Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Resolutions for 2014

As 2013 ends and 2014 begins, I hope that two questions will help you to look ahead. First, in what specific, measurable way do you hope to become a better person in 2014? Second, in what specific, measurable way do you hope to make the world a better place in 2014?

An implicit premise of living abundantly is that life becomes richer, more abundant each year. Obviously, this more abundant life is irreducible to health or physical well-being, which inevitably deteriorates as one ages or, worse yet, ends abruptly when one does not grow old. Even with diminishing abilities attributable to nothing more than the effects of aging, abundant life is possible. Similarly, the abundant life is irreducible to material well-being, which also tends to fluctuate over time, sometimes moving in an adverse direction.

The abundant life must therefore point toward a life that is richer because of deeper, perhaps more meaningful, relationships, i.e., fuller of love. This conception of life abundant echoes Jesus' ideals. Consequently, living more abundantly requires that the world, in some way, become a better place; paraphrasing John Donne, no person is an island. Hence, my second question: what will you do to make the world a better place in 2014?

The abundant life also points toward a life marked by a fuller awareness of self, others, and the world, the principles of living abundantly, and a more constant, more complete awareness of beauty. This concept of life abundant echoes Aristotle's philosophy. The abundant life, even in an improved world, is impossible unless the individual is also growing. Thus, my first question: what will you to become a better person in 2014?

To these I would add two more dimensions, both implicit in both Jesus' and Aristotle's teachings. An increasing sense of autonomy and creativity characterize life abundant. Without some measure of autonomy, individuals rightly disclaim all responsibility for everything; without creativity, nothing new is possible.

One can experience these six aspects of abundant living regardless of one's physical or material well-being. Indeed, some philosophers speculate that these characteristics can especially increase when one is poor; other philosophers argue the opposite. Recent psychological research suggests that the characteristics associated with life abundant flourish best when one suffers from neither a deficit nor an excess of material wealth.

Setting specific, measurable goals helps to set realistic, achievable objectives; ensuring that the goals are measurable allows personal accountability. Record your goals. Then review your progress toward those goals once a month, revising as appropriate.

Life is a gift. Setting goals that encourage you to live more abundantly can help you to make the most of the gift that is your life.

In what specific, measurable way do you hope to become a better person in 2014? In what specific, measurable way do you hope to make the world a better place in 2014?

Have a wonderful and blessed 2014!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Making sense out of Christmas

Christmas can be a very confusing time: stories about the birth of Jesus that to many moderns seem doubtful, perhaps incomprehensible; much talk of Santa Claus; and widespread expectations that the season is somehow different from the rest of the year. In the Christmas Eve sermon that I preached this year, I address those questions and explain why Christmas is meaningful in the twenty-first century.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Life is a journey ... that brings us to God

This poster, which in its photograph by Anglican-Franciscan journalist Lance Woodruff and poem by Christian mystic Thomas Merton, speaks to the mystery of Christmas, God incarnated in human form, a mystery endlessly repeated in people and that points the way toward life abundant.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Life is a journey

Over the next few days, Ethical Musings will diverge from its usual content of my reflections and offer a couple of photo-essays by journalist and Anglican-Franciscan Lance Woodruff.


He offered this commentary about today's photo:

The photo is our family bed in 2004, arranged for the convenience of our then two-year-old daughter.

Hannah and my wife Corina were visiting family in Burma-Myanmar in 2008. As a journalist In could not get a visa...so I was looking through some photos I had done. I chose Hannah and her teddy bears and another [this second one will appear in the next Ethical Musings posting on December 23] of a clump of bamboo beside our bamboo house beside a pond. I called it Bede's Pond after Bede Griffith...

A day or two later Cyclone Nargis struck, and carried away most of the house. Fortunately Hannah and Corina were upcountry, picking strawberries and catching crabs at a relatives country farm.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Season's greetings and free speech

Being hurt and being offended are far from equivalent. In a democracy, individuals should expect to be offended; experiencing offensive behavior by others is one cost of freedom. I find Christian fundamentalism silly, inane, and theologically reprehensible. When other people, especially those who know me, stereotype all Christians – including me – as fundamentalists, I often find that I feel offended. I am saddened that they think me silly, inane, perhaps even reprehensible.

However, my offense is insufficient to warrant any effort to limit their freedom to form and to express opinion.

Hurt, which for this post, I define as sufficient injury to warrant limiting another person's freedom requires crossing a significantly higher threshold than merely offending. Hurt must harm more than feelings. Otherwise, civility would result in a society in which nobody dared to express a contrary opinion; any dissent would almost certainly offend someone's feelings and therefore be morally wrong. (For a more extensive analysis of this subject, cf. Peter Berger, "Two Modest Victories for Common Sense," The American Interest, December 11, 2013)

For example, the Christmas season begins on December 25 (at least among those Christians who observe Advent). Exchanging Christmas greetings with other Christians is appropriate. Expressing other forms of greetings with non-Christians is more appropriate, e.g., Happy Hanukkah to Jews in years in which Hanukkah occurs near Christmas, Season's Greetings, or Happy Holidays. I try to greet others as I would have them greet me, i.e., in a way that respects that individual's beliefs and heritage; the greeting is not an opportunity for me to push my belief. I have had the delightful experience of wishing a rabbi Happy Hanukkah as he was wishing me Merry Christmas, causing us both to laugh.

I am offended when people, particularly Christians, take umbrage at people refusing to exchange Christmas greetings. In fact, that expectation suggests that Christmas has become a secular rather than religious holiday in our highly secularized culture. On those occasions, I recognize the sin of Christian hubris.

Conversely, when people claim that the mere presence of Christian symbols – especially when displayed on non-public land – is wrong because it harms non-Christians, I laugh at the absurdity of their argument. Diversity enriches, never impoverishes. Democracy that requires uniformity and homogeneity has lost its genuineness, which comes only when people are free.

