Friday, August 31, 2012

U.S. federal budget deficits


Persons debating issues connected with the U.S. government’s deficits and debt may find this chart informative. The economic downturn, bailouts, and recovery measures are responsible for less than a third of the debt. More significant are the Bush era tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (both funded entirely off budget, i.e., with debt).

Stopping the spiraling federal deficits that drive this exploding national debt is a moral issue. Future generations do not benefit from non-investment expenditures such as entitlements and unnecessary wars. Today’s taxpayer should fund those costs. As the graph vividly shows, imposing limits on future government spending is important but far from a total solution. Unless the U.S. fixes it tax system, debt will continue to spiral. Thankfully, the war in Iraq is over; the war in Afghanistan may end in the next couple of years.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Weather prayers

GOP supporters and residents of the Tampa area prayed this past week that God would prevent hurricane Isaac from striking Tampa and disrupting the Republican Party’s nominating convention. Democrats would have done the same, had severe weather threatened their nominating convention. Weather prayers are also popular with sailors, farmers, vacationers, and others.

That type of weather prayer is immoral, foolish, and nonsensical.

Weather prayers are immoral because the unspoken request is that the severe weather strike another location, inflict its harm and disruption on other people. Praying that somebody else – even implicitly praying that somebody else – suffer from severe weather is incongruous with loving one’s neighbor, a basic Christian ethic principle.

Weather prayers are foolish because weather prayers are ineffectual. Meteorologists, oceanographers, and other scientists increasingly understand the physics of weather, physics that presume a consistency and regularity that are incompatible with God's occasional, direct intervention.

Finally, weather prayers are theological nonsense. If one accepts that God created the cosmos, setting in motion physical dynamics that determine the weather, and if one believes that God is beneficent and omniscient, then surely God has a much better perspective on what is best for creation than the limited, inherently inaccurate perspective of any group of humans. Believing that God heeds weather prayers means that God plays favorites, loving some people more than God loves others.

Weather prayers invite people to ridicule religion and reflect religious immaturity. Let’s stop praying about the weather and begin praying for the well-being of all people, for God loves everyone equally.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Episcopal financial transparency

In a recent post, I discussed the lack of financial transparency in the Roman Catholic Church. A reader commented in response to that post about the lack of financial transparency within The Episcopal Church (TEC). I fully agree with her lament.

No good reason exists to keep TEC shrouded in mystery. Shadows invite, even encourage, wrongdoing. Dioceses should publish a full accounting of their income and expenses – with three exceptions. First, assistance provided to individuals is rightly aggregated into a single line item. Identifying the individual recipients of such aid demeans the recipients’ dignity and provides no essential information to donors or other interested parties. Annual audits can ensure that the funds do not benefit the wrong people.

Second, staff salaries and benefits are rightly aggregated – except for key employees. Donors and other interested parties do not have any legitimate need to know how much an office assistant or receptionist earns. Budget committees, managers, and auditors appropriately exercise oversight over such matters. Organizations with salary scales or wage guidelines will usefully publish that information.

However, financial reports should specify salaries and benefits for key employees, e.g., bishops, canons to the ordinary, etc. Making this information public helps to ensure that leaders do not manage the institution for personal benefit. I have served in key leadership positions where donors knew my pay. Although I’m an intensely private person, I knew of no other way to establish appropriate accountability and transparency. Conversely, religious organizations that have not followed this policy have too often experienced shattering scandals.

Finally, the diocese should report aggregated unrestricted gifts from individual persons without identifying the individual donors or the amount each gave. The diocese should identify donors and amounts of restricted gifts because the donor’s restrictions, when the diocese accepts the gift, impose a form of control on the diocese and its operations. Similarly, a diocese should identify any grants, loans, or other funds received from foundations, corporations, or other entities because acceptance of these funds almost always entails an obligation to spend the funds in a particular way or use them for a particular program.

These same principles apply to TEC, its provinces, and all of its congregations. Most people will ignore the financial reports. Some will read the reports and find the reports uninteresting or too difficult to understand. But making a full public reporting of ecclesiastical is an unavoidable essential step in establishing the transparency and accountability that God's people deserve. TEC and its constituent components have no “proprietary” or “trade” secrets to hide from the competition. We do have an obligation of full disclosure to our various stakeholders.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Declining religious belief

Religious belief among young Americans appears on the decline. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 67% of those under 30 "never doubt the existence of God." That represents a decline from 76% in 2009 and 83% in 2007 – a 15% decline in five years.

Possible explanations include fundamentalists turning off some people, atheist and agnostics becoming more vocal, and liberal attacks on religion (cf. “3 reasons young Americans are giving up on God,” posted June 14, 2012 at The Week).

Perhaps a more probable explanation is that decline is more apparent than real. Levels of belief in God during the mid-twentieth century in America were historically high. For example, evangelical concern about the dearth of religious belief and practice in late eighteenth century America led to the first Great Awakening. Rather than religious belief declining, maybe people are being more honest about what they believe. Researchers have long struggled with a “halo effect,” i.e., people responding to surveys frequently report higher levels of belief and religious participation than what is actually true.

If this latter explanation is the most significant, then the decline represents a positive development. Pretending that one believes in God, mistakenly claiming that one participates/attends religious programs and worship, erodes integrity and stymies genuine spiritual development.

