That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Economy (page 1 of 4)

Health Care, A Human Right – A Rector’s Reflection (for the August 2017 Parish Newsletter)

What do orange-haired casino owners, former First Ladies, Muslim refugee children, police officers, unborn babies, doctors and nurses who perform abortions, progressive hipsters, conservative Republicans, prosperity-gospel televangelists, members of Congress, transgender former athletes, Confederate-flag-waving white nationalists, Black Lives Matter activists, middle-of-the-road Democrats, and aging clergy all have in common?

Together with you and everyone else on earth, they are sacred. That’s the thing. Christianity professes the absurd notion that human beings are sacred. In the beginning, our sacred writings tell us, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. [And] God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen 1:27,31)

The German World War II Lutheran prophet and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form.” (Cost of Discipleship, SCM, 1959, p. 272) Sacred. All human beings are sacred.

And, according to an American foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, it is a self-evident truth held by our nation that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The past several weeks, the question of health and health care has been much on my mind. Of course, it has been the subject of much political debate of late, but while that’s been going on I have been dealing with the subject in a much more personal way. First, I have been preparing for the surgical replacement of my right knee. Second, as I am about to turn 65, I have been learning about Medicare and its various parts, about its interrelationship with employer-provided health insurance, and about supplements and advantage plans. I have come first hand to the same realization reached by our current president: “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” (Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, Feb. 27, 2017)

I’ve come to believe that we need to reconsider our entire understanding and approach to health and health care. If, as we Christians profess, every human being is sacred and if, as we Americans profess, every human being possesses inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then, I think, we must also adopt the position that health is a sacred human right, not a saleable commodity subject to the vagaries and inconsistencies of profit making in the marketplace

In the field of constitutional law there is the concept of “penumbral rights.” These are those rights not specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution or its amendments, but so necessary to the protection of the listed rights that they too much be given supreme protection by our courts. The right to personal privacy and the right to reasonably unrestricted travel are two such penumbral. The right to good health is, arguably, a penumbral right of those enumerated by our founders in the Declaration of Independence; without it, the rights to life, liberty, and happiness cannot be fully enjoyed.

President Franklin Roosevelt certainly believed so. In his 1944 State of the Union message he called for “a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.” These rights were to include “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” Roosevelt’s call was echoed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations in 1948 which declares: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (Article 25(1))

Although neither Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights nor the UDHR are specifically based on a Christian ethic, the implication of the biblical creation story is that human beings possess an inherent and inalienable dignity. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” in our baptismal covenant. (BCP 1979, pg 305) Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that human dignity confers on all human beings what she calls “political entitlements for the development of their capabilities.” Among these she delineates:

Presbyterian writer Chris Iosso has suggested that Christian respect for the dignity of all human beings is a matter of justice including a “positive responsibility to help the health of others … traced back to Jesus’ healing, which was partly restoring people to community and thereby restoring the community to health and wholeness as well.” (Unbound, March 6, 2014)

Similarly, Roman Catholic writer Mark Shea argues from the parable of the Good Samaritan that provision of health care to those in need is not a matter of charity, but a matter of justice:

A child does not have a right to life because of charity. His parents are not doing him a favor by not driving him out to the woods and leaving him there. They are doing him justice, because justice pertains to what is owed. A child is owed his life by his parents by virtue of being human.

The same is true of any human being in danger. The wounded man in the parable was owed his life, and the priest and Levite robbed him by ignoring him. Meanwhile, the Samaritan was not, according to Jesus, a hero or a saint, but merely a neighbor. The priest and Levite sinned by depriving the man of simple justice. The Samaritan bestowed not charity, but simple justice by giving him what we today call “health care.” (Our Sunday Visitor, May 31, 2017)

There are a lot of arguments about health and health care being made (and they have been made again and again) from legal, financial, economic, and political points of view, but they all seem to eventually come back to the notion that health is a commodity and that health care is something to be bargained for in the marketplace. What if we were to change that conception? What if, as those who believe that human life is sacred, as those who believe that human beings are inherently due respect and dignity, as those who believe in healing as a matter of justice, we Christians were to suggest an alternative point of view? What if we were to suggest that health is not a commodity but a human right? Could we change the tenor of the discussion? Could we find a way through the impasse about health care and our medical services delivery system?

I don’t know. But I do know, from personal experience getting ready for surgery and from personal experience aging into the Medicare system, that the president was right about this thing! “It’s an unbelievably complex subject.” It’s a legal, financial, political, and – for us as Christians – religious subject. We need to speak up and insist that that religious, philosophical dimension be addressed in the public debate.

Facts, Opinions, Beliefs: Truth and the Role of the Clergy

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A “Rector’s Reflection” by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston to be published in the February 2017 issue of The Epistle, the monthly newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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Introduction

moynihanIn a New York Times editorial, Frank Bruni said:

[O]ne of the fundamental challenges will be to respond to [President Trump], his abettors and his agenda in the most tactically prudent way and not just the most emotionally satisfying one. To rant less and organize more. To resist taunts and stick with facts. To answer invective with intelligence.

