Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Seeking greatness


Many aspire to greatness. And even if we do not aspire to greatness, without ambition few of us would achieve very much. This morning’s gospel offers practical lessons in ambition and the goals for which we should be ambitious.

James and John seek Jesus out in private.[1] They begin, I suspect, somewhat abashedly, by asking Jesus to grant any request they make.[2] In this they are like children with a parent, or a sailor with a chief, when the requester knows that the request isn’t quite right and is likely to be denied. You know the feelings I’m talking about, I am sure. We have all tried this technique at least once or twice.

Matthew reports that James and John were even more subtle. They did not go by themselves to see Jesus, but went with their mother and had her ask Jesus.[3] Some scholars suspect that Matthew’s account may reflect an effort to make James and John look less ambitious, less political, instead portraying them as saintlier.

In any case, the gospel seems a clear rejection of “office politics.” The path to true greatness does not consist in networking, currying favor, having more “face time” than anybody else, or in changing our attitudes, values and opinions to match the prevailing wind. If honest, most of us try “politics” to get what we want from our parents, our spouse, our co-workers, our boss, and our friends at least some of the time. The twinge of conscience which I hope we feel when we use these tactics is God reminding us that these tactics are wrong and are not the path to greatness.

More surprising than Jesus’ rejection of politics as the path to preferment is Jesus’ rejection of advancement on the basis of achievement. Once James and John have asked Jesus to sit at his right and left, Jesus asks if they will be able to drink from the cup from which he is to drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which he will be baptized.[4]

From the vantage point of the twentieth century, these are clearly allusions to Jesus’ crucifixion. James and John do not seem to have grasped what Jesus was talking about. The word used for baptism in this verse means submerged. In other words, Jesus asks James and John, are you able to be submerged into my life? Are you, are we, able to face every test and trial which Jesus faced?

James and John glibly reply, “We are able.”[5] Jesus acknowledges that they indeed are able to drink from his cup and receive his baptism, but that this does not qualify them for preferment in God’s kingdom.[6]

With God, we know that selections for preferment or promotion are not capricious. We know that God loves us too much to arbitrarily choose one person over another. And while the criteria for selection remain mysterious, we know that they are neither based on spiritual politics or ability, skill, accomplishments or merit. God chooses whom God will favor.[7] We also know that humans have a role in determining what happens. Apparent capriciousness or blatant unfairness point to human actions, not to what God has done or is doing.

While God has chosen those whom God will favor, the path to greatness is clear: the one who would be great must be the servant of all, and the one who wishes to be first among all must be the slave of all. This is diametrically opposed to the prevalent notion that the path to greatness consists of positions of prominence, prestige and power.

To seek to be the servant of all is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. God could have responded to sin in many different ways: by destroying all creation, wiping the canvass clean; by abandoning creation, throwing the partially finished canvass on a cosmic trash heap; or by patiently, lovingly reworking the details until each part was perfected, creating a living masterpiece. This was the course God chose. Jesus points the way to perfection, the way of sacrificial love which takes God as its center and finds fulfillment in others.

During the terrible Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of this century (the leaders were so nicknamed because they practiced gymnastics and calisthenics), the “boxers” captured a mission station, then placed a flat cross on the ground. They gave instruction that those who trampled the cross as they came out of the building would be set free; those who walked around the cross would be executed. The first seven students trampled the cross under their feet and were released.

But the eighth student, a young girl, knelt beside the cross and prayer for strength. Then she slowly walked around the cross to face the firing squad. Strengthened by her example, every one of the more than ninety other students followed her to death.[8] This young student’s ambition of faithfulness brought her true greatness. May God grant us the same courage and faithfulness.



[1]Mark 10:41.
[2]Mark 10:35.
[3]Matthew 20:20-23.
[4]Mark 10:38.
[5]Mark 10:39.
[6]Mark 10:39-40.
[7]Mark 10:40.
[8]Erwin W. Lutzer, Where Do We Go From Here? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), 45.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Preventing sexual assaults


An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me some comments and questions about preventing sexual abuse:

With so much going on about sex assaults, it is time for the church to get involved. Since few parents talk about protection, evidently, then having the church offer classes on behaviors and power may make all congregants wiser. Including how to protect both men and women would be a good start. The classes need to definitely include going Dutch when going out and not trusting others buying you drinks, food or gifts. Would discussing what to do if encountering a potential situation in which assaults might occur avoid assaults from happening?

These lessons may not stop determined assailants but might lessen the probability of it happening.

Churches, frequently under the auspices of local ecumenical or interfaith groups, used to offer sex education classes. In the 1960s many school districts refused to conduct sex education classes. In some areas, churches and other religious congregations banded together to offer these classes. Participation by the Roman Catholic Church frequently depended upon whether the classes would address issues on which the Roman Catholic Church’s position differed markedly from mainline Protestant and Jewish groups. These issues included abortion, artificial birth control and pre-marital sex. Fundamentalist Protestant groups usually refused to participate for their own reasons.

When sex education became part of the curriculum in most school districts, the courses offered by ecumenical and interfaith groups ended. Another factor that contributed to the decline were a spreading confusion about sexual ethics, e.g., when if ever is pre-marital sex moral. Nevertheless, a few congregations still offer sex education classes, especially fundamentalist congregations.

The Ethical Musings’ reader is right. Churches and other religious groups need to resume offering sex education classes. Among the topics these classes should cover are:

·       Debunking cultural stereotypes such as “boys will be boys” for the shams that they are

·       Exploring what it means for people of different gender and gender orientations (i.e., all people, whether heterosexual or LGBQT) to respect the dignity of one another in general and when in an intimate relationship

·       Learning to see the image of God in each person, especially one’s partner

·       Basic physiology and sex education (subjects no longer taught in many schools as a consequence of the culture wars)

·       Alternatives for birth control (abstinence may often be the best option but presuming that sex will never occur is absurd; this may also be good information after formation of relationships in which sex is appropriate)

·       Responsibilities to one’s sexual partner, including informing them of any sexually transmitted diseases one may have and mutual responsibility for birth control

·       Setting and maintaining boundaries, both emotional and physical

·       Steps to help ensure one’s safety in romantic relationships (dating, hooking up, online dating, etc.)

·       Why is abortion so controversial? When does life begin? Is abortion ever moral? If so, when and how should an abortion be performed?

Sex is basic in a human’s life. Sexual drives are powerful (Freud got this right, even if he was wrong about the details and much else). When the Church is mostly silent about sex, why should we expect young people, for whom sexuality looms so large, to attend?

