Saturday, July 21, 2018

Does Trump teach us how to love our enemies?

Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies. President Trump sometimes appears to curry favor with nations recently considered enemies or adversaries of the United States, especially Russia and China. Is he heeding Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies?

Lavishing blandishments and flattery on Russia’s President Putin and China’s President Xi does not communicate love. Both authoritarian rulers have enough sycophants in their governments that the rulers recognize flattery for what it is: empty words. Flattery infers shared values and perhaps obedience, neither of which should characterize U.S. relations with Russia or China.

Genuine love for enemies frequently requires speaking truth to power in a way that power is likely to hear. Using this criterion, Trump clearly does not express love for his enemies. For example, Trump failed to confront Putin about Russian interference in U.S. elections with sufficient forcefulness, relying on the word of a known prevaricator instead of the hard, substantial evidence provided by American intelligence agencies. Of course, Trump himself consistently acts as if facts are unimportant or non-existent.

Conversely, Jesus never taught us to treat friends and allies with enmity. Trump inappropriately meddles in the internal affairs of friends and allies, publicly speaks disdainfully or dismissively of allied leaders, and acts (e.g., by unilaterally imposing tariffs) as if U.S. friends and allies are adversaries rather than simply economic competitors. Competition does not necessarily presume enmity. One important lesson learned from participating in athletic competitions is adversaries on the field may be good friends off the field. Perhaps the President, crippled by a bone spur that allowed to him avoid the draft, never learned this lesson during his school years.

Evangelical Christian support for Trump’s foreign policies disturb me because they fail to apply biblical standards in their analysis of those policies. Another illustration of this assessment is that America first is not a Christian policy. God loves all people equally. Consequently, globalization, not perpetual American supremacy, is one foundational pillar of a Christian foreign policy.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Wearing a cross

A reader found my Ethical Musings posts on Why people go to church and What was Jesus’ brand interesting. The posts prompted the reader to wonder if I had given any thought to the number of people who wear crosses. The reader accurately surmised that by comparing the number of church attendees to cross wearers, a significant number of people who wear a cross have no connection to Christianity or to the theological meaning of the cross.

I found the reader’s observation insightful and thought provoking. After receiving the reader’s comment, I began paying more attention to the number of people wearing a cross and was startled at the number of crosses I saw, especially when contrasted with church attendance and membership statistics for Paris and London, the cities in which I made my observations. Some individuals wearing a cross were obviously American. Even ignoring those, a still surprising number of French and British persons wore crosses. Since returning to the States, I’ve found that a disproportionate number of people sport crosses in comparison to U.S. church attendance and membership statistics.

Why the disparity?

The explanation that I find most cogent is that the cross has become a common cultural symbol and has lost its historic and theological meanings.

The Romans used crosses, generally shaped like our letter “T,” to execute tens of thousands of criminals. The Roman army (there was no separate police force) was highly competent and professional. They crucified Jesus in a way that from the Scriptural record (the only available source) appears fully consistent with their standard practices. Nothing significant about Jesus’ crucifixion seems to have been exceptional.

Non-Christians originally associated a cross with Christians as a form of insult. Christians, however, quickly adopted the symbol as a source of pride, reveling in its scandal. Early Christians, aware of the near unanimous public revulsion to the cross, also saw it as a safe symbol for identifying their meeting places, houses in which Christians lived, etc. No sane person would voluntarily associate him or her self with a cross.

Today, the scandal is gone. The cross has become a good luck charm (think of crossing one’s fingers, which originated as a way of making a cross) or even a meaningless decorative item valued for its craftsmanship or giver rather than its shape.

What if Christians wore an electric chair or noose instead of a cross? Those symbols would restore the scandal; those symbols would also underline the meaning of Jesus’ death (innocence in the grip of systemic power that led to the power’s unanticipated unmasking as evil and subsequent defeat) in a way that is perhaps more comprehensible by twenty-first people century. Unfortunately, in both instances the connection with Jesus would be lost. Perhaps Christians who wear a cross should consider wearing a cross with a hangman’s noose or electric chair superimposed.

As I write, I am aware that beheading is another form of capital punishment in current use. Regretfully, a sword has too many interpretations to permit its clear use as a scandalous symbol of capital punishment.

God is life. The scandal of the cross is that death, particularly a death caused by a ruling power’s imposition of capital punishment on a conquered peasant, led to life. May all who wear a cross dare to live into the hope and reality of the cross.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Racing for God

I briefly encountered the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in London. Sadly, we are not on a first name basis. Now that I have your attention, I’ll tell you what actually happened. One evening her motorcade drove by as Susan and I walked from our London hotel to a nearby restaurant. You may feel I misled you. Many Christians face a similar credibility challenge. Christianity promises people to help them develop a first name relationship with God and then too often fails to deliver. Today’s gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13) offers several constructive suggestions about how to assist people connect with God.

Clergy are icons of God. Believe me, these icons all have clay feet. Nevertheless, one reason the Church sets aside clergy is to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. Good clergy aim to achieve this purpose through being transparent, appropriately sharing personal foibles and struggles while hoping that people will simultaneously discern God’s presence. Incidentally, being an icon is difficult when parishioners are accustomed to seeing one as a carpenter (think of Jesus) or a PR executive (think of Mark Haworth recently ordained deacon out of this parish). Consequently, our canons follow Jesus’ example by requiring clergy to serve a congregation other than their home congregation.

More broadly, every Christian is called to be an icon of Christ in the world. As God’s icons, we hopefully hear and answer God’s call – whether for ordination, or more frequently to sing in the choir, serve at the altar, join an outreach ministry, or embrace a stranger with God’s love.

