Thursday, December 28, 2017

Marian musings

The wonderful Christmas story, which continues to touch, and often to inspire, generations represents the confluence of two significant streams of thought. Jewish scriptures, theology, and beliefs comprise one of these streams. The authors of Matthew and Luke both quote the Jewish Scriptures to prove that Jesus was a descendant of King David, destined to reign forever. However, some of their quotes are so strained as to be almost incomprehensible, e.g., Matthew’s use of the Jewish scriptures to argue that the Messiah would be born in Nazareth. The second stream came from the secular cultures surrounding Jewish communities. These secular cultures generally believed that great men – generals, rulers, and prophets – were born of a woman impregnated by a god.

Out of the confluence of those two streams, Mary’s identity and role within Christianity underwent dramatic changes during Christianity’s two-thousand-year history.

Originally, as scholars learned from close study of the oldest portions of the New Testament, Mary was regarded simply as Jesus’ mother. When post-resurrection Christians began to understand Jesus as God’s only begotten son, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke emerged to support claims of Jesus’ divinity, borrowing their conceptual framework from secular culture. The circumlocution “overshadowed” connotes God having intercourse with Mary, producing a son, Jesus, who was both divine and human. In the twenty-first century, we know that biology and spirituality may offer complementary explanations; we do not need to reject one explanation in favor of the other. If for no other reason, Jesus required a biological father from to whom to receive the X chromosome.

Mary’s virginity – itself a tricky translation problem because the Hebrew word may mean either a young woman or a virgin – was important only because it points to Jesus’ divine paternity. Over time, with increasing emphasis on Jesus’ divinity and diminishing emphasis on his humanity, Christians came to believe that Mary’s virginity was perpetual. What man could ever be worthy to enter into conjugal relations with the mother of God? Fortunately, the Greek word for brother also denotes cousins, so New Testament references to Jesus’ brothers became references to his cousins.

Additional reflection and Christian promulgation of the doctrine of original sin led to belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a feast first celebrated at Lyon in 1140 and established as the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in 1859.[1] A woman worthy of being the mother of God could not be tainted by sin. And if Mary was without sin, then she should not suffer death, the penalty for sin. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church in 1950 declared that Mary had been bodily assumed into heaven. Most recently, support has grown for the idea that Mary, along with Jesus, was co-redemptrix of the world. Pope John Paul II found this idea attractive but did not make it the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Devotion to Mary found itself torn between two competing forces. On the one hand, devotion to Mary began as a counterbalance to increasing emphasis on Jesus’ divinity. The human Mary was more merciful and believed to have considerable influence with her son. In many ways, Mary became the human face of God. On the other hand, the exaltation of Mary brought a vital and missing feminine aspect to the Trinity (the Spirit as the feminine aspect of God was ignored or worse by male theologians).

The Protestant Reformation dethroned Mary as Queen of Heaven and relegated her to the margins of Christian theology and life.

Anglicans, consistently attempting to straddle the middle ground between Roman Catholics and Protestants have incorporated Marian feast days into their liturgical calendar but allow individuals to make of Mary what they will.

For me, Marian feast days afford an opportunity to highlight the importance of understanding God in feminine as well as masculine images; in truth, God is the one of whom it is impossible to say anything without committing idolatry (the via negativa). However, as in other religions, widespread human yearning to adore something greater than the self is the catalyst for speaking of God in concrete terms and images, e.g., as seen in the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism out of Theravadan Buddhism.

Similarly, the Christmas story affords an opportunity to emphasize Mary, the Jewish peasant girl who gave birth to Jesus. The biblical story of her devotion and obedience, whether factual or strictly mythical, remains a powerful spiritual and moral exemplar.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” However one understands Mary’s identity, we rightly join with the generations who have preceded us in calling her blessed.

[1] Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail (Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 1993), Kindle Loc. 2463-68.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Let it be with me according to your word

Mary Ann O’Roark was decorating for Christmas, rummaging through packing materials, unable to find the baby Jesus that belonged to the Nativity set from [Israel] given to her by her parents. She was having a hard time getting into the Christmas mood and had hoped that decorating would lift her spirits. Now she couldn’t find Jesus. Finally, she gave up in despair and decided to sit out Christmas – she wasn’t in the mood and, after all, Jesus was missing.

The next morning, walking to work, Mary Ann again noticed the homeless woman with a grimy green hat who had become a regular on her New York City block. This woman often slumped in a doorway or sprawled on the steps of the stone church across the street. Homeless people usually didn’t bother Mary Ann, but the woman in the grimy green hat “was hard to take, cursing passersby and shouting at cars. That day she lurched in front of [Mary Ann], thrusting out a swollen hand, ‘Got any money?’ she rasped.”

With a quick and definitive “No,” Mary Ann crossed the street to avoid further contact and found herself directly in front of the stone church. In the concrete courtyard adjacent to church’s front door was the beautiful manger scene that the church set out every year. Shepherds, wise men, animals, the holy family – all were there – and in the manger a plump, plaster baby Jesus with a golden halo, wrapped in swaddling cloths. For a second, Mary Ann almost felt the old spark of Christmas. Then she heard the woman in the grimy green hat cursing and the moment was gone.

Over the following days, Mary Ann O’Roark found herself drawn repeatedly to the church’s manger scene, perhaps to compensate for her own lack of Christmas spirit, perhaps hoping to rekindle something in herself. Then a few days before Christmas, as she hurried past the manger scene on her way home in the sleet and rain, Mary Ann glanced at the manger scene and was shocked to discover that the manger was empty. An indentation in the straw indicated where the baby had lain – but no Jesus. Who had stolen Jesus?

Out of the corner of her eye, Mary Ann noticed the woman with grimy green hat huddled against the side of a parking garage, protectively cradling a blanket wrapped bundle in her arms. As the woman rocked the bundle back and forth, a corner of the blanket slipped away, revealing the baby Jesus – safe and dry, out of the sleet. Noticing that the blanket had slipped, the woman tenderly kissed the plaster Jesus, tucked the blanket back in place, and held the baby even more securely in her arms.

Jesus was not missing. Mary Ann had simply not known where to look for him.[1]

In the frenzy of Christmas, pause; take some deep, relaxing breaths; and look for Jesus. You may find Jesus in an imperfect, incomplete House of God (the gathered people of God). You may find Jesus in the proclamation of good news, the telling and retelling of the wondrous Christmas story which still has an amazing capacity to touch and sometimes to inspire us (think of your favorite Christmas movie or novel). And you may find Jesus cradled in the arms of a homeless person, or the embrace of family, or in giving to people in our lives and to the least, most vulnerable in our midst. Communally and individually, may we, following the example of Jesus’ mother Mary, and Mary Ann O’Roark, join in responding to God by saying, “Let it be with me according to your word."[2]


[1] Mary Ann O’Roark, “Empty Manger,” Guideposts, December 2002, pp. 24-27.
[2] Luke 1:38.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Making peace not war with North Korea

Fear, hate, and conflict too often operate as a closed, self-reinforcing, repeating cycle. Fear feeds hate; hate feeds conflict; and conflict feeds fear.

