Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Who is my neighbor?

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan, which we just heard in today's gospel reading.[1] She described the situation in vivid detail so her students would catch the drama. Then, she asked the class, "If you saw a person lying on the roadside, all wounded, and bleeding, what would you do?" A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, "I think I'd throw up."[2]

From Jericho to Jerusalem is about twenty miles. The southwesterly pre-Roman road descended thirty-six hundred feet in elevation. Long parts of it traversed wilderness infested by notorious robbers.

Jesus implicitly criticizes two figures in his parable who had important religious roles. Levites cared for the temple; priests offered sacrifices. Hopefully, Jesus is not commenting about all religious leaders. If so, Ha’aheo, I, the altar guild, lectors, eucharistic ministers, and so forth are all in trouble. Hopefully, Jesus was painting a contrast between, on the one hand, the religious and cultural stigma of interacting with the unclean and, on the other hand, the Samaritan’s willingness to aid the man robbers had stripped, beaten and left to die along the roadside.

Samaritans were the remnant of the northern kingdom of Israel, many of whom had intermarried with the indigenous population. In the seventh century B.C., the Samaritans had refused to centralize worship in Jerusalem, preferring their syncretized version of Judaism that incorporated local, indigenous beliefs and practices. Consequently, faithful Jews avoided all Samaritans.

Yet Jesus chose a Samaritan as his parable’s hero. The Samaritan bandages the victim’s wounds, takes him to an inn, spends a night caring for him, then pays the innkeeper for additional care. Two denarii equaled roughly two days’ wages, a large sum in a subsistence economy. The Samaritan also instructs the innkeeper that when he returns, he will reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expense.

A recent Pew survey identified a substantial number of Americans who live in quiet despair, depressed, mentally ill or abusing drugs or alcohol. Social, economic and spiritual scarcity have worryingly displaced the meaning people formerly derived from their relationships with family and friends and from serving a cause larger than self. Adults who find meaning often look narrowly inward or point to moments when they feel loved, satisfied or good about themselves. Their worldview has shrunk. On an encouraging note, high school students tend to identify themselves with the cause they serve, whether it is working for racial equality or environmental justice.[3]

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan seeks to stretch our horizons, memorably illustrating his command to love our neighbor. He calls us to break the cultural and religious boundaries and stigmas that cause us to not see or to ignore our neighbor, turning our heads and walking by on the other side of the street. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

Native Hawaiians comprise just eighteen percent of Hawaii’s population but forty percent of the incarcerated. Releasees leave our prisons with only what they had when they entered prison. Unsurprisingly, over half of all releasees from Hawaiian prisons recidivate within three years. Ha’aheo has been instrumental in the backpack program, providing new releasees with some basic necessities. The Diocesan Jubilee group, which includes several from this congregation are working for systemic reform. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

Nobody wants to be mentally ill. Medical researchers and practitioners do not understand the causes of most mental illness, a broad category that includes addiction, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and much more. Nor do these professionals understand how to treat most mental illness effectively. Yet many people stigmatize and avoid the mentally ill. Hawai’i’s shortage of mental health providers exacerbates the situation.

One group trying to aid the mentally ill is the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i. The Center is interfaith. Its therapists, all licensed professionals, seek, as appropriate, to integrate the client’s spirituality into the therapeutic process. Nobody is ever refused assistance because of an inability to pay. I support the Center and serve as its Board President. When the housing bubble burst and this parish experienced its own difficulties, the Parish ceased to contribute annually to the Samaritan Center. This sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan is the commercial that Heather has suggested for some time that I make for the Center. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

With which role in today’s gospel reading do you most identify? Do you want self-justification, affirmation for your spiritual journey and the neighbors you love? Do you avert your eyes and pass by at a distance from needy, hurting neighbors? Or do you stop to help, generously caring for those in need.

May we increasingly, with God's help, courageously and honestly answer Jesus’ question, “do you really love your neighbors?” with a resounding “Yes!”. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 10:29-37.
[2] Source unknown.
[3] David Brooks, “Will Gen-Z Save the World?New York Times, July 4, 2019.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Three strange sayings

The second part of this morning’s gospel reading contains three strange, widely misinterpreted, sayings.[1]

In response to someone promising to follow Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." This saying is not a glorification of being houseless nor, contrary to John Wesley, an argument for clergy to move frequently.

A twelve-year-old boy’s father assigned him some yard work. The boy hired his six-year-old brother to do the work for him. He told the six-year-old that his father had paid him a dollar to do the work, and if the six-year-old would do the job, he would let him hold the dollar until suppertime. The little kid worked hard all afternoon and got the job done. The big brother, true to the bargain, gave him the dollar, saying "You can hold this until suppertime; then you have to give it back."

The father, a wealthy banker who worked seven days a week, came home late that afternoon. He spotted his youngest son with the dollar.

"Where did you get that?" he asked.

"My brother let me hold it since I did his work in the yard."

"You're holding it?"

"Yes, he said I have to give it back at suppertime."

"That's crazy," the father said. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You worked hard all afternoon and just get to hold your money?"

The boy looked at his father and said, "But, isn't that what you're doing too?"

The child was right. All we get to do is hold our money and other possessions for a while.[2] We are temporarily God's stewards of our possessions; possessions are important only for what we do with them.

Jesus invited another person to follow him. The person replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus responded, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Burying the dead is a religious duty. After Jesus’ crucifixion, some of his followers hurriedly buried his body and then they returned on Easter morning to finish their ministrations. Jesus obviously is speaking metaphorically, not literally.

Benedictine monasteries attach special importance to serving one another at mealtime: "servers … bring the food … the monks are encouraged … not to ask for anything they need, but always to look out for a neighbor’s needs. (… in a famous story, a monk as he eats his soup notices that a mouse has dropped into his bowl. What is he to do? He is to pay attention to his neighbors' needs, not his own. So, he … [calls a] server and [says], 'My neighbor hasn't got a mouse.')"[3]

Psychological and biological research teaches us that self-love is inescapable. Yet healthy relationships look to the well-being of the other person even as we love ourselves; healthy relationships are future oriented rather than clinging to a broken past or an impossibly romanticized version of the past. Let bygones be bygones; let the dead bury the dead.