Of course, the continuing scandals in religious institutions probably alienate many people from organized religion. These scandals routinely include sex and money, e.g., high profile TV preachers exposed for hiring prostitutes with funds from contributors.

The most notorious and longest lasting of these scandals have been the multiple cases of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests. The Roman Catholic Church has settled various cases over the last 15 years for more than $3.3 billion (averaging more than $1 million per claimant) according to a recent report in The Economist (“Earthly Concerns,” pp. 19-23, August 18, 2012).

That report provides a scathing indictment of how the Roman Catholic Church manages its finances. The Roman Church routinely comingles funds, mixing operating, pension, endowment, and other accounts. Dioceses facing bankruptcy move funds offshore, beyond the reach of claimants and creditors. The Roman Church provides no public accounting of its funds; a corporation sole holds the monies of each diocese, over which the diocesan bishop has complete authority, subject only to the Vatican.

The Roman Catholic Church has 196 dioceses in the U.S., divided into 34 metropolitan provinces with 270 bishops and about 100 million members. There are approximately 18,000 parishes, 40,000 priests, and 17,000 married deacons.

Estimates for 2010, the latest year for which data is available, show that the Roman Church spent $171 billion. Healthcare institutions, colleges, and universities spent almost $150 billion of that sum. Only $11 billion went to parish ministry and a relatively paltry $4.7 billion to charity, though Catholic Charities is the nation’s largest charitable organization. Altogether, the Catholic Church has about 1 million employees in the U.S. By way of comparison, General Electric’s 2010 revenues were $150 billion and Wal-Mart employed 2 million that year.

The secrecy is counterproductive. The lack of transparency discourages donor support, a conclusion ample anecdotal evidence support. The lack of transparency also promotes a culture of deceit and tacitly suggests that laity, clergy, and members of religious orders lack the spiritual maturity and intellectual ability to comprehend ecclesiastical finances. The recent scandal over leaks from the Pope’s butler suggests that financial problems permeate the Roman Catholic Church.

Evil flourishes in the dark; light dispels the darkness and brings health. The Roman Catholic Church, of all institutions, should understand this basic spiritual concept that is so deeply rooted in the Christian faith.

Other Churches and their members, when tired of ecclesiastical politics and internal wrangling, should give thanks for their Church’s openness and transparency. No good reason exists for keeping Church finances – regardless of the denomination – a secret. Goodness and integrity blossom in the light.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What is healthy about The Episcopal Church?

A recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed column by Episcopalian Jay Akasie asked, What ails Episcopalians? Akasie’s column, along with several others including some posted on the Daily Episcopalian among which are a couple that I’ve written, highlights The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) declining membership and other challenges the denomination faces.

The time has come to change focus. Instead of emphasizing problems, TEC and its members can profitably begin to ask, What is healthy about The Episcopal Church?

Appreciative Inquiry, an organizational development strategy utilized by some businesses and congregations, shifts attention from problems and problem solving to telling stories about what the organization does right and how it benefits people. Out of the storytelling, an awareness of the organization’s strengths and a positive vision for the future emerge from the process, sparking growth and new achievements. Similarly, Norman Vincent Peale’s emphasis on the power of positive thinking and Robert Schuller’s possibility thinking proved effective catalysts for transforming thousands of individual lives.

On the one hand, I’m not advocating that TEC attempt to implement Appreciative Inquiry across the denomination. No single tool fits every task. TEC has too many components in too many disparate places, each with its own identity, story, and energy for any single method to prove a panacea. Positive and possibility thinking, while powerful in helping some people live more abundantly, also have limited applicability and arguably overlook important aspects of Christian theology.

However, I am suggesting, using an old metaphor, that honey attracts more flies than does vinegar. Reports of declining numbers, financial struggles, and other problems will draw few visitors and prove decisive in incorporating few of them into the life of TEC or one of its congregations. Emphasizing negatives tend to promote a negative ethos more likely to accelerate rather than reverse decline. Problems and challenges may constitute appropriate agenda items for particular meetings and internal communiques but external communications will more beneficially accentuate the positive.

What is healthy about TEC? What does TEC offer people?

The questions about what is healthy in TEC and what TEC offers people are important for more than organizational health. About half of all TEC members come from other Christian denominations. These people, of whom I am one, found something in TEC that first beckoned and then proved sufficiently fulfilling to make changing denominations worthwhile. Far fewer people join TEC from the ranks of non-Christian religions, atheism, agnosticism, or the spiritual but not religious. Even more than dissatisfied members of other Christian denominations, the unaffiliated and never affiliated can potentially benefit from what TEC offers.

So, what is healthy about TEC? What does TEC offer people?

First, TEC combines theological openness with healthy liturgical and spiritual praxis. We Episcopalians are a people united by common prayer rather than common theology. We know that God is irreducible to human language and regard the Bible, the sacraments, and other religious acts as windows through which people can perceive God's light. Not insisting on doctrinal uniformity – indeed, intentionally being a “big tent” that welcomes diverse theological expressions – is attractive to many in this highly individualistic era. Furthermore, our liturgical and spiritual praxis affords historical continuity, affirms God’s mysterious life giving and loving presence, while allowing creative expression.

