Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jesus and the BREXIT

Since Great Britain voted last week to exit the European Union (BREXIT, as it is popularly known), I've pondered what Jesus might have to say about the vote if he were still among us as an itinerant rabbi. My thoughts have coalesced around two themes.
First, I think Jesus would have great concern for the people whose anger, feelings of exclusion from both economic progress and political power, and sense of being overwhelmed by uncontrollable tidal waves of immigrants motivated them to vote against remaining in the European Union. Voters with some subset (or even all) of those feelings are not unique to the United Kingdom. In the United Sates, for example, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders apparently garnered a majority of their support from voters with similar feelings.
The unprecedented numbers of immigrants across Europe and in the US are irreversibly altering community landscapes. Illustratively, some people are discomfited when they hear pedestrians, customers, business employees, government workers, and others speak a language other than the heretofore dominant language in that locale.
Walking around Honolulu today, compared to twenty years ago, I much more frequently hear people speaking Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, and occasionally Spanish or another Romance language. I enjoy hearing the diversity. The different languages evoke memories of different trips abroad. I admire the willingness of people to travel to a place in which few people speak their native tongue and value travel for its abilities to broaden one's horizons and tolerance of diversity.
However, I also understand that other persons can perceive the growing number of persons in the US and elsewhere who do not speak the dominant local language as representing a threat to a cherished but imperiled way of life. A recent poll of Americans found that 70% of them are concerned by the lack of English they hear in the US and that 80% think the US has too many recent immigrants. The shift of power away from local communities and regional governments to distant centers of power (Washington for the US and Brussels for the EU) has had the unfortunate, unintended consequence of leaving people feeling disempowered and alienated. Government, as I have repeatedly contended in Ethical Musings' posts, is becoming less and less "of, by, and for the people." Concurrently, the most important economic engines of prosperity have shifted from manufacturing to service businesses, technology, finance, healthcare, and government. Workers displaced by that shift have frequently received little useful assistance in acquiring a new set of marketable skills and consequently see little hope for regaining a lost prosperity. No wonder that plenty of voters are angry and feel left behind.
What policies or programs might Jesus recommend? Here are ideas:
  1. Governments and businesses have a moral obligation to develop programs and policies that effectively aid displaced workers in acquiring skills appropriate to the modern economy and then in obtaining jobs with pay comparable to their former position.
  2. Governments and non-profits should help people acquire the skills and knowledge to cope with the accelerating pace of change while concurrently slowing the pace of change, when practical, to reduce the number of people who feel alienated or left behind.
  3. Governments should decentralize the locus of power as much as possible, reengaging citizens in the work of government even if this means living, at least in the short run, with a greater diversity of laws and government policies.
Second, I think that Jesus would regard the BREXIT vote as a speedbump on an irreversible trajectory toward the emergence of a unified global community. Human history reveals an expanding circle of concern that began with the nuclear or extended family, enlarged to include clan and tribe, widened to encompass one's ethnicity or nationality, is still broadening to include states closely aligned with one's own and one's co-religionists regardless of their geographic location, and is progressing toward encompassing all people. Forces propelling us along this trajectory are globalization and an inherent human reciprocal altruism that pushes toward maximizing the circle of one's concern. This latter idea is another formulation of the ethic that exhorts us to love our neighbors as ourselves, a teaching intrinsic to all of the world's great religions.
Hitting more speedbumps seems probable. Tracing the human trajectory that appears to lead toward emergence of a global community reveals many detours, steps backward, and pauses between steps forward. Tracing that trajectory of uneven progress also tells a story of conflict and opposition, often violent.
Jesus, I think, would caution us against yielding to evil forces, which include xenophobia, narcissistic self-interest, believing the sword to be mightier than love, practicing injustice, failing to do good and to practice mercy, and not respecting the dignity and worth of every human being.

Jesus would also exhort us not to lose hope. God is at work bringing creation to the destiny God envisions. In the words of Julian of Norwich, "All will be well; all manner of things of will be well."

