Monday, May 30, 2016

Musings about Elijah, a centurion, Daniel Berrigan, and Memorial Day

In the ninth century BC, the northern kingdom of Israel, unlike the southern kingdom of Judah, lacked Mediterranean frontage. Israel's king, Omri, recognized the economic, military, and political benefits that Israel could obtain if it had easy access to the Mediterranean. So he arranged for his son, Ahab, to marry Jezebel, the daughter of a king who did control a section of Mediterranean coast.
Ahab's father apparently failed to see the marriage's potential and probably unintended religious consequences. Jezebel, a non-Jew, understandably wanted to continue practicing her own religion. Thus, Ahab had an altar to Jezebel's god, Baal, constructed. Furthermore, many worshippers of Baal dwelled among the Israelites, giving this new altar rather broad popular appeal. If the biblical portraits of Ahab and Jezebel are credible, both of them relished their power as king and queen, using their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. In very many respects, the portraits of Ahab and Jezebel seem strikingly similar to twenty-first century dictators and corrupt politicians.
Elijah was a relative nobody. Israelites who had heard of him probably viewed him as a religious fanatic, a dynamic preacher, and someone who occasionally worked miracles. Outraged and offended by Jezebel's idolatry and greed as well as Ahab's temporizing policies, Elijah resolves to end what he perceives as an unacceptable situation by challenging the priests of Baal to a contest. Whoever could prove their God's power by successfully beseeching their God to consume an offering with fire would vanquish the opposition literally and figuratively. Israel is caught in the grips of a terrible drought; Ahab probably regarded this contest as a convenient distraction if not a potential solution to the water shortage.
Elijah allows the priests of Baal to go first. They build an altar, sacrifice a bull, and then for several hours beseech Baal to send fire to consume the offering. When no fire erupts, Baal's priests, as was their custom, show their piety by cutting themselves with knives and lances, spilling their blood on the altar. Baal remains silent.
With the passing hours and lack of fire, the crowd's enthusiasm wanes. Elijah now takes charge. He superintends construction of a new altar of twelve stones, piles wood on it, slaughters a bull, orders a trench dug around the altar, and then has everything soaked in water until the trench overflows. Only then does he lift his voice in prayer, asking God to act that people may know who is truly God. Fire, like a bolt of lightning, consumes the bull, the wood, the stones, and the water in the trench leaving only dust. Elijah's victory over the priests of Baal restores the worship of God to the center of Israeli life and ends a drought.
Hollywood could not devise a better script for a blockbuster movie. Regardless of its historical accuracy, this story[1] along with the other biblical accounts of Elijah's dealings with Ahab and Jezebel has a clear message for us: social justice, in all of its expressions, is central to God's plan for the cosmos.
The second story in today's readings, Jesus' healing of the centurion's slave,[2] is equally dramatic but often misunderstood. A Roman centurion commanded 100 soldiers, a position comparable to that of an Army or Marine Corps company commander. A centurion, however, exercised much greater authority over his troops. The centurion featured the reading from Luke had funded construction of the Capernaum synagogue, the ruins of which archaeological excavations have exposed. So the centurion was probably a God-fearer, that is, a monotheist sympathetic to Judaism. Serving in the Roman army required a loyalty oath that presumed the emperor's divinity, an oath incompatible with his converting to Judaism as long as the centurion remained in the army.
Slaves were chattel, property. The centurion had no legal obligation to provide medical care for his slave. The text offers no hint about the centurion's motive for asking Jesus to heal his slave. That motive may have been pecuniary, friendship, or something else. Nor does the text explain the nature of the centurion's faith. He may have turned to Jesus out of desperation, having exhausted all the other options. Perhaps he regarded Jesus as a Jewish prophet, someone like Elijah and or Elisha, through whom God's power flowed in mysterious and yet powerful ways. Almost certainly, the centurion would not have interpreted Jesus as fully human and fully God. The uncertain nature of the centurion's faith underscores God's love for everyone. All are welcome because God loves all.
Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus, as is Pope Francis, died at age 94 earlier this month. Fr. Berrigan attained prominence protesting the Vietnam War, the draft, and nuclear weapons. As a senior naval officer who has taught and published in the field of military ethics, I have profound agreements and disagreements with Fr. Berrigan's views. From a Christian perspective, Fr. Berrigan, the Roman Catholic bishops, the Methodist bishops, and many others are correct: nuclear war, with its inherent disregard for the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is unjust. However, I think he was wrong to advocate the US unilaterally scrapping its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Doing so would have destabilized the world and increased the odds of another global war. Fr. Berrigan rightly described the injustice of both the Vietnam War and a draft system biased against the poor and minorities. Instead of abolishing the draft, as Fr. Berrigan recommended, I think that we should require two years of mandatory national service for all.
In sum, I admire Fr. Berrigan not because I always agreed with him, but because God's light shined so brightly and powerfully in him. He was truly a contemporary Elijah figure, a person God used to make the world a more just place. Similarly, Holy Nativity has room for a wide diversity of views as we individually and collectively try to discern how to incarnate God's love and justice in this place, in Aina Haina, in Hawaii, and throughout the cosmos.
Fr. Berrigan also had an exceptionally deep personal relationship with God. He was a man of great integrity, a theologian and professor, a poet who enjoyed life with an exuberant sense of humor, and who cherished his friends and family. Following Jesus' example, he lived a simple life, owning a single set of clothes and so few possessions that his belongings fit into a small backpack. When I look at Fr. Berrigan's life, I see a life shaped by a lifetime of walking the Jesus' path, a cruciform-shaped life that for many people was a rich channel of God's grace and love.
Incidentally, Memorial Day is not about the justness of particular wars. Memorial Day is about honoring veterans. When I listen to a veteran talk about his or her life, I almost invariably hear a story similar to the centurion's, a warrior who knew a higher power, a person who sought to serve his or her neighbors, and a person who sometimes went into harm's way trying to defend freedom and justice.