Second, TEC – in its dioceses and the vast preponderance of its 6700 plus congregations – seeks to be an inclusive community that practices radical hospitality. At our best, we truly welcome everyone. We commit to journeying together while treasuring individual identities and freedom, as was evident in last month’s debates at General Convention over whether to endorse open communion. Speakers and votes expressed the importance of Holy Baptism as the rite of initiation into the Church. No organization survives, much less thrives, without clarity about the scope and terms of membership. Speakers and votes also valued the pastoral fidelity to Jesus of not turning away the unbaptized who seek to receive, e.g., a homeless person or a young child. The altar rail is a place of grace and not a place of inquisition. Every rule has exceptions. Instead of eliminating the rules or trying to codify acceptable exceptions (both common secular solutions to this type of problem), TEC decided to trust those who distribute communion and those who lead congregations to do so in a manner that honors our traditions, builds genuine hospitality, and best communicates God's gracious love.

Third, TEC’s incarnational ministries invite and encourage people to walk the Jesus path by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. TEC rejects equating superficial evangelism, politics, institutional maintenance, or personal prosperity/success with the gospel. My experience of TEC is that of committed people – thousands and thousands of laity and clergy –engaged in trying to build a more just society, becoming a loving community, and developing genuine spirituality.

This list is far from exhaustive. You may highlight different indicators of TEC’s health. You may cherish other aspects of TEC. Your description of what TEC offers people may differ substantially from mine. But for this time, this season of TEC’s life, let’s start talking, perhaps even shouting, about all of the things that are healthy and right about being Episcopalians. God has brought us together that we may journey together and serve together in mission. Thanks be to God, God is not yet done with The Episcopal Church.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Going for the eats

At a Vacation Bible School program some years ago, I overheard a mother telling her child to sit down and to be quiet because the program they had come to see was about to begin. “After all,” explained the mother, “that is why we are here.”

“Not me,” objected the child, “I’m here for the eats.”

Most American politicians act as though voters are interested only in “the eats,” that is, in benefits for themselves, perhaps for their loved ones. Some popular preachers on TV presume their hearers share that motivation. Concern for self and for those whom we hold dearest is far from antithetical to Christianity. Indeed, in the Lord's Prayer, an integral element of worship in our Book of Common Prayer, we ask God, Give us this day our daily bread.

Last Sunday’s gospel reading (John 6:51-58) declares that Jesus is the answer to those prayers, that Jesus is the bread of life, given for us.

For many of us, this declaration immediately points to the Eucharist. In every Eucharistic prayer, the priest repeats Jesus’ words, “This is my body. … Do this in remembrance of me.” From the beginning, as the reading makes apparent, Christianity has had to defend itself from allegations of cannibalism. In truth, our theology sometimes veers dangerously close to cannibalism, simplistically identifying host and wine with Jesus’ body and blood. Alternatively, Christianity has generally insisted that the Eucharist is more than a symbolic or memorial ritual, a position ironically held by many of the Christians who interpret the Bible most literally. Instead, healthy Christianity flounders in the middle. Somehow, in some mysterious way, we really do commune with God as we share in taking bread and wine, giving thanks for it, breaking it, and eating and drinking it.

But Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life has a far broader meaning than Holy Communion. Nobody can subsist, let alone really live, on a small wafer and a sip of wine, even if they receive daily. The flower children of a previous generation insightfully called money bread. Our petition asks God not only for food but also for all of life’s necessities. Jesus becomes our daily bread when his path becomes our path, when we seek to live as he did in, communion with God.

Roman Catholic priest and bestselling author on the spiritual life, Henri Nouwen told the story of a Lutheran bishop imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. A German Officer relentlessly beat the bishop, seeking to extract a confession about the bishop’s political activities. The beatings increased in intensity as the bishop remained steadfastly silently. Exasperated, the Nazi shrieked, “Don’t you know that I can kill you?”

The bishop looked his torturer in the eyes and replied, “Yes, I know. Do what you want – I have already died.”

Instantly, as though paralyzed, the Nazi officer could no longer raise his arm. All his cruelties had been based on the assumption that the bishop’s physical life was his most precious possession and that he would do anything to save it. With the grounds for violence gone, torture was futile.[1] Walking the Jesus path, we develop this type of spirituality, one that embraces the totality of our being. At its best, the Church provides guidance, encouragement, and strength for our life and works to establish a just society that ensures the well-being of all.

Finally, Jesus taught his disciples to pray for our daily bread. Today’s gospel reading, like most of the Bible, emphasizes the plural rather than the singular. Neither the Eucharist nor walking the Jesus path is primarily about individualism but about people collectively becoming God's beloved community, a community that ultimately encompasses all of creation.

The individualistic premise of politicians and popular TV preachers represents a distorted and incomplete analysis. We do come for the eats. We can’t survive without them. But genuine community is an essential part of the eats, for only in relationship to other people do we live most abundantly. Healthy congregations intentionally build community through fellowship and service as well as worship.

The cross offers a helpful metaphor for charting our interiority. The horizontal reminds us that God created us in God's image; hence, the centrality of language, imagination, and self-awareness in the spiritual life. The crosspiece reminds us that our interiority must accommodate others – the capacity to love and be loved is central to the human spirit.

I hope that you go to Church for the eats – in all three of its meanings:

·         The bread and wine of Holy Communion, our spiritual food;

·         Wisdom and encouragement for walking the Jesus path, growing in love for God and others, and life abundant;

·         Experiencing accepting, healing love in an inclusive, welcoming radical community, the in breaking though not the fullness of God's kingdom.

