fearful and anxious, and everyone has moments when they are less able to act their best, to be their best. We are all making mistakes, and the results, because during this stress it is difficult to step back or to take things with the ease we otherwise might, are broken relationships, torn communities and a fractured world.

We see this in so many places in our world: deepening anger, acting out, rage and violence. We also see it, more personally, in the church. There have been numerous articles written recently, including one in The Wall Street Journal, saying that church communities in general are experiencing a return of only about 50%–70% of their people because of Covid. Many of our churches are simply having to close because of this loss of membership. Churches are learning to adapt, but pastors’ burnout level is extraordinary right now, leaving many to rethink their calls. Some leave ministry altogether, while others are reassessing how best to use their time, talent and treasures.

Recently I added into our worship services a “moment of hope” where I share a positive story, a story of someone doing good, being kind, making a beautiful difference, even in the face of these difficult and painful times. Again, I feel the deep importance of being that voice of hope, even when I cannot summon it for myself. Yes, hold on to hope.

 Barbara Barkley is pastor of Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church in Clayton, California.

Today’s Focus: A reflection on hope

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Ellie Johns-Kelley,  Ministry Relations Officer, Presbyterian Foundation
Alonzo Johnson, Coordinator, Self-Development of People, Compassion, Peace & Justice, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Loving God, help us to recognize our gifts and honor the gifts of others, so that we may together proclaim our justice and peace to a hurting world. Amen.

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