Monday, June 26, 2017

Why go to church?

Someone recently suggested to me that the key question for understanding what is happening in a congregation is to ask attendees this simple question: “Why do you go to church?”

Some answers are obvious and most applicable to long-term members:
  • I attend out of habit.
  • I attend because the Bible teaches Christians to attend worship.
  • I attend because I think this is what Jesus wants me to do.
  • I attend because my family attends.

These are not bad reasons for attending, but they are reasons that will generally fail to persuade anyone else to attend.

The morning after my conversation with the woman who posed the question, “Why do you go to church?” I came across this item, Stories – Your Website’s Secret Sauce, on the Lewis’ Center for Church Leadership’s website by Will Rice.

The article was not what I had imagined from the title. However, the article put the question about church attendance in the correct perspective. People begin attending church either because they seek transformation or because they have experience a transformation. And people continue attending for the same reasons.

Instead of asking long-term parishioners why they attend, convene a focus group of newcomers. Then, ask them to talk about why they attend your church. Their answers will identify your congregation’s strengths that attract newcomers. Capitalize on those strengths. Promote and expand them as the path to growth.


This approach to church growth appeals to me as a simple application of the appreciative inquiry method of leadership developed by David Cooperrider and his associates.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Further thoughts on a digital BCP

My Ethical Musings’ blog post, For such a time as this … an electronic prayer book, had previously appeared as a contribution to the Episcopal Café. That article received twenty-five comments mostly dissenting from my proposal that The Episcopal Church (TEC) publish its next revision of the Book of Common Prayer exclusively in a digital format. This post responds to those comments even though they failed to address many of the issues I raised in support of TEC utilizing an exclusively electronic (digital) Book of Common Prayer.

Revising the Book of Common Prayer will require at least ten years from today. If next year’s General Convention (GC) appoints a task force or tasks an existing body to draft a revision, the 2021 GC might forward that draft to dioceses for comment, asking the body that drafted the revision to carefully consider those comments; the 2024 GC could then debate the revised draft, probably amending sections and perhaps authorizing trial use; if the trial enjoyed popular acceptance, the 2027 GC might adopt the revision as TEC’s new prayer book. The actual timeline would conceivably (probably?) take longer, especially if some groups find some of the proposed revisions particularly problematic.

By 2027, our world will be far more digitally dependent than it is in 2017. Comfort with electronic media will be even more widespread. Some elementary, middle, and high schools already issue each student a personal computer or tablet, increasingly relying upon digital instead of printed materials. A growing percentage of college textbooks are available only in a digital format. Commercial sales of e-books continue to grow rapidly.

Consequently, for many people juggling a bulletin, prayer book, and one or more hymnals while trying to worship will feel increasingly awkward, distracting, and unhelpfully anachronistic. A forward-looking TEC will choose to adopt contextually appropriate technology rather than clinging to outdated media. As one response to my proposal noted, printing the first Book of Common Prayer represented utilizing the best technology then available. Since that time, branches of the Anglican Communion have published various editions of the Book of Common Prayer adapted to their context and in their language(s). Moving to an exclusively digital version of the Book of Common Prayer is simply the logical progression of this living tradition.

Furthermore, the proposal to publish any revision in an exclusively digital format is actually less radical than it might appear. TEC and others (some unauthorized) already make the Book of Common Prayer, other liturgical resources, and much of our hymnody available electronically. Illustratively, growing numbers of people, ordained and lay, say the daily office utilizing digital resources that incorporate the relevant Book of Common Prayer materials and prayers, scripture readings, and sometimes music and/or historical information about the saint(s) or event commemorated that day.

Incorporating hymns and service music into the revised electronic Book of Common Prayer may likely, as another respondent noted, raise copyright issues. That is not a reason to reject electronic publishing. Instead, it constitutes an issue that those who draft the revision and TEC’s lawyers will have to address. A printed Book of Common Prayer that incorporates hymns and service music would be both physically unwieldly and too large to fit in most pew racks. Only an electronic version offers the convenience of having all of our liturgical resources in a single, readily accessible source.

A digital resource will allow congregations and dioceses to make unauthorized changes, a problem that more than one respondent to my original proposal highlighted. These respondents ignored my observation that this already happens. Like them, I value being part of a Church that is defined by common prayer rather than common belief. However, ostrich like behavior that tries to ignore the unfortunate practice of local, unauthorized changes to the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgies and rubrics is not constructive. Not printing a revised Book of Common Prayer will neither accelerate or decelerate the use of unauthorized changes to the liturgy. This is a separate issue, one that deserves our attention, but not a reason to object to publishing a revised, comprehensive Book of Common Prayer in an exclusively digital format.

Currently, TEC has a number of alternative liturgies (e.g., for the eucharist) that congregations may use with their diocesan bishop’s permission. These liturgies are not in the Book of Common Prayer. Thus, congregations utilizing these liturgies must either print a service leaflet that contains the full liturgy or leave attendees in the dark about the timing and wording of participatory responses. These liturgies represent a de facto step away from total reliance upon a printed prayer book and a step toward use of a digital resource. The same issues arise when using the Book of Occasional Service’s seasonal and other liturgical resources.

Advantageously, relying upon a comprehensive, digital version of TEC liturgical resources will allow timely, no cost updates to language and content, e.g., replacing the outdated, exclusionary masculine terms in the rubrics with gender neutral ones and including both newly adopted materials as well as items authorized for trial use. As the multiple revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in this and other Anglican provinces attest, the Church’s worship is framed in continually evolving language and liturgy.

Finally, none of the respondents to my original piece adequately addressed the substantial financial costs to congregations and individuals who would need or desire to purchase printed revisions of the Book of Common Prayer and other TEC liturgical resources. These costs would greatly strain the financial resources of many of our small congregations. And TEC consists primarily of small congregations. One respondent did raise the important issue of environmental harm attributable to an increased number of congregations printing a leaflet for each service containing the full liturgy. However, that cumulative negative effect will very probably be significantly less than the combined adverse environmental effect attributable to printing both tens of thousands of copies of a revised Book of Common Prayer (TEC has over 5000 congregations) and the weekly leaflets containing the full liturgy that many congregations presently print.

I appreciate some people deriving personal comfort in holding a printed book. However, the Church is not about me or any other individual. The Church exists to minister to the world, particularly those hurting or spiritually empty persons who seek a different or new form spirituality. Over half of all Episcopalians began their Christian journey in another denomination. Concurrently, the fastest growing religious demographic in the US is the number of people who self-identify as having no religious preference, many of whom lack any religious background. Meanwhile, our culture is relentlessly switching to digital.