[1] 1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39.
[2] Luke 7:1-10.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Musical lessons

I recently attended a hilarious production of the Broadway hit musical, "The Book of Common Prayer."

Oops! There is no such musical. However, I did attend the "Book of Mormon," a riotous and poignant musical.

Why has nobody written a Broadway musical about The Episcopal Church (TEC) or our cherished Book of Common Prayer? Encouragingly, perhaps few outsiders find us sufficiently obnoxious to be fertile soil for humor. Less encouragingly, in comparison to the Mormons, TEC has a lower public profile, our institutions are less energetic, we expect less from our membership, and our liturgies are more common than unique, representing a (if not the) principal root of most English-language Christian worship.

Unexpectedly for a genre that tends toward entertainment rather than theological insight, "The Book of Mormon" left me with three takeaways.

First, the musical emphasized the imperative of being relevant to people's needs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints assigns a pair of young elders, the show's stars, an African village for their mission field. There, they join several other Mormon missionary teams, and discover that after months of effort these missionaries have baptized nobody. The villagers perceive the missionaries as untrustworthy and unhelpful. Non-Mormon missionaries have visited the village for many years, telling their Bible stories, and then returning home. Meanwhile, the African villagers must still cope with a widespread AIDS, a murderous warlord who requires female genital mutilation, and other problems. The Mormon missionaries succeed, where others have failed, by allegedly finding verses in the Book of Mormon that present practical solutions to those problems.

Second, the musical reminded me that our theology and liturgies are not living water or light but merely earthen vessels. The Mormon elder whose preaching reached the African villages had not read the Book of Mormon. An experienced prevaricator, he fabricated stories that spoke to the villagers' situation. When the villagers write and perform a play for visiting Mormon leaders reveals the missionary's fabrications, the Mormons are devastated and ordered home. The missionary's dishonesty did not upset the villagers. They knew that there was no paradise named Salt Lake City (if you have not seen the musical, the ending alone is worth the price of admission!). Religious truth, they declare, is always metaphorical. Conflict is essential for allowing new life to emerge.

Third, when the audience exited the theater after the musical, actual Mormon missionaries were standing by to engage anyone interested in discussing the Book of Mormon or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The elders' presence underscored that any publicity is good publicity.

In visiting Episcopal worship services, I commonly hear a sermon that fails to connect with the congregation. Preachers seemingly prefer platitudes to doubts, tough questions, and real problems. More often than not, the preacher adopts an uncritical approach to the text, further eroding her/his credibility. Afterwards, I wonder whether walking the Jesus path has any practical relevance for living authentically, relationally, and spiritually in the twenty-first century. Although I do not commend the "theology lite" of growing megachurches, I do applaud their ability to speak transformative words of hope and life to their congregations.

In the same vein, TEC can shout, "All are welcome," as loudly and frequently as we choose. However, that message will remain unpersuasive until we not only embrace all races, ethnicities, genders, and gender orientations but also (in no special order):
  • Update antiquated physical facilities to allow the physically challenged access
  • Devise ways to conduct our liturgies so that the literate and illiterate are both comfortable
  • Ensure safe, convenient childcare
  • Utilize a liturgy that makes space for believers, doubters, and seekers, i.e., non-believers
  • Accommodate persons from the right and left ends of the political spectrum in the same congregation
  • Enfold the washed and unwashed, i.e., the economically affluent and the poor, homeless, hungry, addicted, and released prisoners who live on the margins of our communities.

