Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some possibly heretical views about Sunday School

Let’s be honest about Sunday School.

In my experience, clergy and laity widely regard Sunday School as an essential element of a congregation’s programming but equally widely hope that someone else will take responsibility for ensuring that Sunday School happens. This tacit disdain for Sunday School is evident in our delegating responsibility for Sunday School to newly minted and therefore inexperienced curates (in those few remaining parishes fortunate enough to have a curate) and fervent prayers that longsuffering volunteers will serve one more year. The proffered justification that youthful clergy will somehow instinctively relate better to youth and children lacks prima facie credibility. What that justification really communicates is that Sunday School may be necessary but is not one of the rector’s top priorities.

Sunday Schools began as a church-sponsored initiative to teach children to read and write in the days before universal public education. When publicly funded schools superseded that initial purpose, churches seized the opportunity to reimagine Sunday Schools as vehicles for religious education, that is, for forming children into mature Christians who actively participate in the life of the Church.

Given that purpose, then today, as for several prior generations, most Sunday Schools are abject failures. Children who grow to adulthood attending Episcopal Sunday Schools (or Sunday Schools of another denomination) generally do not remain faithful members or even faithful Christians. If they did, our pews would be full (or at least measurably fuller) of people between the ages of 20 and 60.

Sunday Schools fail for multiple reasons. First, some parents and congregations view Sunday School as a sanctified babysitting service intended to permit adults to worship (or perhaps to enjoy Sunday brunch) in relative peace and quiet. Second, some parents believe that sending their children to Sunday School will satisfy their vague sense of obligation to educate their children in the basics of Christianity. Yet many of these parents yet opt to minimize their own participation in the Church, implicitly communicating by example that, at best, religion is for children and not adults. Third, Sunday School teachers often teach by default a literal interpretation of the Bible. Teachers want children to learn the biblical stories and are ill-prepared to differentiate myth from fact. Children subsequently discover that this literalism is untenable as they mature and their education in science, history, and other disciplines progresses. Fourth, a great many Sunday School teachers volunteer because nobody else steps up. These good hearted souls frequently lack both a genuine calling and passion for communicating the faith to children.

More broadly, the Church acts as if it has little understanding of how to form children into mature Christians. Numerous programs have initially generated excitement only to produce disappointing results when replicated or failed to achieve promised results when assessed with the benefit of hindsight. For example, the once promising idea of Eucharists designed and implemented by youth (with the assistance of a priest, of course) has proven ineffective as a vehicle for forming youth into mature Christians who will populate our pews.

Well intentioned groups continue to market new programs. Journey to Adulthood (J2A) has promised more that it has been consistently able to deliver. Godly Play similarly often falls short of its advocates’ aspirations for forming children into mature Christians. Both are good programs that I have used and in some places produce striking results. Yet neither is a panacea for forming youth and children into mature Christians.

When programs such as J2A and Godly Play do help youth and children become mature Christians, the program succeeds because the youth and children catch the faith from their parents and other Christian leaders involved in the program.

Faith is caught, not taught, according to a well-known adage. Most Christians can point to one or several “saints” from whom they caught the faith. Religious education programs, no matter how creative or initially exciting, fail if they ignore that truth. Catching the faith necessarily precedes effective Christian formation.

Therefore, let’s stop wasting precious resources and efforts on fundamentally ineffectual religious education programming. In the absence of inspired Christian teachers and leaders from whom children and youth can catch the faith, cancel Sunday School and other youth programs. Invest those resources in efforts more likely to produce positive results, e.g., caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. Ineffectual programming harmfully contaminates congregational morale with guilt.

Parents who are committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children can catch the faith are the most effectual source of Christian formation. The Church beneficially invests its resources in complementing those efforts. We can encourage and support parents and supplement their efforts with church programming. However, even with the best of parenting and ecclesial help, some children will still leave the Church for a season and occasionally for all of their days. No set of Christian formation efforts can ever guarantee positive results.

