Soul Wellness Means Rejecting False Promises (371)

When I first read Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by two seemingly contradictory reactions: (1) Pinker’s data was thoroughly researched and clearly accurate – violence, intolerance, and poverty are on a world-wide decline and that trajectory continues; but, (2) Pinker’s conclusions didn’t square with other data that indicate we live in a world where people increasingly report to be lonelier, more anxious, and in search of greater meaning in their lives. How could both of these be true? If things are getting so much better, if we’re progressing so much, then why are we so unhappy, anxious, and lonely? After all, the project of western democracy and market capitalism was supposed to make things better for more people. But it all comes down to one’s definition of “better.” Our culture defines “better” primarily in materialistic terms. We have no shared definition of what it means to have a sense of doing and being well in the world apart from one defined by the gratification of our material desires. This also perverts any intelligible notions we have about the nature of human freedom. Freedom now appears to be solely defined by the ability to get what we want when we want it.

This week, I read an insightful piece by Andrew Sullivan that made sense of both sets of data. Sullivan writes: As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. He goes on to write: [Pinker’s] general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

Sullivan nails it. This “deeper kind of happiness” is what Aristotle called eudaemonia, which literally means a “well-spirit.” It’s often translated as “happiness,” which wrongly conveys what he intended. Aristotle was describing a “soul wellness” that comes from living a certain way and not by pursuing happiness. For Christians, we’d say that eudaemonia comes from living our baptismal identity and purpose in the world rather than from pursuing our culture’s definition of freedom and happiness. That means there is indeed a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul, but that healing requires us to reject deeply-seeded American cultural values about happiness and freedom that most people have accepted as true without much reflection. Those values will never bring us “soul wellness.” On the contrary, they’re making us emotionally and spiritually sicker. Time Magazine reported this week that a record number of college students are seeking help for anxiety and depression, which is probably in part due to their growing unease with these unfulfillable cultural promises. This is an evangelism opportunity, but before we can share the promises of the Good News of Jesus, we first must confess the sickness in our own souls from swallowing these false promises.



Statement of the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
Camp Allen, Texas
March 7, 2018
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
At this critical moment young people of the United States are inviting us to turn away from the nightmare of gun violence to the dream of choosing life. The young people of Parkland, Florida are calling for elected officials to:
* ban the sale of assault weapons
* prohibit the sale of high capacity magazines
* close loopholes in background checks

Others are seeking to:
* ban the sale of bump stocks
* raise the age to 21 years to purchase firearms
* challenge the National Rifle Association to support safe gun legislation.

We, the bishops of The Episcopal Church, wholeheartedly support and join with the youth in this call to action.

At the same time, we acknowledge that black and brown youth have continuously challenged the United States to address the gun violence that they and their communities are experiencing. We repent that, as bishops, we have failed to heed their call.

As bishops we commit to following the youth of the United States in their prophetic leadership. To that end we will observe a day of Lament and Action on March 14th, one month to the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We pledge ourselves, and we invite our dioceses, to participate in the “March for our Lives” on March 24 in Washington DC and in cities and towns across the United States. We recognize the urgency of this moment and we recommit to working for safe gun legislation as our church has called for in multiple General Convention resolutions. In addition, we pledge ourselves to bring the values of the gospel to bear on a society that increasingly glorifies violence and trivializes the sacredness of every human life.

We will walk with the youth of the United States today and into the future in choosing life.
Bishops United Against Gun Violence:


Treating Refugees Humanely (369)

The BBC reported earlier this week that two lions were rescued from abandoned zoos in war-torn Iraq and Syria now have been flown to their new home in South Africa. The older lion, four-year-old Simba, was found barely alive a year ago in a private zoo in Mosul, Iraq. All the other animals had died of starvation or bombing. The younger lion, two-year old Saeed, was rescued from a zoo near Aleppo, Syria. Saeed was born during some of the fiercest fighting of the Syrian civil war and he was “skin and bones” when he rescued last July. After months of rehabilitation, an animal welfare charity called “Four Paws” flew Simba and Saeed to Lion’s Rock, a big cat sanctuary in South Africa. The rescue and rehabilitation of these two lions took countless hours of work by many people and at great financial cost. That’s more than we can say for most human refugees. And it’s that irony that has caught my attention. What if the same effort and expense were made for each human refugee of civil wars?