Becoming a people who truly welcomes both those moving from another denomination and those with no previous religious identity requires TEC to make its worship resources and materials as user friendly as reasonably possible. One vital component of this welcome is to provide the entire liturgy, words and music, in an easily accessible format, e.g., leaflets printed with the full liturgy, loaning attendees a handheld electronic device that displays the liturgy, projecting the liturgy onto one or more large screens, or a mix of these options. A digital Book of Common Prayer that includes our hymnals and other liturgical materials best supports all of these options, best utilizes TEC resources, and is most contextually appropriate for TEC as it lives into the twenty-first century.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Some ideas on how to improve biblical literacy

In a previous Ethical Musings post I lamented the increase of biblical illiteracy. I was therefore encouraged to read an article in the most recent edition of the Hawaiian Chronicle by the Bishop of Hawaii, Bob Fitzpatrick, who happens to be my bishop. His article offers some practical ideas on how to improve biblical literacy. He also sketches the approach to prayer that he finds personally fulfilling. His article, reachable by following this link, is well worth reading.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

For such a time as this ... an electronic prayer book

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer badly needs revision:
  • It is sexist, e.g., in its presumption that clergy and God are male;
  • It is exclusionary, e.g., the marriage rite is only for heterosexual couples;
  • It is limited, as evidenced by the proliferation and popularity of authorized alternative liturgies.

Others may add additional theological and liturgical reasons to that list.


Printing a revised Book of Common Prayer is inadvisable:
  • Many small congregations already struggle financially. Their having to replace the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with a revised book will only compound pre-existing financial problems.
  • Determining the contents of a new prayer book might prove impossible or even a catalyst for schism as individuals and groups fight over what to include in a volume that by its various nature is both limited (e.g., a 2000 page book would be unmanageable) and static.
  • The pace of social change is accelerating. Creating another static volume would probably result in a volume that was dated and in need of revision before it was fully implemented across the denomination.
  • One unmistakable direction of change is away from print toward electronic media. Some congregations have already effected this change. Instead of (or in addition to) a printed bulletin, they publish their bulletin electronically for access by people using smartphones and tablets.
  • Juggling the prayer book, one or more of our authorized hymnals, a bulletin, and perhaps a bulletin insert with the scripture readings, can leave a visitor to our worship services feeling bewildered and out of place. Consequently, numerous congregations now print their entire liturgy in the bulletin. This tactic welcomes visitors – a critical tactic for a denomination both suffering from numerical decline and one in which a majority of our current growth comes from adults moving to the Episcopal Church from another denomination.

Moving from a printed Book of Common Prayer to only an electronic version clearly represents the best alternative to a printed prayer book:
  • An electronic Book of Common Prayer can be user friendly, enabling easy preparation of electronic or printed bulletins as well as conveniently accessible daily offices in which the readings appear in situ after the user has selected her/his preferred version of the Bible. Furthermore, all of our authorized hymnals can be seamlessly integrated into an electronic prayer book, thus eliminating the need for printed hymnals in the pews because bulletins, whether printed or electronic, can include hymn texts with music. This shift would also facilitate updating music resources for our liturgies.
  • An electronic prayer book is a “living” document. Establishment of a permanent process for authoritatively updating would help to ensure comprehensiveness and currency.
  • Scattered congregations presently create their own liturgies, diverging from the basic precept that our common prayer unites us. Consistent use of authorized liturgies depends upon the priest-in-charge and not upon the medium used to publish our prayer book.
  • An electronic prayer book avoids costly replacement of printed prayer books.
  • An electronic prayer book with proper indexing and internal links can be easily accessible and expansively inclusive with no practical upper limit on its size.
  • An electronic prayer book embraces technology and the indisputable direction of social change toward greater reliance upon electronic media.

Perhaps the two biggest obstacles to shifting to a revised, electronic prayer book are the institutional inertia common to most large, venerable institutions and our proclivity to cling to tradition regardless of its merit. Parishioners, even most of those who initially opposed printing the full liturgy in the bulletin, soon tell me that they enjoy liturgy’s accessibility. However, they do not want to let go of having a printed prayer book. When I politely remark about the contradictory nature of these feelings, the most common response I receive is a shrug indicating the genuineness of their feelings, their awareness of the contradiction, and their reluctance to either stop printing the entire liturgy in the bulletin or to let go of the printer prayer book.

I predict that within five years of promulgating a revised, electronic version of the prayer book opposition to the idea will have largely given way to people asking “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

It's time to resurrect the ancient discipline of self-control

Donald Trump’s lack of self-control, evident in his Tweeting, prompted some thoughts about self-control. For many centuries, Christian spiritual adepts regarded self-control as an essential and basic step for those who traveled the Jesus path. A similar emphasis on self-control is found in other major religious traditions.
During the last seventy-five years, Christian theologians and ethicists have tended to ignore or downplay the importance of self-control.

In preparing this post, I reviewed what the Bible has to say about self-control:
  • The wisdom literature is explicit. Self-control is a basic virtue:

* Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control. (Proverbs 25:28)
* And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these. (Wisdom of Solomon 8:7)
  • Self-control is also a theme in Sirach as well as several other books in the Apocrypha.
  • Paul emphasized self-control in his discussions with Felix (Acts 24:25) and in his first letter to the Corinthians (9:14-27). Paul also utilized the concept of self-control more narrowly with respect to sexual behaviors.
  • Titus 1:8 advocates self-control as a virtue of bishops and, by implication, for all clergy; Titus 2:12 expands the expectation of self-control to include all Christians as does 2 Peter 1:6.

Self-control is an important virtue for several reasons:
  • Divulging one’s thoughts and feelings can hurt others, will often not achieve any productive results, and can actually interfere with the divulger achieving his/her own goals. Trump’s tweets illustrate all three of those problems. In sharp contrast to total openness, Jesus calls us to love one another, to do good, and to care for ourselves.
  • Self-control requires mastery over one’s thoughts and actions. Feelings are often beyond a person’s control. Nevertheless, the Bible assures us, as the lives of the saints exemplify, a person can master her/his thoughts and actions. For example, if a person regrettably finds him/herself in the midst of a terror attack, courage through the exercise of self-control can master one’s fear and avoid panic. In the stampede to exit the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester after the terror attack, televised videos showed some people calmly remaining in their seats.
  • Consistency is impossible without self-control. Everyone is buffeted by changing emotions and events. Self-control enables a person to keep a steady hand on the rudder of her/his life, maintaining a constant direction, e.g., without self-control few relationships would endure for very long.

Bruce Bower in his article, "Mastering the art of self-control" (Science News, Nov. 3, 2014) identified three scientifically supported secrets to self-control:
  1. Distract yourself. Kids who wait for two marshmallows often make up stories in their heads, sing songs or invent games to play.
  2. Make if-then plans and stick to them. Examples: If there is a dessert menu at the restaurant, I will not order chocolate cake. When the clock hits 5 p.m., I will read my textbook.
  3. Shift your time perspective from immediate desires to future negative consequences. A smoker pining for a puff can visualize himself as a cancer patient being wheeled into radiation treatment.