Another of Jesus’ followers said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say goodbye to my family." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Jesus is not anti-family; he intends us to hear this saying, like the previous two, metaphorically rather than literally.

Remember Peter. He looked back, regretting his decision to follow Jesus. He denied Jesus not once but three times.[4] Yet, Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus had said to Peter – whose name means rock – you are the rock on which I will build my church.[5] Similarly, at the height of Roman persecution of Christians, the Church defined apostasy – abandoning the faith – as the unforgivable sin. Roman ferocity, however, caused apostasy to become so widespread that few Christians remained. Those survivors eventually relented and allowed apostates, after an arduous repentance, to return to the Church.

Eugene Peterson, whose Bible translation The Message was a bestseller a couple of decades ago, rightly and wisely described the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, Outliers, promoted the idea that ten thousand hours are required to master any art, skill or discipline.[6] Thus, for example, if you spend two hours a week on Sundays cultivating your spiritual life, and another two hours during the week, you will require fifty years to accumulate ten thousand hours of practice. Our spiritual lives suffer because we rarely acknowledge our lack of commitment and practice; we live superficially rather than delving deeply into the mystery of God.

A Persian proverb first observes that a person comes into the world crying while all around people are smiling, then encourages people to so live that they go out of this world smiling while all around them people are crying. Be good stewards of your possessions, holding them lightly in trust for their true owner, God; love so deeply that your relationships fill others with life and hope; commit yourself so completely to God that your death finds you smiling and others crying. Amen.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019

[1] Vv. 57-62 of Luke 9:51-62.
[2] Jamie Buckingham, Parables (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 1991). Adapted.
[3] David Steindl-Rast, The Music of Silence: Entering the Sacred Space of Monastic Experience (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), pp. 79-80.
[4] Matthew 26:69-75.
[5] Matthew 16:18.
[6] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008).

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Independence Day and Veterans

A friend, another military veteran, told me that often he felt angry when people thanked him for his military service. I have since noticed that I sometimes react with uncertainty, discomfort, or even anger. After reflection, I identified several different sources for these reactions.

First, the comment “Thank you for your service” often seems gratuitously glib. I’m proud of my military service. I enjoyed performing a job that was personally rewarding and that allowed me to make a difference in people’s lives while supporting a cause greater than self-interest. Many times, the thanks come from people in such an oft-handed manner that I wonder if the person has ever really thought about the sacrifices that people in uniform make almost daily, e.g., the long hours with no overtime pay, frequent and extended separations from loved ones, and going into harm’s way. I wonder how many of the people thanking me begrudge paying their taxes, would never consider volunteering for the military, and think that government bureaucrats (this includes numerous military personnel, especially senior ones) routinely waste large sums of tax dollars.

Second, verbal affirmation is occasionally nice to hear but actions speak more loudly. Saying “Thank you for your service” is no substitute for fulfilling a citizen’s responsibilities to vote and to communicate opinions to elected leaders. In the U.S., civilian politicians, not the military, decide the conflicts in which the military will fight. Currently, the U.S. is waging three de facto wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Military personnel regularly go into harm’s way in two of those theaters. Yet polls show that only a minority of Americans supports U.S. involvement in these conflicts. Furthermore, Congress has funded most of the $1.3 trillion cost to date for these three wars through budget deficits rather than risk voter outrage over tax increases. Tomorrow’s citizens will pay the bill for today’s wars.

From a Christian perspective, terming any of these conflicts a just war is problematic. One requirement of a just war, for example is that the war has a reasonable chance of success. Neither the wars in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, in spite of eight plus years of U.S. occupation and billions of dollars, has succeeded in establishing a secure, stable, and prosperous democracy. For example, the Afghan war is now the longest war in U.S. history. The approximate $120 billion that the U.S. will spend in 2011 on the war in Afghanistan represents $4000 per Afghan and dwarfs the projected 2011 Afghan GNP of less than $20 billion. Development spending from the U.S. and other nations will total roughly $2.5 billion this year in Afghanistan. Yet the Afghan government remains mired in corruption, actually governs relatively little of Afghanistan, and wants us out.

Fought with an all-volunteer force (and private contractors!), the wars have not ignited a political firestorm of opposition as the Vietnam War did. Few Episcopalians serve in the U.S. military, as, similarly, do few children of politicians and few graduates of elite colleges and universities. Following GEN Petraeus’ 2007 Congressional testimony, coverage of the Iraq war on the evening news dropped from 25% of broadcast time to 3% by mid-2008.

Why is the Church so silent about these wars? If more Episcopalians served in the military, would the Episcopal Church – its leaders, clergy, and members – speak more volubly and vociferously about these wars? What would Jesus say about the U.S. fighting wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? True support for our troops entails ensuring that the military fights only morally justifiable wars.

Third, true support for the troops includes caring for the troops. Cards and care packages are nice. A warm welcome home for units returning from Afghanistan and Iraq represents a healthy morale boost and moral improvement, sharply contrasting with the unwarranted abuse that many personnel received when they returned home from Vietnam. These are easy, positive steps.

However, effective caring also requires improving government policies and programs. More than 7200 American military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; tens of thousands more veterans have returned home physically or mentally wounded, sometimes permanently disabled. These casualties constitute an underfunded emotional, social, and financial liability. Programs to help returning veterans reintegrate into their families and into society are a good first step, but much remains unknown about how best to do this. (One good resource for dealing with PTSD is Unchained Eagle led by Episcopal priest Bob Certain; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has also developed a valuable congregational resource, Care for Returning Veterans.) Many Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities are ill equipped and staffed to aid women veterans; the VA lacks sufficient resources to assist the growing number of wounded veterans. The Church and a grateful citizenry will rightly advocate for military veterans and their families, adequately funding programs for warrior reintegration, healthcare, education and employment benefits, family adjustment support initiatives, etc.