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Whoever is nor against us is for us


A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt when a boy interrupted, “My Mom looked back once while she was driving,” he declared triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”[1]

Jesus has been described as the most tolerant person who ever lived. His words are striking: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”[2] Biblical scholars regard this as an authentic teaching of Jesus because his disciples preserved it even though its openness would have assuredly made them uncomfortable.[3]

The disciples’ discomfort is understandable. Humans share an innate proclivity to belong to well-defined groups such as a family, clan, nation state, sports team, or religious body. It’s unsurprising that the Church gradually shifted away from the openness so clearly expressed in the gospel, constricting “into a rigid, restrictive and exclusive system of belief.” Every question had only one right answer.[4] Commitment to doctrinal conformity was a primary catalyst for eastern and western Christianity splitting and for innumerable efforts to root out heretics: Gnostics and Manicheans in Christianity’s early years, the Inquisition’s persecution of Cathars and other dissidents, and burning Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer at the stake as a heretic.

In the reading,[5] the disciples complain to Jesus that someone else had cast out a demon in his name. Jesus did not soothe their angst. Instead, he responded with an unexpectedly inclusive vision of Christian community and identity: “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by eating with Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and, most notoriously, the dirty, non-religiously-observants peasants. One contemporary echo of this “deed of power” that welcomed everyone to the table is rejecting contemporary social polarizations, for example, by numbering both Republicans and Democrats among your friends

Jesus outrageously heeded not only the pleas of Jews but also of non-Jews for healing. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is learning to see God at work throughout the cosmos, lovingly healing, guiding, and empowering Episcopalians, non-Anglican Christians, non-Christians, and the non-religious.

Jesus shocked people by respecting and valuing women, treating them as humans rather than as chattel, talking to them and befriending them. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is the Church removing gender and gender orientation as barriers to ordination and/or marriage. Another echo is to stop treating anyone, especially women, as sex objects instead of as humans. Every individual incarnates God’s image and is worthy of respect and dignity.

Jesus sent his disciples into the world with only the clothes on their backs, confident that the persons to whom the disciples ministered would generously support the disciples out of gratitude for the acceptance, love, and spiritual gifts received from the disciples. An echo of this “deed of power” is discarding our traditional reliance upon fear to motivate people to commit, at least superficially, to Christianity and then using guilt to manipulate believers to give of their time, talent, and treasure to the Church. The Church will truly thrive only if it faithfully lives into Jesus’ teachings, helping people connect with God.

The human Jesus surely enjoyed his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But Jesus recognized the fallacy of trusting his desires for the future, praying to God not my will but yours be done. He trusted God’s leading. An echo of this “deed of power” is our looking inward and seeing that we are works in progress. We may be less honest, less humble, less just, and less courageous than we think. Our most cherished theological and political beliefs may be wrong. Our self-image as a person who honors the dignity and worth of all may clash with deeply held prejudices of which we may be only dimly aware. Listening to the stories of women, members of the LBGQT community, and the marginalized underscores our need for humility and seeing ourselves as works in progress.

The notion that salt might lose its saltiness can easily puzzle us. First century Palestine was a poor area. People often obtained their salt from Syria, buying a cheap, chemically unstable form of salt that when exposed to rain and sun, or stored in a damp house, lost its saltiness. Jesus commends the more expensive, chemically stable salt, a metaphor for people who by their values and examples consistently heed his teachings.[6]

In an old eastern fable, a man possessed a magic ring set with a wonderful opal. Whoever wore the ring became so sweet and true in character that everyone loved him. The ring was always passed down from father to son, and always did its work. Then the ring came to a father with three sons whom he loved equally. What was he to do when the time came to pass on the ring?

The father had two identical copies of the original ring made. On his deathbed, he called each of his sons to him in turn, told each he loved them, and to each, without telling the others, gave a ring.

When the three sons discovered that each had a ring, a great dispute arose as to which was the true ring that could do so much for its owner. They took the case to a wise judge. He examined the rings and then spoke. "I cannot tell which is the magic ring," he said, "but you yourselves can prove it."

"We?" asked the sons in astonishment.

"Yes," said the judge, "for if the true ring gives sweetness of character to the man who wears it, then I and all the other people in the city will know the man who possesses the true ring by the goodness of his life. So, go your ways, and be kind, be truthful, be brave, be just in your dealings, and he who does these things will be the owner of the true ring."[7]

May we be good salt performing deeds of power, quick to offer a cup of water to the thirsty, quick to embrace neighbors near and far, ever mindful of Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Amen.



[1] Source unknown.
[2] Mark 9:41.
[3] Cf. Edward J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark,” §59, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, et. al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968).
[4] Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby and Stephanie Spellers, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition (New York: Seabury, 2010), Kindle Loc. 249-52.
[5] Mark 9:38-50.
[6] The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), pp. 819-820.
[7] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), Vol. 2, p. 12.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Forgiveness and Judge Kavanaugh


I am writing this blog post before either Judge Kavanaugh or his accuser testify before the Senate. The swirling controversy evokes a compelling but almost certainly improbable hypothetical. What if Judge Kavanaugh admits to having committed the sexual assault, regrets his act, says that the act has haunted him ever since, and that his regret has been an essential catalyst for his maturing into a highly moral individual? (This is a hypothetical; in advance of the hearings and absent a crystal ball, I have no way of knowing whether the assault occurred.)

Continuing with the hypothetical, should the action of a seventeen-year-old be held against him thirty some years later in spite of his truth telling, the courage required to tell the truth, and an apparently exemplary life since that awful incident? That is, should we respond with mercy and forgiveness to Brett Kavanaugh in 2018?

Alternatively, what response to Kavanaugh’s hypothetical confession would be commensurate with justice for his accuser? Justice, in this context, denotes the moral, not the legal, concept. Incidentally, prosecution is probably impossible because of an expired statute of limitations. Consequently, is extra-judicial punishment a moral way to achieve legal justice when regular prosecution is impossible? Does moral justice require denying Kavanaugh the seat on the Supreme Court that he desires? Is that denial morally and/or legally proportionate to the offense? How can we ascertain the ways the purported incident may have altered the victim’s life?

How would Jesus respond? Jesus clearly had earned a strong reputation for forgiving even the worst of sinners. Are moral and/or legal justice (an eye for an eye, for example) and forgiveness (moral or legal, as in a pardon, commutation or decision not to prosecute) incompatible? Is mercy a necessary adjunct to forgiveness?

