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 http://nyti.ms/1PEFdi6.
[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.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why Jesus suffered on the cross


For the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided this year. A creative person dreamt up some novel Valentine’s Day cards especially for the occasion. One read, “Violets are blue, roses are red, Lent is beginning, no chocolates for you.” Another read, “Won’t you be my Valentine, you miserable offender.” And a third read, “Remember you are dust, but awfully lovable dust.”[1]

This week I listened to a domestic abuse survivor recount her life-changing visit to the state prison’s mental health unit. The visit’s coordinator instructed the women, both visitors and prisoners, to arrange their chairs in two facing rows, close enough to hold hands. Then they were to pray for one another.

The prayer changed both the woman who told the story and the prisoner with whom she prayed. For the woman telling the story, the depth of the other woman’s anguish – an alcoholic mother, physical abuse from every male in her family who was supposed to protect her, and years in prison – birthed an ongoing commitment to prison ministry. She is a Christian who lives Jesus’ exhortation to visit those in prison.

After seventeen years, release eventually came for the prisoner. She left prison with only the clothes on her back, no money, and nowhere to go. Not knowing what else to do, she called the woman with whom she had prayed and who had stayed in touch. This woman provided the new releasee with some much-needed hygiene items and enough cash for a couple of meals and rent for a room. Five years after her release, the former prisoner continues to struggle, but believes that only through God’s grace has she maintained her sanity, stayed free, earned a college degree, and gained a new career and family.

That story reverberated in my thoughts as I considered today’s epistle reading:[2] Christ suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. Christians generally interpret Christ's suffering using one of three paradigms or models:

·       God is perfect. Perfection of any kind, especially divine perfection cannot include imperfection because the imperfection would pollute the perfect.

·       Humans are imperfect, whether because of original sin or the universality of our failure to obey, completely and always, God’s perfect law.

·       Therefore, forgiveness requires atonement for sin, that is, someone or something must pay the penalty for our sin or offer a sacrifice to wipe away the sin that blocks our relationship with God;

·       The only possible sacrifice able to wipe the slate clean or to pay fully sin’s debt (the theological terms are propitiation and expiation) is that which itself is perfect and without sin, the unblemished lamb of God, Jesus.

The second and third paradigms build on that basic framework of God’s perfection and human sin or brokenness. The second paradigm replaces atonement with redemption (humans are captives to sin; Jesus is the only one who can set us free). The third utilizes the language of reconciliation (putting our relationship with God right, which is only possible as God sees an imperfect human through the lens of the perfect Christ).

In seminary, I found these paradigms problematic, although I could not then explain my objections. Admittedly, the New Testament seems to offer prima facie support for all three paradigms, sparking Christian theological debate that sometimes erupted into violence. Each paradigm has been transformative for persons whom I know, helping an individual accept God’s grace and live more abundantly. Nevertheless, the three paradigms leave me feeling uncomfortable.

By the time I began my doctoral work a dozen years after seminary, I could finally articulate my fundamental objection to those three paradigms. The paradigms implicitly depict God as a child abuser. God established the rules. God knew humans would sin. And God decided God’s forgiveness required a perfect sacrifice to wipe away or pay the debt of sin, or that redemption or reconciliation was achievable only through the crucifixion of God’s beloved son. In short, God knew from the beginning that Jesus’ crucifixion was an inevitable necessity.

Other objections to the traditional paradigms include the models’

(1)  Dubious reliance on a jurisprudential framework to describe God’s dynamic, creative, and uninterruptible relationship with humans, i.e., why posit that God thinks and acts as a divine version of Santa Claus keeping score of who is naughty and who is nice;

(2)  Reliance upon a Greco-Roman understanding of perfection that excludes not only imperfection but also the possibility of future growth or change;

(3)  Adoption of a sacrificial understanding of atonement that mirrors some first-century cults, which may have then been contextually and culturally helpful but an understanding that is necessarily timeless or definitive.

(4)  Presuming that belief in Jesus is the only path to salvation, a presumption increasingly challenged in our twenty-first century globalized world. Twentieth century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner proposed the concept of the cosmic Christ, whose death was efficacious for all Godly people, regardless of when and where they live(d). He memorably dubs these Godly individuals anonymous Christians. Anglican theologians have widely rejected Rahner’s proposal because it paternalistically devalues other religions and the integrity of non-Christians’ faith journeys. Similarly, a continuing difficulty for Christian theologians has been how to affirm the salvation of Jews (e.g., Noah, Moses, and the prophets) while continuing to assert one of the traditional paradigms for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross.

