Monday, May 30, 2016

Musings about Elijah, a centurion, Daniel Berrigan, and Memorial Day

In the ninth century BC, the northern kingdom of Israel, unlike the southern kingdom of Judah, lacked Mediterranean frontage. Israel's king, Omri, recognized the economic, military, and political benefits that Israel could obtain if it had easy access to the Mediterranean. So he arranged for his son, Ahab, to marry Jezebel, the daughter of a king who did control a section of Mediterranean coast.
Ahab's father apparently failed to see the marriage's potential and probably unintended religious consequences. Jezebel, a non-Jew, understandably wanted to continue practicing her own religion. Thus, Ahab had an altar to Jezebel's god, Baal, constructed. Furthermore, many worshippers of Baal dwelled among the Israelites, giving this new altar rather broad popular appeal. If the biblical portraits of Ahab and Jezebel are credible, both of them relished their power as king and queen, using their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. In very many respects, the portraits of Ahab and Jezebel seem strikingly similar to twenty-first century dictators and corrupt politicians.
Elijah was a relative nobody. Israelites who had heard of him probably viewed him as a religious fanatic, a dynamic preacher, and someone who occasionally worked miracles. Outraged and offended by Jezebel's idolatry and greed as well as Ahab's temporizing policies, Elijah resolves to end what he perceives as an unacceptable situation by challenging the priests of Baal to a contest. Whoever could prove their God's power by successfully beseeching their God to consume an offering with fire would vanquish the opposition literally and figuratively. Israel is caught in the grips of a terrible drought; Ahab probably regarded this contest as a convenient distraction if not a potential solution to the water shortage.
Elijah allows the priests of Baal to go first. They build an altar, sacrifice a bull, and then for several hours beseech Baal to send fire to consume the offering. When no fire erupts, Baal's priests, as was their custom, show their piety by cutting themselves with knives and lances, spilling their blood on the altar. Baal remains silent.
With the passing hours and lack of fire, the crowd's enthusiasm wanes. Elijah now takes charge. He superintends construction of a new altar of twelve stones, piles wood on it, slaughters a bull, orders a trench dug around the altar, and then has everything soaked in water until the trench overflows. Only then does he lift his voice in prayer, asking God to act that people may know who is truly God. Fire, like a bolt of lightning, consumes the bull, the wood, the stones, and the water in the trench leaving only dust. Elijah's victory over the priests of Baal restores the worship of God to the center of Israeli life and ends a drought.
Hollywood could not devise a better script for a blockbuster movie. Regardless of its historical accuracy, this story[1] along with the other biblical accounts of Elijah's dealings with Ahab and Jezebel has a clear message for us: social justice, in all of its expressions, is central to God's plan for the cosmos.
The second story in today's readings, Jesus' healing of the centurion's slave,[2] is equally dramatic but often misunderstood. A Roman centurion commanded 100 soldiers, a position comparable to that of an Army or Marine Corps company commander. A centurion, however, exercised much greater authority over his troops. The centurion featured the reading from Luke had funded construction of the Capernaum synagogue, the ruins of which archaeological excavations have exposed. So the centurion was probably a God-fearer, that is, a monotheist sympathetic to Judaism. Serving in the Roman army required a loyalty oath that presumed the emperor's divinity, an oath incompatible with his converting to Judaism as long as the centurion remained in the army.
Slaves were chattel, property. The centurion had no legal obligation to provide medical care for his slave. The text offers no hint about the centurion's motive for asking Jesus to heal his slave. That motive may have been pecuniary, friendship, or something else. Nor does the text explain the nature of the centurion's faith. He may have turned to Jesus out of desperation, having exhausted all the other options. Perhaps he regarded Jesus as a Jewish prophet, someone like Elijah and or Elisha, through whom God's power flowed in mysterious and yet powerful ways. Almost certainly, the centurion would not have interpreted Jesus as fully human and fully God. The uncertain nature of the centurion's faith underscores God's love for everyone. All are welcome because God loves all.
Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus, as is Pope Francis, died at age 94 earlier this month. Fr. Berrigan attained prominence protesting the Vietnam War, the draft, and nuclear weapons. As a senior naval officer who has taught and published in the field of military ethics, I have profound agreements and disagreements with Fr. Berrigan's views. From a Christian perspective, Fr. Berrigan, the Roman Catholic bishops, the Methodist bishops, and many others are correct: nuclear war, with its inherent disregard for the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is unjust. However, I think he was wrong to advocate the US unilaterally scrapping its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Doing so would have destabilized the world and increased the odds of another global war. Fr. Berrigan rightly described the injustice of both the Vietnam War and a draft system biased against the poor and minorities. Instead of abolishing the draft, as Fr. Berrigan recommended, I think that we should require two years of mandatory national service for all.
In sum, I admire Fr. Berrigan not because I always agreed with him, but because God's light shined so brightly and powerfully in him. He was truly a contemporary Elijah figure, a person God used to make the world a more just place. Similarly, Holy Nativity has room for a wide diversity of views as we individually and collectively try to discern how to incarnate God's love and justice in this place, in Aina Haina, in Hawaii, and throughout the cosmos.
Fr. Berrigan also had an exceptionally deep personal relationship with God. He was a man of great integrity, a theologian and professor, a poet who enjoyed life with an exuberant sense of humor, and who cherished his friends and family. Following Jesus' example, he lived a simple life, owning a single set of clothes and so few possessions that his belongings fit into a small backpack. When I look at Fr. Berrigan's life, I see a life shaped by a lifetime of walking the Jesus' path, a cruciform-shaped life that for many people was a rich channel of God's grace and love.
Incidentally, Memorial Day is not about the justness of particular wars. Memorial Day is about honoring veterans. When I listen to a veteran talk about his or her life, I almost invariably hear a story similar to the centurion's, a warrior who knew a higher power, a person who sought to serve his or her neighbors, and a person who sometimes went into harm's way trying to defend freedom and justice.