And to show, in the process, that there are two very different sets of values here, manifest in two very distinct modes of discourse. (The Wrong Way to Take On Trump, January 24, 2017)

In recent conversations (and, truth be told, in conversations stretching back years) about politics, about religion, about a number of things, I have found this to be true. That one must bite one’s tongue (sometimes to the point of blood) and bridle one’s temper (also to the point of bleeding) so that one does not participate in devolving the discussion into the depths of a donnybrook.

It has seemed to me most recently that a way to avoid this (the devolution, not the alliteration) is to have in mind a clear differentiation of fact, opinion, and belief. For example, I recognized some time ago that I could not discuss economics and governmental finance with a clergy colleague (not in my diocese) with whom I’ve been friends for many years. He has completely accepted the veracity of the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the economists behind the so-called Austrian school of economics. It is their thinking that underlies that darling of the conservative Right, “trickle-down” or “supply-side” economics.

My friend, and so many on that side of the political spectrum, hold to these theories despite the fact that they are not only unproven, they demonstrably disproven. The governmental policies based on them – tax cuts for the wealthy which were supposed to create thousands of jobs but did not, austerity policies which were to rescue failing economies such as Greece but did not, and their new incarnation in the notion of privatization of education (a favorite idea of Secretary-designate of Education DeVos) and of infrastructure (likely to be an element of the Trump administration plan) – have not worked in this or any other country in which they have been implemented.

Nonetheless, my friend and many conservative Republicans continue to hold, with an almost religious fervor, a bed-rock reliance on the Austrian school theories, policies, and programs; they are, for them, absolutely true. It seems to me, however, that they are “true” not in the sense that facts are “true,” but in the manner in which “beliefs” are “true.” They certainly hold them with a strength with which one would not hold a mere opinion. And, it seems to me, that there are many other notions held by those on both right and left which are of this nature.

As a clergyman who believes most firmly that Jesus meant what he said when speaking to “the Jews who had believed in him” saying, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” (Jn 8:31-32), and who believes it is my duty not only to proclaim truth as I understand it, but also to teach my congregants to discern truth for themselves, and also as one who agrees with Mr. Bruni, I have written (lightly and engagingly, I hope) the following essay as my “Rector’s Reflection” for the upcoming issue of our parish newsletter. In it, I try to distinguish between fact, opinion, and belief, and conclude with some ways (strategies, if you will) in which to engage in conversation that respect (or, at least, understand) the distinctions between them.

Rector’s Reflection: Facts, Opinions, Beliefs (February 2017 parish newsletter, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio)

A short while ago I was in a conversation in which I stated a fact (see below) but to which the person I was talking with responded, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” No, I replied, it’s a verifiable scientific fact.

The conversation reminded me of the several I have had over the years with avowed atheists who have labeled my belief in God as an “opinion.” No, I reply, it’s a belief. My free-thinking friends seem not to appreciate the difference. So, too, the person with whom I was recently speaking did not seem to be aware of the difference between a fact and an opinion.

When a high presidential adviser a few days ago used the term “alternative facts” in a news interview, these conversations and this confusion about what is a fact, what is an opinion, and what is a belief came immediately to mind.

I’m not an academically trained philosopher, although I’ve taken my share (maybe more than my share) of philosophy courses in college and graduate school. I’m also not an academic theologian; I’m more a practical, arm-chair theologian sitting with (as Karl Barth might have said) the Bible in one hand, the newspaper (or, actually, my laptop computer) in the other, and trying to make sense of both armed with a little bit more than the usual amount of theological book learning. So what I’m about to write is a matter of considered and educated opinion.

It’s also something a work in progress. What I am about to write is what I think about these subjects today (January 25, 2017, by the way); I invite you to explore them with me and maybe both of us will think something rather different a month or a year or a decade from now.

So . . . there are these three things: facts, opinions, and beliefs. This is what I understand them to be.

A fact is (and this is straight from a dictionary) “something that actually exists; reality; truth.” I’m going to steer away from the last word in the definition for a moment, but I will come back to it. A fact actually exists in reality. It is something empirically and objectively provable. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen; that’s a fact. The earth orbits the sun; that’s a fact. I was born on September 29, 1952; that’s a fact. Everyone can agree on facts.

An opinion is defined in the dictionary as “a judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.” I have edited that definition to take out the suggestion that “opinion” and “belief” are equivalent (see below). I come from a legal background in which “opinion” also means the judgment of a court which carries the force of law, making such opinions almost as solidly grounded as facts. In the course of my practice in healthcare law, I also came to rely on physicians’ medical opinions which almost carry the weight of beliefs (see below). Most of our opinions, however, are somewhere in between; they are grounded on facts, colored by our beliefs, and should represent our considered judgment about the nature of reality. Fish is generally inedible; that’s my opinion. The music of composer Olivier Messiaen is unendurable; again, my opinion. Curling is a fascinating sport; another opinion. Despite the origin of the word, opinions are certainly not flights of fantasy to be dismissed simply as “your opinion” and worthy of no consideration; opinions on matters great and small, as personal appraisals of our reality, are the way we navigate through life!

