Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rethinking TEC's budget


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



Evidence of his influence included:

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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

Monday, December 11, 2017

When history and faith intersect




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Not like me


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

SHRINKING CONSUMERISM for CHRISTMAS and Beyond…


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


Weekly actions for December can be found on the website: www.zerowastechurch.org.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Advent thoughts on Cyber Monday


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

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fake news versus real news: Is there a difference?

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Crisis: Danger or Opportunity?

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hope, positive thinking, science, and All Saints Day

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

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

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

Let me advocate two theses.

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

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

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


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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

One person can make a difference

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

Luther, authority, and Anglicans

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

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

Monday, October 16, 2017

Learning to see God

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



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

Monday, October 9, 2017

Responding to the killings in Las Vegas

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

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



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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq

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

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Power that gives life

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Take a knee

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Does Jesus teach that God is unfair?

Life can easily seem unfair. Consider two letters written by children to God:
Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up. Joyce
Dear Mr. God, I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart. I had to have 3 stitches and a shot. Janet[1]
Our complaints about life’s unfairness are quite likely different than those. We may point to the death of a spouse, mistreatment at work, illness, or something else. However, almost everybody at least occasionally feels that life is unfair.
Today’s gospel reading appears to endorse unfairness.[2] In a scene evocative of hiring of day laborers in many US mainland cities, the owner of a vineyard goes to the local street corner or marketplace where the unemployed workers gather and chooses from among them those he wishes to hire for the day.
Then the story takes the first of two unexpected twists – unexpected to persons unfamiliar with the parable. The owner returns to hire more laborers not once but three times, at nine, three, and five. Certainly, a farmer would know how much help he or she needs for the day. Day laborers who have congregated in hope of a job usually disperse once potential employers have come and gone.
The second unexpected twist occurs when the time comes for the laborers to be paid. The owner pays them all equally, a deed that feels grossly unfair. Those first hired have performed back breaking work in the hot sun all day, without cold water, sunscreen, or bug repellant. Yet they receive the same amount of pay as the last hired, who have worked only an hour.
Interpreters of the parable have generally gone in one of two directions, both of which have merit.
Some interpreters view the parable as a lesson in distributive justice. Day laborers in Palestine literally depended upon their daily earnings to purchase food and other necessities for themselves and their families. Workers did not have the benefit of minimum wage laws, unions, or other legal protections. No social safety net existed. The plight of first century Palestinian day laborers is strikingly similar to that of undocumented immigrant laborers in the twenty-first century United States.