Welcoming all similarly requires discarding growth that targets, and thereby values, particular demographics unrelated to a local geographic context. For example, congregational leaders stereotypically regard young couples with children as the "holy grail" of church growth. This presumes that regular Sunday School attendance produces mature, committed Christians. If that premise were correct, TEC and other U.S. denominations that in the mid-twentieth century had large, well-attended Sunday Schools would not have more recently suffered decades of numerical decline.

Alternatively, some Episcopalians attribute a significant amount of TEC's numerical decline to adverse media attention related to the Church taking strong social justice stands in the 1960s, the ordination of women, Gene Robinson's consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire, and controversies about same-sex marriage.

No publicity is bad publicity. Adverse attention does not have to dishearten us. Instead, media attention affords us an opportunity to tell our story, a story of a people transformed from being the establishment at prayer to being a community of Jesus' followers who welcome everyone, a community of pilgrims who together are learning to walk in the light and to live more abundantly.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Building character the Marine way

This morning's reading from Romans[1] invariably evokes, for me, memories of Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School, where I was the chaplain for almost two years in the early 1980s. The Marine Corps relies upon the Navy to provide both healthcare professionals and chaplains. I don't want to bore you with sea stories about the military, but realized this week that I have spent approximately 40% of my life and almost 60% of my adult years on active duty in the Navy.
Unlike OCS for the other armed services that train officers, Marine OCS screens and evaluates candidates to determine if they possess the requisite physical, academic, and leadership qualities to become Marine officers. Only about half of the candidates who begin the course earn a second lieutenant's commission.
Many candidates' most difficult physical challenge was the endurance course. The endurance course begins with a standard Marine Corps obstacle course – about two minutes of total physical exertion, presuming you know how to overcome obstacles that include running along an elevated log then vaulting a wall, climbing an eight foot high sheer wooden wall, and climbing a rope. Next is a four-mile run through woods and fields in combat boots that requires traversing thirty combat obstacles such as a low crawl under barbed wire. The final obstacle, located near the end of the course, was a stagnant pool of muddy, chest high water. In winter, the first person through the water sometimes had to break the ice; in the summer, candidates occasionally spotted a cottonmouth moccasin swimming alongside.
I, along with the drill instructors and officers in charge of the candidates, routinely ran the endurance course with the candidates. I'm not athletic and doubt that I had ever run a mile before joining the Navy at age 29. In the beginning, just finishing the endurance course was a personal challenge. With practice, I became comfortable with the course and sometimes even enjoyed a feeling of personal achievement at finishing the entire course in less than 35 minutes.
Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, which does not disappoint us because of God's love. On more than one occasion, especially in my early days at OCS, I lived those words. Everything about the obstacle course, the four-mile run in boots, and the thirty combat obstacles seemed designed to make me suffer. But, in time, I developed endurance. I became friends with a Gunnery Sergeant, one of our drill instructors. We got into the habit of running five miles at noon on those workdays when I did not join the candidates in a run or forced march. He loved to discuss theology and our conversations helped to make our runs bearable.
And as I developed endurance, I realized that endurance produces character. Very few of the candidates lacked the physical ability to complete OCS. The greatest number of candidates failed because they lacked the personal grit and determination to succeed. Marine OCS, in other words, is primarily a moral or spiritual challenge designed to measure a person's character.
Life is a lot like Marine OCS. No, if you succeed in life God will not commission you an officer in God's Marine Corps. And unlike the 50% attrition rate at OCS, life has a 100% attrition rate, because everyone eventually dies.
Nevertheless, life is a lot like Marine OCS. Suffering is unavoidable, though thankfully it is rarely constant. Illness, disease, and advancing age all cause physical suffering. We experience emotional suffering when a loved one dies, our beloved fails to share that love, or we fall short of personal expectations or the expectations that others have for us. Everything from unfair treatment, being burglarized, or sexually assaulted to facing famine, war, or plague, and much more – all forms of personal and systemic injustice – cause suffering. As hard as anyone might try, nobody can indefinitely avoid all suffering.
We can allow suffering to wear us down and ultimately to defeat us.
Alternatively, suffering can produce endurance. Developing endurance requires hard work and is not always enjoyable.
At Marine OCS, the other staff members and I participated in physical training events for two reasons. First, we believed in the OCS motto of Ductus Exemplo, leadership by example. That motto is profoundly Christian, far more than most Marines realized. The incarnation represents God's leadership by example, Jesus suffering that we, through his endurance and character, might begin to discern the depth of God's love for us.
Second, and much more importantly, I learned that my presence symbolized hope and encouragement. The purpose of hardship was not simply proving one's endurance but to develop character. OCS was ultimately a moral or spiritual test. Will a prospective second lieutenant soon to be responsible for the welfare of about 30 young Marines, and perhaps tasked to lead them into harm's way, have the character – the courage, the integrity, and the endurance – to be worthy of her or his nation's trust?
The Church is in the character formation business. The Bible is not a rulebook. Instead, the Bible is a collection of stories, proverbs, and other materials by which, with the help of God's Spirit, we can become the persons of high moral and spiritual character whom God created us to be.
Suffering is inescapable. God does not cause our suffering – there is already too much suffering. However, with God's help, suffering can produce endurance. And endurance, with God's help, produces character.
No shortcuts exist for becoming a person of great character in whom hope lives because one is so aware of the indwelling of God's Spirit. Neither Christianity in general nor Holy Nativity in particular has a single set of exercises or courses guaranteed to transform suffering into endurance and then into character.
Spiritual growth is an individual endeavor and each person must run his or her own race. But we run confidently, enduring the suffering, knowing that the pioneer of our salvation has gone before us and that we do not run alone, for the Holy Spirit runs with us.