A belief is, according to the dictionary I’m looking at, “something believed; an opinion,” and the illustration given is “a belief that the earth is flat.” I’m going to flatly reject that definition and suggest that the acceptance of the notion that the earth is flat is not a “belief” nor is it an “opinion;” it is a rejection of scientifically verifiable fact; it is a delusion. So what is a belief? The dictionary also defines it to be “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof; confidence; faith; trust.” This is an acceptable definition, particularly those last two words!

I always keep in mind that “belief” is related linguistically to the word “beloved.” The Latin word for “opinion” was opinio which carries with it a hint of unreality. I recall reading a book on Hispanic fiction which equated opinions with “the organizing principles of private fantasy” and Thomas More, author of Utopia, created the word existimation to translate it in regard to one’s self-conceived reputation. On the other hand, the Latin word for “belief” was fides (usually translated as “faith”) or confidentia (usually translated as “confidence”), while the Latin verb “to believe” is credere, meaning “to rely on” and is related (like “beloved”) to the word for “heart”: in other words, what we believe is what we stake our hearts upon. For this reason, I do not equate “opinions” with “beliefs.”

Beliefs to the believer are as fundamentally certain as facts. Beliefs are not scientifically or historically verifiable like facts, but to the one who holds them they are just as true. This is why I steered away from using the word “truth” in regard to defining “fact.” Facts are one form of truth; beliefs are another. In post-modern thought, beliefs are the truths which may differ amongst persons. Facts are objective truths on which all may agree; beliefs are subjective truths on which we may differ; neither is likely to be changed by argument. Opinions, however, may be.

Beliefs and facts share the characteristic that they are subject to disproof. For centuries human beings held as fact the notion that the sun revolved around the earth; that was an objectively observable, verifiable phenomenon everyone saw every day. But that “fact” was disputed by the ancient astronomer Aristarchus in about 270 BCE and by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th Century; both stricter observation and mathematics proved the “fact” to be false. Were one to accept still the notion that the earth is the center of the universe, that idea would not be a fact; it would not be a belief; it would not be an opinion. It would be a delusion.

In our conversations, let us resolve to accept objectively verifiable facts; where we are wrong about facts, we must be willing to accept correction. Let us also resolve to be respectful of one another’s beliefs remembering that these are matters of heart-invested trust. As to opinions, let us be gracious when challenged; let’s remember the title of that book written by the great theologian Snoopy, Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?

I am sure that there will be many conversations with family, friends, fellow Christians, and others in which these admonitions will be tested! Keep in mind the British motivational poster from World War II, “Keep Calm and Carry On”!

Afterward

Given what I had to say above about my clergy friend’s acceptance of the Austrian school economic theories, you’ve probably figured out that I hold his “beliefs” to be delusions. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that those who are deluded about that and many other things now hold the reins of government in this country. This is why I strongly, and fearfully, believe that Mr. Bruni was correct in his New York Times editorial when he concluded that if the level of public discourse is allowed to pass into derangement, “Trump may be victorious in more than setting newly coarse terms for our political debate. He may indeed win on many fronts, over many years.” (Ibid.)

The ministry of clergy in all traditions to proclaim the truth as we understand it and to teach our people to discern it for themselves has become even more important and urgent.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Living Generously: Sermon for Pentecost 19 – Proper 21C, Track 2 (September 25, 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 21C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Amos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; and St. Luke 16:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Dives and Lazarus. Psalter (Munich Golden Psalter). England [Gloucester?], 1st quarter of the 13th century.We could, I suppose, spiritualize the story of Lazarus and the rich man. We could, but if we did we would be twisting it out of shape. This is not a spiritual story. This is a bare-knuckled street-brawl of a story about wealth, about money and possessions, about someone who had plenty and about someone who had none. If we are going to honor the biblical text, we cannot spiritualize this tale; we have to deal with it as it is given us, as a story about money.

Did you know that the rich man has a name? Not in the Bible, I grant you that, but in the tradition of the church he is known as “Dives” – D-I-V-E-S pronounced “Dye-veez”. That name comes from the Latin “Vulgate” translation completed by St. Jerome in the late 4th Century in which he translated the Greek word for “rich,” plousios – which means “one who possesses wealth” – with the Latin word dives (pronounced “Dee-vase” in this context) – which comes from the same root as our word “divine” and means “one who is favored by the gods.”

In the Bible, of course, only the poor man is actually given a name, Lazarus. This is the Latinized version of the Greek transliteration of a Hebrew name, Eliezer. This name, it turns out, means “one who is aided by God.”

So, in the church’s tradition, both biblical and magisterial, these men have the same name! “Favored by God” . . . “Aided by God” . . . they are both named as beloved children of God, helped by God, bestowed by God with God’s grace and love. That is why we cannot spiritualize this story. Spiritually, there is no difference between these two men; they stand in the same relationship to God who, interestingly enough, isn’t even mentioned in the story. This not a story about God; it’s a story about money.

