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Making room for Jesus

Steve Brown, a minister, remembers seeing a car one day while driving home that was the ugliest car he had ever seen. This car wasn't just ugly – it was ugly on top of ugly. The car’s side had a large gash; one of the doors was held together with wire; and several other body parts were almost completely rusted out. The car's muffler was so loose that with every bump, it hit the street, sending sparks flying. He couldn't tell the car’s original color. Rust had eaten away much of the paint, and so lots of the car had been painted over with so many different colors that any one of them (or none of them) could have been the original. Dirt and duct tape seemed to be holding the vehicle together. The most interesting thing about the car was a bumper sticker that read, in capital letters, "THIS IS NOT AN ABANDONED CAR."[1]
The meaning of Christmas, this year and every year, is that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth God sent a message of hope to an ugly, broken, hurting w…

Conflict, Advent and Change

A traveler arrived in a small village in the middle of winter to find an old man shivering in the cold outside the synagogue.” What are you doing here?” the traveler inquired.
“I'm waiting for the coming of the Messiah.”
“That must be an important job,” said the; traveler. “The community must pay you a lot of money.”
“No, not at all. They just let me sit here on this bench. Once in a while someone gives me a little food.”
“That must be hard. But even if they don't pay you, they must honor you for doing this; important work.”
“No, not at all they think that I'm crazy.”
“I don't understand. They don't pay you, they don't respect you. You sit in the cold, shivering and hungry. What kind of job is this?”
“Well, it's steady work.” (Source unknown)
In her 2012 Advent message, the Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, who at the time was serving as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, asked, "What do you desire most?"
Individuals will answer her que…

Prayer Book revision and General Convention

Shortly after the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention (GC) adjourned this past summer, an Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this opinion on the move by GC to initiate a process to revise the Book of Common Prayer:
The TFLPBR (Task Force for Liturgy and Prayer Book Revision) reminds me of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), which laid an egg and deservedly faded from sight. TFLPBR will take forever to get organized and the debate over its work will be endless. Even if you and I live long lives, there’s a significantly probability that 1979 will remain the official book when we will have passed on. Meanwhile, public worship in TEC is being balkanized across diocesan boundaries (and perhaps within individual dioceses) by experimentation, supplemental liturgies, etc. One has to ask whether GC and the other decision-making apparatus of TEC are utterly dysfunctional.
So far, the reader’s predictions seem on target.
Furthermore, congregations increasingly rely…

Advent Preparations that Can Transform Your Life

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

Creation care and Advent

Creation care involves much more than taking steps to reduce or even attempt to reverse climate change. An autopsy of a dead whale that was recently found on an Indonesian beach revealed the whale had more than 1000 pieces of plastic in its belly. Creation care entails acting in ways that are good for the welfare of other species and of the planet as a whole.
Advent, which begins on Sunday, December 2, is a season of preparation for celebrating God’s incarnation, specifically in human form but more generally in all of the cosmos.
For centuries, Christians mistakenly equated preparation with penitence: clergy instructed their congregants to identify their sin and then seeking forgiveness for it, seeking to make oneself spiritually pure in order to be worthy of experiencing the incarnate God’s presence. This mistaken emphasis is why in most churches the color for Advent is purple.
Thankfully, a growing number of Christians and churches now recognize that spiritual preparation is not sy…

Jamal Khashoggi and the Christian concept of time

Last Sunday, a person in the adult discussion group that I have been leading in the parish where I am a priest associate outlined the traditional Christian view of time as a line with Jesus as the decisive inflection point. I disagreed, even though the linear conception of time, with God existing outside of time, was what I had been taught in seminary.
Time is more helpfully conceived of as a bumpy spiral. The bumps are reminders that history does not proceed in a smooth pattern. Spurts, plateaus, and fallbacks are all part of time. The spiral is a reminder that history does repeat. There are multiple inflection points: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others. These are people who have altered the direction of history. Insistence on a single inflection argues for Christian exclusivity: Jesus is the only path that leads to salvation.
Whether the spiral, unlike the linear view of history, is going somewhere must remain an open question. One can make an optimistic case (Martin Luther K…

Where are you going?