Now, before I’m overwhelmed with feedback, let me just say I love animals as much as most human beings. After all, I’m afflicted with three dogs at home. I share most people’s conviction that all animals, wild or domesticated, should be treated humanely and there’s never an excuse for intentional cruelty toward an animal. So, I rejoice these two lions were rescued, rehabilitated, and now are safely living in an animal sanctuary. This story, however, does show how these senseless wars have skewed our moral priorities. My hunch is the big-hearted, generous people who worked on and funded the lions’ rescue, rehabilitation, and transport to South Africa did so out of love for animals. That’s a good thing. My further hunch is that for some of these folk what was going through their minds with this: “we may not be able to stop these crazy wars and the hundreds of thousand people being killed, but at least we can save these two lions.”

Four months ago, a woman and her 7-year-old daughter arrived near San Diego and presented themselves to border agents. They had fled from their home in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, they were finally in the U.S., a place of safety away from the war, seeking refugee asylum. Less than a week later, the woman’s daughter was taken from her without explanation as to where they were taking her or when she would see her daughter again. Today, this woman still remains at a detention center in the San Diego area, while her young daughter is detained in Chicago apart from her mother or anyone else she knows.

This is what I meant by skewed moral priorities. I’m glad the lions are safe now in South Africa, but I’m appalled that we appear to be treating lions far better than human beings. A 7-tear-old girl was taken from her mother and sent a thousand miles away. How could those responsible see that as anything but inhumane (so much for the so-called “family values” we say we esteem)? I know that no one country, even a large, enormously wealthy country like ours, can solve every refugee problem that exists. But, at the very least, we can keep a mother and daughter together and have them live in humane conditions while their asylum application is being lawfully considered. That is, we can if we care at all about our morality.



Google Review of Bishop’s Visitation (368)

Recently, I made an Episcopal Visitation to one of our congregations and, lo and behold, a Google Review was posted afterward by a person going by the internet name “Church Rat.” I found this fascinating. So, as Rod Serling would’ve said: “presented for your approval,” the following is a Google Review of that Sunday, or so I’m led to believe.

I arrived at the church about 5 minutes before the service and was welcomed by a man at the front door. He introduced me to a lady standing next to him. I must’ve looked like a “rookie” because she told me that I should sit with her. I complied and followed her to the back pew. She said this was her regular “perch.” Without saying more, she flipped down some mechanism underneath the pew in front, knelt on it, crossed herself (I assume she was doing that – she did it so fast she could’ve been signaling for the baserunner to steal 2nd base). When she finished what she was doing (praying, I guess, as her lips were moving silently while her eyes were squeezed shut), she sat back down, smiled at me, and said: “Just do what I do.”

The organ music which had been playing softly in the background suddenly became loud and everyone stood up, so I did, too. Down the center aisle came a long line, first young people dressed in red robes with white gowns over them, then what appeared to be the choir (dressed in similar fashion), followed by the clergy, dressed like James Brown did when he was on stage. At the end of the line, was this old man, arrayed in quite an outfit, with a large white pointy hat on his head. My “guide” turned and whispered loudly: “That’s our bishop.” I was unimpressed. Even with all the fancy clothes, he didn’t strike me as much.

After the music ended, there were a series of prayers and Bible readings. Then this “bishop” spoke. I guess it was supposed to be a sermon. He didn’t stand in their pulpit, rather he stood in the aisle near the front pews. He seemed highly amused with himself and evidently thought he was funny as he laughed at his own lame stories. I’ve heard a lot of preaching in my time, but he didn’t scare me much. He did mention the blood of Jesus one time and I got a bit wobbly, but he just kept talking about God’s love, following Jesus, you know, blah, blah, blah. He had exchanged his white pointy hat for a purple beany. I don’t know why though. The service went on from there until they passed the plates for money.