Which makes perfect sense when we consider where it comes in Luke’s gospel and in our lectionary sequence of readings. Let’s just go back a few chapters:

In chapter 12 Jesus told the story of Barn Guy, the rich man who had a great year with bumper crops and lots of lambs and calves, thought he could keep his earnings all to himself, and built bigger barns to keep it in . . . only to be told that he was going to die and learns, as Paul writes to Timothy in today’s epistle, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it,” so the best we can do is use our wealth to do good in this world.

In chapter 13, he talks about two trees both understood to be metaphors for God’s people and God’s kingdom: a barren fig tree which the owner decides to cut down and a mustard tree which starts from small beginnings but soon grows to provide shelter not only for the one who sowed it but for everyone.

In chapter 14, Jesus commands his followers to count the cost of following him and then tells them (that is to say, us) what that cost is: that until we sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor we are not worthy to follow him.

In chapter 15, we heard the parables of the shepherd who sought one lost sheep to complete his herd of 100 and of the woman who cleaned her whole house to find the one missing coin to complete her purse of 10, and then Jesus told us about the Prodigal who squandered all his wealth . . . but was nonetheless welcomed home with love and respect!

Now in chapter 16, we had last week’s weird story in which Jesus praised the dishonest steward who told his boss’s debtors to falsify the record of what they owed; Jesus’ punchline was that we should use our earthly wealth to win friends to welcome us “into the eternal homes.” Now he tells us this story about Dives who didn’t do that and wasn’t welcomed by Lazarus whom he might have helped or by Father Abraham, who (by the way) was quite a wealthy guy himself but clearly not sympathetic to Dives. (You know, it occurred to me that Dives could be Barn Guy. Jesus could have said, “Remember that guy who was really well off, had that great harvest, and built those new barns, but didn’t share his good fortune with anyone? Well, let me tell you about what happened after he died that night . . . .”)

Now, as I said, we could spiritualize all these stories and try to make them about God, but if we did that we’d have to wonder about Jesus, wouldn’t we? I mean the man has used stories about money so often that we would have to think that he must be unable to come up with another metaphor . . . or we would have to conclude that he doesn’t mean it to be a metaphor, at all. I think we have to reach the second conclusion and to understand, as Paul does, that Jesus believes “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that those who have wealth are expected “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

“What’s implied here is that places in the kingdom [‘the life that really is life’] are not given out according to what we have, but according to what we give away. What counts is solidarity; what counts is love. [Dives] who made a name for himself but didn’t care enough to share his wealth has no name any more. [Lazarus] who couldn’t achieve a thing all his life has been given a name of honor.” (Wendt, F., The Politics of a Name)

So let’s talk about money. Throughout his life, Jesus showed love, compassion, and care for those who didn’t have any, those who were at the bottom of society, namely the poor, the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, and those whom others considered to be sinners because of their poverty. However, he never condemned anyone for having money; what Jesus seems to have been most concerned about in regard to the wealthy was their reliance on money to provide security, a security which is ultimately temporary because wealth cannot provide that ultimate security found only in God. What is condemned is the love of money, the putting of wealth into that place in our lives where God ought to be.

Therefore, it would be “inappropriate to affirm in a wholesale fashion that [Jesus or the] early Christians criticized material wealth. Instead, of crucial importance is the attitude of the person owning it. Material wealth can get in the way of putting one’s trust in God, and it can be a hindrance to following Jesus. Yet [we must admit that all of our] church ministries and services depend on the financial resources of those who are willing [and able] to share them.” (Eberhart, C.A., Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19)

I want to repeat here what I wrote in this week’s parish up-date email and what I will publish again in the October issue of our newsletter:

It is this sharing of resources that God wants of us. Clearly, God doesn’t want us to be self-reliant and, frankly, selfish rich people like Dives, but God also doesn’t want us all to be poor, sore-covered, gutter-dwelling beggars like Lazarus. What God does want us to do is to share with one another and with God in the ministries of the church.

When Bishop Hollingsworth visits here in a month (on October 30), we will, as we do at each service of baptism or confirmation, affirm our agreement to that partnership by reciting five vows from the Baptismal Covenant:

  • Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To each question, we respond: “I will, with God’s help.”

When we recite our baptismal vows, we are renewed in and reminded of God’s call in our lives and the life of St. Paul’s Parish. We are all God’s partners by virtue of our baptism, and we are all called by God to proclaim, in word and action, God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation, to do God’s work right here on earth.

Ministry, outreach, worship, baptisms, marriages, funerals, visiting the sick, praying for family and friends, offering spiritual and religious formation, helping those less fortunate than ourselves – doing these things in and through our church is part of our partnership with God. And each one of them costs money. God provides us with inspiration, skill, vision, and determination. But we have to provide the money.

