Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Looking to grow?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Previously posted on the Episcopal Café website)

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Rationing health care


An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me the following:

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

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

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

That scenario raises several important ethical issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Nonkilling


Nonkilling is emerging as a new field of academic exploration.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Is prayer magic, mystery, or?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If prayer is not magic, is it mystery?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

For such a time as this


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

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

·       Readmitting Cuba as a diocese

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

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

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

·       Support for justice for the Palestinians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 12, 2018

What is truth?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the question: What is truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Another reflection on my European travels


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Jesus for President


An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me these intriguing questions:

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

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

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

Would you vote for Jesus?

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Some reflections on my recent trip to Europe


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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