[1] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 84.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Leisure time

How do you use your leisure time?

Almost everybody has at least a few hours each week of discretionary time, i.e., time in which the person can choose what to do. A person required to work 100 hours per week probably has little if any discretionary time, needing to spend the other 68 hours sleeping, eating, bathing, traveling, etc. Similarly, an unpaid caregiver responsible for multiple people may find her or himself working 100 or more hours week after week. However, very few people actually have mandatory 100-hour workweeks.

Three principles are especially important:

1.    Individuals accept responsibility for correctly identifying their discretionary time, defined as time not required for self-care, relationship maintenance, or mandatory responsibilities (including work). This means spending sufficient time eating, sleeping, exercising, personal hygiene, and other essential self-care activities and fulfilling appropriate obligations to family, friends, and community.

2.    Individuals flexibly balance self-care, relationships, and other mandatory responsibilities.

3.    Individuals honestly and accurately identify the difference between wants, needs, and obligations. A person may want to work 10 hours per week, need to work at least 30 hours per week to be financially self-sufficient, and obligated to work 50 hours per week by employment contract.

How much discretionary time do you have in an average week after allowing for a reasonable standard of self-care, healthy relationships, and fulfilling mandatory responsibilities? How much of that actually becomes leisure time and how much is frittered away through time-wasting behaviors (e.g., uncreative procrastination or unimportant busy work), excessive but unproductive or unrewarded effort on the job, or activities that leave one tired, unfulfilled, or unhappy?

Recreational shopping, especially at a shopping mall, has become a favorite pastime for many in the West. Recreational shopping means purchasing goods or services that do not increase one’s quality of life in proportion to their cost. The true cost of recreational shopping is greater than simply the money spent, which one could have spent on something else. Alternatively, earning the money requires time, representing an opportunity cost: one could have done something else with that time other than use it to earn money. In either case, shopping requires time, again representing an opportunity cost, as one could have used that time in another way.

Other favorite ways for using discretionary time include watching events (sporting, cultural, etc., especially on TV – an average of 20 hours or more per week), travel (e.g., cruises, tours, ski trips), gambling (whether in a casino, playing Bingo, or buying lottery tickets), and dining out (often five or more times per week). As with recreational shopping, all of these activities entail direct costs (usually financial and always time) as well as indirect costs (lost opportunities).

Discretionary time once belonged almost exclusively to the wealthy, leisured class. Visiting eighteenth and nineteenth century country estates in the United Kingdom and France, I was surprised at the number of families whose finances had floundered because heirs, not needing gainful employment, indeed expected to avoid gainful employment, adopted profligate, unsustainable lifestyles.

Most people in developed countries can now have discretionary time, especially if they analyze and use their time according to the three principles outlined above. Simply spending more hours on the job is unlikely to increase earnings or future financial prospects significantly. The term “workaholic” describes the person who uses work as an excuse to avoid non-work related responsibilities. Concurrently, affordable modern appliances and conveniences have dramatically reduced the time required for routine self-care and household chores while substantially improving quality of life. Yet my sense is that people often are busier than ever, enjoying life less, feeling they have no discretionary time.

Unfortunately, the Bible and scriptures from other religions say little explicitly about the use of discretionary time. This lack is unsurprising; the scriptures were written before discretionary time became widely available. For example, the idea of most people being able to retire from paid work to enjoy life is relatively recent. Until the last century, most people had to work until death or disability, dependent on the generosity of family or, if very fortunate, their local community in the absence of a paycheck. Increases in productivity and longevity have both contributed to increases in discretionary time.

These principles might guide one’s use of discretionary time.

1.    Discretionary time should in some broadly inclusive manner benefit self or others. The benefit to self or others may include renewal, self or community improvement, rest, relaxation, enjoyment, etc. The benefit must exceed one’s basic requirements, as meeting essential care and responsibilities are not part of discretionary time. Non-beneficial discretionary time wastes one’s most precious resource, time itself.

2.    Life is more about relationships than toys (i.e., possessions). Hence, spending discretionary time nurturing healthy positive relationships with self, others, and the world is mutually beneficial. Bigger and more do not necessarily connote better.

3.    Human flourishing, the good or abundant life, entails balance. In achieving that balance, one cares for the whole self, one’s particular community, and the global community.

4.    Leisure time is a subset of discretionary time, earmarked for relaxation and renewal. Playing video games as a leisure activity may benefit one in a variety of ways. But how much video gaming (or any other activity) is truly beneficial? At what point does the law of diminishing returns begin to apply (the more one engages in an activity, the lower the rate of return)?

5.    In determining the cost of leisure activities, include the opportunity cost of money and time. Is time now spent video gaming (watching TV, napping, gardening, learning to fly, etc.) better allocated to a non-leisure activity or a different leisure activity? Leisure should promote human flourishing, not consumption.

6.    Discretionary time, especially leisure time, should enhance one’s spirit, i.e., nurture self-awareness, linguistic capacity, love for and from others, aesthetic appreciation, creativity, and intentionality. How does each of my discretionary activities enhance one or more of those six dimensions of the human spirit?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Government of by and for the people

Debates about voter fraud puzzle me. On the one hand, multiplying laws pointlessly offends my libertarian bias. In general, we benefit from more freedom and fewer laws. Thirty-seven states have enacted voter fraud prevention laws. A Carnegie-Knight investigative journalism team researched the 2068 reported voter fraud cases since 2000 and substantiated only 10 of them. In other words, the new laws solve a non-existent problem. If fraud is not an issue, then what do the new laws actually achieve?

