Thursday, December 31, 2015

Predictions for 2016


Here are my predictions for 2016:

  • National and international affairs
    • Syrian President Assad will remain in power, Iraq will move closer to fragmenting, the Islamic State will consolidate its hold on parts of Syria and the current Iraq, and Israel will not make peace with the Palestinians. The US will block the Palestinian's bid for recognition as a state by the United Nations. In short, 2015 will not see major changes in the Middle East.
    • Trump will not win the Republican Party's presidential nomination.
    • After a divisive, polarizing campaign, the US will elect Hillary Clinton its first female president.
    • Republicans will retain control of the US House of Representatives and Democrats will control the Senate.
    • The Middle East will remain in turmoil: Yemen's insurrection will continue; the Saudi regime will face more open opposition; Assad will continue to cling, just barely, to power; Iraq will move closer to fracturing, with the Kurds exercising increased autonomy; Afghanistan will continue to destabilize; and Iran will remain an international pariah. The US will send more troops to the Middle East. Russia, the US, and other nations – divided by opposing aims – will not implement cooperative policies or actions in the Middle East.
    • China will struggle to maintain a rate of economic growth sufficient to pacify its population and keep its Communist overlords in power while concurrently flexing its economic, military, and political muscles abroad.
  • Economics
    • The price of oil will remain below $60 per barrel. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will show signs of fraying as its member states experience increasing financial difficulties linked to oil's persistently low price.
    • The US economy will continue to grow slowly with stock prices ending the year up, unemployment down, and wages finally showing some, albeit slow, growth. Interest rates will continue to inch upwards.
  • Social and cultural
    • Aging populations in the US and Japan will be the catalysts for a gradual erosion of youth worship and increased social appreciation and valuing of the elderly.
    • Deniers of climate change will become further marginalized, akin to people who claim that the earth is flat. Unfortunately, increased demand for energy generated using carbon based fuels in China, India, and Africa will outweigh the benefits global efforts to slow climate change.
    • Anti-Muslim sentiments will continue to escalate, exacerbated by both the threats posed by ISIS and non-state terror groups as well as an unstoppable flood of immigrants out of the Middle East.
    • Support for decriminalizing marijuana will continue to build as will support for reducing/eliminating mandatory sentences for many drug related offenses.
    • Cultural conflict will continue in the US over same sex marriage and abortion. Nevertheless, same sex marriage will find increasing acceptance. Abortion, however, will remain an acrimonious, polarizing issue that further entangles Planned Parenthood and other providers.
    • Although Congress will fail in renewed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, healthcare costs will continue to grow faster than the general rate of inflation as will anger over the excessive cost of prescription drugs and awareness of the dysfunctionality of the US approach to healthcare.
What are your predictions for 2016?


Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2016!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of 2015 predictions

My first Ethical Musings' post for 2015 was a set of predictions for the year. In this post, I review my accuracy, annotating each prediction (green type denotes an accurate prediction and red type a missed prediction):

  • World affairs
    • Syrian President Assad will remain in power, Iraq will move closer to fragmenting, the Islamic State will consolidate its hold on parts of Syria and the current Iraq, and Israel will not make peace with the Palestinians. The US will block the Palestinian's bid for recognition as a state by the United Nations. In short, 2015 will not see major changes in the Middle East. Sadly, all of these predictions were correct. The Middle East remains as war torn as at the beginning of 2015. If anything, the situation has worsened because of heightened levels of conflict in Yemen.
    • Although terror attacks will continue, no nation will experience a terror attack on the scale of the 9/11 attacks. This prediction was also correct. The Paris attacks were not of the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks.
    • Regardless of the outcome of talks intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, neither the US nor Israel will attack Iran. Talks to end Iranian nuclear weapon development appear to have succeeded, contingent upon Congressional action and mutual implementation.
    • Afghanistan will continue to disintegrate. Afghanistan's central government has continued to lose control of its territory; the US has deferred final withdrawal of combat troops.
    • Global climate change will continue to worsen, indicated by an increase in the number of major storms and other unusual weather phenomena, and few nation states or multi-national corporations will implement major initiatives to reverse those changes. 2015 was the warmest year on record with an increased number of major storms. The Paris climate change talks ended successfully. Unfortunately, the results contained recommendations rather than firm commitments.
    • The Ebola epidemic will worsen and then lessen after development of an effective vaccine and of improved treatment for those with the virus. Thankfully, this prediction was wrong.
  • Economics
    • The price of oil will drop to $40 (or lower) per barrel before rebounding, but it will not hit $80 by year's end (OPEC appears committed to keeping production high; increased US production will more than offset any disruptions to Russian oil and gas production). Not only did the price of oil fall below $40 per barrel, it has not rebounded.
    • US stocks will have another good year (up maybe 10%), primarily because of a lack of good alternative investments (bonds will perform poorly – see my next prediction). Major stock market indices ended 2015 down.
    • Interest rates will rise slowly in the US, starting sometime in the second half of the year. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December.
    • The US housing market will continue its slow recovery in spite of a rising cost of mortgages (because of an increase in interest rates). Correct – the end of the year decline in sales appears driven by HUD mandated process changes rather than actual slowing of sales.
    • Europe will continue to totter on the brink of another recession, experiencing what is at best an anemic recovery. Correct.
  • Social and cultural
    • The US Supreme Court will hear a case about the legality of same sex marriage and rule in favor of it. Correct.
    • The US Congress and President will remain at odds, stalemating most legislation, but somehow avoiding another government shutdown. Correct.
    • The following trends will continue unabated: increased secularism, diminished religiosity, increased utilization of wireless devices in spite of continuing government surveillance, and the widening gap between affluent and poor (i.e., the middle class will continue to disappear). Correct.
    • Tensions between whites and blacks will erupt into open conflict one or more times in the US. This will underscore what the events of 2014 demonstrated so graphically: race relations may have improved, but still are far from Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a society in which people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Correct.
    • The Episcopal Church will not elect a white male as its next Presiding Bishop. Correct: The Episcopal Church elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, an African American who was Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, as Presiding Bishop.
Overall, 14 of my 16 predictions were correct for a batting average of 87.5%.