Optimally, peacemakers disrupt that destructive cycle before conflict escalates into war. Fear (perfect love casts out fear), hate (love your neighbor), and violent conflict (turn the other cheek and the prioritization of life over property) are all antithetical to Jesus’ teachings.

North Korea and the United States are currently locked in an escalating cycle of fear, hate, and conflict. Briefly recapitulating North Korean and U.S. moves underscores the growing danger this cycle poses if it continues uninterrupted:

·       President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Il have repeatedly responded to one another with increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Moreover, the U.S. has heightened its defensive posture, the U.S. Department of Defense is considering ordering family members of military personnel stationed in South Korea to return to the States, and Hawai’i (where I live) has resumed testing its Cold War Civil Defense alert system and promulgated instructions to residents on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Consequently, pundits and the public alike now openly talk about their fear of a potential U.S. – North Korean war.

·       Among actions that promote not only fear but hate, President Trump and Kim Jong Il consistently engage in xenophobic rhetoric and mutual name calling. Their xenophobia and name calling depersonalizes the other and the other’s nation. Depersonalization is a key element of and catalyst for hate. (I quote neither leader because doing so would indirectly contribute to their hateful efforts.)

·       Missile launches, nuclear weapon tests, expedited improvements to anti-missile systems, vastly increased military spending, aircraft carrier deployments, and expanded economic sanctions all indicate heightened levels of conflict. Importantly, some military ethicists argue that economic sanctions are a form of war waged by non-lethal means.

The foregoing analysis may appear to attribute disproportionate responsibility for this escalating cycle to the U.S. However, that imbalance simply results from fundamental differences between the two societies. U.S. moves, reported by a free press, are easier to ascertain than are North Korean moves that occur in the world’s most secretive state. The most reasonable supposition, supported by all available evidence, is that North Korea bears equal or greater responsibility for the current state of affairs.

What can Episcopalians, a small group of relatively powerless U.S. Christians, do to help break this potentially nightmarish cycle of fear, hate, and conflict?

Firstly, we need to gain courage by remembering that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:17) and that Jesus exhorted his disciples to “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Thereby empowered, stand boldly and openly against the contagion of fear.

Whether anyone likes it or not, North Korea is today a nuclear power. Its nuclear weapons assuredly provide this isolated state and its dictatorial ruler increased confidence and self-esteem. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions have never caused any nation, once it has acquired nuclear weapons, to disarm. Expecting that North Korea to disarm voluntarily is naïve and unrealistic.

Aware of the potential nuclear threat that North Korea poses, courageous Christians nonetheless will refuse to panic or allow fear to shape their lives. They draw additional strength from their recognition that Kim, who is neither insane nor mentally ill, and the North Korean people do not want to fight a nuclear war they cannot win.

Secondly, we should speak and act in ways that incarnate God’s love for all, including both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Il. God, as Peter learned, accepts everyone as a beloved child. Mark’s (7:24-30) account of Jesus’ dialogue with a Syrophoenician woman memorably underscores this point. Indeed, God calls Christians to speak not with hate but with a love that welcomes and heals.

Choosing whom we identify as an enemy illustrates language’s power to shape relationships. Although I abhor most of Kim’s policies and those of his predecessors, I refuse to consider him, North Korea, or its people my enemies. North Koreans live in an unenviable police state and most endure abject poverty. They need our compassion, not our hate. Kim’s murderous bellicosity reveals his unremitting wariness against internal and external threats, real or imagined, upon which the continuance of his rule and life depend.

Similarly, I object to slogans such as America first (or North Korea first). These slogans are inimical with Christian love because they elevate one group of people while implicitly demeaning other peoples. More helpfully and hopefully, remember that North Korea is one of the last five remaining communist nations and that it, like all tyrannies, will eventually collapse from its own internal dysfunctionality. Engagement rather than isolation will expedite that collapse.

Groups such as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and The Episcopal Church (particularly through its Washington Office) can constructively urge the U.S. and other states to welcome North Korea as part of the global community, giving North Korea the respect that they crave and boosting their confidence that they are secure from external threats. Steps to build bridges connecting North Korea and its people with the rest of the world include cultural exchanges, replacing sanctions with trade that incentivizes economic growth and improves the well-being of North Koreans, expanding their internet access, etc. These steps not only counter hate but also erode the ability of hate proponents to regain traction.

Finally, make peace, not war. Military action aimed at destroying North Korea’s nuclear weapons will fail and probably lead to a nuclear holocaust. A successful strike against North Korea’s nuclear capacity requires knowing the location of all of its nuclear weapons and of its weapon making facilities, then destroying those targets before North Korea is able to launch any of its weapons. If such a strike succeeded, North Korea would still possess a formidable non-nuclear military might with which it might strike at South Korea and U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula in retaliation for the preemptive strike. Media reports agree that U.S. military leaders oppose such a preemptive strike because of the improbability of success and the danger, after a partially successful preemptive strike, of North Korea launching a nuclear attack against South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. Christians, in cooperation with others opposed to military action against North Korea, today make peace and not war by protesting against the escalating conflict. A preemptive U.S. strike against North Korea serves no one’s interest.

Concurrently, make peace not war by advocating smaller defense budgets. Tulsi Gabbard, one of Hawai'i’s two Congressional representatives, is a combat veteran and Major in the National Guard. Her vote was one of just 72 against the proposed $700 billion 2018 U.S. defense budget. She opposed the bill because she believes some U.S. Middle Eastern arms sales harm the U.S. Encourage other members of Congress to emulate her example and vote against defense spending that harms the U.S. by destabilizing the Korean peninsula.

Make peace and not war by supporting with time and money candidates whose actions, and not just their words, demonstrate their commitment to peacemaking. Alternatively, run for office or convince a committed peacemaker to run for office. One New Testament thematic thread maintains that God gives us government for our benefit. In a democracy such as the United States, government is at least partially of the people, by the people, and for the people. This means political campaigning can be an essential facet of doing God’s work.

