Sunday, August 12, 2018

What is truth?

A shepherd and his dog are herding a flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW appears out of a dust cloud. The driver, a young man in an Armani suit, Gucci shoes, and Oakley sunglasses, leans out the window and asks, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?"

The shepherd looks at the man, who is obviously not a shepherd, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, "Sure. Why not?"

The driver parks, whips out his smartphone, uses GPS to obtain an exact fix on his location, gets a NASA satellite to take an ultra-high-resolution photo that he exports to an image processing facility. In a few seconds, he turns to the shepherd and says, "You have exactly 1586 sheep."

"That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep," says the shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car.

Then the shepherd says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?"

The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, "Okay, why not?"

"You're a consultant," says the shepherd.

"Wow! That's correct," says the man, "but how did you guess that?"

"No guessing required," answered the shepherd. "You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; and you don't know anything about my business . . . 

" . . . Now give me back my dog. "[1]

This morning I want to you to consider a question, a question to which you may already have an answer, even if your answer is more intuitive than the one I offer. There is, however, no charge beyond a few minutes of your time.

Now for the question: What is truth?

Our culture is increasingly shaped by the pervasive idea that truth does not exist, that is, all truth is relative. Like many ideas, this one has enough truth to make it sufficiently credible that numerous persons, and even some scholars, espouse it.

What is the best color or food? Who is the most beautiful, handsome, or loving person? Is socialism or capitalism the best economic system? Does conservatism or liberalism offer the most realistic hope for a good future? These are all questions of opinion and our answers vary widely depending upon our values, tastes, and criteria for weighing alternatives.

Relativism has its place but relativism is not the whole story. Is a traffic light, for example, presently red or green? I want your answer to be the same as mine. Philosophers, theologians, and others call this second approach to truth pragmatism. Unless a person is color blind, everyone agrees when a traffic signal turns red or green. Yet physicists and neuroscientists tell us that the colors red and green do not really exist. What a person experiences as a particular color is in fact that person’s brain processing light waves of a particular frequency and then describing that experience using a mutually agreed upon label.

Pragmatism is essential but has two limitations. First, pragmatism routinely depends upon things that may be at least partially false. People have experienced color for longer than I can guess, but only in the last couple of centuries have we acquired knowledge of both light waves and how the brain processes what the eye sees. For most of us, that discrepancy is not a problem. But sometimes pragmatism unintentionally inhibits scientific advances, as when Einstein and others proposed quantum physics as a corrective to Newtonian physics. Second, pragmatism emphasizes experienced reality, not issues of ultimate reality or truth. On the one hand, I rely upon my legs to walk. On the other hand, I know that my legs are not solid, but comprised of sub-atomic particles to create the illusion of being solid even though my leg consists of more open space than of matter.

Christianity claims God revealed its ideas about ultimate truth. Most importantly, Christianity claims that God has revealed God’s self to us. Claims about first principles or ultimate reality are not unique to Christianity. Other religions and even some philosophical systems, such as Plato’s concept of eternal forms or ideas, represent similar claims. Philosophically, this is known as a correspondence theory of truth, i.e., our concepts correspond to the nature of ultimate reality.

Correspondence theories of truth have a couple of significant limitations. First, the knowledge that humans develop over time using pragmatism has proven that some correspondence theories of truth are false. Theories of a flat earth and of a three-tiered universe with heaven up, hell below, and earth in the middle exemplify such mistakes. Ongoing advances in human knowledge have prompted many people to discard all correspondence theories of truth in favor of relativism, pragmatism, or some combination of the two. Second, the most basic correspondence theories of truth are inherently non-verifiable. Our finite existence and finite perspective preclude any direct perception of whatever infinite ultimate reality may exist. We therefore must respect other claims about ultimate truth, perhaps searching for commonalities to clarify our own thinking.

Christian living requires integrating these three approaches to truth. First, respecting the dignity and worth of all humans entails respecting diversity and varied opinions. Contrary to some fundamentalists, Scripture actually instructs us to practice this form of relativism.[2] Thus, the Episcopal Church and we at St Clement’s repeatedly emphasize that everyone is always welcome and we work prophetically to achieve equal justice and treatment for all.

Second, pragmatism is necessary for daily survival. Paul refers to this approach to truth in today’s epistle reading when he enjoins us to put away falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors.[3] Unless people agree upon facts – not opinion, but facts – both community life and civil discourse become impossible,[4] an increasing danger in the United States today.

Third, a correspondence theory of truth allows us to understand our experience of a love greater than self, a power we call God. We see and hear echoes of these experiences in the Bible, in the sacraments, and in the lives of God’s people. This is the type of truth of which Jesus speaks when he describes himself as the bread of life, a symbolic rather than literal statement about God and ultimate truth.[5]

May you know the truth and may it set you free for life today and always. Amen.

(Sermon preached the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018, 
in the Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI)

[1] Source unknown.
[2] E.g., Acts 10:34-35.
[3] Ephesians 4:25.
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 77.
[5] John 6:35.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Another reflection on my European travels

Portion sizes in both Italy and France have continued to increase in size. And, restaurants now welcome diners to share a course, whether starter, main, or dessert. Sharing courses, while common in the U.S., had previously triggered disdain if not outright opposition from Italian and French restauranteurs. This year I would guess that at as many as a third of the tables in the restaurants where I dined people shared at least one course.

Meanwhile, my anecdotal observation is that Europeans are gaining weight, though they are not yet at the levels of overweight and obesity found in the U.S.

God created humans to enjoy food and wine. One aspect of life in Europe that I have enjoyed in the past is eating a multi-course paired with several different wines, finding myself at the end of the meal pleasantly and comfortably sated but neither stuffed nor inebriated.

Temperance, however, is one of the four Christian cardinal virtues. I find the practice of moderation in all things (a Confucian teaching that helpfully defines temperance) increases my interest in savoring what I consume. Temperance also can help one avoid gaining weight (I was pleased to return from my extended sojourn without having added pounds in spite of having greatly enjoyed the food and wine).

Temperance is an under-appreciated virtue. Hoarders, the greedy, and people who hang on to every item regardless of its serviceability or continued use could all benefit from the practice of temperance. Conversely, those who oppose any consumption of alcoholic beverages, the 19th century Temperance movement that promoted abstinence rather than temperance, gave the word temperance an ugly and lingering negative connotation.

Perhaps most importantly, the Dalai Lama helpfully connects temperance to practicing concern for the environment (Dalai Lama and Sofia Stril-Rever, My Spiritual Journey, p. 137):

As Tibetan Buddhists, we advocate temperance, which is not unconnected to the environment, since we do not consume anything immoderately. We set limits on our habits of consumption, and we appreciate a simple, responsible way of life. Our relationship to the environment has always been special. Our ancient scriptures speak of the vessel and its contents. The world is the vessel, our house, and we, the living, are its contents.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Jesus for President

An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me these intriguing questions:

If Jesus ran for President, would you vote for him? Would the American people vote for him? Would the media reduce his achievements to make us question his value?