Finally, the Church has a unique role to fill: helping returning warriors, especially Christian ones, to deal with their guilt for having committed, assisted in, or witnessed acts that in peacetime are immoral but that are necessary elements of warfighting, e.g., killing. In the early Church, the Church sometimes required a Christian returning from a just war to abstain from Holy Communion for as long as three years as an act of penance and moral rehabilitation. That seems excessive. Conversely, simply welcoming the returned warrior with open arms and verbal thanks for a hard job well done compromises the Church’s moral teaching and fails to honor the veteran’s often real and spiritually healthy feelings of guilt and uncleanliness. Private confession and pastoral counseling can help. More importantly, TEC can beneficially develop a process and liturgies for reintegrating returned veterans into the Christian community, perhaps most appropriately linking these to the Lenten journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

The Fourth of July offers a great time to celebrate not only American independence but also military veterans, thanking them in word and deed, remembering them in our prayers with the Collect for those in the Armed Forces of Our Country:

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Healing our demons

Last week, when I was walking through downtown at about 5 pm, a woman and I attempted to cross a street simultaneously, but from opposite directions. Heading directly toward one another, she angled slightly to her left and I concurrently angled to my right; then we did the reverse, she moving right and I left. We repeated our dance several times as we each politely sought to avoid colliding. When we were only a couple of feet from each other, she looked up; I chuckled bemusedly, realizing that our politeness had unintentionally created an impasse; she, after a moment, changed her expression from wary concern to a smile, and we passed pleasantly.

The incident was memorable because she obviously expected some type of negative confrontation. The incident, in a small way, symbolizes the widespread polarizations of contemporary life. When somebody is different than we are, we too frequently stigmatize the person and treat them as an outcast. This happens, from both perspectives, between Democrats and Republicans, Trump supporters and opponents, self-identified pro-choice and pro-life people in the debate over abortion, those for or against the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and so forth.

This morning’s gospel reading describes a demoniac ostracized by his local community because he has harmed property but also, implicitly, the psychic well-being of others.[1] The Gerasenes – Gentiles – had banished the man from their midst, chained him, and forced him to live as an animal. Jesus found the man living naked in a cemetery, having broken free of his shackles.

Biblical scholars offer two different diagnoses of the demoniac’s condition. First, the man may have suffered from mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic-depression. Before the late nineteenth century, people lacked the scientific knowledge and vocabulary to diagnose mental illness or even neuroses. Today, we remain far from completely understanding mental illness; regrettably, we and our society continue too often stigmatize and even ostracize the mentally ill.

Second, biblical scholars suggest that the demon possession in today’s reading may point to an obsession that has become a metaphorical demon. Evil is real. We may personify evil as a horned devil or fallen angel with a legion of followers dubbed demons, but, in fact, evil is a spiritual force in individuals and groups. Remember a time when a wicked thought took root in your mind, luring you with a fascination to think and do what you knew was wrong, enticing you one-step at a time, until you discovered you had acted or spoken in ways that you regretted even as you did it. Remember a time when a group of children, teens, or adults emboldened by the misdeeds of one, lost control, and committed acts that none would have dreamt possible. The actions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust are the most horrendous, frightening, and extreme example of this dynamic. More commonly, I've seen nice children and teens suddenly form a little mob, turning against one of their number who is overweight, unpopular, or wearing an out of style piece of clothing. We adults are no better. I've seen work groups and small religious groups turn vicious, smiling as they verbally cut and stab one another. Evil is real and the metaphor of demon possession points to that reality.

Jesus, a practicing Jew, crossed boundaries and reached out to the Gentile Gerasene demoniac. He saw a human, not an animal. Jesus, most appropriately from a Jewish perspective, sends the demons, who beg him not to condemn them to the abyss (connoting the place of death), into a herd of ritually unclean swine; the swine then rush into the watery deeps, an English phrase translating another Greek word for abyss. Demons clearly belong in the abyss. Then Jesus welcomes the man to his team, instructing him to tell everyone about being healed. Jesus lived a welcoming, inclusive, genuine hospitality.

This morning’s epistle reading reminds us that in Holy Baptism we are “clothed with Christ.”[2] Being clothed with Christ is another way of saying that our character, that is our values and habitual patterns of behavior, should imitate those of Jesus. Set within the context of today’s gospel reading, being clothed with Christ has two meanings.

First, we are to have compassion and strive to heal the mentally ill. Illustratively, Holy Nativity reenacted Jesus’ healing the demoniac through both its generous Easter gift to the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i – truly a gift to help raise the metaphorically dead to new life – and through its ongoing concern for housing the homeless, many of whom suffer from some form of mental illness, including addiction.

Second, we are to bridge divides that polarize and separate. The preeminent sixteenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker commented that our affirmation the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation does not mean that all things the Bible contains are necessary for salvation.[3] These latter topics he labelled adiaphora, the non-essentials.

Sadly, this congregation, like our larger society, has a history of bitter disputes. Like each of you, I see through a glass darkly and have no claim to infallibility. God's people here, and everywhere, inevitably disagree over issues that seem important yet are not essential for salvation. When those disagreements occur, remember the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus recognized him as a human, saw in him the light of God's image, no matter how tarnished, restored him to the community, embracing him as a disciple.

Disagree. But then metaphorically, cross the aisle. Smile at one another. Embrace one another as brothers and sisters, clothed in Christ.

May our symbols of God's grace – water, light, bread, wine, word, and touch – exorcise your demons and fill you with new life. And when the service is ended, go, and tell others what wondrous things God is doing in this place. Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019

Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 8:26-39.
[2] Galatians 3:23-29.
[3] John Barton, “Richard Hooker and Puritans: Of sundry things, in the light of reason,” Church Times, 14 June 2019.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Giving, tithing and other stewardship questions in an era of grace

An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this question:

I would be grateful if you can direct me to any of your sermons on [the issue of tithing and first fruit giving]. If no sermons, please what are your thoughts on these 2 tropical issues? Do they still have relevance in today’s era of Grace rather than Law?

Some searching through my files and subsequent reflections led to two conclusions. First, since I no longer preach on a regular basis, I lack the incentive to preach stewardship sermons as part of a congregation’s annual stewardship campaign. Second, my thinking about the efficacy of stewardship sermons has shifted toward preferring a paragraph or two on giving in occasional sermons scattered across the year instead of an entire sermon devoted to stewardship.

