Thursday, December 29, 2016

Further thoughts on Trump's election - Part 3

This post is the third in a series of musings about Trump's election in which I identify five concerns and then suggest a response to each (follow these links to read the first and second posts).
  1. Concerns that Trump's win points toward a fracturing of the Union, e.g., as liberal, more youthful populations, who live along the coasts find themselves increasingly alienated from older, less affluent, less educated, more conservative populations who live in the nation's broad middle
(For more on the demographic disparities between Trump supporters and foes, read this article from the Washington Post.)
Generational divides are not new. What troubles me about this divide is its geographic component, i.e., the US is increasingly segregated as people choose to live in homogenous neighborhoods defined primarily by shared values. In many respects, this is the most intractable of my list of concerns about a Trump presidency and best addressed through acting on the recommendations in response to the other four concerns.
  1. Trepidation that Trump's election moves the US toward an authoritarian dictatorship, a fear heightened by Trump's repeated and flagrant disregard for facts, the ongoing involvement of his children in both his business and the government, and his evident reluctance to step completely aside from his business interests in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The US is a nation in which the rule of law, not the rule of individuals, prevails. A written Constitution, independent judiciary, and adversarial legal system combine to support the rule of law. Vigilant observation of Trump administration personnel, their actions, and their decisions followed by courageous and unswerving efforts to prosecute legal transgressions are the best defense against replacing the rule of law with the rule of persons. Some Trump opponents have already committed publicly to following this path.
People best exercise this option prudentially. Numerous and unrestrained legal maneuvers can reduce the public credibility of these efforts (as happened with the dozens of cases filed against the Obama administration by GOP foes) and unintentionally undercut other efforts to reform or move the political process in constructive directions.

Impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate, followed by removal from office is the ultimate legal sanction. Trump appears headed in that direction for at least two reasons. First, his involvement of his children in government affairs may violate nepotism laws enacted after JFK nominated his brother as Attorney General. Second, some of Trump's global businesses partner with foreign governments, creating a prima facie violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause that forbids any US government official from accepting benefits from a foreign government.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The meaning of Christmas

As a progressive, post-theist Christian, I find that two ideas capture the meaning of Christmas.
First, Christmas acknowledges that every person, every aspect of the cosmos, is embraced by the light. That light is also called God, Buddha, or ultimate reality. By any name, the light that embraces us nudges or lures one in the direction of more abundant, loving life. The story of Jesus' birth dramatizes that embrace and invites its hearers to live more deeply into the mystery of being embraced by the light.
Second, Christmas by inviting us to live more deeply into the mystery of being embraced by the light invites one to recognize and nurture the capacity for being loved and loving that is an integral element of every human. Jesus, embraced by the light, experienced such a powerful awakening of his capacity to love and be loved that people described him as both fully human and divine.

So, during these twelve days of Christmas, welcome the light's embrace and then respond by deepening and broadening your capacity to love and be loved, i.e., to live and to walk ever more fully in the light.
MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Few people today know that the Nazis tried to remove Christ from Christmas:
For the perfect Nazi Christmas, you had to hang glittering swastikas and toy grenades from the pine tree in the living room and, in your freshly pressed uniform, belt out carols urging German women to make babies for the Führer rather than worship the Jewish Baby Jesus. Then came the moment to light the pagan candleholders — hand-made by laborers at Dachau. (Roger Boyes, "How the Nazis tried to take Christ out of Christmas," The Times, accessed November 17, 2009.)

More surprisingly, significant manifestations of the Nazi efforts to remove Christ from Christmas remained embedded in German culture throughout much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Germans continued to sing carols and hymns, revised by the Nazis to excise references to Jesus and the Christian story, often unaware of how the Nazis had altered the lyrics. For example, Unto Us a Time Has Come became a hymn of praise about snowy fields instead of lauding God's gift of the Christ-child.

Unlike what happened in Germany with Hitler's propagandists centrally directing the effort to transform Christmas from a celebration of Jesus' birth into adulation of the Fuhrer and the Third Reich, today's growing disconnection between Christ and Christmas is more insidious and operates without any central authority.

Unfortunately, two strawmen are often lightning rods for Christian efforts to keep Christ at the heart of Christmas. These strawmen are irrelevant distractions. First, the growing disconnect between Christ and Christmas has nothing to do with removing Christian symbols, including Christmas decorations and Nativity scenes, from public property. Using state resources to promote a particular religion in a secular, multi-cultural democracy inappropriately demeans non-Christians and their freedom to practice their own (or no) religion. In short, Christian displays on public property reflect a lack of love for our non-Christian neighbor. Christian displays belong on Christian owned or leased property.

Second, complaints about substituting the now seemingly ubiquitous Xmas for Christmas reflect an inappropriate desire to control the speech of others and a lack of understanding of Christian history. The Greek letter chi, written in Greek as X) was one of the first Christian symbols. Rightly interpreted, Xmas denotes Christ's mass, a Eucharistic thanksgiving or season of commemoration for God's gift of the Christ child, which is what the word Christmas itself means.

The real threat to keeping Christ in Christmas in twenty-first century developed countries is the commercialization of the holiday, transforming a spiritual event into a season generally filled with widely extravagant expectations of partying, decorations, and unaffordable gift giving. This is a battle that Christians fought once before and won. As John Buchanan, the editor of the Christian Century, has observed,
One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard - one of the very few I actually remember - was a Christmas Day sermon preached by Charles Leber. At the time, he and Ulysses Blake were co-pastors of First Presbyterian Church on Chicago's South Side. Leber's sermon was title 'Another Roman Holiday.' He explained that the early church chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus' birth even though everyone knew the birth had happened sometime in the spring. December 25 was the beginning of the Romans' year-end holiday, which Leber said was quite a bash: seven straight days of eating, drinking, and reveling. The Christians did not participate in these revels. They decided to draw attention to themselves by rejecting the celebration. And so, to provide an alternative and to help them resist the sensual temptations of the Roman holiday, they came up with Christmas. ("Song in the City," Christian Century, 13 Dec 2005, 3)

Christians still comprise a sizable and influential percentage of the US population and a sufficiently substantial minority of ten percent or more to be able to exert considerable influence in most other developed nations. We need not lose the current battle to keep Christ in Christmas.

To keep Christ in Christmas, live into the story of Christmas, which is a synopsis of the gospel, by intentionally cultivating practices such as these:
  • Becoming spiritual leaven instead of becoming co-opted by the holiday's secular, commercial ethos
  • Giving alternative gifts congruent with Jesus' love, e.g., a gift of a goat to a hungry family in the name of the person to whom one wishes to give a gift
  • Focusing, as did Jesus, on relationships and people instead of things and fleeting pleasures
  • Developing counter-cultural Christmas observances that tell the story of the birth of the Christ child and that invite people to explore that story's meaning in ways appropriate to a biblically illiterate society.