My “guide” was sweet. She tried to get me to go up with her for the bread and wine, but I declined. It’s flu season, after all. When the service (finally) ended, she asked: “Well, what did you think?” Wasn’t it wonderful!” I smiled and agreed. She invited me “next door” for coffee and what she called “treats,” but I hightailed it home. Maybe I’ll go back when the bishop isn’t there. There was something mysterious and compelling about the whole thing. I’d like to try the bread and wine after flu season is over.

I wish you a holy Lent as we show hospitality to all and prepare ourselves for the Easter Resurrection, which is on April Fool’s Day this year. How about that?



The Ash Wednesday Massacre (367)

Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness – from the Collect for Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, we had yet another mass shooting in a school, this time in south Florida. The picture of a distraught parent from the school hugging another parent with the visible “ash cross” on her forehead will forever be seared into my memory. More senseless killing by a young man who had legally purchased his semi-automatic rifle, which allowed him to shoot many children and reload quickly, multiplying the carnage. Clearly, the young man who did this unspeakable evil was disturbed mentally. Still, he was allowed to walk into a gun store and purchase this weapon (which all experts say is built specifically to kill many people quickly). What 19-year-old needs a semi-automatic assault rifle? What kind of society allows for a gun sale like that to happen? One in need of “acknowledging our wretchedness,” that kind.

I didn’t even need to read the responses from our elected officials. They all read from the same pre-written script that they’ve read from many times before. They express outrage, assure every one of their prayers, and suggest with a tone of moral indignation that we shouldn’t “politicize” this particular tragedy (or future ones, one assumes). Senator Marco Rubio from Florida said: “I hope people reserve judgment…the facts of this are important.” Yes, facts are important. Later, he said, as soon as these facts are known, then “we can have a deeper conversation about why these things happen.”

Except that “deeper conversation” never happens. These mass killings are the price we pay for the current government’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment (it hasn’t always been interpreted that way in previous generations). More than 430 people have been shot in 273 school attacks since the massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012 and three of the deadliest have occurred just in the last year. And those numbers, representing the lives of real children, don’t even include the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando.

One of the prime directives of any government is the defense of its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, like our children. Even those who argue, such as the libertarian view does, for the least governmental activity in the life of its citizens agree that the safety and defense of its citizens is the central role of all government. And yet, the elected officials who run our government do nothing other than offer their condolences and prayers and say how awful it is. How is that defending our children?

In our Ash Wednesday litany just two days ago, we confessed to God “all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.” Well, I will confess my impatience right now. I’m impatient with the pride and hypocrisy of all of us as we have come to tolerate this evil. We take great pride as Americans. But the truth is this: We’re all a bunch of hypocrites because even as we say we love our children, we continue to allow them to be killed while we have a non-existent “deeper conversation.”



A Requiem for My Father (366)

Kelly and I are traveling to be with my family to mourn my father’s death. Six years ago this month, I wrote the eCrozier below as he began his decline. It seems right to share a version of it as a requiem for his life:

The old coach is in the late fourth quarter of his final game. The ability he once had to manage the clock, make substitutions, and call the right play is gone. He’s slipping away. The once robust, barrel-chested man who seemingly could do anything he set his mind to, is now bent over, holding on to a walker, shuffling uneasily from bed to chair to restroom. My father is the old coach. Visiting him recently brought back so many powerful memories of my childhood: Teaching me how to swim by throwing me into the deep end, jumping in with me, and then without holding me, telling me I could do it myself, encouraging me all the way to the pool’s edge; showing me the right and safe way to change a car’s flat tire; explaining in painstaking detail the gentlemanly way to behave when a man carries a young lady out on a date; and so much more. My earliest memories of my father are sitting on his knee in our living room helping him (or so I thought) evaluate next week’s football opponents as the projector played game film. He’d say something like: “See how their safety cheats up to the line of scrimmage on first down? By the second quarter we’ll fool him with a play action pass.” At the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but by junior high I was helping him grade his players on film each week.

