Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Prayer Book revision and General Convention


Shortly after the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention (GC) adjourned this past summer, an Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this opinion on the move by GC to initiate a process to revise the Book of Common Prayer:

The TFLPBR (Task Force for Liturgy and Prayer Book Revision) reminds me of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), which laid an egg and deservedly faded from sight. TFLPBR will take forever to get organized and the debate over its work will be endless. Even if you and I live long lives, there’s a significantly probability that 1979 will remain the official book when we will have passed on. Meanwhile, public worship in TEC is being balkanized across diocesan boundaries (and perhaps within individual dioceses) by experimentation, supplemental liturgies, etc. One has to ask whether GC and the other decision-making apparatus of TEC are utterly dysfunctional.

So far, the reader’s predictions seem on target.

Furthermore, congregations increasingly rely on having their full liturgy, sometimes with hymns, in a leaflet given to each attendee. Some congregations use the same leaflet for a season (e.g., Advent or Lent) while others print a new leaflet for each service. In a small but growing minority of places, the leaflet is available electronically on worshippers’ smartphones or tablets.

More importantly, the Episcopal Church continues to shrink. Membership and average Sunday attendance (ASA) are both declining. The percentage of Episcopal Congregations with an ASA of 100 or less has increased from 71% to 72%. Prayer Book revision will not reverse those trends.

We are a Church that prays together rather than believes together. The move away from a common liturgy, however, seems impossible to stop in an era of electronic resources and congregations increasingly utilizing a leaflet with the worship liturgy in lieu of direct dependence on the Book of Common Prayer. Ostrich like behavior that attempts to ignore the reality of widespread practices and growing reliance on electronic rather than printed resources is not helpful.

Eliminating printed leaflets and electronically available liturgies, forcing people to return to juggling the Prayer Book, hymnal(s), Scripture insert (or Bible), and a leaflet is at best ill-advised if not impossible. Over half of today’s Episcopalians are not cradle Episcopalians. Expecting worshippers to engage in a juggling act is off-putting for visitors and counterproductive in reversing years of declining attendance and membership. For better or worse, locally printed leaflets electronically available liturgies inherently invite local adaptations, authorized or otherwise.

The problem of proliferating liturgies and locally adapted or developed resources is observable in many Anglican Communion provinces including both Canterbury and York.

Instead of engaging in a futile rearguard action to recapture what once was, the TFLPBR should begin a conversation about to preserve our tradition of common prayer in the twenty-first century. I’ve yet to see any constructive suggestions to move the Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion in that direction. The longer we collectively postpone that conversation, the greater the chance that whatever solutions are identified will be too little, too late, and our valued tradition of common prayer will be lost.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Advent Preparations that Can Transform Your Life


In 1942, a group of football fans who were U.S. military personnel stationed in Newfoundland took a day of liberty and went fishing off the coast. As they fished, they listened to a radio broadcast of the annual Army/Navy game. Suddenly, they heard a cannon shot and turned to see a German submarine only a few hundred yards away. A German officer and several armed sailors boarded the fishing boat. The officer accused them of searching for subs and angrily declared that the Germans were going to sink the boat. Things had reached a pretty tight impasse when unexpectedly, from the radio, came the excited voice of a sports announcer: "The moment has come! The Navy is taking to the air. The Navy receivers are coming out." That was all the Germans heard. Mistaking a sports broadcast for a Navy transmission, they scurried off the fishing boat, quickly returned to their sub, and submerged.

That delightful story is almost certainly apocryphal. A submarine’s best protection is remaining undetected. If the Germans had really thought that the fishing boat was an anti-submarine picket boat, they probably would have sunk it without boarding. My brief internet search uncovered no source, credible or otherwise, for this unattributed story that I first saw in a print publication some years ago.

Today is the first day of Advent, one of the four Sundays in Advent, and the first day of the new church year. For centuries, Advent was a penitential season of preparation. People confessed their sins to prepare for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth and to make themselves ready for his glorious and imminent return. Confession, accompanied by genuine remorse for one’s offenses and the repentance of turning away from sin is one path to spiritual transformation. In this parish and in many places, penitential preparation makes little sense because few if any of us commit terrible, life-defining sins.