Another paradigm for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross has persistently lingered on the margins of Christianity, a paradigm my seminary but not doctoral professors derided as an insufficient understanding of Jesus’ death. In this paradigm God is not a child abuser, celestial judge, Greco-Roman philosopher, or exclusionary lover. Instead, God loves us and all creation with the infinite, unconditional love Jesus manifested in life and death. God’s love is so limitless that neither death, nor principalities, nor powers, nor even sin can separate us from God. I see Peter employing this paradigm in today’s epistle reading and I heard it in the story of the women who prayed for each other. In Jesus, God extends God’s arms to embrace us with God’s infinite, unconditional love.

Hopefully, none of us is an axe murderer or sinner of similar magnitude. Our burdens of guilt are real but more frequently attributable to self or to other people than to our sin. Consequently, the three traditional paradigms have lost much of their power. In a world of preventable tragedies, most recently the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we desperately need the good news of a crucified God whose open arms announce God’s readiness to embrace us in healing, life-giving, unconditional love. This image of God in Jesus suffering with us, lovingly drawing us into a life-giving and sustaining embrace, makes sense to me in our badly broken world.

May you have a holy Lent in which to journey more deeply into the mystery of God’s infinite, unconditional love. And may rainbows be for us, as for Noah, a sign of God’s abiding and loving presence in our midst. Amen.

(Sermon preached the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018, in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI)



[1] Found on the internet, source unknown.
[2] 1 Peter 3:18-22.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The future of humans


This post appears on Ash Wednesday. The typical Ash Wednesday homily or theological reflection addresses sin and repentance, explaining the symbolism of the ashes imposed on foreheads. For some thoughts on that subject, read these previous Ethical Musings posts: Rethinking Ash Wednesday and Getting Ready for Lent.

Instead, I want to consider the future of humans, not as individuals but as a biological species. Generally, this subject receives little explicit theological attention apart from affirmations that God, in God’s time, will fulfill God’s vision for creation. That also is not the focus of these musings. I just read two books on evolution, one arguing for a version of intelligent design and the other describing how Darwin’s theories emerged from his personal and familial interests. Both books emphasized evolution’s dynamism; neither book explored what that might mean for humans. Nevertheless, the books were a catalyst for these musings about future directions of human evolution.

First, I’m confident that homo sapiens are not uniquely static. Evolution, even if we cannot see it, evolution continues in our midst with our species exhibiting minor adaptations to environment that promote the survival of the fittest.

Second, cyborgs – entities that combine a living being with a machine – have arrived or soon will, depending upon how one defines machine. Replacement joints have become commonplace. Replacement sensors (e.g., an eye or touch in a fingertip or other piece of skin) are in the experimental stage. Scientists are also experimenting with a human using her/his brain to control an artificial limb. Perhaps the next major step in human evolution will be a cyborg with a human brain and an electro-mechanical body.

Third, racial and ethnic differences are disappearing through increased breeding among persons of different races and ethnicities. In Hawaii, for example, finding someone who is 100% Hawaiian is now difficult. To a lesser extent, similar trends are evident globally as global migration increases and cultural barriers against intermarriage and childbearing by unmarried women erode.

Fourth, manipulation of an embryo’s genome, selection of a particular sperm or egg, and modification of a person’s genome all portend changes to the human species. Once begun, these genetic modifications are unlikely to stop. And once begun, these genetic modifications may slowly but permanently alter the human genome. Perhaps one day parents say be able to select each of a new fetus’s twenty-six chromosomes.

Predicting the outcome of these moves is impossible. Nevertheless, rejecting all such changes as unethical is wrong. Some changes may eliminate diseases for which no known cure exists (e.g., sickle cell anemia), may reduce the incidence of birth defects or diseases such as diabetes and cancer, or may otherwise dramatically improve the quality of human life or its longevity. These subjects deserve more attention in Christian ethics, theology, and churches.

