Monday, August 21, 2017

The love that conquers hate

My mother was from North Carolina and my father from Maine. I have ancestors who fought on each side in the Civil War. I don’t know any details about those who fought for the Union. On the Confederate side, the two of whom I am aware, as much as I might wish that they had become disenchanted with the Confederacy or fought honorably or even suffered from PTSD, instead behaved dishonorably, deserting to escape the monotonous drudgery of life in a military garrison. A couple of generations later, in the 1930s, the KKK threatened my devoutly Christian maternal grandfather for paying his black and white employees equal wages. Somehow, love had begun to erode and then to heal racial differences.
In the first part of today’s gospel reading,[1] Jesus explains that it is not what enters the body that can defile it, but what comes out of the mouth that has the potential to defile. Jesus is answering a question about whether ordinary Jews, mostly peasants, should emulate the Pharisees and practice multiple, daily ritual hand washings. In arid Palestine, those hand washings were widely impractical if not impossible. Jesus seized the opportunity to address the broader question of whether the Pharisees were correct in insisting that Jews observe hundreds of precautionary rules to avoid accidentally violating one of the Torah’s 613 rules.
Jesus’ response is metaphorical, not literal. Even in the first century, people knew that consuming certain substances could be fatal. However, just as obviously we intuitively know that Jesus is right. What goes into the body may cause harm, particularly to self or to one’s relationship with God, but what comes out of the mouth has far greater potential lethality, able to harm not only self but many others. Bullying and verbally abusing family members exemplify this harm. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the word “mouth” is itself metaphorical. According to the text, Jesus specifically condemns actions such as murder, theft, and adultery.
Today’s gospel set in its historical context provides a vital framework for responding to the recent events surrounding the proposed removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue from the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.
Lee’s statue is one of more than 700 monuments to the Confederacy in the US. These monuments, unsurprisingly, are mostly located in the states that seceded and adjoining states in which large numbers of Confederate sympathizers lived. Most of these monuments were erected toward the end of the nineteenth century when Civil War veterans were dying and Jim Crow laws were being enacted.[2]
These monuments, allegedly erected to honor Confederate soldiers, actually symbolized resurgent claims of white supremacy. They therefore contribute to perpetuating racial injustice. Prominently displaying such monuments in public spaces morally offends African-Americans, Christ, and all who seek justice.
We cannot erase history. Purging the monuments will not eradicate or transform our tragic national legacy of racism and white supremacism. Trying to ignore that legacy both prevents us from learning from past mistakes and from experiencing healing and reconciliation. When I, as a child, visited Mount Vernon and Monticello, neither site had exhibits on how slaves lived, the essential role that slave labor played in allowing Washington and Jefferson the latitude to pursue American independence, or the evil of slavery. Today, both Mount Vernon and Monticello have such exhibits. Just as it is impossible to rightly understand the gospel apart from its narrative context, it is impossible to rightly understand Civil War and Confederate monuments apart from the full historical context.
Early Christian commentaries tended to gloss over the uniqueness of Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter found in the second part of today’s gospel reading.[3] Thankfully, most modern commentaries emphasize that when Jesus publicly conversed with the Canaanite woman, he transcended culturally constructed, value-laden distinctions of gender, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. That makes this healing unique. We have come to accept, too often belatedly and painfully, St. Paul’s declaration that God “shows no partiality.”[4] Nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, gender orientation, and religion never alter a person’s inherently equal dignity and worth. We reaffirm our commitment to this belief every time we repeat our Baptismal vows. We do so in the expectation that God’s love can and will heal our divisions.
Sadly, a vocal, aggressive, and growing minority in this nation choose hate instead of love. These individuals and groups seek to bend the arc of history back towards injustice instead of forwards toward reconciliation and justice. Too often, this minority turns violent when their rhetoric and threats fall on deaf ears. Public statements and Tweets by some political leaders inflame and encourage these groups. You can probably name these groups as well as I can: the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-Right, anti-Semites, etc. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts 125 new such groups since 2014.
Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel Jesus makes explicit what is implicit in the first part of today’s reading. He said of false prophets, “by their fruit you shall know them.”[5] In stark contrast to words and actions that destroy love and perpetuate hate, Jesus repeatedly exhorted his followers to love their neighbors. Healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter demonstrated love’s power to bring healing across the value-laden, cultural constructs of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and religion. The Buddha connected love as hate’s remedy more directly, saying, "In this world hatred is not dispelled by hatred; by love alone is hatred dispelled. This is an eternal law."[6]
In the hope that God will help us to speak and act with love, bridging divisions, healing brokenness, and establishing justice, our bishop and chief pastor, the Right Reverend Bob Fitzpatrick, has directed that from today until the liturgical year ends on Christ the King Sunday we conclude the Prayers of the People with collects for social justice and global peace. May these be heartfelt prayers that move us to act ever more lovingly and justly; may we join the company of saints in becoming Christ’s beloved community. Amen.
[Sermon preached at St. Clement’s Church, Honolulu, HI, on August 20, 2017]

[1] Matthew 15:10-20.
[2] Kathryn Casteel and Anna Maria Barry-Jester, “There Are Still More Than 700 Confederate Monuments in The U.S.,” FiveThirtyEight, August 16, 2017.
[3] Matthew 15:21-28.
[4] Acts 10:34.
[5] Matthew 7:16.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The green face of God – part 2