[1] 1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39.
[2] Luke 7:1-10.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Musical lessons

I recently attended a hilarious production of the Broadway hit musical, "The Book of Common Prayer."

Oops! There is no such musical. However, I did attend the "Book of Mormon," a riotous and poignant musical.

Why has nobody written a Broadway musical about The Episcopal Church (TEC) or our cherished Book of Common Prayer? Encouragingly, perhaps few outsiders find us sufficiently obnoxious to be fertile soil for humor. Less encouragingly, in comparison to the Mormons, TEC has a lower public profile, our institutions are less energetic, we expect less from our membership, and our liturgies are more common than unique, representing a (if not the) principal root of most English-language Christian worship.

Unexpectedly for a genre that tends toward entertainment rather than theological insight, "The Book of Mormon" left me with three takeaways.

First, the musical emphasized the imperative of being relevant to people's needs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints assigns a pair of young elders, the show's stars, an African village for their mission field. There, they join several other Mormon missionary teams, and discover that after months of effort these missionaries have baptized nobody. The villagers perceive the missionaries as untrustworthy and unhelpful. Non-Mormon missionaries have visited the village for many years, telling their Bible stories, and then returning home. Meanwhile, the African villagers must still cope with a widespread AIDS, a murderous warlord who requires female genital mutilation, and other problems. The Mormon missionaries succeed, where others have failed, by allegedly finding verses in the Book of Mormon that present practical solutions to those problems.

Second, the musical reminded me that our theology and liturgies are not living water or light but merely earthen vessels. The Mormon elder whose preaching reached the African villages had not read the Book of Mormon. An experienced prevaricator, he fabricated stories that spoke to the villagers' situation. When the villagers write and perform a play for visiting Mormon leaders reveals the missionary's fabrications, the Mormons are devastated and ordered home. The missionary's dishonesty did not upset the villagers. They knew that there was no paradise named Salt Lake City (if you have not seen the musical, the ending alone is worth the price of admission!). Religious truth, they declare, is always metaphorical. Conflict is essential for allowing new life to emerge.

Third, when the audience exited the theater after the musical, actual Mormon missionaries were standing by to engage anyone interested in discussing the Book of Mormon or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The elders' presence underscored that any publicity is good publicity.

In visiting Episcopal worship services, I commonly hear a sermon that fails to connect with the congregation. Preachers seemingly prefer platitudes to doubts, tough questions, and real problems. More often than not, the preacher adopts an uncritical approach to the text, further eroding her/his credibility. Afterwards, I wonder whether walking the Jesus path has any practical relevance for living authentically, relationally, and spiritually in the twenty-first century. Although I do not commend the "theology lite" of growing megachurches, I do applaud their ability to speak transformative words of hope and life to their congregations.