[1] Romans 5:1-5.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Who are you?

When two adults meet for the first time, early in the conversation one or both will often ask, What do you do? A person's career, profession, or employment often defines who a person is, both for the person's own sense of self and for how other individuals perceive the person.

When I retired from the Navy in 2005, I left a career in which uniform insignia revealed a person's military specialty, seniority, and some of their experiences. I was tired of my profession, seniority, and experiences defining me. I wanted people to see me for myself.

Thus, when new acquaintances asked me in our first conversation what I did, I often answered that I was happily and comfortably unemployed. My response left a majority of inquirers visibly discomfited. These persons seemed unable to cope with someone who refused to define him or herself in terms of career, profession, or employment.

Even when I visited my mother in a retirement community and observed residents talk with a newcomer, the conversation frequently included considerable discussion of what each person had done prior to retirement. Too often, what a person does (or has done) becomes definitive of that person's identity and worth.

If spirit is at the center of human existence, then who a person is should have precedence over what a person does or did. Discussing employment histories can be interesting and instructive. Discussing employment histories is also far less intimate than is discussing who I am spiritually. I find it distressing that frequently relationships never progress from things that properly reside at life's periphery (e.g., employment) to things that hopefully constitute the heart of a person's existence (e.g., her/his self-awareness, her/his aesthetic sense or creativity, and most importantly her/his story of loving and being loved).

Admittedly, many relationships are appropriately casual and remain superficial. However, our more intimate and enduring relationships are the source of life's meaning and value. Revealing one's spirit to another person involves risk and vulnerability. Will the other person respect who we are and not abuse our confidence?

God is no respecter of persons, that is, God values everyone equally regardless of a person's career, achievements, or even their failures. Are you the person God created you to be? What is the next step on the path that will lead you deeper into the fullness of who God intended you to be? Are you a person of character who embodies the virtues of love, faith, hope, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence? Are you a person whom you would want others to emulate? Are you a saint, that is, are you a person who lives the Christian life writ large?

One of the principal reasons that I value attending worship, spiritual reading, prayer, and spiritual conversations is that they afford me opportunities to reflect analytically about those questions and to identify tentative answers.

Who are you? Who did God create you to be? What are you doing to become that person?

