Showing posts from 2020

Seeking beauty in hard times

A friend, Ray Woo, took this photo from his apartment in the Honolulu building in which we both live. The view is of the Pacific at sunset the night before hurricane Douglas was forecast to strike Oahu. Thankfully, Douglas turned north and veered into open ocean. The beauty of the sunset, however, is striking.Had Douglas struck Oahu, the sunset’s beauty would in no way diminish or justify the harm the winds and rain would have caused. The Bible encourages people to seek the good that may come out of bad things. Yet the Bible never suggests or implies that the good in any way justifies the bad from which the good emerged.Similarly, suggesting that Covid-19 represents God's judgement on certain people, beliefs, or practices shows incredible hubris and terribly distorts who God is. God, in all of the world’s major religious traditions, is good and loving. God never wills bad things for creation nor increases the bad that exists. Metaphysical answers to the perennial question of “Why?…

Physical distancing

Ujamaa tree of lifeThe “Tree of Life” or “Ujamma” a Makonde term, is carved directly from the ebony wood tree in Tanzania. The outer, original tree bark is sometimes left intact to highlight the work. In general, the tree displays how a typical African village survives by working with nature and by each man supporting one another. The figures: animals, men, women, children, huts, and trees are carved with great detail and vary from tree to tree. The work is exceptional despite the fact that ebony wood is exceedingly dense and very, very hard to carve. Certain trees exhibit a variance in color from light to dark wood which is very attractive. With the ebony tree the further you go from the center core the lighter the wood becomes. These sculptures vary in height from 1 foot to over 6 feet tall. (Photo compliments of Kathleen Norris; text accessed July 18, 2020 at Ujamaa tree of life vividly depicts our human i…

Tribalism and Jesus' parable of the sower

Tribal conflicts characterize contemporary American life. People identify by gender or gender orientation, ethnicity or race, economic strata, by political preference or orientation, and so forth. They then reject or treat as second-rate people from other tribes.Tribal identification and conflict are not new. The Bible's oldest portions are full of tribal conflicts. For example:·Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, competed in a conflict that continues today in the enmity between some Jews and some Muslims[1]·Abraham’s grandsons and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, about whom we heard in this morning’s reading from Genesis, two tribes first identified with Israel and Edom,[2] later identified with the conflict between urban and rural, a conflict that continues today[3]·The conflict between the ten northern and two southern tribes of nation of Israel that began when Solomon died, a conflict that first manifested itself in wars between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, then morphed i…


Facemasks are becoming ubiquitous as people try to avoid catching Covid-19. As anyone who has worn a facemask quickly discovers, the mask traps many of the moist aerosol particles exhaled with every breath. Wearing a non-medical mask may do little to protect the wearer, but offers some measure of protection to persons around the wearer. The more people who wear masks, the more mask wearing is an example of reciprocal altruism in action: I act, not knowing who I may help, trusting others, usually persons unknown to me, to protect me by wearing a mask.Facemasks do hide much of a person’s face, unavoidably diminishing non-verbal communication.Facemasks also seem to diminish whatever propensity people may have to greet verbally persons they pass or see. It is as if wearing a mask creates not only a degree of anonymity but also a barrier that discourages saying hello and other incidental, verbal communication with strangers. This barrier probably represents a lack of trust, a wariness, tow…

Allowing the ordinary to become extraordinary

In her Pulitzer prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote about moments of arresting beauty. She remarked to an interviewer, “Consider the lilies of the field” is the only commandment she never broke. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there . . . so that creation need not play to an empty house.”[1]

However, Dillard also observed and recorded surprising pain. One memorable moment was watching “a small green frog floating on the surface of a pond until suddenly it transmogrifies before her, its skull collapsing inward ‘like a kicked tent,’ its body ‘shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.’” A giant water beetle had villainously punctured the frog’s belly, poisoned the frog and then sucked out its innards.[2]

Even when we spend time in nature’s theater, discerning the sacred in nature, post-Darwin, is no simple task. Evolution’s dependence on the survival of the fittest has permanently …

Leadership in a time of crises

Current U.S. crises – the Covid-19 pandemic, endemic racism, burgeoning economic inequality, a looming recession (or even a depression) and a president who appears to prefer tyranny instead of democracy – offer a once in a generation for change. We need leaders who envision what might be rather than attempting to preserve the badly broken and immoral what is.Distress in the U.S. is palpable, caused by 100,000 plus deaths, the murder of unarmed black men and imprisonment of almost 20% of black men under 30 years of age, a 1% whose wealth exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 80%, unemployment at about 20% and growing, and a president who prefers dictators to democratically elected leaders, militarism to lawful protest, and loyalty to himself over truth and a free press.The current distress offers a unique opportunity for systemic, adaptive change. A national healthcare system would cost less while more effectively prioritizing well-being than does the current broken, exclusionary h…

In praise of simplicity

A tourist stops at the home of the great Rabbi. Since the Rabbi has such a world-renowned reputation the visitor expects to see a great home filled with valuable treasures.; However, he is shocked when he sees a bare home with almost nothing in it. “Where are your possessions?” he asks in astonishment.

The Rabbi responds, “Where are yours?”

“What kind of question is that?” the tourist responded. “I’m a visitor here.”

“I am too,” the Rabbi replied.