I strongly disagree with many of Judge Kavanaugh’s opinions and would never have nominated him (or recommended his nomination) for an appellate court, let alone the Supreme Court. However, he is by education and experience well qualified and generally respected by his peers.

In the U.S. political system, the president has the power of appointing federal judges; the Senate’s role is to advise and consent on those appointments. I view the Senate’s role as examining credentials, experience and character to ensure that appointees will honorably fulfill their obligations as judges. Thus, the Senate was wrong to refuse to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court by President Obama. The Senate similarly errs when it votes along political lines to confirm appointees. These partisan actions display a disregard for the Senate’s Constitutional responsibility to weigh credentials, experience and character. Furthermore, the Senate’s actions also express a misguided effort to politicize the judiciary.

Without some measure of forgiveness or moral failings that are completely hidden, the character of few people, and perhaps no one’s character, would be worthy of Senate confirmation to important posts such as the Supreme Court or the Cabinet.

Essential questions, it seems to me, in the hypothetical sketched above as well as for a general understanding of forgiveness are:

·       Does the person freely accept responsibility for his/her actions?

·       Did that confession lead to amended behavior (this is the real definition of the Christian idea of repentance, turning from sin)?

·       Has the person, if appropriate, possible and helpful to the injured party(ies), sought to make commensurate restitution?

Those questions point to the key moral issues for resolving the question of whether Judge Kavanaugh, if guilty of sexual assault, merits justice tempered by mercy (i.e., confirmation) or justice without mercy (i.e., not being confirmed). Judge Kavanaugh may have made a private confession (e.g., to a priest) and amended his life, but – presuming in this hypothetical that he actually committed the assault – he has not freely accepted full responsibility for his actions nor attempted at least a partial restitution by apologizing in a timely manner to his alleged victim. Of course, an apology is a very incomplete and inadequate restitution for the unwanted, coerced physical groping of another person, but, as in many cases, more complete and meaningful restitution is impossible. Additionally, at some point the moral failure to freely accept responsibility for one’s actions begins to entail a coverup, which in itself involves a lack of integrity and honesty. Of course, this analysis also begs the question of what legal justice might require.

Although Judge Kavanaugh may have the credentials and experience required of Supreme Court justices, the hypothetical sketched above argues that Judge Kavanaugh lacks the character required of Supreme Court justices if he in fact committed the alleged assault.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A higher or different standard


Should leaders – in the church, the government, the military, elsewhere – be held to a different or a higher moral standard?

Most of us will almost immediately respond in the affirmative to that question. Yet implicit within the question are two basic presumptions about the nature of sin.

First, is all sin equally bad?

Answering this question affirmatively creates the difficult problem of delineating a hierarchy of sin. The Roman Catholic Church has defined such a hierarchy, broadly categorizing sins as venial or mortal. Mortal sins, unlike venial sins, place the sinner’s eternal soul in jeopardy.

In reaction to efforts to categorize sin, some Protestant reformers argued that all sin was equally bad because sin, whatever the specifics, separate a human from God; otherwise, that human sin taints God, with the result that God ceases to be perfect.

The Protestant position seems untenable. Sin exists. Nevertheless, God remains in relationship to the world. Additionally, murder or rape seem much worse offenses than does coveting someone else’s truck, but not acting upon that desire. However, attempting to delineate a hierarchy of sin seems an impossible task: nobody can list all possible sins; the effect on one person of committing a specific may differ from the effect on another person who commits the same sin.

What can be said without too much risk of refutation is (1) certain sins are always more egregious than other sins (cf. the example in the preceding paragraph); (2) certain sins are more objectionable when committed by persons in particular positions, e.g., a priest who divulges what s/he learns in the confessional is worse than most gossip; (3) some individuals do appear to have become great souls (Hinduism) or saints (Christianity), i.e., less sinful than the majority of other people.

Second, some sin appears to have little effect on other humans or upon creation but primarily alters the sinner’s relationship with God. Illustrative of this type of sin might be the person who regularly receives Holy Communion yet has no Christian belief whatsoever. Presumably, the preponderance of other people present are Christian believers. If anything, the sin of receiving without belief may reinforce the belief and practice of those Christians. The harm of this sin seems to fall almost entirely upon the non-Christian who receives unbelieving.

Are sins against only God therefore less egregious than other types of sin?

No objective basis exists for definitively answering this question because no finite being can know the mind of the infinite God. Indeed, the metaphor of God’s mind is itself an example of anthropomorphism, imposing human images on the divine.

Instead of pursuing a theological dead end, how can a person identify that which is sinful and thereby journey toward holiness (the absence of sin in one’s life)?

Main definitions of sin include missing the mark (behavior that is not as loving toward God, others, self, or creation as it might be), impairing a relationship, and inappropriate boundary crossings. These definitions, better than any enumeration of possible sins, offer guidance on how to become a better, less sinful human.

Individuals who hold, or who aspire to hold, positions of leadership or significant responsibility do well to reject claims that all sins are equivalent and that spiritual growth away from sin is impossible. Ever mindful of the definition of sin and sin’s temptation, strive to develop a virtuous life, especially focusing on the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Then God will say, Well done good and faithful servant.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The episcopacy


An Episcopal priest recently contacted me with these three questions:

Is the episcopacy necessary for the wellbeing and growth of the church? How does a bishop exercise power and authority? If we ask Jesus what he thinks now about the office of the episcopate, what might he say?

The Episcopal Church, like many other Christian Churches (e.g., the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, some Pentecostal groups), has bishops. The Greek word episkopos in English becomes episcopal and its cognates. The word bishop similarly has its etymological roots in the Greek episkopos. In Greek, a bishop or member of the episcopacy was an overseer. In particular, the New Testament usage of episkopos denotes an oversee of one or more Christian congregations, a meaning that continues in the Christian tradition today.

The theological and biblical question has never been whether bishops are necessary for the wellbeing and growth of the church but adherence to the biblical model of ministry.

Some Christian Churches (e.g., the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers) do not have bishops. In Presbyterian denominations, the presbytery collectively acts as the bishop.

A commonly expressed argument in favor of bishops is that connectional Churches hold clergy more accountable for their actions. However, even a cursory review of sex abuse problems among the clergy points to a disproportionate number of those problems occurring in Churches with bishops.

Furthermore, bishops are expensive. Typically, a bishop is paid approximately the same or more than the highest paid clergy in the diocese. Most bishops have one or more staffers; searching for and calling a new bishop is expensive; bishops tend to travel extensively, visiting not only diocesan congregations but also attending many meetings.