Christians too often limit the scope of Jesus’ teachings and his significance to issues of personal, interior spirituality. These Christians are sadly blind to, or choose to ignore, the relevance of Jesus and his teachings to issues of human relationships, community, national and international policies, and the stewardship of creation.

If you have a narrow view of the scope of Jesus’ teachings, reread any one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) with the expectation that Jesus’ speaks not only about one’s interior life but also about life’s broader, external dimension. Remember, Jesus calls to love God and our neighbor.

Would you vote for Jesus?

No one issue defined Jesus. Nor does any one candidate ever fully embody the teachings of Jesus. If you would vote for Jesus, how do you translate that commitment into voting for candidates actually on the ballot?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Some reflections on my recent trip to Europe

Attentive readers of Ethical Musings will have noticed an almost three-month gap in my postings from mid-April to early July. I appreciated a couple of concerned friends querying whether I was ill during that period. I was not ill and, to the best of my knowledge my cancer remains in remission. Most of that time, I was traveling in Europe, spending about a week and a half in England, four weeks in Venice, and four weeks in France (the rest of the time I was traveling in the U.S., visiting friends and family).

 In the late 1990s, I lived for two years in London. Since then, I’ve traveled frequently to Europe, most years following my 2005 retirement from the Navy spending one or two months there.

On this trip, my first trip to Europe in three years, I noticed some interesting changes.

First, almost all French and Italian sales clerks, restaurant wait staff, museum personnel, etc., began the conversation in English or immediately shifted to English if I started the conversation. Previously, both in Italy and France people appreciated tourists at least exchanging greetings in the local language, initially attempting to conduct business in the local language, and only then shifting to English to aid a floundering tourist.

Some restaurants insisted on providing me an English language menu in spite of my expressed preference for a menu in the local language. Restaurant menus often have misleading if not inaccurate translations; my restaurant Italian and French are sufficient for me to read most menus in the original language.

Perhaps a combination of two factors explain this shift. People may be adopting the faster pace of American life (see below). Concurrently, English is also rapidly becoming the global language, at least in Europe. For example, when an Italian or French person and the individual with whom they were trying to communicate lacked a common language, everyone immediately shifted to English. People from other countries with whom we spoke routinely described studying English as a part of their curriculum from the first years of school through high school.

I suspect that Americans’ lack of bi- or tri-lingual skills will become a handicap as globalization increases because not everyone in every country will truly be fluent in English.

Second, the pace of life among the French and Italians has seemed to quicken. Illustratively, McDonalds now sells more hamburgers in France than the French sell of their previously most popular sandwich, a baguette with ham and butter. Street food is more common. Locals now eat while striding purposefully rather than stopping for a long lunch. On a couple of occasions, wait staff or sales clerks actually apologized for keeping me waiting, something that I never before experienced in Europe.

Third, smartphones appeared to be omnipresent. Indeed, companies in the travel business (airlines, train companies, hotels, and others) now presume that their customers have a smartphone. Not having a smartphone, which I don’t, sometimes required utilizing awkward or time-consuming alternatives. And by extension, European companies are as diligent and intent on collecting all possible data about their consumers as are U.S. firms. Similarly, I was as bemused in Europe as I am at home in Honolulu by tourists focused on a smartphone instead of visually enjoying the place they have paid to visit.

Fourth, based upon my observation the number of beggars in both France and Italy has increased over the last three years. In Italy, most of the beggars looked as if they were Roma, i.e., gypsies. In France, a disproportionate number of the beggars were black. However, in neither France or Italy did the beggars appear to be as numerous as are the homeless in Honolulu. Furthermore, the beggars did not obviously include the mentally ill or substance abuses so evident among the homeless in Honolulu.

Italy and France are apparently more compassionate than is the U.S., offering more appropriate and adequate assistance to the mentally ill and substance abusers than we do. The increased number of beggars points toward ka fraying social safety net in Europe and, in France, toward a recognized need to improve racial integration and upwards mobility.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The future of religion

An Ethical Musings’ reader wondered: “What is happening to religion? Are we further apart in our beliefs or could we be merging?”

A quick global examination of religious belief reveals three significant trends.

First, religion based upon a literal reading of a person’s faith group’s scripture is increasing, especially in its Christian and Islamic expressions as seen in the Global South. This observation distinguishes between Islamic extremism (and by inference extremism in all of its other religious manifestations) and historic forms of Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite. Islam, more than any other major religion has taught a literal reading of the Koran.

Second and concurrently, belief in organized religion is decreasing in the developed world. This trend is observable even in the United States with its traditionally high levels of religious belief. For example, a recent Pew survey found that a majority of Americans believe in a higher power but only a slim majority believe in the God described in the Bible.

Third, religious belief in China is increasing. One possible explanation is that the increase represents a delayed reaction to religion’s suppression during the era of harsher Communist rule that began with Mao. A second possible explanation is that people are turning to religion as a vehicle for protesting against the lack of democracy and individual freedom that matches China’s economic development. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive.

The net effect of the first two trends on the future of religion is hard to determine. Predicting that belief in traditional expressions of Christianity and Islam will diminish in the Global South as development progresses is easy. Illustratively, educated people tend reasonably and quickly to discard overly simple answers to questions that depend upon reading Christian scripture as both a theological/spiritual text and a scientific text. Unfortunately, rejecting that approach often leads to dismissing religion in toto as superstition of no value.

Alternatively, even people living in the developed world, as shown in the Pew survey previously cited, tend to believe in a higher power. The title of Episcopal Bishop John Spong’s book, Christianity Must Change or Die, thus points to one possible future for religion. The world’s major religions may die because of their inability to adapt and thereby make way for a new (or multiple new) religions to emerge. Of course, some religions may adapt; other religions may die.

I optimistically see signs that religious belief is slowly converging. If a higher power (God) exists, then reasonably only one such power exists. Different names for God point to the same ultimate reality; different religions are different paths for cultivating a closer relationship with that power. The ethical teachings of the world’s major religions center around two precepts: love for God (the higher power) and neighbor. This commonality reinforces my belief in the singularity of religion rightly understood and the slow but eventual convergence of religious belief.

