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)