Monday, May 16, 2016


Today is Pentecost. Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which occurs fifty days after Passover. The Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, marked the end of the grain harvest and commemorated God giving the Torah to the Hebrews.[1] In time, as Christianity developed an identity separate from Judaism, Pentecost became the Church's annual celebration of God's gift of the Holy Spirit, which we heard about in today's readings.[2]
In the Old Testament, only prophets and prophetic figures – persons like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deborah, and David – received the gift of the Holy Spirit. In contrast, the New Testament teaches that God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone who walks the Jesus path. This is why, after receiving the sacrament of Holy Baptism, the person is anointed with oil, symbolizing the gift of God's Spirit.
The account of Pentecost, as recorded in the Book of Acts, associates the Holy Spirit with three images or symbols: wind, fire, and language.
Probably the best known and most controversial of the three – wind, fire, and language – is language. The text reports that each person heard the gospel in her or his own language. Then as today, Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city because Judaism had spread along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Notably, Alexandria's Jewish population rivalled Jerusalem's in size. Jewish religious festivals regularly attracted crowds of pilgrims. So there is nothing surprising in the report that Jews of many nations and ethnicities were present.
The text is vague about what actually happened. Scholars, popular among charismatics and Pentecostals, argue that the Holy Spirit miraculously enabled early Christians to proclaim the gospel in a wide variety of languages. Other scholars, popular among Christians who believe that the Holy Spirit's gifts are less flamboyant and more commonplace, argue that the people speaking Parthian, Arabic, and so forth already knew the language. In either case, our emphasis should be on the event's meaning and not on what happened. Jews from far and near all heard the gospel in a way individually understandable.
In other words, God speaks to each person, then and today, in a way that the individual is most likely to understand. God's language is the language of love, the only truly universal language, one that every human intuitively understands, for at the core of our being each of us seeks unconditional love and acceptance.
Someone once compared the Spirit to a pair of eyeglasses.[3] When a pair of glasses fits comfortably and has the correct prescription, the wearer hardly notices the glasses. So it is with the Spirit. We overlook the Spirit's presence in our lives because we seek flashy, dramatic signs. Instead, look for the Spirit in moments of unexpected joy, moments when you discover yourself loving a previously unlovable person, moments of spiritual insight, and moments of synchronicity, i.e., serendipitous coincidences that lead to love and creativity.
The desert fathers and mothers were Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert from the mid-fourth century through perhaps the end of the eighth century. This is one of their memorably instructive stories:
Abba [Father] Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."[4]
Whether it is the tongues of fire above the disciples described in the Book of Acts or the fire on an elderly monk's fingertips, the image is metaphorical. The fire –observable physically in our lit candles and symbolically in the red of my stole and on the altar – connotes the passion that the Spirit tries to evoke in Christians.
Christians since the first century AD have described Jesus' arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death as his passion. In his passion, Jesus opened his arms and lovingly embraced everyone, just as s/he is. We echo Jesus' passion when we declare with genuine conviction that all are welcome.
Spiritual passion, like the moon, has seasons when it waxes and wanes. When our spiritual passion wanes, we can renew it by pausing to recollect times we have experienced the Spirit, times we have loved a neighbor in God's name, and times God has fed us with living bread or slaked our thirst with living water.
You may remember when English speaking Christians routinely called the Holy Spirit the Holy Ghost. That practice's roots lie in the Anglo-Saxon word gast, derived from a Germanic word meaning both gust and spirit.[5] Similarly, the Hebrew word for wind, ruach, and the Greek word for wind, pneuma, also denote both God's Spirit and the human spirit.
Speaking in tongues points to the Spirit's presence. Fire emphasizes passion. Wind signifies movement. The Christian life, individually and communally, is a life of dynamism and growth. Christians and Christian communities who sit still are like stagnant ponds that weeds and algae slowly choke to death.
Theologian Reuben Alves has described the Holy Spirit as the "aperitif of the future," saying:
We want the Spirit to be like airplane coffee, weak but reliable, and administered in small quantities. Or we want the Spirit to be a can of diet soda, bubbly and; ubiquitous, and capable of easy ownership. The heady aperitif tantalizes us, assuring us that the banquet to come will be magnificent.[6]
The Spirit speaks in ways that we can hear, fires us with passion, and moves us to action in ways that are often unpredictable but always life giving.
Almost fifty years ago, Al Unser was a favorite for winning the Indianapolis 500, until he skidded and hit the wall. He lay slumped in his burning car for only a few seconds before another driver stopped alongside Unser's burning wreck. While other cars roared past, some dangerously close to the second car, its driver, a young man named Gary Bettenhausen, clambered out, rushed over, and pulled Unser from the flames. This courageous act cost Bettenhausen, who had spent months and a small fortune in preparation, whatever chance he had had to win.[7]
"They'll know we are Christians by our love" is the title of a popular Christian song[8] The work of the Spirit, in touching us, filling us with passion, and moving us to act calls and empowers us to act with love for God and our neighbor that emulates and incarnates Christ's.
May they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

[1] Mark J. Olson, "Pentecost," Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. V, pp. 222-223.
[2] Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17.
[3] R. Maurice Boyd, The Fine Art of Being Imperfect And Other Broadcast Talks (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 1998.
[4] Joseph of Panephysies, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975), p. 7, cited in "The Problem of Unanswered Prayer," Homiletics, October-December 1992, p. 13.
[5] C. Frederick Barbee, 'From the Editor,' The Anglican Digest, Pentecost (1995), p. 2.
[6] Ruben Alves, quoted in Beverly R. Gaventa, "The Unruly Spirit," Christian Century (May 12, 1993), 515.
[7] Og Mandino, The Greatest Miracle in the World (New York: Bantam, 1975), p. 54.
[8] Peter Schools.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


The photograph above is of Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz' "Homeless Jesus." Incidentally, the photograph is of the statue in Davidsonville, NC, where St. Alban's Church, of which an Ethical Musings' reader, the Rev. David Buck, is rector, sponsored the temporary installation.

The sculpture has caused some outrage, allegedly denigrating Jesus. However, if one accepts as factual the gospel report that Jesus openly said that he had "no place to lay his head," then the inexorable conclusion is that Jesus was homeless.