Research supports religion as an aid in developing and using self-control (Michael E. McCullough and Brian L. B. Willoughby, “Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications,” Psychological Bulletin, 135:1 (2009), 69-93). Some religious motivation is psychologically suspect. Feeling guilty because one has failed to exercise self-control or exercising self-control to avoid feeling guilty may work in the short-run but guilt is an ineffective long-term motivator. Similarly, concerns about what might happen after death is unlikely to be an effective motivator for self-control in the twenty-first century.
Conversely, religion can provide helpful motivations for developing and exercising self-control:
Religiously based motivations for moral behavior may also include desires to show gratitude to God, to promote one’s religion to others, or to accomplish other goals. In general, because religion allows people to base their everyday behavior upon high-level principles, it can sanctify and imbue the most mundane of activities with meaning and importance (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009). (Harold G. Koenig, Michael E. McCullough, and David B. Larson, Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.508)
Developing and exercising self-control constitutes at least one intersection between science and religion where the insights of each are mutually reinforcing. In an era in which our attention is constantly drawn to the adverse consequences of individuals having an apparent lack of self-control, I suspect that the time is ripe to again focus on the virtue of self-control.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The sad diminishing of biblical literacy

By all accounts, biblical literacy is diminishing. Polls show that Americans have scant knowledge of the Old Testament and rather limited knowledge of the New Testament. I hear fewer biblical allusions and phrases in preaching today. And in casual conversations when I insert a biblical phrase, sometimes with the acknowledgement that I read it somewhere, my conversation partners appear baffled as to the phrase’s source. Indeed, a growing number appear unaware that I’ve quoted the phrase rather than devised it myself.
As many Ethical Musings readers know, I am not a biblical literalist. I oppose teaching children, youth, or adults the Bible’s contents without also emphasizing that the Bible is neither a history nor science textbook. Instead, the Bible is a collection of stories, poems, parables, and other materials intended to convey a deeper wisdom about how to live abundantly by loving God and one’s neighbor.
How can we increase biblical literacy?
  • Read the Bible, one book at a time. Marry reading that Bible book with reading a good commentary on the same book.
  • Read books by Bishop Spong, Marcus Borg, and others who explore the Bible from a modern perspective.
  • Enroll in a solid education program such as Education for Ministry that couples Bible reading with the commentaries, history, theology, and other disciplines necessary to understand the Bible.
  • Encourage clergy to use biblical allusions and illustrations in sermons, conversations, and other communications AND to explain the allusion, no longer presuming that their intended audience will understand the allusion or illustration.
  • Encourage your faith community to offer substantive, quality religious education programming for youth and adults. Biblical pabulum is a waste and frequently counterproductive.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, the nation does well both to remember those who have died fighting the nation's wars and the importance of the citizen-warrior for preserving democracy.

Perhaps the greatest threat the nation faces is internal rather than external. In a New York Times commentary, retired U.S. Army Lt. General Karl Eikenberry and Stanford history professor emeritus David M. Kennedy expressed concern about the gap developing between Americans and their military(Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart, May 26, 2013). They identified three components of the gap:
  1. The post-Vietnam War decision to replace the citizen-soldier Army with an all-volunteer force substantially diminished the tie between citizens and the military. Only 0.5% of the population now serves in the military, compared with 12% during WWII. Conversely, many military families view the military as the "family business," perhaps signaling the emergence of a military caste, something that history suggests will end poorly.
  2. Technology helps to insulate civilians from the military by reducing military manpower and fiscal requirements. Illustratively, technologies such as remotely piloted drones accelerate isolating civilians from the military and its activities.
  3. Expansion of the military's role from warfighting to nation building further blurs distinctions about the military's proper role.
Eikenberry and Kennedy propose restoring a draft, conducted by lottery, to meet military manpower requirements, Congress taking back from the President its Constitutionally mandated war making powers, paying for wars with taxes instead of off-budget special appropriations, and decreased reliance on contractors. All of these are good changes, ones that will reduce militarism and help to preserve, if not strengthen, democracy.

My fellow Bowdoin College graduate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a few years ahead of me, I hasten to add!), wrote the following poem, the first well known poem for Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as the holiday was known in the Civil War era), which The Atlantic published in June 1882:

Decoration Day

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry's shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon's sudden roar,
Or the drum's redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some possibly heretical views about Sunday School

Let’s be honest about Sunday School.

In my experience, clergy and laity widely regard Sunday School as an essential element of a congregation’s programming but equally widely hope that someone else will take responsibility for ensuring that Sunday School happens. This tacit disdain for Sunday School is evident in our delegating responsibility for Sunday School to newly minted and therefore inexperienced curates (in those few remaining parishes fortunate enough to have a curate) and fervent prayers that longsuffering volunteers will serve one more year. The proffered justification that youthful clergy will somehow instinctively relate better to youth and children lacks prima facie credibility. What that justification really communicates is that Sunday School may be necessary but is not one of the rector’s top priorities.

Sunday Schools began as a church-sponsored initiative to teach children to read and write in the days before universal public education. When publicly funded schools superseded that initial purpose, churches seized the opportunity to reimagine Sunday Schools as vehicles for religious education, that is, for forming children into mature Christians who actively participate in the life of the Church.

Given that purpose, then today, as for several prior generations, most Sunday Schools are abject failures. Children who grow to adulthood attending Episcopal Sunday Schools (or Sunday Schools of another denomination) generally do not remain faithful members or even faithful Christians. If they did, our pews would be full (or at least measurably fuller) of people between the ages of 20 and 60.

Sunday Schools fail for multiple reasons. First, some parents and congregations view Sunday School as a sanctified babysitting service intended to permit adults to worship (or perhaps to enjoy Sunday brunch) in relative peace and quiet. Second, some parents believe that sending their children to Sunday School will satisfy their vague sense of obligation to educate their children in the basics of Christianity. Yet many of these parents yet opt to minimize their own participation in the Church, implicitly communicating by example that, at best, religion is for children and not adults. Third, Sunday School teachers often teach by default a literal interpretation of the Bible. Teachers want children to learn the biblical stories and are ill-prepared to differentiate myth from fact. Children subsequently discover that this literalism is untenable as they mature and their education in science, history, and other disciplines progresses. Fourth, a great many Sunday School teachers volunteer because nobody else steps up. These good hearted souls frequently lack both a genuine calling and passion for communicating the faith to children.

More broadly, the Church acts as if it has little understanding of how to form children into mature Christians. Numerous programs have initially generated excitement only to produce disappointing results when replicated or failed to achieve promised results when assessed with the benefit of hindsight. For example, the once promising idea of Eucharists designed and implemented by youth (with the assistance of a priest, of course) has proven ineffective as a vehicle for forming youth into mature Christians who will populate our pews.

Well intentioned groups continue to market new programs. Journey to Adulthood (J2A) has promised more that it has been consistently able to deliver. Godly Play similarly often falls short of its advocates’ aspirations for forming children into mature Christians. Both are good programs that I have used and in some places produce striking results. Yet neither is a panacea for forming youth and children into mature Christians.

When programs such as J2A and Godly Play do help youth and children become mature Christians, the program succeeds because the youth and children catch the faith from their parents and other Christian leaders involved in the program.

Faith is caught, not taught, according to a well-known adage. Most Christians can point to one or several “saints” from whom they caught the faith. Religious education programs, no matter how creative or initially exciting, fail if they ignore that truth. Catching the faith necessarily precedes effective Christian formation.