On the other hand, I understand and support the importance of elections. At times, voter fraud has notoriously skewed electoral outcomes; ethically, voter fraud perverts the purpose of the electoral process. Showing up to vote, without having to show any ID, feels strange. I listen to the rhetoric about the requirement for voters to show a photo ID disenfranchising certain segments of the population and I wonder how many people really do not have a photo ID or cannot reasonably obtain one.

Debates about voter fraud obscure the real issue: the low rate of voting across the United States in almost all elections. The low voting rate suggests to me that people feel disenfranchised, i.e., although legally eligible to vote people do not believe that their government – local, state, and federal – is their government, government of, by, and for the people. That sense of disenfranchisement or alienation is the real problem.

The populism we need is for candidates and political parties to help voters gain that sense of ownership. The other day I thanked one of my employees for the work he was doing. This city employee looked at me with surprise and puzzlement. I explained that I was a resident, taxpayer, and voter. That he, as a city employee, was my employee – along with hundreds of thousands of others. Similarly, as a federal employee and members of the armed forces, I viewed myself as working for and employed by the citizens.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Light through the windows of Scripture

Two years ago, I visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Housed in Greensboro’s former F.W. Woolworth’s department store, the Museum features the store’s lunch counter and stools preserved in situ. Once designated for whites only, in the winter of 1960, four African-American college students began sitting on those stools, day after day, silently demanding service, peacefully protesting North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation. The scene, apart from its historical significance, is unimpressive, very ordinary. But, just think how different North Carolina, indeed our nation, is than in 1960.

Those college students were tired of injustice. So they organized a non-violent protest that insisted on the right of all people, regardless of race, to enjoy equal access to public facilities. For reasons ranging from economics to racial bigotry, F.W. Woolworth, its employees, the City of Greensboro, and much of the white public responded angrily to the sit-ins. The four organizers and their supporters faced threats, verbal abuse, and legal sanctions.

Challenging entrenched power generally provokes unrighteous anger expressed defensively and destructively. I’m guessing that those four young men would probably have identified with Elijah in the scene described in this morning’s lesson from 1 Kings (19:4-8).

Previously, in one of the great biblical narratives, the story described Elijah’s archetypical triumph over the prophets of Baal. At Elijah’s instigation, Baal’s prophets constructed a huge altar, piled it with wood, and set a sacrificed bull atop it. The prophets then beseeched Baal to ignite the pyre and consume the sacrifice with fire. Their pleas being of no avail, they cut themselves with lances and swords, gushing blood, displaying ardent devotion. Still Baal remained silent.

His patience finally exhausted, Elijah, took center stage. The only prophet still alive who was faithful to the Lord, he repaired the Lord’s altar, heaped it with wood, set a sacrificed bull atop the wood, and then had the people douse everything with water not once but three times. Only then did he call upon God; God responded with fire so powerful that it consumed the offering, the wood, and even the stones of the altar. Elijah next directed the people to bind Baal’s prophets; he took them to a wadi, a dry streambed, and slaughtered them.

Most people would savor their triumph, thankful that God had vindicated their confidence. But Israel’s wicked queen, Jezebel, hears what Elijah has done and vows to kill him. This morning’s reading continues the story from there. Jezebel’s anger prompts the triumphant Elijah to flee to the wilderness, afraid for his life. Elijah, in psychic and spiritual distress, thought himself better off dead than alive.

The four North Carolina A&T University freshmen may not have experience prior success as grand as what the Bible attributes to Elijah over the prophets of Baal, but attending college in 1960 represented a considerable achievement. Deciding to jeopardize their educations, future career options, physical safety, and to risk upsetting or even alienating friends and family cannot have been an easy choice. Facing angry, potentially violent crowds, uncertain what might happen, must have been even more difficult. I wonder how many times the four students who began the protests doubted their wisdom in initiating the sit-ins, how many times they felt like following Elijah’s example: fleeing, finding a tree under to which set, and wishing they were dead. Yet they persevered.

In the biblical narrative, an angel brings Elijah food and water. The Bible employs angels as God's messengers. Thinking of them as supernatural actors is both unhelpful and distracting. Instead, the angels involvement emphasize that God exercised personal care over Elijah. Food – actually, a cake or delicious bread – and water sustained him and ensured his survival.

Similarly, angels ministered to the four young men in Greensboro. Family and friends provided encouragement. For six months, thousands of students and others, in Greensboro, Durham, Winston-Salem, and elsewhere, participated in sit-ins protesting segregated lunch counters and other public facilities. All of these people were God's messengers, angels, giving the four students and their supporters the courage and perseverance to stand firm against injustice.

The story of Elijah reaches its climax following today’s reading. Elijah has fled to Mount Horeb where he seeks shelter in a cave. There, God inquires what Elijah is doing. Elijah responds that his zealousness for God's covenant has gotten him into trouble with the authorities and that he now fears for his life. God instructs Elijah to exit the cave and to stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by. Wind, earthquake, and fire precede a deep and total silence, in which Elijah encounters the living God.