Over the next six weeks, we will talking a lot about money. You will be asked to think about your support of St. Paul’s Parish for the next year. You will be asked to make your pledge of financial support for 2017. You will be asked to act on your promised partnership with God. Think of all your regular gift of money can do for our church, for our families, and (most importantly) for our neighbors. Think of all it can do for our partnership work with God here on earth. It is through our pledges, faithfully made and faithfully kept, that we partner with God to tell the good news, take care of children, visit the elderly, heal the sick, house the homeless, feed the hungry, and (yes) maintain our most important tool in doing all of that, this lovely building within which we worship today.

That’s what our pledged financial support does; that is what our sharing of our wealth does: God’s work in which we are partners. God expects us to live generously as God lives generously with us.

Like Dives, we are all favored by God. Like Lazarus, we are all aided by God. We stand in the same relationship to God as they did. In a sense, we are Dives’ siblings, those five brothers he asked that Father Abraham send Lazarus to warn. “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation, the parable makes clear. We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we – [Dives’] sisters and brothers – see? Will we heed the warning, before it is too late?” (Rossing, B., Commentary on Luke 16:19-31) Will we who have the God of Jacob for our help, whose hope is in the Lord our God, whose God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment . . . will we live generously and fulfill our promises of partnership with God?

I believe we will.

Let us pray:

Gracious and generous God,
your Son came that we might have life
and have it abundantly,
we pledge our trust in you and each other,
and we accept your invitation to be partners in ministry.
We acknowledge that your call requires us
to be stewards of your gifts,
shaping our lives in imitation of Jesus,
whom we have promised to follow.
As stewards, we receive your gifts gratefully,
cherish and tend them in a responsible manner,
share them by living generously with others,
and return them with increase to you, our Lord.
We pledge to attend to our ongoing formation as stewards
and our responsibility to call others to that same endeavor.
Almighty and ever-faithful God,
we are grateful
that you who have begun this good work in us
and will bring it to fulfillment
in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

[The illustration is “Dives and Lazarus” from the Munich Golden Psalter, dating from the 1st quarter of the 13th century.]

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Adhesions in the Body Politic

Pelvic Cavity AdhesionsAs a human body moves, its tissues or organs normally move and shift, repositioning themselves in relation to one another within a normative range; nothing in the body is static. These tissues and organs have slippery surfaces and natural lubricants to allow this. Inflammation, infection, surgery, or injury can cause bands of scar-like tissue to form between the surfaces of these organs and tissues, causing them to stick together and prevent this natural movement.

Adhesions can occur almost anywhere in the body, including the joints, eyes, and nside the abdomen or pelvis. Adhesions grow and tighten over time, further restricting the natural repositioning of the organs. Adhesions cause organs and body parts to twist painfully and pull out of position; over time, the body becomes unable to move normally.

Adhesions form in the body of society, as well.

The American body politic has been wounded again. This time in a nightclub in Florida. An AR-15 in the hands of an angry man and fifty are dead; more than fifty seriously injured. The news media barrage us with reports: “The worst mass shooting in American history.” How does one gauge that? What is the measure of “worstness”? Is it (this is the metric used by the reporters) solely a matter of the number of dead and wounded? The number covers up the fact that each death is a singular and unique tragedy, each individual a particular loss to his or her friends or family; each one’s murder the worst thing that ever happened to that person, to the intimate groups to which she or he belonged.

Spiritual and political adhesions form every time this happens. Organs of society which ought to slide past one another in conversation, whose movement against one another should be lubricated by both civility and recognition of distinct, though perhaps occasionally common, interest, become unhealthily linked. A commentator recently took note that (on what is called the political “right”) there is, for example, a handful of notional associations, in many ways contradictory, that have been melded into an irrational identity: evangelical Christianity, neoliberal economic theory, Second Amendment idolatry, nativist anti-immigrant sentiment. On the “left” one can see a similar nonlinear grouping of (for example) pro-LGBT sentiment, socialist economics, anti-religious intellectualism, gun regulation enthusiasm, and support of reproductive rights.

There is no reason for a uterus to be connected to the woman’s abdominal wall, but when it is the result is discomfort, pain, and even infertility. There is no reason so-called Austrian school economics should be associated with gun ownership rights, but when they are the National Rifle Association becomes a spokesman for the arms industry not a promoter of gun safety. There is no reason anti-immigrant nativism should be linked to evangelical Christianity, but when it is the Bible’s words to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:19) are quickly forgotten.

Adhesions . . . the scar tissue of trauma, the scar tissue of Columbine, of Sandy Hook, of Santa Barbara, of so many other times and places, and now of Orlando . . . and, as well, the scar tissue of 9/11, of Iraq, of Afghanistan, and (stretching back), the still-strong scar tissue of Vietnam . . . of Kent State, of Stonewall, of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, of the 16th Street Baptist Church . . . the list is endless, the scars old and strong, the adhesions tight and painful.