Monday, June 27, 2016

The new face of Christianity

From the mid-fourth century until the sixteenth century, Baptism defined the Christian faith. An individual's religious and civic identities were indistinguishable. Everyone who resided in a geographic area belonged to the same faith, that is, the same branch of Christianity. This ended with the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on doctrine. The meaning of the word faith shifted from denoting the community's religion to denoting belief in a set of theological ideas. Anglican's version of this approach to faith is the "Articles of Religion," found on pp. 867-876 of the Book of Common Prayer in a section devoted to historical documents.
Christianity is now experiencing another sea change. Pastor and author Brian McLaren has identified three aspects of this change. First, Christians are jettisoning the image of God as judge and embracing an image of God as the renewing Spirit who works for the common good. Second, growing numbers of Christians define faith not in terms of belief but as a life shaped by love. Third, Christians are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion, becoming "spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for all of us."[1] Collectively, these three shifts align Christians more fully with Paul's guidance in today's lesson from Galatians.[2]
The Christians in the churches in Galatia (part of modern Turkey) were Gentiles. After Paul left Galatia, other Christian leaders arrived.[3] They taught that in order to be Christian, one must obey the 613 commandments of the Torah, found in the first five books of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.[4] People who obeyed those rules pleased God; persons who disobeyed the rules displeased God; they were sinners who fell under God's judgment. The rules governed every aspect of life: when to work, what to eat, how to treat immigrants, regulated the economy, etc.
I meet very few individuals who try to please God by obeying all of the Torah's commandments. Instead, people in general, and Christians in particular, cherish the freedom that is ours in Christ. The God we seek is truly the renewing Spirit and not the Judge. Thus, the Episcopal Church welcomes absolutely everyone because we believe that (1) God created us to be an incredibly diverse species, (2) God expects us to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and (3) nobody is ever beyond the reach of God's infinite love and healing embrace.
In the eleventh century, the Eastern Churches and Roman Catholic Church split over the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or only from the Father. The version of the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer, and the normative version for western Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, declares that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In recent years, as the Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Churches have drawn closer, some Episcopalians have omitted the phrase "and the Son" from the Nicene Creed.
From the time in seminary when I first learned of this controversy, my response has been, "Who knows or cares? This is a silly debate." No human understands the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Nor was anyone present to observe whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just from the Father.
These debates about the origin of the Holy Spirit exemplify the difficulty of establishing a credible foundation for many theological propositions in the twenty-first century. Historical, scientific, and other lenses cast doubt on some doctrines. Globalization, which increased our awareness of the diversity of the world's religions, casts further doubt on overly narrow theological claims. These largely unresolvable difficulties explain the shift from faith as belief to faith as action.
The shift from emphasizing theological beliefs to living a life shaped by love mirrors the shift from law to freedom that Paul described in Galatians. The Jewish law represents a deontological ethic. To connect with God, obey the rules. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – describe a virtue ethic in which a person's behavior is governed by who the person is rather than by a set of rules. Virtue ethicists, from Aristotle onward, have correctly observed that people seldom pause to list and then to weigh applicable rules before acting. Instead, our actions tend to feel more intuitive or automatic. That is, our actions emerge out of unconscious mental processes shaped by our values (or virtues) and are consistent with our habitual way of doing things. Rephrasing that in Paul's language, Christians desiring to act in a Christ-like manner should cultivate, intentionally and habitually, the fruit of the Spirit.
McLaren's third observation, the shift from organized religion to organizing religion, is apparent here at Holy Nativity. We no longer have the full pews, 2100 communicants, or our extensive 1950s organization. Recruiting people to serve on committees and boards can be difficult. Concurrently, persons who now attend Holy Nativity do so because they value the opportunity for spiritual renewal, they want to work at shaping their life in Jesus' image, and they expend considerable time and effort in trying to help others and to care for creation.
A solitary piece of sculpture sits in the grassy area near the side entrance of the magnificent old cathedral in Salisbury, England. The sculpture is the statue of a young woman in flowing black robes who appears to be walking away from the Cathedral and toward visitors. There is no identification with the statue. Visitors who want information about the statue must ask one of the cathedral's docents. They explain that the Walking Madonna's sculptor, Elisabeth Frink, specified that she had to be seen walking away from the cathedral. The church had become too self-serving, Frink said, and her Madonna symbolized the need to carry the message of love to a hurting world.[5]
Seek the living God, the renewing Spirit. Put Jesus' love and not theology at the center of your spirituality. And then join me, and all of God's people in this place, in loving our neighbors near and far. Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World's Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (New York: Random House, 2016).
[2] Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
[3] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 18-19.
[4] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The spirituality of summer

Summers invite me to inhabit a different type of spirituality in four important ways.