My next post will consist of my predictions for 2016.

The process of making predictions encourages reflection about larger trends too often obscured by a general tendency to focus on immediate and individual events. Checking one's accuracy keeps the process honest. Of course, it is impossible to quantify whether one's predictions are obvious or seen only dimly and then with difficulty.


However, making predictions and then reviewing one's accuracy is probably more productive (and certainly more enjoyable!) than making resolutions about changes that one has little intent of keeping (otherwise, one would already have made the change!).

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mele Kalikimaka!


Image result for hawaiian christmas free images

Spending Christmas in Hawaii for the first time in twenty years has poignantly reminded me that most Christmas customs have pagan origins linked to the winter solstice and cold weather rather than to the birth of Jesus. Similarly, the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth reflect a mixture of sources that are mostly unrelated to anything Jesus taught or lived (cf. John Spong's Born of a Woman for a fuller exposition of this).

Jesus was born. That statement seems irrefutable to me. Claiming that the entirety of Jesus' life, teachings, and the Christian movement that emerged after his death has no factual basis, whatsoever, is ludicrous.

However, claiming to know much more than Jesus was born also seems ludicrous. The authors of the four gospels, the four biographies of Jesus included in the New Testament, wrote theological treatises intended to support their religious beliefs. The gospels do not contain history, if by history one means the chronological recording of factual events.

If Christianity is to be credible in the twenty-first century, then Christians should stop literalizing the gospels. No Roman census brought Jesus' parents to Bethlehem, Jesus was not born in a manger, shepherds did not rejoice in the fields, and magi did not visit.

Instead of trivializing the Christmas story by insisting on its factual accuracy, the real meaning of Christmas lies in the messages that the gospel authors intended to convey. For example, the authors wanted to emphasize Jesus' identity as a descendant of King David (the census took the Holy Family to Bethlehem), Jesus' humility (born in a manger), the joy that people who know God's love experience (the shepherds rejoice), and the universality of God's love (the Gentile magi's visit).

Similarly, what is the Christianized meaning of the Christmas customs that you observe? For example,
  • Snow (or a bright sunny day) may make the whole world seem new, for in Jesus Christians believe that they join God in singing a new song.
  • Evergreen trees (even or perhaps especially artificial trees!) underscore that God's love for us is eternal.
  • Decorations and festive dress communicate and enhance expressions of joy.
  • Exchanging cards and gifts renews the bonds between people, bonds that extend to all people, which is why charitable giving is so prominent at Christmas. 

May the story of Christmas – the story of God's love for us, present and active in our world – be part of your story this season and always. Mele Kalikimaka! (That's Hawaiian for Merry Christmas).

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent - a time for reflection

Reading a biography of Woodrow Wilson, several aspects of life in the late 19th century caught my attention:
  • Football was popular, comparable in roughness even then to the British game of rugby. Wilson, who was decidedly not athletic, coached the Princeton football team for a couple of years during his time as a professor at that university. He, like many of his contemporaries, regarded sports as affording participants the benefits of competition, physical exercise, and spending time outdoors. In contrast to the semi-pro status of modern college athletics, a majority of 19th century collegians participated in at least one sport. Similarly, Wilson occasionally took cycling holidays of several weeks duration.
  • Doctorates, at least in the humanities, represented mastery of an entire discipline, not merely a tiny subsection of a discipline.
  • He wrote thousands of letters, e.g., sending a missive to his wife each day they were apart. Unlike phone calls, text messages, and tweets, Wilson's epistles were lengthy expositions of his thoughts, feelings, and ideas gleaned from lectures, readings, and conversations.
Admittedly, Woodrow Wilson was an exceptional individual. I suspect, however, that he offers an example we would do well to emulate:
  • Choose to spend time outdoors in vigorous physical activity. Research confirms what Wilson seemed to know: exercise, even moderate exercise, eases stresses, improves weight control, and extends longevity.
  • Look at the trees, but also survey at least one forest.
  • Writing affords an opportunity to organize one's thoughts, to identify one's feelings, and to reflect on the ideas, events, and people that one encounters.
In the US and some other places, New Year's brings with it a cultural expectation of making resolutions, that is, setting goals for the next twelve months. The first Sunday of Advent marked the beginning of a new Christian year. Both Advent and Lent are traditional Christian seasons of self-examination.

Pause for a few moments during the last remaining days of Advent. If your Christmas preparations are done, then you deserve a refreshing break. And if you are way behind on completing your Christmas preparations, then you're unlikely to finish them, probably feel overwhelmed, and need as well as deserve a refreshing break. The joy of Christmas is lost when one collapses from exhaustion (or near exhaustion) on Christmas.

