Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jesus and the BREXIT

Since Great Britain voted last week to exit the European Union (BREXIT, as it is popularly known), I've pondered what Jesus might have to say about the vote if he were still among us as an itinerant rabbi. My thoughts have coalesced around two themes.
First, I think Jesus would have great concern for the people whose anger, feelings of exclusion from both economic progress and political power, and sense of being overwhelmed by uncontrollable tidal waves of immigrants motivated them to vote against remaining in the European Union. Voters with some subset (or even all) of those feelings are not unique to the United Kingdom. In the United Sates, for example, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders apparently garnered a majority of their support from voters with similar feelings.
The unprecedented numbers of immigrants across Europe and in the US are irreversibly altering community landscapes. Illustratively, some people are discomfited when they hear pedestrians, customers, business employees, government workers, and others speak a language other than the heretofore dominant language in that locale.
Walking around Honolulu today, compared to twenty years ago, I much more frequently hear people speaking Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, and occasionally Spanish or another Romance language. I enjoy hearing the diversity. The different languages evoke memories of different trips abroad. I admire the willingness of people to travel to a place in which few people speak their native tongue and value travel for its abilities to broaden one's horizons and tolerance of diversity.
However, I also understand that other persons can perceive the growing number of persons in the US and elsewhere who do not speak the dominant local language as representing a threat to a cherished but imperiled way of life. A recent poll of Americans found that 70% of them are concerned by the lack of English they hear in the US and that 80% think the US has too many recent immigrants. The shift of power away from local communities and regional governments to distant centers of power (Washington for the US and Brussels for the EU) has had the unfortunate, unintended consequence of leaving people feeling disempowered and alienated. Government, as I have repeatedly contended in Ethical Musings' posts, is becoming less and less "of, by, and for the people." Concurrently, the most important economic engines of prosperity have shifted from manufacturing to service businesses, technology, finance, healthcare, and government. Workers displaced by that shift have frequently received little useful assistance in acquiring a new set of marketable skills and consequently see little hope for regaining a lost prosperity. No wonder that plenty of voters are angry and feel left behind.
What policies or programs might Jesus recommend? Here are ideas:
  1. Governments and businesses have a moral obligation to develop programs and policies that effectively aid displaced workers in acquiring skills appropriate to the modern economy and then in obtaining jobs with pay comparable to their former position.
  2. Governments and non-profits should help people acquire the skills and knowledge to cope with the accelerating pace of change while concurrently slowing the pace of change, when practical, to reduce the number of people who feel alienated or left behind.
  3. Governments should decentralize the locus of power as much as possible, reengaging citizens in the work of government even if this means living, at least in the short run, with a greater diversity of laws and government policies.
Second, I think that Jesus would regard the BREXIT vote as a speedbump on an irreversible trajectory toward the emergence of a unified global community. Human history reveals an expanding circle of concern that began with the nuclear or extended family, enlarged to include clan and tribe, widened to encompass one's ethnicity or nationality, is still broadening to include states closely aligned with one's own and one's co-religionists regardless of their geographic location, and is progressing toward encompassing all people. Forces propelling us along this trajectory are globalization and an inherent human reciprocal altruism that pushes toward maximizing the circle of one's concern. This latter idea is another formulation of the ethic that exhorts us to love our neighbors as ourselves, a teaching intrinsic to all of the world's great religions.
Hitting more speedbumps seems probable. Tracing the human trajectory that appears to lead toward emergence of a global community reveals many detours, steps backward, and pauses between steps forward. Tracing that trajectory of uneven progress also tells a story of conflict and opposition, often violent.
Jesus, I think, would caution us against yielding to evil forces, which include xenophobia, narcissistic self-interest, believing the sword to be mightier than love, practicing injustice, failing to do good and to practice mercy, and not respecting the dignity and worth of every human being.

Jesus would also exhort us not to lose hope. God is at work bringing creation to the destiny God envisions. In the words of Julian of Norwich, "All will be well; all manner of things of will be well."