The only “cure” for adhesions is more pain; they must be surgically cut away, and there must be painful, therapeutic movement to prevent new adhesions from forming. The time is long since passed for the social surgery we so desperately need; we can wait no longer. We must sever the linkages and associations which distort and twist our social organs and render us incapable of movement. The first step in such separation is for individuals to examine their own consciences, to recognize the inconsistencies and unnecessary associations which bind them. Just as the number “50” obscures the individual tragedy of each death or traumatic injury in Orland, so do the labels “NRA,” “progressive,” “Christian,” “patriot,” “socialist” obscure the adhesions in our individual psyches, in our spirits.

Just because one may take a nativist stance on immigration reform, for example, does not necessarily require that one oppose the enactment of common sense gun safety regulation. Just because one believes that all people regardless of gender or sexuality should be allowed to marry the person they love does not preclude one from holding to the tenets of evangelical Christianity. You and I may disagree about one position, yet agree on a second. Our disagreement as to the first cannot be allowed to prevent us from working together on the second. It is only the painful, unnatural, and unhealthy adhesions of social scar tissue that do so, and we must cut those away!

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. The Catholic Church teaches that an examination of conscience is a “prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds in the light of the Gospel to determine how we may have sinned against God.” Whatever one’s starting point, secular philosophy or religious belief, the terrible event at the Pulse nightclub must encourage each of us to examine our own minds, beliefs, allegiances, and positions, and begin the painful task of cutting away the adhesions that bind us, individually and societally, into inaction.

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Image of pelvic cavity adhesions from Pelvic Factor Tutorial.

We Built This – From the Daily Office Lectionary

We Built This

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 26, Year 1 (Pentecost 23, 2015)

Matthew 13:58 ~ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

Jesus is in Nazareth, the town he grew up in, the town where his family still lives. After spending some time in a peripatetic ministry wandering about the countryside, visiting villages, preaching his gospel, healing the sick, and gathering followers, he has come home. Instead of a warm welcome for the “local boy done good,” the Nazarenes belittle him (“He’s just the carpenter’s son”) and take “offense at him.” Matthew ends his short description of this sad situation with this sentence: Jesus is unable to work any deeds of power “because of their unbelief.”

If nothing else, this sentence underscores and highlights the need of community support in any endeavor. For all of us, a major element of any success we may enjoy is the cooperation and assistance we have from others. We live in an interconnected, interdependent society in an interconnected and interdependent world.

In my humble opinion, one of the most surprising and offensive developments in America in recent years is the libertarian movement and, most especially, the phenomenon we witnessed a couple of years ago when our president said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Instead of acknowledging the interdependent, interconnected truth behind that statement, inartfully stated though it may have been (and lifted out of context as it clearly was), his opponents opened a barrage of “I built that” stories, tales of small business owners who achieved success “entirely on their own,” of “entrepreneurs whose success came from hard work and personal creativity.” (I’m quoting one of the president’s political opponents.) The constant refrain was, “I built this without any help from anyone.”

Such claims overlook the enormous infrastructure of public roads, utilities, communications and postal systems, health care systems, insurance and banking economies, markets and trading centers, freight and shipping systems, and so forth which pre-existed the entrepreneurs’ start-ups, to say nothing of the work and effort of the employees on whose labor their businesses have come to rely. Not a single American entrepreneur can claim to have completely independently achieved anything given the huge foundation of the pre-existing economy. The president was correct, “Somebody else made that happen.”

The offensiveness of the “I built this” movement is found in its hubris. In this little story of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth we are confronted by the simple, but often overlooked fact, that even Jesus could do very little “entirely on his own.” In fact, he seldom, if ever, claimed to do any deeds of power by himself: again and again when working a miracle of healing he gives credit to the faith of the person healed or the faith of that person’s loved one. And when confronted with a community filled with unbelief, he is unable to “do many deeds of power.” If even the Son of God, the incarnation of the Word which has been with God from the very beginning of creation, of the Word which is God, is unable to do his work without the support and cooperation of others, how on earth can some business owner have the arrogance to claim “I built this” with no assistance from the society around them?

Only one Person, ever, since the beginning of everything can truly say “I built this,” and interestingly enough, even on the seventh day when that Person rested, there is no record of those words ever being spoken . . . instead when human beings were led to try and describe how all that is came to be, they were inspired write of a Companion, Holy Wisdom, who said:

“Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Prov. 8:23-31)

Nowhere does Scripture record God the Creator, nor God the Redeemer, nor God the Sustainer ever saying “I built this.” If the God whose incarnate deeds of power depended on the faith and belief of others were to say anything like that, it would most likely be “We built this.”

“The cattle are dying; invest in vultures” – From the Daily Office – July 29, 2014

From the Book of Judges:

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Judges 2:11-15 (NRSV) – July 29, 2014)

VulturesMy usual Sunday afternoon occupation, after presiding and preaching at church and making any needed pastoral calls, is reading the online edition of the New York Times, which is what I did Sunday. Among the many items that got my attention was a very short report on some economic statistics, specifically on the fact that the net worth of the typical American family has decreased by more than a third over the last decade: “The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation.” (The Typical Household)

What happened during that decade, of course, was the so-called “housing bubble,” the debt default crisis, the packaging of sub-prime mortgages into derivative investments, the Great Recession, the bank bail-out, and a significant increase in student debt (made non-dischargeable in bankruptcy by a Congress which also refused to find ways to lower the interest rate on such loans). Typical Americans saw their biggest asset (the family home) substantially reduced in value while their indebtedness increased. Of course their net worth went down! I don’t want to believe that Americans have been given “over to plunderers who plundered them,” but Americans certainly are “in great distress.”