However, in the short run I observe two sources of divergence. First, some believers hold firmly to the distinctives of the believer’s own faith tradition in a reaction against religious convergence, a reaction similar to that by some people against economic and political globalization. Second, religion has often been, and continues to be, a vehicle for protesting injustice. This is particularly evident in the history of Islam and is now evident in China. Broader moves toward more fully establishing justice will gradually diminish the number of people who turn to religious belief as a vehicle for political protest. In other words, neither of these sources of divergence, regardless of their present potency, will derail the longer-term convergence of religious belief in a form that embraces pluralism while preserving the ethical emphasis on loving God and neighbor.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Zero waste churches

A parish in Raleigh, NC, where I have at various times served as Priest-in-Charge and Priest Associate has expanded and named its ecological stewardship ministry

I commend your engagement with this website and the organization behind it for five theological reasons.

First, God loves all creation. Illustratively, after each step of the creative process outlined in Genesis 1 God saw, “It is good.” Human destruction, particularly wanton destruction of any part of creation, is sinful because the destruction profanes or ruins what God deems good. Remember, Genesis 1 is a theological testament, not a scientific text. To reject the idea that God saw creation as good because of the faulty scientific framework on which the theology is draped is to discard the baby with the bathwater.

Second, God appointed humans as the stewards of creation. Stewards care for that which the owner has entrusted to the stewards’ care; stewards wrongfully usurp the owner’s prerogatives when stewards take that entrusted to their care and use it for the stewards’ exclusive benefit, especially if the use is wasteful and destructive.

Three, stewardship inherently entails action and not simply a passive nod to the value God places on all creation. Paying lip service to creation care is analogous to the affluent person who offers only a verbal blessing to her/his poor, hungry neighbor.

Fourth, time is short. When the earth’s population was much smaller and people lived with less technology, the earth more easily absorbed human excesses and harms. Since, the middle of the twentieth century, awareness of human damage to creation has greatly expanded. Much of the harm may be impossible or at least extremely difficult to reverse. Nonetheless, we have demonstrated an encouraging ability to change our behaviors, laws, and policies; creation has similarly demonstrated a remarkable resilience. For example, rivers once so badly polluted that they could no longer support fish life now support thriving fish populations and are sufficiently clean to permit humans to swim and to consume the fish they catch.

Climate change (global warming!) caused by humans is real. At some point in the near future, the damage to the earth’s ability to maintain a range of temperatures conducive to human thriving will become permanently impaired. If we reach that point (and some pessimists argue we have already passed it), humans will have become the agents of their own destruction.

I’m a perennial optimist. I know that we are near the point of no return that will lead to human extermination, but I hope we have not yet reached that point. If I’m correct, then humans must act now to reduce their carbon footprints and take other steps to reduce, hopefully even to begin to repair, the damage we have caused and continue to cause to the environment.

Both the urgency of the need to change and the hope that humans can alter their behavior for the better are theological concepts deeply rooted in Scripture.

Fifth and finally, the church – the body of Christ – the gathered community of people who intentionally commit themselves to walking the Jesus’ path – rightly models, teaches, and promotes ecological stewardship. is a prime example of this modeling, teaching, and promotion of ecological stewardship that moves from the theoretical to the practical.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Does Trump teach us how to love our enemies?

Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies. President Trump sometimes appears to curry favor with nations recently considered enemies or adversaries of the United States, especially Russia and China. Is he heeding Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies?

Lavishing blandishments and flattery on Russia’s President Putin and China’s President Xi does not communicate love. Both authoritarian rulers have enough sycophants in their governments that the rulers recognize flattery for what it is: empty words. Flattery infers shared values and perhaps obedience, neither of which should characterize U.S. relations with Russia or China.

Genuine love for enemies frequently requires speaking truth to power in a way that power is likely to hear. Using this criterion, Trump clearly does not express love for his enemies. For example, Trump failed to confront Putin about Russian interference in U.S. elections with sufficient forcefulness, relying on the word of a known prevaricator instead of the hard, substantial evidence provided by American intelligence agencies. Of course, Trump himself consistently acts as if facts are unimportant or non-existent.

Conversely, Jesus never taught us to treat friends and allies with enmity. Trump inappropriately meddles in the internal affairs of friends and allies, publicly speaks disdainfully or dismissively of allied leaders, and acts (e.g., by unilaterally imposing tariffs) as if U.S. friends and allies are adversaries rather than simply economic competitors. Competition does not necessarily presume enmity. One important lesson learned from participating in athletic competitions is adversaries on the field may be good friends off the field. Perhaps the President, crippled by a bone spur that allowed to him avoid the draft, never learned this lesson during his school years.

Evangelical Christian support for Trump’s foreign policies disturb me because they fail to apply biblical standards in their analysis of those policies. Another illustration of this assessment is that America first is not a Christian policy. God loves all people equally. Consequently, globalization, not perpetual American supremacy, is one foundational pillar of a Christian foreign policy.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Wearing a cross

A reader found my Ethical Musings posts on Why people go to church and What was Jesus’ brand interesting. The posts prompted the reader to wonder if I had given any thought to the number of people who wear crosses. The reader accurately surmised that by comparing the number of church attendees to cross wearers, a significant number of people who wear a cross have no connection to Christianity or to the theological meaning of the cross.

I found the reader’s observation insightful and thought provoking. After receiving the reader’s comment, I began paying more attention to the number of people wearing a cross and was startled at the number of crosses I saw, especially when contrasted with church attendance and membership statistics for Paris and London, the cities in which I made my observations. Some individuals wearing a cross were obviously American. Even ignoring those, a still surprising number of French and British persons wore crosses. Since returning to the States, I’ve found that a disproportionate number of people sport crosses in comparison to U.S. church attendance and membership statistics.

Why the disparity?

The explanation that I find most cogent is that the cross has become a common cultural symbol and has lost its historic and theological meanings.

The Romans used crosses, generally shaped like our letter “T,” to execute tens of thousands of criminals. The Roman army (there was no separate police force) was highly competent and professional. They crucified Jesus in a way that from the Scriptural record (the only available source) appears fully consistent with their standard practices. Nothing significant about Jesus’ crucifixion seems to have been exceptional.

Non-Christians originally associated a cross with Christians as a form of insult. Christians, however, quickly adopted the symbol as a source of pride, reveling in its scandal. Early Christians, aware of the near unanimous public revulsion to the cross, also saw it as a safe symbol for identifying their meeting places, houses in which Christians lived, etc. No sane person would voluntarily associate him or her self with a cross.

Today, the scandal is gone. The cross has become a good luck charm (think of crossing one’s fingers, which originated as a way of making a cross) or even a meaningless decorative item valued for its craftsmanship or giver rather than its shape.

What if Christians wore an electric chair or noose instead of a cross? Those symbols would restore the scandal; those symbols would also underline the meaning of Jesus’ death (innocence in the grip of systemic power that led to the power’s unanticipated unmasking as evil and subsequent defeat) in a way that is perhaps more comprehensible by twenty-first people century. Unfortunately, in both instances the connection with Jesus would be lost. Perhaps Christians who wear a cross should consider wearing a cross with a hangman’s noose or electric chair superimposed.