A similar analysis applies to other words and speech acts, e.g., flag burning, cross burning, and name-calling. Adults living in democratic societies should remember that offensive speech acts prove that freedom is alive and well. Citizens of such societies do well to cultivate moral courage and strength in children such that by the time the child becomes an adult, the child shrugs off offensive speech acts as the products of the small-minded and morally misshapen.

Children obviously need to learn (and it may be painful) to cope with offensive speech acts, first from other children, and then, as the child develops moral courage and strength, from adults. Adults should be especially careful in speaking to children; speech acts that may cause offense but not harm when spoken to another adult may harm the child.

Merry Christmas to Christian readers and Season's Greetings to everyone else!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Work to live or live to work?

Should one live to work or work to live?

That question sits at the nexus of the Protestant ethic, economic prosperity, and life abundant.

On the one hand, economic development and prosperity depend upon a future orientation, optimism, delayed gratification, frugality, and hard work. Culture Matters, edited by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington (New York: Basic Books, 2000), explores the necessity of those values for economic development and prosperity.

I've been both poor (as a married student living well below the poverty level) and affluent (in my last years working and in retirement). Affluence undoubtedly enables a more enjoyable and fuller life, an assessment that studies of human happiness consistently support.

On the other hand, money is not everything. Sages – Aristotle, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others – teach that real happiness is not a function of wealth. These sages may disagree with one another about the source(s) of happiness, but all emphasize that wealth is not synonymous with happiness. Indeed, many of them teach that wisdom is life's real treasure.

Sadly, expecting that everyone – even if they share the values identified by Harrison and Huntington as essential – will achieve financial independence is unrealistic. However, many more people, than presently do, can achieve a reasonable measure of financial independence by rejecting Western materialistic, consumption driven culture. Having more things is not better or an assurance of a happier, more abundant life. Developing a frugal lifestyle is difficult unless one realistically believes and expects that s/he can build a better future.

Instead, true wealth consists of the quality, depth, and breadth of one's relationships, the wisdom that one acquires, and the gifts of self that one makes. Art and ideas potentially enrich life far more than what they may cost to acquire.

The Jewish scriptures (and thus the Christian scriptures) explicitly teach that a human's days are numbered. Life abundant seems to consist of spending part of one's life working to live, i.e., living and working with a future orientation, practicing delayed gratification through frugal living, hoping to enjoy a subsequent chapter in life that is less about work and more about those activities that truly give life meaning and richness.

Advent is a good time to pause, assess one's attitudes and values, and then to align one's actions to match those attitudes and values:

  • What gives you the most pleasure (happiness, abundance) in life? Can you change your life to increase your experience of that pleasure?
  • Do you look to the past, present, or future for happiness?
  • Do you expect the future to be worse, similar to, or better than the past?
  • Do you work to live or live to work?
  • How much money do you really require to live well?
  • What steps are you taking to build that wealth? In what ways, large and small, can you defer or not spend money, perhaps delaying gratification, to enable a more abundant future?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Rethinking Advent

Some years ago, a large poster outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London proclaimed, "Christ Is Coming!" Right below that poster another sign requested, "Please do not obstruct these gates."

Whether it's listening to an Advent sermon, responding during the Eucharist prayer that Christ will come again! or snickering at naïve fundamentalist Left Behind aficionados, the theme of Jesus' second coming is woven through much Christian theology, liturgy, and practice, especially during Advent. Yet most of us give little thought to what we believe about Jesus' returning, perhaps beyond harboring a suspicion that snickering at other Christians, no matter how misguided they may be, is probably unkind.

Generally, thinking about eschatology (the study of end times) divides into four camps. First, there are the alleged literalists. These Christians claim to accept Biblical teachings about the end of history at face value. God's word describes how, perhaps even when, God will bring history to its appointed destiny. Although this approach dominates popular thinking (as evidenced by Left Behind series' bestselling status), a literal reading is anything but simple or straightforward. For almost two millennia, predictions of when Jesus will return have formed a cottage industry among Christians. Literalists also vehemently debate how to understand the Bible's eschatological teachings among themselves – perhaps because few other people are interested!

Second, some Christians argue for a realized eschatology, i.e., Christians experience the future return of Christ (aka his second coming) in the sacraments and sacramentals. This view's popularity perhaps peaked in the first half of the twentieth century. Post-Holocaust theologians have challenged Christians who advocate a realized eschatology to explain how this interpretation provides justice for the victims of radical evil.

The third camp is the most common among Episcopalians. These Christians rarely think about Jesus' returning, mindlessly participate in the liturgy week after week without considering the words that they are saying, and view Advent as the inescapable annual prelude to the all-important, heavily secularized holy day of Christmas. This approach simply ignores the uncomfortable if perhaps incomprehensible Bible passages that may (or not, depending upon one's views) reference the culmination of time and Jesus' return.

The fourth camp consists of Christians who want to remain firmly grounded in science while taking the Biblical witness seriously and acknowledging the critical role of hope for energizing human endeavors. Creation – contrary to what many of us might wish – is dynamic, not static. Change is endemic, pervasive, and inescapable. If you share my belief that God created the cosmos, then we reasonably believe that creation's constant change is indeed evolution, not an unguided series of random events, of which there are certainly a great many, but also evolution, albeit slowly and unevenly, toward a new and better future. Unfortunately, we humans lack both the wisdom and knowledge to discern the specifics of that future, or the process by which it is coming into being. Believing that God is bringing (or luring, in the language of process theology) creation into the future of God's choosing honors the essence of the Biblical witness while recognizing that the Bible's human authors wrote from a very time and culturally bound point of view, using concepts, language, and symbolism appropriate to that context.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote:

Although we too often forget this, what we call evolution develops only in virtue of a certain internal preference for survival (or, if you prefer to put it so, self-survival) which in man takes on a markedly psychic appearance, in the form of a zest for life. Ultimately, it is that and that alone which underlies and supports the whole complex of biophysical energies whose operation, acting experimentally, conditions anthropogenesis.