When the upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement ended – when the great winds of oratory, the convulsive forces that shook society’s foundations, and the great passions that stirred the nation calmed – we, like Elijah, realized that in those tumultuous forces we had encountered the living God at work in building a more just, not perfect, but more just society.

More than history, more than a sourcebook for religious truth, the Bible gives us windows through which God's light shines to illuminate our path, revealing God's presence, power, and loving embrace. The story of Elijah, for example, provides a window through which we can see God at work in the tumultuous events of the Civil Rights movement.

What is God calling you to do? Do you feel like you’re in the wilderness, sitting under a broom tree and wishing you were dead? Who are the angels God has sent to sustain you? For whom does God intend you to be a sustaining angel?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Meditation - a form of prayer and path to human flourishing

This post on meditation is another in my occasional series on prayer (cf. Contemplation, Musings about prayer, Some thoughts on prayer, and Prayer can improve personal happiness).

Although the word meditation appears 6 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (perhaps the best English translation), those passages all suggest contemplation rather than meditation, encouraging people to reflect on God's deeds, guidance, or being. (cf. Job 15:4; Psalm 19:14; 49:3; 104:34; 119:97, 99).

Although more commonly associated with Eastern religions, meditation in fact has a long history within Christianity. Those who pursue this path are often called mystics; the experience they seek is a mystical experience, i.e., a personal encounter with God.

Regardless of the religion, there are two types of meditation. The first focuses on something outside the person. In Christianity, for example, a person may meditate on a cross or an icon. The other type of meditation is inwardly focused, seeking to clear the mind. In Christianity, for example, a person may repeat a phrase such as “Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior, forgive my sins.”

The goal of both types of meditation is the same: the person meditating seeks to experience God's presence in an immediate and personal way. Plotinus, a Greek third century philosopher, described this as the flight of the alone to the Alone.

Meditation is a form of prayer that very few people cultivate on their own. A teacher, often known as a spiritual director in Christianity or a guru in Hinduism, who has personally traveled the meditative path, helps to point the way, offers guidance on how to walk the path, and encouragement when progress proves elusive. Books such as The Way of the Pilgrim can perform some of those functions, though a book obviously cannot provide feedback on one’s experiences.

In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identified the characteristics of the mystical experience for which the person who practices meditation aims: ineffable (irreducible to human language), transient (has a beginning and end, noetic (within the mind), and passive (something the person experiences rather than does).

In the second half of the twentieth century, Transcendental Meditation (TM) became popular. A yogi (a person who practices meditation) would assist in training the new person in meditation using a mantra (word on which to meditate) that the guru provided. Although TM claims not to be religious, TM is actually a form of Hindu meditation. More broadly, yoga – using physical exercise as an aid to meditation – is popular as a form of exercise, often divorced from any attempt to discipline the mind or to benefit from yoga as a form of meditation.

Extensive reading in the writings of mystics from all of the world’s major religions convinced me, decades ago, that although the mystics may describe their path and their encounter with God using different images and concepts, that they were all describing essentially the same experience. Logically, if God does exist, then people all around the world seek and encounter the same ultimate reality, regardless of their metaphorical language they use to describe that reality or the path that leads them to it.

More recently, meditation has attracted scientific interest. Research suggests that some hallucinogenic drugs can induce mystical experiences. This research has not, inherently cannot, demonstrate whether the experience is entirely noetic, i.e., a mental experience of the person who took the drugs (or, presumably, one who has achieves a similar experience through meditation). The difficulty is that God is ineffable, totally other, and therefore the scientific method does not have any means of detecting or measuring God, if God exists.

Newer research shows that meditation involves certain brain areas and raises the question of whether humans are hard-wired for mystical experiences. This research, like that on drug related mystical experiences, really has little if anything to contribute to discussions about the validity of mystical experience. Unable to detect God, the possibility of what some popular media term a God gene begs the question of what actually occurs in a mystical experience.

Other research has demonstrated that meditation has health benefits, aids in the control of pain, contributes to human happiness, improves brain functioning, and enhances resistance to infection. An impressive body of literature is accumulating that supports all of those conclusions regardless of the religion to which the meditator belongs. Some research suggests that benefits of meditation are greater if a person believes in a religion rather than practicing meditation as a strictly non-religious endeavor.

The regular practice of meditation is a difficult discipline that few people truly follow. For those who find meditation a meaningful way to pray, the benefits, even if not an experience of God, seem increasingly well documented. The human experiences of awe (e.g., at natural beauty) and of love (not only of kin but more broadly), the human capacity for creativity and self-transcendence, and the cross-cultural reports of mystical experiences all suggest that God is real and not simply a figment of the human imagination.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hate crimes

The recent shooting spree by a gunman who belonged to a white supremacist group at the Oak Creek, WI, Sikh temple is the latest, high profile hate crime. Hate crimes, by definition, are un-Christian. Christians believe that God is love and hate is the antithesis of love. Religious identity does not define the scope of God's love. God loves Sikhs as much as God loves Christians or any other group people. Targeting people who have gathered for communal worship seems an especially egregious crime and moral offense.
Furthermore, random violence targeted, for any reason, at the innocent is always wrong. Jesus, whom Christians believe innocent of not only criminal behavior but also of sin, died when he became the target of violence. His call for people to live in love threatened a political system premised on exploitation and hierarchy.