For me, the existence of the episcopacy is a given (or not, depending upon the denomination). I’m comfortable with Churches emulating the biblical pattern of ministry (bishops, priests/pasts/elders, deacons, and all of the baptized). Trying to alter an existing pattern of ministry in a dying religion such as Christianity ignores the basic problem of reversing declining membership and participation.

My interlocutor’s second question – how does a bishop exercise power and authority – points to a far more pressing issue. How do bishops collectively and individually add value to their denomination and diocese? Here are some suggestions:

·       Model trustworthy, gift affirming ministry that respects the dignity and worth of each priest/pastor, deacon, and lay person

·       Focus their and our attention on the big questions and ignore the little stuff (what the Lutherans call adiaphora)

·       Support diocesan clergy through pastoral care, listening, assisting each in finding a call that matches that individual’s gifts and abilities, etc.

·       Minimize administrative overhead (time and money) and maximize ministry and mission

·       Hold all persons within the diocese appropriately accountable for growing in Christian virtue and adhering to legal and moral behavioral standards

·       Ensure that the bishop him/herself is held accountable by the Standing Committee and House of Bishops

·       In other words, exercise power and authority in a Christlike manner, i.e., a truly life-giving way characterized by justice, mercy, and steadfast love

What might Jesus say about the episcopacy today? This poignant and timely question was the third and last question my correspondent sent me. in view of current events in the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus would be extremely displeased with much of the episcopacy.

Illustratively, covering up sexual abuse and misconduct is at best a misguided way to protect the abuser and thee institutional cost at the cost of the one abused. Indeed. most often the perpetuator continues to harm others. In fact, covering up abuse not only egregiously harms those abused in the past, present, and future, but also harms the abuser by failing to give the abuser the opportunity to move toward wholeness. Additionally, the cover up when discovered harms the institutional church more than if the ecclesiastical authorities had dealt with the problem openly and appropriately.

Similarly, Jesus appears to have lived among the poor, according to what we know about him from the New Testament. Yet several Roman Catholic bishops have recently attracted media notice when they purchased residences costing more than one million dollars.

We Anglicans are not beyond criticism. Sexual abuse has occurred in every province of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England provided palaces for their bishops in which many of their bishops continue to live.

Closer to home, would Jesus approve of the compensation that our bishops (and some other clergy) receive? Jesus would surely insist that bishops and other clergy receive a living wage. Does a living wage anywhere in the U.S. require a compensation package of more than $250,000? Does any bishop (or other cleric) continue to exercise his/her ministry in order to obtain better retirements benefits or because s/he does not have good alternative career options? (In the interest of full disclosure, the same questions apply to senior military chaplains (Navy Captains and Admirals; Colonels and Generals in the other military services), of whom I was one.)

Would Jesus approve of authoritarian bishops whose actions reflect more concern about the bishop’s authority than those actions communicate trustworthiness, care for the wellbeing of the bishop’s clergy, and an unrelenting focus on ministry and mission?

Would Jesus approve of bishops whose calendar and efforts are devoted to administering the Church instead of revitalizing a dying institution? Admittedly, asking that question is easier than answering it. For one part of the answer, cf. my Ethical Musings posts, “For such a time as this” and “Looking to grow?”.

Would Jesus approve of bishops who struggle with mental health problems, relational difficulties, or spiritual emptiness not seeking appropriate help, perhaps even resigning (or taking a leave of absence) her/his diocese to concentrate on moving toward personal wholeness?

No bishop is perfect; every bishop remains fully human, no more deserving of dignity or respect than is any other human. Hopefully, a bishop does have a goodly measure of spiritual maturity that surpasses the average. Bishops have a challenging ministry in the best of times. Bishops, like all Christians, need God’s help and the support of others.

The path toward Church renewal entails improving the episcopacy, not eliminating or replacing the episcopacy. Questions such as the second and third ones discussed above are essential for keeping the episcopacy aligned with the Jesus path, promoting episcopal integrity, and for helping bishops to live into their calling more fully.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The New York Times Op-Ed piece by Anonymous


The New York Times recently departed from its customary protocol of requiring Op-Ed piece authors to identify themselves and published an Op-Ed piece by an anonymous author who identified him/herself only as a senior member of the Trump administration. The piece, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” available by following this link, disturbed me for three reasons.

First, the anonymous author paints a picture of the Trump White House that is consistent with Bob Woodward’s depiction in his book, Fear, as well as details obtained from multiple sources stretching across Trump’s presidency. Chaos, infighting, and staff jockeying to have the last word with an erratic, inconsistent and amoral president – all apparently common practices in the Trump White House – are extremely worrisome in today’s world. Trump acts as if he would prefer to be a dictator than an elected leader in a nation governed by the rule of law.

Second, the Op-Ed author’s actions presumably unintentionally undercut the rule of law. Neither staffers and political appointees are elected officials; some, but far from all, require Senate confirmation before permanently assuming their position. Allowing, perhaps even trusting, staff and political appointees to temper if not to limit Trump’s most outrageous actions erodes the rule of law upon which the U.S. was founded.

Third, the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides a mechanism for removing, temporarily or permanently, an individual incapable of functioning as president. Staff members surreptitiously removing documents from the president’s desk, anonymously leaking descriptions of a dysfunctional president and staff, and other immoral if not illegal behaviors ignore the real problem and deny the U.S. the opportunity to address these problems in a responsible way. Staffers and political appointees who cannot legally and morally fulfill their duties have a moral obligation (cf. my article, “Duty at All Costs,” in the Naval War College Review for a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind this position – similar reason applies to political leaders as to military officers).

Prayer alone will not change the dangerous political situation in which the U.S. now finds itself. Christians in a democracy have the duty to participate actively in the political process and to vote. Even if one believes that abortion is a terrible evil (and I am not among those who hold that belief), a dictatorship in which abortion is illegal will be infinitely worse than a democracy in which individual women decide for themselves whether to have an abortion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Identity politics


Life in the United States is increasingly defined by a person’s identity as a member of a particular race, gender, income stratum, political party, religion, and so forth.

I strongly dissent.

I am of European descent but that does not define my identity. My race certainly shapes my existence in ways that I only partially understand but my identity is primarily as a human. As a human I attempt to value people of all racial heritages equally. Racial diversity incalculably enriches rather than impoverishes my life.

I am a male but that does not define my identity. As with race, gender shapes my existence in ways that I only partially understand. However, masculinity does not define who I am. My X chromosome arguably shapes my existence more than does my Y chromosome. The diversity of gender identities incalculably enriches my life.