Whether we in the twenty-first century succeed in keeping Christ in Christmas may well hinge upon our answer to this poignant and memorable question that Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have posed:

Christmas is not about tinsel and mistletoe or even ornaments and presents, but about what means will we use toward the end of a peace from heaven upon our earth. Or is “peace on earth” but a Christmas ornament taken each year from attic or basement and returned there as soon as possible? (The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), p. 167)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Further thoughts on Trump's election - Part 2

This post is the second in a series of musings about Trump's election in which I identify five concerns and then suggest a response to each (follow this link to read the first post).
2. Fears that the Trump appointees and policies will trample the rights of women to choose their own healthcare options, discriminate against the LGBT community, implement initiatives that worsen climate change and tear down important environmental safeguards, misunderstand the threats the US faces, favor the rich at the expense of the poor, etc.
Donald Trump is a narcissist with an oversize personality who likes to dominate whatever stage he occupies. As President of the US, he may experience a rude awakening.
The US political system is not a dictatorship and although the powers of the presidency expanded during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, those powers still face significant limitations. Congress consists of 535 politicians, each of whom has his/her own political base and agenda. The President may exert considerable pressure on a Representative or Senator but cannot control that person's vote. A President has even less control over the Supreme Court. As history repeatedly has shown, no assurance exists that a nominee, once confirmed, will continue to hold the same views or to vote as anticipated. A President has virtually no control over the Constitution, the written basis of our government and a document with which a President must comply or face the possibility of impeachment and conviction. The interlocking web of politicians, civil servants, lobbyists, interests groups that enshrouds our federal government can be intractable to presidential desires or manipulation.
In sum, Trump's administration may implement egregious policies and programs that harm many people. However, a politically active coalition of groups opposed to Trump's agenda can largely derail that agenda by fighting a thousand battles. Low levels of political engagement allowed Trump to prevail in the general election. Outrage over his election, unless it energizes intentional political engagement will similarly change little or nothing. The size, complexity, and design of our political system all favor organized dissent over central control.
  1. Anxiety that Trump's win will directly or even indirectly align itself with a freshly energized white supremacist movement, further exacerbating racial tensions
The US is on an irreversible trajectory towards becoming a truly multicultural society in which no single racial or ethnic group comprises a majority. Some of us eagerly embrace that shift, recognizing that diversity enriches rather than impoverishes life. Residents of Hawaii, San Francisco, and some other parts of the US already enjoy living in truly multicultural settings.
Unsurprisingly, the change from a white dominated culture to multicultural diversity may cause more fear than optimism among some people.
Evil flourishes when good people sit idle. Hard core white supremacists are unlikely to change their attitudes. However, the white supremacist movement attracts people on its periphery for multiple reasons, many not directly related to white supremacy. Advocates of diversity can beneficially reach out to these individuals. Diversity does not have to entail disadvantaging one racial or ethnic group at the expense of another group. Diversity can be a win-win proposition for all involved. Furthermore, achieving diversity is not merely a matter of legislation and judicial action but requires attitudinal change. While the US has made significant progress in mandating diversity, attitudinal change has persistently lagged and is now manifesting itself, at least partially, in the surging white supremacist movement.

Constructive steps forward include working to change attitudes, replace exclusionary identity politics with more comprehensive political agendas, affirmatively embrace the least and most vulnerable amongst us, and truly honor the dignity and worth of all.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Further thoughts on Trump's election - Part 1

Recently, my blog has focused primarily on my cancer. However, I've written one post about Trump's victory (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/2016/11/thoughts-on-trumps-electoral-victory.html).
Consternation over Trump's win seems unabated if not growing. That consternation has several, not mutually exclusive, causes including:
  1. Objections that the Electoral College ignores the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won by almost 3 million votes
  2. Fears that the Trump appointees and policies will trample the rights of women to choose their own healthcare options, discriminate against the LGBT community, implement initiatives that worsen climate change and tear down important environmental safeguards, misunderstand the threats the US faces, favor the rich at the expense of the poor, etc.
  3. Anxiety that Trump's win will directly or even indirectly align itself with a freshly energized white supremacist movement, further exacerbating racial tensions
  4. Concerns that Trump's win points toward a fracturing of the Union, e.g., as liberal, more youthful populations, who live along the coasts find themselves increasingly alienated from older, less affluent, less educated, more conservative populations who live in the nation's broad middle
  5. Trepidation that Trump's election moves the US toward an authoritarian dictatorship, a fear heightened by Trump's repeated and flagrant disregard for facts, the ongoing involvement of his children in both his business and the government, and his evident reluctance to step completely aside from his business interests in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Each of those five factors merits reflection, which I do in the remained of this post and my next two Ethical Musings' posts.
  1. Objections that the Electoral College ignores the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won by almost 3 million votes
First, one function of the Electoral College is to prevent a tyranny of the majority. The substantial disparity between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote points to a growing divide in the US. A nation so divided will not long stand. Changing the Constitution is a lengthy, torturous process that seems unlikely to succeed or, by succeeding, to open the door to further, perhaps less desirable, changes. Instead, we need to bridge the divide. In 1868, 48% of the US population consisted of farmers; today, less than 2% of the population engages in farming.
Politics, according to an ancient adage, is the art of compromise. Our political leaders decreasingly practice that art. Centrists, from both the Republican and the Democrat party, are opting not to run for re-election, leaving Congress comprised of politicians opposed to compromising their hard- right or hard-left principles. The refusal of the Republican dominated Senate to consider President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court in spite of Obama having more than nine months left in his term, exemplifies this move away from compromise.
The answer to this problem lies in not in reforming the Electoral College but in recovering the art of compromise – in terms of a pragmatic ethic – the ability to get along with one's neighbor while respecting both the neighbor's dignity and one's own. In resolving conflict, humility requires acknowledging the possibility that your neighbor, and not you, is correct, or perhaps the preferred option is a third, as of yet undetermined option.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Rethinking one's use of time

I belong to a generation that sends Christmas cards. While in the Navy, my wife and I seldom wrote more than a few brief lines in the card, if even that much. Instead, we included a form letter describing to family and friends what we had done in the preceding twelve months. Several years into retirement, we stopped writing an annual missive. We wrote a personal note in each card, although we continued to use our printer to address the envelopes.
This year, our printer could not accommodate the size of the envelopes that came with our Christmas cards. Moreover, I wanted to practice my penmanship. Never very good, my neuropathy (a side effect of the chemo) has significantly degraded my penmanship. Unable to pursue the activities with which I had planned to fill my life in Hawaii (see the prior Ethical Musings' post for details), I had time over several days to address the envelopes.
What initially felt very tedious became an opportunity for fondly remembering shared experiences and people who, at least at one time if not still, had been important to me. I began wondering to what extent the slow food movement should expand into a slow life movement, encouraging the savoring of every task and moment.
When the envelopes were complete, I began to write the cards. My wife helped some, but my cancer and other physical problems have resulted in her taking on a disproportionate share of life's chores. So I resolved to write a majority of our Christmas cards (my wife prefers to write a few of them, especially to her family of origin and friends).
I worked on the cards slowly – my penmanship became worse when I tried to write too fast. In addition to a second opportunity to reflect on relationships that had been or still are important to me, writing the cards entailed repeatedly retelling the story of my cancer and how it had changed our lives. Story is powerful, a truth important in Hawaiian culture and a life lesson that I learned long ago. But writing the cards made that truth personal and transformative. In the retelling, my acceptance lack of control over my cancer and my life grew. Writing the cards became a therapeutic exercise.
In working slowly on the cards, I also wondered how often I had shortchanged myself with respect to life's important aspects, some of which are accessible only through unhurried reflection and living. Perhaps quality of life is more precious than quantity of life. That assessment certainly applies to the hospice and assisted suicide movements (these are two separate although sometimes overlapping movements intended to allow people to die with dignity). Admittedly, this assessment of the importance of quality over quantity of life flies in the face of how a huge number of Americans live and how I have lived much of life.