Monday, June 27, 2016

The new face of Christianity

From the mid-fourth century until the sixteenth century, Baptism defined the Christian faith. An individual's religious and civic identities were indistinguishable. Everyone who resided in a geographic area belonged to the same faith, that is, the same branch of Christianity. This ended with the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on doctrine. The meaning of the word faith shifted from denoting the community's religion to denoting belief in a set of theological ideas. Anglican's version of this approach to faith is the "Articles of Religion," found on pp. 867-876 of the Book of Common Prayer in a section devoted to historical documents.
Christianity is now experiencing another sea change. Pastor and author Brian McLaren has identified three aspects of this change. First, Christians are jettisoning the image of God as judge and embracing an image of God as the renewing Spirit who works for the common good. Second, growing numbers of Christians define faith not in terms of belief but as a life shaped by love. Third, Christians are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion, becoming "spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for all of us."[1] Collectively, these three shifts align Christians more fully with Paul's guidance in today's lesson from Galatians.[2]
The Christians in the churches in Galatia (part of modern Turkey) were Gentiles. After Paul left Galatia, other Christian leaders arrived.[3] They taught that in order to be Christian, one must obey the 613 commandments of the Torah, found in the first five books of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.[4] People who obeyed those rules pleased God; persons who disobeyed the rules displeased God; they were sinners who fell under God's judgment. The rules governed every aspect of life: when to work, what to eat, how to treat immigrants, regulated the economy, etc.
I meet very few individuals who try to please God by obeying all of the Torah's commandments. Instead, people in general, and Christians in particular, cherish the freedom that is ours in Christ. The God we seek is truly the renewing Spirit and not the Judge. Thus, the Episcopal Church welcomes absolutely everyone because we believe that (1) God created us to be an incredibly diverse species, (2) God expects us to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and (3) nobody is ever beyond the reach of God's infinite love and healing embrace.
In the eleventh century, the Eastern Churches and Roman Catholic Church split over the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or only from the Father. The version of the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer, and the normative version for western Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, declares that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In recent years, as the Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Churches have drawn closer, some Episcopalians have omitted the phrase "and the Son" from the Nicene Creed.
From the time in seminary when I first learned of this controversy, my response has been, "Who knows or cares? This is a silly debate." No human understands the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Nor was anyone present to observe whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just from the Father.
These debates about the origin of the Holy Spirit exemplify the difficulty of establishing a credible foundation for many theological propositions in the twenty-first century. Historical, scientific, and other lenses cast doubt on some doctrines. Globalization, which increased our awareness of the diversity of the world's religions, casts further doubt on overly narrow theological claims. These largely unresolvable difficulties explain the shift from faith as belief to faith as action.
The shift from emphasizing theological beliefs to living a life shaped by love mirrors the shift from law to freedom that Paul described in Galatians. The Jewish law represents a deontological ethic. To connect with God, obey the rules. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – describe a virtue ethic in which a person's behavior is governed by who the person is rather than by a set of rules. Virtue ethicists, from Aristotle onward, have correctly observed that people seldom pause to list and then to weigh applicable rules before acting. Instead, our actions tend to feel more intuitive or automatic. That is, our actions emerge out of unconscious mental processes shaped by our values (or virtues) and are consistent with our habitual way of doing things. Rephrasing that in Paul's language, Christians desiring to act in a Christ-like manner should cultivate, intentionally and habitually, the fruit of the Spirit.
McLaren's third observation, the shift from organized religion to organizing religion, is apparent here at Holy Nativity. We no longer have the full pews, 2100 communicants, or our extensive 1950s organization. Recruiting people to serve on committees and boards can be difficult. Concurrently, persons who now attend Holy Nativity do so because they value the opportunity for spiritual renewal, they want to work at shaping their life in Jesus' image, and they expend considerable time and effort in trying to help others and to care for creation.
A solitary piece of sculpture sits in the grassy area near the side entrance of the magnificent old cathedral in Salisbury, England. The sculpture is the statue of a young woman in flowing black robes who appears to be walking away from the Cathedral and toward visitors. There is no identification with the statue. Visitors who want information about the statue must ask one of the cathedral's docents. They explain that the Walking Madonna's sculptor, Elisabeth Frink, specified that she had to be seen walking away from the cathedral. The church had become too self-serving, Frink said, and her Madonna symbolized the need to carry the message of love to a hurting world.[5]
Seek the living God, the renewing Spirit. Put Jesus' love and not theology at the center of your spirituality. And then join me, and all of God's people in this place, in loving our neighbors near and far. Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World's Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (New York: Random House, 2016).
[2] Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
[3] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 18-19.
[4] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The spirituality of summer

Summers invite me to inhabit a different type of spirituality in four important ways.