As I write, I am aware that beheading is another form of capital punishment in current use. Regretfully, a sword has too many interpretations to permit its clear use as a scandalous symbol of capital punishment.

God is life. The scandal of the cross is that death, particularly a death caused by a ruling power’s imposition of capital punishment on a conquered peasant, led to life. May all who wear a cross dare to live into the hope and reality of the cross.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Racing for God

I briefly encountered the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in London. Sadly, we are not on a first name basis. Now that I have your attention, I’ll tell you what actually happened. One evening her motorcade drove by as Susan and I walked from our London hotel to a nearby restaurant. You may feel I misled you. Many Christians face a similar credibility challenge. Christianity promises people to help them develop a first name relationship with God and then too often fails to deliver. Today’s gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13) offers several constructive suggestions about how to assist people connect with God.

Clergy are icons of God. Believe me, these icons all have clay feet. Nevertheless, one reason the Church sets aside clergy is to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. Good clergy aim to achieve this purpose through being transparent, appropriately sharing personal foibles and struggles while hoping that people will simultaneously discern God’s presence. Incidentally, being an icon is difficult when parishioners are accustomed to seeing one as a carpenter (think of Jesus) or a PR executive (think of Mark Haworth recently ordained deacon out of this parish). Consequently, our canons follow Jesus’ example by requiring clergy to serve a congregation other than their home congregation.

More broadly, every Christian is called to be an icon of Christ in the world. As God’s icons, we hopefully hear and answer God’s call – whether for ordination, or more frequently to sing in the choir, serve at the altar, join an outreach ministry, or embrace a stranger with God’s love.

Controversially, the gospel reading names Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The Greek is frustratingly ambiguous and can mean either siblings or cousins. On the one hand, Mary was a Jewish young woman married to Joseph in an era before artificial birth control. They had multiple motives for desiring a large family. On the other hand, Christians understandably venerated Mary for being worthy of bearing the one traditionally seen as God’s son. Concurrently, Christian theology frequently emphasized God’s transcendence at the cost of distancing humans from God, making a relationship with God more problematic. These factors coalesced in many Christians depicting Mary as an eternally blessed virgin, immaculately conceived without original sin so she would be worthy of being Jesus’ mother, having been bodily assumed to heaven without dying because she lived a sinless existence, and recent efforts, prominently spearheaded by Pope John Paul II, to declare Mary co-redemptrix with Jesus. Although lacking explicit scriptural warrant, these ideas do have Scriptural roots. Today, these conflicting views of Mary frequently coexist in the same congregation.

This past week, the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention met in Austin, Texas. One hotly debated topic was the merit of using only masculine pronouns and nouns to name the persons of the Trinity. Individuals who have suffered abuse from a male – whether father, other relative, friend, co-worker, or stranger – often find male terms for the deity painful. General Convention authorized non-gender specific language for the introduction to our Eucharistic prayers and a few other places in the liturgy. Heather and I, like a majority of Episcopal clergy, sometimes refer to the Trinity with a variety of gender neutral or mixture of feminine and masculine terms. And Scripture, in fact, uses feminine and non-gender specific terms for God. Furthermore, most biblical images of the Holy Spirit are feminine nouns in the original language. I predict that future generations will find this fight silly. What you call God is unimportant. What is important is that you know the love or light, by whatever name, that brings life, healing, and meaning. Welcoming everyone and helping them to recognize God’s loving presence in their life requires embracing multiple terms and paths for describing the spiritual life.

Jesus’ inability to perform deeds of power in Nazareth poignantly reminds us that God alone, by any name, is not the answer. Promising that God can solve all problems is wrong. Instead, God acts in conjunction with people. And even then, not everything is possible. For example, God rarely heals, as the Apostle Paul knew, chronic, incurable disease but daily empowers one to live with the disease.

Laying on of hands and anointing with oil are symbolic, liturgical means by which God’s people incarnate and communicate God’s presence and love. We witness this in ordinations, anointing of persons in our mid-week healing Eucharist, hospital visits and other times, blessings during Holy Communion for those not receiving the consecrated bread and wine, and perhaps most especially in the passing of the peace, a time to bless one another rather than gossip.

One Sunday afternoon during our recent stay in Venice, Susan and I while crossing a bridge were startled to observe dozens and dozens of small boats, all rowed or paddled. We saw Viking longboats, pirate ships, kayaks, a Chinese dragon boat, and lots more. We discovered that over four thousand participants in two thousand plus boats were racing along an eighteen-mile course. They were all amateurs, which was glaringly apparent from multiple boats crashing into buildings, bridge abutments, and other boats. Surprisingly, nobody ever loses in this annual race. Every finisher receives the same medal and equal acclaim.

That boat race is a great metaphor for the Christian life. The boat represents the ark of one’s salvation, living Jesus’ lifestyle of loving God and neighbor. The variety of boats connotes our individual spiritualities. Paddling symbolizes our effort – unbelievably amateurish, exceptionally competent, or most often somewhere in between – to partner with God and thereby experience God’s loving presence personally as well as becoming an icon or vehicle that enables other persons to experience God’s love. Everybody wins; there are no losers. May all of us participate in this race. Amen.

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why people go to church

Why do people go to church?

I’ve written previous Ethical Musings posts on this subject, including Why bother with church? and Time to market the church.

More recently, the Gallup poll has conducted some excellent research on the subject. I especially commend this post by fellow priest, Jon White, Why people go to church found on the Episcopal Café website. Jon helpfully summarizes the research, which has strong implications for congregations that wish to grow numerically.

My last post discussed the question of what was Jesus’ brand. If we believe that others along with us should follow Jesus and that part of following Jesus is to gather regularly with God’s people to worship God, deepen our spirituality, build community, and to serve others then having an attractive brand is vital. Even more important is to have a community that attracts and successfully integrates newcomers. This requires:

·       Practicing genuine hospitality. We must learn to welcome the stranger, including the stranger in conversations and what’s happening without causing the stranger to experience an unwanted level of attention or any other type of discomfort.

·       Removing barriers to entry. Integrating a newcomer into an established group – for example, a small congregation, study group, or other gathering – requires recognizing and dismantling the group’s barriers to entry to permit newcomers to feel welcome and then to join. What are barriers to entry? Inadequate signage (who likes to ask for the location of the restroom?), insufficient parking (get old-timers to park at a distance), steps that keep the handicapped out – these and other barriers block entry.

·       Offering substantive value for time spent and money contributed. This explains why people rate good sermons their highest priority in the Gallup survey about why people go to church.