Therefore, let’s stop wasting precious resources and efforts on fundamentally ineffectual religious education programming. In the absence of inspired Christian teachers and leaders from whom children and youth can catch the faith, cancel Sunday School and other youth programs. Invest those resources in efforts more likely to produce positive results, e.g., caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. Ineffectual programming harmfully contaminates congregational morale with guilt.

Parents who are committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children can catch the faith are the most effectual source of Christian formation. The Church beneficially invests its resources in complementing those efforts. We can encourage and support parents and supplement their efforts with church programming. However, even with the best of parenting and ecclesial help, some children will still leave the Church for a season and occasionally for all of their days. No set of Christian formation efforts can ever guarantee positive results.

The preponderance of children and youth with parents who are not committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children are unlikely to catch the faith pose an evangelistic rather than educational challenge. Until an individual catches the faith, until s/he says yes to the one who stands at the door knocking, until s/he experiences an inspired moment in which s/he acknowledges God’s loving touch, then religious education is little more than the transmission of data and not genuine Christian formation.

Effective programming for children and youth begins by understanding its goal with respect to each individual. Is the aim Christian formation for one who has caught the faith? Or, is the aim evangelism, i.e., the leader or teacher assisting the individual in a non-coercive manner to recognize and affirm God’s presence in her/his life by openly revealing that same presence in the leader or teacher’s life? This openness includes not only mountain top experiences but also times of doubt and when the person has traversed the valley of the shadow of death.

Packaged programming for children and youth succeeded for its originators precisely because they opened themselves to program participants, allowing those participants to see God’s presence. From that experience, participants caught the faith, recognizing that what they saw in the leader or teacher resonated with their own, perhaps heretofore unacknowledged, experience of God’s loving presence. Packaged programming works only when leaders and teachers are Christians from whom participants can catch the faith.


Let’s drop the pretense that Sunday School is an essential program for every congregation and regard it as one tool among many for sharing our faith and forming new Christians.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Fewer not more US troops for Afghanistan

The Pentagon has proposed sending an additional three to five thousand US troops to Afghanistan. The Trump administration appears likely to accept that recommendation.
Sending troops into harm’s way and expending scarce government funds without a valid strategic goal is immoral.
What possible strategic purpose will an additional three to five thousand US troops in Afghanistan serve?
  • Fifteen years of efforts to train an effective Afghan army and police force have failed. Why should anyone believe that several thousand additional troops will be able to achieve that goal?
  • After spending hundreds of billions of US dollars and the loss of the lives of two thousand plus US armed forces personnel as well as thousands of other casualties, Afghanistan still lacks a viable national government, genuine democracy, and protection for the rights of all Afghan citizens. Why should anyone believe that several thousand additional troops will succeed in achieving those goals?
  • Taliban and other forces opposed to the Afghanistan central government and the US often seek sanctuary in Pakistan to avoid losing a battle or capture by US forces. Why should anyone believe that an additional three to five thousand US troops can end this practice when tens of thousands of US troops could not?

Afghans are highly effective fighters – when motivated to achieve goals that are important to them. Afghanistan has never had an effective national government because Afghan loyalty to tribe and religion take precedence over national allegiance. Sending additional troops to Afghanistan, regardless of the size of the surge, solves neither of those problems.
Allowing a resurgent Taliban to govern a substantial portion, or even all, of Afghanistan will be horrific for most Afghans subject to Taliban rule. However, the Taliban would not be regaining traction in Afghanistan without significant support from Afghans, support often fueled by opposition to their central government and the US instead of an actual desire for Taliban rule.
Additional US troops may achieve temporary tactical advantages. However, those advantages will prove short lived when the US withdraws its troops, a prediction repeatedly confirmed over the last fifteen years.
I want military leaders who think they can win. I want civilian leaders to oversee the military and to determine both whether the cost of victory is worthwhile and whether the military engagement is likely to achieve strategic goals consonant with US national interests and progress toward greater peace in the world.

Sending more US troops to Afghan is not worthwhile and will not achieve any strategic goals of value to the US or even to Afghans. Instead of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the Trump administration should withdraw all US troops from there. If in the future, terrorists who pose a genuine threat to US national interests again operate from bases in Afghanistan, then the US should conduct targeted strikes against those terrorists of the type that I describe in my book, Just Counterterrorism.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lessons from a terminal diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis of having a fatal disease shocked me last September. The experience underscored three truths:
  1. Few of us know when we will die. And, except in cases in which death is imminent (e.g., from illness), I would prefer not to know when I will die.
  2. The possibility of imminent death, always a possibility for everyone yet something that we invariably discount heavily to avoid becoming overly morbid and too risk avoidant, was undeniable. Moments became precious. Some South Koreans stage fake funerals to gain more appreciation of life by allowing death to become more of a reality.
  3. Upon being diagnosed with a terminal disease, I had no interest in shopping for healthcare even though I am fortunate enough to have healthcare coverage that often allows considerable choice of providers. What I wanted was a cure (something that is currently impossible) or treatment that would allow me to live as well and as long as reasonably feasible. I had a disease of which I had never heard, no criteria for judging the best available treatment, and was in no condition for researching treatment options.

Now being in remission and having a relatively good life expectancy prognosis for someone with my diagnosis, the most poignant question with which I grapple is: How do I want to use my remaining time, presumably a number of years?
Persons with a terminal diagnosis are not the only ones who ask that question.
In working as a chaplain with young adults, I found that many of them rarely struggle with that question. Instead, many young men and women act and talk as though they simply want to grab all of the gusto they can, regardless of the risks, confident of their own invulnerability. The largest number of exceptions to that generalization I discovered was among the Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, many of whom were highly motivated to achieve some form of greatness or excellence in life. I suspect this is also true of students at the nation’s premier colleges and universities.
Midlife crises represent another moment when humans often find that they cannot ignore the question of how they wish to use their remaining time.
Christians should also ask that question because we all have a terminal diagnosis. Death invariably follows birth. The Easter season, after living with the stories of Jesus’ death during Lent and Holy Week and now living with the stories of his resurrection, affords Christians an excellent annual opportunity to ponder the question, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? How do I want to live?
One of the vital yet often ignored differences between Christians and many others is that Christianity maintains life has a purpose. Popular preacher and bestselling author Rick Warren has packaged the presumption in his book, The Purpose Driven Life. I love the book’s title. I find his exposition simplistic and wrong. Contrary to Warren, our goal is not to persuade others to accept any form of the Christian credo.

Instead, I argue that our goal is to increase the love of God and love of neighbor. Loving God is difficult because as I have repeatedly insisted in Ethical Musings postings, the idea of God is irreducible to human language or concepts. We can, however, not only easily identify our neighbor but also, in moments of honesty, know how well we love our neighbor. Indeed, perhaps the two precepts are actually one: perhaps the best way to love God is to love our neighbor.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why won't Trump release his tax returns?

President Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public is intriguing and troubling. The IRS routinely audits Presidential and Congressional tax returns. Yet former Presidents and most members of Congress have made their tax returns public.
Possible explanations for Trump’s refusal include:
  • His tax returns may reveal that he is not as wealthy as he would like for people to believe. Many real estate investments are heavily leveraged (i.e., mortgaged), so perhaps his substantial real estate holdings represent a relatively small net worth totaling in the hundreds of millions instead of billions.
  • His tax returns may reveal that he derives a disproportionate share of his income from licensing his name instead of the successful real estate deals about which he boasts.
  • His tax returns may reveal aggressive interpretations of the tax code that trigger repeated audits that are not always resolved in his favor.

If Trump’s tax returns would enhance his public image by showing that he possesses great wealth or that his real estate empire is highly profitable, making his income tax returns public would seem to flatter his narcissistic ego. Similarly, if his tax returns revealed that he paid relatively little in tax, his public remarks indicate that he would view that outcome favorably. Maybe Donald Trump is much less wealthy and less successful than he wants people to believe.
Given Trump’s alleged wealth, human’s consistently acting in their self-interest, and Trump’s undeniable consistent self-promotion, the public and legislators understanding how his proposed changes to the tax code would benefit him is vital for transparent, fair government. Is Trump’s support for specific changes to the code motivated by what he thinks best for the nation, what will benefit him, or both? The one tax return that Trump has made public illustrates the importance of those questions as he advocates changes that would have personally benefitted him. In that one return he used deductions related to real estate investments to minimize his income and had to pay Alternative Minimum Tax.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Aliens in a strange land

Aliens in a strange land

The focus of the Episcopal Café’s Magazine (a site to which I contribute a monthly essay – this is my April contribution) for April is captured in these questions:
What is the relation of the Church, Government, and the American Experience? Where is the church called to be in these tense political times – a place of activism or a refuge from political rhetoric? Have we been hobbled by our declining influence or set free from our shackles to the establishment?

Those questions reminded me of William Stringfellow’s book title, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. I increasingly feel that I live in a strange land. Political polarization has displaced the mutual respect and compromise essential for democracy to protect the rights of the minority and the majority. Physical isolation with people connecting via social media has become the new norm, causing many communal organizations (including religious congregations) to wither and die. Growing economic inequality has overwhelmed commitment to promoting economic opportunity for all. We fight wars with ill-defined objectives using borrowed funds, leaving the debt to our children as part of their inheritance. Impetuous narcissism and self-interest rather than servant leadership now characterize many who occupy positions of power and influence.

Where is the Church, and most particularly The Episcopal Church (TEC), to be found in this strange land?

Jesus was the face and voice of justice in an unjust world. Yet too frequently our voice is muted. We may be seen but not heard. Our Presiding Bishop speaks loudly, prophetically, and whenever possible from a national platform. He is an exception. A majority of our diocesan bishops speak softly or are silent. Some of our parish clergy preach the gospel boldly, but few carry that message to their larger community through personal advocacy and witness.

Jesus welcomed everyone – the foreigner, the Jew, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sinner. Yet too frequently our avowed inclusivity contains an unspoken exclusivity. Some parishes emphasize activism; other parishes emphasize being a refuge from political rhetoric. Few parishes provide space for both activists and those seeking refuge. Some parishes welcome liberals; other parishes welcome conservatives. Problematically, parishes, regardless of who they welcome, usually send mixed messages, communicating who they welcome through body language and code words that unintentionally, if not intentionally, exclude dissenters while verbally affirming that all are welcome.

Jesus exhorted his disciples to love God and their neighbor. He called disciples but did not form an organization. Yet too frequently our goal is to revive, or at least to sustain, the institutional church. Maintenance, not mission, is our real agenda. We need to pay our clergy. We need to maintain our buildings. And we want some money for programming. Whatever is left, and typically it is only a pittance, goes to mission beyond the parish. Parishes typically view the money that goes to the diocese as a burdensome “tax” rather than as an opportunity to engage in mission beyond the parish. Financial prudence and institutional self-preservation widely preclude risk taking that advocates for the vulnerable, aids the least among us, welcomes the stranger, cares for the earth, and otherwise proclaims the gospel.

My observation and pastoral experience is that people seek a congregation that intellectually challenges their spirituality and theology, emotionally both embraces them and offers a safe community in which to move toward wholeness, and provides multiple, diverse opportunities to work toward improving the world. In sum, a Jesus shaped community attracts followers. Such congregations, vibrant communities of aliens in a strange land, invariably grow. For them, institutional maintenance is a byproduct of their focus on mission.

We Christians are aliens living in a strange land. Without good leaders we will perish. Those persons and groups responsible for discerning whether God has called a person to serve as a bishop, priest, deacon, or warden must examine the person’s gifts for leadership. A call admittedly has many facets. However, in this crucial time for the Church, God surely calls very few if any persons who lack significant leadership gifts. The greater the scope of responsibility, the greater is the requirement for superior leadership.

Effective leadership in today’s Church includes these three essential elements:
  1. Effective leadership connotes a clear and passionate vision of mission shaped by Jesus’ teachings and ministry, a vision the person consistently and unrelentingly communicates in her or his own unmistakable, proven, and contextually appropriate voice.
  2. Effective leadership connotes a demonstrated, successful commitment to growing a loving Christian community.
  3. Effective leadership connotes an energetic engagement with the broader community, translating her or his vision into practice. Mission, not institutional maintenance, is the priority.

This emphasis on leadership does not deny the importance of other elements of ministry such as pastoral care and religious education. The reality, however, is that TEC is a denomination of small, aging congregations. Thus, most vicars and rectors have limited demands on their time for hospital visits, pastoral counseling, funerals, baptisms, or confirmand preparation. Too often, clergy spend time with friends among the congregation in ways that lack any discernible connection to the Church’s work. This time masquerades as genuine ministry. Small congregations similarly have limited requirements for religious education.

We have strong reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Church. God is on our side. Furthermore scholars who study pastoral leadership widely agree that one clergyperson can adequately serve a congregation of 500-700 people. Over half of all TEC congregations are smaller than a quarter of that size. A priest who recruits, trains, and then cedes canonically appropriate pastoral care and religious education ministries to the laity has ample time for exercising leadership that passionately communicates a vision, lovingly builds inclusive community, and vigorously engages in mission.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The cost of saving a life

Today I researched on the internet the cost of the maintenance drug that I take to help extend the length of my remission. Although I could not find 2017 prices or the price at which the pharmaceutical company had sold the drug to the government in prior years, I did find lots of prices for the drug sold to individuals or non-federal healthcare providers in prior years. A reasonable estimate is that my monthly maintenance dose costs approximately $15,000.
When that cost is combined with other treatment and healthcare that I have received because of having cancer, in the eight months since being diagnosed with cancer my care has cost more than $200,000. Ongoing care in years while I remain in remission plus additional costs related to forcing the cancer into remission a second and perhaps third time could easily drive the total cost of treating my cancer to well over one million dollars.
Few Americans can afford to pay one million dollars to treat a catastrophic illness.
On the other hand, few Americans would opt to refuse treatment to a person who suffers from the type of cancer that I have who cannot pay for treatment when the person can reasonably expect to enjoy several or more years of healthy, productive life.
The best way forward in dealing with the cost of catastrophic illness is for the US to implement single payer, universal healthcare. The single payer would be the federal government. Universal access means that everyone would have access.
Half of all persons employed in the healthcare industry, which is 20% of the US Gross Domestic Product, are not healthcare providers but administrative, etc. A quarter of healthcare costs is attributable to billing and associated costs. Eliminating private payers would shutter the immensely profitable private health insurance corporations, but would concurrently generate tremendous savings in healthcare related costs for the entire nation.
Two examples of a single payer system – with the federal government as that single payer – already exist in the US, though both systems limit access. The first is Medicare, available to everyone over 65 and the lowest cost provider of healthcare. The second is the military healthcare system, available to active duty and retired military personnel and their families.