In this morning’s parable, Jesus teaches that every person has the right to a living wage. Baptismal affirmations of the dignity and worth of every human ring hollow when our actions reflect an indifference to the hunger, thirst, lack of safe shelter, and lack of access to adequate healthcare of our neighbors in Honolulu, the US, and globally. We Christians may disagree in good faith about how to best meet those needs, but the imperative to provide life’s necessities – food, water, shelter, and healthcare – for all is foundational for Christian ethics.
The second direction interpreters of the parable often take involves spiritualizing the text, interpreting “day’s wage” as connoting God’s grace, given equally to all, regardless of whether one arrives early or late to the banquet.
On the one hand, I want to be clear that this is an inadequate reading of the text. Christians tend to ignore both the fact that approximately three-quarters of Jesus’ parables deal with economics and the Bible’s consistent emphasis on economic justice. Christianity must speak to human needs because God cares about our physical existence. Furthermore, spiritualizing the text conveniently ignores the enigmatic statement with which the parable ends: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That ending points to what Christian theologians call God’s preferential option for the poor.
On the other hand, spiritualizing the parable has just enough truth to be credible. God’s grace is given to all equally, whether they come to the table late or early, and regardless of their social standing, wealth, gender, race, etc.
In the mid-1960s, Woodrow Seal, a U.S. Federal District court judge, founded "The Society of St. Stephen" in a Houston Methodist Church. The Society of St. Stephen is now a national program with the sole purpose of helping the needy.
A congregation invited Mr. Seal to explain how they could begin a Society of St. Stephen chapter. They planned for the Judge to speak on the Society’s various ministries and then to have time for discussion.
The pastor introduced Judge Seal and the Society’s work. Meanwhile, the Judge took some cookies and poured himself some coffee. When the introduction was completed, Judge Seal walked over to the piano, put his coffee cup on top of it, and began to fumble in his coat pockets. Finally, he pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper from which he read the name of a mother and her four children, including their ages and clothing sizes. He noted several other needs this particular family had, said the address was on the paper, and then laid it on top of the piano.
After that, the Judge said, "If you want to start a Society of St. Stephen, you should contact this woman by 11:30 tomorrow morning. If you are not able to help her, don't worry, I'll be in touch with her tomorrow, and get her help by mid-afternoon." With that, Judge Seal remarked, "Now, forgive me, but I really must be going. Thank you for inviting me and for the coffee and the cookies." Then he walked out the door. It all took less than 5 minutes.[3]
The needs of our neighbors may easily feel overwhelming. Honolulu has perhaps five thousand homeless people; tens of thousands of people who live here subsist below the poverty level, many choosing between buying food, shelter, or medicine. In the last two weeks, hurricanes and earthquakes have left hundreds of thousands in the US and elsewhere homeless and without life’s basic necessities. And, of course, there are the continuing needs of millions of people in Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and lots of other places.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, we do well to emulate Judge Woodrow Seal in his incarnation of Christian discipleship. God gave him the grace to respond to the neighbors he saw in need. In founding the Society of St. Stephen, Woodrow Seal incarnated the two superficially divergent interpretations of today’s parable. Filled with God’s grace in Christ, he worked to make the world a little more just. Grace never comes to us only for our own sake but also that we might be God’s hand, feet, and voice in meeting the needs of our neighbors.