In view of that fact, what would happen if one day we should see that the universe is so hermetically closed in upon itself that there is no possible way of our emerging from it – either because we are forced indefinitely to go round and round inside it, or (which comes to the same thing) because we are doomed to a total death? Immediately and without further ado, I believe – just like miners who find that the gallery is blocked ahead of them – we would lose the heart to act, and man's impetus would be radically checked and 'deflated' for ever, by this fundamental discouragement and loss of zest. (Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ, tr. by René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 212-213 cited in John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 111)

Advent invites us to affirm and celebrate our zest for life.

The link between Advent and Christmas reminds us that God, working in and through the cosmos, acts in ways consistent with God's revelation in Jesus. Apocalypticists, millenarians, eschatologists, and all of the other Christians who assert that the Bible (as if it were a deck of Tarot cards!) reveals the details of God's impending acts err grievously when they portray Jesus returning to live by the sword that he had previously rejected:

Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naive gospel ways and having converted to Caesar’s “realistic” Greco-Roman methods instead. He hasn’t gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection and on that basis concluded that it’s best to live by the sword after all (Matt. 26:52). Jesus hasn’t abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded the way of Pilate is better, mandating that his disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn’t had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matt. 18:21–22) and concluded that on the 78th offense (or 491st, depending on interpretation), you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender’s head rather than turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p. 125)

So, in good faith I unabashedly affirm, in Advent and during the rest of the year, Christ will come again! I also hope that well-meaning but profoundly misguided Christians will stop blocking the gates, i.e., that they will discard their biblical ignorance, their naïve thinking that Jesus has already returned, and their liturgical and theological inattentiveness. The real hope of Advent is that God, in God's way and God's time, is bringing to completion what God began in Jesus, a hope that animates and empowers God's people with a genuine zest for life. So this Advent, please do not obstruct these gates; instead, let's proclaim the one who is life itself.

Monday, December 9, 2013

John the Baptist, sin, and Advent

The Gospel reading for the second Sunday in Advent (Matthew 3:1-12) describes the potentially disturbing message of John the Baptist. He boldly denounces sin and calls people to repent. What does this mean for people in the twenty-first century? For one interpretation, read the sermon that I preached this year on that passage.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Debunking healthcare myths

Healthcare is a hot topic in the United States because:

·         The controversy surrounding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (sometimes called Obamacare) is fraying our civility and eroding our trust in government;

·         The large (now 18%) and growing (projected to reach 34% by 2040)percentage of the U.S. GDP devoted to healthcare seems to have spiraled out of control and breached the limits of affordability;

·         Lastly, but not least important, we all potentially need healthcare, perhaps only to heal or even to save one's own life or the life of those one loves.

Unfortunately, myths cloud and grossly distort the debate.

Consider just two of those myths.

First, Americans allegedly have quicker access to healthcare providers than do people in countries that have universal healthcare. That claim, according to data published in The Atlantic (Olga Khazan, "Universal Healthcare Doesn't Mean Waiting Longer to See a Doctor," November 19, 2013) is false.

In a study of 10 developed countries, all of which have some form of universal healthcare, only people in Canada have a harder time getting an appointment with their physician on the same day, or next day, that the patient contacts the doctor's office:

Access to afterhours care is somewhat better; people in the U.S. have easier access, without going to the emergency room, than do people in France, Sweden, and Canada. 

Only when it comes to getting an appointment with a specialist within two months does the U.S. rank at the top of the chart. Yet even in the U.S., half of all appointments with physicians are with the person's primary care provider.

Contrary to much hype, free enterprise medicine does not ensure fast access.

Second, all Americans allegedly have access to the healthcare they need. Some Americans pay for their own healthcare, some Americans depend upon government programs to pay for care (e.g., Medicaid or Medicare), some Americans rely on private healthcare insurance (e.g., Blue Shield/Blue Cross), and some Americans rely on free treatment in emergency rooms. Many Americans cobble together a combination of those options, paying premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and items not included in their healthcare coverage. All taxpayers and people with healthcare insurance pay for people who do not have coverage. Yet supposedly, everybody has access to necessary care.

This alleged universality of care is also a myth.

I recently saw an interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney in which Cheney both lauded American healthcare as the best in the world and emphasized that the care he received was available to all Americans. Indeed, Cheney stressed that all Americans have access to healthcare.

Then I read this recent CNN report that concluded, "Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals." (Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black, and Drew Griffin, "Hospital delays are killing America's war veterans," November 19, 2013)

Not all Americans have equal access to healthcare. The truth is that people with money and influence can receive exceptional care. Americans who lack money or influence, including many of the veterans who find themselves unable to establish a normal life post-military, can receive inadequate, sporadic, or little healthcare.

What I do not understand is why so many Americans so staunchly defend an approach to healthcare delivery that not only provides second-rate access but is also by far the most expensive, per capita, in the world:


Monday, December 2, 2013


Advent, the four-week period preceding Christmas, began yesterday, December 1. Incidentally, the first day of Advent, always a Sunday, marks the first day of a new Christian year even though the Church observes the visitation of the angel to Mary on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel, nine months before the commemoration of Jesus' birth on December 25.

In Advent, Christians prepare for their annual celebration of Jesus' birth and look forward to Christ coming again. The stories of Jesus' birth, found in only two of the four Biblical biographies of Jesus (the gospels of Matthew and Luke), tell very different versions of that story; sometimes the two even include sharply contradictory details. Thus, these stories are clearly not historical accounts but theological narratives by which the authors hoped to share their interpretation of the Jesus event with readers. Subsequent Ethical Musings postings, closer to Christmas, will unpack some of the contemporary meaning and relevance of these stories.

Similarly, the Biblical materials that many people use to discern God's plan for the future (and perhaps God's timetable for that plan) are mostly descriptions of what the authors had personally experienced and not prophecy, e.g., the Revelation of John is a description of early Roman persecution of Christians and not prophecy about the future. The Bible's authors used symbols and the future tense to disguise their real message, widely regarded as subversive, from the authorities. Sadly, their technique has also confused generations of Christians. For an example of how these stories can be meaningful, cf. Ethical Musings Rethinking eschatology (the study of end times).