Pausing affords a valuable opportunity not only to re-energize but also to begin assessing the past year.

  • Did you take care of yourself? You only have one body.
  • Have you kept your priorities in order, taking care of the important items and dealing with the other stuff, no matter how urgent it may seem, only as time allows?
  • What have you learned in 2015? How have you grown?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rethinking spiritual practices

What constitutes a spiritual practice? Initially, I defined spiritual practice in terms of traditional Anglican activities: praying and reading scripture (the daily offices), attending and receiving Holy Communion, devotional reading, giving alms, meditating, offering thanks before meals, etc.

This clarity began to dissolve in college when I studied world religions and learned about a host of divergent spiritual practices, e.g., yoga, zazen, nature mysticism, and Tantrism. During this time, I was exposed to the now largely forgotten charismatic renewal movement. Comprised of Christians dissatisfied with the perceived aridness of the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, participants in the charismatic renewal often acted as if the most valuable spiritual practices were those linked to the Holy Spirit's gifts.

Then in seminary, while employed by a Quaker social service agency in a state prison, one of the men I with whom I worked, who was serving time for multiple felony convictions, vigorously asserted that using cannabis was a spiritual practice for him. Subsequently, a man on the fringe of my first parish introduced me to Carlos Castaneda's writings about Native American shamanism in Mexico and their use of peyote. These incidents complemented concurrent news stories about controversial efforts to demonstrate LSD and cannabis' alleged ability to expand consciousness and deepen spiritual awareness.

When the locus of my ministry shifted from the parish to the military, I met and had chaplain colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates from dozens of different faith traditions. A Conservative rabbi's spiritual practices, centered on observing the Torah, are mostly distinctive from those of an Imam or fundamentalist Baptist minister. I also had my introduction to evangelical parachurch organizations, especially the Navigators, Officers' Christians Fellowship, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These groups send lay people to minister full-time to military personnel and their families, generally expecting the person (or couple) to solicit contributions to cover their expenses, stipend, and a proportionate share of the organization's expenses. These missionaries teach spiritual practices that emphasize personal commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior followed by a life of ever-deepening discipleship. Discipleship connotes scripture memorization, adherence to a strict code of personal morality, an extended period of tutoring by a mature Christian mentor (often a staff person), tithing as a minimum standard of giving, and indoctrination into the group's version of theological orthodoxy. And finally, toward the end of my active duty, I dealt with Wiccans, whose spiritual practices are far more akin to magic or alchemy than to traditional Christianity.

Adherents of these practices aim, given their diverse theological or philosophical beliefs, to cultivate the human spirit and the human spirit's relationship to ultimate reality. Beyond that commonality of intent, this bewildering and still-expanding array of spiritual practices (e.g., some spiritual but not religious persons describe football games or gym sessions as their spiritual practice) includes much that is contradictory and mutually exclusive. Like many post-modern people, I struggled to formulate an approach to spirituality that both identifies what is truly spiritual and practices helpful in developing that aspect of my life.

I started with the widely held idea that human spirit connotes an eternal soul, i.e., the everlasting spark or image of God in a person. Yet mystics in many traditions stress that God is ineffable and infinite. God therefore eludes human definition. In time, I realized that thinking of the human spirit as the eternal soul poses a similar unsolvable puzzle This approach also requires explaining how, and perhaps when, ensoulment occurs, i.e., how and when a human acquires her/his soul or spirit. Furthermore, this approach creates problems of body-spirit dualism with which theologians, philosophers, and scientists have wrestled unsuccessfully since Descartes. Finally, it's far from certain that the Christian Scriptures unambiguously support belief in an eternal soul.

Eventually, I tentatively adopted an alternative approach: identifying the human spirit as that which is quintessentially human. This approach advantageously avoids the problems associated with body-spirit dualism and with locating the exact moment of ensoulment because evolution, and not ensoulment, produced the human spirit. Thus, each aspect of the human spirit has a biological basis and is observable to lesser degrees in some other species. Importantly, not every aspect of human uniqueness is necessarily an element of the human spirit. For example, blushing is unique to humans but this ability does not appear integral to the quintessence of being human.

Research and reflection have led me to hypothesize that the human spirit consists of six distinct but overlapping facets:
  1. Self-awareness (sometimes described as self-transcendence)
  2. Linguistic ability (especially the symbolic use of language, which enables humans to find meaning in life and to build community)
  3. The aesthetic sense (art can add depth to life, offer a fresh perspective and increase self-awareness, improve communication, and contribute to community)
  4. Creativity (humans have introduced significant novelty into the cosmos, unlike any other species, and implicitly poses questions of value, i.e., it points to moral concerns)
  5. Limited autonomy (located between determinism and freedom, but probably closer to the former than to the latter)
  6. Loving and being loved (sometimes called reciprocal altruism, but that term minimizes the importance of emotion for this facet of the spirit; this facet explicitly adds a moral dimension to spirituality).
Together these six facets, sketched succinctly above, comprise the quintessence of what it means to be a human, i.e., the human spirit. (Incidentally, the Episcopal Café's layout implicitly presumes that the human spirit has these six facets.)