Alternatively, even if Jesus did have a home, if one believes that through Jesus humans experience God's self-revelation, then conceptualizing Jesus as someone who looks or lives as we do represents a healthy theological and spiritual method. Thus, for example, I think it useful to exercise historical license and to depict Jesus as a member of various ethnicities, races, and genders. This is nothing new. Archaeologists have discovered a painting of a black Jesus that dates to the fourth century. Depictions of a female (or, even more radically, a transgendered) Jesus might help to end misogyny in and out of the Church. Such images are poignant reminders that God created and unconditionally loves all.

I see homeless persons every day. Part of the explanation is that I live in an expensive urban area that has an extremely good climate. Honolulu, unsurprisingly, has a very high rate of homelessness. Part of the explanation is that we as a society do not heed Jesus' exhortation to take care of the most vulnerable.

Some of the homeless that I see are clearly mentally ill and others have a drug or alcohol addiction. Most of these persons require significant help to achieve some degree of health. Many might benefit from the structure of living in a group home, appropriate medication and/or therapy, sobriety programs, and other long-term assistance.

People who live paycheck to paycheck can easily and irreversibly slide into homelessness. An illness, unexpected car repair, temporary layoff or other event that interrupts a person's income may leave the person unable to pay the rent for a couple of months and thereby result in eviction. Once homeless, a person may not have access to the facilities necessary for proper personal hygiene. Moving from one homeless camp to another usually disrupts children's schooling. Diet deteriorates as income drops. Most critically, hope tends to erode the longer a person is homeless, making drug or alcohol abuse more attractive as a means of deadening the pain and temporarily forgetting the sense of failure that bedevils many homeless persons.

For these persons – who are over half of the homeless on Oahu and in most other places – the best answer is to give them a temporary home. Having a home begins to restore a sense of dignity and self-worth that is essential for successfully rebuilding a life. Having a home also permits the person to have proper personal hygiene, control her/his diet, keep their children in school, and – most importantly – have an address, which is generally an essential prerequisite for employment.

Would you give Jesus a home? If when we look a homeless person we see Jesus, then maybe we will give that a person a home.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Telling Jesus' story