Part 1 of this two-part post enumerated biblical images of the Holy Spirit as the green face of God that Mark Wallace described in his article, The Green Face of God: Christianity in an Age of Ecocide (Cross Currents, Fall 2000, Vol. 50 Issue 3, 310-331). This point focuses on implications of those images for our ecological stewardship, especially on how human abuse of creation causes God to suffer and the necessity for humans to strive to ameliorate and end that damage as a key reparative element of repentance.
Wallace explained why damaging the biosphere causes God to suffer:
From this viewpoint, as the God who knows death through the cross of Jesus is the crucified God, so also is the Spirit who enfleshes divine presence in nature the wounded Spirit. Jesus' body was inscribed with the marks of human sin even as God's enfleshed presence -- the earth body of the Spirit -- is lacerated by continued assaults upon our planet home. Consider the sad parallels between the crucified Jesus and the cruciform Spirit: the lash marks of human sin cut into the body of the crucified God are now even more graphically displayed across the expanse of the whole planet as the body of the wounded Spirit bears the incisions of further abuse. God is the wounded Spirit even as God is the crucified Christ -- as God suffered on a tree by taking onto Godself humankind's sin, so God continually suffers the agony of death and loss by bringing into Godself the environmental squalor that humankind has wrought.
Genuine repentance always involves a good faith effort to make reparations for the harm that one caused as well as a commitment to cease doing whatever one did to cause the harm. The latter can be difficult with respect to harming the biosphere. Few of us can immediately end all of our reliance upon fossil fuels, depend only upon renewable resources, and so forth. We can, however, commit to an annual self-audit to estimate our carbon footprint and then commit to reducing that footprint over the following year. Low-hanging “fruit” that will reduce one’s carbon footprint include driving fewer miles, wasting less food and other products, buying fewer clothes and other items. Longer term options include living in a smaller dwelling, buying vehicles with higher MPG ratings (or electric vehicles), etc.
Repairing harm done to the biosphere is yet more difficult. Few of us can point to specific harms caused by our individual actions. Incidentally, the weak link between individual actions and ecological damage erodes our motivation to repent, e.g., my driving an extra thousand miles does not cause any measurable environmental harm even though the cumulative effect of all humans with autos driving an extra thousand miles per year does cause measurable harm.
Nevertheless, reparative action remains an essential component of repentance; without reparation, transformation from sinner to saint is retarded if not inhibited. So, what can we do?
Historically, when reparations cannot be made to repair the actual damage a person’s actions have caused, reparations have taken the form of striving to repair similar or associated damage. Consequently, examples of appropriate ecological reparations are:
·       Contributions to and other support of environmental groups’ efforts to reduce ecological harm through lobbying, public advocacy, education efforts, and immersion programs
·       Participation in environment clean up initiatives
·       Replanting cleared areas with trees and lawns with xeriscapes
·       Opposing public policies to expand drilling for oil and natural gas, construction of new coal fired electric generating plants, etc.
All of these actions not only represent small steps to repair ecological damage but are also personally costly because they require expenditure of one’s time and/or leave one with less disposable income.

Wallace ends his article with this prayer, which I very much echo: “May the Holy Spirit, as divine force for sustenance and renewal in all things, come into our hearts and minds and persuade us to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice toward all God's creatures.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

The green face of God – part 1

A friend recently sent me a link to Mark Wallace’s article, The Green Face of God: Christianity in an Age of Ecocide (Cross Currents, Fall 2000, Vol. 50 Issue 3, 310-331).
Wallace identifies numerous biblical images of the Spirit as an enfleshed aspect of creation:
While some of the biblical writings appear partial to these binary oppositions (for example, Paul's rhetoric of spirit versus flesh), most of the biblical texts undermine this value system by structurally interlocking the terms in the polarity within one another. In particular, on the question of the Spirit, the system of polar oppositions is consistently undermined. Not only do the scriptural texts not prioritize the spiritual over the earthly. Moreover, they figure the Spirit as a creaturely lifeform always already interpenetrated by the material world. Indeed, the body of symbolism that is arguably most central to the scriptural portraiture of the Spirit is suffused with nature imagery. Consider the following tropes for the Spirit within the Bible: the vivifying breath that animates all living things (Gen. 1:2, Ps. 104:29-30), the healing wind that brings power and salvation to those it indwells (Judges 6:34, John 3:6, Acts 2:1-4), the living water that quickens and refreshes all who drink from its eternal springs (John 4:14, 7:37-38), the purgative fire that alternately judges evildoers and ignites the prophetic mission of the early church (Acts 2:1-4, Matt. 3:11-12), and the divine dove, with an olive branch in its mouth, that brings peace and renewal to a broken and divided world (Gen. 8:11, Matt. 3:16, John 1:32). In these texts, the Spirit is pictured as a wild and insurgent natural force who engenders life and healing throughout the biotic order.
Far from being ghostly and bodiless, the Spirit reveals herself in the biblical literatures as an earthly lifeform who labors to create, sustain, and renew humankind and otherkind in solidarity with one another. As the divine wind in Genesis, the dove in the Gospels, or the tongues of flame in Acts, an earth-based understanding of the Spirit will not domesticate the Spirit by locating her activity simply alongside nature; rather, nature itself in all its variety will be construed as the primary mode of being for the Spirit's work in the world. Now the earth's waters and winds and birds and fires will not be regarded only as symbols of the Spirit but rather as sharing in her very being as the Spirit is enfleshed and embodied through natural organisms and processes.
New models of God, especially models of God rooted in biblical imagery are continually necessary because the human context is dynamic, never static. Sallie McFague compellingly makes the case for this proposition in her book, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).