This conception of the human spirit has provided me with a workable framework for shaping and assessing my spiritual life and for helping others to do likewise. Additional research may identify stages or levels of spiritual development. More broadly, the framework should also prove useful for assisting congregations to evaluate and to shape corporate worship, spiritual formation programs, and other activities in ways designed to cultivate spiritual growth and development.

In the meantime, I no longer give inquirers a catalogue of theoretically spiritual practices from which to choose ones that seem attractive. Instead, I explain that beneficial spiritual practices are habits that assist an individual in developing or more fully living into one or more facets of the human spirit. An individualized, balanced rule of life addresses all six facets in a way that the person will find appealing, practical, and sustainable.

For example, the daily office may help an individual to develop a fuller sense of self-awareness and improve his/her linguistic capacity. Various forms of analysis, spiritual direction, and devotional reading may provide similar benefits. Spending time in nature, whether walking in the woods, tending a garden, or snorkeling may awaken a person's aesthetic sense, prompting ponderings about beauty and origins of life. Another person may find that painting, sculpting, or visiting an art museum provides the same type of catalyst. Exercising one's limited autonomy may entail engaging in creative activities (e.g., art, writing, or programming) or becoming more intentional about one's use of time, talent, or treasure. Learning to love and to accept being loved more fully may involve a plethora of practices including volunteering in a church or non-profit, marital or family therapy, or participating in Cursillo.


These brief comments hopefully suggest the potential that clarity about the human spirit holds for shaping individual and corporate spiritual practices. If we wish to remain credible in our post-modern, evidence-based society, then we need to replace vague notions of spirituality with clearer, more robust concepts.

Monday, December 14, 2015

ISIS is losing

ISIS is losing.

Several trends support that assessment:
  1. The amount of territory that ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, controls is diminishing. Syrian rebel groups, Iranian surrogates, Kurdish forces, and Iraqi forces are all gaining ground in their battles with ISIS.
  2. Disenchantment among the people that ISIS rules is growing. ISIS' inability to establish an approximation of justice, deliver essential social services, and perform other basic government functions feed that unrest and dissatisfaction. Harsh, unmerciful laws, policies, and punishments, many of which lack a Koranic mandate, further alienate governed peoples.
  3. Recruits and prospective recruits attracted by ISIS' ideology are fleeing ISIS in a small but increasing trend.
  4. State opposition to ISIS is quickly becoming universal, uniting disparate states that include Russia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, the US, the UK, France, and others.
  5. News media reports (e.g., "Unfriended," The Economist, December 12, 2015) are starting to chronicle ISIS' reversals.

Meanwhile, a new poll suggests that Americans' fear of terrorism is as high as immediately after 9/11. This is an irrational response lacking factual justification.

First, ISIS does not recruit, aid, or oversee homegrown US killers such as the couple responsible for the mass murders in San Bernardino. Although the couple found ISIS' rhetoric attractive and perhaps inspirational, this couple was a "time bomb" in waiting. Had ISIS not existed, another group's radical ideology would probably have caused this couple to "detonate."

The best steps toward preventing similar future incidents include (1) ending the American gunslinger culture, (2) implementing effective gun control programs, and (3) adopting policies to improve justice in the US and especially in the Middle East. To achieve the latter, the US should adopt policies that equitably balance Palestinian and Israeli concerns/aspirations, end support for exploitative tyrannies such as those in Syria and Saudi Arabia, and give Islam and Muslims the same respect given to Christianity and Christians.

Furthermore, public opinion leaders in the US should dial down their rhetoric. ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the US. Even if one considers the incident in San Bernardino to be a terrorist attack, which I do not (cf. The San Bernardino killings: crime or terrorism?), the incident was only indirectly related to ISIS.


Second, sending more US troops to fight ISIS actually helps ISIS. Few people in the Middle East want foreign troops – any foreign troops – on their soil. The battle against ISIS is one that only the peoples of the Middle East can win. This, in fact, is what they are doing. The US is neither a global cop nor omnipotent. We can encourage, we can provide humanitarian assistance, and, in very limited ways, provide military equipment and munitions. Anything else is counterproductive, at least in the long run. Demagoguery unhelpfully panders to fear; genuine leadership devises effective, ethical responses and then sells those responses to decision makers and the public.

ISIS is losing. We need to stay the course, confident in our choices and security.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent - Second notice

Yesterday was the second Sunday of Advent. Two of the readings highlighted the importance of preparing the way for the Messiah. The sermon that I preached addressed that theme by noting that preparations always entail, first, expectations or hope and, second, work. For what should Christians hope at Advent? What is the work of preparation associated with that hope? For more, read my sermon at Ethical Musings.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The San Bernardino killings: crime or terrorism?

A husband and wife team killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, this week. The woman, shortly before embarking on the killing spree, apparently pledged her loyalty to an ISIS leader over the internet.

Were the killings criminal acts or acts of terrorism?

That question is somewhat misleading. Terrorism is a crime. Thus, at a minimum, the killings were crimes. However, were the killings terrorist acts?

Terrorism is purposeful activity. Terrorists have political agendas that they hope to achieve by inflicting terror, perhaps harm, on innocent third parties. Yet the killers in San Bernardino made no demands. No organization made any political demands of the US or another government either before or after the killings. Nor could anyone realistically expect that killing fourteen, or even fourteen hundred, innocent people in California would inflict existential harm on the US. Furthermore, although ISIS' rhetoric may have influenced this husband and wife team of killers, there is no public evidence at this time that ISIS contributed to the planning or execution of the killings.