Admittedly, some of my recommendations resemble familiar nostrums. That is not a reason to ignore them. Living courageously in the face of fear, choosing to love instead of hate, and making peace instead of war are basic components of Christian discipleship. Now – especially as we near the end of Advent and begin our annual celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace – is the time for Christian peacemakers to join the struggle to end the cycle of fear, hate, and escalating conflict between North Korea and the United States.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Advent calls us to work for social justice

My reading the past few months has emphasized U.S. political history. Among the books I have read are:
Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance
Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace
Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II
Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship
Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism
Robert A. Caro, The Years of LBJ: The Path to Power
Barrack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Chris Whipple, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
Jay Parini, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America
Michael Eric Dyson, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America
Robert A. Caro, Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson II
Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III
Robert A. Caro, Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson IV
A theme that runs throughout those books, perhaps most surprisingly and unexpectedly in Chernow’s work on the House of Morgan, is that of important leaders attempting to act in the national interest. Many actions clothed in the rhetoric of national interest may have been more accurately described as in the interest of self, a small group of powerful people, or special interests. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of claiming to act in the national interest was apparently important and pervasive.
In the last fifty years, the concept of national interest has, thankfully, been widely broadened to include people of color and women. The current protests against inappropriate sexual harassment and illegal sexual assault in the workplace and other public places indicates that we still have a long way to go before women are fully and equally included in concern about the national interest. Similarly, the redefinition of national interest to fully and equally include people of color still has a long way to go as evidenced by the frequently racially driven controversies over Obama’s election and presidency.
Two things disturb me in spite of the progress I see and the distance yet to go before the arc of history fully bends toward justice.
First, too many leaders today primarily address their hearer’s self-interest. The rhetoric of national interest, even if more pretense than real, has given way to crude pandering to self-interest. This represents a step backward. Reclaiming the rhetoric of national, or, better yet, global interest at least puts a concern for more than self on the agenda.
Second, in the absence of rhetoric about national interest some leaders now focus almost exclusively on the interests of certain white males. Those white males include the affluent 1%, evangelical Christians, and whites who feel that they have been disenfranchised or left behind as the economy has automated, globalized, and responded to environmental concerns. Election of such leaders represents a hugely disturbing outcome of abandoning a broader, more inclusive rhetoric and an attempt to turn return to a more unjust, inequitable age.
In this season of Advent, remember that Jesus taught us to love all of our neighbors, not just neighbors who look like us or who share our values. If we would be part of fulfilling God’s vision for creation, then we must commit not only to the rhetoric of inclusivity but also to working to make that vision reality. Speak out against leaders who practice and advocate injustice and inequality. Vote to elect truly inclusive leaders. Let Advent become a clarion call to using your time and money to support campaigns and programs of social justice. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rethinking TEC's budget

The Most Rev. Michael Curry has been Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church for less than two years. Yet, while attending the Diocese of Hawai’i’s annual convention in October, I was impressed by Bishop Curry’s pervasive influence on the proceedings. His influence was especially noteworthy because Bishop Curry was not present and will not officially visit this Diocese until 2019.

Evidence of his influence included:

  • A speaker early in the proceedings repeatedly emphasized that one of his favorite quotations was from Bishop Curry (Forgive like Jesus; love like Jesus; serve like Jesus)
  • A video report from the Diocesan youth attendees at the Episcopal Youth Event prominently featured Bishop Curry and his dynamic preaching
  • Several individuals referenced Bishop Curry’s call for Episcopalians to become Jesus people.

More broadly, Bishop Curry’s influence is evident across our denominational structures, organization, and programs. Illustratively, his influence is apparent in the new budget format that Executive Council member Tess Judge, who chairs the Finance for Mission Committee, recently announced: “In the current and prior triennia, the budgets were built to reflect the Five Marks of Mission. The 2019-2021 budget is based on The Jesus Movement with Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation & Justice, and Environmental Stewardship as priorities.” She also observed that the new format better aligns the budget with the staff’s current departmental organization, another indication of Bishop Curry’s influence. (Margaret Wessel Walker, “Invitation to comment on preliminary draft budget,” November 13, 2017)

As a priest who emphasizes Jesus’ many teachings about money and as a former business school ethics professor, I recognize the truth in the old adage, Money talks. How we – whether a business, an individual, a family, a parish, or a denomination – spend our money reveals our values and our priorities.

Closer examination of The Episcopal Church’s (TEC’s) budget suggests that we have some distance to travel before we actually realize Bishop Curry’s vision of a Jesus Movement.

First, the budget proposes a deficit of $4,491,411. If all of the people who sit in Episcopal church pews were actually committed to the Jesus Movement, giving would be substantially greater, thereby increasing income for dioceses and the national church. TEC needs to revitalize and energize its connections with its chief constituents, that is, its dioceses and congregations.

TEC’s anticipated income from dioceses over the 2019-2021 triennium is $87.2 million, or about $17 per Episcopalian per annum. Of course, not all 1.72 million nominal Episcopalians contribute to their local congregation, much less are active. However, those numbers do highlight that we Episcopalians are a long way from truly becoming Jesus People. In general, we have not aligned our individual values and priorities with those consonant with Bishop Curry’s vision of the Jesus Movement. Endowment and other non-offering income keeps TEC, like many of its dioceses and congregations, financially afloat, e.g., in 2016, plate and pledge income only slightly exceeded 58% of total income. (Cf. EPISCOPAL CHURCH DOMESTIC FAST FACTS: 2016).

Second, the draft budget underscores TEC’s (and Christianity’s) marginalization. Christendom, if it ever existed, is dead. The US economy in 2016 had a Gross Domestic Product of $18.57 trillion. Compared to total US economic output, TEC’s annual budget of less than $45 million is a relative pittance. The US currently has 540 billionaires, the poorest of whom could singlehandedly fund TEC’s budget for 22 years without any additional income or assets.

TEC will maximize its potential effectiveness by prayerfully and intentionally focusing its scant resources and efforts on a small set of priorities such as Bishop Curry’s three marks of the Jesus Movement: Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation & Justice, and Creation Care. Taken together, the draft budget recommends only $14.4 million for those three categories, about 10% of the triennium budget, arguably too little to maximize TEC’s impact. No longer can we try to be all things to all people, to undertake every ministry and mission that is part of ushering in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Reshaping TEC will inevitably require hard choices between competing ministry/mission options.

For example, I personally appreciate the ministry of several Bishops Suffragan for Federal Ministries. In my long service as a Navy chaplain representing TEC, their ministries provided vital support, guidance, and assistance. I remain firmly committed to TEC supporting our chaplains and their indispensable ministries. However, the proposed budget for Federal Ministries is almost three times that allocated to Creation Care, one of the three characteristics of Jesus People ($2.1 million versus $740 thousand). Concurrently, the numbers of TEC federal chaplains and of the Episcopalians to whom they minister are declining. Critically, the budget for Creation Care does not fund a staff position, a key element of effectiveness in bureaucratic organizations like TEC. Perhaps it is time to rethink how TEC supports federal chaplains. Alternative, lower cost arrangements may be possible for endorsing, guiding, supporting, and assisting federal chaplains. TEC needs to determine acceptable tradeoffs not only between lower levels of support for federal chaplains and increased funding for the marks of the Jesus Movement but also with respect to all of its existing programs.