Conceptualizing the Holy Spirit as the green face of God highlights God’s concern for all creation as well as dramatizing the consequences of human actions that damage creation and human responsibility for striving to end and to repair that damage, both key aspects of repentance’s reparative element, explored in my next Ethical Musings post.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Gratitude and listening to our pain

An Ethical Musings’ reader wrote forwarded this first-person description of a friend’s experience with pain caused by cancer, emphasizing social instead of physical pain:
The after-effects of surgery and radiation for my prostate cancer don't cause pain, but they do interfere with my life in various ways. For example, I dribble urine when I cough. To manage this, I wear a pad and empty my bladder often, but I am forced to wear an adult diaper whenever I catch cold or have hay-fever. On occasion, even these measures don't work well. Embarrassment ensues.
Yes, this situation does increase my identification with people who suffer incontinence or have had to undergo more radical changes to their internal plumbing. I should have had such empathy for them all along, of course.
The experience of cancer has led me (driven me?) to a practice of active gratefulness as exemplified by David Steindl-Rast OSB. Again, perhaps I should have been practicing active gratefulness all along, but now is better than never.
In the depths of my bout with cancer, my mind altered first by the cancer and then by the drugs, there was little gratitude and when in my dulled state I did have strong feelings, they were most often grief. However, as my health improved and I took fewer drugs (i.e., had a clearer mind), I became grateful for my life, those who love me, and much else. That gratitude remains a part of my life.

For what might you become more grateful without requiring pain caused by cancer as a catalyst?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Listening to our pain

The Buddha taught that one of the four basic facts of existence is that suffering is endemic to human life. Some suffering is avoidable, e.g., annual flu shots reduce the likelihood of suffering from the flu. Some suffering is reducible or curable, e.g., apologizing to a friend whom one has alienated by insulting may lead to reconciliation and renewed friendship. Other suffering is inevitable, e.g., the knowledge that death limits life. Consequently, relationships inevitably cause suffering even though life without relationships is empty and itself a source of suffering, as Buddhist and Christian hermits consistently experienced.
Instead of seeking to end all suffering, which the Buddhas identified as the goal of enlightenment, Jesus taught that suffering can be redemptive if one grows through her/his suffering. I have experienced this growth through the suffering caused by my neuropathy.
Neuropathy (a disease or dysfunction of the peripheral nerves – in my case, in my hands, lower legs, and feet) has been an adverse side effect of the chemotherapy that put my cancer into remission. Sadly, chemo is not neuropathy’s only cause. Diabetics, for example, may also suffer from neuropathy.
At times, the pain from my neuropathy has been sufficiently intense to prevent me from sleeping. No cure exists for neuropathy. Instead, the best option is to manage the pain through anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, drugs originally intended to prevent seizures, and narcotics including opioids.
Thankfully, my neuropathy is slowly diminishing and I am using fewer drugs to manage my discomfort. Coping with the neuropathy has prompted two lines of thought.
First, my lower legs, ankles, and feet have felt tightly bound as if by an invisible ace bandage. The feeling triggered an associative jump to the ancient Chinese practice of binding women’s feet to indicate high social status and an inability to move normally. Foot binding is not unlike the contemporary Islamist insistence that women garb themselves completely so that no part of their body is visible other than the eyes. Both practices reduce women to objects possessed by men. These practices are equivalent in meaning to the query in many Christian traditions of asking “who gives this woman to this man?” in wedding ceremonies, a question that today’s clergy rightly refuse to include in wedding ceremonies.
Women are people, fully worthy of the same dignity and respect as men.
Too often, men pay only lip service to that declaration of equality. The President of the US apparently has a personal history of groping women, i.e., treating them as sex objects – the evidence supporting this allegation is very strong even though unproven in a court of law. Concomitantly, women are generally paid less than men for performing the same or comparable work in spite of some progress over the last several decades towards equality.
The discomfort that the neuropathic illusion of having bound feet and ankles has caused me has been a powerful reminder of the injustice that so many women experience daily day.
Second, my neuropathy has caused a variety of problems in my hands. Among these problems have been sharp stabbing pains, constant tingling, severe cramping, loss of control, and a deadening of sensation. In the beginning, the pain substantially disturbed my life, particularly by sharp pain that disrupted or prevented sleep. The problems also partially disabled me, degrading my fine motor control and thereby limiting my ability to write, type, button clothes, etc.
As the pain, tingling, and numbing diminished and I slowly regain some of my lost fine motor control, I have discovered that I am more constantly aware of my body and have increased empathy for people who live with disabilities.
Additionally, my personal appreciation for the idea a person is his or her body has grown significantly. Thoughts, feelings, and physiology are inherently and inseparably linked. Neuropathy has a physical basis (diseased or dysfunctional nerves) that can produce a mental illusion discordant with other perceived aspects of reality. For me, illustratively, this has included not only the sensation of bound feet but also an incapacity to discern by feeling alone whether I have succeeded in picking up a small object or whether an object that I am touching is hot or cold.
Testing the coherence of ideas and feelings with other perceptions of reality arguably allows a person to best conceptualize, albeit tentatively, self and the world. Philosophically this testing is foundational for pragmatism, a view at odds with a priori philosophies that emphasize seeking knowledge solely through cognitive processes.
Pragmatism fits the American ethos nicely, emphasizing the practical instead of an unobtainable ideal. I find the path to the abundant life lies in trying to live in a creative tension between the pragmatism of what is possible and the unreachable ideals (at least in this life) that Christianity identifies as aspects of the perfected life, e.g., perfect love, hope, and faith (the theological virtues) and justice, courage, prudence, and temperance (the cardinal virtues).