In sum, the San Bernardino killings do not satisfy the definition of terrorist activity widely accepted by academics, intelligence agencies (e.g., the FBI and CIA), and the military.

Classifying the killings as criminal activity (mass murder) instead of terrorism is an important distinction. Terrorism confers an unwarranted elevation of status on the perpetrators. The killers were criminals, nothing more. Describing them as terrorists implicitly encourages other miscreants to emulate their evil acts. (To learn more about developing an effective an ethical counterterrorism, read Just Counterterrorism available through Amazon).

The primary threat from human killers that the US and its citizens face today is from homegrown murderers. In 2015 alone, the US has had 355 incidents in which a killer murdered five or more persons. Several observations will help keep that problem in perspective.

First, the odds of dying in a vehicle accident are more than ten times the odds of being killed in by a mass murderer. Hopefully, you wear a seatbelt, don't drive while under the influence of alcohol or other substances, and generally observe traffic regulations and laws. But I'm willing to bet that you still routinely travel by automobile without worrying about your safety. Mass murders are a serious problem that we should try to stop, but we need to keep the problem in perspective and not devote excessive resources to the problem.

Second, Australia has not had a mass murder in almost twenty years. In response to their last murder, Australia's Conservative led government enacted mandatory waiting periods before purchasing firearms, mandatory screening to be completed before a person can purchase a firearm, and bans on most private ownership of automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, and pump shotguns. These efforts worked. Timely intervention by police and citizens now prevents a criminal intent on mass murder from succeeding. The US should enact and vigorously enforce similar legislation.

Third, public opinion leaders in the US should strive to deglamorize weapons and weapon ownership. The idea is a shibboleth that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution's guarantee of the right to bear arms prevents tyranny. If personally owned weapons were sufficient to overthrow tyranny, then groups opposed to tyrannical regimes in Syria and elsewhere would not invariably clamor for foreign air support and military assistance. Minutemen responding with muskets may have helped to win the American Revolution, but individual weapons – even the most advanced automatic weapons – are no match for a well-trained, well-equipped dedicated armed force that has heavy armor, air power, etc.

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack, the President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., called for Liberty students to carry concealed weapons to prevent a similar incident from happening on the Liberty campus. I find it embarrassing that he, like I, considers himself a Christian. Guns are not the answer. Students carrying weapons will only incite further incidents. Instead, Christian leaders should start a campaign to repeal the Second Amendment's guarantee of a right to bear arms.


In Poland and England, about one in a million people die each year from a homicide committed with a gun. That's about the same odds as dying from an agricultural accident in the US. In the US, the rate of deaths from a gun is about 31 in a million per year. It's time to end the slaughter.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Rethinking worship

When I was a Navy chaplain, I spent most of my time working with people who did not participate in organized religion. Intriguingly, individuals who considered themselves Christian but who did not attend church often asked me, "Why should I attend worship?" If they were interested, I gave them my answer to their question. Suspecting that those present for worship services attended for various reasons, I occasionally addressed the question in a sermon.

Now, reflecting on three decades of ministry, I realize that my answer to that perennial question changed several times, morphing from a simple we worship because God commands it, citing, e.g., the fourth commandment, to Anglican pastoral vagueness of encouraging individuals to do what is helpful, to offering a fresh perspective on worship.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun "worship" as "the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity." That definition coheres well with what I learned about worship in seminary, traditional explanations of why Christians should worship, and my answers to the question early in my ministry.

However, I now view that definition of worship as highly problematic. A God who desires – if not demands – human adoration appears grotesquely narcissistic. Such a god seems to be nothing more than a divinized celebrity whose insatiable ego needs prompt ever-more outrageous behaviors to command public attention.

Rethinking worship pushed me intellectually and spiritually to recollect my goals as a priest. In seminary, I read H. Richard Niebuhr's The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry. His cogent summary of that purpose as the increase of the love of God and neighbor has consistently guided my ministry.

How can (or should) worship increase our love of God and of neighbor?

The answer to the second part of that question, increasing our love for our neighbors, seems more self-evident than the answer to the question's first part. In communal worship, neighbors – from near or far – gather. Sharing the peace and receiving Holy Communion from broken bread and a common cup are visible signs that we are God's family. These acts invite us to deepen our relationships with one another. The readings, prayers, and often the sermon emphasize loving one's neighbor. Even the use of the first person plural in prayers and the Nicene Creed remind us that life is not an individual existence but a communal journey.

Answering the first part of that question, how worship increases love for God, required a significant shift in my thinking about worship. Traditional teachings about worship tend to objectify God, even if that is unintended. This can easily make God seem unreal, the impassive and often unknown object of worshipers' adoration, praise, etc.

The shift in my thinking was actually subtle and occurred over a number of years. Instead of telling people that they should worship because God commanded it, I realized that I had begun suggesting that people attend worship because it was often the only hour set aside each week in which to think intentionally about God.

Then I started to consider how thinking about God and one's relationship with God might be a catalyst for an increased love of God. My thoughts kept returning to two verbs: connect and align.