Some years ago, I read this marvelous story:

A traveler arrived in a village in the middle of winter to find an old man shivering in the cold outside the synagogue. 'What are you doing here?' asked the traveler.

'I'm waiting for the coming of the Messiah.'

'That must be an important job,' said the traveler. 'The community must pay you a lot of money.'

'No, not at all. They just let me sit here on this bench. Once in a while someone gives me a little food.'

'That must be hard. But even if they don't pay you, they must honor you for doing this important work.'

'No, not at all they think that I'm crazy.'

'I don't understand. They don't pay you; they don't respect you. You sit in the cold, shivering and hungry. What kind of job is this?'

'Well, it's steady work,' said the old man as he shivered some more. (David Heim, "A Joking Matter," Christian Century, 9 August 2003, p. 29.)

Although the story is Jewish, the old man might easily have been a Jewish Christian awaiting the Messiah's return. The futility of the man's commitment, and the community's lack of support for the man and their lack of belief in the Messiah's coming, mirrors the lip service many Christians pay to traditional theological affirmations that Christ will come again, e.g., as found in the Nicene Creed and Eucharistic Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer.

An alternative and more credible explanation of the Biblical hope of Maranatha! (Come again!) is one of a realized eschatology. That is, when we meet God in this world, then we experience Jesus' return in our thoughts, our relationships, and our actions. The fulfillment of creation is not some miraculous deed that God will unilaterally perform, intervening in the cosmos and disrupting what is happening. The fulfillment of creation will result from people (and all creation!) living into the future in hopeful and loving obedience to the Creator.


'Come Again?' we ask, meaning, 'Please tell me

One more time, I didn't quite catch your message.'

'Come again?' Daily praying without knowing it;

This, earliest of invocations, 'Maranatha - Come again!'

He does, of course, in daily bread and Bibles,

Sunday pulpits, tables too, calls to love and duty, most

Especially through this leaning forward season

When winter's white moves greening toward Bethlehem.

The word is 'Come again.'

(J. Barrie Shepherd, "Repetition," Christian Century, December 12, 1979, p. 1240)

Thursday, November 28, 2013


The concept of thanksgiving (or gratitude) implicitly connotes three elements. First, and most obviously, thanksgiving connotes a person giving thanks or being grateful.

The second element of thanksgiving or gratitude is that the person or group giving thanks or being grateful has recognized and appreciated something as good or beneficial. Today, people give thanks for a wide variety of things and on diverse occasions including promotions, completing a project, births (and sometimes a death), anniversaries, a new job, winning the lottery, an unexpected kindness, etc.

However, the third element that thanksgiving or gratitude connotes is both the most important and least recognized. To be meaningful, the person must thank someone.

Consider winning the lottery. Being thankful for winning a game of chance is, at least, a poor choice of terminology and, at worst, completely illogical – unless one believes that the game's outcome resulted not from random chance but an agent's intervention. This agent may be human or otherwise, depending upon whom one believes has rigged the game, for true randomness precludes any form of intervention. The winner of a random game may feel elated or exhilarated, may feel they have fared better than have the losers, but cannot rightly give thanks. For to whom should they give thanks? The winner of a random game may give thanks for their skill or their opponents' lack of skill; they may thank Lady Chance, God, the game's host, or a guardian angel. An almost endless list of to whom one might give thanks is possible, but all of the options are completely illogical in a true game of chance, because the outcome depends upon random events, beyond anyone's control, and not upon any agent's intervention.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to ponder two questions: For what are you thankful? To whom should you give thanks?

Most Thanksgivings, I observe people thanking God for many things (aka blessings) for which God's responsibility is very minimal and indirect. The health of any particular human depends very heavily upon genetic inheritance, behavioral habits, and random events more than it does God's direct intervention. To believe otherwise entails blaming God for the bad health – painful cancers, life-destroying diseases, disrupting disabilities – that affect so many people. Similarly, harvests depend upon random weather processes and a farmer's choices and effort more than upon God's direct intervention. Otherwise, why do some farmers prosper year and year and other, neighboring farmers, struggle to survive year after year?

I am slowly learning to be thankful to myself for much of what I do, feel, and think. Variously formulated Christian theological doctrines such as original sin and total depravity wrongly and completely devalue humans. Created by God, humans are valuable and able to do good things.

Similarly, I am learning to be thankful to others for much of what they do and for my relationships with them. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to cultivate the habit of intentionally thanking persons for enriching your life through the kind and good things that they do, or through their relationship with you.

Finally, thank God for life. Life is our real blessing from God. For in life – whether in the beauty of the world, relationships of love, human creativity, our limited autonomy, or our self-awareness – we experience an echo or reflection of the divine.

To thank God for more– for blessings that we and not others have received – implicitly presumes that God loves us better or more completely than God loves the others to whom God has been less good, less kind. That presumption is patently false, because God loves everyone equally. Collectively, American exceptionalism (believing that God loves, favors, and blesses the United States more fully than God blesses other nations), which too often colors Thanksgiving holiday celebrations, reflects unhealthy, unchristian hubris.
For what are you thankful? To whom should you give thanks?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Medical creep

Medical creep is not a healthcare worker who behaves inappropriately.

Medical creep connotes the tendency for healthcare providers to prescribe procedures and treatments for patients in the absence of evidence that demonstrates the procedure or treatment will benefit the patient.

The popularity of CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) illustrates medical creep. Before 1960, the only treatment for a heart that stopped was heart massage. A physician – usually a cardiac surgeon – would open the chest and manually massage the heart, thereby pumping blood through the body. A Johns Hopkins 1960 study described an alternative approach called closed-chest cardiac massage. The method successfully resuscitated all 20 of the patients involved in the study, 14 of whom suffered no brain damage or other ill effects.

Fifty years later, CPR has become the default treatment for every person who dies.

Consequently, survival rates have plummeted. In hospitals, the success rate for elderly patients given CPR is less than 15%; as many as a quarter of the survivors suffer brain damage.

What happens?