For Christians, Advent is the season of preparation for commemorating Jesus' birth. Sadly, Advent too often becomes a source of stress as individuals struggle to find time to send Christmas greetings, buy gifts, decorate, and party. This year, I have discovered the joy and gift of slow living: remembering relationships, growing in my acceptance of things over which I have no control, and discovering anew the importance of savoring the quality rather than the quantity of one's life. I hope that Advent will bring you similar gifts. My life in 2017 will not be what I had long hoped, but it will be good and full of God's gracious gifts.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rearranging one's activities following a diagnosis of cancer

Recently, I read some notes that I had made when taking a transition assistance course for senior officers prior to retiring from the Navy. In those notes, I found a list of my hobbies: travel, an active lifestyle that included exercising several times per week and frequent walks with my wife, learning about and enjoying good food and wine, and reading.
This autumn, cancer has disrupted all four. My damaged vertebra, caused by my cancer leaching calcium from my spine, no longer permits travel or an active lifestyle. I have gone from comfortably walking ten miles to feeling tired after walking a half-mile. (At times, my oncologist (pro-walking) and my neurosurgeon (anti-walking to avoid damaging my spinal cord) have debated whether I should walk a half-mile.) I'm currently taking eleven different medications, each with its own schedule. Three are for chemotherapy; eight are for coping with side effects that the chemotherapy causes. Even reading is often difficult because the drugs have shortened my attention span, altered my moods, and, along with my injured spine, generally made sitting comfortably for an extended period time impossible.
Now that my cancer is approaching remission, some of my interest in food (but not in drink, interestingly) has returned. I continue to find dining in restaurants less attractive, perhaps because it tends to be less physically comfortable than eating at home. I still do not feel like traveling or leading the active a lifestyle that I led a year ago. I am reading more, though in much shorter sessions than prior to having cancer.
These four sets of activities were important factors in my wife deciding to live in Honolulu and to opt for a condominium in the heart of Honolulu. We had planned to travel less, taking a major trip biennially instead of annually. However, we had also intended occasional visits to the other Hawaiian islands, something that presently exceeds my physical abilities. In time, I hope that I shall at least have the strength and physical capacity to travel the relatively short distances to the other islands. Honolulu's climate is conducive to an active lifestyle. Similarly, I hope that when I have completed chemotherapy, dining in restaurants, savoring different cuisines, and exploring different drinks relaxing and pleasurable.
We chose our condominium because of its proximity to the airport; the building has amenities suitable for an active lifestyle (pool, tennis courts, etc.); lastly, the building is located within two blocks of a major beach park and a block from two major shopping areas, hundreds of restaurants, and otherwise supports a pedestrian lifestyle. Now I wonder whether a condominium in a less congested, less developed area of Oahu that offered a less pedestrian friendly lifestyle and fewer amenities might have been the better choice.
However, humans do well to make decisions based upon the best available information, recognizing that circumstances may change and that no amount of research will ever lead to making perfect decisions. Living in this condo does provide an incentive for doing everything I can to regain as much health as possible. I also know that is likely that I will predecease my wife and that we live in a location and with the possibility of enjoying the lifestyle that she prefers.

I also wonder how many of my hobbies I will be able to enjoy in the future and to what degree I will be able to pursue those hobbies. My cancer has been a catalyst for reexamining what I want to achieve in the remainder of my life: how I can best use and enjoy those years. My next Ethical Musings post explore those topics.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

My 2016 Thanksgiving

This year Thanksgiving is special because my cancer has deepened my appreciation for life in several ways. One can give thanks to God (as I do) or to the family and friends with whom one shares mutual love and affection (as I recommended for non-believers in my previous Ethical Musings' post, Rethinking Thanksgiving). In either case, I hope that my thoughts on giving thanks will help you to give thanks for the good that you enjoy and that enriches your life.
First, the treatment of my multiple myeloma is progressing very well and I am nearing remission. I am grateful for all of the persons who made this possible: research scientists and their staffs; the healthcare personnel who administer the treatment to me in a highly professional manner complemented with personal caring; and the healthcare the nation provides to its military retirees.
Second, I am similarly grateful for the potential gains to my mobility, comfort, and decreased risk of some of vertebrae collapsing with subsequent irreversible damage to my spinal cord and the adverse effects that entails. The list of personnel involved in this is long, including radiologists, neurosurgeons, wound care specialists, interventionist radiologists, research scientists, and others.
Third, I am thankful to be part of an extended network of family and friends, especially friends and colleagues within the Anglican Communion worldwide and the Episcopal Church in the US. Prayers, best wishes, visits, and other forms of support have helped to buoy my spirit and to support the healing process. The best available scientific research suggests but does not prove that prayer is efficacious. I am especially thankful for my wife of 43 years. She entered into our marriage with no knowledge of what the future might hold. Nevertheless, she has willing supported me with unstinting encouragement, bravely facing she negative development, and willing providing care and assistance as I have needed.
Fourth, I daily appreciate living on a beautiful, semi-tropical island in a very comfortable condo and having the resources to pay for both daily expenses and any costs we incur because of my disease or treatments. In other words, I daily recognize the importance of protecting the environment and the benefits of living in harmony with nature.
For these things, I give thanks to God and to the people involved.

I pray that all of you and your loved ones will have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rethinking Thanksgiving

The historical roots – at least the mythical if not the factual version – of the Thanksgiving holiday in the US are widely known. Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in England immigrated to the rocky shores of what would become Massachusetts. These pilgrims would not have survived without the assistance, especially gifts of food and agricultural instruction, which they received from the natives. Thanksgiving for these pilgrims, as for many in subsequent observances of the holiday, believed their perceived blessings to be God's gifts.

Today, describing our perceived blessings as God's gifts increasingly rings hollow among believers in God, agnostics, and atheists. Scripture reminds us that the rain falls indiscriminately on both the just and the unjust. That is, good and bad things happen to everyone and are not special blessings intended for a select few. We more accurately attribute the pilgrims' perceived blessing of a bountiful harvest to help from their neighbors than to God's direct intervention.

More broadly, belief that God is responsible for everything that happens is diminishing among believers and rejected in principle by atheists. For example, positing God's direct control of everything that occurs problematically makes God responsible for evil as well as good. In short, Thanksgiving's underlying premise that the good things we enjoy in life come from God whom we rightly thank for blessing us is increasingly suspect if not dismissed as erroneous.