Fifth, I wonder what other evolutionary changes are currently happening to humans to which all but perhaps a few scientists are oblivious. For example, are humans, to the extent that these traits are genetically determined, becoming taller, losing certain physical capabilities, gaining or losing aggressiveness, gaining or losing resistance to particular diseases, etc.?

Sixth, how long will the human species survive? I recently met a professor of biology from Italy who teaches in New Zealand. He wonders whether popular understandings of the causes of war and other forms of human violence and oppression bode ill for our species’ longevity.

Seventh, will humans crossbreed with a species from another planet, producing a new species as unimaginable to us as humans were to their predecessors?

For me, one key theological and ethical implication of continuing human evolution is that humans do not represent the apex or culmination of creation. Contrary to the myths in Genesis 1-2, the understandable anthropocentrism of our spiritual ancestors is incorrect. Humans are simply part of creation; in calling humans to be stewards of creation, God valued all creation equally and trusted us to do the same.

Ongoing human evolution also underscores the error of believing in a utopian Eden from which humans fell out of favor with God. That erroneous belief also presumes anthropocentrism. Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a time in the Christian calendar for self-examination and repenting of our errors and sins.

Thinking about human evolution identifies more questions than answers. Human knowledge has expanded exponentially over the last century, yet there is so much about which we know little or nothing. Humility, not hubris, best prepares us for today as well as the future.

Finally, ongoing human evolution, along with the continuing evolution of the entire cosmos, makes life seem like an adventure, even from God’s perspective, since God may very well not know where the processes that God initiated will eventually lead. Omniscience, after all, is a human construct. Omniscience may denote knowing everything about past and present without necessarily knowing the future.

What are your musings about the future of our species?

Friday, February 9, 2018

When winning at any cost is not worth it


The conviction of Dr. Larry Nassar for sexually abusing gymnasts he treated at Michigan State University and in the Olympic program has deeply disturbed me.

First, his crimes were heinous and numerous.

Second, numerous enablers were complicit in Nassar’s actions. These enablers turned a blind eye to warning signs, refused to act on complaints from the abused, and failed to establish adequate safeguards to prevent abuse, e.g., never allowing a male physician to see a female patient without another woman being present. Efforts to hold these enablers accountable should proceed along with mandating policies and protocols to prevent future incidents of abuse.

Third, where were the athletes’ parents? International gymnastics are highly competitive. Successful athletes depend upon family sacrifices, support, and encouragement. Having a daughter in the ranks of elite athletes who are part of a winning program feels good for parent(s) and daughter alike.

However, when the desire to win blinds a parent to the changes in his/her daughter caused by sexual abuse, then winning is no longer worth the cost. If one family had blown the whistle on Nassar years ago, that family’s daughter may not have won the gold. But she would have preserved more of her mental health, taken a step to reclaim the fulness of her selfhood, and prevented dozens and dozens of other girls from suffering similar abuse. Those victories are surely worth more than is a gold medal.

The father who attempted to physically harm Nassar during the sentencing phase of his trial acted, I strongly suspect, out of an abject sense of his own failure as a father. The judge wisely declined to take legal action against that father. Parents who failed to protect their children will have to live with their guilt. Parents who pushed their child to become a world-class gymnast when that was not originally the child’s dream will live with a double measure of guilt.

Children are precious. Parents rightly encourage and supporting a child’s efforts to achieve her or his personal ambitions – whatever those ambitions may be. Nevertheless, protecting the well-being of his/her child is a parent’s sacred duty.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

#Me too


In my last Ethical Musings post, Employment and ethics, I argued that inculcating virtue is the best approach to Christian ethics.

Women refusing to accept sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, have spawned the Hashtag Me too movement. Women are denouncing harassers; employers are beginning to take those complaints seriously, appropriately disciplining or firing abusive male employees instead of paying the accuse hush money upon signing a confidentiality agreement.

One explanatory factor for the movement, although in no way a mitigating factor in terms of a harasser’s culpability, is that women historically were not part of the workforce. World War II marked the first widespread entry of women into the labor force. Regrettably, women entering the workforce did not become a catalyst for men treating women with the dignity and respect with which men treated male members of the workforce. Instead, men continued to devalue women. Too often, men regarded women as lesser beings to be exploited as sexual objects rather than human beings equally worthy, along with men, of dignity and respect. This treatment of women as subordinate beings is evident in women typically earning less money for the same work than do men, slower or more limited promotion opportunities for women, categorizing certain tasks (domestic work, teaching, caring for the sick and elderly) as “woman’s work,” and sexual harassment.