This week I loaded the old coach in his van and drove him to the cemetery where he and my mother will be buried. He wasn’t exactly sure where we were. We couldn’t find their graves, but we did find where his grandparents, my great grandparents, Edward and Clara, are buried. We then drove on to the little house where he was born in 1929. I wanted to see it again. In 1963 while staying with my grandparents for the day my grandfather introduced me to the Ku Klux Klan with a picture book full of burning crosses. When my father came to pick me up at the end of the day and saw what I had in my hands, he threw the book in the trash, had some harsh words with my grandfather, and we drove off. It would be years before I’d see my grandfather again. On the way home from seeing his old house, he needed to use the restroom, so I stopped at a restaurant and guided him toward the restroom. There I had to help him do everything, even soaping his hands and then drying them off, just as he’d done for me well over a half century before. On the way out, people stared seemingly with pity at this shuffling old man bent over his walker slowly moving between the tables. I wanted to shout at them: “Don’t pity the old coach. Stand up, for a good man is passing by.”

A few years ago, when my father was elected to the Ohio Football Coaches Hall of Fame, one of his former players, who was the first black quarterback to lead one of his teams during the tumultuous 1960’s, wrote to me about his “commitment to what was right, instead of what was popular and convenient.” All the players who ever played for him received that life lesson from my father. And, so did I.



It’s Groundhog Day, or is it? (365)

Today we celebrate a high holy day when people anticipate a miraculous foretelling of the future. I refer, of course, to Groundhog Day. On this day every year Punxsutawney Phil sticks his head up and predicts the weather that is to come. Of course, today is also the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the world’s Savior, where Simeon & Anna stick their heads up in the temple and proclaim Jesus to be the savior of all people. So, that’s a challenge, among others, for living in today’s world. While the culture is saying it’s Groundhog Day, we’re saying it’s the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Where we see God’s revelation, others see the swami, the seer of weather, Punxsutawney Phil.

We’d like to believe we’re so sophisticated that we’re no longer shaped by superstition. Yet, we often seem to be more dazzled by the spectacular than we are by God’s straight-forward revelation among real people living real circumstances. Our penchant for superstition can lead us to see God as a divine magician always ready to pull a rabbit out of his cosmic hat, shaping us to believe that God only works in spectacular ways. Now, that’s not to say that God doesn’t work in such ways. That’s not my point. Where we go wrong is when we see God as a divine faucet we can turn on when we need something spectacular and can just as easily turn off when we don’t. How many people do you know (maybe you?) who only pray when they need something big from God? That’s certainly how our culture depicts prayer. You’ve seen the movies. The hero is in a tough jam. He’s not sure exactly how he’s going to make it through. So, he pauses and says something like: “Lord, you know I never asked you for much, but this time I need a big favor.” If that isn’t accurate, then there’d never be another country song written!

This distorts our understanding of God’s work in the world, besides being at odds with Scripture. Remember, Jesus came into the world so that you, I, and everyone else would be reconciled to God. Put simply, he came to forgive our sins on the cross. But for some folks that’s not spectacular enough. Or maybe, it’s just too personal? To acknowledge that forgiving our sins and reconciling us to God is what Jesus came to do means we must admit that our real sins need God’s reconciliation. Some would rather focus on the Virgin Mary’s image on some random water tower because they don’t want to face what Jesus is really all about. It hits too close to home. It’s way too personal.

Jesus came to meet us in the “everydayness” of our lives as they really are. He came with a simple message: God loves us so much that God can’t bear to see us separated from God’s presence. It was among the blood and spittle of the cross that God accomplished our forgiveness. It was in the real life and the real death of Jesus on the cross that God revealed the most important message ever delivered to humanity. And it was in his resurrection from the dead that this amazing message was ratified for all eternity.