However, describing events at the Oak Creek temple as an act of terrorism unhelpfully conflates two different types of problems. Not all hate crimes are terrorist acts. For example, the Nazi genocidal campaign against Jews and other undesirable was not a terrorist campaign.

Terrorism, according to Harvard scholar Louise Richardson has seven defining characteristics (What Terrorists Want (New York: Random House, 2006), pp. 4-7):

1.    The perpetrator(s) must have political motivations for committing the act.

2.    The act is violent or threatens violence.

3.    The act’s purpose is to send a message, not to defeat the enemy.

4.    The act and victim(s) usually have symbolic significance.

5.    The act is the deed of a sub-state group.

6.    The victim and the audience of the act are not the same.

7.    The act must deliberately target civilians.

What happened at the Oak Creek Sikh temple directly targeted the Sikhs. This was not a symbolic, politically motivated act of violence. The killer wanted Sikhs dead; he was not attempting to build popular support for a political agenda or to pressure some government into changing its policies or taking particular actions. Terrorism uses its victims as a means to an end; hate crimes simply deny that their victims have any value, not even being useful as a means to an end.

Conflating hate crimes and terrorism makes addressing both problems more difficult. Real terrorism is criminal activity for which solutions exist. Hate crimes constitute a different type of criminal activity for which other viable solutions are more appropriate. Among important responses to hate crimes are:

·         Consistently and emphatically, in words and actions, express the dignity of all people regardless of religion, creed, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other such differences. Hate can only flourish in the absence of love and respect for the dignity and worth of all people.

·         Refuse to countenance prejudicial words or actions, even when the speaker or actor is jesting.

·         Intentionally develop a diverse set of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, tearing down the walls that provide the shadows in which hate can flourish.

·         Support gun control legislation. There are no valid private uses for assault weapons, semi-automatics, etc. Licensing gun owners provides one check (far from infallible) against the mentally ill and felons owning guns.

·         Cooperate with law enforcement to apprehend and adjudicate those accused of committing hate crimes. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium is not a valid exercise of free speech, putting the safety of innocent people needlessly at risk. Genuine hate crimes cross a similar line, moving beyond partisan rhetoric (e.g., one may legally and morally dislike a particular religion) to inciting criminal activity (e.g., encouraging people to take violent, illegal actions against members of a religion that one does not like). The shootings at the Oak Creek Sikh temple were clearly hate crimes. Two children bravely cooperated that day to help end it.

In some respects, ending hate is easier than ending terrorism because if each person took the steps identified above, hate would have no place in which to fester. Ironically, ending hate would also end most terrorism: it’s difficult to use the innocent as a means to an end when one values each of them as an end in and of her or himself.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Seeking the bread of life

There was a man who lived in the mountains. He knew nothing about those who lived in the city. He sowed wheat and ate the kernels raw.

One day he entered the city. They brought him good bread. He said, “What is this for?” They said, “Bread, to eat!” he ate, and it tasted very good. He said, “What is it made of?” They said, “Wheat.”

Later they brought him cakes kneaded in oil. He tasted them and said, “What are these made of?” They said, “Wheat.”

Finally, they brought him royal pastry made with honey and oil. He said, “And what are these made of?” They said, “Wheat.” He said, “I am the master of all of these, for I eat the essence of all of these: wheat!”

Because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world; they were lost to him. So it is with one who grasps the principle and does not know all those delectable delights deriving, diverging, from that principle.[1]

That charming story is from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that emphasizes the direct experience of God's presence. I wonder to what extent our spiritual journeys resemble the mountain man who ate the raw wheat kernels and never enjoyed the delectable delights that derive and diverge from raw wheat. We know the ideas of Christianity but never experience the life-changing reality of God's presence.

For example, Christians generally approach this morning’s first reading (Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15) in one of two ways: with a literal supernaturalism or a historical rationalism. Literal supernaturalism accepts the story and all of its details at face value. Moses led six hundred thousand Israelite males and their families, an enormous number of people that would have constituted about half of Egypt’s population at the time, out of bondage and on a forty year journey to the Promised Land. Having left the Egyptian granaries behind, the people soon grumbled with hunger. So God sent manna – bread from heaven – to feed them. This bread tasted sweet like honey. It spoiled if kept for more than a day – except on Friday, when the people were to gather enough for two days so they did not have to work on the Sabbath. This interpretation of the story seems far removed from our experience in which large numbers of people, in spite of fervent prayers, die of hunger and God performs few if any similarly spectacular supernatural interventions to liberate, heal, or sustain God's people.

On the other hand, historical rationalism provides an equally unsatisfying interpretation. This approach correctly recognizes that the biblical report of the exodus from Egypt functions primarily as a nation building identity narrative rather than as a factual record. Historical rationalists most commonly explain manna from heaven as a gum resin produced by flowering trees or the edible excrement of two species of insects. These interpretations, which seek to describe God's acts in ways that are consistent with our scientific worldview, reduce the holiness and care of the mysterious Other to mundane naturalism. Ultimately, the explanations of historical rationalism fail. The flowering trees produce resin for only three to six weeks; the insects live in only some of the areas through which the Israelites traveled.[2]

In other words, both the Christian who advocates literal supernaturalism and the Christian who advocates historical rationalism are like the mountain man in the story from the Kabbalah: they intellectually accept the idea of God but have never really enjoyed the delectable delights of encountering the mysterious, life-giving, and real but ineffable presence of the living God.

