Monday, October 17, 2016

Virtual community

An ongoing conversation among many religious bloggers and internet writers about religion is the possibility of virtual community.
The number of responses, in various forms ranging from likes to comments, I received following my Ethical Musings' post about having cancer both surprised and encouraged me. The responses were all positive; a majority promised prayers, though none – thankfully – responded with meaningless platitudes about God's healing power. A substantial number of times, the response came from someone with whom I had once worked, whether as his or her boss, his or her priest or chaplain, or his or her colleague or friend. The internet does not have to be a bad, mean, or scary place.
Juxtaposing virtual with physical community seems to me to create a false dichotomy. Physical community – actual human contact – is essential. Virtual community can enrich, expand, and extend physical community but is never a substitute for the foundational experiences of actual physical community.
I also have learned in very personal ways that community, whether physical or virtual, requires significant commitment of time and energy to sustain. No longer can I deal with every email the day I receive that email, a praxis I learned and adopted when in the Navy. These days, I often lack the requisite emotional and spiritual strength to reach that goal. My "good" days – days when my energy seems relatively high and I am more focused and optimistic – in contrast to my "bad" days limit my ability to respond.
I hope that people do not interpret a delayed response negatively. Delays reflect my reaching the extent of my perceived capacity in that moment. Not all things are in every moment possible for every human. Rejection of that view, with its implicit judgment of the person who fails to break through illusory constraints, is one of the harms that I had not previously recognized yet is inherent in most versions of positive thinking and its close cousin, the prosperity gospel. There is a time for all things, even a time for answering electronic communications. Real community, whether physical or virtual, provides persons the space and time needed to process ideas and feelings.

So, I am grateful for community whenever I experience it and in all of its forms. However, I know that healthy community offers me the space and time I need, which, given my cancer, may not always match the expectations, even the most well intentioned of expectations, of other community members. I am especially appreciative when a correspondent explicitly acknowledges that the ravages of cancer may limit both my ability to respond and the predictability of that response.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The future of Ethical Musings

As Ethical Musings' followers and subscribers probably know, I have not posted an Ethical Musing since the beginning of September. And from the middle of July, my posts on Ethical Musings consisted of sermons and two articles written for the Episcopal Café.
The paucity and nature of my Ethical Musings' posts point to physical problems that I began to experience in the spring and that culminated in a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in September. Multiple myeloma is a relatively rare form of cancer that attacks the blood and for which no cure exists. Chemotherapy can usually achieve a relatively positive short- and mid-term outlook (6 years or more of enjoying a reasonable quality of life), but multiple myeloma is fatal.
Multiple myeloma is difficult to diagnose. In my case, pain caused by a collapsed vertebra and cracked ribs, along with several other symptoms (hypercalcemia, poor kidney functioning, and anemia), ultimately pointed to the correct diagnosis after some missteps.
After consulting with some Ethical Musings readers, colleagues, and friends, I've decided to resume writing the Ethical Musings blog with some changes. First, I doubt that the blog will appear with consistent frequency, so encourage those interested in reading my posts to subscribe or follow Ethical Musings in one of the several ways identified on the blog page.
Second, having multiple myeloma has somewhat altered my worldview. That is, although the diagnosis has not caused me to change my basic theological and ethical beliefs, my diagnosis has rearranged subjects that interest me. Cancer and healthcare, unsurprisingly, have moved up; military ethics has become less of a focus.
Third, posts will probably be shorter and contributions from others will be more important. Cancer and chemo combine to leave me with less energy; chemo and sometimes the cancer's effects have diminished my capacity for thought. Consequently, reader comments are even more welcome and essential than when I began writing Ethical Musings.

Finally, I anticipate Ethical Musings continuing to evolve in ways that are unpredictable yet hopefully meaningful. The number of followers and subscribers has continued to grow slowly; the number of visitors per page is up significantly, though I do not know how many of these visitors spend much time on each page or whether the page's content has any influence on a visitor's thoughts or life.
I am sorry that I lack the emotional and physical energy to notify all of my friends who are part of the Ethical Musings' community of my medical condition. Moving ahead with Ethical Musings, however, seems like a constructive step forward.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Shaped in Jesus' image