The same is also true for membership in a political party, affluence, religion, etc.

When I look at another person I see a child of God and wonder how my life will be enriched by my relationship with that person.

I don’t know what the slogan “Make America Great Again” means. What is greatness? When was American great in a way that both embraces and honors diversity?

Ironically, perhaps the most quoted phrase in the Declaration of Independence is “God created all men equal.” While in elementary school, I ceased accepting the prevailing interpretation of the word “men” used in that phrase, i.e., that “men” when placed in its historical context, meant all people. That interpretation is egregiously wrong. The authors of the Declaration of Independence intended the word “men” to denote white, property owning, males. By implication, females and people of color, whether free or enslaved, were less than fully human.

I do know what it means to “Make America Good.” A good nation is one that respects the dignity of every human being. A good nation is one in which all people enjoy liberty, justice, and equal opportunity.

Identity politics inherently move us away from goodness. Enjoy diversity. Allow diversity to enrich life. Illustratively, multi-racial ethnic and racial neighborhoods and workplaces are healthier, more creative, and horizon expanding. Living and working in economically and politically diverse contexts broaden perspectives and tear down artificial barriers to human community.

I regrettably attended an all-white elementary school (hard to avoid in small town Maine sixty years ago), divided my college years between an all-male school and one that accepted women, attended economically elite and economically diverse universities, worked in a couple of all-male environments, lived and worked in contexts in which some people had to hide their true gender identity, etc. I am thankful that these experiences have been exceptions not the norm in my life.

I have viewed my experiences at the time and in retrospect uniformly: a lack of diversity impoverished and harmed me; diversity of every type shaped me into a better person by improving my enjoyment of life, enabling me to better understand other people, and being a catalyst for my more fully respecting the dignity of every human being.

In the America of my adolescence many parents worried about a child marrying a person of another race or religion or of the same gender. Thankfully, those prejudices are rapidly dissipating. Even so, race, religion, and gender identity too often define a person’s identity rather than describing some of an individual’s characteristics. And too many neighborhoods are becoming more economically segregated.

Parents now worry that a child may marry someone of a different political party; people similarly worry that a new neighbor may belong to the wrong political party. A politician’s character and judgment are widely regarded as less important than whether the politician belongs to the right political party.

I vote to end identity politics. I vote for celebrating diversity. I vote for making America (and the whole world) good, not great.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Inequality and charitable giving


Today’s economic inequality is reminiscent of America’s Gilded Age. Andrew Carnegie, the steel and railroad baron whose gifts built and endowed over twenty-five hundred local libraries, was perhaps the richest man in history.

In his “Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that the wealthy had an obligation to use their wealth for the common good. He rejected the alternatives of leaving the bulk of one’s wealth to family or to the poor, both of which almost certainly would produce undesirable results.

Three years after authoring “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie broke a strike at his Homestead steel works in Pittsburgh. The workers went on strike when management proposed a thirty-five percent pay cut for workers. To break the strike, Carnegie relied upon armed guards who, when a riot ensued an attempt by scabs to enter the plant, killed sixteen.

Is it possible to gain great wealth ethically? If so, why do large corporations consistently lobby the federal and state governments to enact legislation that will provide their industry and, more specifically, their business with a competitive advantage? Legislative or regulatory competitive advantages tilt the playing field in favor of certain player(s), thereby eroding the equal conditions that inherent in fair competition.

Following the example of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others, today’s wealthiest (e.g., Gates, Buffet, Kochs, and other billionaires) are endowing foundations and committing the bulk of their assets to philanthropy. On its face, this giving would seem to counterbalance some of any evil entailed in accumulating great wealth.

One problem with that conclusion is that the wealthy may not use their money for causes that I (or you) endorse. Illustratively, as a liberal I disagree with many of the political causes the Kochs support; as an advocate of democracy, I object to political activism (efforts to shape public policy) being cloaked as philanthropy and to that political activism thus receiving many of the tax benefits associated with philanthropy.

Another problem is that if the accumulation of great wealth depended upon laws or regulations that tilted what a theoretically level playing field in favor of the one who accumulated that wealth, philanthropy in no way compensates those who suffered because of unfair competition. This is directly analogous to how local libraries, several institutions of higher learning, and other Carnegie philanthropy did nothing to alleviate the horrendous working conditions of his employees nor the poverty in which they and their families lived.

Carnegie in “The Gospel of Wealth” wrote

Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition … are the highest results of human experience, the soil in which society so far has produced the best fruit. Unequally or unjustly, perhaps, as these laws sometimes operate, and imperfect as they appear to the Idealist, they are, nevertheless, like the highest type of man, the best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet accomplished.

Even from a strictly materialist perspective, Carnegie’s assessment of the best results of human experience is disturbing. His flawed list omits love, friendship, knowledge, and art.

Furthermore, each item on Carnegie’s list is a limited instrumental good, not an absolute good. No person is an island; promoting individualism as the highest aim undercuts the inescapable web of community that supports each person. Private property similarly depends upon government establishing and maintaining law and order as well as services from which all benefit and yet for which none pays directly (economists refer to these goods as common goods, e.g., a public park benefits all, those who use it directly as well as those who see it or even think about its availability). Competition should be fair, which requires a level playing field. Accumulation of wealth is, per se, not bad; accumulation of wealth by exploiting others or avoiding communal responsibility is immoral.

Carnegie does favor the estate tax over leaving large wealth to heirs. However, he prefers for the wealthy to give their assets directly for the common good. His preference rests upon two widely held but erroneous presumptions.

First, Carnegie presumes that he knows how to benefit the common good than does our democratically elected state and federal legislatures. I disagree. An ability to earn money is not necessarily indicative of an understanding of how best to improve the common good. Legislatures are imperfect. However, given the choice between relying upon legislatures or the wealthy to act in a way that will best benefit the common good, I prefer to take my chances with legislatures that embody multiple voices, have different perspectives, and represent varied constituencies.

Second, Carnegie presumes that government spending involves more waste than does individual philanthropy. Examples of wasteful government spending abound (e.g., studies with no apparent social benefit, expensive airplane parts, unnecessary travel, Medicare scams, etc.). Critically, those examples collectively do not amount to even one percent of government spending. Large scale waste – well-intentioned programs such as some job training initiatives that fail to achieve their objectives or defense contracting cost overruns – are generally ignored. Including both small- and large-scale waste, most government spending is still beneficial, paying for schools, police, roads, Social Security, much healthcare, and more. These are items towards which few charitable dollars are expended.