When I love someone, I want to connect with that person. God is omnipresent and wants to connect with me. The barriers to connecting with God are all on my side of the relationship. These barriers may include a lack of desire to connect with God, faults or personality traits believed to prevent one from having a relationship with God, or a lack of attention to God.

Evangelism efforts, including some preaching, often presume a lack of desire to connect with God. Evangelism has earned a deservedly bad reputation for using egoism to try to motivate people to desire a relationship with God. This generally entails proclaiming Christ as the alternative to spending eternity in Hell. That is, one should desire God as a means to satisfy the selfish desire to avoid hell. Manipulation of this type, even if well-intentioned, unhelpfully supplants the moving of the Spirit, for which loving one's neighbor is often the best catalyst.

Some people imagine that sin is a barrier to having a relationship with God. One may have the hubris to believe that s/he has committed the unpardonable sin or too little self-respect to believe that God can even love her/him. I once had a parishioner who had been an ardent and regular attendee at worship. Then he sinned in some way that he deemed so horrific he could not even summon the courage to name it. He was convinced that if he entered the nave, the roof would collapse and injure everyone present. The good news of the gospel is that God loves us just as we are. Neither sin, pride, narcissism, lack of ego strength, nor anything else diminishes God's love for us.

Mindfulness training, such as that taught in centering prayer and various forms of meditation, aims to improve attention to God. Widespread western interest in the meditation practices of eastern religions highlights our neglect of this essential element of the Christian tradition. Worship becomes undeniably relevant when it helps attendees to connect with God.

Yet real love entails more than a connection. Illustratively, real love between two people is not hooking up for one night but denotes an ongoing pattern of healthy mutuality. Inevitably, real love changes both of the parties in a relationship.

Christian theologians have historically emphasized God's immutability. Nevertheless, the Bible repeatedly describes God as having a new or altered thought/intention. One possible explanation, advocated by some process theologians, is that God's omniscience does not extend into the future. If so, human thoughts, words, and actions may sometimes change God's thoughts or intentions.

I know (NB: I am certain on this point, whereas less than certain about God) that having a relationship with God changes a person. The more I love God, the more deeply I want to enter into that relationship, the more I want to become like God. This attraction stems from who God is rather than any desire for personal gain or aggrandizement. When I connect with God, I want to align my life in a pattern of ongoing healthy mutuality with God that inevitably changes me.

Conceptualizing worship's purpose as (1) increasing the love of God by helping people to connect and then to align themselves with God and (2) increasing the love of neighbor has given me a theological framework for understanding the what and how of worship.

Liturgy is not merely a laundry list of activities assembled and sanctified by tradition or personal preference. Instead, good liturgy invites people to gather, to seek intentionally to connect and to align their lives with the one who is life itself, to enter more deeply into a community that seeks to incarnate that life on earth, and then to go into the world to love God and neighbor more fully.

Worship's two-fold purpose also contextually guides my liturgical choices within the penumbra of that branch of God's family in which I live and minister, the Episcopal Church: rites, forms, manual acts, music, homiletic moves, etc.


Most importantly, I have what I believe is a credible and comprehensible twenty-first century answer to the perennial question, "Why should I worship?" My answer no longer depends upon guilt to motivate attendance (God said to attend implies one should feel guilty when absent) nor idiosyncratic personal preference (make the sign of the cross or kneel as seems helpful). Worship is an opportunity to connect with the mystery that we name God, more fully align one's life with the one who is life itself, and to grow in love for one's neighbor.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent

Image result for free advent images

Advent is the season of the liturgical year in which Christians prepare remember Jesus' birth, celebrate their commitment to living as his disciples, and look forward to the time when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Advent began yesterday, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and ends with the coming of Christmas.

In some times and places, Advent observances have had a strong penitential flavor. That does not make sense to me. We should celebrate good news. Turning away from one's sin can help a person to align him/herself more fully with God. However, Jesus was, and will be, born regardless of whether I turn from sin toward God.

Thankfully, a growing number of Churches and congregations are setting aside the idea that Advent is a penitential season. Symbolizing this change, royal blue is supplanting penitential purple as the seasonal color. Blue recalls Jesus' Davidic lineage (a maternal lineage according to the New Testament!) and the promises of hope, peace, and life from God that Israel believed it had received.

In the hustle and often-stressful rush of Christmas preparations, this year I have set two personal goals. First, I hope to keep my preparations in perspective. That is, to see the preparations as symbolic acts: gifts and cards as tokens of love for family and friends; decorations as catalysts for the Spirit; special meals as opportunities to cultivate deeper relationships.

Second, and similarly, I want to carve out some time each week (perhaps the hour or so that I spend in a worship service on Sunday morning) to reflect on the pearl of great value contained within the earthen vessels that are Christian theology and the Church (cf. my recent Ethical Musings' post on Jesus, Christ, and Christianity).

If interested, my sermon for the First Sunday of Advent is here.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Wishing someone a "Happy Thanksgiving!" can have two very different meanings.

The greeting may simply convey hope that the greeting's recipient will enjoy a break in her/his ordinary routine. Implied in that wish may be thoughts of extra time with family or friends, a sumptuous meal, and watching sports or a parade on television.