Jesus did not teach tithing. Tithing is an Old Testament concept. Incidentally, the twentieth century founder of a small Christian denomination, after a painstaking if severely flawed analysis of the Old Testament, concluded that the Old Testament does not teach tithing (giving 10% to God) but triple tithing, i.e., giving God 30% of one’s income.

Jesus taught sacrificial giving. His parable in which he contrasts the tithing of the wealthy in the Temple with the widow who gives all that she has vividly portrays sacrificial giving. What constitutes sacrificial giving obviously depends upon income, number of people financially dependent upon the earner, local cost of living and other factors.

Sacrificial giving – in its essence – is not about putting money in the offering plate but about using all of one’s resources to do God's work. All of one’s resources includes personal skills and abilities, income, accumulated wealth, influence, etc. This is the meaning of Jesus’ parable about the servants entrusted with money by their master (the first with ten talents, a second with five talents, and the third with one talents) while he is traveling. Upon his return, he expects each to have reaped some return. More than money, the parable emphasizes God's expectation that individuals use everything they have in a Godly manner, that is, to increase love of God and neighbor.

“First fruits” is also an Old Testament concept, used exclusively in the New Testament in reference to Christ and Christians.

The Old Testament concept merits a brief reflection. In an era before canning, freezing, and a global marketplace, fresh produce was necessarily seasonal. People understandably placed extra value on the first produce harvested. Giving that first harvest to God expressed gratitude for God's role in making the harvest possible and of renewing one’s commitment to God through a sacrificial offering.

God does not need our gifts. God's intent and plans are never thwarted because of human stinginess. God's options are bigger than we can imagine.

Instead, people have a need to give. Giving loosens money’s grip on the giver. And, if each of us is really honest, money has a grip in one measure or another upon us. Furthermore, giving to a Godly cause turns our attention from self toward loving God and others. This turning can occur whether we give money to a Christian congregation that we believe is doing God’s work, to a non-profit that we believe is doing God's work, to a neighbor or person whom we know is in need, or even when we pay taxes used (at least partially) to support programs to help the neediest and most vulnerable in our midst.

How much should you individually give?


But everything includes spending wisely to care for yourself and those dependent upon you (self-care enables subsequent gifts as well as the gift of time).

Everything also means giving to others (i.e., to a church, charity, person, or paying taxes) to reap the benefits of loosening money’s powerful grip on you and turning your attention and life more fully toward God and others.

Only an individual (or couple) can decide how best to allocate their resources. Study Jesus’ teachings on money and stewardship. Meditate on those teachings. Then live as a child of God, loving God and all creation. The bottom line about sacrificial giving is that the term connotes sacrificial living, a life devoted to God.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Post-theism: A rationale and explanation

Many people find the intersection of science and religion highly problematic. The difficulty harkens back to when everyone read Scripture in a pre-scientific, literal way (except for those who read Scripture allegorically and even they presumed a pre-scientific worldview). However, by the sixteenth century, that started to change. For example, Galileo’s championing of Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe evoked strong ecclesial opposition. The Church, based on its reading of Joshua 10, which says that God caused the sun to stand still for a day so that the Israelites could take vengeance on the Amorites, taught that the earth and not the sun is at the center of the universe. The sun standing still in the sky makes sense only in a geocentric, not in a heliocentric, universe. Not until the twentieth century did the Roman Catholic Church reverse its rejection of a heliocentric universe.

Numerous, apparent contradictions between scientific theory and a literal reading of Scripture exist. Scientific data points towards the earth being millions of years old. Yet the notable Anglican Irish divine, Archbishop Usher, in the early seventeenth century calculated from Scriptural data that the earth is less than five thousand years old. Moses struck the Nile River with a stick and turned the Nile to blood, a chemical impossibility. Later, Moses struck a rock with his stick and a stream flowed from the rock, a geological impossibility. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Luke reports that the sky opened and a dove descended upon Jesus, combining an astronomical impossibility (the sky cannot open) with a biological impossibility (the upper atmosphere has insufficient oxygen for a bird to breathe).

Explanations of the intersection of science and religion fall within four broad categories. Agnostics, those who neither believe nor disbelieve, do not constitute one of those categories as they demur from describing the nexus. First, atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue that religion is myth and no deity exists. Religious interpretations of life are not only unhelpful but at times actually destructive. This position embodies much faith for it presumes, contrary to the rules of logic, that one can prove a negative. Religion has caused much harm. That tragic fact, per se, makes religious ideas neither true nor false.

Second, fideists (or theists), including high profile contemporary creationists, argue that religion is true and that the supernatural deity omnipotent. Fideists go to unbelievable lengths to preserve their faith in a supernatural deity consonant with a traditional reading of Scripture. True believes have told me, for example, that God created dinosaur bones and the half-life of carbon to test the faith of people. I suspect that fideists similarly dismiss DNA research that links human origins to other primates. Perhaps more importantly, fideists cannot explain why a supernatural, omnipotent God allows so much human suffering. Why does God answer the prayers of the few and not of the many? Why does God heal one of cancer and ignore the entreaties of dozens? Why does God allow the Holocaust, mass starvation from famine, and epidemics that decimate populations? Belief in miracles – supernatural interventions – makes God seem capricious or weak. A God who allows so much suffering and evil seems anything but good and loving.

Third, compartmentalizers keep faith and science apart. Stephen Jay Gould described this as the non-overlapping magisterial of science and religion. Most people probably adopt this approach by default, finding that thinking too deeply about either religion or science produces more headache than insight, more heartache than comfort. Compartmentalization at its best constitutes a na├»ve view of religion and at its worst represents problem avoidance. Religion in order to give life meaning must address the totality of life. Certainly religion and science answer different types of questions, science emphasizing what and how while religion focuses on why. Yet a radically distorted understanding of science invariably leads one to wrong whys, as evident in the creationism movement that seeks to defend God's role in creation as inconsistent with evolution. Deists, those who believe that God was the cosmos’ first cause or prime mover and then has not intervened in the cosmos, constitute a distinct subset of compartmentalizers.

