Monday, February 27, 2017

Holy places

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

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

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

So what makes a place holy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we no longer engage in civil discourse

Civil discourse – meaningful conversation about issues important to democracy – rarely occurs in the US today. Unmet requirements for civil discourse among politicians, public figures, opinion makers, and others include:
  • Trust – Trust presumes honesty. Civil discourse has no room for “alternate facts.” Even the most honest person will occasionally get the facts wrong or say something later regretted, e.g., an ad hominem remark or an overly broad generalization. When this occurs, a retraction and an apology are offered. Continuing to insist that a falsehood is true erodes the foundation of trust required for civil discourse and democracy.
  • Civility and mutual respect – This excludes personal attacks and requires focusing on the issues and not personalities. I may disagree with a judge’s ruling, but that disagreement does not entitle me to attack the judge verbally nor to question the judge’s fitness to sit on the bench.
  • Willingness to compromise – No person, organization, or political party has all of the right answers. Not every issue is worth a fight to the death. I disagree vehemently with many of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions and views. However, he is well qualified to sit on the Supreme Court and deserves an up/down vote in the Senate. Similarly, President Obama’s nominee, Judge Garland Merrick, was also well-qualified and deserved an up/down vote in the Senate. Democrats who advocate refusing to have confirmation votes on one or more of Trump’s judicial, cabinet, or other nominees contribute to the breakdown of civil discourse and democracy. Senators reasonably vote against the confirmation of any nominee whom the senator deems is unfit to hold the office for which the person was nominated. However, unfit is not synonymous with policy differences, an inevitable byproduct of any democracy in which there are winners and losers.
  • Commitment to the common good – US government is of, by, and for the people. Seeking the common good denotes seeking what is good for all US residents. Public schools and their supporters should welcome visits by Education Secretary DeVos (the more visits she makes, the greater the likelihood that she will see the vitality and importance of public schools). Conversely, the Secretary should seek to strengthen public education for all children regardless of the type of school that the child attends.
  • Public discourse – People from all sides of an issue must listen, really listen to one another. If those with whom I disagree really had nothing to contribute to the discussion, I believe that the vast preponderance of them would adopt another position. Emotions as well as logic can determine a person’s views. For example, widely held fears (of change, of economic loss, of displacement, etc.) are issues every bit as real as technological change (e.g., substituting robots for human labor) that make goods more affordable by reducing cost. Good solutions take into account all of a problem’s dimensions, often requiring compromise based trust, upon recognizing that all participants seek the common good, and civility that presumes mutual respect.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Choosing between fear and courage

In response to both cancer and terrorism, an individual has two basic choices: fear or courage.
In the short run, fear advantageously heightens a person’s senses, thus increasing vigilance along with the potential to improve the rapidity and quality of one’s response. Over the longer term, including fights against cancer and terrorism, fear’s disadvantages outweigh that advantage:
  • Fear loses its power over time, the altered condition becoming the new normal.
  • Life is inherently risky. No prophylactics exist to ensure that one will not develop cancer. Similarly, no guarantees exist to prevent one from becoming a victim in a terror attack. Indeed, counterterrorism authorities unanimously agree that there are too many potential targets to protect all of them.
  • Fear inherently degrades one’s quality of life.

Conversely, courage tempered by prudence (avoiding that which is rash) has only advantages:
  • Courage is a moral habit that develops and strengthens with practice.
  • Courageous living is essential for living abundantly.

President Trump’s policies and pronouncements about terrorism are a call to live fearfully. I, for one, refuse to live in fear, whether fear of terrorism or fear of cancer. I choose life. I choose to live courageously. What is your choice?