Is the suffering that you experience redemptive and the source of growth or does it destructively limit your ability to love and to live joyfully?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Stop the fearmongering!

North Korea allegedly has a missile capable of delivering one of its nuclear warheads to Hawaii.
Some people on the East Coast may be unsure about Hawaii’s status, e.g., Attorney General Sessions’ reference to a federal judge on some island in the Pacific and a New York Times’ headline that worries North Korean missiles will soon be able to reach targets in the US – only in the text of the article is there a clarification that the headline connotes the continental US.
Nevertheless, both the federal and state governments claim that they are taking steps to protect the people of Hawaii. The federal government is accelerating its plans to deploy a missile defense system to shoot down incoming North Korean missiles, or, presumably incoming missiles from other nations. Of course, this missile defense system is unproven and has failed to pass many of the Defense Department’s tests intended to ensure the system’s accuracy and reliability. The missile system, developed and deployed at a cost of billions, is part of the “Star Wars” defense began during the Reagan administration. Hawaii and its people would have benefitted more from better healthcare availability, improved schools, and more affordable housing than from this iffy boondoggle brought to us by the military-industrial complex.
The state government will resume monthly testing of its civil defense warning siren, designed to give citizens a five to fifteen minute warning that a nuclear attack will occur. The siren is a cold war legacy. Civil preparedness officials advise residents of high rises to seek shelter on the building’s ground floor or in a sturdy building. This advice is reminiscent of the civil defense drills in which I participated as an elementary school child: When the siren sounded, students were directed to shelter under their desk. Both then and now, the preparedness plan would achieve little or nothing in the event of an actual nuclear attack.
Arguably, both the federal and state responses are more fearmongering than of any actual benefit to the people of Hawaii. China and Russia have both had the capability of launching a nuclear attack against Hawaii for decades. Yet in neither case has the federal or state government deemed it important to prepare for that possibility by publicly locating a missile defense system in the islands or resuming testing of the civil defense alert siren.
Saber rattling in which the US implies the possibility of waging preemptive war against North Korea is an even more dangerous form of fearmongering. North Korea has too many potential sites with nuclear armed missiles to afford the US a high degree of confidence that any type of first strike would eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear weapon capability. A first strike’s failure to eliminate all of that capability would almost certainly result in a North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or the US, a devastating blow that although not decisive in the war’s outcome would kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of people.
Instead of fearmongering and financially wasteful, futile defensive efforts, the US and state governments should work to build bridges of peace with North Korea. Illustratively, the US could strive to draw the isolated nation into the global community and take diplomatic steps to assure the North Korean regime that the US will not seek to implement regime change. North Korea’s leader’s need for security and ego stroking is something that President Trump should understand especially well. Failing to respond constructively to those needs only exacerbates international tensions.

Stop the fearmongering now!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Further musings about philosophical foundations

A reader sent these reflections in response to my recent Ethical Musings post, Why we cannot return to our Western heritage:
I think your key point is that those who purport western values fail to engage the philosophical and theological depth of that which is foundational to the western European/Anglo-North American heritage. The philosophical and theological traditions that carried the “founders” of the nascent North American republic were shaped by classical studies (conditioned by their own time and context) as well their contemporaries (in the UK and France). I read a study of the philosophy/political theory of John Adams that connected him to a “natural law” tradition mediated through Locke and Hooker. Modern American Christian fundamentalism has lost theological/philosophical moorings — but that is not unlike our political environment that is post philosophical (a la Ayn Rand). In the era of Trump, we live into a myth of accumulation and self-promotion. There is really is no “heritage” in the philosophical/ theological sense, but a manufactured myth of power (largely white and male) that trades on fear and alienation. In international relations, we therefore have abandoned the notion of a community of nations (based in the 20th century on some notion of "natural law" and ideal of objective “justice”) for an absolutist notion of spheres of influence devoid of morality and accountability. It is true that we cannot return to our Western heritage exclusively, but 21st century America has abandoned that heritage for an illusion. How can we truly engage the other without a starting point ourselves? We must be self-aware to engage the other. So, yes, I have been rereading Aristotle, Aquinas, Hooker, Maritain and Arendt this summer. I am doing so while engaging some Chinese philosophy. I must read Womanist theology from some conscious place.
Those reflections prompted the musings that follow.
Your description of a manufactured myth of power (male and white), I think, is on target. In teaching ethics to MA/MS students at the Naval Postgraduate School, one of about ten texts that I used in the course was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Her ethics, embedded in the novel, exemplify the ethical egoism by which many live, perhaps none more (in)famously today than Trump. Ethical egoism includes, I think, the myth of accumulation and self-promotion that you mention. Sadly, my one student who found Rand unshakably sound also self-identified as a fundamentalist Christian.
My reading tends more toward ethics than philosophy more broadly. Only in the last couple of months have I had the mental energy to resume much serious reading, at present mostly in politics.
In many ways, contemporary philosophy (dominated by the analytical school), and philosophical ethics more narrowly, struggle for relevance. As a pragmatist, I find the most promising path ahead for philosophical ethics to be in dialogue with science. Ethical egoism, illustratively, coheres well with the work of, among others, Richard Dawkins (cf. his The Selfish Gene). Conversely, evolutionary biologists such as Frans de Waal argue that Dawkins and his compatriots are wrong; reciprocal altruism rather than ethical egoism best describes the path of human evolution. If that is correct, then the question becomes which ethical approach (e.g., utilitarianism, deontology, relativism, etc.) best coheres with science and optimizes human experience/life, which inherently includes caring for all creation.
Another factor that has pushed me to integrate science and philosophy (as well as theology) is that the more biology I read, the more I realize that any attempt to dissect humans into some constellation of body, mind, and spirit is futile. A human is her/his body. All of the research that I have read emphasizes that when a human thinks s/he has made a decision, the body has made and already is acting upon that decision. The delay between the unconscious/subconscious (these terms are inadequate, but perhaps the best available) decision and the conscious choice is probably less than a second. However, the delay suggests the futility of seeking a priori reasoning or conclusions and may explain why contemporary philosophy seems stalled to outsiders who are disinterested in its parochial academic disputes.