This is where God meets us and redeems us: In the real life and the real death of each of us. I’d call that big and spectacular, but then again, I still think February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.



Revival Revisited: Kathy Mattea & John Prine (364)

In what sounds like the title of an excellent John Prine song, the British government has recently appointed a “Minister for Loneliness” to tackle what Prime Minister Theresa May calls a “sad reality of modern life.” According to U.K. government figures, more than 9 million people there “always or often feel lonely.” An increasing body of research has found that feelings of social isolation can have profound, negative health effects. Loneliness, we’re now seeing, is simply bad for people’s health, not to mention bad for the social cohesion of any society. This calls to my mind that wonderful Kathy Mattea song, where she sings:

And I guess we never learn
Go through life parched and empty
Standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst

It’s the irony of modern life that even though we’re surrounded by people, so many of us are lonely. We’re all “standing knee deep” in other people and yet we’re “dying of thirst” for authentic relationships with others. Some of this is self-imposed, to be sure. We’re afraid that if we risk being in relationship, then we’ll be hurt or rejected. So, some people just choose not to take that risk. Others simply don’t know how or where to make those connections in order to have deep relationships. Still others, and I think they’re a minority, actually believe they have no need of other people.

At our Revival, our Presiding Bishop taught us about self-centeredness; it being the opposite of love. In a way, loneliness is the by-product of self-centeredness. One reason some people are lonely is that they can become so self-oriented that no one wants to be around them. But these folks are few and far between. The vast majority of lonely people are lonely because they don’t know how or where to make authentic relationships. And I’m not only talking about people who live out in the woods by themselves. People can be “knee deep” with others and still be “dying of the thirst” of loneliness. And, sadly, there are not people around them who are committed to help them get out of that trap.

And this is where you and I come in as people of the “Jesus Movement.” Love, as our Presiding Bishop has taught us, is the opposite of self-centeredness. If we’re to love as Jesus loves us, we’ll break through the loneliness of others and invite them, as our Presiding Bishop says, into a “loving, liberating, and life-giving relationship with God.” And that can only happen in the fellowship and love of the church; for it is only in the church where one learns the merciful, unmerited Gospel of Jesus. It’s only in the church where we’re fed and formed by God’s Word & Sacraments, so we might go into the world together with the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus.

As usual, John Prine sang it best:
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”



Reason for Revival (363)

This Saturday, many of us will gather at our Camp and Retreat Center, Honey Creek, for a Revival led by our Church’s Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry. We’re calling this Revival: “Fearless Faith, Boundless Love.” Some people have asked me why we’re using the term “Revival” for our gathering. These questioners are implying some discomfort with the term, maybe hinting at historical baggage from their previous church experience. While I’m sorry this term might dredge up negative feelings in some, we’re not at all apologetic for using the term. We need a “Revival” of faith and hope in the Diocese of Georgia. And others, who aren’t currently members of one of our congregations, need to be unabashedly invited to trust in Jesus as their Lord & Savior.

But let’s be clear: we’re not gathering on Saturday at Honey Creek to congratulate ourselves for being Episcopalians. To paraphrase Jesus, “God can raise up Episcopalians from the rocks in the road.” And hopefully, we’re not going to Honey Creek just to have fun together and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation on Georgia’s lovely coast. Although I hope we experience both fun and joy on Saturday, I hope that’s not the primary reason we’re there. And, I really hope we’re not gathering at Honey Creek just to prove to the world that we Episcopalians know how to be evangelistic when we want to, but most of the time, we just don’t want to. Rather, I hope we’re gathering because we’re all being convicted by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Truth be told: I believe more than a few Episcopalians today don’t see any urgency in evangelizing others, that is, to humbly and graciously invite another person to put their whole trust in Jesus’s saving grace and then to follow him as Lord. I guess some people think that a person may not be need such grace; that they’ll be just fine if they put their “whole trust” in something else or someone else. And I’m not talking about trusting Jesus in order to avoid Hell. There is a literal Hell and everyone who wants to be there, gets to be there. Anyway, that’s God’s business, not ours. Rather, I’m talking about helping others to discover how more wonderful their lives will be when they trust that Jesus died for their sins and thus has liberated them to love others and to live compassionately and mercifully in this world.