Fourth and finally, post-theists rely upon science and Scripture to push past the idolatrous images of a theistic God to the God about whom humans can say nothing. Nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach argued that the God of theism resulted from wishfully projecting an image of human perfection onto a non-existent being. Ana-Marie Rizzuto and others, building on the work of Sigmund Freud, have demonstrated that one’s image of God bears a striking resemblance to one’s dominant parent. These are idols, not God. Post-theism, rooted in the ancient via negative, finds modern spokespersons in Episcopal Bishop John Spong, Church of England Bishop John A. T. Robinson, process theologians like John Hick, and others. Nobody has yet articulated a metaphor or symbol for God that has generated widespread acceptance. All insist that God is integral to the warp and woof of the cosmos rather than a supernatural deity existing outside the cosmos. All passionately believe in God, address the reality of suffering unabated by supernatural intervention, and articulate an approach to life and faith that seeks to build on insights from every field of knowledge.

Change is endemic to the cosmos. Historically, religion has planted a standard, declared, “Here I stand,” and refused to change. This produced a static body of religious knowledge (theology). Defenders of static religious knowledge generally fail to recognize the extent to which their theology incorporates anachronistic elements of other disciplines. For example, Galileo’s ecclesial foes relied as much upon Aristotelian astronomy as upon Scripture, a reliance that all took for granted until someone called the science into question. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – for which more scientific data exists than almost any other scientific theory – challenged a biology that presumed species exist independently of one another and that species do not change over time.

I do not know where post-theism will go or how I will articulate my faith in the future. I do know that the time is well past when I could believe in a God who allows great evil and who appears to intervene supernaturally on a seemingly sporadic basis. I know that I cannot compartmentalize my faith from science or other fields of knowledge. My faith must be sufficiently robust to engage life’s most challenging issues informed by the best available insights from every discipline. In other words, I cannot afford to bypass, ignore, or recklessly proceed through the intersection of faith science if my faith is to be dynamic and alive, pointing toward that reality which no words can describe. Any other type of faith leaves me with a dead idol.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Moving toward unity while celebrating diversity

A couple were going out for the evening. They called a taxi and put the cat out for the evening.

The taxi arrived, and as the couple walked out the front door, the cat shot back in. They didn’t want the cat shut in the house, so one person went out to the taxi while the other went upstairs to chase the cat out. The passenger, not wanting it known that the house would be empty explained to the taxi driver, “My spouse is just going upstairs to say goodbye to my mother.”

A few minutes later, the spouse climbed into the cab. “Sorry I took so long. Stupid old thing was hiding under the bed and I had to poke her with a coat hanger to get her to come out!”

The ability to communicate constitutes an essential element of being human. As philosopher Michael de Unamuno says, "Language is the blood of the spirit."

Yet, humans often communicate poorly. The Genesis story about the Tower of Babel is an early attempt to explain why, if people supposedly descended from common ancestors, they speak so many languages and are frequently unable to communicate with one another.[1] Today, evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, semanticists and other experts suggest a far more complex process for the development of language and the thousands of human languages. The Genesis reading is important not as history but because of its confident assurance that anything is possible for humans when we cooperate, when we speak a single language and live and work in harmony with one another.

The reading from Acts, heard with different languages spoken simultaneously, may have sounded cacophonic.[2] However, I suspect that most of us could follow the reading in a language we personally know. The Day of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, is the Day when we celebrate being united by a single language, the language of love manifest in Jesus. Pentecost aims us toward unity in the midst of diversity.

A senior high Sunday school class was studying the Old Testament book of Lamentations. The teacher began by asking his students what kind of book they thought it would be. No answer. Then he asked what “lament” means. Still no answers. Patiently, he tried again. "What does the word `lamentations' mean?" Upon that, one of the teenagers brightened and responded: "I think it means to cover things with plastic."[3]

Some of the personal histories St Clement parishioners have told me recount the story of love between two people, drawn together even though they did not speak a common language. As a chaplain, I heard similar stories from sailors and Marines who married a sweetheart from abroad. Not all such marriages end well, but some do. In those cases, love becomes the common language that unites. Love is God’s plastic which laminates relationships, binding people together.

Ministry as a Navy chaplain also introduced me to clergy and laity from a wide variety of Christian denominations. Pentecostals, as you may know, believe that God gives the Holy Spirit to individual believers as a sign the person is a genuine believer. Proponents of the prosperity gospel teach that God blesses genuine believers with wealth.

Prominent Pentecostal televangelist Kenneth Copeland preaches the prosperity gospel and has recently been in the news. He preaches that if you send him money as an expression of your faith, sometimes described as planting a seed, then God will bless you financially many times over. He is spectacularly successful: he owns three jets and has a net worth of approximately $760 million. On the other hand, his followers do not enjoy the same success, often scrimping on essentials to plant financial seeds with Copeland.

Hopefully, you recognize and reject Copeland’s exploitative pattern of behavior that brazenly ignores three basic theological truths. First, the gospel is not about individuals, the gospel is about us, all of us, all of God's children and all of God's creation. Second, Pentecost is not about individuals but about the community of God's people. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, not of an individual. Third, God's community is characterized by love; Jesus taught that people would recognize his disciples by their love for one another, an idea echoed in today’s gospel reading.[4] Love leads me to share my wealth with the hungry, thirsty and homeless. When the fullness of God's plan for the cosmos is realized, what the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin labelled the Omega point of history,[5] we who are members of one body and drink from one Spirit, will be united with one common language, the language of love.

True prophecy, the prophecy of which Joel spoke in today’s reading from Acts, discerns God at work in the world. The ancient Hebrews recognized that all things were possible when people created in God's image cooperated. The first Christians recognized that God sent the Holy Spirit, God's abiding presence amongst us, to form us into one community of people bound together by the common language of love. In this era of globalization, we see those signs of God at work in the world. So, we gather, hopeful and encouraged, cherishing our unity in Christ's love while celebrating our diversity. Amen.

Sermon preached on Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Genesis 11:1-9.
[2] Acts 2:1-21.
[3] The United Church Observer, March 1994, p. 55.
[4] John 13:35; 14:8-17.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Is another American civil war inevitable?

Is another American civil war inevitable?

Some people on the Christian right answer affirmatively, and have even been predicting another civil war for a couple of decades or longer.