Healthcare professionals want to save lives. Loved ones want to see their beloved saved. TV shows and media reports highlight CPR successes.

Yet not everyone with heart failure is a prime candidate for a successful CPR. Multiple factors including age, heart condition, other health conditions, and the length of time that the heart has been stopped partially determine whether even the most skillful application of CPR will succeed. (Brendan Reilly, "How CPR Became So Popular," The Atlantic, Nov. 4, 2013)

The U.S. healthcare system is the world's most expensive, offers the most advanced treatment and procedures available, and yet achieves poorer outcomes than does healthcare in most developed nations.

Identifying medical creep suggests one part of the answer to fixing our broken healthcare system. We must become better-informed healthcare consumers.

For example, I do not want CPR unless there is a reasonable chance that I will survive without significant brain damage or other major complications. I do not want doctors performing tests on me that will not alter the treatment they provide me. I do not want treatment that does not have a proven benefit for patients with my condition or, if the treatment is experimental, is likely to benefit patients with my condition. I know that death is inevitable, do not live with an illusory hope of extending this life indefinitely, and value both the quality as well as the length of my life.

The time to consider and to discuss these issues is when one, and one's loved ones, are well. Preplanning offers the hope of better living, better dying, and guilt free grief for survivors.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Poverty - not an intractable problem

According to Luke's gospel (6:20), Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor." Matthew's gospel spiritualizes that saying (5:3), reporting that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The affluent tend to find the latter more comfortable than the former because spiritualizing Jesus' teaching saps those teachings of their revolutionary demands that we care for the least among us.

The United States, by any measure, ranks among the elite top handful of the world's wealthiest nations. Yet a staggering 1 in 6 of its citizens – about 16% – live in poverty.

We can change this immoral situation. For example, John Sutter, an economist who writes for CNN, recently proposed seven ways to reduce the income inequality gap in the United States ("7 ways to narrow the rich-poor gap," CNN Opinion, October 29, 2013):

  1. Break down social barriers – when the affluent and poor see one another as real humans, the affluent generally respond with compassion and real help
  2. Improve public schools; unify public and private schools – attending public schools helps to build bridges between children from different socio-economic backgrounds; private schools sap reform drives and economically segregate children
  3. Raise the minimum wage to 1960s levels, at least
  4. Tax the rich at a reasonable rate
  5. Give workers a voice in their companies – this is good management and good for business, increasing profitability, improving operations and giving workers a stake in the business
  6. Reign in crazy-huge donations to political campaigns – if large donations did not buy influence why would the wealthy make those political contributions?
  7. Give money to the poor – maybe at random
Sutter's seven points may not be a panacea but offer a starting point for public discourse about how to close the income gap and decrease wealth inequality, problems that threaten the foundations of democracy and thus its very survival. I've advocated several of these positions in previous Ethical Musings posts.

What will you do to reduce the unconscionable gap between the affluent and the poor?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rethinking eschatology (the study of end times)

Most people, particularly Christians, have an unbiblical view of the arrival of God's kingdom. This set of beliefs is notable for expecting that Jesus will physically return to earth, ushering in the fullness of God's kingdom. That view, however, is at odds with what Scripture actually says.

Among some of the Christians who take the Bible literally, passages such as Luke 21:5-19 enjoy an enduring popularity. Those Christians generally hold a worldview that sharply contrasts with mine in three relevant ways. First, in their geocentric cosmogony, they expect the triumphant, resurrected Jesus to return bodily to the earth and establish the fullness of God's kingdom. In contrast, I do not believe that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, that neither this planet nor humankind is necessarily the center of God's activity, and find the idea of physical resurrection incomprehensible at best and nonsensical at worst. Remember, the people who wrote the gospels lived in a world in which people generally believed the world was flat, the earth was at the center of creation, and had no knowledge of atomic structure. The latter is especially pertinent when thinking about resurrection because scientists think it probable that many of us have shared one or more atoms with Jesus and certainly with other people. If there is a physical resurrection, what happens to molecules that have been part of more than one person's body?

Second, many of the Christians who emphasize this morning's gospel reading view Christianity in general and themselves in particular as persecuted by our larger society. I do not experience that conflict. Instead, I experience Christianity in a diametrically opposite manner, more likely seduced and subverted by the larger culture. Christianity, once the established religion, is now marginalized; the larger society easily ignores or reframes its calls for justice and compassion. Maybe I am oblivious to the real state of affairs, but I am unaware of anyone ever persecuting me for my religious beliefs and only occasionally ridiculing me for those beliefs, to which I respond with bemusement rather than anger.

Third, Christians who focus on readings such as Luke 21:5-19 frequently see the passage as providing clues for the timing of God's activity in the world. For me, not only do I reject an anthropocentric, geocentric view of creation and the idea of culture wars, I also find the idea of attempting to discern God's future timetable a folly against which Scripture and eighteen hundred years of failed predictions should warn us.

So, set aside a literal view of the gospel reading. What, if anything, can we make of this text? I want to suggest two thoughts. First, God remains active in creation. Second, being a Christian is no guarantee or prophylactic against bad things happening to us.

For a fuller development of those thoughts, you may want to read my sermon on Luke 21:5-19 that I preached yesterday in Raleigh.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

With whom should you pray?

With whom should you pray?

Pray with anyone who is willing to have you pray with them.

In spite of that answer seeming obvious and difficult to dispute, some people disagree. My first experience of people refusing to pray with other people – all alleged Christians in this instance – occurred in my second parish. The town's small hospital did not have a chaplain. So some of the town's clergy, including me, initiated an effort to establish a program in which the town's clergy would serve, in rotation, as volunteer chaplains. Most of the fundamentalists and Pentecostals refused to have anything to do with the program. One pastor, whose courage I admired greatly, insisted on participating even though many in his Nazarene congregation and denomination objected. He recognized that talking and listening to God (i.e., prayer) has no doctrinal bounds.