·       Congregants honestly sharing their successes and failures in modeling their lives on Jesus. Who wants to worship with a congregation comprised entirely of hypocrites who claim to model their lives on Jesus but whose words and actions blatantly and consistently reveal their hypocrisy? Conversely, who wants to worship with a congregation who allegedly gather in Jesus’ name but who can point only to their failures and never to their successes?

·       Pervasively focusing on helping people to apply lessons from scripture to daily living (do not confuse this with the prosperity gospel!). Attendees, both new and old, seek help with their daily lives.

·       Giving people instruction, encouragement, and opportunity to cultivate their spirituality. This is at the center of what it means to be church. Otherwise, the church becomes a social club, social service organization, advocate for social justice, or other type of non-profit. All of these are good but lack the distinctive spiritual focus of a church.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What was Jesus' brand?

What was Jesus’ brand?

The catalyst for that question was a recent federal court decision in favor of The Episcopal Church retaining its name, trademarks, etc. The decision was against the breakaway group led by the former Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence.

More broadly, continuing globalization makes branding ever more important. Inundated with information and choices not only about religious affiliation and media outlets, but also choices about competing products, services, and even friends, branding becomes a convenient way of narrowing one’s choices. (For choosing friends, think in terms of tribes and clans instead of brands, concepts that greatly overlap.)

Who really wants dozens of choices of soaps, toilet paper, canned baked beans, and so forth? Evaluating each option while standing in a store aisle or sitting at one’s computer would require more time and energy than the task deserves. So, we tend to rely upon brands to help us to find the product, service, or person for which we search.

What was Jesus’ brand, that is, what was his image among the people of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria that attracted people to him?

What is Jesus’ brand today?

For some, Jesus’ brand is increasingly identified with Donald Trump. Christian evangelical endorsements of Trump have largely remained constant in spite of personal behavior (adultery, lying, verbally berating people, etc.) and public acts (demanding unquestioning personal loyalty, statements that at a minimum imply condoning racist attitudes, etc.) that are prima facie incompatible with Christian teachings. These endorsements of Trump seem akin to biblical declarations of God using non-Christian leaders (e.g., the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzar) as God’s instruments. In the case of Trump, Christian endorsers believe God may use him to outlaw abortion, to wrest control of the judiciary from anti-Christian liberal judges, and to preserve American exceptionalism.

For others, Jesus’ brand emphasizes loving our neighbors (all of them, near and distant!), caring for creation, and working toward justice for all. This perspective identifies more with Pope Francis than with Donald Trump, and even more with Francis of Assisi than his contemporary namesake.

If you self-identify as a Christian, does Jesus’ define your brand? That is, does Jesus define your identity as person and your image in the community in which you live, whether actual or virtual?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A new commandment I give you

In a German prison camp just months before World War Two ended, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds stared down the barrel of a Nazi’s pistol and refused to identify the Jews among his fellow prisoners of war.

“We are all Jews here,” said Sergeant Edmonds, the highest-ranking American noncommissioned officer in the prison. “The Geneva Convention does not require prisoners to divulge their religion,” Sergeant Edmonds added, warning that if the German shot them, he would be tried for war crimes.

Edmonds’ act of defiance spared the lives of 200 Jews.[1]

On Maundy Thursday Christians commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciple, Jesus’ Last Supper, and his giving his disciples a new commandment to love one another.[2] Each represents an important aspect of the Christian tradition.

Foot washing – washing and often anointing with perfumed oil the dirtiest part of the body among people who wore sandals or went barefoot in an often dusty and sometimes muddy place – was an act of hospitality performed by the household’s lowest member or servant. Hawaiian residents certainly understand foot washing is an act of hospitality. Jesus humbly performing this task memorably emphasizes that Christians are called to servant leadership. Washing dirty feet metaphorically recalls Holy Baptism, renewing our baptismal vows by dipping our fingers into the baptismal or other holy water font and then making the sign of the cross, a priest washing her or his hands before officiating at the Eucharist, and other moments in which we experience God’s forgiving, healing love. Similar to foot washing occurring when people gathered, Holy Baptism is our sacramental that welcome into the Body of Christ.

We remember and celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper in the Eucharist, now the central act of worship in the Episcopal Church. Prior to the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, our worship was more focused on Scripture and most parishes only celebrated the Eucharist once a month. A major reason for this shift in was a growing recognition that God feeds us in the Eucharist. Many Episcopalians mysteriously experience or receive grace necessary to sustain their spiritual journey by participating in the Eucharist.

After the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. Maundy Thursday derives its name from the Latin word mandares, meaning mandate or commandment. Naming the day for this new commandment is very fitting. Foot washing recalls Baptism and continuing dependence on God’s grace. In the Eucharist, God nurtures us individually and forms us into a community, the body of Christ. Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples that they love one another as he loved them incarnates our new identity and proclaims us as Jesus’ people, Christians.

I don’t know if Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds regarded himself as a Christian. I do know that the love he showed for the other US military personnel in that German POW camp, a love he courageously exhibited while staring down the barrel of a pistol, a love so great that it saved the lives of about 200 Jews, is precisely the love Jesus expects us to have for one another and our neighbors. Those who attempt to walk intentionally in Jesus’ footsteps should aim to make Edmonds’ extraordinary demonstration of love our everyday lifestyle.

[1] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Wartime Act of Defiance: ‘We Are All Jews Here’," New York Times, January 28, 2016 accessed at
[2] John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

We wish to see Jesus

One summer night a young man in Scotland decided to take a shortcut across the moors on his way to the town where he had a job. That night he knew he would be passing near one of the area’s many limestone quarries, but he thought he could avoid it. So, he set out through the rock and heather on that inky black, starless night. Suddenly he heard a voice call out with great urgency, "Peter!"

A bit unnerved, he stopped and called back into the dark, "Yes, who is it? What do you want?" No response. Just a bit of wind over the deserted moorland.

The lad concluded he'd been mistaken and walked on a few more steps. He heard the voice again, more urgent than before: "Peter!" He stopped in his tracks, bent forward to peer through the dense black, and stumbled to his knees. Reaching out a hand to the ground before him, he clutched thin air. The quarry! Sure enough, as Peter carefully felt around in a semicircle he discovered that he had stopped at the edge of the abandoned limestone quarry, one step before a fatal plunge into the deep. Out there in the desolate moor someone knew him and someone cared. Peter Marshall never forgot that. Dedicating his life to the One who'd called him by name, he became one of America's greatest twentieth century ministers.[1] Peter Marshall's vibrant, real, and utterly compelling faith was no dusty relic inherited from his parents. Peter Marshall knew God.