Concurrently, the continuing urbanization of the US population distances people from having a personal appreciation for Thanksgiving as a harvest festival.

Yet, in spite of the erosion of the historical reasons for celebrating Thanksgiving, the feast remains popular. Attendance at religious and communal Thanksgiving services has precipitously declined as have the number of people who self-identify as religious. Nevertheless, families and friends persist in gathering annually at Thanksgiving, often travelling great distances at considerable cost to attend.

Thus, Thanksgiving is a feast that invites rethinking. Proposed below are an alternative reason to give thanks to one another if not to God and an ethical imperative that observing the feast of Thanksgiving can strengthen.

First, give thanks to those we love and those who love us. These relationships give life meaning. Believers appropriately include God among those we love and those who love us. Believers and non-believers appropriately express their gratitude to family and friends whom they love and by whom they are loved. Important expressions of gratitude include spending time together, sharing a special, festive meal together, and verbalizing why a mutual relationship is life enhancing. Observing Thanksgiving celebrations over the last several decades suggests that numerous people have already shifted from a theocentric feast to a feast that celebrates the important persons in their lives.

Second, reinterpret Thanksgiving's traditional harvest imagery in terms of contemporary ecological concerns. Thanksgiving is an excellent opportunity to renew our commitment to caring for the earth and most life forms that dwell on the earth. Giving thanks for most life forms is more honest than giving thanks for all life forms, e.g., I personally find it impossible to give thanks for mutant cells that cause cancer, bacteria and viruses that cause severe suffering or death, etc.

The Church as well as the US presently lack an annual, widely observed festival focused on ecological concerns. Although Earth Day has gained some traction, it falls far short of Thanksgiving's enduring popularity. Reinterpreting Thanksgiving in ecological terms is an excellent opportunity to heighten awareness and to strengthen our commitment to safeguarding the earth and most of its life forms. Ideally, families and friends who gather to share a Thanksgiving meal might develop a new tradition of engaging in an ecological action in addition to current traditions of watching televised parades and football games, playing pickup football games, and shopping.

These two reasons for rethinking Thanksgiving broadly overlap. Illustratively, a prime reason for protecting the environment is to preserve opportunities for future generations to live rich, fulfilling lives.


Rethinking Thanksgiving will require the Church to rework its Thanksgiving liturgies and observances to emphasize giving thanks to those we love, receiving thanks from those who love us, and living as stewards responsible for caring for creation. Rethinking Thanksgiving will better align the feast with what is already occurring while preserving links to the holiday's historical origins.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thoughts on Trump's electoral victory

Donald Trump achieved an amazing, unpredicted upset to win election as the next President of the United States. What does his victory portend for life in the US, for the future of the US, and for the world?
First, the conciliatory, unifying themes that Trump, Clinton, and Obama adopted in their post-election remarks are encouraging. Democracy entails living with outcomes not of our own choosing and while far from perfect is the best form of government known to humans. I personally wish that the energy devoted to protesting Trump's victory had been expended in working for a Clinton win. But to refuse to accept Trump as President of all US citizens and of the whole nation invites more problems than it resolves. Insisting on the dignity and right of all persons to equal respect and treatment represents a more constructive agenda and one that is likely to resonate with Trump's family if not the President-elect.
Second, Trump has provided few specifics about policies and programs that he intends his administration to adopt. He has also repeatedly moved from extreme positions toward more moderate positions, that is, he is a pragmatist more than an ideologue. Some of this pragmatism will, I suspect, be evident in differences between positions held by hard-right GOP House members, the more divided Senate in which Democrats by filibustering can wield significant power, and Trump's administration.
Trump's vagueness about his goals, his pragmatism, and his ability to shift positions may have some positive aspects. Illustratively, a Trump presidency may be the catalyst for returning to a stronger federalist system. For example, instead of attempting to centralize education standards states may have more latitude in adopting their own standards. One historic advantage of federalism that has long appealed to me is that when uncertainty obscures clarity about the best policies, practices, or programs allowing states to experiment provides fifty "labs" for testing various approaches. Contrary to single-issue politics and advocates, identifying best policies, practices, and programs is often a lengthy, difficult endeavor.
Third, Trump's lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience, a weakness that attracted repeated attention during the extended campaign, greatly concerns me. Like Trump, I favor rarely using US military power abroad. US intentions for its interventions are generally laudable. Unfortunately, often nobody, including US decision makers, has sufficient knowledge to predict the consequences of such interventions accurately. Sometimes an intervention ends in disaster (Vietnam), achieves short-term goals yet fails to achieve long-term stability (Afghanistan), or results in a less stable, less secure, less advantageous for the US outcome (Iraq).
Trump is not the first US president in recent history to lack significant foreign policy knowledge and experience. Hopefully, Trump will surround himself with competent advisors and quickly come up to speed on dealing with foreign policy.
Reviewing this post in a couple of years, I would not be surprised to discover that my optimism was unwarranted. Divisions within the US are deep, e.g., the chasm between the wealthiest 1% of the poorest 50%. Rapid change (though much of it is for the good in my estimation) has challenged people to adapt to a society with which they feel out of step. Globalization, economic shifts toward services and content instead of things, and greater justice for all are irreversible trends. Nevertheless, the rapid pace of change too often has been an excuse for treating persons who have not adapted to the changes, for whatever reason, as social misfits and inferiors, moves clearly incompatible with according all persons equal dignity and respect. And continued US hegemony as the world's only superpower is far from assured regardless of who is president or policies the US implements.
However, at this moment when the US is poised on the cusp of a new presidential administration, optimism is likely to produce results that are more positive by seeking to make the best of a potentially very problematic electoral outcome than is pessimism. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Death and dying

On Tuesday, November 8, Colorado voters approved a measure legalizing assisted suicide, following the lead of Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and a couple of other states in taking this step.
A century ago, dying was generally an event or a very quick process. Today, dying is more often a lengthy process than an event. Life support measures such as respirators, intravenous feeding, and hydration can frequently sustain the mechanics of life for long periods, preserving the appearance of life in what is known as a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Medical treatment can concurrently prevent the person dying from a growing array of previously life-threatening diseases and injuries. (For a fuller, clearer exposition of this change, read Haider Javed Warraich's "On Assisted Suicide, Going Beyond ‘Do No Harm’", New York Times, November 4, 2016 at http://nyti.ms/2eaeL36.)
In one case that received much media attention, a Florida woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, was kept in a PVS at the insistence of her family of origin and contrary to the wishes of her husband, her legal next of kin. When the courts finally ended the standoff, siding with Quinlan's husband, an autopsy revealed that her brain had suffered considerable deterioration even though the rest of her body gave the appearance of being alive.
Having been diagnosed with a specific fatal disease (life itself is eventually fatal, always ending in death), the shift from dying as an even to dying as a process, debates about assisted suicide, and the use of heroic measures to sustain life, or at least the appearance of life, prompt several thoughts and feelings.
First, I don't think that I fear death. I don't fear falling asleep at night; death, at its worst, may be the permanent loss of consciousness, not unlike falling asleep permanently. And optimally, death is just another waypoint on a journey to an even richer, more abundant form of life. Still, I'm in no rush to die, continuing to enjoy much of life, and eagerly looking forward to my cancer going into remission sometime in the next few months.
Second, I have no desire to remain in a PVS or to suffer uncontrollable pain from an agonizingly slow death. Although pain may be a precursor to something good (e.g., medical treatment and natural healing processes may cause pain, but that pain is incidental to the healing process), pain per se is never a good.
Third, existing (perhaps better described as subsisting) in endless pain with no hope of healing and no hope of leading a fuller life is not a good. Only the individual who lives in severe, unending pain – in consultation with loved ones and healthcare providers – is in a position to decide whether any continuing enjoyment of life outweighs the pain. Depression, a frequent side effect of long-term serious disease or suffering, can wrongly skew that judgment. This justifies the stipulation that decisions about treatment be made in consultation with loved ones and healthcare providers.