First, summers invite a fuller engagement with nature. I live in a major city by choice, enjoying its urban vibe and pedestrian lifestyle. Spending time in nature, however, has remained an integral aspect of my life and spirituality since my childhood in Maine. I appreciate natural theology, resonating deeply nature's capacity to reveal much about God. My education and reading have identified some of natural theology's limits, but I still find nature an important spiritual and theological resource.

With age, Maine's rugged beauty, cold weather, and snow are less inviting. Consequently, one of the aspects of living in Hawaii that I most enjoy is the year-round summer-like weather. Warm sunshine watered by an occasional light mist encourages me to spend lots of time outdoors and to leave windows open. My apartment has expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, palm lined sandy beaches, volcanic mountains, and, frequently, rainbows. From January to April, I sometimes spot whales breaching from my apartment windows. The views from my apartment evoke Biblical images, e.g., rainbows are vivid reminders of one of God's promises and the Psalmist several times references the mighty creatures of the deeps.

Second, summers invite engagement with social justice issues. Summers in Hawaii have gradually become warmer. People now complain about the summer heat. I have lived in Hawaii twice previously, first in the early 1980s and then in the early 1990s, each time for two and a half years. During those five years, there were only several nights a year when I wished that my dwelling had air conditioning. Now I am grateful for my apartment's air conditioning. Similarly, rising tides and more extreme storms have unjustly diminished the habitability and land mass of numerous Pacific islands. The growing numbers of Oceania emigrants now living in Hawaii visibly declare our need to be better ecological stewards.

Summers also offer fragile signs of social justice progress that encourage further engagement. For example, vacations, which started to appear in the nineteenth century as a byproduct of the affluence that the Industrial Revolution created, are no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich and powerful. Hawaii's robust tourist industry fared reasonably well during the nation's great recession and its sluggish economic recovery. Nevertheless, the low wages earned by many tourist industry workers are painful reminders of growing economic inequality, a shrinking middle class, and the need to establish fuller economic justice.

Third, summers invite me to change my spiritual praxis. A staff member at my parish's day school has been teaching Sunday school in the parish this month. She told me that being on campus six days a week is one day too many for her. She has discovered that she, and consequently the school's students, benefit when she is not on the campus weekends. Her observation prompted me to wonder which of my spiritual practices, adopted in the hope that they would open windows through which God's light would shine into my life, have unintentionally, and maybe without my realizing it, become burdensome, closing the windows I intended them to open.

God may not take a vacation, but God's people should. What worship schedule services best suits your spiritual life today? What would it feel like to skip worship for a week or two? Would visiting a different parish (or even congregation of a different denomination) result in a fresh appreciation of one's own parish? Would meditatively reading a book – perhaps a novel, poetry, biography, or even a book on theology, ethics, biblical studies, or spirituality – provide a helpful catalyst for re-energizing or re-conceptualizing your understanding of twenty-first century Christianity? Sadly, many Christians regard church participation and spiritual commitments as compulsory duties rather than as opportunities to savor God's gifts of freedom and grace. Summer tacitly permits, perhaps even encourages, a much-needed Sabbath in which the over-obligated can helpfully reframe their spiritual practices and commitments.

Fourth and finally, summers invite me to hold my beliefs lightly. Holding tightly to theological propositions has never made sense to me. Sin is pervasive. I have no rational basis for supposing that my theology, regardless of the care, study, and prayer that I invest in its formulation, is perfect. Surely, my theology, like that of all Christians and the Church as a whole, inevitably represents an admixture of truth and error that can benefit from ongoing refinement. Additionally, words are finite and God is infinite. That difference inherently limits the capacity of words to speak of God accurately. Lightly held beliefs implicitly acknowledge these issues, creating the possibility of theological growth while concurrently fostering interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. Leisurely summer conversations can afford uncensored opportunities to formulate, try on for comfort, and examine tentative new theological ideas from various angles.