Today’s gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for St. Clement’s.[2] Bethsaida, like Honolulu, was a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city. Many of us are well educated. Many of us usually think logically, seek facts, and assess those facts to arrive at our conclusion. This approach to life was widely associated with first century Greeks. John’s gospel was written primarily for a Greek audience. Thus, no great interpretative leap is required to imagine that the two men who approached Philip had a logical, nascent scientific, worldview. We in Hawai’i value story and networking. Stories of Jesus similarly motivated the two men to meet Jesus; somehow, they knew Philip, who went to Andrew, who in turn went to Jesus. I hope that you gather here on Sunday mornings emulating those two unnamed Greeks, having heard God is this place and wanting to experience God or to know God better. We, like the two Greek men, want to see Jesus.

The gospel enigmatically fails to report if they actually met Jesus. Instead, the gospel’s author has Jesus speak of his own impending death and then instruct his disciples that they must (1) lose their life, that is, die to self, and (2) serve him by loving others. Each of those is in fact a path that brings us to God.

Psychologists and biologists agree that dying to self is literally impossible. No way exists for a person to completely lose his or her whole self or ego without becoming mentally ill. Carefully studying monasticism’s long history reveals the frustration of those who have devoted years to slaying their own ego. However, we, like many monastics, can diminish the ego and thereby make room for others and for God. Making space for God sets the stage for being able to hear God’s voice leading us away from trouble, as Peter Marshall experienced. That type of dramatic moment is rare; more often, we experience God as a small, still voice that speaks from deep within us. Alternatively, we may discern God’s loving presence, and perhaps a word, from God in a breathtaking natural vista, the mysterious grace of a shared meal, or an undeserved but much needed hug.

How can we die to self without becoming a monastic? Prioritize spending time – even five or ten minutes – daily in meditation, prayer, meditative reading, prayerful walking, or expressing your hopes and fears in art, whether words, painting, music, dance, or another art form. In other words, adopt a discipline, a daily habit, that opens space and time in your life for you to develop a thin place in which to cultivate an ability to discern God’s presence.

Several years ago, an 18-year-old Toby Long traveled to Africa for two and a half weeks with World Vision, a Christian organization committed to alleviating hunger and suffering around the world. One day, Toby was helping to distribute food and supplies to people when a boy came up and tapped Toby on the shoulder. The boy looked at his worn-out shirt, then looked at Toby's sturdy clothes and asked if he could have Toby's shirt. Toby didn't know what to do. He knew that he would be working all day in the hot sun and not return to camp until night. Speechless, Toby backed away from the boy. As the group left the distribution center, Toby realized what he had just done. That evening he went to his room and cried.

After Toby's stint with World Vision, he returned home to Michigan. But he could not forget the boy to whom he had refused to give his shirt. So, he organized a T-shirt drive in his community called "Give the Shirt Off Your Back." The media trumpeted the story, and soon Toby's Campaign received over 10,000 T-shirts. A group called SOS (Supporters of Sub-Saharan Africa) agreed to transport the T-shirts for free on their next trip to Africa. Toby doubts that the boy he met will get one of the 10,000 shirts he sent, but he prays about it.[3]

Toby Long, new creation in Christ, is learning to hate his own life and to walk obediently in Jesus' footsteps. One step was his mission trip to Africa. But that step exposed another aspect of Toby’s self-centeredness to the light of God’s love. His tears reflect a dying to self even as his T-shirt campaign reveals the birth of new life. Further steps await him. But each step, painful though it may be, will bring him closer to Christ as the seed of self dies, giving birth to new life. What small steps to love others is God calling you to take?

May our prayer this Lent, and always, be: We would see Jesus.

(Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018, at the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI)

[1] Steven R. Mosley, Glimpses of God (Sisters, Oregon: Questar Publishers, Inc., 1990), pp. 149-150.
[2] John 12:20-33.
[3]Mark Moring, "Toby's Two Tons of T's," Campus Life, July/August 1996, pp. 28-29.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A new illiteracy

A new type of illiteracy seems to be emerging as an unintended side-effect of technological progress. Many people have some competence using one or more electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. Few people are familiar with all of the features and capabilities of their device(s). Very few people actually understand the software and hardware required to make those features, much less have the knowledge to modify or to create a new feature or capability for their device.

This new illiteracy especially strikes me because I remember how easily I learned to program in Basic and Fortran as a largely self-taught high school student using a computer at a local college. After mastering those two languages, I learned that particular computer’s machine, which required mastery not only of software but also the design of the computer’s hardware. Neither the high school nor the college then offered courses in programming. Nevertheless, the college did require students in some courses to program and to use its computer, expecting its students to learn those skills on their own time. Today, fifty years later, both the high school and college offer computer programming classes as electives, a reflection of the growing complexity of software and hardware.

A few software designers and creators are still largely self-taught. Most, however, acquire their skills though formal education and training programs. Hardware design has advanced to the point where only the well-funded and well-educated have the resources and knowledge to innovate.

The rest of us are electronic illiterates. What are the potential consequences of this new illiteracy?

First, the new illiteracy results in a new elite. The trend toward greater utilization of and reliance upon electronic devices seems likely to persist for years. Will this new elite continue to earn disproportionate incomes and power (think of pay in Silicon Valley and the influence of tech billionaires and venture capitalists)? If so, what will be the consequences of this for the rest of humanity?

Second, will the new illiteracy coupled with the potential ability of machines to program and then to design themselves (a new form of self-propagation?) tip evolution away from humans towards a new, non-animal entity (calling it a life form feels wrong)? If so, will that trigger the extinction of humans or human enslavement to serve the needs of their electronic masters?

Third, where is God in all of this?

Fourth, is this future inevitable? Alternatively, will a new electronic literacy emerge that mostly eradicates the new illiteracy?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Is the Book of Common Prayer too wordy?

A friend who is an Episcopalian suggested that the Book of Common Prayer (the 1979 edition, which he has used for 30 years) is too wordy. He wondered if the Episcopal Church overloads people with too many words, too much spirituality.

What do you think?

The length of Episcopal services compares very unfavorably with the length of Tweets. Twitter accounts are now much more popular than are blogs, in part because Tweets are so much briefer.

Our culture is moving towards more video and more images, away from words.

Where in the Book of Common Prayer, now being considered for a possible revision, would you suggest cutting words? Where might images become a regular element of Episcopalian worship and services?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Following the Prince of Peace and ending gun violence

According to a widely reported statistic, there are 89 privately owned guns in the United States for every 100 citizens. Other estimates place the number of guns as high as 101 for every 100 citizens. These are necessarily estimates since the US does not mandate gun registration. Citing the lower estimate helps to avoid unresolvable arguments that are tangential to the problem of gun violence.

Of course, 89 guns per 100 citizens does not mean that 89 of every 100 citizens owns a firearm. Many citizens own multiple guns. Others own no gun. However, the approximately 290 million privately owned firearms result in the US ranking number 1 globally for gun ownership, with almost twice as many guns per capita as Serbia, which ranks second with 58 firearms per citizen.