During Marine field training at Parris Island, South Carolina, a drill instructor threw a pinecone among the recruits and yelled, "Grenade!" The trainees immediately turned away and hit the ground. "Just as I suspected," chided the drill instructor. "Not a hero among you. Didn't anyone want to jump on that grenade to save the others?"
A little later, the DI again threw a pinecone. This time, all of the recruits but one jumped on the "grenade." "Why," demanded the instructor, "are you still standing there?"
"Sir," the recruit replied, "someone had to live to tell about it."[1]
Holy Nativity has experienced some very difficult times. You may feel heroic, having survived something equivalent to, or even worse than, a grenade attack. Importantly, you have survived, individually and as a parish and school. So, what is the story you have lived to tell? This morning's gospel reading,[2] Jesus' prayer for his disciples, suggests that our story as Christians has at least three parts.
First, Jesus prays that God's love for him may also be in his disciples. That is, he seeks the gift of God's love for us, a lesson analogous to the Maine Corps' ethos of always taking care of your Marines.
Suicide rates in the United States, and in other affluent countries, are rising. Part of the explanation is opioid abuse, which frequently begins with prescription painkillers that may or may not relieve a person's real discomfort or disease. Research repeatedly shows that money, beyond an annual income of about $72,000 in this country, and possessions do not make people happy. What's more important in determining happiness than income is a person's perception of her/his wealth compared to that of peers. Economic inequality is expanding the gap between the top 1% and the rest of us. Lastly, the real, enduring source of happiness is spiritual health. However, participation in religious communities is declining while the number of persons who self-identify as spiritual but not religious is growing. Generally, this group lacks both spiritual depth and a clear path for developing spiritual depth and health.
Episcopal priest Bob Libby learned that a parishioner named Sally whom he had never seen at the Church was hospitalized. Nevertheless, he followed his usual practice of visiting the sick. The duty nurse paused awkwardly before directing him to Sally's room. It was a semi-private room with the curtain drawn between the beds. When he asked the woman in the first bed, which was surrounded by flowers, if she was Sally, the woman pointed to the other bed. There he saw a woman who appeared to be in her mid-50s, with an IV in her arm, staring at the curtain. Fr Bob started to introduce himself, but she rudely interrupted demanding to see the nurse while complaining that she had been paging the nurse for fifteen minutes and that nobody ever came. So Bob, telling Sally where he was going, went to the nurse's station and relayed her message. While Bob waited at the nurse's station for a nurse to return from checking on Sally, the another nurse, who had rolled her eyes at his relaying Sally's request, explained that Sally constantly paged the nurses and complained incessantly about the hospital, her treatment, her family, and her life.
When the nurse returned from Sally's room and assured him that everything was ok, Fr Bob went to see Sally. True to form, she complained about the hospital, her treatment, her family, and her life. During subsequent visits, he heard an unending tale of woe and misery. When he inquired about bringing her Holy Communion, she declined. His visits seemed to produce no beneficial effects nor did they appear to contribute to his establishing a helpful pastoral relationship with Sally. So, Fr Bob found himself looking for excuses not to visit Sally and feeling like the visits were an unwelcome chore.
One day, he surprisingly discovered Sally in a better mood. She asked if he could bring communion; startled, he agreed. On his next visit, when he returned to celebrate Holy Communion, at the Lord's Prayer, she and her roommate held hands. Following the service, the rest of the story came out. One evening, whether out of compassion or self-defense, Sally's new roommate had reached out to Sally and said, "It's time to be quiet now. Let's hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer before going to sleep." Through that simple gesture, which incarnated God's compassion in a stranger, healing came to Sally. Her attitude about herself, her family, and her life changed.[3] This is Jesus' prayer for us.
Second, Jesus prays for our unity, that we may be one, even as he and God are one. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, speaking to the bishops assembled for the last Lambeth Conference, in the midst of intense conflict over decisions by the US Episcopal Church to ordain openly gay persons and to bless same sex marriages, conflict more acrimonious and bitter than anything Holy Nativity has experienced, said:
Our unity is not mutual forbearance but being summoned and drawn into the same place before the Father's throne… that's the unity which is inseparable from truth. It's broken not when we simply disagree but when we stop being able to see in each other the same kind of conviction of being called by an authoritative voice into a place where none of us has an automatic right to stand.[4]
Christian unity does not require that we agree with one another. Christian unity does require that we respect one another, for each of us is God's child made in God's image.
Third, the passage presumes that each generation of disciples will continue to attract new disciples, i.e., Jesus prays not only for his disciples but also for those who will become disciples because of the witness of his current disciples. This morning's first reading,[5] like much of the Book of Acts, records the faithful witness of the early Church.
Remember the story about the Marine recruit with which I began this sermon: someone has to live to tell the story. We are that someone. As St. Francis famously said, Preach the gospel always, and, if necessary, use words.
A pastor tells of making a hospital visit. The hospital seemed unusually quiet as he made his way down the hall to visit a church member who had suffered a stroke. After knocking on the door, he entered the room and before he spoke, the daughter said, "Daddy, guess who has come to see you?" He immediately replied, "It's my preacher." The daughter, surprised at his accuracy, asked, "How did you know that?" The father simply replied, "I know that walk."[6]
Christianity is not so much a set of beliefs as the trajectory of a person’s life. Is your life aiming toward loving God and others?
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.[7] Amen.

George M. Clifford, III
Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2016
Church of the Holy Nativity
Honolulu, HI

[1] Nellie A. Pennella, "Humor in Uniform," Reader's Digest, November 1994, p. 126.
[2] John 17:20-26.
[3] Bob Libby, Grace Happens (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1994), pp. 55-59.
[4] Rowan Williams, quoted in Charles F. Raven, Shadow Gospel: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis (Oxford, UK: Latimer Trust, 2010), p. 137.
[5] Acts 16:16-34.
[6] David M. Hughes, "Drop Everything!" in Following Jesus, ed. W. H. Gloer (Macon, GA: Smythe & Helwys Publishing, 1994).
[7] Revelation 22:17.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Should we support Sunnis or Shiites?

An Ethical Musings' reader inquired: Who are we supposed to support, Sunni or Shiite Muslims?

I'm unclear about the antecedent of the pronoun "we" in the foregoing question. The "we" may be Christians or it may be the United States. Regardless, my answer is quite simply; Support both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

First, both Sunnis and Shiites are God's children. The issues that divide Islam's two largest communities are irrelevant to non-Muslims. Controversial issues include whether leadership of the Muslim faith community requires a blood tie to the prophet Mohammed (Sunnis say no, Shiites answer yes), whether Muslims have saints and shrines (Sunnis say no, Shiites say yes), and so forth.

Second, Islam in both its Shiite and Sunni traditions is a religion of peace. Islamic extremism has arisen among both Shiites (e.g., Hezbollah) and Sunnis (e.g., al Qaeda). These extremists groups attempt to mobilize Muslims against what they perceive as egregious injustice. Clothing the protest in religious language and ideology adds an emotive power to the protest while concurrently placing the opposition between a proverbial rock and hard place. On the one hand, failing to oppose the protesters actively tacitly cedes their complaints credence and jeopardizes the status quo. On the other hand, actively opposing the protest can easily create the impression that the current regime is non-Islamic and opposed to Allah's call for justice. People and states everywhere should expose injustice for the evil that it is and support progress toward justice and peace. This entails supporting Sunni and Shiite while rejecting extremist groups that adopt a twisted form of either.