Summer is a common metaphor for the span of life that stretches from the end of adolescence (spring connotes the period from birth to end of adolescence) to the beginning of one's decline (the autumn of life that precedes winter, the season of death). As I enter the autumn of my life, I am thankful for having enjoyed a long summer, thankful that my summer was an enjoyable season of growth and not of stagnation. I pray that you will enjoy your summer!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thoughts on initiation into the Christian community

Toward the end of his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Wolff tells a wonderful anecdote about Mozart's first encounter with Bach's music. Thirty-nine years after Bach's death, at age thirty-three, Mozart visited the St. Thomas School in Leipzig and listened to a performance of one of Bach's motets. After a few measures, Mozart sat up, startled; at the close of the performance, he cried out, "This is music one can learn from!"[1]
Many people attend worship hoping to learn about God, or, more commonly, to hear a word from God. In that respect, these persons resemble Elijah in the cave on Horeb, the mount of God. Elijah, in spite of defeating the prophets of Baal, was overwhelmed with despair and convinced that the whole world was against him. So he fled to the cave where he expected that he would die. Instead, Elijah had a powerful experience of God speaking to him that transformed his life and provided generations with a paradigm to understand how God communicates.
God is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire. In short, God did not speak in ways that Elijah expected. Elijah described his experience as hearing God speak in a still, small voice.[2] Similarly, contemporary expectations about how God acts and speaks are often wrong. God acts and speaks today as in Elijah's day, i.e., in ways that are consistent, reliable, and require careful discernment on our part.
Some years ago, I came across a card that said, "When your heart speaks, take good notes." Classical Christian writings on the spiritual discipline of discernment confirm that advice. In the New Testament, the word "heart" (Greek kardia) refers not to emotions but to the very center of one's physical and spiritual life, including cognition, emotion, desire, and morality. To "listen with the ear of your heart" means to notice what God may be seeking to reveal to you through whole being.
Gospel accounts of Jesus exorcising demons occasionally trigger recollections of my experience as an exorcist. Twenty plus years ago, I was the chaplain for the Naval Surface Group, Middle Pacific, homeported at Pearl Harbor. The group commander, who happened to be Episcopalian, was also the base commander. When a Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard civilian employee committed suicide at his desk after hours, many shipyard employees refused to return to work until someone exorcised the demons from the building. The admiral asked if I could help. I adapted the liturgy for the blessing of a house from the Book of Occasional Services and then exorcised the building, using ti leaves, which native Hawaiians consider sacred, to sprinkle water in a symbolic cleansing of the office spaces. The exorcism was apparently effective: nobody else committed suicide and employees returned to work contented.
That episode illustrates the narrow view of exorcism that many Christians have. They focus on the demon possessed and the exorcist, ignoring any effects on the larger community. Like the shipyard worker who killed himself, the Gerasene demoniac, was costly to the community.[3] Loose, he was a hazard to himself and to others. When his neighbors understandably tried to restrain him, he would break the bonds they had used. Jesus' exorcism of the demons named "Legion" also cost the community. The demons fled into a herd of swine that stampeded over a twelve-foot high cliff and drowned in the Sea of Galilee. The herd's owner(s) received no compensation or insurance settlement to cover the loss.
Few today believe in demons as supernatural evil entities who are the devil's subordinates. Instead, I hope that you interpret biblical references to demons as a personification of mental illness, addiction, and living ensnared in destructive emotions. All of these forms of demon possession have large social dimensions. For example, many homeless and suicidal persons suffer from mental illness; addicts attempting to pay for their habit commit perhaps of half of all crimes; persons living in the grip of negative emotions such as jealousy, hatred, anger, and pride destroy families, disrupt work environments, and harm communities.
Jesus' command that we love our neighbors as ourselves is not only for the neighbor's benefit but also for our benefit as well as that of the larger community. Healthy churches, and spiritually healthy individuals, seek both to hear the voice of God in the silence and to transform their communities into places in which all people can truly flourish by working for healing, reconciliation, love, and justice.
In Jesus, God created a new community. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote that in baptism a person is clothed with Christ, that is, in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."[4] This text applied directly to Holy Nativity might specify that in Christ there is no Rev. Deb supporter or opponent, no school advocate or opponent, and so forth. We are one community.
The Jews regarded water as possessing liminal qualities, "believing it had the power to transport a person or object from one state to another: from unclean to clean, from profane to holy."[5] May Holy Baptism be for us a thin spot, a place like Elijah's cave, in which all who receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism encounter God's mysterious life-giving presence, affirm our communal identity as God's children, and renew our commitment to building heaven on earth. Amen.