Controversially, the gospel reading names Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The Greek is frustratingly ambiguous and can mean either siblings or cousins. On the one hand, Mary was a Jewish young woman married to Joseph in an era before artificial birth control. They had multiple motives for desiring a large family. On the other hand, Christians understandably venerated Mary for being worthy of bearing the one traditionally seen as God’s son. Concurrently, Christian theology frequently emphasized God’s transcendence at the cost of distancing humans from God, making a relationship with God more problematic. These factors coalesced in many Christians depicting Mary as an eternally blessed virgin, immaculately conceived without original sin so she would be worthy of being Jesus’ mother, having been bodily assumed to heaven without dying because she lived a sinless existence, and recent efforts, prominently spearheaded by Pope John Paul II, to declare Mary co-redemptrix with Jesus. Although lacking explicit scriptural warrant, these ideas do have Scriptural roots. Today, these conflicting views of Mary frequently coexist in the same congregation.

This past week, the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention met in Austin, Texas. One hotly debated topic was the merit of using only masculine pronouns and nouns to name the persons of the Trinity. Individuals who have suffered abuse from a male – whether father, other relative, friend, co-worker, or stranger – often find male terms for the deity painful. General Convention authorized non-gender specific language for the introduction to our Eucharistic prayers and a few other places in the liturgy. Heather and I, like a majority of Episcopal clergy, sometimes refer to the Trinity with a variety of gender neutral or mixture of feminine and masculine terms. And Scripture, in fact, uses feminine and non-gender specific terms for God. Furthermore, most biblical images of the Holy Spirit are feminine nouns in the original language. I predict that future generations will find this fight silly. What you call God is unimportant. What is important is that you know the love or light, by whatever name, that brings life, healing, and meaning. Welcoming everyone and helping them to recognize God’s loving presence in their life requires embracing multiple terms and paths for describing the spiritual life.

Jesus’ inability to perform deeds of power in Nazareth poignantly reminds us that God alone, by any name, is not the answer. Promising that God can solve all problems is wrong. Instead, God acts in conjunction with people. And even then, not everything is possible. For example, God rarely heals, as the Apostle Paul knew, chronic, incurable disease but daily empowers one to live with the disease.

Laying on of hands and anointing with oil are symbolic, liturgical means by which God’s people incarnate and communicate God’s presence and love. We witness this in ordinations, anointing of persons in our mid-week healing Eucharist, hospital visits and other times, blessings during Holy Communion for those not receiving the consecrated bread and wine, and perhaps most especially in the passing of the peace, a time to bless one another rather than gossip.

One Sunday afternoon during our recent stay in Venice, Susan and I while crossing a bridge were startled to observe dozens and dozens of small boats, all rowed or paddled. We saw Viking longboats, pirate ships, kayaks, a Chinese dragon boat, and lots more. We discovered that over four thousand participants in two thousand plus boats were racing along an eighteen-mile course. They were all amateurs, which was glaringly apparent from multiple boats crashing into buildings, bridge abutments, and other boats. Surprisingly, nobody ever loses in this annual race. Every finisher receives the same medal and equal acclaim.

That boat race is a great metaphor for the Christian life. The boat represents the ark of one’s salvation, living Jesus’ lifestyle of loving God and neighbor. The variety of boats connotes our individual spiritualities. Paddling symbolizes our effort – unbelievably amateurish, exceptionally competent, or most often somewhere in between – to partner with God and thereby experience God’s loving presence personally as well as becoming an icon or vehicle that enables other persons to experience God’s love. Everybody wins; there are no losers. May all of us participate in this race. Amen.

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why people go to church

Why do people go to church?

I’ve written previous Ethical Musings posts on this subject, including Why bother with church? and Time to market the church.

More recently, the Gallup poll has conducted some excellent research on the subject. I especially commend this post by fellow priest, Jon White, Why people go to church found on the Episcopal Café website. Jon helpfully summarizes the research, which has strong implications for congregations that wish to grow numerically.

My last post discussed the question of what was Jesus’ brand. If we believe that others along with us should follow Jesus and that part of following Jesus is to gather regularly with God’s people to worship God, deepen our spirituality, build community, and to serve others then having an attractive brand is vital. Even more important is to have a community that attracts and successfully integrates newcomers. This requires:

·       Practicing genuine hospitality. We must learn to welcome the stranger, including the stranger in conversations and what’s happening without causing the stranger to experience an unwanted level of attention or any other type of discomfort.

·       Removing barriers to entry. Integrating a newcomer into an established group – for example, a small congregation, study group, or other gathering – requires recognizing and dismantling the group’s barriers to entry to permit newcomers to feel welcome and then to join. What are barriers to entry? Inadequate signage (who likes to ask for the location of the restroom?), insufficient parking (get old-timers to park at a distance), steps that keep the handicapped out – these and other barriers block entry.

·       Offering substantive value for time spent and money contributed. This explains why people rate good sermons their highest priority in the Gallup survey about why people go to church.

·       Congregants honestly sharing their successes and failures in modeling their lives on Jesus. Who wants to worship with a congregation comprised entirely of hypocrites who claim to model their lives on Jesus but whose words and actions blatantly and consistently reveal their hypocrisy? Conversely, who wants to worship with a congregation who allegedly gather in Jesus’ name but who can point only to their failures and never to their successes?

·       Pervasively focusing on helping people to apply lessons from scripture to daily living (do not confuse this with the prosperity gospel!). Attendees, both new and old, seek help with their daily lives.

·       Giving people instruction, encouragement, and opportunity to cultivate their spirituality. This is at the center of what it means to be church. Otherwise, the church becomes a social club, social service organization, advocate for social justice, or other type of non-profit. All of these are good but lack the distinctive spiritual focus of a church.