Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Prayer Book revision and General Convention


Shortly after the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention (GC) adjourned this past summer, an Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this opinion on the move by GC to initiate a process to revise the Book of Common Prayer:

The TFLPBR (Task Force for Liturgy and Prayer Book Revision) reminds me of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), which laid an egg and deservedly faded from sight. TFLPBR will take forever to get organized and the debate over its work will be endless. Even if you and I live long lives, there’s a significantly probability that 1979 will remain the official book when we will have passed on. Meanwhile, public worship in TEC is being balkanized across diocesan boundaries (and perhaps within individual dioceses) by experimentation, supplemental liturgies, etc. One has to ask whether GC and the other decision-making apparatus of TEC are utterly dysfunctional.

So far, the reader’s predictions seem on target.

Furthermore, congregations increasingly rely on having their full liturgy, sometimes with hymns, in a leaflet given to each attendee. Some congregations use the same leaflet for a season (e.g., Advent or Lent) while others print a new leaflet for each service. In a small but growing minority of places, the leaflet is available electronically on worshippers’ smartphones or tablets.

More importantly, the Episcopal Church continues to shrink. Membership and average Sunday attendance (ASA) are both declining. The percentage of Episcopal Congregations with an ASA of 100 or less has increased from 71% to 72%. Prayer Book revision will not reverse those trends.

We are a Church that prays together rather than believes together. The move away from a common liturgy, however, seems impossible to stop in an era of electronic resources and congregations increasingly utilizing a leaflet with the worship liturgy in lieu of direct dependence on the Book of Common Prayer. Ostrich like behavior that attempts to ignore the reality of widespread practices and growing reliance on electronic rather than printed resources is not helpful.

Eliminating printed leaflets and electronically available liturgies, forcing people to return to juggling the Prayer Book, hymnal(s), Scripture insert (or Bible), and a leaflet is at best ill-advised if not impossible. Over half of today’s Episcopalians are not cradle Episcopalians. Expecting worshippers to engage in a juggling act is off-putting for visitors and counterproductive in reversing years of declining attendance and membership. For better or worse, locally printed leaflets electronically available liturgies inherently invite local adaptations, authorized or otherwise.

The problem of proliferating liturgies and locally adapted or developed resources is observable in many Anglican Communion provinces including both Canterbury and York.

Instead of engaging in a futile rearguard action to recapture what once was, the TFLPBR should begin a conversation about to preserve our tradition of common prayer in the twenty-first century. I’ve yet to see any constructive suggestions to move the Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion in that direction. The longer we collectively postpone that conversation, the greater the chance that whatever solutions are identified will be too little, too late, and our valued tradition of common prayer will be lost.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Advent Preparations that Can Transform Your Life


In 1942, a group of football fans who were U.S. military personnel stationed in Newfoundland took a day of liberty and went fishing off the coast. As they fished, they listened to a radio broadcast of the annual Army/Navy game. Suddenly, they heard a cannon shot and turned to see a German submarine only a few hundred yards away. A German officer and several armed sailors boarded the fishing boat. The officer accused them of searching for subs and angrily declared that the Germans were going to sink the boat. Things had reached a pretty tight impasse when unexpectedly, from the radio, came the excited voice of a sports announcer: "The moment has come! The Navy is taking to the air. The Navy receivers are coming out." That was all the Germans heard. Mistaking a sports broadcast for a Navy transmission, they scurried off the fishing boat, quickly returned to their sub, and submerged.

That delightful story is almost certainly apocryphal. A submarine’s best protection is remaining undetected. If the Germans had really thought that the fishing boat was an anti-submarine picket boat, they probably would have sunk it without boarding. My brief internet search uncovered no source, credible or otherwise, for this unattributed story that I first saw in a print publication some years ago.

Today is the first day of Advent, one of the four Sundays in Advent, and the first day of the new church year. For centuries, Advent was a penitential season of preparation. People confessed their sins to prepare for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth and to make themselves ready for his glorious and imminent return. Confession, accompanied by genuine remorse for one’s offenses and the repentance of turning away from sin is one path to spiritual transformation. In this parish and in many places, penitential preparation makes little sense because few if any of us commit terrible, life-defining sins.