Perhaps the widespread disconnect between much theology and science is also a partial explanation of why so many well-educated people find traditional theological formulations dissatisfying. Chardin got into trouble with the Roman Catholic Church for his efforts to engage in theological-scientific dialogues. I think that some of the process theologians (including Suchocki, Cobb, and Griffin) build on earlier efforts, as well as that of Whitehead and his subsequent interpreters (e.g., Hartshorne), to offer a more promising, suggestive framework.

Monday, July 24, 2017


A friend sent me this personal anecdote after both the Grenfell fire in London and the fire in Waikiki:
I was once asleep on the 22nd floor of a Marriott in Cambridge, Mass. when the fire alarm went off. I could smell smoke. It turned out to be a minor fire, and I was able to get back into my room after a few hours. But ever since, when I enter a tall building, I look for sprinklers. They aren’t foolproof but they’re certainly better than nothing.
People who check into a hotel or move into a high rise trust the contractors, cognizant government approval authorities, and others have all honestly collaborated to construct a safe building, something that obviously failed to happen in London but may have been true in Waikiki. Standards should improve over time and retrofitting is often expensive, but the responsible parties should still make a good faith effort to keep the building safe. People who do not believe in human sin should consider the Grenfell fire as a case study in greed triumphing over concern for one’s neighbor.
The word “sin” is out of favor in many intellectual circles. For example, some evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins describe human selfishness in terms of genetic dynamics that program humans to act in an individual’s perceived self-interest (cf. Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene).
Others, including some theologians and evolutionary biologists, believe that biological dynamics include not only selfishness as usually understood but also reciprocal altruism, a form of selfishness that presumes self-interest is sometimes maximized by actions whose immediate benefit is for others, not self. The work of Frans de Waal, an evolutionary primate biologist, supports the concept of reciprocal altruism (cf. my Ethical Musings’ posts Metaethics - part 2 and Loving and being loved).
Sometimes people apparently act in good faith and bad things still result, as with the deaths, injuries, and other harms caused by the apartment building fire in Waikiki. Other times, bad things happen because of what theologians of many different faiths call “sin,” i.e., persons acting selfishly discounting or disregarding potential harms to others and to creation.
Forgiveness is not the remedy to sin. Sin’s remedy is described by words such as reformation, transformation, healing, and so forth – all words that denote an individual more fully balancing self-interest with the well-being of others.
The daily news is full of reports that demonstrate a widespread need for this type of change: stories about “America first,” tax proposals that favor the wealthy over the poor, health insurance proposals that seek to balance the budget by reducing the access of a society’s most vulnerable to healthcare, etc.

Christians believe that Jesus is the remedy for our sin because he exemplifies the triumph of love (reciprocal altruism) over sin and evil. May we, like Jesus, recognize the reality of sin, dare to stand up to evil, and thereby experience the life abundant that only love makes possible.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why we cannot return to our Western heritage

Occasionally, I will hear or read a call for the US to return to the Western values upon which it was founded, values that generally include democratic governance, human dignity, civil rights, etc.
While I affirm many Western values rooted in Judaism, Christianity, Greece, and Rome, I find the calls to return to those values biased, narrow minded, and historically inaccurate. I live in Hawaii, a state comprised of an Asian majority that exceeds 77%. These patriotic Americans cannot return to Western values that were never part of their heritage.
Similarly, in US communities in which a majority of the citizens share an African heritage, those people cannot return to Western values that were never part of their heritage. Indeed, the vast majority of the first ancestors of today’s African Americans to live in North America arrived involuntarily as slaves.
Genuine inclusivity calls for the US to incorporate the best of its global heritage, including the values of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans. Most fundamentally, all of these traditions affirm the dignity and worth of all humans. More broadly, all of their major religious traditions point towards establishing communities that protect the well-being of all, care for creation, and aim to help their practitioner live meaningful lives.
Furthermore, calls for a return to Western values are often code language for insisting upon establishing Christianity as the one true religion. Such calls explicitly devalue other religions and are historically inaccurate. Late eighteenth-century commentators on the founding of the United States often worried that its lack of an established religion would doom the democratic experiment to failure. Many of the persons prominent in founding the US were theists, not Christians. The US at that time was home not only to a wide assortment of Christian groups, many of whom denied that all other alleged Christians were not true Christians, but also to Jews, Muslims, adherents of Native American religions, adherents of African religions, and a few atheists. Declaring that the US was founded upon Christian principles and beliefs is “false news.”