In the Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal vows, Christians promise to respect the dignity of every human being. No distinction is made for gender (or sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, political views, etc.). Sexual harassment – in any context – is immoral and unchristian.

Given human imperfection, sexual harassment will never entirely disappear. But the Hashtag Me too movement is an overdue growing pain as our society moves towards becoming more just, more equitable. Instead of being dismayed by the prevalence of sexual harassment, recognize that the growing refusal of women (and many men) to accept immoral behavior in the workplace and elsewhere is a sign of progress in an otherwise discouraging time.

Critically, cultivate in yourself, your friends and colleagues, and, most importantly, children and young people habits consistent with perceiving and treating all people with equal dignity and respect. These habits include use of appropriate language and touch, avoiding demeaning thoughts or words, and seeking to see God, or at least the good, in each person. Then, when confronted with a situation in which you have the opportunity to ill treat someone for your pleasure or gain, a situational temptation that is generally inevitable if not frequent, have confidence that your habits reinforced by God’s luring, will cause you to act rightly without having to think about what to do.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Employment and ethics


Recently, I talked to a man whose non-profit employer had restructured his job, significantly diminishing his title and responsibilities. The man understood that he was stretched too thin to meet expectations: he had a full-time job, another part time job, and the part time job at the non-profit from which the employer took away major responsibilities. However, what hurt was how the employer handled the change. The employer neither acknowledged the man’s key role in keeping the organization alive during a difficult transition nor had a personnel evaluation process to afford the individual time to improve before the reduction in status.

That conversation pointed my thoughts toward the Hawaii state emergency agency employee who was fired for initiating last month’s false alert of an imminent nuclear attack on the island. The employee had a record of difficulties on the job that culminated in intentionally or unintentionally triggering the alert.

What does the Bible have to say about employee management?

The short answer is: Very little. The Bible says nothing explicit about employee supervision and management except that a laborer is worthy of her/his wages and should not be defrauded (I Timothy 5:17; James 5:4).

The longer, more accurate answer is that the Bible is neither a rule book nor compilation of God’s dictates on how people are to live. Many secular ethicists and even some Christian ethicists inaccurately describe Christian ethics as “divine command ethics,” i.e., Christians find in the Bible a God-given set of precepts or commandments that govern life. Major problems with this approach to the Bible include:

1.     Deciding which commandments to obey literally and which to interpret metaphorically or in other, non-literal ways, e.g., the command for women to stay in separate dwellings during menstruation;

2.     Choosing when, if ever, to make an exception to a commandment, e.g., should one honor a physically abusive parent?

3.     Not having rules applicable to many contemporary situations, e.g., personnel management.

In the 1950s, Episcopal priest and ethicist Joseph Fletcher developed what he dubbed situational ethics. Christians were to live by two rules: love God and love one another. The Biblical warrant for highlighting these two commandments is strong. Jesus identified them as the two great commandments. Incidentally, the widespread Christian emphasis on the Ten Commandments lacks a similar warrant. Nowhere in the New Testament do the Ten Commandments receive a similar endorsement. And in the Jewish tradition, the ten are simply ten of 613 equal commandments in the Torah.

Ethically, Fletcher’s situational ethics restate utilitarian ethics, i.e., the right is that which will produce the greatest good (or most love) for the largest number of people. As with utilitarian ethics, situational ethics that adopt love as the norm for guiding behavior and choices entail applying that norm to daily life with its countless situations, contexts, and decisions, requiring repeated judgments about what appears likely to result in the most loving outcome(s) without being able to know the actual outcome of one’s choices. Emotions, knowledge, personal preferences, and many other factors invariably color those judgments in ways that an individual will rarely understand. Furthermore, nobody can look into the future. Although many Christians find Fletcher’s call for love to be the norm for Christian ethics, in practice the theory has proven highly problematic and led to poor moral choices. Ethicists find situational ethics only slightly better than the frequently asked but truly unanswerable question, “What would Jesus do?”