Enacting tighter restrictions on gun ownership, mandating background checks, and repealing the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) – all measures which I support – in many respects resembles closing the proverbial barn door after the cow has escaped. Legislation may reduce but will not end gun violence.

Nevertheless, actions by local, state, and federal legislative and regulatory bodies can help. Restricting access to guns is one vital step. A Florida law preventing 18-year-olds from purchasing firearms might have prevented the recent school shooting incident in Parkland. Gun registration, mandatory background checks, laws requiring locked storage of firearms, and other measures would almost certainly reduce the shockingly high levels of gun related domestic violence, suicides, and accidental deaths in homes. Allowing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund research on guns and gun related violence, now prohibited by federal law, would enable evidence-based government policies and programs intended to reduce gun violence.

However, those actions, regardless of their completeness or reach, cannot solve the problem of gun violence in its entirety. Reducing gun violence requires better laws but also changes in attitudes and culture.

In Switzerland, all healthy males between 18 and 34 serve in the national militia and keep their military firearm(s) at home. Many Swiss also own guns for target shooting and hunting. Overall, an estimated 20-25% of Switzerland’s population own guns (Switzerland does not maintain official statistics on gun ownership; hence the use of estimates). Switzerland’s level of gun violence is far lower than in the US. Gun related homicides, for example, occur in Switzerland at approximately one third the rate in the US. In short, the attitude of the Swiss and their culture significantly contribute to avoiding gun related violence.

Christians individually and through their institutional Churches can and should lobby for improved gun control laws. However, the precise nature of changes to laws and regulations most congruent with Christianity are not always apparent. Christians rightly debate these issues and speak in multiple voices. For example, not every Christian agrees with me about repealing the Second Amendment.

Christians do immediately and universally affirm that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The Prince of Peace did not advocate the violent resolution of conflicts. Indeed, he advocated just the opposite: giving a second garment to the person who stole one, turning one’s cheek to someone who attempts to start a fight, and so forth. The New Testament and Christian tradition are conflicted about whether these teachings apply to relations between nation states or only to individuals. While Christians may debate Jesus’ attitude toward hunting, the New Testament clearly shows that Jesus had no objection to fishing. Finding New Testament teachings to support or oppose target shooting requires creative eisegesis. Rather than be distracted by disagreements on national defense, hunting, and target shooting, Christians beneficially focus on Jesus as the Prince of Peace.

Consequently, as a priest, I consistently preach, teach, and counsel against violence, including gun violence. I attempt to model non-violence. I have done this throughout my ministry, including twenty-four years of military service as a Navy chaplain. In retirement, I financially support and participate in organizations that work to end gun violence and war such as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the Center on Conscience and War. These organizations welcome my involvement even though I, unlike some of their members, support the concept of Just War as a rare necessity to prevent evil triumph’s, e.g., to stop the Holocaust. In of my individual and cooperative efforts, I seek to emulate Jesus. That is, I aim to shift attitudes and our culture toward peace and away from violence, especially gun violence.

More generally, Christians and others can actively unite in efforts like these to change individual attitudes and aspects of our culture that support gun violence:

·       Challenge widespread and sometimes entrenched insistence on individual rights over collective well-being as antithetical to the Prince of Peace’s ethic, e.g., challenge stand your ground laws and laws that value private property over a thief’s life.

·       Refuse to perpetuate once arguably correct but now patently anachronistic ideas such as gun ownership constituting a crucial safeguard against tyranny. If that were still true, rebels around the world would not invariably beg the US and other nations to supply them with heavy military arms, all of which are presently illegal for US citizens to own, e.g., anti-air missiles, rocket propelled grenades, jet fighters, etc. Rebels recognize that these weapons are essential if they are to overthrow the oppressor regime.

·       Expose mistruths and lies used to support a gun culture. For example, contrary to the NRA, gun ownership is not a basic human right. Indeed, limiting gun ownership promotes the most basic of human rights, the right to life.

·       Not watch TV shows or movies, or play violent video games, that glorify gun violence or create unrealistic, mythic heroes (Rambo, the Terminator, and the Equalizer are among names on the long roster of these heroes). These plot lines explicitly use the hero’s invulnerability to promote violence as the preferred means of conflict resolution. Avoiding these activities keeps one’s mind free of images of gun violence while concurrently making a small dent (sadly, a very small dent) in the sponsor’s profitability.

·       Assertively and vocally object when people voice pro-gun violence attitudes by politely identifying the attitude and then objecting to it.

·       Oppose glorifying the military or its weapons. Most recently, I, like many veterans, viewed the proposed military parade in our nation’s capital as a deeply disturbing specter that promotes the wrong values and attitudes.

·       Truthfully advocate for smaller defense budgets. More is not better. Bigger is not better. Illustratively, at least one leg of the nuclear triad that formed the basis of the US’s Cold War defensive posture is now obsolete. Missile silos, today easily targeted using available geospatial data, cannot be reasonably hardened against a nuclear strike. Meanwhile, politicians falsely assert that the US needs to update its nuclear triad. US land-based missiles create good paying jobs in sparsely populated Midwestern areas; updating nuclear weapons will pump one trillion dollars into the military-industrial-political complex, benefiting those same politicians. Alternatively, one trillion dollars would pay for roughly two-thirds of the identified backlog of vital, unfunded infrastructure projects. Defense is necessary. However, as President Eisenhower and others have observed, spending a single dollar more on defense than the absolute minimum required to ensure an adequate defense is unjustifiable and immoral.

·       Resist the temptation to believe that more guns and more armed people will diminish gun violence. Arming teachers will reinforce the wrong attitudes, perpetuating the mistaken belief that guns and killing can end school violence. Ending “gun free zones” on military bases will similarly not end mass killings or diminish domestic violence but have the opposite effect by reinforcing the attitude that guns are the preferred solution to tough problems. The Prince of Peace points towards disarmament, not towards more guns and more armed people.

The time has come for Christians to lift high the Prince of Peace’s banner in public discourse. School shootings and mass murders are not indelible aspects of human attitudes or culture. With God’s help and working together, humans can change attitudes and our culture to promote peace instead of violence.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Time to market the Church

Occasionally I read books on business management. I read these books partially out of my continuing interest in the subject and partially because I learned much about people and organizations through my undergraduate degree in economics and graduate degree in business administration. Although marketing was never a special interest of mine, I recently read two books about marketing. That reading prompted two lines of reflection about the Church.

First, the Church spends too little on marketing. There are some exceptions, e.g., some megachurches. But in general, the Church spends very little money or time on marketing, an activity which in ecclesiastical language broadly connotes telling the church’s story and evangelism in particular. Businesses, by contrast, routinely spend ten or twenty percent of revenue on marketing.