Congress should replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with a single payer system that provides universal access.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The meaning of resurrection

In my previous Ethical Musings’ post, “Holy Week and Theology lite,” I explained why resurrection without death is incomprehensible. At best, resurrection without death becomes a form of self-help teaching.
So, given that all are dying or dead, what is resurrection?
My answer to that question begins by recognizing two definitions that are inapplicable to resurrection. First, resurrection differs from resuscitation. Resuscitation restores a person to this physical life. The experience may or may not change the individual. In any case, the resuscitated person remains mortal and will die another physical death. The biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, found in John’s gospel, when read literally describes resuscitation rather than resurrection. Simplistic, literal readings of Jesus physically rising from the dead similarly are often closer to resuscitation than resurrection.
Second, resurrection requires external intervention. Nobody has the power to resurrect him or herself. If a person had that power, then the person would not be truly dead or dying. Twelve step programs describe the outside assistance for resurrection in terms of a person’s dependence upon a “higher power,” while concurrently acknowledging the ineffability of that “higher power.” Resurrection, however, does not preclude an individual cooperating with that “higher power.”
Resurrection is the higher power – God, in the vocabulary of many – intervening, often with the assistance of the individual in whose life the intervention occurs, to transform the inauthentic into the authentic. Other persons and things (e.g., a beautiful sunset) may also contribute to the process of resurrection. Resurrection transforms a person’s I-It relationships, in which the person objectifies others and God as a consequence of self-betrayal, into I-Thou relationships, which depend upon the authenticity of self and the other. Resurrection may also be defined in terms of liberation, e.g., the liberation of a person from bondage to an addiction.
The Bible, read mythically as an account of human experience, consistently reports God acting to resurrect the dead and dying. For example, this definition of resurrection provides a useful framework for understanding the account of the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, the return of Israel from its Babylonian captivity, the story of Lazarus’ rising from the dead, and Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus.
Most importantly, this understanding of resurrection makes sense out of what happened on the first Easter, when the spirit or memory of Jesus, persisting after his death, transformed despondent disciples into messengers of hope and new life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Not so steady at the helm

Chaos can be creative. The existence of chaos at the sub-atomic level of the cosmos introduces both novelty and the possibility for beings to have limited autonomy. Novelty and limited autonomy are two important elements of the human spirit as well as two of the ways in which the human spirit emulates the Creator’s spirit. Furthermore, the Creator’s own limited autonomy and capacity for introducing novelty help to explain why the cosmos continues its dynamic evolution
However, chaos can be destructive. Human beings generally function on the basis of patterns, presuming consistency rather than chaos. For example, voters desire consistency in their elected officials. With consistency, a voter reasonably expects the elected officer holder to support policies advocated during her or his election. Similarly, in an uncertain world with continuing threats from terrorists, nuclear armed powers, and aspiring economic competitors consistency allows both friends and enemies to have a high degree of confidence about the likely response to adversarial acts.
The importance of consistency, an essential element of integrity, is one reason why the media and other politicians quickly attack a politician for changing positions. Of course, some changes reflect the availability of new information and other changes result from a politician reassessing known facts. Yet other changes appear chaotic, whether attempts to sail with the prevailing wind of public opinion, indicative of indecision, or otherwise inexplicable.
President Trump’s actions this week indicated major departures from several key elements of his campaign platform. He communicated that he now opposes a border added tax. He is reviewing his stance on immigration. He is looking for a way to revise the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), contrary to his previously avowed intent to move on to tax reform. Most notoriously, he intervened militarily in Syria, a move that he adamantly opposed during the campaign and a move for which he repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting.
Do these changes point to Trump reassessing what he deems to be the best course of action, reassessments attributable to his new view of the world from the Oval Office? Alternatively, are these changes simply the latest expression of the chaos characteristic of Trump the businessman and Trump the president?
The US and the global community benefit when there is a steady hand on the helm in the White House. If this week’s past week’s policy changes by the Trump administration indicate an effort to reduce governmental chaos, then the changes represent a constructive step forward even though I vehemently disagree with some of them, e.g., defunding Planned Parenthood as part of his proposal to repeal and replace the healthcare law. More likely, the changes demonstrate the continuing lack of a steady hand on helm of the US ship of state.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Holy Week and Theology lite

On Palm Sunday, a friend reported that the rector of his parish had preached a sermon, which my friend partially summarized in these words:
He said he had a meeting with a Roman Catholic friend who told him she always felt guilty during Holy Week since she had been taught that it was ‘her’ sins which were the reason that Jesus had died. The Rector said he was a post-Resurrection person who only found joy in Holy Week. It would appear that the Old Testament and theological matters of salvation, atonement, sanctification, etc., do not bother the Rector too much. Apparently spreading the Good News is all that matters in the post-Resurrection church.
Resurrection without death is impossible. Regardless of how a person understands resurrection and death – literally, metaphorically, or mythically – that which is not dead cannot be brought to life.
I agree with what my friend’s summary of his rector’s sermon implies, that is, orthodox Christian theories of the atonement are at best incomprehensible and at worst evil in the developed world of the twenty-first century. Any theological framework that requires Jesus to die in order for humans to participate in Jesus’ resurrection depicts God as a masochist, sadist, or child abuser.
However, that agreement does not mean that I think resurrection is possible without death. If resurrection is possible without death, then the Good News of the gospel is reduced to the self-help message of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, a self-help message characteristic of much popular evangelical preaching, e.g., that of Joel Osteen.
The death that humans universally experience is what twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich described as inauthentic life. The inauthentic life occurs when a person is no longer faithful to him or herself and is therefore incapable of having what twentieth century Jewish theologian Martin Buber I-Thou relationships with other people and with the divine. Instead, in an inauthentic life a person reduces others and God to objects. With respect to God, this reduction easily and generally leads to agnosticism or atheism.
During Holy Week, Christians commemorate on Palm Sunday Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, remember on Maundy Thursday Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and his command to them that they love one another, and on Good Friday recall Jesus’ crucifixion. In sum, Holy Week encourages Christian self-examination:
·       In what way(s) am I living an inauthentic life?
·       Who do I objectify, viewing and treating as an object instead of entering into an I-Thou relationship with them?
·       In what way(s) do I objectify God, reducing God to a concept that I can describe, perhaps even control, instead of daring to enter into an I-Thou relationship with the Divine, a reality utterly beyond human description or control?
None of us is fully alive, for all are dying if not dead.