Instead of perpetuating the charade of a penitential Advent or proclaiming “fake news” about when or how the end of the world might occur – hopes now most often linked to wildfires, earthquakes, and flooding, Advent’s emphasis is shifting to preparation in a more general sense. Hence, we use the color blue, the color associated with the House of David, instead of purple.

Today’s gospel identifies three problems – worries about this life, drunkenness, and dissipation – that may inhibit our ability to discern God’s activity in the world and God’s presence in our lives. Addressing each problem constitutes a practical step for both clearing your spiritual vision and transforming your life. The gospel, like the rest of the Bible, is not merely a collection of charming, apocryphal stories but a compilation of insightful life changing wisdom, variously offered in story, direct teachings, or other literary forms.

“Worries about life” connotes stress. For too many of us, the holidays bring excess stress. The best way to manage stress is to avoid it. Develop the power to say “no” and to maintain good boundaries. Illustratively, set firm dollar limits on gift giving. Limit your commitment of time and money to work, church, and non-profits. Jesus instructed his disciples to love their neighbors AS they love themselves. Jesus knew that love for others begins with self-love and self-care. A physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, spiritually empty person cannot give the most precious gift of all – the gift of love incarnated in self – to spouse or partner, children, parents, or anyone else.

If drunkenness – a word connoting self-medication, addiction, or any other form of escapism – is a problem, reach out to a member of the clergy, attend a twelve-step group that meets here or somewhere else, or contact your physician or another health care provider. Nobody has to be alone. You can defeat your demon or demons. Trustworthy, competent help is available. Part of God’s message to us in our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity is that God loves each and every person, regardless of identity, thoughts, feelings or past actions. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can distance you from God’s loving presence.

If dissipation – an overwhelming preoccupation with material pleasures and possessions – is a problem, seize the opportunity to take a step or two away from it this Advent. For example, prioritize caring for creation over more traditional forms of celebrating Christmas. You probably saw news reports about a dead whale in Indonesia where an autopsy discovered over one thousand pieces of plastic in the whale’s stomach. Images of the pile of plastic in the whale’s stomach are indelibly etched in my mind. Use less plastic by reusing plastic containers, refusing plastic straws and plastic bags in restaurants and stores, and recycling whenever possible. Send ecards instead of paper cards. Replace wrapping papers with reusable gift bags. Turn off lights in empty rooms.

A grass roots Christian organization, Advent Conspiracy, promotes Advent as a time to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.[1] Those goals, incidentally, closely align with the marks of growing congregations: attention to call, spirituality, community, and openness to change. This Advent, having put aside worries about this life, drunkenness and dissipation, may our waiting and watching be blessed with seeing and hearing the signs of God at work in our midst. Amen.

Sermon preached First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018,
at the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1] Advent Conspiracy website, https://adventconspiracy.org/, accessed November 29, 2018.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Creation care and Advent


Creation care involves much more than taking steps to reduce or even attempt to reverse climate change. An autopsy of a dead whale that was recently found on an Indonesian beach revealed the whale had more than 1000 pieces of plastic in its belly. Creation care entails acting in ways that are good for the welfare of other species and of the planet as a whole.

Advent, which begins on Sunday, December 2, is a season of preparation for celebrating God’s incarnation, specifically in human form but more generally in all of the cosmos.

For centuries, Christians mistakenly equated preparation with penitence: clergy instructed their congregants to identify their sin and then seeking forgiveness for it, seeking to make oneself spiritually pure in order to be worthy of experiencing the incarnate God’s presence. This mistaken emphasis is why in most churches the color for Advent is purple.

Thankfully, a growing number of Christians and churches now recognize that spiritual preparation is not synonymous with penitence. In many of these congregations, the color for Advent is blue, the color associated with the House of David. Blue points to Jesus as David’s successor, Israel’s new king.