I like to watch a potter at work: strong hands, wet and muddy, shaping the clay as it spins on the wheel. I view myself as having little artistic ability, so watching someone transform a lump of clay into an object of use, or beauty, and especially into an object of both use and beauty, fascinates and mystifies me. This is what God is doing with us, making us into objects of use and beauty.
The image of God's people as clay being made into pots is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. This morning’s reading from Jeremiah depicts God as the potter.[1] Yet God finds the vessel shaped on the wheel unsatisfactory and so makes it into another vessel. Did God make a mistake? I don’t think so. Instead, I would suggest that two explanations of how the clay was molded into an unsatisfactory pot. First, the clay is imperfect. Most of us do not have to look very hard before we can identify faults with ourselves. Indeed, if anything, some of us are too hypercritical of ourselves.
Second, God's hands are imperfect because you and I are God's hands. Sometimes God works with the clay directly, as in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion or speaks directly to our spirit. More often, however, God speaks to us through other persons, who, like us, are imperfect.
This morning’s epistle reading provides an example of the imperfections that can be introduced into the vessel being created on the potter’s wheel because God's hands – you and I – do not move in perfect accord with God's will.[2] Onesimus was a runaway slave. Somehow, and although we know nothing of the circumstances by which it happened, we might assert that it was through the work of the Holy Spirit, Paul and Onesimus met. Paul became Onesimus’ father in God. What Paul means is that through his witness and ministry, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Onesimus has become a Christian.
Now Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner, who is also a Christian. The text is unclear whether Onesimus’ owner was Philemon or Archippus; the text refers only to the owner as brother, a term that Paul consistently used to denote fellow Christians. Paul could not indefinitely harbor a runaway slave. To do so was a crime; Onesimus as a slave was subject to whatever punishment his master might wish to inflict, no matter how cruel or extreme, even death.[3] Paul suggests that perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from his owner for a while was in order that Onesimus might become a Christian.
Here the text becomes problematic. Paul encourages Onesimus’ owner to welcome Onesimus as a brother, implying that Onesimus should be set free. Paul offers to make good any debt and emphasizes that Onesimus is to be welcomed as would be Paul himself. But for over fifteen centuries, most Christians rejected that interpretation. Instead, they strongly contended that the owner’s only obligation was to treat a Christian slave with kindness. Paul’s act of returning the runaway slave was interpreted as New Testament evidence in support of slavery. Those Christians failed to understand that the very institution of slavery is incompatible with Christianity. Every human being is worthy of dignity and respect because all are God's children, made in God's image.
Those Christians who argued that Christianity and slavery are compatible represent clear evidence of the imperfections both in the clay and in the human hands that God uses to mold the clay. No wonder God sometimes finds it necessary to remake a pot. This is why it is important to remember that we are the clay and not the pot: we may be remade, but we are not thrown away. In short, becoming a Christian is a process, not an event.
Becoming a Christian is costly. Onesimus as he returned to his owner was most likely filled with fear and trepidation. Similarly, Jesus tells those who would follow him to consider a king who contemplates waging war or a person contemplating a construction project.[4] What person would be so foolish as to begin either a war or a building project without first counting the cost? Yet many Christians today think only of what they can gain from Christianity, not of the cost. What price should we expect to pay for journeying as a Christian?
First, being a Christian means that all of my possessions and wealth belong to God rather than to me. I am only a steward, tasked to use my possessions and wealth for God's purposes rather than finding them a source of security or the path to a hedonistic lifestyle.
Second, becoming a Christian means that my life should progressively resemble Jesus of Nazareth's life. This process of transformation can be painful as we let go of parts of ourselves that we may like or enjoy but that are incompatible with the image of Christ. It also requires that we invest substantial time and energy in trying to discover who Christ is so that we know that which we aim to become. The familiar adage, if you have no goal any road will get you there, applies to the spiritual life. Holy Nativity, with leadership from its Vestry and Wardens, is becoming intentional about identifying and following a spiritual path.
Third, being a Christian means that you and I should expect to minister in God's name. We are not only clay; we are also God's hands helping to shape others. You should have a ministry, a service to God and others, that reaches beyond simply embodying Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. Perhaps your ministry is inviting others to explore the Christian faith or to join you in worship. Perhaps your ministry is that of teaching; we have many people at Holy Nativity with the gift of teaching. Perhaps your gift is one of hospitality, or service, or administration; we have people at Holy Nativity who have one or more of those gifts and who regularly exercise them. If you are not exercising a gift or gifts for ministry, why not? Is the cost too high?
Jesus said, Come to me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest; come and drink deeply of the water of life that truly refreshes. But he also said, Count the cost; being my disciple is costly; being made into my image can be painful.

[1] Jeremiah 18:1-11.
[2] Philemon 1-21.
[3] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: the Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 270.
[4] Luke 14:25-33.

Monday, August 29, 2016

What Can Anyone Do to Me?