[1] Victoria J. Barnett, "The sound of faith," The Christian Century, 22-29 November 2000, p. 1217.
[2] 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a.
[3] Luke 8:26-39.
[4] Galatians 3:232-9.
[5] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), Kindle Location. 1485-90.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mass murder in Orlando

The recent mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando has prompted four musings.
First, the shooters in both the Orlando and the San Bernardino attacks apparently fully complied with Federal firearms laws when the attackers purchased the weapons used in those attacks. This is not an argument against background checks and other requirements. Instead, this observation points to the inadequacy of present laws to keep people safe.
Second, the shooter in Orlando, like the shooters in San Bernardino, appears to have had no links to any terror group, domestic or foreign. As I have previously argued in Ethical Musings, considering all mass murder as terrorism unhelpfully conflates two different types of crime. Tightening immigration policies would not have prevented the Orlando attack.
Third, the ultimate path to a safer society consists of promoting respect for the dignity and worth of all persons. Laws that encourage divisiveness (e.g., laws in North Carolina about who can use which public restroom) tacitly incite prejudicial acts by individuals and groups. Laws intended to make ownership easier or more widespread similarly, if subtly, are catalysts for greater violence. If the US is not going to repeal the Second Amendment, then churches and concerned citizens should advocate the voluntary destruction of personal firearms. Fewer firearms create a safer community by reducing the chances of accidental death. In time, with expanded support for voluntary firearm destruction, the movement will gain sufficient traction to contribute to reducing the number of mass murders by gun and to perhaps lead to repeal of the Second Amendment. In an age of nuclear weapons, fighter jets, crew served weapons, armored vehicles, and other modern implements of warfighting, personal firearms no longer represent an effective deterrence to the emergence of tyranny.

Fourth, responses that do little beyond offering prayers and sympathy for the deceased and bereaved may seem to express laudatory concern for neighbors. However, genuine concern for neighbors requires more than verbal statements. Loving all of our neighbors requires welcoming the stranger, standing against hate in all of its manifestations, and enacting laws to make communities safer.