Instead of perpetuating the charade of a penitential Advent or proclaiming “fake news” about when or how the end of the world might occur – hopes now most often linked to wildfires, earthquakes, and flooding, Advent’s emphasis is shifting to preparation in a more general sense. Hence, we use the color blue, the color associated with the House of David, instead of purple.

Today’s gospel identifies three problems – worries about this life, drunkenness, and dissipation – that may inhibit our ability to discern God’s activity in the world and God’s presence in our lives. Addressing each problem constitutes a practical step for both clearing your spiritual vision and transforming your life. The gospel, like the rest of the Bible, is not merely a collection of charming, apocryphal stories but a compilation of insightful life changing wisdom, variously offered in story, direct teachings, or other literary forms.

“Worries about life” connotes stress. For too many of us, the holidays bring excess stress. The best way to manage stress is to avoid it. Develop the power to say “no” and to maintain good boundaries. Illustratively, set firm dollar limits on gift giving. Limit your commitment of time and money to work, church, and non-profits. Jesus instructed his disciples to love their neighbors AS they love themselves. Jesus knew that love for others begins with self-love and self-care. A physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, spiritually empty person cannot give the most precious gift of all – the gift of love incarnated in self – to spouse or partner, children, parents, or anyone else.

If drunkenness – a word connoting self-medication, addiction, or any other form of escapism – is a problem, reach out to a member of the clergy, attend a twelve-step group that meets here or somewhere else, or contact your physician or another health care provider. Nobody has to be alone. You can defeat your demon or demons. Trustworthy, competent help is available. Part of God’s message to us in our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity is that God loves each and every person, regardless of identity, thoughts, feelings or past actions. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can distance you from God’s loving presence.

If dissipation – an overwhelming preoccupation with material pleasures and possessions – is a problem, seize the opportunity to take a step or two away from it this Advent. For example, prioritize caring for creation over more traditional forms of celebrating Christmas. You probably saw news reports about a dead whale in Indonesia where an autopsy discovered over one thousand pieces of plastic in the whale’s stomach. Images of the pile of plastic in the whale’s stomach are indelibly etched in my mind. Use less plastic by reusing plastic containers, refusing plastic straws and plastic bags in restaurants and stores, and recycling whenever possible. Send ecards instead of paper cards. Replace wrapping papers with reusable gift bags. Turn off lights in empty rooms.

A grass roots Christian organization, Advent Conspiracy, promotes Advent as a time to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.[1] Those goals, incidentally, closely align with the marks of growing congregations: attention to call, spirituality, community, and openness to change. This Advent, having put aside worries about this life, drunkenness and dissipation, may our waiting and watching be blessed with seeing and hearing the signs of God at work in our midst. Amen.

Sermon preached First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018,
at the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1] Advent Conspiracy website, https://adventconspiracy.org/, accessed November 29, 2018.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Creation care and Advent


Creation care involves much more than taking steps to reduce or even attempt to reverse climate change. An autopsy of a dead whale that was recently found on an Indonesian beach revealed the whale had more than 1000 pieces of plastic in its belly. Creation care entails acting in ways that are good for the welfare of other species and of the planet as a whole.

Advent, which begins on Sunday, December 2, is a season of preparation for celebrating God’s incarnation, specifically in human form but more generally in all of the cosmos.

For centuries, Christians mistakenly equated preparation with penitence: clergy instructed their congregants to identify their sin and then seeking forgiveness for it, seeking to make oneself spiritually pure in order to be worthy of experiencing the incarnate God’s presence. This mistaken emphasis is why in most churches the color for Advent is purple.

Thankfully, a growing number of Christians and churches now recognize that spiritual preparation is not synonymous with penitence. In many of these congregations, the color for Advent is blue, the color associated with the House of David. Blue points to Jesus as David’s successor, Israel’s new king.

From this broader perspective, preparations for celebrating the incarnation are more consonant with the preparations that expectant parents make for the birth of a new child. Expectant parents try to make room for the baby in their home (presuming they are not houseless), ensure that they have baby clothes, stock up on necessary supplies (diapers, wipes, etc.), and so forth.

Thus, to prepare for our annual celebration of the incarnation, commit to one or more steps that will improve your stewardship of creation, helping to prepare all of creation ready for the incarnation. Commit only to one or at most a handful of steps. Practice them daily throughout Advent. By Christmas these practices will have become habits.