Genuine multiculturalism enriches rather than impoverishes our ideas, our communities, our governance, and our prospects for justice, peace, and living abundantly. Conversely, the US cannot return to its exclusively Western heritage because that never existed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Lost causes

By nature, I am an optimist. For example, I sometimes characterize the role of the clergy as that of a professional hoper.
However, being an optimist and a professional hoper does not mean never recognizing that the issue is settled and the cause is lost. Recent news reports highlight two lost causes with respect to which some people continue to have an ill-founded hope.
In the first instance, continuing to hope may feel easier and more moral than recognizing the cause is lost and being overwhelmed with grief. This first instance is the tragic case of a baby, Charles Gard, who for eleven months has subsisted on life support in a London hospital. He was born without the ability to breathe or eat. Without life support systems, he would quickly die.
Charlie’s parents, the Pope, and President Trump don’t want to end his life and suffering by terminating the life support because they want to try an untested new treatment that may help Charlie. Roman Catholic doctrine, the hospital, and the British courts all support withdrawing life support because there is no hope for a cure.
Grief is hard. Yet tragedy and death are unavoidable aspects of life. Frittering away scarce resources on cases in which there is no hope, thereby protracting suffering for all involved, is neither moral nor Christian. Surely there are babies who suffer from the same condition as Charlie Gard but in less severe ways and in closer proximity to the doctors who have devised the experimental treatment who would be better suited for testing the treatment.
In the second instance, North Korea has both nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the US (Alaska and perhaps Hawaii) on which to launch those weapons.
While the world would indisputably be safer if North Korea had neither nuclear weapons or ICBMs, there is no way to force North Korea to give up one or both. Military experts agree that North Korea has too many possible targets for a first strike by the US to succeed in destroying all North Korean nukes. A first strike that did not eliminate all nuclear weapons would almost certainly result in North Korea launching its own nuclear strike against the US, South Korea, or Japan. The death toll from these strikes and the inevitable war that would follow is too high to contemplate.
Similarly, scholars – experts in politics, foreign affairs, economics, and North Korea – agree that no set of sanctions will coerce North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons or ICBMs. North Korea rightly perceives its nuclear weapons and ICBMs as insurance against invasion and forced regime change.
As a child, I lived with the constant threat of a Soviet nuclear strike against the US. Those old enough to remember will recall Soviet threats and bluster as well as civil defense drills, e.g., school children seeking safety under their desks. Living now in Hawaii, perhaps within range of a North Korean nuclear attack, I feel no less safe than I did as a child.
The policy of mutual assured destruction has prevented a nuclear war not only between the US and the Soviet Union, its successor state of Russia, and China, but also between Pakistan and India. I do not believe that North Korea has a death wish. However great an injury they might be able to inflict on the US, the result would be the near, if not complete, annihilation of North Korea. A policy of mutual assured destruction will continue to prevent nuclear wars.
Instead of pursuing hopeless policies, the US and other nations would do well to engage North Korea in constructive ways, such as those advocated by South Korea’s current president. No matter how slim the odds of that engagement succeeding in improving global stability and moving North Korea toward better governance, those odds are infinitely greater than pursuing a policy that has no hope of success.

As with individuals, God never desires that we pursue the hopeless. Instead, genuine hope entails seeking the possible that advances us and our neighbors along the trajectory that leads to more abundant life, greater peace and justice for all creation.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Time to simplify and expedite clergy searches

The search processes for diocesan bishops, rectors, and vicars are broken. Little evidence exists, beyond anecdotes, to demonstrate that the current processes efficaciously select clerics who succeed in their new posts regardless of one’s definition of success. Indeed, numerous anecdotes suggest that the processes result in calling unsuccessful leaders at least as often as the processes result in calling successful leaders. Furthermore, the current processes entail excessive and unnecessary delays and costs.

Significant improvements are easily identified and implemented.

First, eliminate the frequently intentional long interim periods in congregations (parishes and missions) and dioceses. Accumulating research on the effects of long interim periods between permanent congregational leaders generally shows that congregations decline or at best subsist in a holding pattern until the new leader arrives. The same is likely true for dioceses.

Other types of organizations generally avoid intentionally long interim periods between top leaders, e.g., businesses, non-profits, and governments. In The Episcopal Church (TEC) we already have no interim periods between Presiding Bishops and in dioceses that select a coadjutor who will become the diocesan bishop upon the retirement or departure of the current incumbent.

Second, dioceses and congregations should commence transition planning immediately upon an incumbent announcing her/his departure. Some dioceses already do this when the diocesan bishop calls for the election of a coadjutor. A bishop, rector, or vicar who announces her/his upcoming departure becomes in the eyes of many a lame duck. Members frequently adopt a wait and see attitude to determine their level of support for new initiatives and sometimes for existing programs. Visitors may opt to go elsewhere or, if they stay, similarly hesitate to commit, uncertain of the congregation’s future tone and direction. Commencing the search process as soon as possible minimizes this period of uncertainty.

A good leader inevitably shapes the organization s/he leads. Postponing the start of the search process for a new leader until the current leader has departed will not prevent controlling leaders from attempting to meddle in the process. Instead, organizations should insist that current leaders and search process participants maintain good boundaries.