Monday, February 13, 2017


The Old and New Testaments both reflect widespread, theologically rooted belief in the idea that the sin is the cause of illness. For example, when Jesus heals a man who was born blind, some of the people in the crowd ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9)
Who sinned and caused my cancer, my parents or I?
My parents were by no stretch of the imagination perfect. However, to posit that two of their five children would die of incurable cancers (one of my brothers died of colon cancer almost twenty years ago) because of egregious sins my parents committed is unreasonable. First, my parents – like most people – did not commit horrendous sins. Second, punishing children for sins committed by their parents is unjust. Old Testament declarations that the sins of the parents will affect their children make sense only in limited contexts, e.g., parents who pollute the earth invariably harm the lives of their progeny or pregnant women who drink alcoholic beverages will often cause detrimental consequences for their newborn.
I’m with Jesus: in general, parental sins do not cause illnesses in their children.
Similarly, an individual’s sins sometimes cause harm in that person’s life. Illustratively, cancers frequently occur in the lives of adults who knowingly work with asbestos without taking proper precautions and those who smoke in spite of the well documented link between tobacco and cancer. Individuals sin when they fail to practice reasonable safeguards in caring for their life.
However, such explicit links between sin and disease of any kind is the exception and not the norm. I tried to take care of my body. I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, and avoided known health hazards. Indeed, scientists do not know the cause or causes of multiple myeloma. Likewise, my brother who died of colon cancer had a healthy lifestyle and left behind a loving wife and two young children. His death punished them as much as it may have punished him.
Again, I’m with Jesus: in general, an individual’s sins do not cause illness in that person’s life.
Positing a link between sin and illness expresses a desire for justice, i.e., the sinner should be punished for wrongdoing. Life is not that simple. Indeed, life frequently appears to be unfair. Good people suffer and die unjustly. Evil doers enjoy wealth, power, and privilege.
The cosmos’ trajectory appears to arc toward justice, but that does not mean that every individual experiences justice in his or her life. One of my seminary professors told me that Christians must believe in life after death because only then do all receive justice.

Again, I’m with Jesus: the cosmos functions on a paradigm of love rather than justice. Jesus healed a few; the vast contemporaneous multitude of the world’s sick, lame, blind, and hungry lived and died in misery. God calls us to love those whose lives intersect with ours. The larger questions of justice for all, even of love for all, remain mysteries best left to God.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Respite or reprieve?

The pace of executive orders and other changes issued by the Trump White House appears to have slowed.
Is this a respite or reprieve?
According to senior Trump administration officials, the administration has hundreds of draft executive orders ready to be finalized and signed. The slower pace at which Trump is signing these orders may optimally reflect President Trump’s belated recognition of the desirability of staffing the draft order through the departments and agencies that will be responsible for implementation. For example, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine General John Kelly, has acknowledged that the Trump administration should have better staffed the executive order on immigration before issuing it. If so, this may represent the beginning of a positive learning curve for the Trump administration.
Furthermore, President Trump is no longer assured of being center stage in the daily news, nudged (or shoved, depending upon one’s perspective) aside by other people and events, e.g., Super Bowl LI.
Finally, President Trump is encountering the limits of presidential power. He has no direct control over the judiciary, as evidenced by a federal district judge blocking implementation of his immigration ban. He is discovering that his words matter. Unlike in business, where inflammatory rhetoric, even if it is false, may help the speaker achieve a negotiating advantage, in politics and foreign affairs inflammatory rhetoric – especially if false – may exacerbate a bad situation, provide opponents irrefutable ammunition, or otherwise work to the speaker’s disadvantage.

A respite from the flurry of Trump’s initial presidential actions is welcome; a reprieve would be a sign of hope that the chaos, dishonesty, and incendiary efforts intended to cause conflict are ending, moving the US and the world away from potential catastrophes that an unreformed Trump might cause.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Frustrated yet thankful