The power of these small steps is two-fold. First, creation care will have become a slightly more integral aspect of your life. Second, by encouraging others to follow your example – actions being much more powerful than words – you will multiply the effect of your actions/new habits.

Possible steps toward creation care that you might consider adopting this Advent include:

·       Refuse proffered straws in restaurants and elsewhere unless the straws are metal or paper

·       Send ecards instead of paper Christmas cards

·       Walk or bike whenever possible

·       Reduce your consumption of meat and other non-vegetable proteins

·       Turn off the lights every time you leave a room

·       Replace regular lightbulbs with LED or CFL bulbs

·       Read the electronic version of newspapers and magazines

·       Avoid, whenever feasible, buying or using single use plastic beverage containers/bottles

·       Avoid, whenever feasible, buying or using Styrofoam products

Of course, this list is only suggestive. Some of the best ideas will be steps that may have been nagging your conscience but seem too hard or problematic to adopt. Advent is the perfect time to take the plunge!

My hope and prayer are that Advent will become an annual season for Christians around the world to join in emphasizing creation care as a basic element of a healthy spiritual life.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Jamal Khashoggi and the Christian concept of time


Last Sunday, a person in the adult discussion group that I have been leading in the parish where I am a priest associate outlined the traditional Christian view of time as a line with Jesus as the decisive inflection point. I disagreed, even though the linear conception of time, with God existing outside of time, was what I had been taught in seminary.

Time is more helpfully conceived of as a bumpy spiral. The bumps are reminders that history does not proceed in a smooth pattern. Spurts, plateaus, and fallbacks are all part of time. The spiral is a reminder that history does repeat. There are multiple inflection points: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others. These are people who have altered the direction of history. Insistence on a single inflection argues for Christian exclusivity: Jesus is the only path that leads to salvation.

Whether the spiral, unlike the linear view of history, is going somewhere must remain an open question. One can make an optimistic case (Martin Luther King, Jr., famously remarking that the long arc of history is bending toward justice (c. the Ethical Musings’ post Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead)) or a pessimistic one (e.g., human destruction of the earth through climate change and, more broadly, the consequences of entropy). As emphasized in process theology, God is not outside of time but enmeshed in the very fabric of creation.

Debates about Saudi Arabia and the role of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, repeatedly evoked memories of that discussion. The U.S. has a history of supporting dictators who support U.S. policy goals while those dictators both suppress internal dissent and enjoy great wealth at the expense of their people. In the Middle East, the prime example of this type of policy was in U.S. support for the Shah of Iran, ignoring the gathering storms of dissent and unrest. In spite of a notorious internal security apparatus with few if any legal curbs on its power, the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah and established a dictatorial Shiite state that routinely vilifies the U.S. as the “Great Satan.”

Is Saudi Arabia the next Iran? The House of Saud rules through a combination of religious rhetoric, giving its citizens economic benefits, and a far-reaching internal security apparatus that operates with few legal or ethical limits. Saudi Arabia is unmistakably a kingdom and not a democracy. Meanwhile, internal dissent grows. Dissidents often cloak their activities in a religious fundamentalism, which, although Sunni rather than Shiite in its theology, has political ramifications striking similar to those of the Shiite forces behind the Iranian revolution.

Successful foreign policies look beyond today’s arms and oil deals to ascertain potential long-term benefits of supporting the hopes of other people for genuine peace, i.e., the fullness of well-being consonant with the word’s meaning in the languages of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy books.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Where are you going?


Recently, I stumbled across the Farnam Street blog. The site is dedicated to self-improvement and leadership. The site’s self-improvement aspects differ greatly from the self-help genre popularized by Deepak Chopra, Stephen Covey, Anthony Robinson, BrenĂ© Brown, and others.