[1] Source unknown.
[2] Matthew 20:1-16.
[3] Jerald Borgie, Prisoners of Hope: 111 Inspiring Stories (Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press, 2016), pp. 92-93.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Power that corrodes and corrupts

An understanding of power helpfully informs laments about economic inequality, including those on Ethical Musings (cf. Capitalism and inequality and Economic inequality). The nineteenth century British politician Lord Acton was perhaps the first to comment that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He aimed his comment at the abuse of power by politicians. His observation, however, applies equally to other arenas of life.
Power, according to Henry Kissinger, is the “ultimate aphrodisiac.” Even if power is not absolute, power or the lust for power may still corrode healthy relationships with self, others, creation, and God. Abraham Lincoln insightfully recognized the exercise of power as the true test of a person’s character: “Nearly all men [sic] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
Illustratively, absolute (or near absolute) economic power corrupts persons who hold that power. Late nineteenth century US business trusts such as Standard Oil, US Steel, and Hormel meatpackers exemplify the corruption of absolute or near absolute economic power. Working conditions tended to be exceptionally hazardous, products were often unsafe as well as overpriced, market positions were maintained by eliminating competition, and politicians were bought to prevent change. Businessmen, and they were all men, contended that the federal government existed not to promote the common good but to protect their property rights and to defend the nation against foreign enemies.
During the twentieth century, new laws enforced by new federal agencies ended many of those abuses, e.g., the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, anti-trust laws, Social Security, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Federal Election Commission. The federal and state governments began to actively promote the common good.
In the early twenty-first century, new forms of abuse by monopolies or near monopolies have emerged. The diminishing power of unions has allowed large corporations to exercise more power over their workforces, as reflected in the dramatically widening gap between CEO pay and the median compensation of a corporation’s workforce. Privacy has diminished with corporations collecting ever increasing amounts of information about individuals. A push for deregulation that began during the Reagan administration and accelerated under Trump has both shifted power from individuals to corporations and frequently sanctioned environmental harm. The large sums that corporations and the extremely wealthy contribute to increasingly expensive electoral campaigns represent a new form of purchasing politicians. The argument that political contributions purchase access and not influence today rings hollow. Most citizens lack direct access to their elected officials. Well-funded special interest groups publicize the voting records of elected officials, endorsing those who consistently vote in line with the wishes of the special interest and condemning officials who deviate from those wishes.
The former Archbishop of Scotland, the Most Rev. Richard Holloway, correctly observed that power always seeks to justify itself. Oft repeated justifications for unlimited government expansiveness are to protect the common good, safeguard the well-being of all, and to prevent every potential fraud, waste, or abuse of government power or resources. Consequently, the usually well-intentioned but continuously expanding reach of government into personal and business affairs in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has too often favored large corporations and government at the expense of diminishing individual rights and responsibility.
Typically, government tries to achieve zero-defects in most if not all of its laws, policies, and programs. Abuses of any type of government power frequently trigger a media feeding frenzy, reinforcing the commitment of politicians and government officials to zero-defect laws, policies, and programs. Occasionally, a zero-defect standard is important, e.g., in aviation safety. However, most efforts to achieve zero-defects are unnecessary and eventually alienated the majority of citizens and corporations who perceive these efforts as governmental overreach, excessively wasteful and complex, and unnecessarily intrusive.
For example, when I, as an active duty chaplain, wrote the Navy’s first instruction governing the use of and accounting for religious offerings, a frustratingly large number of stakeholders pushed for the instruction to eliminate all possible fraud, waste, or abuse with respect to funds. No number of safeguards can foresee much less prevent all future fraud, waste, and abuse. I insisted that the cost of safeguards should not exceed the cost of potential losses. Unsurprisingly, the first revision of the instruction, prepared after I had moved to a new assignment, incorporated additional safeguards, most of them not cost effective. In spite of good intentions, the complex procedures requiring the involvement of more people that supplanted the original easily implemented, standard accounting protocols failed to decrease the number of thefts or embezzlements.
More generally, well-intentioned but counterproductive government overreach results in needlessly repetitive layers of bureaucracy, excessively detailed procedures and rules, and widespread reluctance to accept responsibility for a decision. All of this is eerily reminiscent of the well-intentioned but ultimately discarded Pharisaical attempts to avoid violating the 613 commandments of the Torah by fencing the Torah with additional rules designed to keep an observant Jew from unintentionally violating the Torah. Similarly, the inherent weakness of any rule-based ethical system is that no set of rules, no matter how comprehensive, can foresee every situation that may arise.
Deceased rock star Jimi Hendrix articulated the basic remedy to the wrongful accumulation and misuse of power: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
In practical terms, distributing and using power to build healthy relationships and promote life abundant entails imposing limits on persons, organizations, and communities that in one or more arenas exercises absolute or near-absolute power. In personal relationships, breaking another’s power over one’s self begins by reclaiming one’s dignity and self-worth and may ultimately require ending the relationship. In the case of a monopoly, this may involve anti-trust cases and legislation. In the case of the US government, actions to limit power may include rebalancing the distribution of power between the three branches (Trump, from this perspective, may be good news if Congress and the Courts reclaim their Constitutional powers), changing laws, and working to elect and then to lobby politicians willing to accept an imperfect and limited government while holding steadfastly to sound values. Finally, each individual must audit their motives to ensure that s/he pursues the power of love instead of the love of power..