Third, Shiite Iran is challenging Sunni Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Middle East. Since the Shah of Iran's downfall, this centuries old challenge has become a principal source of conflict in the Middle East. The United States, branded by Iran as the Great Satan, has sided with Saudi Arabia, primarily because of oil interests and Saudi willingness to support U.S. foreign policy goals. Saudi trust in the U.S. is eroding. The U.S. government is increasingly open about the potential weakness of Saudi power and Saudi responsibility for having sewn many of the seeds that grew into Sunni extremism. Iran appears to want to reenter the global community. Perhaps this is the moment for U.S. policy to pivot, balancing support for Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. (N.B.: In both Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islam is the officially established religion. However, neither nation's government perfectly embodies Islamic teachings. Indeed, describing either as Islamic is demographic rather than theological; both nation's aim to promote the well-being of their governing elites rather than the fullness of Islamic justice. Of course, a similar assessment holds for allegedly Christian nations, e.g., the now defunct Holy Roman Empire.)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Seeking signs of new life

One of the most spectacular natural sights I have seen is watching, from sea at night, Kilauea's molten lava cascade into the ocean. Molten lava usually has a temperature in excess of 1200 F. In addition to a fiery iridescent beauty, its tremendous destructive power indifferently destroys homes and other structures in its path.
Once or twice most weeks, I walk in Kewalo Basin Park. For several months I wondered about a large shed with fishing nets prominently posted with signs declaring, "Kupu." My Hawaiian is extremely limited, but I do know that kapu means keep out or forbidden, so that seemed an unlikely interpretation.
Eventually, I saw a young man exiting the shed as I was approaching it. Our eyes met and I seized the opportunity to inquire about the meaning of kupu. He appeared pleased that I would take a moment to inquire and explained that the kupu is a fern, which is often the first plant to grow on freshly cooled lava. Kupu, he continued without embarrassment, is an organization that helps young people like him get a second start. He invited me to visit Kupu when I had more time to learn about the organization.[1]
It's easy to forget that the Hawaiian Islands exist because of volcanoes. Beneath all of the buildings, roads, and other structures that humans have added, beneath all of the lush flora and coral, these islands are huge piles of ash, cinder, and lava. The death and destruction of volcanic eruptions makes life here possible. You and I, this parish and school, this community and this city all are kupu, new life that flourishes where once there was only uninhabitable barrenness.
In today's gospel, Jesus said that those who love him would keep his word and he gave them his peace.[2] Jesus' command is that we love one another. Love is not the absence of conflict. Human uniqueness – each person is a unique individual – inevitably leads to disagreement and conflict. For example, no child matures into adulthood without experiencing conflict with her or his parents. Instead of our futilely attempting to avoid conflict, loving one another demands mutual respect and learning to see God in one another.
In today's gospel, Jesus also gave his peace to his disciples, that is, to you and to me. Peace is not the absence of conflict. The biblical concept of peace – both the word eirene in Greek and shalom in Hebrew – connotes human flourishing, living abundantly. We experience peace – the peace that passes all understanding, abundant living, flourishing, as individuals and as a community – when we cooperatively seek the common good, bound together by love, aloha, strengthened by our different gifts, enriched by our divergent perspectives, and completed by our sometimes-contradictory priorities.
A week and a half ago, in earthquake ravaged Montecristi, Ecuador, disheartened people spied a sign of hope. They spotted a delicate statue of the Virgin Mary, brought to Ecuador by 16th century Spanish missionaries, a statue that in earlier centuries had survived pirates shelling the city, standing undamaged in the ruins of the basilica named for her. Claims that the statue protected the city, when the earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale killed more than 570 people, ring hollow.[3] Instead, the statue, like the kupu fern, symbolizes the power of resurrection, God's power to bring life out of death.
We all, individually and collectively, have dead zones in our lives, ravaged by earthquakes, volcanoes, or other destructive forces. Many of us try to hide or to ignore these dead zones, although occasionally a public figure, such as BeyoncĂ© in her newly released album, Lemonade, will dare to break that silence. The good news of the gospel is that if we look carefully, we can see signs – an undamaged statue, a fragile fern taking root – of new and more abundant life when we dare to love one another and dedicate ourselves to building the peace that Jesus would give to us, the peace of more abundant, flourishing lives.

[1] To learn more about Kupu, cf.
[2] John 14:23-29.