Instead of emphasizing rules or calculations about the most loving course of action, Christian ethics for most of two millennia have emphasized virtue ethics. Virtue ethics aims to create a person who embodies the four cardinal virtues (justice, courage, temperance, and prudence) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). The Apostle Paul lists the three theological virtues in the last sentence of his much beloved discourse on love (I Corinthians 13:1-13). Since Thomas Aquinas, Christian ethicists have accepted the cardinal virtues as the minimum summary of Christian virtues, contending that other virtues such as honesty and fidelity are derivable from the cardinal and theological virtues.

Professional Christian ethicists continue to argue about the best catalogue or list of virtues. I find those arguments boring.

Rather, I’m primarily interested in helping people so inculcate the virtues that living virtuously is a function of habit and not of choice. Rarely does an individual consciously make an ethical choice. Indeed, neuroscientific research suggests that even when a person thinks s/he has consciously made a decision, that decision was made subconsciously milliseconds prior to the moment of conscious choice. Shaping behavior forms habits and over time shapes character, forming a person in Jesus’ image.

Good personnel policies are valuable in helping to ensure that employees are treated in a Christlike, healthy, loving way. Yet, as happened with the disgruntled Hawaii state employee who triggered the false alert of an impending nuclear attack, good personnel policies are no guarantee of good outcomes. Ultimately, we depend upon character, not rules or calculations about the greatest love.

May your habits be Godly!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hearing God's call

In a certain monastery, the monks took turns preaching. This rotation greatly worried a new novice. When his first turn to preach came, he looked out at the assembled monks, looked down at the lectern, and eventually, in a very nervous voice, asked who knew what he was going to say. Nobody raised a hand. “Well,” he said, “I also don’t know what I am going to say.” And with that, he sat down.

Needless to say, an irritated Abbot assigned the novice to preach the next sermon. Again, standing at the lectern, shifting his weight from foot to foot, after a seemingly interminable silence, the obviously uncomfortable novice asked his listeners who knew what he was going to say. This time, every monk raised a hand. “Good,” said the novice, “I don’t need to preach since you already know what I am going to say.”

The novice again met with the Abbot, who again assigned the novice to preach. When the novice stepped to the lectern, the monks could feel his nervousness. He looked at the assembly and then at the lectern. Finally, he spoke, “Raise your hand if you think you know what I will say.” The monks hesitated, unsure how to respond. Slowly, about half raised a hand. Visibly relieved, the novice said, “Good. Those of you who know what I’m going to say tell those who don’t know.”[1]

This morning’s gospel reading[2] can easily conjure up cinema worthy scenes. Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee spots Simon and Andrew, then James and John, fishing; he calls to them; they immediately drop their nets and leave everything to follow a man whom they have never met.

Alternatively, perhaps the four fishermen had met Jesus on occasions when all five were in a crowd listening to John the Baptist preach. Perhaps the five had shared one or more meals, either on occasions when they had travelled to hear John the Baptist or when they gathered because of budding friendships. Perhaps those meals had led to long conversations about their hopes for spiritual renewal and Israel’s restoration as an independent kingdom. Perhaps the five by unspoken mutual consent looked to Jesus as their leader, someone who might lead their preparations for a new Jewish king if he himself was not to become that new king. If so, when Jesus beckoned the four to follow him, his call had grown out of those deepening relationships and much conversation.

The gospel reading contains little detail. Mark’s brevity makes sense. Writing materials were expensive in the first century; copies of a document, laboriously transcribed by hand, were even more expensive. Mark’s gospel, the first biography of Jesus written, is the shortest and contains the fewest details. The text offers no reason to presume that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were unacquainted with Jesus prior to him calling them to fish for people.

This alternative version, or something like it, seems more credible and more analogous to how God today calls each of us to become a disciple. In general, three principles characterize God’s call to a person.

First, God calls an individual to tasks and to roles for which that person is, or can become through education and training, well suited. Jesus recognized in the four fishermen the character and gifts to successfully fish for people. Conversely, God never calls anyone to tasks or roles for which their personality or God-given abilities makes unsuitable. The novice in my opening story had either incorrectly heard a call to join that monastery or misunderstood God’s call about the basic direction of his life. God calls each of us, lay and clergy alike, to minister in Christ’s name. The call may challenge us without being unattainable; answering the call leads to deep joy and fulfilment.