First, summers invite a fuller engagement with nature. I live in a major city by choice, enjoying its urban vibe and pedestrian lifestyle. Spending time in nature, however, has remained an integral aspect of my life and spirituality since my childhood in Maine. I appreciate natural theology, resonating deeply nature's capacity to reveal much about God. My education and reading have identified some of natural theology's limits, but I still find nature an important spiritual and theological resource.

With age, Maine's rugged beauty, cold weather, and snow are less inviting. Consequently, one of the aspects of living in Hawaii that I most enjoy is the year-round summer-like weather. Warm sunshine watered by an occasional light mist encourages me to spend lots of time outdoors and to leave windows open. My apartment has expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, palm lined sandy beaches, volcanic mountains, and, frequently, rainbows. From January to April, I sometimes spot whales breaching from my apartment windows. The views from my apartment evoke Biblical images, e.g., rainbows are vivid reminders of one of God's promises and the Psalmist several times references the mighty creatures of the deeps.

Second, summers invite engagement with social justice issues. Summers in Hawaii have gradually become warmer. People now complain about the summer heat. I have lived in Hawaii twice previously, first in the early 1980s and then in the early 1990s, each time for two and a half years. During those five years, there were only several nights a year when I wished that my dwelling had air conditioning. Now I am grateful for my apartment's air conditioning. Similarly, rising tides and more extreme storms have unjustly diminished the habitability and land mass of numerous Pacific islands. The growing numbers of Oceania emigrants now living in Hawaii visibly declare our need to be better ecological stewards.

Summers also offer fragile signs of social justice progress that encourage further engagement. For example, vacations, which started to appear in the nineteenth century as a byproduct of the affluence that the Industrial Revolution created, are no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich and powerful. Hawaii's robust tourist industry fared reasonably well during the nation's great recession and its sluggish economic recovery. Nevertheless, the low wages earned by many tourist industry workers are painful reminders of growing economic inequality, a shrinking middle class, and the need to establish fuller economic justice.

Third, summers invite me to change my spiritual praxis. A staff member at my parish's day school has been teaching Sunday school in the parish this month. She told me that being on campus six days a week is one day too many for her. She has discovered that she, and consequently the school's students, benefit when she is not on the campus weekends. Her observation prompted me to wonder which of my spiritual practices, adopted in the hope that they would open windows through which God's light would shine into my life, have unintentionally, and maybe without my realizing it, become burdensome, closing the windows I intended them to open.

God may not take a vacation, but God's people should. What worship schedule services best suits your spiritual life today? What would it feel like to skip worship for a week or two? Would visiting a different parish (or even congregation of a different denomination) result in a fresh appreciation of one's own parish? Would meditatively reading a book – perhaps a novel, poetry, biography, or even a book on theology, ethics, biblical studies, or spirituality – provide a helpful catalyst for re-energizing or re-conceptualizing your understanding of twenty-first century Christianity? Sadly, many Christians regard church participation and spiritual commitments as compulsory duties rather than as opportunities to savor God's gifts of freedom and grace. Summer tacitly permits, perhaps even encourages, a much-needed Sabbath in which the over-obligated can helpfully reframe their spiritual practices and commitments.

Fourth and finally, summers invite me to hold my beliefs lightly. Holding tightly to theological propositions has never made sense to me. Sin is pervasive. I have no rational basis for supposing that my theology, regardless of the care, study, and prayer that I invest in its formulation, is perfect. Surely, my theology, like that of all Christians and the Church as a whole, inevitably represents an admixture of truth and error that can benefit from ongoing refinement. Additionally, words are finite and God is infinite. That difference inherently limits the capacity of words to speak of God accurately. Lightly held beliefs implicitly acknowledge these issues, creating the possibility of theological growth while concurrently fostering interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. Leisurely summer conversations can afford uncensored opportunities to formulate, try on for comfort, and examine tentative new theological ideas from various angles.