Fourth, a dying person may not be able to make healthcare decisions in a timely manner, e.g., being in a coma. Consequently, everyone should think about this set of problems, consult with loved ones, and then prepare an advanced healthcare directive and other requisite documents to ensure that their desires are honored if and when necessary.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Sickness unto Death?

The word crisis appears only once in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1 Corinthians 7:26). That is one more time than I had guessed. Paul justifies advising the unmarried and widowed to remain celibate and unmarried in view of the impending crisis that will occur when Christ makes his anticipated eschatological appearance.

Etymologically, the English word crisis comes from the Greek noun krisis, which means decision, and from the Greek verb krinein, to decide. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis as a "time of intense difficulty or danger" or "the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death."

Organized religion in general and the Christian Church in particular face an existential crisis that threatens their continued existence. Symptoms of the present crisis include continuing numerical decline, growing numbers of people who find any religious faith or spirituality incompatible with a scientific worldview, and an increasingly widespread, unthinking individual dismissal of religion as mere superstition.

The Church's current existential crisis is clearly not identical with what Paul perceived to be the impending crisis. However, there are at least three important commonalities. First, new wine still requires new wineskins. Verbalizing religious experience and meaning requires constant repackaging, preserving a healthy tension with secularism, yet affirming God's continuing love and action in the midst of a broken, hurting world. Second, new wine distributed in new wineskins must offer a credible hope for creation's renewal and completion. Third, offering new wine today as in Paul's day calls for personal decisions to accept or reject it.

This existential crisis plays out on three levels, each progressively smaller and more personal than the previous but each an essential element of the whole. Most broadly, the crisis is evident in the global competition of institutions and ideas. On this level, the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis' leadership strives to keep the old wineskins, trying to soften their rigidity and enhance their appeal by using gentler, less judgmental language. At the other extreme, progressive Christians, sometimes accused of being atheists, struggle to identify new wineskins to hold new wine palatable to this new age while preserving the vital, transformative essence of religion and spirituality.

Unsurprisingly, the Church (including The Episcopal Church (TEC)) has experienced the most difficulty in playing on this broadest of levels. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, with his emphases on taking the gospel to people rather than waiting for people to come to church and on making Jesus intelligible in the twenty-first century represents an effort to play on this level. However, the work of repackaging God's gift of new wine in new wineskins has proven problematic. The writings of progressive Christians such as Bishop Spong and David Ray Griffin (especially in his book, Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism) have often evoked more angry misunderstanding than appreciation.

The middle level consists of the Church through its institutional structures (dioceses, congregations, and other structures) addressing contemporary crises. TEC has made tremendous institutional progress in becoming more inclusive. For example, gender and race are no longer formal barriers to becoming a leader and we celebrate marriage as the union of two people regardless of their gender or gender orientation. Moreover, TEC has responded promptly and decisively to some crises in remarkably positive, caring, and effective ways. Illustratively, I recall the post 9/11 100 days of mission coordinated by Bishop George Packard to the firefighters, police, mortuary staffs, construction crews, and other emergency personnel working at the pile that had been the World Trade Center.

At other times, the Church has responded ineffectually, if at all. At one extreme, some congregations create the hopefully unintended impression that TEC is a denomination of causes championed by disparate groups loosely linked only by their common commitment to Sunday's Eucharist. At the other extreme, visitors to some congregations live a version of Christianity more akin to escapism than to incarnation, gathering to celebrate a disembodied gospel, detached from current events. Institutional maintenance too frequently becomes the goal, rather than the institution representing a means for good decisions and cooperative action focused on bringing life out of death.

The last and most intimate level on which the Christian drama plays is that of an individual's life and spiritual journey. Again, TEC's scorecard is decidedly mixed. We Episcopalians have a well-deserved reputation for pastoral sensitivity, care, and being nonjudgmental. On the other hand, we touch too few lives because we concentrate on the needs of members of our congregations, rely too heavily upon our clergy for crisis response ministry, and sometimes find living and ministering through the duration of someone's extended crisis difficult.

James L. Griffith and Melissa Elliott Griffith in Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy (New York: Guilford Press, 2002, p. 268) helpfully charted existential crisis states that render a person vulnerable or resilient to illness:
States of Vulnerability
States of Resilience
Despair
Hope
Helplessness
Agency
Meaninglessness
Purpose
Isolation
Communion
Resentment
Gratitude
Sorrow
Joy
The Sickness Unto Death is Soren Kierkegaard's 1849 existential analysis of why death for Christians is not the end but simply another waypoint on the journey to eternal life. We may disagree with Kierkegaard that this sickness always shows itself as despair. As the Griffiths suggest, the sickness may have many forms and names. However, I find the title of his book an apt description of a crisis' potential catalytic power changing death unto life. With God's assistance, quality pastoral care intentionally aims to facilitate that transformation.

David Brooks, the popular New York Times' columnist, believes that there is "a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that [people] don't quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace." ("The Epidemic of Worry," October 25, 2016, accessed at http://nyti.ms/2eAgY7w)


Crises are opportunities for Christians, our institutional structures, and the global Church to address the cosmic unease that Brooks recognized. I see encouraging signs of hope, but am far from sanguine about the journey ahead. Instead of investing our collective and institutional energy and resources in preserving the status quo and our individual energy and resources in attempting to overcome the fears and anxiety that the sickness unto death causes, we might do better to reimagine the sickness unto death as the sickness that leads to life abundant. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Lessons from cancer

My fight against cancer has taught, or re-taught, me several lessons.
First, science is vitally important. Without scientific advances achieved in the last fifty years, I would be dead today. Science has bought me precious additional years of life. More than ever, I am convinced that competitively juxtaposing science and religion in a win-lose contest is wrong. Truth and reality are singular, i.e., science and religion offer different views of the one reality but are ultimately, when rightly understood, compatible.
Second, receiving grace – whether through the professional skill of healthcare providers, the prayers of strangers, or the kindness and love of persons whose life had previously intersected with mine – is transformative. For one who is accustomed to giving rather than to receiving grace, this has been an important reminder that everyone needs grace, true grace is unsolicited and free, and that grace is ultimately a window through which divine light shines.

