Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

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

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

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

Decoration Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

The memory shall be ours.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some possibly heretical views about Sunday School

Let’s be honest about Sunday School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Fewer not more US troops for Afghanistan

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lessons from a terminal diagnosis

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

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

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why won't Trump release his tax returns?

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Aliens in a strange land

Aliens in a strange land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

The cost of saving a life

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

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