In fact, as I am writing this, I just received an email from Bill Moyers (a subscription service, of course; Bill Moyers doesn’t write to me personally) with this tidbit: “50% of jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year. And 25% of jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four: less than $23,000 annually.”

Now, in truth, I’m not the sort who believes that God hands people over to plunderers or sells “them into the power of their enemies all around.” That’s an ancient way to understand the law of cause and effect (and, perhaps, the law of unintended consequences), but as a metaphor for how the world works . . . it works for me. Especially if the metaphor makes us give thought to what “Baals and Astartes” we may be worshiping and with what consequent effect.

With the Times’ report still in my memory, I turned on NPR in my car as I went to make a call early yesterday afternoon and one of their many news and commentary programs were on — I think it may have been “The World.” The subject under discussion was the announced acquisition of the Family Dollar grocery chain by its “extreme value” competitor, Dollar Tree. The reporter was interviewing a stock market analyst, a specialist in retail commerce stocks, about the merger, asking if the analyst thought it was a wise move by Dollar Tree.

The analyst was just gushing about what a great deal this was and why stocks of “extreme value” retailers (it was from him I learned this term) are such a good buy for an investor. His basic reason: the number of people below the poverty line has doubled in the last decade! The number of poverty level households in the United States has gone from one-in-twelve to one-in-six. People living in such families are the natural market for “extreme value” retailers, so their market share has increased. They are poised, he said, “to make a killing!”

I was flabbergasted! I’d never heard anyone so overjoyed that more Americans are living in destitution, that so many of his fellow citizens are in need. He was, in essence, say, “A lot of people can’t afford good products, so the wealthy should invest in the stores that sell them substandard crap. Lots of money to be made there.” Isn’t that like saying, “The cattle are dying; invest in vultures”? Or (to use our bible metaphor today), “God is handing them over to be plundered; invest in the plunderers! God is selling them to their enemy; invest in the enemy!”

Who or what are the “Baals and Atartes” this society worships? Who are the “plunderers” to whom we are given over to be plundered? On what altars are we sacrificing and what is it we are offering?

On one level, this is just economics. The part of me that went to business school and has an MBA wants to say, “That’s just the way markets work.” But another part of me must respond, “But that’s just unacceptable.” And I remember Someone who said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Mt 6:24, NRSV)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Sacrament of Money – From the Daily Office – May 9, 2014

From the Book of Exodus:

The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 25:1-8 (NRSV) – May 9, 2014.)

Gold silver and bronze barsADDED LATER: Oops!!! I just realized late on May 9 that I had read the lessons for May 10 one day ahead of time. This lesson is actually for the next day . . . . mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! Apologies, faithful readers!

It occurred to me as I read this passage this morning that God is ordering Moses to conduct the first capital campaign.

In 24 years of ordained ministry I have been involved in three major capital campaigns in as many parishes. Each time, the parish leadership turned to professional fundraising consultants to assist them and each consultant told us the same thing: capital campaigns do not impact regular financial stewardship because people give to the operating budget out of income, but they give to the capital campaign out of wealth. In other words, our regular weekly support of our churches comes from our paychecks, but what we give to capital projects we take from savings and investments.

How is it that the Hebrews have all this wealth? These people are wandering around Sinai not carrying enough food to feed themselves — hence the manna and the quail in Exodus 16 — and yet they have gold, silver, bronze, spices, incense, and precious stones? That raises all sorts of issues for me about human priorities and the spirituality of possessions and wealth.

So, too, does Tuesday’s report that the 25 highest-earning hedge fund managers in the United States took home a total of $21.15 billion in compensation last year! That’s an average annual take-home for those investment advisors of $860 million each! That kind of compensation blurs the distinction between “income” and “wealth.” I would argue that this is not “income;” it is, rather, transfer of “wealth.”

In my most recent experience of capital campaigning, our goal was $500,000; we didn’t quite make it – we raised about 76% of the goal in five-year pledges. Because the work we were undertaking could not be postponed, our governing board made the “leap of faith” decision to finance the rest. For us, this was a difficult and painful decision. For any of those 25 hedge fund managers, it would have meant spending less than 6/10 of one percent of their annual compensation.

It has been suggested that money is a sacrament: it is a sign of the work we do, a symbol of our sweat and toil, an indicator of our values. I think I would refine that argument, however, to say that income is a sacrament of these things. Which then raises the question, of what is wealth a sacrament? Our security? Our faith in the future? Our faith in God? And just how sacramental (either as income or wealth) is a transfer of more millions of dollars than most people can even imagine, or an expenditure of less than one percent of our compensation?