That experience set the stage for another: a chaplain colleague, who was a student with me in the Navy's six-week long Chaplain Basic Course, who refused to pray with any of the other 35 chaplains (including me) in our course. This chaplain would not even pray with another chaplain from his own faith group for fear of doctrinal contamination and of offending God with impure prayers. This chaplain obviously had difficulty ministering in the sea services where he had to learn to cooperate without compromising with clergy and laity from a wide variety of faith traditions and no faith.

Thus, I was not surprised to read recently that ultraconservative Roman Catholics were dismayed when Pope John Paul II prayed in public with Muslims. John Paul II was by all measures a theological and liturgical conservative with whom I generally disagreed. Yet even he recognized that prayer transcends theological differences.

Hardline conservatives have consistently expressed bewilderment and consternation that the Orthodox churches have remained part of the World Council of Churches, a body largely comprised of liberal Protestants and a forum in which the participants inevitably pray together.

There is only one God, by whatever name one addresses or refers to the deity. Malaya has lately attempted to parse language in new and divisive ways, making it illegal for anyone but Muslims to use the Arabic word Allah (English translation: the God) in reference to the deity. That law flies in the face of Arab Christian and Jewish usage. Those two religions, for centuries before (as well as since) the advent of Islam, have consistently referred to the deity, when speaking or writing Arabic, as Allah.

Furthermore, mystics – the people of prayer who journey the closest to the deity – describe their experiences in terms that suggest they, regardless of their faith tradition, experience a single, common ultimate reality. In recent years, prominent mystics such as the Christian Thomas Merton and Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh have explicitly acknowledged this commonality. Theologians, such as John Hick and Paul Knitter, have argued for this position as reinforcing, perhaps experientially validating, some of the basic claims of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

In an era of great polarization and dangerous animosities, joining together in prayer represents a positive, bridge-building resource available to people of faith. Genuine prayer liberates, heals, and creates community, gifts no one should fear. The world needs more of such prayer, not less.

(For a fuller exposition of the themes in this post, placed in the context of how Christianity views other religions, you may want to consult my book, Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Martin and Veterans Day

November 11 is both Veterans Day and the annual commemoration of Martin of Tours, a coincidence that prompts mixed feelings.

On the one hand, many Christian soldiers claim Martin as one of their patron saints. This claim largely reflects an ignorant domestication of Christianity, two terms I use intentionally. On the other hand, I find the real Martin truly a saint, someone whose example and ministry are especially appropriate on Veterans Day.

Born in 315 or 316, Martin is one of the earliest saints about whom we have reasonably reliable information, mostly from a biography written by Sulpicius Severus. Sulpicius had actually met Martin, stunned that the then Bishop of Tours offered him hospitality in the Bishop's residence, which was a monk's cell in the wilderness. Sulpicius reports that Martin washed Sulpicius' hands before dinner and his feet that evening. Even though the biography is clearly a hagiography – a glowing, somewhat fictionalized account designed to prove Martin's holiness by recounting numerous miracles that he allegedly performed – Martin's commitment to following Jesus' example of poverty and to obeying Jesus' command to love one's neighbor as one's self are plainly genuine.

Raised in a pagan family, Martin became a Christian catechumen at age 10 on his own initiative. Apparently forced to join the army at 15, perhaps because of a law requiring the sons of army officers to join the army, he quickly became an officer in a ceremonial cavalry unit assigned to protect the emperor. This unit rarely saw combat. Although a soldier, Martin tried to follow an ascetic, monastic lifestyle, e.g., reversing roles with his appointed servant by cleaning the servant's shoes.

When the threat of barbarian invasion caused the Emperor, Julian, to go to Gaul, Martin and his unit faced the likely prospect of combat. While there, the best-known incident in his life occurred, a paradigmatic event especially beloved by military chaplains. Riding on horseback, Martin spied a shivering beggar; he stopped, used his sword to cut his own cloak in two, and gave one-half to the beggar. That night, in a vision, he saw Jesus wrapped in the piece of the cloak that he had given to the beggar. The etymology of the English words chapel and chaplain recalls that incident, sharing a common root with the Latin word for cloak, cappella. The next day, Martin asked to be baptized. This incident portrays the domesticated Martin, the one who does nice things to help people in need.

What most Christians in the military do not know is that some two years later, on the eve of what was to have been perhaps his first battle, Martin refused to fight. He told his seniors, Put me in the front of the army in harm's way, without weapons or armor; but I will not draw my sword again. I have become a soldier of Christ. Furious over his refusal and believing him a coward, his seniors told Martin that they would grant his wish the following day. They then imprisoned him to prevent his fleeing that night. Defying all predictions, the barbarians unexpectedly sent word the next day that they wanted to negotiate peace. This led to Martin's release from prison and the army. In other words, the patron saint of soldiers refused to fight – he had become a conscientious objector!

I am not a pacifist. On rare occasions, I believe that Christians justifiably use lethal force to stop evil. World War II was morally justified because of the Nazi commitment to exterminating all non-Aryans (Jews, people of color), persons the Nazis deemed social misfits (GLBTs, the mentally and physically challenged), and dissidents. This evil was so pernicious and egregious that committed Christian pacifists including Dietrich Bonheoffer and Reinhold Niebuhr changed their views. More frequently, nations fight wars that are not morally justifiable from a Christian perspective. Incidentally, Just War Theory, the only widely recognized moral framework for assessing the morality of war, represents an important contribution of the Christian tradition to western philosophy and international law.

World War I, the war to end all wars, concluded with a treaty signed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Four years of war had caused 16 million fatalities and 20 million casualties. The United States established Veterans Day on the 11th day of the 11th month to remember and to honor annually the sacrifices of those who serve or have served in our armed forces.

As a Christian, I find that I best observe Veterans Day by an informed commemoration and emulation of Martin Tours.