The rationale that a trained interim can best assist a congregation or diocese in resolving serious problems (entrenched conflict, abusive relationships, etc.) is wrong. A newly called bishop, rector, or vicar may already have the skills to assist the diocese or congregation in working through its problems. Alternatively, the person may easily acquire those skills by attending training for interims, seminary courses, receiving mentoring or coaching, or through other means. An incumbent’s advantages compared to an interim include the stability and length of tenure that s/he brings to the diocese or congregation. Lastly, well-trained interims know that in spite of their best efforts, resolving many of a diocese’s or congregation’s most serious problems will require many years of consistent efforts by the new leader. People too often see an interim as just temporary help.

Occasionally, a diocese or congregation will require an interim. For example, an interim’s services are temporarily unavoidable when the incumbent dies in office, departs unexpectedly, or is precipitously fired. I have served as an interim in all three situations (one incumbent literally died in his office, another had a stroke, and a third was abruptly dismissed after the congregation discovered the married leader’s affair with a prominent choir member). Regardless of an interim’s best efforts, the pain, distrust, and other problems caused by the previous incumbent inevitably persist into the first few years of the next incumbent’s tenure. Interims unfortunately have no magic tools with which to make problems disappear.

Third, eliminate the preparation and distribution of diocesan and congregational profiles. Most of the information in those profiles is now available online from diocesan and congregational websites. Carefully perusing newsletters, photos, and other information reveals who attends (race, age, gender, etc.), what the congregation or diocese does in ministry and mission, and the organization’s self-identity. Supplemental information not on the website (e.g., not all dioceses and congregations have finances and membership statistics available on their websites) can be added to the website or sent to clergy who express an interest in applying for the position. Almost all of this information conveniently exists in digital format.

Instead, diocesan and congregational search committees should focus their efforts on preparing a short (optimally one page but no more than two pages) statement of the organization’s expectations and goals for the next chapter in their life and the gifts and skills they hope the next incumbent will have.

Fourth, dioceses and congregations should rely on the cadre of professional headhunters that TEC already employs to winnow through potential candidates expeditiously. These professional headhunters consist of diocesan staff responsible for the deployment process and the staff of the Church Deployment Office (CDO). The CDO, using its database, can identify clergy who want to move and whose profile seems to fit what a congregation what in its next leader. Diocesan deployment staff can supplement that list. Some dioceses, at least part of the time, presently utilize this approach, providing congregations the names of a handful of candidates that the deployment staff deem represent the best match of clergy skills and personality with the congregation’s aspirations, goals, and characteristics.

TEC’s Office of Pastoral Development in collaboration with the Presiding Bishop (PB) and CDO can provide the same assistance for episcopal search processes. The Office of Pastoral Development and PB know dioceses, their contexts, and their current situations. The CDO using its database can easily identify potential candidates whose self-identified qualities and qualifications appear to meet a diocese’s expressed aspirations.

Selecting and forwarding several names to a congregation or diocese will often require only a week instead of the months that congregations and dioceses now typically expend winnowing through possible candidates. Search committees after reviewing profiles/resumes and conducting phone interviews, as well as any personal interviews, may reject all of the candidates. In that case, the diocese or Office of Pastoral Development should use search committee feedback to refine their selection process and then forward the search committee a fresh set of candidate names and information.

Fifth and finally, teach the revised search process and transition management to clergy and lay leaders in diocesan forums. Initially, the training should emphasize changes to the process as well as how the changes will benefit both clergy and the Church’s ministry and mission. Subsequent training sessions can constructively focus on teaching dioceses, congregations, and clergy to identify their gifts, skills, relevant personality characteristics, as well as goals for the next chapter of their life. Training sessions can also teach transition management, a skill that I had to acquire as a Navy chaplain who received a new assignment every two to three years.

The changes to the search process outlined above obviously presume that we Episcopalians trust those who work in the deployment process. This trust is fundamental to Jesus’ command that we love one another. Demonstrating that we trust one another will also improve our witness to the world and the efficiency of clergy transitions, thus both saving money and enhancing organizational effectiveness. Our current process, centered around trusting a well-meaning but inexperienced search committee to weed through a stack of clergy profiles and resumes, seems much less likely to discern God’s will than does a process constructed around committed Christian leaders whose calling includes faithfully assisting other clergy to hear and to answer God’s call.

I am not so naïve as to believe that all bishops, clergy, and church employees are worthy of that trust. However, the preponderance of these individuals has chosen to serve Christ by working for TEC. While they, you, and I may assess clergy and job openings differently, I have rarely found a reason to question their motives. In the twenty-first century, few persons choose to work for the Church because it pays well, gives them significant power, or offers so much prestige.

TEC, struggling for institutional survival, badly needs to reduce the time and money expended in clergy transition processes. This requires a culture of mutual trust and respect. Arguably, the most important step that TEC can take to avoid perpetuating whatever culture of distrust now exists in its transition processes is to deal boldly, appropriately, and openly with those few persons who are untrustworthy. Ending distrust entails refusing to tolerate unacceptable behavior, breaking unhealthy cycles of co-dependence, strongly encouraging the mentally ill to seek treatment, etc. In other words, ending distrust means emulating Jesus’ tough love to bring healing to the broken.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The value of freedom

When Abraham Lincoln was brought the Emancipation Proclamation to sign, he started several times to sign the document but stopped each time and dropped the pen. In answer to Secretary Seward's quizzical look, Lincoln said, "I have been shaking hands since nine o'clock this morning, and my right arm is almost paralyzed. If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say:  He hesitated.'"