The cause of this impending conflagration? Disputes over abortion.

A person’s attitude about abortion often depends upon the person’s belief on when a human life begins. If a human life begins at the moment of conception, then the claim that abortion equals murder of the unborn makes sense. If a human life begins at some point after conception – for example, when a fetus is viable outside the womb – then the claim that not all abortion equals murder makes sense. The very great problem with belief in this instance is that the belief, regardless of when one believes that a human life begins, does not rest upon any demonstrable or provable facts.

Life is precious. Albert Schweitzer consistently emphasized that life is sacred. However, one immense difficulty is an irresolvable lack of clarity – at least in the present – about when life begins.

Christian opponents of all abortion AND Christian pro-choice individuals who support a woman’s right to have an abortion can both make scripturally based arguments in support of their belief. If these diametrically opposed interpretations of scripture could be resolved, Christians would assuredly have reached a broad consensus by now. Only a few outliers would continue to hold out for a different position (consensus, in other words, does not connote unanimity).

If life begins at conception, then all abortion is wrong. That includes aborting a pregnancy that results from rape or incest. Yet many people opposed to abortion feel that at least in the case of rape or incest abortion may be morally justifiable.

This internal inconsistency among abortion opponents points to a second difficulty in arguing about abortion. Not only is there a lack of factual clarity about when a human life begins, abortion is a complex issue with competing values. One vital issue is that a woman is not simply a “brood mare.” A woman is a person whose rights equal those of a man. A woman may be unable to prevent rape, whether perpetrated by a stranger or a husband. This does not mean that the woman therefore must surrender control over her body or is in any way “damaged goods” of less value than she was before the rape.

That analysis leads to another vital issue. Sex and pregnancy are not inherently and irrevocably linked. Sexual intercourse is not always and only for the purpose of procreation. Sex is a good in and of itself when expressed in a healthy, intimate relationship between two consenting adults. No method of birth control is 100% certain except for vasectomies and hysterectomies. Some couples may cherish their sexual relationship without being ready or willing to be parents.

Finally, this analysis presumes that God does not micromanage human affairs. In creation, through the evolutionary process, God endowed humans with an equal measure of value not contingent upon gender as well as some limited degree of autonomy. Humans have the privilege and opportunity to engage in sexual activity for their mutual enjoyment and benefit.

Concurrently, humans live with imperfect knowledge, looking through a glass darkly. Consequently, Christians tend to agree with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Living in a democracy requires living with policies with which one disagrees, perhaps even policies with which one vehemently disagrees.

Public policy that rests exclusively upon theological premises transforms a democracy into a theocracy. Few Americans would want to live in Iran or any other one of the theocratic states found in the twenty-first century world. Few Americans would choose to live in the world’s on Christian theocratic state, the Vatican. Indeed, the forebears of many Americans migrated to the States to escape from a theocracy, preferring the freedoms of this democracy, albeit a very imperfect democracy with unequal freedoms. Obviously, other migrants sought better economic opportunities, some sought safety from persecution, and yet others had no choice arriving as slaves. All previous efforts to establish a theocracy (e.g., the Mormons in their migration to Utah and some of the Utopian communities established in the nineteenth century) adopted democracy or failed.

Any argument that rests solely upon theological premises is an inappropriate and insufficient basis for establishing public policy. Examples of wrongheaded public policies that failed to gain widespread traction in large measure because of their dependence upon theological premises include Sunday “blue” laws that upheld a Puritanical interpretation of Sabbath keeping, prohibition, and more recently laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.

Many of the laws regulating abortion and limiting a woman’s access to abortion similarly rest upon theological premises to which only a minority of Americans subscribe. Opinion polls consistently report that although Americans do not like abortion, a strong majority believe that it is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Even as prohibition was the catalyst for speakeasies, bootlegging, and other illegal activities, so will a ban on abortion lead to a return to “back alley” abortions that jeopardize a woman’s life while bypassing the ban on abortion.

Instead of threatening civil war, we must learn to engage in civil discourse with one another. Regardless of one’s views on the morality of abortion, a person remains a child of God, worthy of equal dignity and respect. Another civil war is not inevitable; another civil war will harm the innocent without resolving the issue(s) that divide us.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Can Christians Be Catalysts for Ending Tribalism?

Recently, I attended a couple of Democratic Party events in Hawaii. Although I am a member of the Democratic Party, I am on its fringe in terms of participation. The events interested me more from a sociological than political perspective.

Political tribalism dominated. For many attendees, the local party functions as an important, perhaps even their primary, community. Few legislators or their staff members attended; none spoke or were key participants. Attendees expressed desires to include shared meals and other social events in the party’s activities. Importantly, participants with whom I spoke sought a Democratic victory in all elections and on all legislative issues. Compromise and bipartisan cooperation were unthinkable. Tribe defined identity, eclipsing concern for good government.

The core membership of the Republican, Socialist, Green, or any other political party in the U.S., and perhaps in other countries, is most likely equally tribal. On reflection, the tribalism I observed in those political events reminded me of the tribalism that prevailed in the military before the full implementation of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act designed to end inter-service rivalry, e.g., Army vs. Navy.

Researchers now report that political tribalism has reached the point where many parents are more upset when a child announces her/his engagement to a person of a different political party that when their child becomes engaged to a person of a different race or religion. Political tribalism is a key symptom of the polarization that causes gridlock in the federal government and in some state government. Compromise has become unthinkable; bipartisanship is a dirty word.

Other forms of tribalism also create fault lines along which societies and cultures fracture and become polarized. Religion is sometimes a prominent form of tribalism, e.g., Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims in much of the Middle Et, but not in Europe; Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic Christians in much of Eastern Europe but not in the U.S.; Buddhist vs. Muslim in Myanmar. Pro-life vs. pro-choice groups sometimes represent tribes in parts of the U.S. Economic disparities sometimes create tribes. Fans of one sports team vs. fans of another team may represent tribes. And so on – the types of tribes and the various identities that they entail are too numerous to delineate.