Summer is a common metaphor for the span of life that stretches from the end of adolescence (spring connotes the period from birth to end of adolescence) to the beginning of one's decline (the autumn of life that precedes winter, the season of death). As I enter the autumn of my life, I am thankful for having enjoyed a long summer, thankful that my summer was an enjoyable season of growth and not of stagnation. I pray that you will enjoy your summer!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thoughts on initiation into the Christian community

Toward the end of his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Wolff tells a wonderful anecdote about Mozart's first encounter with Bach's music. Thirty-nine years after Bach's death, at age thirty-three, Mozart visited the St. Thomas School in Leipzig and listened to a performance of one of Bach's motets. After a few measures, Mozart sat up, startled; at the close of the performance, he cried out, "This is music one can learn from!"[1]
Many people attend worship hoping to learn about God, or, more commonly, to hear a word from God. In that respect, these persons resemble Elijah in the cave on Horeb, the mount of God. Elijah, in spite of defeating the prophets of Baal, was overwhelmed with despair and convinced that the whole world was against him. So he fled to the cave where he expected that he would die. Instead, Elijah had a powerful experience of God speaking to him that transformed his life and provided generations with a paradigm to understand how God communicates.
God is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire. In short, God did not speak in ways that Elijah expected. Elijah described his experience as hearing God speak in a still, small voice.[2] Similarly, contemporary expectations about how God acts and speaks are often wrong. God acts and speaks today as in Elijah's day, i.e., in ways that are consistent, reliable, and require careful discernment on our part.
Some years ago, I came across a card that said, "When your heart speaks, take good notes." Classical Christian writings on the spiritual discipline of discernment confirm that advice. In the New Testament, the word "heart" (Greek kardia) refers not to emotions but to the very center of one's physical and spiritual life, including cognition, emotion, desire, and morality. To "listen with the ear of your heart" means to notice what God may be seeking to reveal to you through whole being.
Gospel accounts of Jesus exorcising demons occasionally trigger recollections of my experience as an exorcist. Twenty plus years ago, I was the chaplain for the Naval Surface Group, Middle Pacific, homeported at Pearl Harbor. The group commander, who happened to be Episcopalian, was also the base commander. When a Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard civilian employee committed suicide at his desk after hours, many shipyard employees refused to return to work until someone exorcised the demons from the building. The admiral asked if I could help. I adapted the liturgy for the blessing of a house from the Book of Occasional Services and then exorcised the building, using ti leaves, which native Hawaiians consider sacred, to sprinkle water in a symbolic cleansing of the office spaces. The exorcism was apparently effective: nobody else committed suicide and employees returned to work contented.
That episode illustrates the narrow view of exorcism that many Christians have. They focus on the demon possessed and the exorcist, ignoring any effects on the larger community. Like the shipyard worker who killed himself, the Gerasene demoniac, was costly to the community.[3] Loose, he was a hazard to himself and to others. When his neighbors understandably tried to restrain him, he would break the bonds they had used. Jesus' exorcism of the demons named "Legion" also cost the community. The demons fled into a herd of swine that stampeded over a twelve-foot high cliff and drowned in the Sea of Galilee. The herd's owner(s) received no compensation or insurance settlement to cover the loss.
Few today believe in demons as supernatural evil entities who are the devil's subordinates. Instead, I hope that you interpret biblical references to demons as a personification of mental illness, addiction, and living ensnared in destructive emotions. All of these forms of demon possession have large social dimensions. For example, many homeless and suicidal persons suffer from mental illness; addicts attempting to pay for their habit commit perhaps of half of all crimes; persons living in the grip of negative emotions such as jealousy, hatred, anger, and pride destroy families, disrupt work environments, and harm communities.
Jesus' command that we love our neighbors as ourselves is not only for the neighbor's benefit but also for our benefit as well as that of the larger community. Healthy churches, and spiritually healthy individuals, seek both to hear the voice of God in the silence and to transform their communities into places in which all people can truly flourish by working for healing, reconciliation, love, and justice.
In Jesus, God created a new community. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote that in baptism a person is clothed with Christ, that is, in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."[4] This text applied directly to Holy Nativity might specify that in Christ there is no Rev. Deb supporter or opponent, no school advocate or opponent, and so forth. We are one community.
The Jews regarded water as possessing liminal qualities, "believing it had the power to transport a person or object from one state to another: from unclean to clean, from profane to holy."[5] May Holy Baptism be for us a thin spot, a place like Elijah's cave, in which all who receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism encounter God's mysterious life-giving presence, affirm our communal identity as God's children, and renew our commitment to building heaven on earth. Amen.

[1] Victoria J. Barnett, "The sound of faith," The Christian Century, 22-29 November 2000, p. 1217.
[2] 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a.
[3] Luke 8:26-39.
[4] Galatians 3:232-9.
[5] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), Kindle Location. 1485-90.