Third, life's richness and meaning is indissolubly linked to our relationships with other people. I have found that one of the most difficult aspects of hospitalization and then chemotherapy is lacking the energy to spend time with others. As I begin to regain strength and energy, I cherish my interactions with other people. A corollary of this lesson is that opportunities to touch other lives may occur not in the first moments of crisis, but in the longer, more arduous journey that lies on the other side of that crisis.
I look forward to learning more in the future.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The importance of hope

The cancer with which I live is a chronic, fatal disease, i.e., there is no known cure.
To my surprise, I recently saw an article in the popular press that a reported a case in which a woman appears to have been completely cured of multiple myeloma. I've not seen similar reports nor have I seen any scientific evidence that supports the possibility of a complete cure. Is the woman's alleged cure a fluke, a case of remission masquerading as a complete cure in a way that her healthcare providers do not provide, or an actual cure? I don't know.
What I do know is that the article added a small amount of light at the end of the dark tunnel (the valley of death?) through which I am currently journeying.
As a long-time supporter of the right to die and of assisted living, I have given considerable thought to what happens when life becomes devoid of hope. That, I'm discovering, is not the same thing as valuing hope for the ways in which it strengthens and enriches.
In the current US presidential contest, Donald Trump has tapped into a group of voters who are angry because they feel abandoned by the system and who often are unable to see hope for a better life. Trump's popularity indicts the American political and economic systems for having become so skewed in favor of the rich and powerful that many of the most vulnerable among us lack hope. Their hopelessness stands in stark contrast to the hope for a better life that migrants generally see, a hope that fuels long journeys at great cost and risk to a state (e.g., the UK or the US) in which the migrant perceives real hope for a better life.
Karl Marx and many others have criticized religion in general and Christianity in particular for emphasizing that hope primarily means looking to life after death. Too many theologians and believers are guilty of emphasizing that understanding of hope. My experience with cancer, Donald Trump's appeal to Americans who lack hope, and hope's power to motivate human migrations all underscore the importance of hope for a better today as well as a better tomorrow.

For what do you hope? How does that hope strengthen or enrich you life?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Virtual community

An ongoing conversation among many religious bloggers and internet writers about religion is the possibility of virtual community.
The number of responses, in various forms ranging from likes to comments, I received following my Ethical Musings' post about having cancer both surprised and encouraged me. The responses were all positive; a majority promised prayers, though none – thankfully – responded with meaningless platitudes about God's healing power. A substantial number of times, the response came from someone with whom I had once worked, whether as his or her boss, his or her priest or chaplain, or his or her colleague or friend. The internet does not have to be a bad, mean, or scary place.
Juxtaposing virtual with physical community seems to me to create a false dichotomy. Physical community – actual human contact – is essential. Virtual community can enrich, expand, and extend physical community but is never a substitute for the foundational experiences of actual physical community.
I also have learned in very personal ways that community, whether physical or virtual, requires significant commitment of time and energy to sustain. No longer can I deal with every email the day I receive that email, a praxis I learned and adopted when in the Navy. These days, I often lack the requisite emotional and spiritual strength to reach that goal. My "good" days – days when my energy seems relatively high and I am more focused and optimistic – in contrast to my "bad" days limit my ability to respond.
I hope that people do not interpret a delayed response negatively. Delays reflect my reaching the extent of my perceived capacity in that moment. Not all things are in every moment possible for every human. Rejection of that view, with its implicit judgment of the person who fails to break through illusory constraints, is one of the harms that I had not previously recognized yet is inherent in most versions of positive thinking and its close cousin, the prosperity gospel. There is a time for all things, even a time for answering electronic communications. Real community, whether physical or virtual, provides persons the space and time needed to process ideas and feelings.

So, I am grateful for community whenever I experience it and in all of its forms. However, I know that healthy community offers me the space and time I need, which, given my cancer, may not always match the expectations, even the most well intentioned of expectations, of other community members. I am especially appreciative when a correspondent explicitly acknowledges that the ravages of cancer may limit both my ability to respond and the predictability of that response.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The future of Ethical Musings

As Ethical Musings' followers and subscribers probably know, I have not posted an Ethical Musing since the beginning of September. And from the middle of July, my posts on Ethical Musings consisted of sermons and two articles written for the Episcopal Café.
The paucity and nature of my Ethical Musings' posts point to physical problems that I began to experience in the spring and that culminated in a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in September. Multiple myeloma is a relatively rare form of cancer that attacks the blood and for which no cure exists. Chemotherapy can usually achieve a relatively positive short- and mid-term outlook (6 years or more of enjoying a reasonable quality of life), but multiple myeloma is fatal.
Multiple myeloma is difficult to diagnose. In my case, pain caused by a collapsed vertebra and cracked ribs, along with several other symptoms (hypercalcemia, poor kidney functioning, and anemia), ultimately pointed to the correct diagnosis after some missteps.
After consulting with some Ethical Musings readers, colleagues, and friends, I've decided to resume writing the Ethical Musings blog with some changes. First, I doubt that the blog will appear with consistent frequency, so encourage those interested in reading my posts to subscribe or follow Ethical Musings in one of the several ways identified on the blog page.
Second, having multiple myeloma has somewhat altered my worldview. That is, although the diagnosis has not caused me to change my basic theological and ethical beliefs, my diagnosis has rearranged subjects that interest me. Cancer and healthcare, unsurprisingly, have moved up; military ethics has become less of a focus.
Third, posts will probably be shorter and contributions from others will be more important. Cancer and chemo combine to leave me with less energy; chemo and sometimes the cancer's effects have diminished my capacity for thought. Consequently, reader comments are even more welcome and essential than when I began writing Ethical Musings.

Finally, I anticipate Ethical Musings continuing to evolve in ways that are unpredictable yet hopefully meaningful. The number of followers and subscribers has continued to grow slowly; the number of visitors per page is up significantly, though I do not know how many of these visitors spend much time on each page or whether the page's content has any influence on a visitor's thoughts or life.
I am sorry that I lack the emotional and physical energy to notify all of my friends who are part of the Ethical Musings' community of my medical condition. Moving ahead with Ethical Musings, however, seems like a constructive step forward.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Shaped in Jesus' image