Second, God calls each individual in a way that individual can hear. For some, this call may be an inner feeling or sense; for others the call may be a word of Scripture understood in a strikingly fresh, personal way; for most of us, the call may come through another person, such as in Jesus’ call to the four fishermen.

Third, God’s call to Jesus echoes in God’s call to us. We are to “to bring good news to the poor. … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor."[3] Although historians know little about the twelve disciples, the known facts emphasize that in God’s call we will invariably hear an exhortation to promote justice, to love our neighbors, and to practice mercy in some specific way.

In 1968, two Maryknoll nuns attended a conference at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. One evening, they strolled to the harbor and sat on a bench watching the ships. One nun noticed a Farrell Line ship anchored nearby. In 1955, she and two other Maryknoll sisters were three of twelve passengers who travelled for 42 days from New York to Dar es Salaam aboard just such a freighter. She told her companion about that freighter’s captain, who had encouraged the three nuns: “Anytime you see a Farrell Line ship in the harbor, come on out and we’ll feast you with American ice cream!” The nun ended by enthusiastically exclaiming, “Let’s go!”

“Go where?” replied her startled companion.

“Out to the Farrell Line ship and eat American ice cream!”

After futile protests, the second nun reluctantly joined the first in a rowboat they hired to take them to the freighter and then return for them in an hour. Drawing alongside the Farrell Line freighter, a crew member hailed them, and then called over a young officer who courteously invited the nuns aboard.
Once aboard, the nun explained that they were Maryknoll Sisters, teachers attending a conference at the university, and repeated the invitation extended to her in 1955. The officer apologized that he could not introduce them to the Captain because the he was in his quarters, grieving privately. He had received word just this morning that his only son had been killed in Vietnam.

The two nuns exchanged glances, then one said to the officer, “Take us to your Captain.” The officer hesitated, but soon realized that the nuns would not accept no for an answer. They quietly followed him to the captain’s quarters. There they sat with the Captain for an hour, weeping, talking, weeping some more. In that era before cell phones and the internet, they left the Captain with two serious hugs, promising to call his wife in Pennsylvania to tell her that they had seen her husband, and assuring him and his family of their prayers. While being rowed back to the dock, the nuns just looked at one another with teary eyes.[4] They had heard and obeyed an unexpected call from God to love their neighbor.

What is God calling you to do?
George M. Clifford, III
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 21, 2018
Parish of St Clement
Honolulu, HI


[1] Source of this historically dubious story unknown.
[2] Mark 1:14-20.
[3] Luke 4:18-19.
[4] Amended and abridged from Jane Vella, Friends and Family (Saarbr├╝cken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2017), Chapter 23.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Learning to hear God


It was the noon-hour rush on a steamy July day and two men were pushing their way through the crowds in New York City's Times Square. They practically shouted at each other as they tried to hear above the din. One man was a native New Yorker; the other was a Native American from Oklahoma.

The Indian stopped suddenly and said to his friend, "Listen! Do you hear the cricket?"

His friend was incredulous. "Are you kidding?" he laughed. "How could anyone hear a cricket in this bedlam? You just think you heard it."

The Indian didn't argue. He just said, "Come over here and look." He walked over to a planter that was holding a large shrub, and pointed at the dead leaves in the bottom. To his amazement, the New Yorker saw a cricket.

"You must have an extraordinary pair of ears," he exclaimed.

"No better than yours. It just depends on what you are listening for. Watch this."

The Indian reached into his pocket and pulled out a few nickels and dimes. Then he dropped them on the sidewalk. People all around stopped in their tracks and turned to look where the sound came from.

"See what I mean?" he said. It all depends on for what you are listening.

How does one learn to hear God speak? This morning’s reading from the book of 1 Samuel offers four key insights on that subject.[1]

First, as my opening story amply illustrates, one must have a desire to hear God speak. The boy Samuel was born to Hannah, a woman filled with a desire to please God.[2] Samuel was the child for whom she had long yearned and that she had promised to dedicate to God if her desire to be a mother was fulfilled.[3]

Today I hear many saying that they would like to hear God speak. Yet I witness few who actually invest much time and energy in the project. Actions, not words, best measure desire. The aspiring athlete devotes countless hours to training. The young musician virtually lives in a practice room. The one who finds fulfillment in working with computers can lose track of time when at a keyboard. We almost instinctively understand the importance of a desire so strong that it pushes us to persevere until successful. Do you have that same degree of spiritual motivation?