Altering how TEC does ministry and mission is essential if we are truly to align our resources and efforts with the Jesus Movement. Realignment, as the foregoing example shows, will be costly in both dollars and reductions to valuable programs. Furthermore, attempting realignment will certainly trigger strong, vociferous objections. But being faithful stewards of our limited resources will require slaughtering some sacred cows as we make tough choices, choosing the more valuable of two good programs when we lack the resources to fund both.

Third, TEC spends far too much on governance and connectivity. The budget includes five addtional categories in addition to the three that correspond to the marks of the Jesus Movement. Those five are: Ministry of the Presiding Bishop to Church and World, Mission Within the Episcopal Church, Mission Beyond the Episcopal Church, Mission Governance, and Mission Finance, Legal & Operations. The last two categories represent almost 49% of the draft budget.

Mission Governance costs of $19 million are primarily attributable to meetings, including General Convention, Executive Council, and other internal bodies. Electronic communication and social media will enable us to replace many structures that worked well in the early nineteenth century. TEC and some dioceses have already taken initial steps in this direction. Additionally, a large majority of Episcopalians are disinterested in TEC’s governance and its national structure, either ignorant of what TEC does or believing that TEC provides little or no support to their local congregation. Connectivity, both within TEC and with other Churches, is increasingly the exclusive domain of an elite few rather than an essential component of the average Episcopalian’s spiritual journey.

Mission Finance, Legal & Operations costs of $40 million are primarily overhead, i.e., fundraising, financial management and accounting, legal, facilities, human resources, etc. At 30% of total projected expenses, this means that TEC spends something in the range of 70% of its total income on ministry and mission. If TEC were a secular charity, I would hesitate to contribute because of these high administrative costs. Even if the $40 million encompasses a few programs more accurately identified as ministry or mission, administrative costs seem disproportionately high and are symptomatic of an arteriosclerotic organization that would benefit from creative disruption.

The three characteristics of the Jesus Movement that Bishop Curry emphasizes – Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation & Justice, and Environmental Stewardship – may not be inherently superior to other emphases. However, TEC elected Bishop Curry as our Presiding Bishop. His influence is rapidly becoming pervasive throughout The Episcopal Church. So, let’s capitalize on that momentum, quit living in the past, sharpen our focus, cut overhead, and accelerate developing and funding ministries and missions for the twenty-first century, confident that the Holy Spirt will bless our efforts.

Monday, December 11, 2017

When history and faith intersect

When a Navy ship passes the ARIZONA Memorial, that ship renders honors as if passing another ship. The bosun of the watch pipes attention to port or starboard, as the case may be, and then everyone on deck on that side of the ship comes to attention and, at the designated moment, renders a hand salute to the ARIZONA. At first, rendering honors to a sunken ship seemed strange. Over time, I realized that the practice honored not only the one thousand one hundred and seventy-seven sailors and Marines killed in the sinking of the ARIZONA but also all who died in the attack on the seventh of December 1941.

The reading from Ecclesiasticus (44:1-15) reminds us to honor not only the famous but also the unknown yet numerous ordinary, godly Israelites whose names are lost to history. This cross, constructed from metal taken from the ARIZONA’s hull, calls us to pause for a moment to honor by remembering with a brief prayer both for those who died on December 7, 1941 and the people who found their spiritual home at St George’s, for which the cross was originally made.

I have also attended reenlistment ceremonies aboard the ARIZONA, ceremonies in which a sailor committed him or herself to serving in the Navy for another three to six years. Sailors choosing to celebrate an important career milestone aboard a memorial to a ship sunk in a tragic defeat, a site hallowed by the entombment of over one thousand sailors and Marines, may seem incongruous. Yet, as today’s first reading clearly implies, we remember those who died for causes and values we hold dear not only to honor them but also in the hope that we shall have the courage, perseverance, and strength to emulate their example.

Jesus was the human face of God. We tell his story to encourage ourselves and others to follow his example. Similarly, when we talk story and personalize our memories, drawing inspiration from a specific person, we more easily avoid the temptation of remembering without genuinely honoring their memory by following their example.

For example, one such person was Ken Perkins, whom you also may have been privileged to know and whose life repeatedly intersected with what this memorial symbolizes. Ken was ordained priest here in 1933. After filling various positions, including at St. Andrew’s, he served as a Navy chaplain from 1941 to 1962. Then he served as rector of St. George’s Church for a decade. In retirement, Ken was for many years the diocesan historian. He died in 2001. There were some memorable moments in his ministry: watching the battle of Midway, praying at the dedication of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, and as chaplain of the USS AUGUSTA preaching to President Truman en route to the 1945 Potsdam Conference. But, like most of us, Ken never did anything earthshaking. However, in conversing with Ken and his wife Ruth, I repeatedly thought to myself that I would do well to emulate this man: a good person and faithful if unsung priest through whom God had transformed many lives. Who is the unknown saint on whom you pattern spiritual journey?

In 1984, I conducted the committal service for Seaman 2nd Class Donald Hugh Millikin. He was the second of the ARIZONA crew members who survived the December seventh attack who, when he died, wished to be interred with his shipmates. A National Park Service employee and I took a small boat to the ARIZONA when it was closed to visitors, positioned ourselves above the Number 4 turret, and the Park Service employee dropped the urn containing Donald’s ashes into the turret at the correct moment as I read the committal service.

This Memorial beautifully represents history and faith intersecting. When we respond to God’s call, we become part of God creating a new heaven and a new earth. Joining with God and the company of saints, apparent defeats – death on a cross, efforts to bend the arc of history away from freedom and justice, or the closing of a once thriving parish – are nothing more than the birth pangs of that new creation. Doing God’s work, not seeking fame or fortune, is our calling.

May this Memorial help us to honor the unsung heroes of the USS ARIZONA and St George’s Church; may we tell their stories and emulate their examples; and may we, like them, be part of the great company of saints on earth and in heaven. Amen.

(I preached this sermon at the Dedication of the USS ARIZONA Memorial, seen in the attached photo, in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Honolulu, HI, December 10, 2017.)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Not like me

Photos of Donald Trump in group settings greatly disturb me. The people around him all look a lot like he does: older, Caucasian, and male. I don’t have anything older Caucasian males; I myself am one.

However, photos of Trump with groups comprised exclusively, or overwhelmingly disproportionately, of older Caucasian males harken back decades to when such photos were the norm because older Caucasian males dominated most spheres of life (politics, business, etc.) in the United States.

Such photos do not depict who I am as a social being nor do they depict who we are as a people or should strive to be. Diversity enriches politics, business, friendships, and all other spheres of our personal and communal lives.

Where are the women in these photos? Where are the people of color?

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, the US under his leadership has moved away from being a government of, by, and for the people. Sadly, his anti-immigrant policies, along with other moves such as the tax cut working its way through Congress, attempt to push back the arc of justice rather than to advance that arc.

God values each person individually, treasuring our different genders, races, ethnicities, gender orientations, etc. Homogenization fails God, self, and community.