Monday, June 13, 2016

An unfinished story

This morning's gospel reading is a dramatic story that invites its hearers and readers to participate.[1] We can imagine ourselves in the audience watching a play or as one of the dinner guests. However, most hearers identify, consciously or unconsciously, with either the Pharisee, who occupies a position near the apex of social acceptability, or the prostitute, who was among the least socially acceptable. Three elements of the plot deserve our attention.
First, Jesus welcomed both the Pharisee and the prostitute. Pharisees were Jews who strictly interpreted the Torah's 613 commandments. Moreover, the Pharisees "fenced" those commandments, that is, they imposed additional restrictions on their behavior to avoid unintentionally failing to observe part of the law. These additional restrictions eventually became the oral Torah, the Halacha. Illustratively, the Torah instructed Jews not to work on the Sabbath. The Halacha enumerated the actions that were and were not allowed on the Sabbath.
Simon, a Pharisee, vigorously practiced his faith, was hospitable, and sufficiently interested in spiritual growth to invite Jesus to dinner. Yet Simon was not perfect. He fell short in his duties as a host. He didn’t have a servant wash Jesus’ feet, which was an ordinary gesture of welcome in a hot and dirty climate where all wore sandals. He did not kiss Jesus, a gesture comparable to the Hawaiian practice of embracing acquaintances and guests. Simon was apparently curious, wanting to know more about Jesus, but didn’t want anyone to think that he was too close to Jesus. Probably for similar reasons, Simon did not anoint Jesus with a few drops of oil because that act signified honor and respect. In short, Simon saw himself as a decent, respectable, and devout person. My guess is many of us see ourselves in a similar way: pretty good, decent Christians, but not ready to commit to radical obedience nor desirous of being branded a Jesus fanatic.
The woman is a prostitute. Fully aware of her sins, her moral condemnation by the Torah, and her public ostracism, she fully appreciated the enormity of Jesus' welcome. She, an unclean woman, gratefully washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed his feet with expensive perfume.
Second, Jesus not only welcomed both the Pharisee and the prostitute, he also loved them. The prostitute experienced Jesus' love as acceptance. Instead of recoiling at her approach, he affirmed her intimate gestures of washing his feet with her copious tears and then drying them with her long hair. Jesus' actions in this incident remind me of the father embracing the prodigal in one of Jesus' parables, a healing embrace between two lovers, and all of the times when a person experiences God's love through a touch, gift of bread, drink of water, and so forth. The peace is important liturgically not only to enable friends and family to greet one another but also to follow Jesus' practice of loving the unlovable. As Paul Tillich put it so eloquently, "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness … it is as though a voice were saying, 'You are accepted.'"[2]
Jesus communicated his love to the Pharisee in a different way. Simon did not need food, shelter, or a healing embrace. Simon required instruction in God's unlimited love. So Jesus asked him, who would love a former creditor the most, a debtor forgiven 500 denarii or a debtor forgiven 50 denarii. The denarius was the usual wage for a day labor, so these were large sums in a subsistence economy. When Simon replied that the one forgiven 500 denarii would love the most, Jesus noted the parallel between hypothetical debtors and Simon and the prostitute.
Then the story abruptly ends. The plot has no final resolution. Did Simon recognize his own shortcomings and need for forgiveness? Did the woman successfully adopt a new lifestyle or did she, out of desperation and lack of alternatives, resume her occupation in the sex industry?
Jesus welcomes, loves, and then extends an invitation to follow him. Each person must decide whether to accept that invitation. Walking the Jesus path requires a long obedience in the same direction, repeatedly saying yes to God's love in Jesus.
Ben Hooper was born in the Tennessee foothills of the Appalachian Mountains early in the twentieth century. Children like Ben, born to an unwed mother, were ostracized and treated terribly. By his third birthday, other children would barely play with Ben. Parents did want their children associated with children like Ben.
The schools did not have kindergarten. When Ben entered the first grade at age six, he stayed at his desk during recess because the other children would not play with him and ate his snack alone because nobody would eat with him.
A new preacher came to town when Ben was twelve. People liked the preacher and groups visibly brightened when he joined them.
One Sunday, Ben decided to go to church, something that he had never done. He arrived late and left early, to avoid contact with the other parishioners. On the seventh or eighth Sunday that Ben attended the worship service, he became enthralled with the sermon and forgot about the time. Suddenly, the service ended. The aisles filled with people.
Then Ben felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up, directly into the preacher's eyes. "Whose boy are you?" asked the preacher. Instantly, the church became silent. "Slowly, a smile started to spread across the face of the young preacher until it broke into a huge grin, and he exclaimed, 'Oh! I know whose boy you are! Why, the family resemblance is unmistakable! You are a child of God!'"[3]
Jesus welcomes you. Jesus loves you, offering acceptance, assurance, forgiveness, and instruction. And Jesus invites you to walk with him, but the choice is yours. Are you walking with Jesus?

[1] Luke 7:36-8:3.
[2] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), p. 120.
[3] Zig Ziglar, "Do You Know How His Daddy Is?" Stories for the Heart, ed. Brian Harbour (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1996), p. 223.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Belief required

Occasionally I will meet a person assiduously devoted to the scientific method of positing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis' veracity, and then modifying the hypothesis as warranted before initiating a new round of testing. More than one such individual has maintained that s/he seeks to live strictly on the basis of fact, assiduously striving to eradicate all unsupported beliefs from her/his life.

Claims that a person can navigate life's major decisions without beliefs seem fatuous to me. For example, should one marry? If so, whom should one choose as her/his spouse? Although social scientists are beginning to accumulate some data about the attributes of what will make for a healthy, happy marriage, the research is far from adequate for preparing anyone to analyze possible life partners and then to decide who will make the best spouse. A person necessarily plunges into the deep, uncertain waters of marriage hopeful but with no guarantee of success.

Similarly, what career or occupation should one pursue? Whether described as a calling (e.g., to the ordained ministry or to the bar) or as a preference (e.g., to join the Navy instead of the Army), the choice of a career or occupation entails significant beliefs about one's abilities, skills, future happiness, job requirements, etc. Vocational tests may help a person to assess personality, talents, and preferences but no amount of testing can guarantee success, much less happiness.

At best, collection and analysis of all relevant information can enable a person to make an educated guess about probable outcomes of decisions regarding marriage, vocation, and so forth. Actual decisions entail beliefs about the decision's likely outcome. Sometimes one may choose to play the odds; on other occasions, one may feel that s/he is likely to be the exception who beats the odds rather than the norm. In other words, life inescapably requires belief.

Our beliefs are always a mixture of confidence and doubt. Beliefs by their very nature lack the certainty of facts.