First, many veterans resemble the beggar with whom Martin shared his cloak: they have great needs the nation widely and blithely ignores. Disproportionate numbers of the physically maimed, the unemployed, the homeless, and alcoholics are veterans. Many of these veterans suffer invisible wounds, i.e., psychic or spiritual injuries that interfere with the veteran living a normal, healthy life. As a retired chaplain and priest, veterans sometimes honor me by telling me their stories. The injuries are real, the horrors of war brought home from the battlefield. Sometimes the vet knows when and how the injury occurred; sometimes the injury manifests itself in unexpected ways years after the person has returned home. Words of appreciation and one-day discounts are nice, but, like Martin's generous gift to the beggar, our veterans deserve better and need more.

Second, we soldiers of Christ do well when we emulate Martin and courageously refuse to wage war except as a last resort and then only to end an evil that threatens to impose great injustice. Sadly, militarism seems firmly entrenched in the American psyche. Our political leaders generally rely upon the armed forces as the first responder to most international crises. The American "can do" spirit that helps communities and individuals to achieve so much then becomes a liability because we expect that every problem has a solution and that the military should be able to achieve victory (or solve any problem). Unfortunately, that thinking embodies more hubris than realism. The military is not the best "tool" for every problem (no more than a carpenter uses only a hammer) nor can the United States, working unilaterally or multilaterally, solve every global problem.

The military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower worried has morphed into a military-industrial-political complex in which large defense contractors intentionally site facilities in every congressional district, giving senators and representatives political reasons to support expansive defense budgets. The 2013 sequestration cut defense spending and the impending 2014 sequestration will cut even deeper. However, even if the 2014 cuts occur, the U.S. will still outspend the total amount the next twenty nations spend on defense. If that level of spending is insufficient to fund a reasonable defense in a world in which the U.S. is the lone superpower, something is greatly amiss. Tragically, the defense budget cuts have evoked louder and more numerous protests than have reductions to programs designed to aid our society's most vulnerable and needy among whom, ironically, are many veterans who bear the wounds, visible and otherwise, of their military service.

Hilary of Poitiers ordained Martin a priest sometime between 350 and 353. Martin spent the next two decades as a monastic, establishing monasteries and conducting missions. In 372, to his great dismay, the people of Tours elected Martin their third bishop. During his episcopacy, he worked tirelessly to establish justice and compassion throughout his diocese. The date of his consecration, July 4, Independence Day, is perhaps a chance coincidence, or perhaps a synchronicity, which along with his commemoration on the anniversary of his death (Veterans Day, Nov. 11), calls us to care for veterans better and to rely, as did Martin, on the sword of Christ instead of empire for our security.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Reducing income inequality

John Sutter, an economist who writes for CNN, recently proposed seven ways to reduce the income inequality gap in the United States ("7 ways to narrow the rich-poor gap," CNN Opinion, October 29, 2013):

  1. Break down social barriers: Sutter advocates creating conversations that transcend the socio-economic divide. This puts a face on the poor, the affluent, and can advantageously create sympathetic bonds between them.
  2. Improve public schools; unify them: Voluntarily shutter private schools, reunifying children in the classroom, and promoting the conversations that Sutter advocated in point #1 above.
  3. Raise the minimum wage to 1960s levels, at least: This chart shows how the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is about 25% lower than it was in 1960:

  1. Tax the rich at a reasonable rate: The marginal tax rate, which is the highest rate paid on any part of one's income, on the rich in the early 1920s was 25%; the marginal rate rose to 91% in the 1960s and now sits at 35%. A marginal rate of 50%, at a minimum, seems reasonable.
  2. Give workers a voice in their companies: In other words, bring back unions or give employees an ownership stake in the company. Either option is likely to result in higher wages for the working poor whom we presently subsidize with welfare programs.
  3. Reign in crazy-huge donations to political campaigns: This chart on campaign finance graphically depicts the disproportionate influence of the wealthy on the political process, a problem about which I have previously blogged: 

  1. Give money to the poor – maybe at random: Sutter cites research that supports this proposition, showing that random gifts of money to the poor can permanently improve their lives in unexpected ways.

I find Sutter's seven propositions intriguing for three reasons. First, several of his ideas echo positions that I have previously advocated in Ethical Musings. Second, empirical data supports most of his ideas, i.e., these propositions are more than mere opinion or personal likes. Third, I think his ideas offer a comprehensive option that, if implemented, would reduce income equality. Reducing income inequality will improve the quality of life for both the affluent and the poor. Nations ranging from Sweden to Iran now enjoy substantially greater income equality than does the United States.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reimagining diocesan convention

In previous Episcopal Café posts (part 1 and 2), I suggested radically reimagining The Episcopal Church's governance and structure. Among the changes I recommended were flattening the structure, eliminating mandatory financial assessments, and relying on electronic voting, virtual meetings, crowdsourcing and outsourcing.

A friend recently sent me his proposal for reducing his diocesan convention to one day from its current two-day format. He advocated that one year the diocesan convention would pass a biennial budget and fill elective positions; in alternate years, the diocesan convention would focus on program elements.

Establishing a one-day format for diocesan conventions has several key advantages:

  1. It would reduce administrative and travel expenses, thereby freeing more money for mission;
  2. It would greatly expand the pool of potential convention attendees to include those otherwise prevented from attending by the need to arrange for overnight child care, cover incidental expenses, or honor work commitments;
  3. It would allow greater numbers of people to attend as observers if not as actual delegates.

As an interim measure, I support my friend's proposal.

However, we should radically reimagine diocesan conventions. A diocese, through canonical changes but without organizational restructuring, could transact all of its business over the internet, using electronic communication, electronic voting, and virtual meetings. Then the annual convention could become a time when people from across the diocese gather, meet one another, celebrate shared journeys, grow spiritually, and become energized for ministry and mission in the year ahead.

One appeal of mega-churches is that their size generates energy and synergy that small congregations cannot. Another appeal of mega-churches is that they have resources to produce programs and worship services (including preaching) of a higher quality than is typically found in a small congregation. Ten percent of U.S. congregations now contain half of all churchgoers.

The Episcopal Church is a denomination of small congregations. Our congregations have an average Sunday attendance of less than 70. Furthermore, the diocese, not the parish or mission, is the basic unit in our polity. Radically reimagining diocesan convention could transform a generally staid business meeting that many clergy and most laity try to avoid into an event for the entire diocese, an annual gathering of a "mega-church." This would both affirm our unity and our ties to the diocese with our bishop as our chief pastor.