Tribalism is literally a dead end. The planet faces existential threats from the climate crisis and global heating. While competition and diffuse identities undeniably enrich life, tribal identities must be subordinated to globalization if humanity and life as we know it are to survive. The climate crisis adds fuel to tribal fires, threatening to intensify and spread those fires. The climate crisis has contributed to armed conflict in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere as “tribes,” sometimes fighting as proxies of other “tribes” fight for their fair share of scarce resources, resources the climate crisis makes increasingly scarce.

Christianity that follows in Jesus’ footsteps insists upon its adherents adopting a global identity and belonging to an inclusive community that welcomes everyone. Illustratively, Christianity is not defined by party membership. Even as it was once an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as the GOP at prayer, so now it is equally an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as Democrats in action. Faithful Christian Churches have room in their pews and warmly welcome people of all political parties and no political party (independents!).

Contrary to Christian groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and others that teach or require their members to withdraw from the world in order to remain faithful to Jesus, God calls the Church to live out its mission in the world. Jesus described Christians as salt and as leaven. Neither salt nor leaven is of any use stored in a container on a shelf; both must be proportionately mixed with other ingredients to be of any value. Additionally, Jesus sent his disciples into the world; he never instructed them to withdraw from the world. Going into the world obeys Jesus’ teachings and follows his example.

Christianity acknowledges that to be human is to have multiple identities. A person is invariably somebody’s child, perhaps someone’s parent, perhaps a spouse, maybe an employee or employer, perhaps a member of a union or organized group, certainly a citizen of some country, and so forth. Christianity hopes to shape and influence all of those identities, but never invalidates or cancels our multiple identities.

Ultimately, Christianity reminds us that our primary identity is as a child of God, an identity share with people of other religions, persons who identify as spiritual but not religious, and even atheists.

Christianity calls its adherents to promote justice – economic, social and political – for all creation. Christianity teaches that we collectively will live or die together. Savor your tribal identity(ies), always remembering that our primary identity as God's child places loyalty to all creation before loyalty to any particular tribe. This is our best hope for our broken, badly damaged world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Discerning God's presence

General Douglas MacArthur had a reputation as something of a “cold fish.” After World War II, his public relations people came up with an idea to help him improve his image. MacArthur would review a contingent of veterans. In the middle of the review, he would stop and suddenly recognize an enlisted man who had served with him during the war. “It will be a tremendously moving and human moment,” his advisers told him. “Out of hundreds of men lined up for your inspection, you suddenly pick out a single individual, call him by name and recall past campaigns.” MacArthur agreed to the plan.

The lucky soldier would be unaware that he’d been singled out for the honor. They searched Army records, found out everything about the fellow, and figured out precisely where he would be standing when MacArthur marched through the ranks. Just to be safe, they arranged for an aide to nudge MacArthur discreetly when he was directly in front of the proper soldier.

The plan worked perfectly. MacArthur saluted the veterans; the veterans saluted MacArthur. The General began his inspection. At the right moment, the aide nudged MacArthur. He halted, turned, and looked at the man standing stiffly at attention in front of him. “Jones!” he boomed. “We were together on Corregidor. You are Corporal Jones. I remember you.”

For a moment, Jones looked startled. Then he peered quizzically at the General. Finally, he blurted out somewhat uncertainly, “MacArthur?”[1]

Do you recognize God’s presence and activity in your life? In the world? Those questions capture the essence of today’s gospel reading.[2] Those questions are also central to the spiritual struggle of many Christians and non-Christians.

Consider these two metaphors that are useful for discerning God’s presence and activity in one’s life and in the world.

First, as our Presiding Bishop constantly emphasizes, God is love. This metaphor is a prominent New Testament theme. Critically, love is non-substantial – has no being – but relational. God is present in loving relationships that liberate and give life. These relationships call us to love one another and all creation. Furthermore, loving, liberating and life-giving relationships are works in which we see God, a point the 23rd Psalm and today’s first reading[3] memorably illustrate.

Tangentially, Christians have tragically cited this morning’s gospel to justify both displacing the Jews as God’s chosen people and anti-Semitism. A literal reading of the text is nonsensical. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples and other followers were all Jews. Christianity emerged only after Jesus’ resurrection. John’s gospel was written to appeal to Gentiles, including Romans, during Roman persecution of Christians. The author crafts his appeal by implying all Jews rejected Jesus and that the Jews were responsible for his death. That line of reasoning leads to an absurd conclusion: Jesus, a Jew, would have been filled with self-loathing and partially culpable for his execution.

A better interpretation focuses on Jesus and his command to love everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Democrat and Republican, the 1% and the 99%, and so forth. We follow Jesus when we love unconditionally, choosing the path that leads not to perishing but to life abundant.

A second common biblical metaphor for God is light. This metaphor reminds us of God’s unknowability. Light has some characteristics of waves and of particles, but is neither. Similarly, the metaphors of love and light help us to discern God’s presence and activity without our being able to describe God's actual nature.

Light, like the gospel’s anthropological metaphor of listening to Jesus’ voice, points to God giving us wisdom. Even as light illuminates a path, a road, or a darkened room, so does God nudge or lure us in a particular direction. Jesus most famously sought this wisdom in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed for God's guidance about whether to face execution in Jerusalem or to take a different direction.

Light also gives us courage. Think of the child – or even adults – who are afraid of dark places, moving shadows conjuring up evil images. Generations of authors have written about scary things in the dark. Turning on the light banishes those images and imbues even the faintest of heart with some degree of courage.

Light warms, or as physicists would tell us, energizes that upon which it shines. Solar power and solar heat are green alternatives to carbon-based fuel sources. Analogously, God's light, which illuminates our way and gives us courage to take the next step, also gives us the strength to take that next step.

Neither metaphor – love or light – is comprehensive or sufficient to fully describe God's presence and activity in a person’s life or in the world. However, the two metaphors helpfully point to the living God’s presence in the warp and woof of the fabric of the cosmos. We experience God relationally, God calling us to love one another and to care for creation, showing us the way ahead and then filling us with the courage and strength to journey along that path. Unlike Corporal Jones struggling to recall General MacArthur, we can with confidence acknowledge God’s presence and activity when we walk in love and light. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1]James Dent, Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, 2 July 1991.
[2] John 10:22-30.
[3] Acts 9:36-43.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A starting point for theology

Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences.  Theology was dethroned several centuries ago because of the growing recognition of the scientific method’s inapplicability to theology.