In the same vein, TEC can shout, "All are welcome," as loudly and frequently as we choose. However, that message will remain unpersuasive until we not only embrace all races, ethnicities, genders, and gender orientations but also (in no special order):
  • Update antiquated physical facilities to allow the physically challenged access
  • Devise ways to conduct our liturgies so that the literate and illiterate are both comfortable
  • Ensure safe, convenient childcare
  • Utilize a liturgy that makes space for believers, doubters, and seekers, i.e., non-believers
  • Accommodate persons from the right and left ends of the political spectrum in the same congregation
  • Enfold the washed and unwashed, i.e., the economically affluent and the poor, homeless, hungry, addicted, and released prisoners who live on the margins of our communities.

Welcoming all similarly requires discarding growth that targets, and thereby values, particular demographics unrelated to a local geographic context. For example, congregational leaders stereotypically regard young couples with children as the "holy grail" of church growth. This presumes that regular Sunday School attendance produces mature, committed Christians. If that premise were correct, TEC and other U.S. denominations that in the mid-twentieth century had large, well-attended Sunday Schools would not have more recently suffered decades of numerical decline.

Alternatively, some Episcopalians attribute a significant amount of TEC's numerical decline to adverse media attention related to the Church taking strong social justice stands in the 1960s, the ordination of women, Gene Robinson's consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire, and controversies about same-sex marriage.

No publicity is bad publicity. Adverse attention does not have to dishearten us. Instead, media attention affords us an opportunity to tell our story, a story of a people transformed from being the establishment at prayer to being a community of Jesus' followers who welcome everyone, a community of pilgrims who together are learning to walk in the light and to live more abundantly.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Building character the Marine way

This morning's reading from Romans[1] invariably evokes, for me, memories of Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School, where I was the chaplain for almost two years in the early 1980s. The Marine Corps relies upon the Navy to provide both healthcare professionals and chaplains. I don't want to bore you with sea stories about the military, but realized this week that I have spent approximately 40% of my life and almost 60% of my adult years on active duty in the Navy.
Unlike OCS for the other armed services that train officers, Marine OCS screens and evaluates candidates to determine if they possess the requisite physical, academic, and leadership qualities to become Marine officers. Only about half of the candidates who begin the course earn a second lieutenant's commission.
Many candidates' most difficult physical challenge was the endurance course. The endurance course begins with a standard Marine Corps obstacle course – about two minutes of total physical exertion, presuming you know how to overcome obstacles that include running along an elevated log then vaulting a wall, climbing an eight foot high sheer wooden wall, and climbing a rope. Next is a four-mile run through woods and fields in combat boots that requires traversing thirty combat obstacles such as a low crawl under barbed wire. The final obstacle, located near the end of the course, was a stagnant pool of muddy, chest high water. In winter, the first person through the water sometimes had to break the ice; in the summer, candidates occasionally spotted a cottonmouth moccasin swimming alongside.
I, along with the drill instructors and officers in charge of the candidates, routinely ran the endurance course with the candidates. I'm not athletic and doubt that I had ever run a mile before joining the Navy at age 29. In the beginning, just finishing the endurance course was a personal challenge. With practice, I became comfortable with the course and sometimes even enjoyed a feeling of personal achievement at finishing the entire course in less than 35 minutes.
Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, which does not disappoint us because of God's love. On more than one occasion, especially in my early days at OCS, I lived those words. Everything about the obstacle course, the four-mile run in boots, and the thirty combat obstacles seemed designed to make me suffer. But, in time, I developed endurance. I became friends with a Gunnery Sergeant, one of our drill instructors. We got into the habit of running five miles at noon on those workdays when I did not join the candidates in a run or forced march. He loved to discuss theology and our conversations helped to make our runs bearable.
And as I developed endurance, I realized that endurance produces character. Very few of the candidates lacked the physical ability to complete OCS. The greatest number of candidates failed because they lacked the personal grit and determination to succeed. Marine OCS, in other words, is primarily a moral or spiritual challenge designed to measure a person's character.
Life is a lot like Marine OCS. No, if you succeed in life God will not commission you an officer in God's Marine Corps. And unlike the 50% attrition rate at OCS, life has a 100% attrition rate, because everyone eventually dies.
Nevertheless, life is a lot like Marine OCS. Suffering is unavoidable, though thankfully it is rarely constant. Illness, disease, and advancing age all cause physical suffering. We experience emotional suffering when a loved one dies, our beloved fails to share that love, or we fall short of personal expectations or the expectations that others have for us. Everything from unfair treatment, being burglarized, or sexually assaulted to facing famine, war, or plague, and much more – all forms of personal and systemic injustice – cause suffering. As hard as anyone might try, nobody can indefinitely avoid all suffering.
We can allow suffering to wear us down and ultimately to defeat us.
Alternatively, suffering can produce endurance. Developing endurance requires hard work and is not always enjoyable.
At Marine OCS, the other staff members and I participated in physical training events for two reasons. First, we believed in the OCS motto of Ductus Exemplo, leadership by example. That motto is profoundly Christian, far more than most Marines realized. The incarnation represents God's leadership by example, Jesus suffering that we, through his endurance and character, might begin to discern the depth of God's love for us.
Second, and much more importantly, I learned that my presence symbolized hope and encouragement. The purpose of hardship was not simply proving one's endurance but to develop character. OCS was ultimately a moral or spiritual test. Will a prospective second lieutenant soon to be responsible for the welfare of about 30 young Marines, and perhaps tasked to lead them into harm's way, have the character – the courage, the integrity, and the endurance – to be worthy of her or his nation's trust?
The Church is in the character formation business. The Bible is not a rulebook. Instead, the Bible is a collection of stories, proverbs, and other materials by which, with the help of God's Spirit, we can become the persons of high moral and spiritual character whom God created us to be.
Suffering is inescapable. God does not cause our suffering – there is already too much suffering. However, with God's help, suffering can produce endurance. And endurance, with God's help, produces character.
No shortcuts exist for becoming a person of great character in whom hope lives because one is so aware of the indwelling of God's Spirit. Neither Christianity in general nor Holy Nativity in particular has a single set of exercises or courses guaranteed to transform suffering into endurance and then into character.
Spiritual growth is an individual endeavor and each person must run his or her own race. But we run confidently, enduring the suffering, knowing that the pioneer of our salvation has gone before us and that we do not run alone, for the Holy Spirit runs with us.