The history of Christian marketing is familiar to many of us. In the beginning, the Church focused on marketing. Even before the Church existed, Jesus devoted a substantial portion of his three-year ministry to forming twelve disciples committed to perpetuating his mission. After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples’ primary focus became proclaiming the good news of God’s love in Jesus through their deeds and words. The Apostle Paul had a similar focus in his ministry. Consequently, the Church enjoyed several centuries of spectacular growth.

Then came establishment. For centuries, the missionary impulse largely waned. To be born in Christendom was practically synonymous with becoming Christian. Instead, Christians sporadically struggled amongst themselves over the correct definition or formulation of Christian identity, struggles that sometimes erupted into open warfare. Those struggles intensified as some Christians began to question how many of their baptized contemporaries truly believed and practiced Christian teachings. Still, the normative myth endured until at least the eighteenth century: to be born in Christendom meant being born into a Christian identity.

Today, Christendom is dead. To be born into a Christian family is no longer tantamount to becoming Christian. The average age of Christians and their clergy in the US and Europe is increasing. The number of Baptisms is down. Practices such as friendship evangelism in which one shares, as opportunity allows, one’s Christian faith with friends and family have obviously proven insufficient to reverse the outgoing tides of attendance, belief, and membership. Few grandparents who live in geographic proximity to their children and grandchildren can realistically expect to see those family members in church.

We Christians need, along with the Church, to return to active marketing.

Most basically, prioritizing marketing means investing time and money in telling Jesus’ story through deeds and words. Deeds may include feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, housing the houseless, participating in healing the sick, caring for the lonely, and so forth. Words connotes explaining our motivation for performing those deeds, motives rooted in our Christian identity.

A parish with an average Sunday attendance of 100 probably has at least 300 hours per week of paid and volunteer time. Paid hours include those of the rector, sexton, musicians, administrative staff, etc. Volunteer hours include time spent in worship, education or fellowship programs, outreach ministries, and other activities. Such a parish, committed to marketing, would therefore choose to redirect 30-60 hours per week to marketing. Furthermore, if that parish had revenues of $150,000, then the parish would devote $15,000 to $30,000 to marketing. Similarly, if The Episcopal Church (TEC) prioritized marketing, TEC would realign its triennial budget of approximately $129 million to spend $12.9 - $25.8 million on marketing along with a comparable realignment of staff and volunteer time, including all time now spent on General Convention and other governance processes.

The parish numbers are hypothetical, but their import is clear. No Episcopal congregation (or diocese) of which I am aware devotes twenty or even ten percent of its time and money to marketing. Prioritizing marketing obviously entails costs for the parish (or mission or diocese) that many organizations struggling to survive would deem excessive. However, one lesson I’ve learned from the business world is that if a business fails to market itself successfully, it inevitably goes bankrupt and disappears.

Congregations struggling to pay a priest and to maintain their building may postpone the inevitable by not marketing themselves. But the only realistic chance that those congregations have for longer-term survival is to market themselves aggressively, even if that means mortgaging the building or replacing beloved ongoing ministries that cater to members with marketing initiatives.

How can a congregation (or a diocese or TEC) market itself successfully? Or, in theological language, how can God’s people through their deeds and words tell the story of God’s love manifest in Jesus in a way that attracts people who want to experience that love personally? Or, in even more conventional theological language that often leaves Episcopalians feeling vaguely uncomfortable, how do we engage in effective evangelism?

No single set of answers will fit every context. Thankfully, multiple answers are readily available. Among many helpful authors are Diana Butler Bass, James R. Adams, Michael Curry, and Kennon L. Callahan. We should also not hesitate to hire public relations firms and consultants to help us strategize and develop our marketing.

In our increasingly internet centric culture, the Church needs websites focused on newcomers and searchers, expanded reliance on electronic communications (resisting this step because current members prefer paper deemphasizes marketing), and beneficial ways to exploit social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc.). TEC and dioceses can leverage their geographic reach to support congregations by making Episcopalian Christians a constant presence on broadcast and cable TV as well as radio.

Underlying every marketing effort is the question of why anyone would choose to attend, participate in, and belong to a Christian congregation. Grappling with this question was the second set of reflections triggered by my reading on marketing. Businesses without a clear understanding of their product(s) or service(s) cannot market themselves successfully.

Historically, the Church’s answer to the question of why anyone should become a Christian was that unless a person obtains remission of her/his sins through belief in Jesus the person, when s/he dies will go to hell instead of to heaven. Today, belief in heaven and especially in hell has waned sharply among Americans and Europeans, including among Christians. In the absence of an alternative credible answer, many Christians lack clarity about their motive(s) for attending worship, participating in a church, or believing in the gospel. The good news is no longer good or news.

Decades of ministering to mostly secular adults in their 20s and 30s, reading in spirituality and psychology, and personal examination have convinced me that twenty-first century people seek at least four things that the Church is uniquely positioned to provide.

First, a large number of people seek to experience God or a deeper spiritual reality. Well done worship services using liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer and other authorized sources can draw some people deeper into the mysteries where we believe people can experience God’s presence and love. Too often, however, our worship consists of poorly read lessons, hymns sung half-heartedly, prayers read mechanistically, and a sermon that at best offers yesterday’s answers to today’s real-life questions.

Second, many people want to know the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of their individual life. This desire is closely connected to the search for God. In this secular, scientific age in which life is frequently viewed as a product of opportunistically driven evolutionary processes, finding the meaning of one’s life can be very challenging. Whether we agree with the material, discussion groups based upon books by popular authors such as Bishop Spong, Barbara Brown Taylor, Neale Donald Walsch, Lauren Winner, Karen Armstrong, and the Dalai Lama afford individuals an opportunity to explore life’s meaning. Conversely, many post-moderns have little initial interest in the Bible.

Third, individuals frequently share a commitment to make the world a more loving, more just place. The Church, when not preoccupied with its own existence, frequently offers excellent opportunities for persons to join with like-minded people in working to make a more just, more loving world. Meaningful opportunities to serve one’s neighbors may be a first step in person’s spiritual journey as s/he discovers the church strives to incarnate God’s love for others with integrity and purpose.

Fourth and finally, humans flourish in community and Christian congregations ideally are communities in which a person may safely seek God, explore life’s meaning, and work with others to bring the world closer to God’s vision for it. Sadly, I commonly hear of churches that unintentionally have become closed or broken communities. Members of twelve step groups frequently tell me that their groups embody more genuine caring for each other than does any congregation with which they are familiar.

The time is long past for Christianity to from defense to offense. This requires our regaining clarity about why anyone might choose to attend, participate in, or join. Then TEC – its congregations, dioceses, and national structures – must actually prioritize marketing the gospel, creatively adapting proven business practices.