In general, theologians have begun their work from one of two starting points, either implicitly or explicitly.

One of those starting points was God.  Theologians working from this starting point presumed that humans could directly apprehend God.  For example, the classical arguments for the existence of God – the ontological, cosmological, and so forth – all rest on this presumption.

This starting point requires assuming that humans are able to know God.  Consequently, some religious traditions posit that humans have a soul that is similar in nature to God.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that at conception a human receives an immortal soul.  Many other traditions have similar teachings about humans having an immortal or eternal soul.  Since the soul is immortal, there is no physical evidence of its existence.  Nor does any evidence exist that supports ensoulment.  Belief in such a soul is non-rational and therefore not subject to scientific study.

Indeed, the via negativa in the Christian tradition, Theravadan Buddhism and approaches to God in other traditions premised upon God’s unknowability all reject the idea that finite humans can accurately describe the infinite God in finite human words.  These approaches to God invariably point or lead to mysticism, which presumes that while humans may experience God they lack any specific knowledge of God that they can communicate to another person.  Unsurprisingly, mystics have often been branded heretics and mysticism rejected as providing a solid foundation for theology.

The other starting point for theology is scripture.  A theologian would presume that the scriptures of his or her tradition were authoritative.  Sometimes, these theologians argue that their scriptures are authoritative using their scriptures to prove that God had revealed those scriptures.  Protestants who subscribe to a solo scriptura approach to their faith have adopted the presumption that the Christian Bible is authoritative.  Similarly, Muslims who believe that the Koran was dictated by God to Mohammad and Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from two golden tablets, which the angel Moroni showed him, all presume that their scriptures are authoritative. From a rhetorical perspective, these theologians use their conclusion to prove their initial predicate.

Awareness of other religions and the claim of multiple, conflicting scriptures to be the authoritative revelation of God undercut the claim that any one scripture is authoritative.  How is one to choose which scripture to accept as authoritative?  In the past, the vast majority of people simply adopted the religious tradition of their family and culture.  In a global world with multiple religions and many more people aware of at least several of those religions, fewer people find the practice of mindlessly following in parental or cultural footsteps satisfying.  People now want to choose which if any religion they will practice.

Simply positing that one particular scripture is authoritative no longer works, nor is that approach amenable to scientific study.  The essence of the difficulty is the claim that God dictated or otherwise revealed the scripture through a supernatural process.  The word supernatural itself highlights that religion claims not to be natural and therefore not subject to scientific study.

If God, should God exist, be entirely natural as some theologians now claim, then scientific analysis may lead to signs of God’s presence and activity in the cosmos.  This presumption of a natural God calls for a new starting point for theology.

Perhaps humans do not have an immortal soul.  Perhaps humans have an entirely natural spirit comprised of those aspects of human existence that are quintessentially human although evident in other species to a lesser degree.  For more on this idea, read my article “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (a link to this article is also found on the right hand side of the Ethical Musings webpage).

One major advantage of this approach to theology is that it moves theology from the realm of speculation and grounds it in in the physical world amenable to scientific study.

A second major advantage of this approach to theology is that it begins to construct a believable, more factually based understanding of God and spirit. This approach builds on the deconstructive work of Bishop Spong, Bishop Robinson and others who identified the reasons why theism in all of its forms lacks credibility in the third millennium. Sadly, most of the deconstructionists failed to offer a post-theism theology.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Choosing the right lens

Recently, I read an article that suggested environmentalism should be a lens through which people view the world rather than treated as one of many issues that warrant attention and action (Nathan Empsall, “Connecting the environment and the church”). The rationale for arguing that environmentalism should be a lens is that basically everything (or almost everything) a person does affects the environment.

An environmentally responsible approach to life entails asking, “How will this action affect the environment?” Sometimes the answer is easy: throwing away trash creates unsightly litter and inappropriately disposes of waste material; walking avoids creating greenhouse gases internal combustion engines produce; eating less meat supports a food chain that harms the environment less; etc.

Often, however, the answer is less obvious. Is the environmental harm of an electric car or of a gasoline powered car greater when one considers (1) the manufacture of the vehicle and all of its parts, (2) the generation of electricity to operate the vehicle or the production of gas to operate the car, and (3) the environmental impact of eventually disposing of the vehicle? Few if any of us can knowledgably answer such a complicated, comprehensive question.

In general, the familiar mantra of reducing, reusing and recycling provides a convenient heuristic for learning to see the world through an environmental lens.

The article prompted some further musings about the importance of having the right lens or lenses through which to view creation, other people, and life itself. The image of a lens resonates with me because having the correct prescription for the lenses through which I see the world is essential if I am to enjoy clear, accurate vision.

Similarly, the ongoing journey of becoming a Christian is more about learning to view the world as Jesus saw it than about ontological change, i.e., becoming a Christian is not about a changing a person’s being but altering a person’s way of living and seeing the world. Illustratively, Jesus taught his disciples to see each person the disciples encountered as an individual who was worthy of dignity and respect.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see the difference between condemning evil and not condemning the person who commits an evil deed. For example, this means welcoming back into the community the person released from prison by helping that person find a decent place to live, a job that pays enough for the person to pay his/her bills, and embracing the person as a valued member of God’s family.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see myself as a member of a larger community, a community that begins locally with my fellow Christians and that extends to embrace all creation. Consequently, I must change the narrative of my life from self-centered to communal. This means, among other things, changing the narrative about paying taxes from avoidance/minimizing (what President Trump advocates, belittling those who willingly pay taxes) to viewing taxes (as economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw taxes) as an opportunity and responsibility to pay for civilization and its benefits.

Like Jesus, I must dare to believe that, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorable image, the arc of history is long but bends irreversibly and inevitably toward justice. Thus, Christians who look through the lens of Jesus at the world act in ways that affirm justice will eventually prevail. We begin even today to beat swords into plowshares by spending more on the most vulnerable and needy instead of supporting defense budgets that exceed Defense Department requests.

What is the lens or lenses through which you see yourself and the world?