Monday, December 4, 2017


A friend, who is also a Christian, a scientist, and an ardent environmentalist, sent me the following:
Americans throw away 25% more trash from Thanksgiving to Christmas than the rest of the year. Advent, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is the time we prepare for the joy of God entering the world as a baby. It is a beautiful reminder to us that God loved the world enough to be part of the created world with us! It can also be a reminder of how we treat the earth that God loves. If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet. What if we tied a bow around our relationships and experiences to show thanks to God rather than to ribbon? If we each sent one card less, we’d save 50,000 cubic yards of paper. Nearly half the world’s toys are in America, despite making up just over 3% of the global population of children. Let’s show our love of God and our neighbor with less stuff and more love.

Weekly actions for December can be found on the website:

Monday, November 27, 2017

Advent thoughts on Cyber Monday

On this Cyber Monday, after the largest sales retailers ever recorded for Black Friday, retailers are working hard to establish another record. The advertising can almost make one feel un-American for not shopping.

Sadly, consumer spending (and to a substantially lesser degree, defense spending) now drive the US economy. Imagine the good that people in the US might achieve if much of their consumer spending and much of the nation’s defense spending were redirected to programs that support human well-being (such as education, nutrition, healthcare, and housing) and programs that benefit all, especially infrastructure improvements.

Musing about these issues reminded me of an Ethical Musings Advent post from 2011, Internet advertising, bibliolatry, and Advent. Advent is an annual reminder that relationships, not spending, lays the foundation for an abundant, fulfilling life.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, thank God for life. Life is our real blessing from God, an idea enshrined in the classic Jewish toast of Le Chaim (to life). For in life – whether in the beauty of the world, relationships of love, human creativity, our limited autonomy, or our self-awareness – we experience an echo or reflection of the divine.

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

Although I first posted this essay on Ethical Musings in 2013, years before my diagnosis with cancer and President Trump’s insistence on America first as the foundation of his foreign policy, I find its ideas even more timely in 2017 than in 2013.

For what are you thankful? To whom do you give thanks?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fake news versus real news: Is there a difference?

Donald Trump in his presidential campaign last year popularized the practice of labelling news reports with which one disagrees “fake news.” Since then, the practice of calling news reports “fake news” has proliferated, spreading among conservatives and liberals.
Is there a difference between “fake news” and “real news”?
In answering that question, I want to avoid using the word “truth” and its cognates. Truth has too many meanings to permit easy use in this context. A friend and I had an extended conversation on Ethical Musings some years ago about the nature of truth. He argued that if truth does exist, it is impossible for humans to know truth with certainty, a position akin to that of Hegel’s postmodern individualism.
On some issues I agree with my friend. For example, nobody can prove that God (a human word denoting ultimate reality) does or does not exist. Furthermore, given the unknowability of ultimate reality and the limitations of human language, each person lives with her or his own truth with respect to God. Witnesses to a crime (or any other incident) similarly have personalized, unique memories of the event, shaped by the individual’s inherently selective perception of the event, pre-existing brain patterns that process those perceptions, and their brain’s retention or non-retention of those processed perceptions. Again, truth is highly individualized. Yet another example of the elusiveness of truth is the partial displacement by, and uneasy coexistence of, Newtonian physics and quantum physics.
However, I disagreed with my friend about other issues. In these instances, the word “truth” has a different meaning. “Truth” may denote a fact (or set of facts) or perception supported by the available evidence that was accumulated from multiple sources to ensure its validity and then tested for reliability. Illustratively, if numerous people describe a wall as red and a properly calibrated spectrometer agrees with that description, then I believe that we can truthfully say “the wall is red,” with the word “red” connoting the absorption of all light except that of wave lengths that humans usually describe in English as “red.”
By this standard, “fake news” denotes a news report in which the reported facts do not cohere to valid, reliable facts. Of course, opinions about the import of the facts will often vary widely. In the case of opinion, whether a person expressed a particular point of view is an issue of fact; the opinion, per se, represents a form of relative truth, personally determined.
To illustrate the distinction between fact and opinion, consider reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. Factually, the Russians meddled. The preponderance of evidence is valid (actually reveals Russian attempts to interfere in the election) and reliable (comes from highly trustworthy, multiple independent sources). Reports of Russian meddling are not fake news but real or true. However, far less certain is whether the Trump campaign colluded or was aware of that meddling, at this time more a matter of opinion than fact. Concern about the integrity of US elections should prompt continuing efforts to resolve the truth of all such claims.

Civil discourse and the search both meaning both require clarity about truth. I’m deeply disturbed that claims of “fake news” are proliferating in an effort to dismiss uncomfortable truths, i.e., facts one strongly prefers to discredit and then ignore. Distinguishing “real news” from “fake news” requires the hard work of setting aside personal prejudices to dig into available data and engage in the careful, time-consuming analysis. On occasion, the process may entail suspending judgment until sufficient valid, reliable data becomes available.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Crisis: Danger or Opportunity?

The Chinese character for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. Military veterans, whose service we honor on Veterans Day, appreciate that double meaning. No military effort in war – whether traditional combat such as was fought in WWII, Korea, and the first Gulf War or a less traditional form of war such as was fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places – is without danger and an opportunity for potential gain. Great military commanders have the ability to recognize when the potential gain exceeds the danger.
Military veterans also know that the military loves a crisis. In the absence of a genuine crisis, leaders from the ranks of NCOs up through four-star officers tend to create an artificial crisis. Crises evoke a sense of urgency that can prioritize the perceived urgent over the truly important. Crises can aid in developing team spirit and teamwork. The stress of artificial crises is one way to prepare military personnel for the actual stress of combat.
Post-retirement, I have recognized that many civilians also love a crisis. Pundits are fond of identifying a crisis, real or imagined, that the world, nation, or a particular group of people face. Then, if the pundit takes the role of public intellectual seriously, proposes a solution to the crisis.
Careful analysis and an in-depth knowledge of history contextualizes and clarifies the true nature of many alleged crisis. Illustratively, the current political gridlock and polarization echoes Congress’ inability to pass any major legislation from the 1870s until FDR’s election as President. Similarly, the often-touted social stability and economic progress of the 1950s reflects a predominantly white perspective; for black Americans, the 1950s largely continued the racial injustice of previous decades. In sum, the nature of a crisis is often definitively shaped by the eye of the beholder.
People, according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, cope with a crisis in one of three ways. A crisis may activate the person (this is the military’s general expectation), prompt a reappraisal of what is happening (politicians and pundits both hope that declaring something a crisis will at least prompt people to reappraise the situation, if not act), or trigger avoidance (i.e., respond like the proverbial ostrich).
Brian D. McLaren in his book, Everything Must Change, identified four global crises that he believes we face:
  1. The crisis of the planet, which I called the Prosperity Crisis, since our way of pursuing prosperity is unsustainable ecologically.
  2. The crisis of poverty, which I called the Equity Crisis, since the gap between rich and poor is growing, leaving more and more people in a less and less equitable situation.
  3. The crisis of peace, which I called the Security Crisis, in which the widening gap between a rich minority and a poor majority plunges both groups into a vicious cycle of violence, each group arming itself with more and more catastrophic weapons.
  4. The crisis of religion, which I called the Spirituality Crisis, since all our world’s religions are failing to inspire us to address the first three crises, and in fact too often they are inspiring us to behave in ways counterproductive to human survival. (Summary taken from McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, p. 253)