I believe in God. That is, after collecting and analyzing the data I believe that I discern a force at work in the cosmos that is not reducible to physics, chemistry, biology, or math. The cosmos exhibits, I believe, a trajectory toward life, love, and justice that is otherwise unexplainable. This force (God) constitutes the essence of the religious impulse and is evident in all of the world's great religions. My belief in God lies at the center of my life.

Belief is required, not optional. Socrates at his trial for impiety famously declared, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Thus, vital questions are: What belief(s) form the center of your existence? Do your beliefs provide a solid foundation for a satisfying and rewarding life? Does your life's foundation include beliefs of which you are unaware? What beliefs might strengthen that foundation? Is belief in God as the ground of being (a phrase borrowed from Paul Tillich) part of that foundation?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Learning to discern God at work in our lives

An Irish folktale recounts the story of a poor widow who sold her soul to the Devil for the money to raise her children. With the money the devil gave her, the widow educated her children. The eldest son became a priest. The second son became a doctor. And the daughter became a lawyer. Many years passed, and the Devil returned to collect the old widow’s soul. The priest pleaded for his mother’s life, and the Devil granted her one more year. When the Devil returned the next year, the doctor pleaded for his mother’s life, and the Devil granted her one more year. The following year, when the Devil returned, the lawyer asked that their mother be allowed to live until the candle by her bedside burned away. The Devil readily agreed. Then the lawyer walked over, blew out the candle, and pocketed it. Since the candle would never burn away, the Devil never got the mother's soul.[1]
Although separated by a thousand years and living in rather different cultures, the widow of Zarephath about whom we heard in today's first reading and the widow of Nain about whom we heard in the Gospel[2] faced grim prospects akin to a bad deal with the devil. Their problems were much greater than grief at the loss of a son. Both widows lived in male-dominated, subsistence economies that lacked a social safety net. Widows had three grim choices: quickly marry a new husband, regardless of the man's character; depend upon the tenuous, ongoing charity of family and friends; become a prostitute in spite of its inherent physical risks as well as facing inevitable moral condemnation and social ostracism.
At least three principles should guide our interpretation of today's texts. All three have broad applicability, but the third is especially connected to today's readings.
First, God cares equally for all people. The Bible, read chronologically, charts an expanding circle of ethical concern. The circle started small, centered around one family, expanded to include an entire clan and tribe, stretched to encompass an entire nation, and then extends to all creation. Scripture repeatedly affirms God's equal concern for all. The Torah, illustratively, instructs Jews to treat both fellow Jews and resident aliens the same. Jesus emphasized that loving our neighbor has no national, religious, or gender boundaries. The Book of Acts reports Peter's discovery that God loves all persons equally through a vision. Any hypothesis about what actually occurred in the healing of the two widows' sons should recognize that God's concern for the well-being of everyone in the present matches God's concern for the well-being of the widows of Zarephath and Nain.
Second, God acts today in ways that are broadly consistent with how God has acted throughout history. Conversely, God acted two and three thousand years ago in ways that are broadly consistent with how God acts in the present. Sound biblical interpretation requires openness to the Holy Spirit and in depth study of the entire Bible informed by insights from multiple disciplines. These include not only archaeology, art, and history, but also the social and physical sciences.
Almost annually, I hear of a child or children dying needlessly and tragically because misguided Christian parents insisted that God heals exclusively through prayer and not medical care. Similarly, I occasionally read reports of people who refused to allow a deceased loved one's burial, mistakenly believing that prayer, offered with sufficient ardor and the right beliefs, will prompt God to resuscitate their loved one. God's alleged failure to heal the dying and to resuscitate the dead reflects an appalling misinterpretation of today's texts. Although we cannot know with any certainty the actual historical events that the readings chronicle, we can safely trust that God acted two and three thousand years ago in ways that are generally consistent with our perceptions of how God acts in the present.
Third, God acts to bring life out of death. God's actions are rarely, if ever, flashy and flamboyant. Instead, God's equal love for all and the temporal consistency of God's actions reveal that God acts in subtle, undramatic ways and that God often uses a person or object as a channel of grace by which to bring life out of death. This is the message of the cross. I have personally experienced and repeatedly witnessed God bringing life out of death in this way. I have seen people discover life's meaning, broken relationships healed, their strength sustained, and hope renewed. I have seen persons who lived in bondage to drugs, alcohol, and anger set free. I have watched the hungry eat and the thirsty drink. I have seen priests, physicians, lawyers, and many others defeat evil and bring life out of death. I chose the Irish folktale to begin this morning's sermon because it portrays God acting in a very ordinary, yet unexpected way, to defeat the devil. The priest did not perform a miracle nor did the physician use heroic medical measures to save his mother; instead, and in a reversal of widely held stereotypes, a female lawyer simply and creatively pocketed a snuffed out candle.
The nursing aides for an 89-year-old active and alert retired doctor planned a surprise party for him. Family, friends, and volunteers filled the brightly decorated room. He looked at the group and signaled a sweet six-year-old girl, the grandchild of one of his aides, to come over to him. He reached out and put his arm around her. He introduced her and announced, "She is my mascot!" He went on to say that he would never forget her first visit. He had been feeling sorry for himself, struggling to adjust to life with only one leg, and spending most of his time in a wheelchair. She came in, looked at him and his folded up pants leg in the wheelchair, and in her charming voice asked, "Where is your prosthesis?" He was astounded she knew the word. She showed him her prosthesis and told him her story. When she was three years old, a man broke into her home, killed her 17-month-old brother and, with a machete, cut off her leg. He said this young girl taught him not to complain and to be grateful for the 88 years during which he had two legs. They share a very special bond.[3]
Recognizing that God's actions express equal love for all people and are broadly consistent across time, may we experience God's healing love and may we, like a six-year-old girl, and like Elijah and Jesus before her, be channels of grace for others. Amen.