Farnam Street wants its readers to think. The quotation at the top of the page describing the blog’s principles is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

The blog then enumerates its five principles:

1.     Direction over speed

2.     Live deliberatively

3.     Thoughtful opinions held loosely

4.     Principles outlive tactics

5.     Own your actions

Leaders from an amazing variety of fields find the Farnam Street blog helpful. I encourage you to take a look. Even if you don’t look at the blog, ponder the five principles enumerated above. They represent a stark contrast with how many of use live today and offer a prescription for a more meaningful life and improved civil discourse.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Creation care


Creation care is a priority for both the national Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Hawai’i. A friend who is both an active Episcopalian and environmentalist, sent me this link (http://www.pullen.org/2018/10/21/reality-grief-hope-three-urgent-prophetic-tasks-to-the-environmental-crisis/) to a sermon, “Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks to the Environmental Crisis,” preached by the Rev. Nancy Petty at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh on October 21, 2018. My friend commented that the Rev. Petty had received an ovation from her congregation at the conclusion of her sermon. After reading the sermon, I understand why. I encourage you to take a few moments to read her thought-provoking, very timely sermon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead


Vietnam veteran Eugene J. Toni went to see the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. Standing under a full moon in March 1991, he flipped through the paperback directory of names on the wall, looking for friends. Eventually, he turned to the T's in a long-shot search for an uncle he had never met. Instead, he found his own name. He and his wife, Nancy, walked down to panel 17, counted to line 121. He said, "I showed her my name, and then we both looked at each other in amazed disbelief."[1]

Today’s gospel reading has three possible interpretations.[2] First, people may take the reading literally, expecting God to intervene supernaturally to heal an incurable disease, prevent bad things from happening to loved ones, and generally to solve the world’s problems. These misguided hopes at best offer temporary relief and usually break hearts when God fails to deliver. As an old tradition reports, when Lazarus was unbound, the first thing he said was, "Must I die again?" to which Jesus replied, "Yes." And Lazarus never smiled again.[3]

Second, John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead may be a historicized version of the parable of Lazarus and Abraham found in Luke’s gospel.[4] In that parable, an ill beggar named Lazarus daily lies outside a rich man’s house. Receiving no help from the rich man, the beggar dies and goes to heaven. Then the rich man dies and goes to Hades, the abode of the dead. There, the rich man laments his fate. When Abraham rebuffs the rich man’s plea for Lazarus to bring him water, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the rest of the family of their impending fate. Abraham replies that people who fail to heed the prophets will not listen to someone raised from the dead. As Christian beliefs about Jesus’ miracles developed, this parable calling for justice may very well have become the basis for John’s story of Lazarus’ resuscitation.

This interpretation offers a more realistic basis for hope, repeated in both today’s Old and New Testament readings, that God will end injustice, vanquish evil, and make all things new.[5] The dead are raised – metaphorically. Indeed, we can see signs that God is at work through people changing death into life. Extreme global poverty is declining, fewer people are dying of hunger, life expectancy is increasing, and child labor is disappearing.[6]

This interpretation’s demand for justice has special relevance in view of the hate crimes at Pittsburg’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Jesus was a Jew. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were Jews. An attack on Jews is an attack on the community to which Jesus belonged and t ministered.

Jesus, however, did not minister only to Jews. When a Syrophoenician woman begged him to heal her daughter, Jesus did so. And when asked who his neighbor was, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, identifying himself with the Samaritan. That the authors of the gospels preserved these occasional stories constitutes clear evidence that Jesus frequently, and in the eyes of his contemporaries scandalously, ministered to non-Jewish Palestinians, a fact conveniently ignored in many churches.

Walking the Jesus path by seeing ourselves individually and collectively as Lazarus, persons whose lives are transformed by God’s power, thus requires loving Palestinians and Israelis equally. Our faith precludes both anti-Semitism and ignoring the plight of displaced, devalued Palestinians.

Third, the gospel reading may symbolically describe the meaning of Holy Baptism, the living enacting Baptism’s grace. The old Lazarus dies; is wrapped in burial clothes (his baptismal garments), and then “rises” to new life, answering Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb even as the newly baptized is raised out of the baptismal waters.[7] New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan describes the story as process incarnated in event, the process by which God brings life out of death in the present.[8]

This spiritualized interpretation coheres with the grace evident in the lives of the (S)saints – whether spelt with a lower or upper case “S” – grace that manifests itself in our lives as wisdom, courage, and strength for coping with life’s perils and problems. Looking at you, or at any congregation in which I know people, I always see persons whom God has raised from the dead. I see addicts in recovery, broken hearts that were healed, once empty souls now filled with love, the lost who have found their way, and much more.