In Hebrew, the etymology of the word manna is the expression what is it? God is neither a magician who performs at our behest nor a disinterested observer watching creation unfold. Instead, God is an active but frustratingly indefinable presence who guides, feeds, heals, liberates, and loves to bring the world more abundant life. That presence is the true manna; that presence is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."[3] We can encounter this presence in the light that shines through the windows of Scripture, the sacraments, and loving others.

A six-year-old boy, dirty face, barefoot with a torn T-shirt and matted hair came up behind a man in Rio de Janeiro on his way to get a cup of coffee prior to teaching a class. Gently and shyly, the boy tapped the man’s hand. Turning, the man saw no one. He took a few more steps and then again felt the tapping. This time he saw the urchin with grubby cheeks and coal-black hair.

¿Pao, señor? (Bread, sir?)

Daily, this man had such opportunities, opportunities to buy a sandwich or candy bar for one of these unfortunates. So, as he entered the café, he said, “Coffee for me and something tasty for my little friend.”

Normally, the children grab the food and disappear. This one was different. After carefully making his selection, he stepped outside to gain a vantage point from which he could see all of the café’s customers. When he spotted his benefactor, he scurried in, looked up at the man, smiled, and said, “Obrigato.” Then nervously scratching the back of his ankle with the big toe on his other foot, and nervously looking at the floor, he said, “Muito obrigato,” and was gone.[4]
Such moments, such experiences, are the bread that the Lord has given us to eat.

[1] Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1995), p. 134.
[2] John C. Slayton, “Manna,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 4, p. 511.
[3] John 6:35.
[4] Max Lucado, No Wonder They Call Him Savior (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1986), pp. 119-120.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Economic inequality: Ideal vs. Actual

Duke University professor Dan Ariely reports in “Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It)” that a wide discrepancy exists between Americans perceptions of wealth distribution, their ideal preferences for wealth distribution, and the actual distribution of wealth (Atlantic, August 2, 2012).

The chart below summarizes his findings. The actual distribution of wealth shown is from economic research (Wolff, E. N. (2010). "Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze--an Update to 2007." Levy Economics Institute of Bard College). The estimated actual and ideal preferences are from a random survey of 5,522 Americans conducted using widely accepted research techniques. Respondents replied without knowing to which quintile they belonged. Quintiles divide the population into five groups with an equal number of people in each group.

The two poorest quintiles have so little wealth that the chart makes guessing their wealth difficult. The actual wealth of the poorest quintile is 0.1% of total U.S. wealth; the actual wealth of the second poorest quintile is 0.2% of total U.S. wealth. The other bars permit reasonable visual interpretation.

Notably, the preferred ideal distribution of wealth for the bottom four quintiles exceeds the estimated wealth of each quintile and dwarfs the actual wealth of each quintile. Only for the wealthiest quintile is this reversed: actual wealth (84% of total U.S. wealth) dwarfs both estimated and ideal wealth. Importantly, the differences between Democratic and Republican respondents with respect to the ideal wealth distribution were less than 4% for any quintile. Similarly, there were no significant differences among respondents based on age, gender, or income.

Clearly, Americans do not live in a society with the economic equality they would prefer and, equally clearly, Americans do not realize how skewed the distribution of wealth actually is. This study suggests to me that the U.S. sits on the precipice of an economic and social divide that if not soon bridged will permanently divide the nation into a society of haves and have-nots.

What to do about the problem is unclear. Here are some of Ariely’s reflections on the discrepancies his study revealed:

As for what this means about changing the level of inequality, which from our study seems almost unanimously objectionable, there are essentially two paths: education and taxation. Improving education works in a sense to change the input into the economy--better-educated workers are more resourceful and employable, and can move up the economic ladder. Changing taxation deals with the output--those who prosper pay more into the system than those without the same benefits. Our study doesn't tell us anything about which of these two approaches to reducing inequality would be preferable, but in practical terms, bridging the huge gap between what we currently have and what we want to have would require a mixture of both.

The upcoming election seems unlikely to provide additional clarity, much less substantial progress, on the inequality of wealth distribution. Americans seem to want less government interference in their lives, desire fewer government transfers of wealth, are probably willing to raise taxes on the very wealthy, but have not found broadly successful programs or policies to fix a broken education system. Yet even where polls show that agreement exists among voters, U.S. legislative bodies, especially the national Congress, have proven unable to make real progress.

The study underscores for me the importance of people of faith engaging the political process. I’m convinced that Jesus would not fully identify with either the Republican or Democratic parties. Elements of the typical Republican agenda (e.g., personal responsibility and small government that allows maximum personal freedom) and the typical Democratic agenda (e.g., concern for the most vulnerable and healthcare for all) resonate with me as agendas consistent with Jesus’ message. Conversely, elements of both parties’ agendas and their preoccupation with fundraising, special interests, and single-issue politics at the cost of the general welfare strike me as objectionable to Jesus. Especially in states in which to vote in a primary one must belong to a party, I think that Jesus would affiliate with a party to give himself another opportunity to vote. But I think that issues and not party, love for all of his neighbors and not self-interest, would motivate and shape his political engagement. Perhaps we would do well to do likewise.