Few people can concurrently cope creatively with four crises, much less the numerous other crises that are features of our personal, professional, social, and political lives. Overwhelmed by too many crises, avoidance typically becomes our response of choice.
Nonetheless, I find McLaren’s listing of the four crises broadly useful as an ethical framework for approaching the future.
However, instead of attempting to respond to all four, at best fragmenting my efforts and at worst suffering from an ethical and practical paralysis, I choose one of the four as the primary focus of my efforts. That focus may shift over time. And I remain interested in all four. But as part of a community of believers, I trust others to focus on the three that are not my prime focus. Indeed, I rely upon others to assist with the crisis that focuses my efforts because all four global crises are too large for any one person to address in total. Concurrently with my personal responses to one of the four crises, I support the efforts of others with my prayers as well as through timely, appropriate comments in my teaching, preaching, and writing.
Furthermore, I find McLaren’s framework helpful in sorting, weighing, and prioritizing the numerous crises that lay claims on my attention and resources. What is truly important (and not simply urgent)? What coheres well with my overall focus? Where can I personally make a difference? Where can only I make a difference?

Conservative economist Milton Friedman believed, “ONLY A CRISIS – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Emulate those veterans who joined the military to make a difference in the world. Choose your crisis wisely and make a difference! 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hope, positive thinking, science, and All Saints Day

(This post first appeared on Ethical Musings in October 2014).

Two conflicting – almost diametrically opposed – news reports recently caught my attention. The first, published in The Atlantic (Maggie Puniewska, "Optimism is the Enemy of Action," October 17, 2014) reviewed scientific research that supposedly demonstrates that positive thinking impedes achievement. The second, published in the New York Times (Bruce Grierson, "What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" October 22, 2014) argues the opposite, citing research that suggests a person can retard, perhaps even prevent aging, by thinking her or himself young. Both studies are worth a read.

Then I came across an article in Science (Tom Siegfried, "In science, popularity breeds unreliability," October 17, 2014). Siegfried cites research to show that the popular news media tends to feature reports of controversial studies and studies with practical implications, regardless of the quality of the research undergirding the study. That conclusion made sense to me, especially in view of the two news items I had read in the previous hour.

Let me advocate two theses.

First, one cannot use good science to prove anything (unlike the Bible, in which one can find a justification for almost anything!). Unlike biblical interpretation, quality science functions by using standardized principles: articulate a thesis; develop testable predictions based upon that thesis; then test the accuracy of those predictions adhering to recognized scientific methods and protocols.
Incidentally, a scientific approach to biblical study can occasionally be helpful. For example, predictions of the end of the world, based on whatever biblical texts one wishes to consult, represent a thesis (one can predict the end of the world) that is testable (i.e., a prediction of when the world will end). To date, the dozens if not hundreds of specific dates proposed have all proven false. Biblical prophets described God at work in their world; they did not predict the future.
Good science reports that Ebola is transmitted only through body fluids (spit, blood, urine, etc.). Ebola is not transmitted through the air. This is not a matter of opinion or choosing one study over another. There is simply no evidence of airborne transmission of the virus that causes Ebola. Religious leaders of all traditions support people in living abundantly by fighting unfounded fears and promoting courageous living.

Second, positive thinking can enhance one's quality of life but is no substitute for hard work, perseverance, skill, or knowledge. Hope is one expression of positive thinking. If a person has no hope of a better future (or better performance, or positive change – depending upon the specific hope), then the person is unlikely to change, improve, grow, etc. Hope is essential. I have repeatedly witnessed the power of hope to transform life. Among the transformations I have observed are a sick person who believed that they were dying recover hope for healing and return to health, persons in relationships they thought were dead revitalize self and the relationship, and persons who had given up on self experience renewal.

The Bible is an anthology of stories about the power of hope – positive thinking – transforming life, an anthology of windows through which the light of God shines and illuminates our lives. This is not a matter of science, but like science, I have seen the evidence of my thesis (positive thoughts as one walks in God's light) in the lives of changed people.

All Saints Day, celebrated annually on November 1 (many churches may celebrate this year on Sunday, November 5), is set aside, in part, to recall the lives of the countless people in whose lives we can observe God's transformative love and power at work. Who is your hero in the faith? In whom do you see, or have you seen, the light of God shining?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

One person can make a difference

One person can make a difference.
When I write this, the Most Rev. Michael Curry has been Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church for less than two years. Yet while attending the Diocese of Hawai’i’s annual convention a couple of weeks ago I was impressed by Bishop Curry’s pervasive influence on the proceedings. This influence was especially noteworthy because Bishop Curry was not present and will not formally visit this Diocese until 2019.
Evidence of his influence included:
  • A speaker early in the proceedings repeatedly emphasizing that one of his favorite quotations was from Bishop Curry (Forgive like Jesus; love like Jesus; serve like Jesus)
  • A video report from the Diocesan youth attendees at the Episcopal Youth Event that prominently featured Bishop Curry and his dynamic preaching
  • References by several individuals to Bishop Curry’s call for Episcopalians to become Jesus people.
What has enabled Bishop Curry, unlike some of his predecessors, to have such an outsize effect on the Episcopal Church? Among the important elements of the answer to that question are:
  • His consistent focus on a single message, consistently applying and presenting that message in a wide variety of contexts
  • His recognizing and utilizing his significant gifts as a communicator
  • The work of the Holy Spirit, blessing a bishop who has been called for such a time as this.
We live in an era when many individuals seek fifteen minutes – or more – of fame. Much of our contemporary culture worships celebrities, whether they are figures from the world of sports, media, entertainment, political, or business. These individuals are twenty-first century idols. Very often, celebrity personas are as contrived and artificial as were the stone and wooden idols about which we read in the Bible.
Each person has a choice. Each must decide whether to pursue celebrity or making a difference in the world. Very few individuals will make a difference and become a celebrity. And in pursuit of becoming a celebrity, the question arises of what price one is willing to pay to become a celebrity. Being a celebrity – even for just a few minutes – is rarely free or without compromise. Similarly, if one wants to make a difference in the world, the questions are what price one is willing to pay to make a difference and what difference one aims to make. Naming celebrities who have changed the world at considerable harm to others and to the world is relatively easy.
Naming living people who have changed the world for the better without harming others or the world, though perhaps at considerable cost to themselves, is much more difficult. Bishop Curry is arguably one such individual. Are you?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Luther, authority, and Anglicans