Five hundred foundations exist today for every foundation that existed in 1930; their assets have grown from less than a billion dollars to over eight hundred billion dollars (Robert Reich, “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”). In spite of this dramatic increase in charitable giving by the wealthy, inequality continues to grow, leaving the bottom twenty percent ever further behind.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Looking to grow?


The Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, NC, started ZeroWasteChurch.org, engaging congregants in ministries and mission that stretch from the local to the global. ZeroWasteChurch.org has diminished environmental damage, spread Christ's message of love for all creation, and been a catalyst for spiritual and numerical growth at the Church of the Nativity. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served this parish as priest-in-charge and then as a priest associate but moved to Hawaii several years before the congregation began ZeroWasteChurch.org.)

Examining ZeroWasteChurch.org highlights six organizational dynamics essential for congregations that desire to increase both the number of Jesus people who attend as well as their spiritual depth.

First, ZeroWasteChurch.org emphasizes an issue central to human existence. Perhaps the two most immediate threats to continued human existence are nuclear war and the global warming caused by humans. Scientists detected the first signs of the adverse effect of humans upon the environment in the early nineteenth century. (For a chronology of the emergence of global warming as a significant concern and failed efforts to alter human behavior, read Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” in the New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.) Since the problem of global warming was first recognized, ending environmental damage and reversing its ill effects have become ever more urgent. Other issues central to human existence include the need for meaning (what psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as self-actualization) and humans’ basic needs for food, water, and shelter.

Most individuals must cope with one or more of these issues central to human life. More broadly, many Christians and non-Christians are committed to helping their local community and perhaps the world address one or more of life’s central challenges. Consequently, the potential for congregational growth is pervasive. However, congregations often fail to grow because they (1) focus on that which is of minor or no ultimate importance, such as liturgical niceties or biblical trivia, or, (2) remain content with the status quo regardless of any avowed commitment to growth.

Second, ZeroWasteChurch.org affords congregants and other people multiple opportunities to get involved. At Raleigh’s Church of the Nativity, persons may assist with the bird and pollinator friendly community gardens, work to reduce energy consumption at home and in the parish, aid in the continuing installation of solar panels on parish buildings (these now provide in excess of one third of the energy the parish uses), composting organic waste, recycling non-organic waste, commit to a year of personal action, publicize ZeroWasteChurch.org or maintain its website, speak at other churches about the program and ecological stewardship, develop new resources, etc. In sum, the Church of the Nativity aims to have enough options for involvement that most persons can hear a call to support the program in a way that capitalizes on their emotional energy, utilizes their skills and abilities, and fosters spiritual growth.

Third, ZeroWasteChurch.org enjoys ongoing support from the congregation’s leadership. For over fifteen years, the parish’s clergy, wardens, and vestry have enthusiastically supported what began as a handful of people committed to ecological stewardship that now involves a large portion of the congregation. The leadership’s commitment includes: personally participating in the program; encouraging others to participate through sermons, the parish newsletter, and personal contacts; allowing ZeroWasteChurch.org and its associated programs free use of the parish campus; and funding ecological stewardship programs.

Fourth, ZeroWasteChurch.org took fifteen plus years to blossom. It began with a few congregants’ interest in the nexus of science and religion. A small grant from the Templeton Foundation funded some early initiatives. Those developed into an adult study program that spanned several years. Congregants slowly started to search for ways to translate environmental concern into action. This spawned a community garden, a short-lived speaking program designed to highlight the theological mandate and scientific rationale for environmental stewardship, a desire to add solar panels on the roofs of parish buildings, and more. The Episcopal Church gave Nativity a 2017 $10,000 Stewardship and Creation grant to promote “carbon farming,” i.e., removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil. Nativity eventually united its varied ecological stewardship efforts under the ZeroWasteChurch.org umbrella.

Fifth, ZeroWasteChurch.org carries the gospel, or at least one central aspect of the gospel, to the world hoping to form the lost into Jesus people. Scripture is a window into God’s heart, not a science textbook. The multiple stories of creation Scripture references (e.g., Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) historically situated presume the creation science of different cultures. Israel had no science of its own. When we ignore the anachronistic, erroneous science found in Scripture, we can hear Scripture repeatedly and consistently emphasize creation’s goodness. God values not only humans but also everything that God created. Today, God’s concern for all creation is a vital issue for both the well-being of the earth and for continued human existence.

Sixth, ZeroWasteChurch.org is a sustainable program with an open future. Its founders metaphorically cast scattered seeds on the ground trusting that the Holy Spirit would bring growth. Signs of that growth include the Church of the Nativity, its members, other congregations, and disparate individuals more fully caring for creation and more closely walking the Jesus path. In the years ahead, some current aspects of ZeroWasteChurch.org will fail, other aspects will morph into new expressions, some aspects will end having achieved their limited objectives, and still other aspects will last many years. Importantly, the Church of the Nativity’s fifteen plus years of investment in ecological stewardship has both improved the environment and grown the parish numerically and spiritually.

Congregations of all sizes can adopt and then invest in a program similar to ZeroWasteChurch.org that incorporates the six organizational dynamics enumerated above. For example, St. Elizabeth’s Church in Honolulu has achieved numerical and spiritual growth through a set of programs that have dramatically improved the quality of life for many of Honolulu’s marginalized and the city’s thousands of houseless who live on streets and in the parks.

Conversely, congregations lacking a program(s) characterized by these six organizational dynamics implicitly communicate a lack of knowledge in how to strive for real growth or perhaps a lack of genuine interest in numerical and spiritual growth. These six factors do not represent everything a congregation can or should do to as Jesus people to increase love of God and neighbor but are essential steps for translating laudatory aspirations into effective programs.

Sadly, most of the congregations that I visit, whether as a guest in the pews or as supply priest, do not have a program comparable to ZeroWasteChurch.org. And then we Episcopalians frequently ponder, often with considerable frustration, our seeming inability to reverse the decline of our beloved congregations. We should instead, learn from growing congregations. Like good stewards, prepare the soil and lovingly plant seeds of faith around one of life’s central issues; engage the energies and talents of clergy and laity in lovingly watering, fertilizing, and weeding the sprouts; and then joyfully reap a harvest assuredly pleasing to the garden’s owner.