Too many congregations view their bishop as an honored guest or even as an intimidating and alien authority figure. Conversely, bishops quickly tire of an endless cycle of parish visits in which they preach, perhaps administer confirmation, perhaps eat well, engage in much polite conversation, and conduct canonically mandated inspections. Instead, we need bishops who provide effective visionary leadership for their dioceses, inspiring and energizing their people for mission.

Concurrently, by changing the format of diocesan conventions and maintaining our generally smallish congregations we would continue to enjoy the multiple benefits of belonging to a small group.

In sum, radically reimagining diocesan convention could give us the best of belonging to both a small and large church; diocesan convention, instead of being an annual burden, might become one of the high points of the ecclesial year. Laity and clergy might even clamor for convention to meet more than once a year!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A modern saint

Is Pope Francis a modern saint, a Christian who is living the Christian life writ large? Consider the following:

  • Francis has chosen to live in a building with other priests rather than the more comfortable, as well as more isolated, Vatican apartment of his predecessors.
  • In a liturgical observance, Francis washed the feet of women and the poor, not just of clergy.
  • Francis has decided to canonize (i.e., formally declare as Saints) both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII (the former beloved by traditionalists and the latter beloved by progressives for the changes made at the Vatican II conclave that he convened).
  • Francis has removed a German bishop from the bishop's see for having an excessively opulent lifestyle, symbolized by the bishop approving a multi-million dollar refurbishment of the bishop's residence.
  • Francis has had unscripted interviews with journalists, even with an atheist; he blesses non-believers silently, respecting their right to their own beliefs.
  • Francis has emphasized that the Church needs to become more open, stop focusing on ideology, and start being less judgmental, e.g., refusing to condemn gay priests.

Nothing that Francis has done suggests that major changes in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are imminent. For example, I do not anticipate that he will permit the ordination of women, declare that using contraceptives is moral, or recognize that marriage does not depend upon the participants' gender.

The changes are notable for two reasons. First, Francis has changed the tenor of life at the center of the institution, which, if Francis has a long tenure as pope, will hopefully percolate throughout the institution. In my lifetime, the tone of the Roman Catholic Church has shifted from open and welcoming to narrow and exclusionary. When I was in high school, church youth groups in my hometown visited each other's churches – including the Roman Catholic – an historical first that broke centuries old proscriptions against entering the buildings, let alone engaging in dialogue with one another about Christianity. The Roman Catholic chaplains whom I met when I joined the Navy in 1981 were almost all molded by the events of Vatican II. However, by the time that I retired from the Navy in 2005, the Roman Catholic chaplains then serving were among the most narrow and conservative chaplains on active duty.

Second, Francis' simplicity and commitment to the most vulnerable emulate what we know of Jesus' own lifestyle. Francis provides a modern example of one way to life the Christian life, challenging many of us to follow his incarnation of Jesus. His integrity and directness have made Roman Catholic traditionalists (and their evangelical Protestant allies) sufficiently wary that they are actually questioning the Pope's catholicity! (Michelle Boorstein and Elizabeth Tenety, "Conservative Catholics Question Pope Francis's Approach," Washington Post, October 14, 2013 accessed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/conservative-catholics-question-pope-franciss-approach/2013/10/12/21d7f484-2cf4-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html.)

The ultimate measure of a life is how one lives, not the content of one's ideas (although the latter may influence both how one lives and how one encourages others to live). By this standard, today on All Souls' Day, Francis appears to be a saint – more than merely one of the faithful – who is worth emulating in deed, though not necessarily in word.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bread and circuses

In my last Ethical Musings post, I described how taxpayers subsidize low wages in many industries, highlighting retailer Wal-Mart (featuring them seems fair since they advertise always having the low price) and fast food restaurants.

At the height of the Roman Empire's prosperity, Roman emperors developed a policy to keep the residents of the city of Rome pacified. Historians subsequently dubbed this policy as bread and circuses. Unemployment in Rome was rampant, So, the emperors kept the people of Rome fed with low priced, often free, wheat so that people could eat. Frequent, free entertainment – circuses – in the Coliseum added excitement and provided the people something to which to look forward and to talk about. Bread and circuses worked well – as long as the Empire could afford the cost.

Does the United States (and perhaps other developed countries) have a twenty-first century policy of bread and circuses?

Instead of bread, the U.S. provides food assistance to more than 47 million people, almost 1 in 6 residents. A majority of these people are working poor, earning too little to feed and house themselves and their families. The others are unemployed.

Instead of circuses, we have professional sports and media celebrities, offering people some excitement and an opportunity to live large vicariously. The violence of professional football, with the toll that it takes on players (e.g., brain damage from repeated, severe head collisions and concussions), is eerily reminiscent of the violence of many of the Roman games.

Politicians depend upon raising large amounts of money to fund increasingly expensive campaigns that tout what the politician has done for the average voter, something too often measured in increased benefits or lower taxes rather than actual improvements in the common good or broad measures of quality of life. This explains why politicians spouting capitalist rhetoric hypocritically enact laws that help corporations generate high profits by relying on public subsidies for low-paid employees. In other words, the politicians, like the Roman emperors, seek to pacify the masses for the benefit of the elites.

Our rapidly spiraling public debt warns that the dysfunctional alliance of government and economic elites is nearing the breaking point.

Terminating public assistance programs is not the answer. Outlawing public sports and ending our celebrity culture is not the answer, although the morality of a violent sport in which so many players become permanently disabled is questionable. It's hard to think of Jesus turning a blind eye to the needy, being a fan of professional football, or applauding the behavior and performance of many contemporary celebrities.

The only viable answer is building a just society: fair wages (i.e., enough to allow a decent standard of living) for work; laws that promote full-time rather than part-time employment (employers use the latter to avoid paying benefits); taxes the fairly fund government's full cost; etc.