Recent commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation have often highlighted the two central tenets of Luther’s thought: sola fide (salvation is by faith alone, not works) and sola scriptura (scripture is the only source of truth). (For an especially good recapitulation of Luther’s life and work, follow this link to an article in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella, “How Martin Luther Changed the World.”)
The second of those tenets – sola scriptura – represents a key distinction between fundamentalists and other Christians. Historically, Anglicans have stood firmly with the majority and opposed fundamentalism. Notably, the largest block of non-fundamentalists and by far Christianity’s largest Church is the Roman Catholic Church that affirms scripture as a source of truth but complements it with the Church’s teaching magisterium. This latter source of authority is most fully embodied in the Pope, particularly in his capacity to speak ex-cathedra.
Anglicans traditionally affirmed three sources of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. The twentieth century brought growing recognition that the brain indissolubly intertwines reason, emotion, and experience. Consequently, the Anglican source of authority labelled reason is frequently understood to embrace this more robust and complete understanding of how the brain functions.
Rejecting Luther’s sola scriptura has benefitted Anglicanism in at least three ways. First, having three sources of authority best coheres with how human cognition functions. No person ever receives any form of input – verbal or otherwise – without physically processing that input in his/her brain. In other words, reason shapes a person’s understanding of the input. Illustratively, try reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Unless one happens to be fluent in hieroglyphics, the hieroglyphics may be considered an unknown language, decorative artwork, or even gibberish. A person receiving verbal communication, in a language in which one is fluent, will interpret that input using clues from grammar, usage, word meanings, etc. These clues inherently entail individual interpretation because each individual has a unique set of mental images associated with each unit of syntax. For example, words as simple as red (what exact shade?) and run (what stride, what pace?) evoke different images in different people.
Furthermore, the human brain operates on the basis of acquired patterns. Each item in human memory is stored as a separate pattern of synopses firings. Processing new input (e.g., from scripture) is not done in the abstract but on the basis of pre-existing patterns. The Anglican Church similarly processes its current reading of scripture using reason shaped by the patterns of Christian praxis, i.e., tradition.
Second, as a result of this interpretive process rooted in human nature and the interplay of three sources of authority, Anglicanism welcomes theological diversity finding its unity in common prayer rather than common belief. We pray together even if we believe differently.
Third, because of the inescapable dynamic interplay of Anglican’s three sources of authority, Anglicans today do not believe what Anglicans in the nineteenth century believed; nineteenth century Anglicans, in turn, did not believe what seventeenth century Anglicans did. Theology, much to the ire of some, is dynamic and not static.

Sadly, some contemporary Anglicans overemphasize reliance on scripture, thereby distorting any semblance of an equal balance between scripture, tradition, and reason. These Anglicans, many of whom live in the Global South and others of whom are members of groups such as the Anglican Church in North America, are choosing to separate themselves from the mainstream Anglicanism. Many of these bishops, for example, have indicated that they will refuse to attend the next Lambeth Conference to which all Anglican bishops are invited. Some of these Anglicans oppose the ordination of women as contrary to scripture; perhaps all of them oppose same sex marriage for the same reason.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Learning to see God

Nick, Jonathan and Diane Kramer’s eldest child, was a happy, energetic kid who’d usually come running or skipping out of school. But one fall day, when Nick was six years old, his dad was parked at the curb when Nick was walking slowly towards the car, his curly head hung low, his mouth turned down, a bunch of papers in his hand. Nick seemed to drag himself along the side-walk. He slowly pulled open the car door and slumped into the seat.
“Hi, Nick. How are you doing?” his dad asked. No response.
“What’s going on? Did something bad happen today?”
Nick slowly nodded yes before turning his face away.
“Oh, come on, Nick. Tell your old dad what’s wrong.”
“I’m bad,” Nick said at last.
“Bad? Why do you say that?”
Nick handed over a crumpled piece of paper. Smoothing it out it revealed rows of math problems. A big red “-3” dominated the top.
“Look,” Nick said, tears running down his cheeks, his lips quivering in an attempt at self-control. He pointed at the glaring red mark. “Look, dad, I got a bad grade.”
After considering for a long moment, his dad said, “That minus three doesn’t mean you’re bad or that you got a bad grade, Nick. It means you missed just three problems on this whole paper. Your teacher wants you to learn from your mistakes. But that’s not all that counts. How many did you get right?”
Nick had no idea so his dad started counting up the correct one’s that weren’t marked, pointing at each one as I went. By the tenth correct one, Nick had joined in the counting, and by the time we’d gotten to 27, Nick’s tear stained cheeks were showing signs of happiness. His dad had him write a big black “+27” next to the red “-3.”
“There. Twenty-seven right.” Nick absorbed the truth for a moment before his usual bright smile reinstated itself on his little-boy-face. The subject was changed and the day went on.[1]
That story encapsulates a fundamental lesson in faith. Far more than a set of beliefs, faith consists of developing a different perspective on life by learning to see God’s presence and activity in our midst. When we make that shift, we become like those considered simpletons in the presence of the allegedly wise or disciples of itinerant rabbi and miracle worker who discover to their amazement that they are able to bring healing just like Jesus did.
I long ago gave up pretending to be able to explain the mystery of the Eucharist, the power of the Holy Spirit in the conversation of two people who are fully present to one another, and so forth. Instead, I invest my efforts in learning to see as Jesus did, that is, in learning to see God’s presence and activity in our midst. Amen

[1] Jonathan Kramer and Diane Dunaway Kramer, Losing the Weight of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1986), pp. 86-87

Monday, October 9, 2017

Responding to the killings in Las Vegas

While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" (Luke 11:27-28)