I like to watch a potter at work: strong hands, wet and muddy, shaping the clay as it spins on the wheel. I view myself as having little artistic ability, so watching someone transform a lump of clay into an object of use, or beauty, and especially into an object of both use and beauty, fascinates and mystifies me. This is what God is doing with us, making us into objects of use and beauty.
The image of God's people as clay being made into pots is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. This morning’s reading from Jeremiah depicts God as the potter.[1] Yet God finds the vessel shaped on the wheel unsatisfactory and so makes it into another vessel. Did God make a mistake? I don’t think so. Instead, I would suggest that two explanations of how the clay was molded into an unsatisfactory pot. First, the clay is imperfect. Most of us do not have to look very hard before we can identify faults with ourselves. Indeed, if anything, some of us are too hypercritical of ourselves.
Second, God's hands are imperfect because you and I are God's hands. Sometimes God works with the clay directly, as in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion or speaks directly to our spirit. More often, however, God speaks to us through other persons, who, like us, are imperfect.
This morning’s epistle reading provides an example of the imperfections that can be introduced into the vessel being created on the potter’s wheel because God's hands – you and I – do not move in perfect accord with God's will.[2] Onesimus was a runaway slave. Somehow, and although we know nothing of the circumstances by which it happened, we might assert that it was through the work of the Holy Spirit, Paul and Onesimus met. Paul became Onesimus’ father in God. What Paul means is that through his witness and ministry, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Onesimus has become a Christian.
Now Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner, who is also a Christian. The text is unclear whether Onesimus’ owner was Philemon or Archippus; the text refers only to the owner as brother, a term that Paul consistently used to denote fellow Christians. Paul could not indefinitely harbor a runaway slave. To do so was a crime; Onesimus as a slave was subject to whatever punishment his master might wish to inflict, no matter how cruel or extreme, even death.[3] Paul suggests that perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from his owner for a while was in order that Onesimus might become a Christian.
Here the text becomes problematic. Paul encourages Onesimus’ owner to welcome Onesimus as a brother, implying that Onesimus should be set free. Paul offers to make good any debt and emphasizes that Onesimus is to be welcomed as would be Paul himself. But for over fifteen centuries, most Christians rejected that interpretation. Instead, they strongly contended that the owner’s only obligation was to treat a Christian slave with kindness. Paul’s act of returning the runaway slave was interpreted as New Testament evidence in support of slavery. Those Christians failed to understand that the very institution of slavery is incompatible with Christianity. Every human being is worthy of dignity and respect because all are God's children, made in God's image.
Those Christians who argued that Christianity and slavery are compatible represent clear evidence of the imperfections both in the clay and in the human hands that God uses to mold the clay. No wonder God sometimes finds it necessary to remake a pot. This is why it is important to remember that we are the clay and not the pot: we may be remade, but we are not thrown away. In short, becoming a Christian is a process, not an event.
Becoming a Christian is costly. Onesimus as he returned to his owner was most likely filled with fear and trepidation. Similarly, Jesus tells those who would follow him to consider a king who contemplates waging war or a person contemplating a construction project.[4] What person would be so foolish as to begin either a war or a building project without first counting the cost? Yet many Christians today think only of what they can gain from Christianity, not of the cost. What price should we expect to pay for journeying as a Christian?
First, being a Christian means that all of my possessions and wealth belong to God rather than to me. I am only a steward, tasked to use my possessions and wealth for God's purposes rather than finding them a source of security or the path to a hedonistic lifestyle.
Second, becoming a Christian means that my life should progressively resemble Jesus of Nazareth's life. This process of transformation can be painful as we let go of parts of ourselves that we may like or enjoy but that are incompatible with the image of Christ. It also requires that we invest substantial time and energy in trying to discover who Christ is so that we know that which we aim to become. The familiar adage, if you have no goal any road will get you there, applies to the spiritual life. Holy Nativity, with leadership from its Vestry and Wardens, is becoming intentional about identifying and following a spiritual path.
Third, being a Christian means that you and I should expect to minister in God's name. We are not only clay; we are also God's hands helping to shape others. You should have a ministry, a service to God and others, that reaches beyond simply embodying Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. Perhaps your ministry is inviting others to explore the Christian faith or to join you in worship. Perhaps your ministry is that of teaching; we have many people at Holy Nativity with the gift of teaching. Perhaps your gift is one of hospitality, or service, or administration; we have people at Holy Nativity who have one or more of those gifts and who regularly exercise them. If you are not exercising a gift or gifts for ministry, why not? Is the cost too high?
Jesus said, Come to me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest; come and drink deeply of the water of life that truly refreshes. But he also said, Count the cost; being my disciple is costly; being made into my image can be painful.




[1] Jeremiah 18:1-11.
[2] Philemon 1-21.
[3] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: the Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 270.
[4] Luke 14:25-33.

Monday, August 29, 2016

What Can Anyone Do to Me?

This morning’s epistle reading contains an intriguing question, “What can anyone do to me?” The context makes it obvious that the author refers only to bad things. My immediate reaction to the phrase was a single word, “Plenty!” Although criminals have never violated my person, I have had my house robbed and my car totaled when someone rear-ended mine after I had stopped at a red light. Everyone at least occasionally suffers unfair criticism by others. Illustratively, I once had a parishioner, upset with my insistence on complying with Navy and Marine Corps regulations governing Chapel funds, inform me that I was doing the devil's work when I refused to permit the continued expenditure of funds in good, but explicitly prohibited ways. Reports of financial scams and identity theft are a media staple. One of the enduring harms with which many people now  live as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an exaggerated sense of vulnerability. Is this morning’s epistle lesson wrong in implying nobody can cause us grievous harm? Alternatively, does it mean something else?
The reading from Hebrews instructs Christians to offer hospitality to strangers, inferring that in doing so we, like others, may unknowingly entertain angels.[1] Contrary to medieval theologians, cultural stereotypes, and fundamentalists, the word angels in the Bible more often refers to God's messengers than to supernatural beings. What the epistle says, in other words, is that by offering hospitality to strangers we may receive a message from God.
I suspect that a halo effect applies to how most of us think of self, parish, and nation. We tend to imagine that we are more hospitable than we actually are. If you welcome and entertain family and friends in your home, that is good. Hebrews, however, forces me to ask, Do you also welcome and entertain strangers in your home?
Does Holy Nativity warmly welcome and entertain strangers? We face a mixed scorecard. For example, our worship services, especially for those who do not read, are difficult to follow and require juggling several books and pieces of paper. Holy Nativity is in the process of taking a couple of important steps to improve its welcome. First, by the middle of September, I hope that the worship bulletin will contain the entire service, something that we once did but then discontinued. Including the entire worship service makes it easier for members, and far more importantly, for visitors to follow and participate in worship. And the Vestry has set as one of its goals for the next year developing an effective program to welcome newcomers on their journey from visitor to member. Volunteers are needed to help with that program. If you are interested, please speak Louisa Leroux who is leading that effort or to me.
Nationally, the issue of offering hospitality to strangers faces several roadblocks. The US erects barriers to keep out unwanted immigrants, creates programs to deport illegal immigrants, restricts access to healthcare to those who can afford to pay, and incarcerates non-violent miscreants for life.
Lest you consider my vision of hospitality too broad, recall this morning’s gospel reading.[2] Jesus, the invited guest of honor at a feast, told his host,
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…
Jesus implicitly acknowledges that his affluent if not wealthy host does not know the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind whom he should invite to dinner. Then, like now, the well-to-do generally ignored, or even ostracized, the poor. Furthermore, Jews in Jesus’ day sought to justify their exclusivity by citing their belief that being crippled, blind, or impoverished was a mark of God's disfavor.
Jesus gives us the same instructions. We, the body of Christ and the nation, are to show hospitality to the poor, the outcast, and the despised. Jesus envisions a global community in which all live as brothers and sisters. Is Jesus’ vision an unrealistic utopian ideal or the future that God intends for us and for our world?
If you are like me, you answer that question with a yes and a no. Yes, I am committed to Jesus’ vision of the future. The acclamation Praise to you, Lord Christ! which follows the gospel reading, expresses a prayerful hope that Jesus’ vision will come to pass. Praying “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” from the Lord’s Prayer expresses the same hope. Yet when I examine my life, I see that I fall woefully short of Jesus’ standard of hospitality. I too often fear people whom I do not know, people who seem to have different values or beliefs than I do, people whose desire for a better life appears to threaten my quality of life. Fear dampens or extinguishes the fire of faith, causing us to act in ways inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings and vision.
Former radio talk show host Kenneth Hamblin, who had just learned to scuba dive, was vacationing with his wife on Lake Powell. Diving alone, he ineptly fired his new spear gun at a carp near the end of his dive. Surfacing, he laid his spear gun on the water and was startled to watch it sink. The lake water was very murky – a dark, ugly place. He did not want to go back down after the gun and he could not see the bottom. Yet he could not admit to his wife that he had lost his expensive new toy. So back down he went, into the depths, following a weighted rope to help him stay under the boat. After his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see more than he had expected. Unfortunately, the rope did not reach the lake’s bottom. Although he did not want to let go and sink into the murkiness, he liked the prospect of facing his wife without the gun even less. So he overcame his fears, let go, and found the gun.[3]
Life can seem very murky. We know what we should do, but fear letting go of the lifelines on which we depend and to trust that God will care for us. Consequently, we decide to rely upon self, our money or other possessions, an addiction, or almost anything else. As we heard in this morning’s first lesson,[4] human pride begins by forsaking God, which inevitably leads to sin, fear, and brokenness. This morning take a chance. Let love prevail, both our love for one another and God's love for us. The message the angels, God's messengers, bring us is a message of hope, a message that will help us, like the author of Hebrews, to say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"