In my Easter post, I will explore the concept of resurrection.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Transformation rather than conversion

The theological term conversion has sufficiently troubled me that I have avoided using it for decades. Initially, this avoidance was unconscious but more recently has been intentional.

The English word conversion has today, especially in religious contexts, the overwhelming connotation of a change in a person’s beliefs or thinking. Yet Christianity is about learning to walk the Jesus path ever more faithfully, not about persuading people to hold right beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words. My observation of religious people (including me!) is that considerable disparity often exists between an individual’s avowed theological beliefs/thinking and what that person’s actions indicate s/he actually believes/thinks. While it’s easy to describe that disparity as hypocrisy, the disparity is frequently better understood as the aspirational difference between what a person would like to believe and what s/he actually believes.

Christian evangelical efforts focused on conversion easily produce unfortunate aberrations and coerced conversions. Until the nineteenth century, Christians occasionally baptized non-Christians and then slaughtered the newly baptized before they could commit apostasy. More recently, some evangelically motivated Christians superficially “count coup,” i.e., track the number of individuals who verbally confessed faith in Christ as a result of the Christian’s efforts while ignoring the deeper question of whether any real lifestyle or behavioral change occurred in the new convert.

Consequently, I find that the word transformation more accurately communicates the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, the Biblical word frequently translated as conversion. Having less baggage than does the word conversion, transformation emphasizes a change in a person and their actions as well as in their feelings and ideation.

Emphasizing transformation instead of conversion has shaped my ministry. For example, I am convinced that there is only one God and that many paths lead to God. One reason I subscribe to those views is that persons treading diverse religious paths hold varying beliefs but nevertheless experience similar life-giving and life-enriching transformations.

Those convictions cohered well with my ministry as a Navy chaplain. Historically, military chaplains have had three roles. First, chaplains minister to people of the chaplain’s faith community in as an inclusive a manner as possible. For Episcopal priests, inclusive ministry may include: (1) Conducting a wide variety of Protestant worship services, most of which are arguably some form of Morning or Evening Prayer; (2) Administering Holy Baptism when requested, to include full immersion of a believer who desires that form of baptism; (3) Celebrating Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites.

A chaplain’s second role is to facilitate the free exercise of religion for members of other faith communities. While on active duty, I provided space, equipment, and supplies as needed and upon request for Buddhist, Jewish, Latter Day Saint, and Muslim faith communities to worship and otherwise practice their faith. Memorably, I once had a Jewish sailor ask me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I explained to him that if I conducted the Seder it would by definition be a Christian Seder. I then added that if he conducted the Seder, I would provide the foodstuffs, publicity, and coaching for him, as well as attend and recruit other attendees to ensure the presence of a minyan.

Incidentally, the last few decades have seen an increase in controversies over the military chaplaincy precisely because some evangelical Christian chaplains have abandoned facilitation in favor of conversion. Sometimes evangelical Christians have implicitly linked career or promotion opportunities to conversion. This move, reminiscent of some coerced conversion efforts in prior generations, seriously undermines the chaplaincy’s constitutional standing by prima facie establishing government support for a particular religion. Analogously, this move also inhibits the interfaith cooperation and communication that depend upon respecting the beliefs of all and honoring the integrity of other faith groups.

A chaplain’s third role is to care for everyone. A Marine whose mother has just died has, in my experience, no interest in religious conversion. The Marine simply seeks an understanding, caring listener. Other times, the person who has sought out the chaplain because of vocational concerns, adjustment issues, family problems, substance abuse, or a host of other difficulties may want to change, but is usually unaware of any theological dimensions of that change. The best chaplains in such situations function as catalysts for transformation rather than as conversion agents.

Widespread adherence to those three roles by military chaplains of previous generations built the mutual respect and trust required for genuine interfaith cooperation and established military chaplaincy as a model for such ministry. Similar patterns of ministry, perhaps articulated in different terms, also frequently shapes chaplaincy in other institutional settings, e.g., hospitals, prisons, and hospices.


Since retiring from the Navy, I have recognized that those three functions equally describe parish ministry at its best. The best parochial priests exercise a ministry that seeks to include as many people as possible while being faithful to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites. Illustratively, in my current diocese, this inclusivity sometimes means adapting ancient Hawaiian symbols and terms. But no parish, regardless of its size or resources, can meet everyone’s perceived spiritual needs. Honoring that diversity by pointing a person to a more suitable alternative – another Episcopal parish, a Roman Catholic parish, or a congregation of another denomination – ministers to that person while respecting his/her dignity and worth. Finally, the Church should care for all. Genuine caring seeks what is best for a person: healing, growth, becoming more whole, and living more abundantly. Genuine caring has no ulterior motive. Transformation, not conversion, best describes Christianity’s goal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why I object to putting America first

I object to Trump’s campaign slogan and post-election efforts to “put America first” for two reasons.
Firstly, trying to “put America first” is ultimately self-defeating behavior similar to an egocentric’s efforts to put him/herself first. As I have repeatedly explained in Ethical Musings posts, no person is an island. Our individual welfare depends upon assistance from other people. Therefore, reciprocal altruism and not self-serving behaviors best describe human behavior, regardless of any dissent by selfish gene proponents. The survival of the fittest, for humans, requires not only personal but also interpersonal competencies. Theological ethics express this idea in the various formulations of the Golden Rule, e.g., love others as you love yourself.
Similarly, as globalism inexorably expands until one day it will touch every aspect of our existence, larger human communities, such as nations, will maximally thrive only by practicing reciprocal altruism. In other word, win-win will ultimately replace win-lose in geopolitics. Trump’s America first is a throwback to win-lose and therefore has no long-term viability or future.
What’s best for America is to try to balance US interests equitably with the interests of other nation states instead of putting America first.

Secondly, Trump’s slogan is blatantly dishonest. His executive actions, legislative proposals, and tweets consistently put only select Americans first: the wealthy, the healthy, the military, and those alive today (not future generations who will have to deal with the consequences of global warming and pollution). America consists not only of the people Trump likes and favors but also of those he apparently dislikes and treats unfavorably: the poor, the ill, globalists, future generations, immigrants, and many others. Genuinely putting America first requires treating all Americans equally, thereby emulating the living God.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Giving to panhandlers

Pope Francis recently offered advice regarding the perennial question of whether giving money to a panhandler is good. He said, Give and don’t worry about it. His advice is scripturally sound and was offered in an interview with a Milan magazine before the beginning of Lent.
An Ethical Musings’ reader took the Pope’s advice to heart. Here’s the reader’s description of what happened the first time that he followed the Pope’s guidance:
This evening I was walking up to the State House and ran into a panhandler, he asked could I spare a dollar.
I said, yes and gave him more than a dollar, shook his hand, looked him in the eye, wished him luck – I think he was shocked and I was also. We spoke to one another like two people. He looked me in the eye as we were shaking hands, thanked me and wished me luck.
The Pope is right – I believe we both felt good about the meeting.