Resurrection transforms us from the walking dead into the genuinely alive. Unlike Vietnam Vet Eugene Toni who was surprised at seeing his name on the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, we confidently trust that our name, along with the names of all God’s people, are written in what the author of the book of Revelation called the Lamb’s book of life.

When you entered St. Clement’s this morning, you came into a place of new hope, new life, new beginnings. God may not offer the answers we want. But God does offer a realistic, trustworthy hope for both a better, more just world and more abundant life eternally connected to God and to God’s people. May Jesus words, "Roll away the stone;" always echo in our hearts and minds, renewing and strengthening our hope. Amen.

All Saints Day sermon preached November 4, 2018

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1] C. Thomas Hilton, "Christmas Fulfilled," The Clergy Journal, March 1992, p. 17.
[2] John 11:32-44. The three approaches to interpreting the gospel are from Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 428-430.
[3] A. Dudley Dennison M.D., Shock It to Me Doctor! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1970), p. 108.
[4] Luke 16:19-31. Cf. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), p. 93.
[5] Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a.
[6] Dylan Matthews, “23 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better,” Vox, October 17, 2018 at https://www.vox.com/2014/11/24/7272929/global-poverty-health-crime-literacy-good-news?fbclid=IwAR29ZjdNPC4yMxfryVadXndlSc5dV9L2EExzo7Mhx3Eoi58CWw7DoywQmkI.
[7] A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (New York: Fawcett Communications, 1992), p. 183, citing Morton Smith’s work.
[8] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 95.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Resurrection and life after death


What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of Jesus?

The earliest answer, from a chronological perspective, probably affirmed a literal, bodily resurrection. This view fit nicely into a worldview populated by persons of mixed divine-human parentage in which other individuals were alleged to have risen from the dead. This view also fit nicely into a pre-scientific worldview.

The physical view became problematic with the advance of science that began during the Enlightenment. Illustrative of scientific difficulties with positing a physical resurrection is that a physical body begins to deteriorate immediately upon death. Yet Christians over the centuries have preferred burial to cremation precisely because of their mistaken belief in the resurrection of the physical body.

The second answer, again from a chronological perspective, was to interpret Jesus’ resurrection spiritually, that is, the resurrected Jesus was a new-being, changed from physical into a new quality of being. This view cohered well with the seeming paradoxical descriptions of the resurrected Jesus found in the Bible. Jesus could move through walls to enter a locked room, but he could also eat and people could touch him.

As belief in a theistic, supernatural God waned and became more problematic during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christians struggled to articulate new ideas of resurrection. One idea is that resurrection denotes unending, eternal life in God’s mind. Another view of resurrection is that it denotes Jesus continuing to live in the minds of his disciples. In this latter case, events such as Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road may represent an event that occurred entirely in Paul’s mind. This differs markedly from a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection in which Paul would have encountered a presence external to himself.

Scripture offers no definitive clarity on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. All of the gospels were composed decades after Jesus’ death. Mark’s gospel, the first written biography of Jesus, ends without a description of the resurrection. Close comparison of the details in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John reveal a number of contradictions, e.g., the identity of the first person to know of Jesus’ resurrection. If the Bible offered an easy answer about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, then theologians, biblical scholars, and ordinary Christians would not engage in ongoing contentious, unresolved debates about it.

Somehow, Jesus continued to exert a powerful influence in the lives of his disciples. Jesus continues to exert a powerful influence in the lives of many Christians today. And this is in spite of the fact that nobody can know with certainty what happened on the first Easter morning.

Ultimately, debates about the specifics of Jesus’ resurrection are unimportant. Definitive answers may come only in an individual’s own transformation from this life to the next – if indeed that happens, a topic on which the longstanding Christian consensus is slowly dissolving. Furthermore, in our increasingly “flat,” globalized world with competing religions, few people will convert to Christianity simply by reading the Bible.

Instead, the real proof that Jesus lives is in the lives of his disciples. Do they love one another (this is how Jesus said that people would recognize his disciples)? Do they love their neighbor – all of their neighbors? Do they love God, allowing the light of the ultimate to shine forth from within them?

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.