(Previously posted on the Episcopal Café website)

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Rationing health care


An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me the following:

Our local newspaper had an article about a family that enjoys many of the local activities in our area. Their issue is the 34-year-old husband who survived pancreatic cancer as an eight-year-old child and now needs help. His cancer treatment removed 85 percent of his pancreas, 50 percent of his stomach, 50 percent of his small intestine, and 60 percent of his colon. Over the years he has had numerous bleeding issues that required over 100 units of blood and many hospital stays to stop the bleeding.

As a result of the cancer, he now needs a five organ transplants. He needs a new stomach, liver, pancreas, large intestine and small bowel. If he has the surgery, he has less than a 30 percent chance of surviving the surgery itself and a 40 percent chance of surviving for a year. If he gets the call, he goes to Georgetown University Hospital for the surgery. He remains in the hospital for six to nine months and will have to live near the hospital for another six months. The family is asking for donations as the surgery will cost one million dollars. This does not include living near the hospital.

Even with all of these health issues, the man married and has four children under the age of ten. He must decide whether to proceed with the transplants should they become available or living with the bleeding issues.

That scenario raises several important ethical issues.

First, the idea of rationing healthcare is, I suspect, anathema to most of us. Yet when we take a hard look at healthcare, the reality is that the United States, like every nation, rations healthcare:

·       Doctors choose where to live, with a disproportionate number preferring to live in urban and suburban areas. Consequently, rural areas and some inner-city areas have a shortage of physicians. This makes obtaining healthcare for residents in those areas inconvenient if not impossible.

·       Hospitals are closing in rural areas because of the lack of physicians and a lack of sufficient number of patients to justify a hospital’s operating costs. This rations healthcare, e.g., the patient who with emergency room will survive and will otherwise die.

·       The high cost of some prescription medicines forces some patients to choose whether to buy their medicine or other essentials (such as food or paying the rent).

·       The lack of healthcare insurance that includes preventive care leaves some persons unable to afford preventive care. Some of these people will develop serious medical conditions that receiving preventive care would have avoided.

·       And, of course, the affluent can buy all of the healthcare they need or desire in sharp contrast to what most people can afford.

Should our healthcare system provide the five transplants? Could those organs make a greater difference in the lives of five other individuals (the US has a shortage of transplantable organs, so organ transplants are a zero-sum game, i.e., what one person receives another will not)? Could the resources expended on the one patient if spent in smaller amounts on multiple patients, still totaling the same amount, do more good?

Second, do doctors have a moral responsibility to guide patients towards solution most likely to promote the patient’s quality of life? With only a 30% chance of surviving the surgery and a 40% chance of living for a year, the patient has only a 28% probability of surviving into the second year following surgery. Is allowing the patient to proceed with the surgery a good use of scarce healthcare resources? Is a doctor who fails to actively discourage the patient from proceeding with the surgery still honoring the Hippocratic oath to do no harm?

Third, the cost of healthcare for patients with multi-organ failure and chronic disease totals about 50% of US healthcare spending, yet achieves very limited increases in extending the patient’s lifespan or improving the patient’s quality of life. Redirecting that spending to benefit those with the least access to healthcare or simply eliminating that half of healthcare expenditures would arguably benefit society more. Should the US make that change?

Healthcare costs continue to skyrocket. Abandoning the myth that the US does not ration healthcare is an important step to improving healthcare for all while reducing the cost of that care.

Importantly, I write as a person who has a chronic disease. Thankfully, my treatment to date has restored me to a semblance of a normal life. I do feel obligated to serve society in partial repayment of care received. I also recognize that at some point in the future, I may need to decline further care when the cost of that care appears likely to exceed any real benefit to me while concurrently imposing an unfair cost on others. I wonder whether my care providers at that time will encourage me to act morally or to seek all of the care I can obtain regardless of potential benefits.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Nonkilling


Nonkilling is emerging as a new field of academic exploration.

Scholars of nonkilling argue that humans are not hardwired to kill. These scholars rightly contend, in my estimation, that killing is learned behavior. For a detailed biological argument in support of this view, cf. Piero Giorgi’s book The origins of violence by cultural evolution  available as a free download by following this link.

This view does require rethinking the traditional understanding of Genesis 3 in which the first humans commit sin that results in God expelling them from the utopian Garden of Eden. The traditional position envisions a God incompatible with a twenty-first scientific worldview in which God is clearly not a deified human. The traditional view of de-evolving is also incompatible with evolutionary theory. Rabbi Harold Kushner helpfully has suggested interpreting Genesis 3 in terms of humans first experiencing freedom, an essential element of the image of God in humans and a vital step in evolutionary processes. This view is also one that resonates with Giorgi.

The definition of nonkilling and an outline of its feasibility as a political project was first articulated by Glenn Paige, a scholar at the University of Hawaii. His seminal book, Nonkilling Global Political Science, is available for free at this link.

Paige distinguishes between negative and positive peace. Negative peace is the absence of warfare and the definition of peace most commonly utilized. Positive peace is the well-being and flourishing of life, a definition congruent with both the Hebrew shalom and the Greek eirene, the two words that the Bible uses for peace.

Nonkilling is an academic discipline and way of life to which those who walk the Jesus path should commit themselves. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” I do not believe that he spoke only of those who brought an end to war (although this is truly valuable) nor to those who found an inner peace. Jesus called all of his followers to live into the fullness of peace, of which the practice of nonkilling is an indispensable component.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Is prayer magic, mystery, or?


What is prayer? Is it magic, mystery, or something else

Prayer is not magic. Contrary to a widely held misunderstanding, prayer is not a means of manipulating God to produce a desired result(s). No formula, no action, no degree of sincerity in asking God to do something is assured of achieving the desired result.

The occasions on which prayer leads to the requested result are serendipitous. The results are actually attributable to other causes and not to God if the full picture is accurately understood. Concomitantly, chalking up failed prayer to receiving a “No” from God simply avoids the actual, underlying issue of correctly understanding prayer.

Magic, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, mysterious tricks performed as entertainment.”

Believing that prayer is a means of obtaining specific results from God has three major theological problems. First, the person praying becomes de facto more powerful that God. God is reduced to the means of gratifying the desire(s) of the person praying.

Second, prayers of this genre (e.g., heal this dying individual, cure this person’s cancer, give me food for my starving child, etc.) are sometimes answered and sometimes not. Consequently, God appears capricious allowing some to die, some to eat, and so forth. If God genuinely loves all people equally, then God would logically act lovingly toward all, thus ending much suffering and death among both Christians and non-Christians.