[1] Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.
[2] Luke 14:1, 7-14.
[3] Ken Hamblin, Pick a Better Country (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 217-218.
[4] Jeremiah 2:4-13.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Will you choose health or disability?

The Ugly American, a 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, tells the story of an American engineer, Homer Atkins – a man with an ugly face – whom the military sent to Vietnam to build dams and roads. Homer's wife, Emma, accompanied him to Vietnam. She became curious that every woman over sixty in the village where the Atkins lived had a bent back. Then she noticed that after the monsoon season, older people using a broom with a short handle inevitably swept the debris from the streets. Since wood for longer handles cost too must, Emma found a long-stalked reed and planted shoots from this reed by her door. She tended these reeds carefully. One day when neighbors were in her house she cut a tall reed, bound coconut fronds to it and began to sweep with her back straight. When her guests questioned her about the reed, she told them where it grew. Four years later, after Emma and Homer had returned home to Pittsburgh, they received a letter from the village headman thanking them. The letter read: "In the village of Chang Dong today, the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful and bent. You will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory . . . at the foot are these words: 'In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.'"[1]
In today's gospel reading,[2] Jesus attends Sabbath worship in a synagogue. A woman, who has had a bent back for eighteen years, enters. Jesus recognizes her pain, touches her compassionately, and the woman stands erect, her back healed. I think that most of us would be amazed and grateful to witness a similar cure. Some of the worshipers in the synagogue, however, object. Jesus healing her on the Sabbath violated the Mosaic Law's prohibition against working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds passionately: "You hypocrites! You water your animals on the Sabbath. This woman is much more valuable than any animal." Through his words and actions, Jesus shows us who God is and God's great love for us.[3]
Jesus' passion reflects the depth of his love for his neighbor. Passionate love refuses to accept evil, regardless of its cause, duration, or the person or persons who suffer the harm. By healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus both emphasizes the personhood of women and the healing power of God's love.
Luke does not tell us why the woman's back was bent. The story with which I began this sermon about the bent backs of the elderly women of Chang Dong village in Vietnam describes a systemic evil: people could not afford long handles for their brooms and this caused women, who did most of the sweeping, to have bent backs by age 60.. Traditional Vietnamese culture devalued women and consequently the village power brokers, all men, did not prioritize discovering how to prevent women developing bent backs. The gospel's silence about the cause of the woman's bent back leaves open the possibility that she suffered from a medical problem, perhaps had a genetic defect, or was the victim of some systemic evil. Whichever is correct, Jesus' passionate love for his neighbors pierced an ethos of neglect and self-righteousness to straighten the woman's back. God calls Christians, we who try to walk the Jesus path, to love others with a similar passion, to act to end evil wherever or whenever we see it.
The healing occurred in the village synagogue. Village synagogues were small buildings, approximately the size of the open area around the chancel altar. The walls were lined with stone benches on which attendees sat. A wooden cabinet, called the Ark of the Covenant, occupied the position of honor opposite the door. The Ark stored the Torah, or whatever portion of the Torah that the village was fortunate enough to possess. The Ark also stored other scrolls the village owned, such as ones upon which the words of the prophets were written. Synagogue services began and ended with prayer. Then someone would read or recite part of one of those scrolls. A man would then expound upon the text's meaning.
The setting is important. [4] First, most village residents attended. Similar to the way in which their worship represented the essence of the Jewish village, our worship represents the center or essence of our Christian community. Second, synagogue attendees expected to hear God speak to them through their prayers, scripture reading, and teaching. Hopefully, we gather with similar expectations. Third, disagreements over the meaning of the scriptures were commonplace. More than any other major religion, Judaism teaches that vigorously debating a text's meaning sifts the chaff from the wheat, thereby distilling human opinion from God's message for God's people. In other words, Jesus healing the woman and then engaging in a disputation with some of the synagogue attendees about his actions benefitted both the woman and the gathered community.
Finally, Jesus in healing the woman laid his hands upon her. This action, which we preserve in ordaining clergy, consecrating bread and wine during the Holy Eucharist, and praying for the sick, symbolizes both giving and receiving power. By laying his hands on the woman, Jesus dramatically demonstrated God's embrace and acceptance of her as one of God's children. No longer was she an untouchable woman. Furthermore, by laying his hands on the woman, Jesus symbolically transferred the healing power of God's love to her.
Three men were walking by a river and they saw a man walking on the water coming toward them. The first one said: "Who are you?"
"I'm Jesus," came the reply.
"Well, I've got a real bad back," said the first person. Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, and instantly his back was restored to normal.
The second man saw this happen and said: "Jesus, my eyesight is really getting dim. Could you do something about that?" Jesus reached out and laid his fingers on the fellow's eyes and his eyesight was as sharp as when he was a youngster.
Jesus noticed that the third man walked with a limp and asked: "What is your problem my good fellow?"
"Don't touch me!" exclaimed the man. "I'm on disability!"[5]
The choice is ours. Will we, like the woman in this morning's gospel reading, muster the courage to seek healing or will we, like the man in that last story, prefer to live in misery and on disability?



[1] Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958).
[2] Luke 13:10-17.
[3] James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 132.
[4] The various elements important for healing are adapted from Dale A. Matthews with Connie Clark, The Faith Factor (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), pp. 223-247.
[5] Source unknown.