A tall, powerfully built basketball player spoke on a radio talk show shortly after his team had captured the championship. The interviewer said, "You are all such talented players. You each have incredible ability. Don't you sometimes want to do your own thing? Isn't it hard for you to do it the coach's way?"
"Oh, no," the player responded, "you see, his way is our way."[1]
The mass killing perpetrated by Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas has dominated this week’s news cycle. To establish the context for that incident, in 2007, the US had 90 firearms per 100 persons, the highest firearm per capita ratio of any nation in the world, including heavily armed countries such as Yemen and Iraq.[2]
I was raised in Maine. As a boy, I enjoyed target and skeet shooting. I have had parishioners who depended upon hunting to feed their families, a commentary on the importance of paying employees a living wage. I served twenty-four years as a Navy chaplain ministering to sailors and Marines. Yet, I remain deeply troubled when I juxtapose the image of a gun toting citizen with that of the crucified Jesus. Events such as the killings in Las Vegas compound my discomfort with guns.
Anglican primates meeting in Canterbury this past week condemned the violence and issued a call for prayer for the casualties, their families, and an end to mass killings.
Prayer is good. Prayer is necessary. But prayer is insufficient. Having heard Jesus’ call to love our neighbor, we need to obey his exhortation. By obeying, his way becomes our way and we receive God’s blessing.
In what additional ways might we respond?
First, we helpfully insist that the bereaved, the wounded, first responders, and others effected by the shooting receive appropriate care and support. Their pain should never justify media or personal voyeurism.
Second, we might act to diminish the probability of similar incidents in the future. As a priest too well-acquainted with human sinfulness and as a counterterrorism scholar, I recognize the impossibility of preventing all incidents, particularly when the perpetrator is a lone wolf like Stephen Paddock. However, we can take steps to reduce the likelihood of such attacks. Constructive, widely supported steps include enacting and enforcing laws against bump stocks and other devices that convert semi-automatic weapons to automatic as well as mandating background checks to disqualify the mentally ill and persons convicted of violent crimes from purchasing guns.
The word blessed, makarios in the Greek text, means happy but even more denotes God extending God’s benefits to the one blessed. Jesus emphasized that the blessed are those who obey rather than simply pay lip service to God’s commands. May we exchange our personal and cultural fascination with guns for a fascination with Jesus; may we obey his call to be peacemakers who trust God rather than themselves for their security. Then we shall truly be blessed. Amen.

[1] The Upper Room, July/August 1994, p. 62.
[2] Newsweek, April 30, 2007 reprinted in Christian Century, May 15, 2007, p. 7

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Ken Burns and Lyn Novick’s Vietnam documentary recently broadcast on PBS reveals how US leaders, elected, appointed, or serving in the military, from Kennedy and his administration through to Nixon and his administration deceived the American public. In private, these leaders recognized that the Vietnam war was unwinnable. In public, these same leaders continued to justify their policies by claiming that victory was soon in sight.
Watching the series prompted me to wonder how many US leaders in the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump privately recognize that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unwinnable while publicly continuing to voice support for the wars.
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in US history. The war in Iraq is a close second. The US has spent well over one trillion dollars on those wars, all of which was deficit funded directly increasing the US debt. Future generations of Americans will have to pay for wars that have arguably made the world a less safe place. Assertions that a few thousand more troops or a new training program will enable the Afghans or Iraqis to defend themselves against internal insurrections and terrorists ring hollow and are eerily reminiscent of what US leaders said about pacification and Vietnamization efforts in the Vietnam war.
When the US withdrew from Vietnam, the collapse of South Vietnam was imminent and inevitable.
Postponing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan or Iraq will not alter the ultimate fate of either country. Afghanistan warlords increasingly ignore the central government with impunity; a resurgent Taliban is concurrently defeating Afghan forces and ruling areas. Now that the Kurds have voted for independence, Iraq appears poised on the brink of dissolution; Iran heavily influences Iraq’s Shiite government.

Squandering lives (thousands of US military personnel, hundreds of thousands of others) and treasure (more than $1 trillion) is indefensible and immoral when those sacrifices fail to make the world more just, more peaceful.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Power that gives life

A prior Ethical Musings’ post explored power that corrupts and corrodes. This post explores power that gives life.
Much theology, especially Christian theology, envisions God as almighty. Historically, theologians and church officials insist that almighty is meant literally, i.e., God is omnipotent.
Insisting that God is all powerful presumes that humans can use language to characterize God accurately. That presumption is false. God is the mystery that exists beyond the limits of human language, a view often labelled the via negativa. That is, every statement about who God is can be denied, pointing to a reality that lies beyond human description.
Furthermore, the characterization of God as omnipotent developed in the pre-scientific era, an era dominated by a worldview based upon a three-story universe (heaven, earth, and hell) in which humans were the pinnacle and center of creation. We know now that the cosmos has at least four dimensions, is vaster than humans can measure, and that earth with its human occupants reside not at the center but in a corner of the cosmos. God’s power may be far greater than any human power and thus inspire claims in scripture and other sources that God is all powerful. Nevertheless, human perceptions of God’s power are not logically synonymous with God actually being omnipotent. Thus liturgical, scriptural, and theological assertions of God’s almighty power are best understood as devotional rather than factual statements.
Prayers by faithful people to end, or at least to alleviate, great evils that appear to avail nothing have led theologians since the nineteenth century to argue that God is not omnipotent. Among these evils are the Holocaust, widespread famines, the suffering caused by natural disasters (hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, droughts, etc.), and painful, unwarranted suffering from diseases like pancreatic cancer and childhood blindness.
Some theologians now contend that in creating the cosmos, God surrendered certain powers as a necessary step to infusing creation with a degree of limited autonomy. Other, bolder theologians have proposed that God was never all powerful. These ideas, along with other conceptualizations of a non-omnipotent God, are speculative, an assessment consistent with the via negativa. Nobody can truly know whether God is all powerful.
Critically, for persons of faith, God is active in the cosmos. We may conceive of God as love, light, or more philosophically as the force that lures actual entities towards more abundant life. This is the presence or force to whom Jesus bore witness. This is the presence or force that gives life without corroding or corrupting.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Take a knee

Colin Kaepernick took to one knee during the pregame singing of the national anthem when he played for the San Francisco 49ers in a football game played before the 2016 US election to protest police violence against blacks. Since then, the controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s action has simmered before recently exploding.
For people of faith two elements of any response are clear and a third regrettably muddled.
First, people of faith know that forced religion is false religion. Similarly, forced patriotism is false patriotism. Symbolically honoring the US by standing during the national anthem is meaningless unless done voluntarily. Furthermore, hypocrisy never advances a cause.
Second, people of faith know that blind, unquestioning faith is tantamount to idolatry. Similarly, blind patriotism is tantamount to making an idol out of the object of one’s patriotism. Additionally, free speech and free expression, key components of personal freedom enshrined into law by the US Constitution, are meaningless if one cannot dissent in powerful, symbolic ways. Such means include choosing to kneel rather than to stand during the national anthem, an act akin to flag burning, which the Supreme Court has adjudged protected speech.
The spreading protest ignited by Kaepernick’s action has, however, muddled the issue of exactly what the symbolic action means. Is it a protest against the unjust treatment of blacks by some police officers (the hugely disproportionate number of blacks killed by police officers constitutes prima facie evidence for the claim of unjust treatment)? Is it an attempt to claim what Civil Rights advocated including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw as the promise of equal rights for all? Is taking a knee and standing with linked arms an effort to stand unified with those who protest, unified in affirming their first amendment rights, or something else?
I for one am unsure what the continuing protests mean. However, I stand united with protests against the continuing racism in the US; I stand united in defense of the first amendment; and I stand united with those who are proud to be US citizens but who also know that the path to true greatness lies in continuing progress toward justice rather than in blind patriotism. This, I believe, is a path that people of faith can and should walk, linking their deepest held religious beliefs with their incidental identity as a citizen of a particular country.