Recently, I stumbled across the Farnam Street blog. The site is dedicated to self-improvement and leadership. The site’s self-improvement aspects differ greatly from the self-help genre popularized by Deepak Chopra, Stephen Covey, Anthony Robinson, BrenĂ© Brown, and others.
Farnam Street wants its readers to think. The quotation at the top of the page describing the blog’s principles is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
The blog then enumerates its five principles:
1.Direction over speed
2.Live deliberatively
3.Thoughtful opinions held loosely
4.Principles outlive tactics
5.Own your actions
Leaders from an amazing variety of fields find the Farnam Street blog helpful. I encourage you to take a look. Even if you don’t look at the blog, ponder the five principles enumerated above. …

Creation care

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

Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead

Vietnam veteran Eugene J. Toni went to see the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. Standing under a full moon in March 1991, he flipped through the paperback directory of names on the wall, looking for friends. Eventually, he turned to the T's in a long-shot search for an uncle he had never met. Instead, he found his own name. He and his wife, Nancy, walked down to panel 17, counted to line 121. He said, "I showed her my name, and then we both looked at each other in amazed disbelief."[1]
Today’s gospel reading has three possible interpretations.[2] First, people may take the reading literally, expecting God to intervene supernaturally to heal an incurable disease, prevent bad things from happening to loved ones, and generally to solve the world’s problems. These misguided hopes at best offer temporary relief and usually break hearts when God fails to deliver. As an old tradition reports, when Lazarus was unbound, the first thing he said was, "Must I d…

Resurrection and life after death

What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of Jesus?
The earliest answer, from a chronological perspective, probably affirmed a literal, bodily resurrection. This view fit nicely into a worldview populated by persons of mixed divine-human parentage in which other individuals were alleged to have risen from the dead. This view also fit nicely into a pre-scientific worldview.
The physical view became problematic with the advance of science that began during the Enlightenment. Illustrative of scientific difficulties with positing a physical resurrection is that a physical body begins to deteriorate immediately upon death. Yet Christians over the centuries have preferred burial to cremation precisely because of their mistaken belief in the resurrection of the physical body.
The second answer, again from a chronological perspective, was to interpret Jesus’ resurrection spiritually, that is, the resurrected Jesus was a new-being, changed from physical into a new quality of being. Thi…

Seeking greatness

Many aspire to greatness. And even if we do not aspire to greatness, without ambition few of us would achieve very much. This morning’s gospel offers practical lessons in ambition and the goals for which we should be ambitious.
James and John seek Jesus out in private.[1] They begin, I suspect, somewhat abashedly, by asking Jesus to grant any request they make.[2] In this they are like children with a parent, or a sailor with a chief, when the requester knows that the request isn’t quite right and is likely to be denied. You know the feelings I’m talking about, I am sure. We have all tried this technique at least once or twice.
Matthew reports that James and John were even more subtle. They did not go by themselves to see Jesus, but went with their mother and had her ask Jesus.[3] Some scholars suspect that Matthew’s account may reflect an effort to make James and John look less ambitious, less political, instead portraying them as saintlier.
In any case, the gospel seems a clear rej…

Preventing sexual assaults

An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me some comments and questions about preventing sexual abuse:
With so much going on about sex assaults, it is time for the church to get involved. Since few parents talk about protection, evidently, then having the church offer classes on behaviors and power may make all congregants wiser. Including how to protect both men and women would be a good start. The classes need to definitely include going Dutch when going out and not trusting others buying you drinks, food or gifts. Would discussing what to do if encountering a potential situation in which assaults might occur avoid assaults from happening?
These lessons may not stop determined assailants but might lessen the probability of it happening.
Churches, frequently under the auspices of local ecumenical or interfaith groups, used to offer sex education classes. In the 1960s many school districts refused to conduct sex education classes. In some areas, churches and other religious congregations band…

Whoever is nor against us is for us

A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt when a boy interrupted, “My Mom looked back once while she was driving,” he declared triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”[1]
Jesus has been described as the most tolerant person who ever lived. His words are striking: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”[2] Biblical scholars regard this as an authentic teaching of Jesus because his disciples preserved it even though its openness would have assuredly made them uncomfortable.[3]
The disciples’ discomfort is understandable. Humans share an innate proclivity to belong to well-defined groups such as a family, clan, nation state, sports team, or religious body. It’s unsurprising that the Church gradually shifted away from the openness so clearly expressed in the gospel, constricting “into a rigid, restrictive and exclusive system of belief.” Every question had only one right answer.[4] Commitment to doctrinal conformity was a …