Never hesitate to celebrate or to share the gift of freedom.

Happy Fourth of July!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

E Komo Mai – All Are Welcome

A new altar guild member couldn’t open the combination lock for the safe in which the parish stored its altar silver. So, she asked the rector for help. The rector started turning the dial of the combination lock, but stopped after the first two numbers, looked up serenely toward heaven, began moving her lips silently, then turned to the final number, and opened the lock.
The altar guild member gasped, “I’m in awe of your faith.”
“Really,” the priest said, “it’s nothing. The combination is taped to the ceiling.”[1]
Analogously, outsiders can find Christianity incomprehensible or intimidating. However, in today’s gospel reading[2] Jesus throws the door to our community wide open. If he had been the first Episcopalian, he would have declared, “All are welcome!” And had he been Hawaiian, he would have said, “E komo mai!” Jesus delineated four welcomes, four paths into the one community of God’s people.
The first welcome or path depicts individuals who seek to connect with God by welcoming the one whom God sent, that is, Jesus. Walking a labyrinth illustrates many aspects of this path. The spiritual life is a journey, not an event. The journey may feel personal, yet a community’s effort is necessary to create and maintain the labyrinth. Walking a labyrinth suggests God’s mysteriousness, while reminding travelers to continue moving forward even when their spiritual life feels dull, tedious, and unrewarding. In the ordinariness of walking and praying one may, in a time and manner of God’s choosing, encounter the living God. If you travel this path, can you describe your personal spiritual journey?
Unfortunately, this first path or welcome for spiritual seekers is widely regarded as Christianity’s only path. Yet Jesus describes three more welcomes, three more paths, by which people can encounter God.
The second welcome or path is for people who receive a prophet. Jesus speaks against the backdrop of well-known Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. Sadly, knowledge of the Old Testament is sharply declining, even though we live in an era that desperately needs to hear the prophets’ messages of social justice and compassion for all. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a more recent prophet whose ministry was a catalyst that transformed society. Without King’s prophetic voice, Barack Obama would probably not have been elected President.
The Rev. William Barber pastors a small North Carolina church and until lately chaired the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter. He founded the Moral Monday movement to protest what he deemed unjust moves by the North Carolina legislature to restrict voting opportunities, impose discriminatory access to public restrooms, and limit healthcare for the poor. Rev. Barber now works to expand the burgeoning North Carolina movement into a national campaign for justice. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, when Bishop of North Carolina, actively supported Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday movement.
Do we similarly welcome prophets? Do we heed prophetic judgments about how our political, economic, and social systems and values measure up against God’s definition of justice, a definition that requires us to care for the most vulnerable and the least among us? And having heard those prophetic judgments, do we support the prophet with our voices, presence, votes, and contributions?
If the first path, with its spiritual focus is the most intellectually challenging in our materialistic, scientific culture, the third path can appear deceptively easy. Jesus instructs his disciples to welcome the righteous. Who is a truly righteous person?
Many of the hundreds of persons that the Episcopal Church identifies as Saints, with a capital S, embodied great virtue.[3] They were just, courageous, prudent, or temperate. However, decades of mid-week services in which my homily usually highlighted a particular Saint’s virtue taught me not only the rigor of cultivating virtue but also that all of the Saints had clay feet. Not one is a person whom we can safely emulate in toto.
Instead, those who strive for righteousness should look to Jesus as their moral exemplar, the pioneer of their salvation. Notably, Jesus preached an inclusive rather than exclusionary welcome. In today’s gospel, in which Jesus identified four welcomes, four paths for his disciples to tread, he implicitly instructs us not to judge those who tread a different path or paths than the path or paths that we tread. Judgment of anyone’s worth – of self or others – belongs to God, not to us.
The final welcome or path that Jesus describes is practicing kindness toward the most vulnerable and least among us. He poignantly illustrates this path with the example of offering a cup of cold water to a little one. Understood literally, a little one denotes a child; understood metaphorically, a little one connotes the most vulnerable or least among us. Both interpretations are comparable: first century Palestinians had no chilled water or ice; water arduously drawn from a deep well was their only source of cold drinks.
A now deceased priest of this diocese, Fr. Claude DuTeil, founded the Institute for Human Services, Hawai’i’s largest non-profit provider of social services. IHS, which St. Clements supports, grew out of Fr. DuTeil’s compassionate response to a hungry, houseless person he encountered in Chinatown while feeling depressed about his ministerial gifts and future.
How can we become more compassionate toward the “little ones” in our midst? How can we more fully care for the houseless, the hungry, the sick, and others?
In a few moments, we will say the Nicene Creed together, affirming our commitment to walking in Jesus’ footsteps. We welcome on this journey all who seek God, who struggle to obey God’s prophetic word of justice, who strive to live righteously, and who try to care for the most vulnerable and least among us. Looking outwards, how can we more fully welcome all four? And, looking inwardly, which path or paths do you walk in your journey towards God?

[1] Dr. Robert R. Kopp, “Thanks for the Trip!” Oct. 29, 2000, pp. 4-5.
[2] Matthew 10:42-44.
[3] For a listing of the Saints, cf. Book of Common Prayer, pp. 19-33, and Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

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?”