Second, desire to hear God must give birth to silence. The psalmist wrote, "Be still, and know that I am God!”[4] Samuel slept in the temple of the Lord where the ark of the Lord – the physical symbol of God's presence[5] – was kept.[6]

Unlike Samuel we cannot live in close proximity to such a powerful symbol. However, some Christians, especially from the Orthodox tradition, find the use of icons helpful in centering and quieting themselves. Other Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, find that praying in the presence of the consecrated host, which they believe embodies Christ's presence, helpful in the same manner. You may find that art, spiritual music, nature, meditatively reading Scripture or some other technique helps to quiet your mind and spirit so that you can hear God speak. Technique is the incarnation of desire. Find a technique helpful to you and stick with it. God is speaking. All you have to do is learn to listen.

Third, the variety of techniques for learning silence, learning to truly listen, makes it important that one has a spiritual guide. The young boy Samuel’s parents sent him to live with Eli.[7] Three times Samuel heard God speak but thought that it was Eli. On the third occasion that this happened, Eli finally realized that God was speaking to the boy Samuel.[8] Now you may think Eli spiritually dense for not having recognized what was happening sooner. But who knows how many more times God would have had to speak before Samuel realized on his own that it was the Lord speaking. Part of the value of religious education – Sunday school, Bible study, etc. – is helping us learn to hear God speak.

One day, Dwight Morrow and his wife, the parents of Anne Lindbergh, were in Rugby, England. After wandering through the streets, they realized that they had lost their way. At this moment, an incident occurred that entered into Morrow's philosophy and became a guiding principle in his life. He stopped a little Rugby lad of about 12 years. "Could you tell us the way to the station?" he asked.

"Well," the boy answered, "You turn to the right there by the grocer's shop and then take the second street to the left. That will bring you to a place where four streets meet. And then, sir, you had better inquire again."[9]

Developing our ability to hear God is an iterative, lifelong learning process. Consultation with a spiritually mature individual or a chaplain can help you find a technique that suits your personality and spirituality.

Fourth and finally, listening for God to speak can be dangerous. In this morning’s reading God speaks with what Samuel considers to be a human voice. The text also describes God standing in the temple with Samuel.[10] Philosophers and theologians label the practice of using human imagery to describe God as anthropomorphism. We know that God is both infinite and spirit and cannot be accurately portrayed using finite, human terms. Our choices are either abstract nouns such as God for which no tangible referent exists or concrete nouns associated with finite objects such as humans or nature. John Wesley once said, “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the Devil.”[11] Wesley was absolutely correct: haste in ascribing things to God often leads to error.

Several safeguards exist by which we can test what we think is God speaking to us. Is the word we receive consistent with the God revealed through Scripture? Is the word that we receive consistent with the God who has a human face, the one who for love’s sake was crucified and then triumphed over evil? Is the word we receive confirmed by those who know and love both us and God best?

Listening to God is also dangerous because very often we find ourselves opposed to contemporary culture. Samuel was usually at odd with Israel’s kings; John the Baptist and Jesus were at odds with the Jewish and Roman elites; and Martin Luther King, whom we commemorate tomorrow, powerfully opposed the dominant culture of racism and economic exploitation. Today, it appears if some of those clearly unchristian forces are resurgent as we hear racism spoken from the White House, laws passed that increase rather than diminish economic inequality, and the challenge of scientific reductionism to the very possibility of God’s existence. In short, your presence here this morning is evidence of countercultural behavior.

May we like Samuel desire, listen and learn that when God speaks we too respond, Speak, for your servant listens.[12] Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Epiphany / 14 January 2018

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1] 1 Samuel 3:1-20.
[2] 1 Samuel 1:16.
[3] 1 Samuel 1:11, 21, 24-26.
[4] Psalm 46:10.
[5] “Ark,” The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p. 62.
[6] 1 Samuel 3:3.
[7] 1 Samuel 1:24; 3:10.
[8] 1 Samuel 3:2-9.
[10] 1 Samuel 3:10.
[11] J.K. Johnston, John Wesley Why Christians Sin, Discovery House, 1992, p. 102. http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/theDetails.asp?whichOne=w&whichFile=will_of_God.
[12] 1 Samuel 3:10.