From this broader perspective, preparations for celebrating the incarnation are more consonant with the preparations that expectant parents make for the birth of a new child. Expectant parents try to make room for the baby in their home (presuming they are not houseless), ensure that they have baby clothes, stock up on necessary supplies (diapers, wipes, etc.), and so forth.

Thus, to prepare for our annual celebration of the incarnation, commit to one or more steps that will improve your stewardship of creation, helping to prepare all of creation ready for the incarnation. Commit only to one or at most a handful of steps. Practice them daily throughout Advent. By Christmas these practices will have become habits.

The power of these small steps is two-fold. First, creation care will have become a slightly more integral aspect of your life. Second, by encouraging others to follow your example – actions being much more powerful than words – you will multiply the effect of your actions/new habits.

Possible steps toward creation care that you might consider adopting this Advent include:

·       Refuse proffered straws in restaurants and elsewhere unless the straws are metal or paper

·       Send ecards instead of paper Christmas cards

·       Walk or bike whenever possible

·       Reduce your consumption of meat and other non-vegetable proteins

·       Turn off the lights every time you leave a room

·       Replace regular lightbulbs with LED or CFL bulbs

·       Read the electronic version of newspapers and magazines

·       Avoid, whenever feasible, buying or using single use plastic beverage containers/bottles

·       Avoid, whenever feasible, buying or using Styrofoam products

Of course, this list is only suggestive. Some of the best ideas will be steps that may have been nagging your conscience but seem too hard or problematic to adopt. Advent is the perfect time to take the plunge!

My hope and prayer are that Advent will become an annual season for Christians around the world to join in emphasizing creation care as a basic element of a healthy spiritual life.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Jamal Khashoggi and the Christian concept of time


Last Sunday, a person in the adult discussion group that I have been leading in the parish where I am a priest associate outlined the traditional Christian view of time as a line with Jesus as the decisive inflection point. I disagreed, even though the linear conception of time, with God existing outside of time, was what I had been taught in seminary.

Time is more helpfully conceived of as a bumpy spiral. The bumps are reminders that history does not proceed in a smooth pattern. Spurts, plateaus, and fallbacks are all part of time. The spiral is a reminder that history does repeat. There are multiple inflection points: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others. These are people who have altered the direction of history. Insistence on a single inflection argues for Christian exclusivity: Jesus is the only path that leads to salvation.

Whether the spiral, unlike the linear view of history, is going somewhere must remain an open question. One can make an optimistic case (Martin Luther King, Jr., famously remarking that the long arc of history is bending toward justice (c. the Ethical Musings’ post Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead)) or a pessimistic one (e.g., human destruction of the earth through climate change and, more broadly, the consequences of entropy). As emphasized in process theology, God is not outside of time but enmeshed in the very fabric of creation.

Debates about Saudi Arabia and the role of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, repeatedly evoked memories of that discussion. The U.S. has a history of supporting dictators who support U.S. policy goals while those dictators both suppress internal dissent and enjoy great wealth at the expense of their people. In the Middle East, the prime example of this type of policy was in U.S. support for the Shah of Iran, ignoring the gathering storms of dissent and unrest. In spite of a notorious internal security apparatus with few if any legal curbs on its power, the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah and established a dictatorial Shiite state that routinely vilifies the U.S. as the “Great Satan.”

Is Saudi Arabia the next Iran? The House of Saud rules through a combination of religious rhetoric, giving its citizens economic benefits, and a far-reaching internal security apparatus that operates with few legal or ethical limits. Saudi Arabia is unmistakably a kingdom and not a democracy. Meanwhile, internal dissent grows. Dissidents often cloak their activities in a religious fundamentalism, which, although Sunni rather than Shiite in its theology, has political ramifications striking similar to those of the Shiite forces behind the Iranian revolution.

Successful foreign policies look beyond today’s arms and oil deals to ascertain potential long-term benefits of supporting the hopes of other people for genuine peace, i.e., the fullness of well-being consonant with the word’s meaning in the languages of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy books.