This morning’s epistle reading contains an intriguing question, “What can anyone do to me?” The context makes it obvious that the author refers only to bad things. My immediate reaction to the phrase was a single word, “Plenty!” Although criminals have never violated my person, I have had my house robbed and my car totaled when someone rear-ended mine after I had stopped at a red light. Everyone at least occasionally suffers unfair criticism by others. Illustratively, I once had a parishioner, upset with my insistence on complying with Navy and Marine Corps regulations governing Chapel funds, inform me that I was doing the devil's work when I refused to permit the continued expenditure of funds in good, but explicitly prohibited ways. Reports of financial scams and identity theft are a media staple. One of the enduring harms with which many people now  live as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an exaggerated sense of vulnerability. Is this morning’s epistle lesson wrong in implying nobody can cause us grievous harm? Alternatively, does it mean something else?
The reading from Hebrews instructs Christians to offer hospitality to strangers, inferring that in doing so we, like others, may unknowingly entertain angels.[1] Contrary to medieval theologians, cultural stereotypes, and fundamentalists, the word angels in the Bible more often refers to God's messengers than to supernatural beings. What the epistle says, in other words, is that by offering hospitality to strangers we may receive a message from God.
I suspect that a halo effect applies to how most of us think of self, parish, and nation. We tend to imagine that we are more hospitable than we actually are. If you welcome and entertain family and friends in your home, that is good. Hebrews, however, forces me to ask, Do you also welcome and entertain strangers in your home?
Does Holy Nativity warmly welcome and entertain strangers? We face a mixed scorecard. For example, our worship services, especially for those who do not read, are difficult to follow and require juggling several books and pieces of paper. Holy Nativity is in the process of taking a couple of important steps to improve its welcome. First, by the middle of September, I hope that the worship bulletin will contain the entire service, something that we once did but then discontinued. Including the entire worship service makes it easier for members, and far more importantly, for visitors to follow and participate in worship. And the Vestry has set as one of its goals for the next year developing an effective program to welcome newcomers on their journey from visitor to member. Volunteers are needed to help with that program. If you are interested, please speak Louisa Leroux who is leading that effort or to me.
Nationally, the issue of offering hospitality to strangers faces several roadblocks. The US erects barriers to keep out unwanted immigrants, creates programs to deport illegal immigrants, restricts access to healthcare to those who can afford to pay, and incarcerates non-violent miscreants for life.
Lest you consider my vision of hospitality too broad, recall this morning’s gospel reading.[2] Jesus, the invited guest of honor at a feast, told his host,
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…
Jesus implicitly acknowledges that his affluent if not wealthy host does not know the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind whom he should invite to dinner. Then, like now, the well-to-do generally ignored, or even ostracized, the poor. Furthermore, Jews in Jesus’ day sought to justify their exclusivity by citing their belief that being crippled, blind, or impoverished was a mark of God's disfavor.
Jesus gives us the same instructions. We, the body of Christ and the nation, are to show hospitality to the poor, the outcast, and the despised. Jesus envisions a global community in which all live as brothers and sisters. Is Jesus’ vision an unrealistic utopian ideal or the future that God intends for us and for our world?
If you are like me, you answer that question with a yes and a no. Yes, I am committed to Jesus’ vision of the future. The acclamation Praise to you, Lord Christ! which follows the gospel reading, expresses a prayerful hope that Jesus’ vision will come to pass. Praying “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” from the Lord’s Prayer expresses the same hope. Yet when I examine my life, I see that I fall woefully short of Jesus’ standard of hospitality. I too often fear people whom I do not know, people who seem to have different values or beliefs than I do, people whose desire for a better life appears to threaten my quality of life. Fear dampens or extinguishes the fire of faith, causing us to act in ways inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings and vision.
Former radio talk show host Kenneth Hamblin, who had just learned to scuba dive, was vacationing with his wife on Lake Powell. Diving alone, he ineptly fired his new spear gun at a carp near the end of his dive. Surfacing, he laid his spear gun on the water and was startled to watch it sink. The lake water was very murky – a dark, ugly place. He did not want to go back down after the gun and he could not see the bottom. Yet he could not admit to his wife that he had lost his expensive new toy. So back down he went, into the depths, following a weighted rope to help him stay under the boat. After his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see more than he had expected. Unfortunately, the rope did not reach the lake’s bottom. Although he did not want to let go and sink into the murkiness, he liked the prospect of facing his wife without the gun even less. So he overcame his fears, let go, and found the gun.[3]
Life can seem very murky. We know what we should do, but fear letting go of the lifelines on which we depend and to trust that God will care for us. Consequently, we decide to rely upon self, our money or other possessions, an addiction, or almost anything else. As we heard in this morning’s first lesson,[4] human pride begins by forsaking God, which inevitably leads to sin, fear, and brokenness. This morning take a chance. Let love prevail, both our love for one another and God's love for us. The message the angels, God's messengers, bring us is a message of hope, a message that will help us, like the author of Hebrews, to say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"

[1] Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.
[2] Luke 14:1, 7-14.
[3] Ken Hamblin, Pick a Better Country (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 217-218.
[4] Jeremiah 2:4-13.