The preponderance of children and youth with parents who are not committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children are unlikely to catch the faith pose an evangelistic rather than educational challenge. Until an individual catches the faith, until s/he says yes to the one who stands at the door knocking, until s/he experiences an inspired moment in which s/he acknowledges God’s loving touch, then religious education is little more than the transmission of data and not genuine Christian formation.

Effective programming for children and youth begins by understanding its goal with respect to each individual. Is the aim Christian formation for one who has caught the faith? Or, is the aim evangelism, i.e., the leader or teacher assisting the individual in a non-coercive manner to recognize and affirm God’s presence in her/his life by openly revealing that same presence in the leader or teacher’s life? This openness includes not only mountain top experiences but also times of doubt and when the person has traversed the valley of the shadow of death.

Packaged programming for children and youth succeeded for its originators precisely because they opened themselves to program participants, allowing those participants to see God’s presence. From that experience, participants caught the faith, recognizing that what they saw in the leader or teacher resonated with their own, perhaps heretofore unacknowledged, experience of God’s loving presence. Packaged programming works only when leaders and teachers are Christians from whom participants can catch the faith.


Let’s drop the pretense that Sunday School is an essential program for every congregation and regard it as one tool among many for sharing our faith and forming new Christians.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Fewer not more US troops for Afghanistan

The Pentagon has proposed sending an additional three to five thousand US troops to Afghanistan. The Trump administration appears likely to accept that recommendation.
Sending troops into harm’s way and expending scarce government funds without a valid strategic goal is immoral.
What possible strategic purpose will an additional three to five thousand US troops in Afghanistan serve?
  • Fifteen years of efforts to train an effective Afghan army and police force have failed. Why should anyone believe that several thousand additional troops will be able to achieve that goal?
  • After spending hundreds of billions of US dollars and the loss of the lives of two thousand plus US armed forces personnel as well as thousands of other casualties, Afghanistan still lacks a viable national government, genuine democracy, and protection for the rights of all Afghan citizens. Why should anyone believe that several thousand additional troops will succeed in achieving those goals?
  • Taliban and other forces opposed to the Afghanistan central government and the US often seek sanctuary in Pakistan to avoid losing a battle or capture by US forces. Why should anyone believe that an additional three to five thousand US troops can end this practice when tens of thousands of US troops could not?

Afghans are highly effective fighters – when motivated to achieve goals that are important to them. Afghanistan has never had an effective national government because Afghan loyalty to tribe and religion take precedence over national allegiance. Sending additional troops to Afghanistan, regardless of the size of the surge, solves neither of those problems.
Allowing a resurgent Taliban to govern a substantial portion, or even all, of Afghanistan will be horrific for most Afghans subject to Taliban rule. However, the Taliban would not be regaining traction in Afghanistan without significant support from Afghans, support often fueled by opposition to their central government and the US instead of an actual desire for Taliban rule.
Additional US troops may achieve temporary tactical advantages. However, those advantages will prove short lived when the US withdraws its troops, a prediction repeatedly confirmed over the last fifteen years.
I want military leaders who think they can win. I want civilian leaders to oversee the military and to determine both whether the cost of victory is worthwhile and whether the military engagement is likely to achieve strategic goals consonant with US national interests and progress toward greater peace in the world.

Sending more US troops to Afghan is not worthwhile and will not achieve any strategic goals of value to the US or even to Afghans. Instead of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the Trump administration should withdraw all US troops from there. If in the future, terrorists who pose a genuine threat to US national interests again operate from bases in Afghanistan, then the US should conduct targeted strikes against those terrorists of the type that I describe in my book, Just Counterterrorism.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lessons from a terminal diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis of having a fatal disease shocked me last September. The experience underscored three truths:
  1. Few of us know when we will die. And, except in cases in which death is imminent (e.g., from illness), I would prefer not to know when I will die.
  2. The possibility of imminent death, always a possibility for everyone yet something that we invariably discount heavily to avoid becoming overly morbid and too risk avoidant, was undeniable. Moments became precious. Some South Koreans stage fake funerals to gain more appreciation of life by allowing death to become more of a reality.
  3. Upon being diagnosed with a terminal disease, I had no interest in shopping for healthcare even though I am fortunate enough to have healthcare coverage that often allows considerable choice of providers. What I wanted was a cure (something that is currently impossible) or treatment that would allow me to live as well and as long as reasonably feasible. I had a disease of which I had never heard, no criteria for judging the best available treatment, and was in no condition for researching treatment options.

