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.