A more thoughtful interpretation of "Happy Thanksgiving!" is that we should be grateful. Gratitude requires both something for which to be grateful as well as someone to whom to be grateful. Prior Ethical Musings' Thanksgiving posts (e.g., in 2013 and 2014) have emphasized the importance of not blithely regarding all good things as God's blessings upon us. That perspective falsely implies that God frowns upon, or has even cursed, persons who do not enjoy those blessings. Instead, true gratitude focuses on those gifts, such as love and inner strength, that we truly receive from another. The giver may be God or another human.


Happy Thanksgiving! And may you take time to number the gifts for which you are thankful and give thanks to the ones who gave you those gifts.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jesus, Christ, or Christianity?

An Ethical Musings' reader requested my thoughts on Mohandas Gandhi's statement,
"l like your Christ, but not your Christianity."

Admittedly, there is much about Christianity to dislike. Gandhi personally experienced much evil done in the name of Christianity. Injustices he suffered from people who used Christianity to justify their actions included racism, colonialism, and imperialism. In fairness, much good (e.g., campaigns to abolish slavery, to respect the dignity and worth of all persons equally, and to care for the sick) has also occurred because of Christianity, but critics prefer to emphasize the negative.

Christianity – even at its best – is an earthen vessel. Humans who find the Jesus path helpful, who experience in trying to walk in Jesus' footsteps the one who is life itself, have discovered a pearl of inestimable value. Many who tread the Jesus path want to preserve the treasure they have found as well as to share it with other people. This initiates well-intended attempts to encapsulate the infinite in finite human words, actions, and traditions. Invariably, the process dilutes and distorts the experience. The word "Christ," which means savior, represents an effort by followers of Jesus to encapsulate in human words who Jesus was and what he meant to them. Had Jesus not had any followers, nobody would even know that Jesus had been born, lived, and died.

Similarly, pilgrims who try to follow the Jesus path band together, united by shared goals and commitments. When these pilgrims journey together, even if they number only a handful, they quickly realize that they can move forward more easily and quickly if they cooperate, adopt some rules, and organize themselves. Thus is born the institutional church, which is both an essential blessing and an unavoidable bane for pilgrims.

The greatest challenge for anyone who wants to follow Jesus today is to decide who Jesus is and what he taught. The four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament (i.e., the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are all earthen vessels attributable to humans and codified by the church. Non-biblical sources of information about Jesus are generally more suspect historically. These sources include non-canonical biographies such as the Gospel of Thomas and references to Jesus in other writings. Nothing that Jesus may have written has survived. Nor do we have any sketches or paintings of Jesus made by an artist who actually knew Jesus.

In sum, the dichotomy Gandhi articulated may seem attractive but is actually false. Apart from Christianity, nobody would or could know Jesus. Gandhi himself developed his positive opinion of Jesus the Christ through information he gleaned from Christianity's earthen vessels, regardless of his overall assessment of Christianity.


What Gandhi recognized in the Christian tradition, what he called the Christ, was what he experienced in his own Hindu tradition. That is, the earthen vessels of theology and organized religion are earthly vessels containing the same pearl of inestimable value, the ineffable and infinite mystery that is life itself, that which many call God.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why I do not worry about terrorism

I do not worry about terrorism for four reasons.

First, as I explained in last Ethical Musings' post, "Responding to the Paris attacks," terrorists have never prevailed against a democratic government. Terrorism poses no real threat to the United States or other democratic nations as long as we hold fast to our cherished political values of freedom, respect for others, and self-determination. Terrorist attacks are likely to occur, a relative handful of people will become casualties (about 479 in the Paris attacks, counting killed and wounded, which is a tragic but negligible percent of France's 66 million residents).

Second, I personally can do almost nothing to avoid being injured or killed in a terrorist attack. However, I also am confident that democratic governments take every reasonable step to avoid future terrorist attacks. In fact, my concern is just the opposite. Governments take not only every reasonable step but also many steps that are unreasonable. Unreasonable steps include measures that (1) are not cost-effective (e.g., the cost of armed air marshals flying on US commercial airliners far exceeds any potential benefit), (2) fail (government tests repeatedly show the multi-billion dollar Transportation Security Administration's passenger screening is ineffectual), or (3) tacitly cede victory to terrorists (e.g., invasive government data collection and mining that destroys personal privacy and freedom). Political leaders and government officials are now so afraid of the public blaming them for any terror attack that occurs that governments seek to implement both every reasonable and unreasonable measure to avoid a future terrorist attack. Unfortunately, terrorists have too many targets from which to choose to make the goal of preventing all future attacks feasible.

Third, terrorists kill very few people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ten leading causes of death in the United States in 2013 were:
  1. Heart disease: 611,105
  2. Cancer: 584,881
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
  4. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
  6. Alzheimer's disease: 84,767
  7. Diabetes: 75,578
  8. Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979
  9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112
  10. Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149
War ranked as the #112 cause of death; terrorism did not even make the list. Although I cannot do much to prevent dying in some of these ways, I choose to focus my energy and efforts on taking measures to achieve realistic goals. I exercise regularly, eat and drink in moderation, use sunscreen, do not smoke, have an annual flu shot, try to maintain mental health, etc. These measures do more to improve my quality and of life and longevity than anything that I can do to prevent becoming a casualty in a terrorist attack. Furthermore, since I do not live in fear of heart disease, cancer, and other leading causes of death, realizing that I will inevitably die, I see absolutely no reason to live in fear of the statistically insignificant threat that terrorists pose.