Third, prayers of this genre typically require God to intervene in the natural order in a way that contravenes natural law. Illustratively, weather patterns are determined by geo-physical forces and other natural factors. God bringing rain to parched portions of California now ablaze with wild fires would requiring altering one or more of those ongoing natural processes.

If prayer is not magic, is it mystery?

Conceiving of prayer as mystery is less problematic than are the forms of prayer more akin to magic than genuine prayer. We advantageously approach prayer as a human endeavor rather than attempting the impossible task of discerning the presence or acts of the ineffable divine.

Thus, prayer may be talking (the verbal activity most commonly identified as prayer), acting (as in performing a loving deed), or meditating (practicing Christian yoga, for example). These acts may be therapeutic for the person praying: talking to God may relieve emotional stress or provide clarity about one’s ideas; acting may redirect the course of one’s life, prove redemptive or restorative, or help to form virtuous habits; meditating has health benefits demonstrated in repeated scientific studies. All of the above may offer signs of God’s presence or activity if we posit that God desires and promotes both human well-being and flourishing.

If God mysteriously acts to promote human well-being and flourishing in ways that (1) do not entail any problems connected to understanding prayer as magic and (2) are not directly discernible by finite humans because of God’s ineffable infinitude, then perhaps prayer becomes dialectical (God’s response to human talking, acting, and meditating) when humans receive gifts of wisdom, courage, and strength to grow in love for God and neighbor. Wisdom may connote what Whitehead called God luring a person toward a particular direction, a direction which is always loving and life-affirming. Courage may signify the assurance of God continuing to lure the person God-ward after that first step, an interpretation that helpfully links courage with hope. And strength may point toward a sufficiently strong luring to overcome human inertia against moving in the God-ward direction, thus linking strength and faith.

Approaching prayer as a mystery rooted in love, hope, and faith coheres with a biblical understanding of God as light, love, or the ground of being and with a twenty-first century scientific worldview.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

For such a time as this


The Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention, which met in Austin a couple of weeks ago and which I did not attend, interested me more for what did not happen that for what actually transpired.

Don’t misunderstand me. Lots of good decisions were made. In no particular order, some of General Convention’s decisions that I applaud include:

·       Readmitting Cuba as a diocese

·       Authorizing use of specific inclusive language at places in some of our Eucharistic liturgies

·       Authorizing the use of same sex marriage rites in all dioceses

·       Indefinitely deferring publication of a new prayer book (I’ve previously argued on this website here and here that any new edition of the prayer book should be electronic, not printed)

·       Support for justice for the Palestinians

Given the controversial nature of some of these decisions, your list of good decisions may vary from mine.

Regardless of one’s opinion of General Convention’s decisions, what deeply concerns me is that the preponderance of the Convention focused on issues internal to the Episcopal Church while largely ignoring the elephant in the room. Even resolutions that appear to deal with external matters (e.g., support for justice for the Palestinians) are important primarily because of these resolutions permit our representatives in Washington, at the United Nations, and elsewhere to take actions on our behalf.

The convention’s agenda represents an excellent example of the urgent supplanting the important. The Episcopal Church is dying. Short-term numbers notwithstanding, the Episcopal Church has hemorrhaged members for decades. That long-term decline is the elephant in the room. Reversing that decline is our most important, though not necessarily most urgent, agenda item. Unlike many other agenda items, no group of advocates has coalesced around reversing our numerical decline. The issue generally languishes unaddressed, in vestry, diocesan, and church-wide meetings.

General Convention did pass a triennial budget that emphasizes the Presiding Bishop’s priorities, one of which is evangelism. However, as I have previously contended on this website, the amount of money programmed for evangelism is insufficient if we really want to make evangelism a genuine priority. Resources are inadequate for us to continue business as usual while prioritizing evangelism.

Obviously, our goal as Christians who live in the Episcopal tradition is not simply perpetuating The Episcopal Church. Our goal is the increase of the love of God and neighbor. Our Presiding Bishop repeats this message over and over in his preaching and other communications. If we collectively are truly to be about God’s business, then the rest of us, our denominational structures, and our budgets need substantial realignment to reflect these two priorities.

Realigning our efforts will inescapably entail sacrificing “rice bowls” and “sacred cows” in pursuit of more effectively and efficiently loving God and neighbor. The issue is not whether a particular effort, program, or theme enhances love for God and neighbor but whether there is a way to produce larger results at a lower cost. Business as usual has failed for decades to reverse our numerical decline. We must change or The Episcopal Church, its dioceses, and their congregations will die.

Unfortunately, most diocesan convention vestries agendas are similar to General Convention’s agenda. These agendas too frequently focus on business as usual and ignore our numerical decline. Even when a diocese or vestry addresses problems, the problems are typically internal (e.g., improving communications or balancing the budget) and ignore the overarching problem of numerical decline.

Color me an optimist. I believe that the arc of history bends not only toward justice but also toward love. Externalities such as terms of address for the deity or the prayer book’s format may change, but individuals and the world as a whole not only need and but also want what Christians claim to offer, that is, experience and knowledge of God’s loving, healing, reconciling, life-giving presence.

Therefore, numerical declines indicate a failure on our part to go and make disciples of all the world. I’m not advocating the type of evangelism practiced by more conservative Christian denominations. One blessing in retiring from the military chaplaincy was no longer daily having to deal with chaplains and laity from those denominations. What I am advocating is prioritizing marketing The Episcopal Church and its message of love in ways congruent with our Anglican understanding and practice of Christianity. This involves hard work, trying new initiatives, risking failure, and de-prioritizing if not abandoning business as usual.

The Presiding Bishop’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle afforded the Episcopal Church an unparalleled opportunity to share the message that God calls us to love God and one another. Since that event, the Presiding Bishop has sought to capitalize on the attendant publicity to further market both The Episcopal Church and our message of love.

Most Episcopalians will never have a similar opportunity to market The Episcopal Church or communicate God’s message of love to such a vast audience. We can, however, look for more quotidian methods of incarnating the gospel, of becoming a people in whom and through whom persons experience God’s love. The protest against separating children from parents at a detention center for illegal immigrants by General Convention attendees was one small step in this direction. What can you do today to communicate God’s love to another person? And what can your congregation, your diocese, and our national structures do differently to communicate God’s love more effectively and efficiently?

God has called us for this time. Today is the time for us to set aside the urgent and the comparatively easy (although some ongoing issues are admittedly challenging). Now is the time for us to concentrate on the far more important and difficult task of loving God and others so outrageously and unreservedly that we grow both spiritually and numerically.