Monday, September 18, 2017

When a new rector arrives

I preached this sermon at the Parish of St Clements prior to the arrival of their new rector. Although set within a particular context, the message is broadly applicable to the arrival of a new rector, pastor, or senior minister.
Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s, once claimed that Adam had turned to Eve, as they left the Garden of Eden, and said, “Darling, we live in an age of change.”
St Clements is in a season of change. Liz Zivanov retired as rector at the end of 2015 and Canon Kate began her ministry as interim rector in March 2016. Next Sunday is her last; the Rev. Heather Hill begins her ministry as St Clements’ new rector on October 1.
Despite its inevitability, change, or even the prospect of change, can easily evoke feelings of uncertainty or anxiety
Biblical scholars and church historians believe that the Greek word ecclesia, translated as church, did not enter the Christian vocabulary until decades after Jesus’ death. Furthermore, no evidence exists to show that Jesus formally organized his followers. Hence, the conversation between Jesus and Peter in this morning’s gospel reading[1] post-dates Jesus’ crucifixion.
The conversation reveals Jesus’ disciples’ anxiety about their new community. Dissent, motivated at least partially by the fear of change, appeared as Jesus’ followers developed differing opinions about what being a disciple meant. Being human, Jesus’ followers also said and did things that other of Jesus’ followers rightly or wrongly perceived as harmful or sinful. And so the question arose, how many times should one forgive a sinful brother or sister? The answer was not seven times, but seventy-seven times, i.e., more than one could conveniently track, meaning forgiveness without limits.
Difficulties in coping with changes in their journey as becoming Christians troubled not only Jerusalem’s Jewish-Christian community but also the recipients of Paul’s epistles. His epistles include lots of advice on how nascent Christian communities should deal with conflict and change. In particular, today’s epistle lesson[2] offers four specifics helpful to St Clements as it lives into the next chapter of its life as a gathered community of Christ’s body.
First, welcome persons of little or no faith. Paul actually instructs the Romans to welcome those of “weak faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling.” In this post-religious age, in contrast to Paul’s era of pervasive religious belief, we rightly interpret “weak faith” metaphorically and envision St Clements as a home for spiritual seekers. In some ways, this is already true. St Clements supports twelve step groups, participates in ecumenical and interfaith ventures, and tries to be a warm and accepting community
However, no community ever perfectly embodies the spirit of aloha. Welcoming Heather, Doug, and their twins affords us an opportunity to practice aloha intentionally and then to try to maintain that practice so that nobody ever feels like a stranger in our midst.
Second, non-judgmentally celebrate one another’s faith journeys. Paul’s example of this is anachronistic. None of the meat sold on Oahu is sacrificed to an idol during the slaughtering process. However, individual passions about particular ministries, missions, and parish structures vary. Thankfully, God calls each of us to a unique faith journey. Illustratively, some persons deepen their faith through the four-year Education for Ministry program. Others find a deeper faith by attending Sunday adult forums or Bible workshops. Similarly, some persons find preparing feeding the homeless, working with children and youth, aiding Family Promise of Hawaii, or supporting another mission integral to their faith journey. Together, our separate efforts, like the parts of a body, comprise a whole.
In London about 200 years ago, when the umbrella first appeared on streets, religious groups were irate. They tried to have the new contraption banned. Their argument was simple: "Man is interfering with heavenly design by not getting wet."[3] Living for two years in London taught me the value of a good umbrella.
Jesus never prescribed certain ministries, missions, or structures. Over time, the need for, interest in, and support of various ministries, missions, and structures changes. A new rector’s arrival, with her unique personality, gifts, and priorities, is a good time to assess existing efforts and programs, pruning those whose sale by date has expired and adding new ones to rejuvenate and energize our faith.
Third, embrace liturgical changes and maybe gain a fresh appreciation for our worship. Paul wrote about Christians who worship on different days, either the Jewish Sabbath or the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. A new priest inevitably brings her or his own liturgical emphases and style.
A tourist visited the home of a world-renowned Rabbi. The visitor expected to see an impressive home filled with valuable treasures. Instead, the visitor saw a humble, almost empty home. The shocked tourist asked, “Where are your possessions?” The Rabbi responded, “Where are yours?” “What kind of question is that?” the tourist said. “I’m a visitor here.” “So am I,” the Rabbi replied.
When we possess the liturgy, the liturgy becomes an idol. Instead, regard inevitable if still unknown liturgical changes and spiritual emphases as an opportunity for the liturgy to possess you and for the Spirit to move in your life in new and unexpected ways. As industrialist and inventor Charles Kettering said, "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress."
Fourth and finally, agree to disagree and forgive real or perceived slights. Paul exhorted the Romans to not pass judgment on one another. The gospel emphasizes our duty to forgive one another without limit. St Clements’ new rector, with your help and God’s, will continue to build on the foundation and achievements of St Clements under the leadership of Kate, Liz, and prior rectors.
When Navy CDR Alan Shepherd, the first American to enter space, was getting for his first space flight, a reporter asked him, "What are you depending on in this flight?"  He replied, "I'm depending on the fact that God's laws will not change."
Be assured that God is and will remain at the heart of St Clements. God will continue to feed and sustain you through the sacrament of Holy Communion; God’s spirit will give you the strength, courage, wisdom, and love to move into the next chapter of St Clements’ existence, drawing you and your new rector, Heather, the parish of St Clements, and those to whom you minister ever deeper into God’s love and the abundant life that is ours in Christ.



[1] Matthew 18:21-35.
[2] Romans 14:1-12.
[3] Neil Eskelin, Yes Yes Living in a No No World (New Jersey: Logos International, 1980), p. 18.