Long before Marie Kondo, nineteenth century designer and supporter of the arts and crafts movement William Morris advocated, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”[1] Or, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity."

Stay at home orders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted many people to act on advice. Some are sorting through their possessions, looking at items unused and perhaps unseen f…

Science, morality and the pandemic

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.David Brooks, “If We Had a Real Leader,” New York Times, May 28, 2020

Living daily with suspicion

Response to the Covid-19 pandemic has promoted a culture of suspicion. Who or what might transmit the virus to me? Do I have the virus? Who is the person behind the face mask? What is their facial expression in this moment?

Requiring masks have highlighted a couple of ironies. First, in most locations, patrons do not have to wear a mask when in a bank. Authorities fear that masks may confuse bank personnel about who is and is not a bank robber. Second, in countries like France, that prohibit individuals from wearing facial coverings for religious reasons (primarily niqabs by Muslim women), authorities now struggle with whether to mandate face coverings as a means of preventing Covid-19 from spreading. The prevalence of face masks, including my wearing one, has given me a personal understanding of the pros and cons of wearing a niqab, and I have found no advantage apart from health concerns for wearing a face mask.

Twentieth century liberation theologians introduced a hermeneutic of s…

When religion becomes silly

According to a recent poll reported in the British newspaper the Guardian, two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that the Covid-19 pandemic is a message from God. A striking 31% told pollsters that God sent the virus to tell humanity to change its behaviors and attitudes. God wants people to oppose abortion, same sex marriage, gay rights and other “liberal” views. Unsurprisingly, these individuals describe themselves as evangelical or fundamental Christians.

To suppose that God visited a Cov9d-19 “plague” on humanity terribly distorts the human perception of God. While people are unable to describe God's nature, concepts such as light, love and energy point to that which we call God, the divine, the Alone and a host of other names.

At best, those misguided believers have adopted a silly response to the virus. God does not specifically create or spread individual viruses; nor does God cause evil. Viruses are simply part of the cosmos, something that emerged from the pri…

Re-opening churches

When should church buildings, closed for public worship during the pandemic, reopen?

To begin, churches should comply with government orders to close during public health emergencies such as the current pandemic. As an ordained Christian leader for four plus decades, I’m comfortable writing about Christianity. Leaders of other faith groups must conduct their own assessments, weighing public health against religious freedom.

Christianity values life and offers a path toward more abundant living. Needlessly endangering life through corporate worship amid a public health emergency contravenes the foundational Christian value of protecting and promoting life. Nowhere do the Christian Scriptures mandate attendance at public worship. Christians can worship alone, with those who live with them or in virtual gatherings. Physically worshiping together is important, as I have repeatedly argued in Ethical Musings posts. However, protecting life is even more important. In sum, temporary bans on …

Resilience for such a time as this

The term resilient can evoke an image of a strong, silent person, most often a man such as several of the characters that John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have portrayed. Such a person who stubbornly persists no matter what occurs, never sharing his (or her) feelings. That stereotype unhelpfully confuses emotional openness with the ability to persevere or bounce back from hardship. Illustratively, emotional openness connotes awareness of one’s feeling and a willingness to share those feelings with another; resilience is the rider who, trying to break a horse, when thrown gets up, shakes off the dust, and gets back in the saddle.

Resilience receives too little attention in discussions of Christian character. Yet, resilience is vital for healthy living. Resilience helps a person to bounce back after adversity. Christianity is not a prophylactic against bad things happening to a person nor can Christianity set the world, or even the Christian, right after bad things happen. Christians, lik…

Finding God in a pandemic

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
John 20:24-29
John 20:24-29 is part of the Gospel reading in Episcopal Eucharistic services on the Second Sunday of Easter. The COVID-19 pandemic can cas…

Some thoughts on how to grow a congregation numerically

Conventional thinking about church growth and evangelism is analogous to the challenges of selling printed encyclopedias in our internet dependent era. Until the last third of the twentieth century, Christian congregations generally grew when current members had children, people who relocated to the area sought a congregation or after developing a distinct identity, e.g., a congregation with the best traditional worship music in the area.

No more. Even the once significant number of persons raised in the faith who left Christianity as teens or college students and subsequently returned to it in their late twenties or early thirties with spouse and young children is rapidly vanishing.

People used to belong to a Christian congregation and to attend worship for one or more of these reasons:

Christianity was the religion in which the person had been raised and the individual never deeply questioned whether to belong Cultural norms, forces or perceived social benefits kept the individual …

How many churches will COVID-19 “kill”?

How many churches will COVID-19 “kill”?
Two definitions are essential to understand that question correctly. First, “church” denotes a local congregation. That is, “church” designates a local organization and not a theological concept. By extension, “small” connotes a church with a low Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) and not the size of the church’s physical plant. Second, “kill” connotes the institutional demise of an individual church and not the death, spiritual or physical, of that congregation’s members.
The Episcopal Church is experiencing a well-documented, long-term numerical decline. The number of Episcopal churches dropped from 6964 in 2008 to 6423 in 2018 (Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts Trends: 2008-2012 and Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts: 2018). The 2008 financial crisis, precipitated by the housing bubble bursting, placed many churches in dire financial straits, assuredly accelerating, if not causing, some of that 9% decline in the number of churches.
Forecasts project the…