I also hope no one on Saturday will be asked “to give their lives to Jesus.” Our human frailty will always make that turn out poorly for the one being asked to give such a claim. But, I hope everyone will hear that “Jesus gave his life for us” and that faith is trusting in what he has done and not in anyone’s capacity to “give their lives to Jesus.”

And on a somewhat related note: after Georgia’s painful loss to Alabama last week, Jeb Blazevich, a senior tight end for the Bulldogs, was asked by an interviewer: “Jeb, after four years here playing football at Georgia, and after playing in the National Championship Game, what do you think your legacy is?” Jeb replied: “I don’t know, Jesus loved me, and he told me to love people, and I just want to try to do that.”

Yes! Let’s be like Jeb!



Not Good Guys vs Bad Guys (362)

I’d never heard of the term “vlogger” until this past week. Apparently, a “vlogger” (a video blogger) is someone who makes videos, posts them on social media, and somehow monetizes that into a paying job. Anyway, there’s a young man named Logan Paul who has quite an internet following, making a good living sharing videos of his adventures. During a recent visit to Japan, Mr. Paul, spent time at a national forest near Mt. Fuji. While hiking through this vast forest, Paul encountered the hanging body of a man who had committed suicide. He uploaded a video of the scene on YouTube last month, blurring the face of the young man, but on the audio portion of his video one could hear Mr. Paul and his companions making light of the situation.

The response was swift and merciless from the internet and Mr. Paul quickly took down the video and posted the following mea culpa: “I made a severe and continuous lapse in my judgement, and I don’t expect to be forgiven. None of us knew how to react or how to feel. I should have never posted the video. I should have put the cameras down. For my fans who are defending my actions, please don’t. They do not deserve to be defended.”

Of course, such behavior is indefensible. It was rude and insensitive to the man’s family and to all those who viewed the video on the internet. Period. Full stop. My interest, however, is in many people’s reaction to Mr. Paul. Some threatened to “rip his throat out.” Others suggested he “go hang himself” or made comments like “you’re the worst person ever.” Many reactions were in that vein, all shaming and condemning Mr. Paul. Again, what he did was wrong, but so many of those who responded have done so from a moral pedestal that they don’t deserve (none of us do), meting out Pharisaic pronouncements for how Mr. Paul can both fix himself and the situation.

And here’s the curious thing these kinds of situations present: People can feel self-justification for their own behavior by finding someone who has done something worse. So, they reflect: “I may have done something wrong, but look at what Logan Paul did, he’s much worse than me.” This is related to what psychologists call “splitting,” dividing the world simply into “good guys vs. bad guys,” and placing the other person in the “bad” category. Thus, by default, due to their perceived lesser “badness” than the other person, they find themselves (conveniently so) in the “good” category.

In our current socio-political climate, this practice is running amok. Our President does this “splitting” regularly by calling people “disgraceful” who criticize an action of his. He then points to what he says are their worse actions without addressing the merits of their criticism. But he by no means is the only perpetrator of this. He’s merely reflecting a practice across the socio-political spectrum. All this shows a lack of empathy, humility, and compassion for others who, like us, share the human condition. To remedy this, we don’t need to become moral relativists. As I wrote, it’s quite right to say what Mr. Paul did was wrong (and it will always be), but to do so from a place of emotional and spiritual maturity, recognizing our own capacity for thoughtlessness and insensitivity. Without such an epiphany, we all remain emotionally immature and spiritually stunted.