[1] Romans 5:1-5.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Who are you?

When two adults meet for the first time, early in the conversation one or both will often ask, What do you do? A person's career, profession, or employment often defines who a person is, both for the person's own sense of self and for how other individuals perceive the person.

When I retired from the Navy in 2005, I left a career in which uniform insignia revealed a person's military specialty, seniority, and some of their experiences. I was tired of my profession, seniority, and experiences defining me. I wanted people to see me for myself.

Thus, when new acquaintances asked me in our first conversation what I did, I often answered that I was happily and comfortably unemployed. My response left a majority of inquirers visibly discomfited. These persons seemed unable to cope with someone who refused to define him or herself in terms of career, profession, or employment.

Even when I visited my mother in a retirement community and observed residents talk with a newcomer, the conversation frequently included considerable discussion of what each person had done prior to retirement. Too often, what a person does (or has done) becomes definitive of that person's identity and worth.

If spirit is at the center of human existence, then who a person is should have precedence over what a person does or did. Discussing employment histories can be interesting and instructive. Discussing employment histories is also far less intimate than is discussing who I am spiritually. I find it distressing that frequently relationships never progress from things that properly reside at life's periphery (e.g., employment) to things that hopefully constitute the heart of a person's existence (e.g., her/his self-awareness, her/his aesthetic sense or creativity, and most importantly her/his story of loving and being loved).

Admittedly, many relationships are appropriately casual and remain superficial. However, our more intimate and enduring relationships are the source of life's meaning and value. Revealing one's spirit to another person involves risk and vulnerability. Will the other person respect who we are and not abuse our confidence?

God is no respecter of persons, that is, God values everyone equally regardless of a person's career, achievements, or even their failures. Are you the person God created you to be? What is the next step on the path that will lead you deeper into the fullness of who God intended you to be? Are you a person of character who embodies the virtues of love, faith, hope, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence? Are you a person whom you would want others to emulate? Are you a saint, that is, are you a person who lives the Christian life writ large?

One of the principal reasons that I value attending worship, spiritual reading, prayer, and spiritual conversations is that they afford me opportunities to reflect analytically about those questions and to identify tentative answers.

Who are you? Who did God create you to be? What are you doing to become that person?