Now being in remission and having a relatively good life expectancy prognosis for someone with my diagnosis, the most poignant question with which I grapple is: How do I want to use my remaining time, presumably a number of years?
Persons with a terminal diagnosis are not the only ones who ask that question.
In working as a chaplain with young adults, I found that many of them rarely struggle with that question. Instead, many young men and women act and talk as though they simply want to grab all of the gusto they can, regardless of the risks, confident of their own invulnerability. The largest number of exceptions to that generalization I discovered was among the Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, many of whom were highly motivated to achieve some form of greatness or excellence in life. I suspect this is also true of students at the nation’s premier colleges and universities.
Midlife crises represent another moment when humans often find that they cannot ignore the question of how they wish to use their remaining time.
Christians should also ask that question because we all have a terminal diagnosis. Death invariably follows birth. The Easter season, after living with the stories of Jesus’ death during Lent and Holy Week and now living with the stories of his resurrection, affords Christians an excellent annual opportunity to ponder the question, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? How do I want to live?
One of the vital yet often ignored differences between Christians and many others is that Christianity maintains life has a purpose. Popular preacher and bestselling author Rick Warren has packaged the presumption in his book, The Purpose Driven Life. I love the book’s title. I find his exposition simplistic and wrong. Contrary to Warren, our goal is not to persuade others to accept any form of the Christian credo.

Instead, I argue that our goal is to increase the love of God and love of neighbor. Loving God is difficult because as I have repeatedly insisted in Ethical Musings postings, the idea of God is irreducible to human language or concepts. We can, however, not only easily identify our neighbor but also, in moments of honesty, know how well we love our neighbor. Indeed, perhaps the two precepts are actually one: perhaps the best way to love God is to love our neighbor.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why won't Trump release his tax returns?

President Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public is intriguing and troubling. The IRS routinely audits Presidential and Congressional tax returns. Yet former Presidents and most members of Congress have made their tax returns public.
Possible explanations for Trump’s refusal include:
  • His tax returns may reveal that he is not as wealthy as he would like for people to believe. Many real estate investments are heavily leveraged (i.e., mortgaged), so perhaps his substantial real estate holdings represent a relatively small net worth totaling in the hundreds of millions instead of billions.
  • His tax returns may reveal that he derives a disproportionate share of his income from licensing his name instead of the successful real estate deals about which he boasts.
  • His tax returns may reveal aggressive interpretations of the tax code that trigger repeated audits that are not always resolved in his favor.

If Trump’s tax returns would enhance his public image by showing that he possesses great wealth or that his real estate empire is highly profitable, making his income tax returns public would seem to flatter his narcissistic ego. Similarly, if his tax returns revealed that he paid relatively little in tax, his public remarks indicate that he would view that outcome favorably. Maybe Donald Trump is much less wealthy and less successful than he wants people to believe.
Given Trump’s alleged wealth, human’s consistently acting in their self-interest, and Trump’s undeniable consistent self-promotion, the public and legislators understanding how his proposed changes to the tax code would benefit him is vital for transparent, fair government. Is Trump’s support for specific changes to the code motivated by what he thinks best for the nation, what will benefit him, or both? The one tax return that Trump has made public illustrates the importance of those questions as he advocates changes that would have personally benefitted him. In that one return he used deductions related to real estate investments to minimize his income and had to pay Alternative Minimum Tax.