Fourth, and in view of the foregoing, I recognize that the media finds reporting about terrorism exciting and rewarding. A never-ending, 24/7 news cycle, generates an insatiable demand for new stories. The stories that captivate the most public attention are immediate, dramatic, and filled with pathos. Reporting about terror attacks fits those specifications. I, for one, believe that effective, just counterterrorism depends upon not allowing the mass media to dictate my political priorities, personal values, or emotional responses to terrorism, terror attacks, or terrorists.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Responding to the Paris attacks

Last week, Islamist extremists killed 129 people and wounded more than 350 others. How should a Christian respond?

First, Christians will respond with compassion and care toward all the attacks have harmed. Those harmed include not only individuals numbered among the casualties, but also their grief stricken families, family members of the attackers left grieving and bewildered by the seemingly incomprehensible actions of their loved ones, and all of the thousands whose quality of life the attack left diminished because of heightened fears and security measures. At a minimum, these people all deserve our prayers. Persons in a place to offer assistance that is more direct should accept that responsibility.

Second, Christians will attempt to model, and encourage others to emulate, a response shaped by the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and temperance. Courage is important because the terrorists win only through instilling fear in others. A courageous community attacked by terrorists can defeat terrorism by prudentially taking proven, cost-effective defensive measures, insisting on justice for both the attacked and terrorists, and temperately refusing to overreact through either costly, ineffectual security measures or excessively violent attacks on alleged terrorists. I develop this analysis more fully in my book, Just Counterterrorism.

Third, Christians will seek to live hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. Peace is our dream. However, as with most births, the process by which peace becomes reality is fraught with dangers and generally entails considerable pain. The vast majority of terrorists are sane individuals who see so little hope for ending injustice that they adopt terror tactics or strategies out of desperation. The weak, never the strong, adopt terrorism. No movement has ever succeeded in achieving its goals through a terror campaign waged against a democratic government. In fact, once a terror group gains sufficient strength to adopt guerilla or conventional warfighting tactics and strategy, the group invariably ends its reliance upon terrorism. Terror groups gain strength through building public support for the group's goals. No group can successfully cultivate that support unless at least some of the group's goals involve ending egregious and widespread injustice. Military and law enforcement efforts to end a terror group rarely succeed without concurrent governmental reforms to end the legitimate injustice(s) that enable a terror group to gain traction with its potential supporters. (Just Counterterrorism presents extensive evidence in support of these conclusions.)


In particular, extirpating or severely degrading one Middle Eastern Islamist terror group (e.g., al Qaeda) will only lead to the emergence of a successor group(s) (e.g., ISIS) until significant progress is achieved toward improving justice for all in the Middle East. This improvement must include establishing a viable Palestinian state, promoting genuine self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East that allows them to draw new borders, and ending support for economically beneficial despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

No longer homeless

In September, I wrote an Ethical Musings' posts about homelessness, reflecting on my experience of not having a residence for five months. While my experience was dramatically different from the experiences of homeless people who live rough on the streets experience, those months did give me a better understanding of the problems of being homeless.

Similarly, once again having a home has awakened a fresh appreciation of the benefits of having a home. A fixed place of abode enables fuller participation in the community and modern life (e.g., voting, mail delivery, and assured internet access). Having a home also provides greater security for the occupants and their possessions. Homes offer a place to sleep, access to potable water and sanitary facilities, and a kitchen in which to both store and prepare food. Perhaps most importantly, a home gives its occupants a place to enjoy the spiritual benefits of safely resting, relaxing, and renewing themselves.

In the US, women now comprise 47% of the labor force. Yet women, on average, still spend more time on household chores than do men (about 2.5 times as many hours!) and consequently have less time for leisure activities than do men (about a half hour less per day). Over the last two decades, these statistics have remained relatively constant.

Ending my months of homelessness has prompted several thoughts:

  1. Feminism rightly decried the lack of value most societies placed on homemaking and the underlying lack of respect and equality for women by men, women, and cultures.
  2. The struggle for female equality is not yet won, either in the US and Europe or in other cultures.
  3. Devaluing homemaking is not the path to female equality. Individuals and families benefit from having a good home. Perhaps one of the contributions that gay married couples will ultimately make to the larger community is to show that homemaking is not a gender-based skill. Similarly, perhaps one of the gifts that lesbian married couples will ultimately make to the larger community is showing that labor force participation is not a gender-based skill. Creating a good home requires considerable skill and effort.
  4. Most arguments by alleged Christians about family values are at best distractions and at worst actually erode support for one if not both of the two most basic, important family values. Those values are (1) a strong bond between two loving adults who (2) build a good home by sharing responsibilities in way that they have negotiated, embodies healthy interdependence, and is mutually satisfying.
  5. Researchers are repeatedly finding that the members of strong families enjoy greater prosperity and health. Conversely, persons whose family of origin or choice is broken or severely dysfunctional are more likely to be poor, suffer ill health, and commit crimes. Unfortunately, research also broadly confirms the biblical warning that parental sins and troubles have adverse consequences for children and the children's children.
  6. In sum, people of faith and society as a whole will benefit from greater public emphasis on the value of good homes and homemaking. Concomitantly, ending homelessness is often the essential first step toward enabling someone to move toward resuming a life of economic independence, positive social engagement, and an existence consonant with God's intent for each of us.