In the middle of September last year, I spent a week in the hospital, my body ravaged by the effects of multiple myeloma that had gone undiagnosed for months. Three months of chemotherapy followed.
During those three months, my oncologist encouraged me to exercise, so as to maintain my strength. My neurosurgeon, however, encouraged me to spend my days lying in bed. He was afraid that some unexpected movement my result in my becoming a paraplegic because of the damage that the cancer had done to my spine. The two physicians never gave me a mutually agreed recommendation on exercising. So, I erred on the side of caution, exercising some while spending considerable time sitting on lying down. This was easier than it might sound because the multiple myeloma, hospitalization, and chemotherapy combined to leave me in a rather weakened, exhausted condition. During those months, I lost about twenty pounds.
In December, my cancer went into remission. Kyphoplasty ended immediate concerns about becoming a paraplegic. All obstacles to exercise were removed.
The slow pace of regaining strength, mobility, and endurance has surprised and frustrated me.
In reflecting on that slow pace, and in discussing it with my physicians, I have identified several mitigating factors that help to explain the pace. First, I am in the middle of my seventh decade and the body regains what it has lost more slowly as one ages. Second, I am still taking eight different drugs daily, some of which limit my energy and increase my feelings of tiredness. Third, I do not fully appreciate just how sick I was in September and how long recovery typically requires.
On the other hand, I am regaining strength, mobility, and endurance even if it is at much slower pace than I think I should.
Thus, I have a choice. Will I be frustrated or will I be thankful? Is my incentive to continue exercising, taking the medicines designed to maximize the length of my remission, and sustaining other actions intended to promote my health and well-being found in feeling frustrated, thankful, or some combination of both?
I suspect that many other people find themselves facing similar choices, e.g., the person who wishes to lose weight but finds losing the pounds agonizingly slow or the person who desires to learn a new skill more time consuming and difficult than anticipated.
No one combination of frustration and thankfulness best suits everyone. Instead, each individual must find the best balance for her or him. Persons who would encourage that individual will maximize their support for that individual when they identify that balance and then offer both negative and positive encouragement as appropriate.
This insight has wider applicability.
Recently, I have read a couple of books about families that moved to France from the US. The authors contrasted American and French schools. American schools and youth organizations stereotypically emphasize praising everyone. For example, every child who participates in some sports receives a trophy simply for participating. Universal praise is intended to strengthen weak egos and enhance self-image. In France, teachers and other adults who work with children stereotypically offer little or no praise. Instead, these leaders provide what is intended to be constructive criticism, comments about how the child or youth might improve performance. The French contend that universal praise is meaningless and helps to prevent individuals from achieving peak results.
Probably, the optimal approach tailors positive and negative feedback to the particular character of each child or youth, offering a mixture of both positive and negative comments. The same is true of leading and managing (cf. The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Donald Trump Amateur Hour

Ted Mack hosted an amateur hour on radio and then television from 1948 to 1970. That show was one entertainment forebear of more recent shows such as “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol.”
Sadly, Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” also seems to have provided the model for the Trump presidency. Consider:
  • Trump delights in portraying himself (and being seen by others) as the quintessential Washington outsider with no political experience. In other words, he is a political amateur.
  • Similarly, Trump’s cabinet members and closest advisers are amateurs.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s initial executive orders, tweets, and interactions with foreign leaders reflect that amateurism. For example:
  • Cozying up to Russia’s Putin and alienating the Prime Minister of vital US ally Australia.
  • Claiming in Tweets and public statements, contrary to all available evidence and expert opinion, that he would have won the popular vote had there not been several million fraudulent votes in favor of Clinton.
  • Banning legal residents of the US (green card holders) from entering the US if they were citizens of one of the seven Muslim majority states from whom he had banned all immigrants for 90 days.

The amateurism of Trump’s administration is also plainly seen in the administration’s focus on Trump’s ego instead of the people. Illustratively,
  • His Holocaust Day statement omitted any mention of the Jewish Holocaust and he used his meeting with Africa-American leaders intended to mark the beginning of Black History Month as an opportunity to denounce the media.
  • British Prime Minister Teresa May in her joint news conference with trump blatantly pandered to Trump’s ego, something Trump appeared to enjoy.

Most importantly for me as a Christian, Trump’s amateurism is evident in his superficial understanding of Christianity:
  • Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump unethically belittled the performance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new host of “The Apprentice” and asks attendees to pray for the show’s ratings while largely ignoring the more profound moral challenges facing the nation.
  • In his inaugural speech, Trump calls for policies that put America first, having taken the oath of office placing his hand on two Bibles (one apparently is insufficient!), implicitly contradicting Jesus’ fundamental teachings to love our neighbor and that all people, regardless of religion or nationality, are our neighbors.
  • Pandering to economic and security fears by threatening trade wars and promulgating travel bans instead of promoting courage, prudence, and justice.
  • Consistently preferring “alternative facts,” ad hominem attacks, and other fallacious forms of discourse to engaging in constructive public discourse.
Amateurism in the White House will not last very long. Trump and his minions will develop some level of professional, their amateurism will lead to impeachment, or their amateurism will have major, disastrous national or international consequences.