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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…

Should economics trump healthcare in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me these comments:
… which gets me to the question I’m struggling with. Saving lives is a worthy ethical objective. I’ve done my own math on “flattening the curve”, and slowing the spread of the virus could indeed save hundreds of thousands of lives (or more). Absent a vaccine, a large percentage of Americans will inevitably contract the virus even in a slowly spreading pandemic, but the healthcare system would have a chance at treating them as they present instead of the Italian scenario where people who could be saved by treatment are dying because no treatment is available. That’s the scenario where the mortality rate is 5-10% instead of the 1% that we’ve seen so far in the U.S.
On the other hand, shutting down the economy indefinitely has its own costs. Perhaps not life-and-death, but the costs are real in the sense of massive unemployment, loss of employer-provided benefits such as healthcare (a feedback loop?), etc. Also, is on 2009 the persons i…

Hope strong enough for any pandemic

Today’s gospel reading that tells the story of Jesus raising a dead man seems especially timely during the COVID-19 pandemic.[1]

Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest, psychologist, and professor whose work focused on the spiritual life. In his book, The Other Side of Silence, he recounts an incident that occurred after he had preached for two consecutive Sundays on the story of Lazarus. Kelsey began his sermons by reminding his congregation that Jesus taught primarily by telling stories and parables. He then interpreted John 11 as a story that Jesus had told rather than as a factual narrative of Jesus literally restoring a dead Lazarus to life.[2] More than a century of oral transmission that crossed several generations, at least two cultures, and two languages can help to explain the conflation of a teaching story with actual historical people.

A young man whom Fr. Kelsey had been counseling – unsuccessfully - heard the sermons and, at his next counseling session recounted a dream he …

How will a virtuous person respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Predation – one species propagating and surviving at the expense of one or more other species – is widespread on earth. COVID-19 in attacking humans is doing exactly what viruses and other predators do: spreading its genes at the incidental expense of other species. In the case of COVID-19, human attention has focused on the virus because our species was previously unaware of it and we are the virus’ primary victim. Initially identified in humans in Wuhan, China, the virus has spread and now become a global pandemic.

How will a virtuous person respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

First, a virtuous person will respond courageously, not yielding to worry, fear or panic. The person will take appropriate and recommended precautions, e.g., frequent hand washing and staying three feet or further from infected persons. Then the person will relax. Having taken all recommend precautions, worrying about COVID-19 will only sap one’s strength, erode one’s health and produce other negative effe…

Lent and our need for reconciliation

A couple, married or otherwise, who split up when they have one or more children together is rarely simple. If both want a role in the child(ren)’s life, two persons now going their individual ways must find a means to co-parent and to communicate. Otherwise, even when divorce is obviously the best choice for all involved, the child(ren) will most likely enter adulthood with significantly greater challenges (if not handicaps) and deeper emotional scars.

For about a year and a half, I’ve volunteered as a mediator at the Mediation Center of the Pacific (MCP). Most of the cases that I mediate involve domestic situations: a parent wanting to establish or change timesharing arrangements (what used to be called visitation, but is more appropriately labelled timesharing since both parties are the child(ren)’s parents), custody of the children, division of marital assets/debts in case of a divorce, etc. Although mediation is not therapy, many pastoral counseling skills (e.g., active, empathi…

Jesus taught character, not rules

Today’s gospel reading offers multiple, important sermon topics: anger, violence, adultery, divorce and oath taking.[1] Instead of focusing on one topic, or all of them (think a two-hour sermon), I want to consider the passage as a whole, equipping you to interpret if for yourself.

Christians generally adopt a misguided approach toward this reading, mistakenly seeking to discover specific rules for governing human behavior from God. More broadly, Christians frequently characterize Jewish and Christian ethics as divine command ethics, God issuing a set of commands by which people should live.

An interpretation more faithful to Jesus begins by situating the text in its historical context. Jesus’ contemporaries regarded him as a rabbi, a teacher of Judaism, not as God incarnate issuing commands. What Christians regard as “law,” Jews then and now believe are instructions on how to live constantly mindful of God's loving, life-giving and liberating presence.

Imagine each of the four topic…

Why bother with church?

Recently, I attended a free, two-hour training session sponsored by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) on how to advocate for legislation with the Hawai’i State Legislature. Two aspects of the useful session particularly caught my attention.

First, the session used technology to connect people gather in four locations (one each on the islands of Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawai’i). Sitting in the session, I wondered why more groups, such as the Episcopal Church, do not use similar technology to offer seminars in multiple locations. The technology is available for free. Gathering in multiple locations can boost attendance, as it did for the ACLU. Some evangelical churches already use this type of technology to allow congregations that meet in various locations to worship together and to hear the same sermon. Slow adoption of this technology has unintentionally both limited audience size and restricted groups to hearing speakers locally available.

Second, I was among the oldest five …

Americans get the political leaders they deserve

Government of, by and for the people – we call democracy – requires that people invest some effort and maybe a little money in elections. This does not happen in the U.S.

One reason the founding fathers established the electoral college was that they did not trust the average voter to exercise his franchise wisely. And that was after limiting voting in most places to white, property owning males.

Thankfully, the U.S. has extended the privilege of voting to all citizens 18 and older who register to vote. However, that extension of the franchise has not diminished voter laziness.

Voter laziness cedes electoral power to monied interests. This is nothing new. For example, in times and places where the rule of law was less strictly enforced, voters sold their vote to the highest bidder (remember machine politics in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere).

The two most important ways that a citizen can invest in democracy are (1) to become informed about the issues and candidates and then (…