Try giving to panhandlers during Lent. If you are willing to share, I’d like to read about your experiences.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A new Lenten discipline

In view of my previous Ethical Musings post about Rethinking Ash Wednesday, traditional Lenten practices of giving something up to demonstrate one’s true feelings of regret and penance for one’s sins or of taking on a new discipline to help one to sin less in the future by becoming a better Christian are outdated.
Instead, a more appropriate and spiritually helpful discipline is to commit to celebrating life daily, weekly, or at least once during Lent. This discipline is admittedly out of step with traditional ecclesiastical emphases on confessing one’s sins and penitence, e.g., many parishes will use (pp. 148-153, Book of Common Prayer) on Sundays during Lent. However, this discipline coheres with a twenty-first century understanding of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Celebrating life can take many different forms; one’s imagination is the primary limiter of what is possible. Options include arranging a feast or night of lodging in a hotel for a homeless person, an outsize generous gift for a person who works for minimum wages or less, and adding a work of art to the life of another or to one’s own life. These ideas are intended to prime the pump of your imagination.

We are dust and to dust we shall return. We therefore share in the glitter, the reflected glory of the creator, visible in all creation. Similarly, we are also inherently part of something far vaster than the self. So celebrate life, for in doing so we celebrate the gift of creation and the Creator!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Rethinking Ash Wednesday

In this post, I suggest a more modern interpretation of why Christians continue to impose ashes. (My 2016 Ethical Musings post Ash Wednesday sketched the traditional understandings of the annual Christian practice of imposing ashes.)
Christianity needs to rethink Ash Wednesday. Few twenty-first Christians in the developed world feel very guilty, especially compared to Christians during the Middle Ages. Furthermore, guilt is a poor motivator for changing behavior. Finally, increasing numbers of Christians reject not only the theological doctrine of original sin but also all of the several interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion that emphasize his death as an essential requirement for God forgiving human sin. Hence, a majority of Christians have voted with their feet, absenting themselves from Ash Wednesday observances, tacitly believing the observances generally meaningless and irrelevant.
Rethinking Ash Wednesday begins by recognizing that the words used to impose ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – has two widely ignored meanings vitally relevant to contemporary life.
First, being dust emphasizes that humans are physical beings. Our spiritual dimension has no independent existence. Instead, the human spirit consists of those physical attributes that are quintessentially and uniquely (only in degree) human.

Second, because humans are dust, humans are inherently integral elements of God’s glorious creation. Therefore, we should celebrate rather than bemoan or lament human life and the human condition. Consequently, adding glitter to the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday is a very appropriate act (though I’ve not yet seen this interpretation of that act).

Monday, February 27, 2017

Holy places

The Episcopal Café asked for articles in February on holy places. This Ethical Musings post is my contribution to that great website.

I, like a great many people, experience some places as holy places.

However, I do not believe that God created specific holy places. Ongoing, consistent evolutionary processes produced the cosmos as we know it. This presumably precludes God differentiating particular places in ways that those places are inherently holy or “thin,” i.e. places in which God is more easily or frequently encountered.

So what makes a place holy?

When I served for two years as the Head of the Religious Facilities Management Branch in the Office of the Navy Chief of Chaplains, I oversaw the design of a dozen chapels and religious support facilities. I wanted Navy religious facilities to offer sailors, Marines, and their families the feeling of being in a holy place. The question of what made a place holy acquired an urgent professional importance that caused me to begin organizing previously fragmentary and occasionally contradictory ideas into more comprehensive, coherent, and cohesive thoughts.

In the years since then, I have refined my answer to that question, but the basic ideas have largely remained unchanged. Places that people deem holy facilitate the human spirit discerning or encountering God in one or more of the following five ways. An essential caveat to all five ways in which a place may become identified as a holy place is that each person will have an individual response to the place, sometimes finding the place holy and sometimes not.

First, some places evoke or encourage an awareness of the transcendent. Magnificent cathedrals with their massive size, soaring towers, and stained glass do this for many visitors, including me. Some of my favorite cathedrals are Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, and the National Cathedral in Washington. I have experienced these, along with other cathedrals, as holy places. Grandeur is no assurance that people will identify a place as holy. I felt the lure of the transcendent when I visited Jesus’ alleged childhood home in Nazareth, a small grotto of stone and dirt, but not while visiting the huge and historic Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Second, some places are catalysts for reflection upon the meaning of life and the quality of one’s own life. Some depictions of saints and biblical scenes in stained glass, sculpture, and paintings invite me to assess ways in which I might deepen my spirituality. Conversely, Cromwellian depredations of churches that destroyed many such works of art and installed tablets with the Ten Commandments warn against idolatry and remind me of the need to keep my spiritualty well-grounded. The austere simplicity of Quaker meeting houses underscore the otherness of the divine.

Third, the beauty of some places – sometimes a beauty created by humans but at least equally often a beauty discerned in nature – imbues a place with a sense of being holy. Such places can infuse lives with hope that evil will not triumph as well as trigger reflections about the transcendent and my awareness of self and God. Illustratively, star gazing at night while underway, with the ship that I was aboard the only visible sign of human existence, was often incredibly beautiful. In those moments, I could see immense numbers of stars and the ocean, which can feel threatening, empty, or overwhelmingly vast, became a holy place for me.

Fourth, the originality or uniqueness of some places can disrupt ordinary perceptions thereby promoting awareness of the holy and a fresh look at one’s self. I found this dynamic especially important in the design of Navy religious ministry facilities. Sadly, limited funds usually precluded installation of art. Additionally, a requirement to construct facilities that welcomed people of all faiths excluded reliance upon art or architecture identified with a particular religious tradition. Architects, however, creatively employed soaring ceilings, abstract colored glass, and other novel techniques in their efforts, often successful, to give people entering the space a sense of being in a holy place.

Finally, some places are holy because of the love people experience in that place. When I have visited places in which people have gathered for hundreds or even thousands of years to pray and to affirm their love for God, I have sometimes sensed that I was in a holy place. I do not know if this feeling had an objective or only a subjective basis, but I don’t think that ultimately matters. The place was holy for me because of my awareness of the love for God associated with the place. Other places feel holy because the loving community that meets there. Illegal immigrants seek sanctuary in churches for this reason. The hungry, homeless, and broken-hearted seek out a church known for being a loving community, finding that congregation’s meeting place a holy place.


Unfortunately, holy places are not timeless. When maintaining a building has become an end in itself, the building is no longer a holy place, i.e., it is no longer a means to an end as a place in which people encounter the holy. The building may be a memorial to a once vibrant community, but God calls us primarily to love our living neighbors rather than to preserve historic memorials. Places can also lose their claim to be holy because of changes in aesthetic sensibilities (I, for one, find Victorian ecclesial structures spiritually unmoving), ecological changes (a fire destroyed a wooded glen that often triggered spiritual reflections), etc. Holy places, like the divine, are not static but are dynamic sources of life.