[1] “A Bargain is a Bargain,” Irish folktale recorded by Sharon Creeden. Fair Is Fair: World Folktales of Justice (Little Rock, AR.: August House Publishers, 1994), pp. 114-115.
[2] 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17.
[3] Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Barry Spilchuk, Chicken Soup for the Soul, 1996, accessed at

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Responding to a reader's question about free will

An Ethical Musings' reader sent me this link ( to an article in The Atlantic. The article's author argues that humans do not have free will. He then asked for my opinion on the article. In response, I provided the reflections below.

First, reductionist anthropologies, in my estimation, fail to explain the novelty humans repeatedly introduce. Inventions, advances in science and other disciplines, and much more do require hard work but appear to be more than chance outcomes generated by brain activity that, if we had sufficient knowledge, could be completely explained in terms of chemistry, physics, etc.

Second, brain activity apparently precedes conscious thought, according to research and as the article argues. However, that research does not seem to exclude the possibility that the potential to introduce novelty into the world results from emergent properties of the brain. In other words, the brain, like many complex systems, has capacities that are greater than the sum of its parts. Reductionism fails to account for this possibility, or so I would argue. Furthermore, I’ve read a significant amount of the research on which the article is based, and agree: the idea that humans possess free will can alter behavior. I suspect that this is another indicator that reductionism is –pardon the pun – too simple an explanation. Of course, many evolutionary biologists would argue that the brain evolved to accommodate the concept of free will because that concept promotes reciprocal altruism and other social beneficial behaviors that are most conducive to human behavior.

Third, I strongly prefer the term “limited autonomy” to “free will.” The latter suggests that humans have a specific faculty or capacity by which they freely make choices. That clearly flies in the face of much scientific evidence about genetics, environmental influences on behavior, and brain functioning. The former phrase acknowledges the many limits that exist on human autonomy while affirming the possibility of some autonomy, e.g., as evidenced by human creativity. Limited autonomy lies on a spectrum somewhere between total free and total determinism, but probably much closer to determinism than to freedom.

Fourth, my consideration of these problems led me, over a decade ago, to jettison the idea of punishment as traditionally understood. Punishment is useful if it deters others from the same offense, prevents an offender from committing additional offenses (e.g., because a child is in time out or a criminal is incarcerated), or is an effective means of behavior medication. From an ethical perspective, all of those are recognized legitimate functions of punishment, but omit the central premise: the guilty should “pay” for committing an offense. This, obviously, has implications for the Christian faith. No atonement is necessary for sin. Instead, Jesus is a manifestation of God's love.

My thoughts about freedom and autonomy continue to evolve. The article’s author is correct: rethinking free will has major ramifications for not only our concepts of moral (as well as criminal and social) responsibility, but also a wide array of other issues.