I figured it out. 6/10 of one percent of my wife’s and my combined annual income is almost exactly what I spent a couple of days ago on a tankful of gasoline. That purchase was not a gut-wrenching decision; it required no thought at all, no spiritual or emotional investment, no “leap of faith” like the vestry’s decision to go forward with our recent capital improvement project. One of those hedge fund managers could have paid for that project with as little thought or spiritual reflection as I spent pumping gas into my car.

And, I suggest, that lack of thought and reflection about income and wealth permeates our society. A confession: This is the second time in a few months that I’ve read this passage of Exodus. The first was in the context of a bible study group at church. The first time the question of what the Hebrews were doing carting around that sort of wealth as they wandered the desert for forty years never occurred to me. It didn’t occur to me until it was juxtaposed with the report of hedge fund manager compensation and the inordinate wealth transfer it represents. But it should have. I should have, we all should have a spirituality of money, a theology of wealth and income.

And a theology of money, at the very least, should demand that we pause and engage in at least a bit of thought and spiritual reflection on what we do routinely — filling our tanks, buying books for leisure reading or study, letting the bank automatically pay our internet access fees. It requires us to get some perspective, to step back and think about the course we are charting, to consider what our spending says about us, what our saving says about us. What is money as a sacrament saying? What are the gold, silver, bronze, spices, incense, and precious gems we cart around our particular deserts saying about us?

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Issue – From the Daily Office – February 22, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 3:17 (NRSV) – February 22, 2014.)

Feet of the PoorThis, for me, is the issue of our day. It is the religious issue. It is the economic issue. It is the political issue. It is the moral issue. I think the answer to John’s question is, “It doesn’t.”

And anyone who claims to be Christian and yet supports policies that do not help those in need is not, in fact, a Christian.

Nor is such a person a moral or ethical person.

I cannot say anything more than that.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Corporate Responsibility – From the Daily Office – December 16, 2013

From the Psalter:

We have heard with our ears, O God, our forefathers have told us,
the deeds you did in their days, in the days of old.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 44:1 (NRSV) – December 16, 2013.)

Mouth Speaking into EarToday’s evening psalm begins with a verse reminiscent of the psalm verse from which my blog takes its name:

That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children. (Ps 78:3)

These psalms speak to the obligation of the generations to communicate from one to another the lore of the faith, the stories that make us who we are, the tales that cement the People of God together. This is a duty which is common across the gulfs of religion, culture, and nationality; any group of people which considers itself a unified society must communicate generation to generation the knowledge and the values around which the society coheres. One generation must tell and the next must listen; the older must teach; the younger, learn.

In the past few days two news items caught my attention. The first was a report of findings of sociologists that Americans are less mobile in the second decade of the 21st Century than we were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. People in our country are not moving from place to place, not changing residences as frequently as they used to. Those doing the research did not venture an explanation of why this is, but they offered possible reasons including the much higher costs of relocation, the change from a manufacturing to a service economy, and the homogeneity of both the current workforce and the current job market. Whatever the reasons, the nation seems to be returning to a more settled way of life, perhaps one similar in some ways to the agrarian society of the nation’s youth. This means that stories of affinity and location, the tales that form neighborhoods and cultures, the social economy of the small community will become more important.

The second news item, however, suggests that settled communities and social economies are not forming, that they are instead being destroyed. The story concerned the way in which the large corporations that form the basis of our service and information based economy (Facebook, Google, Twitter, cell phone companies, and so forth) are moving into and taking over the urban landscape. Because these companies need large amounts of space, their entry into the urban real estate market as buyers drives up the cost of office and commercial space, often to a rate that small retailers, cafes, restaurants, and other local businesses cannot afford. This, in turn, leads those smaller businesses to go out of operation. In addition, these corporations are providing “full service campuses” for their employees – providing gymnasiums and recreational facilities, dining facilities, all the ancillary services previously provided by the smaller businesses. This exacerbates the small, local businesses’ problem and accelerates their demise. The full-service corporate campuses and the absence of those small retail firms, cafes, and restaurants mean that the normal “meeting places” of society are disappearing. The employees of different businesses, the constituencies of competing corporate societies no longer have either need or place to interact.

These two trends seem to me to be incompatible. As we become more settled and have greater need for the organs of society that create communal coherence, we are also being fractured by the economic engines driving us to be more settled; the corporations which undergird the service-information economy are (perhaps inadvertently) demolishing the small-business economy that fosters human community in settled societies.

Now someone will say, “But there is the internet. Those service-information corporations, through the internet, provide an alternative to the public spaces, the small-business and social interactions of earlier settled communities.” Yes, to an extent that is so. But the internet and social media cannot replace the one-on-one, the one-with-many flesh-and-blood interactions of humankind. We need those in-the-flesh moments, to see another’s face, to hear his or her inflections, tones-of-voice, sighs, and chuckles, even to smell his or her sweat, breath, or perfume.

I am not blaming the Googles, the Twitters, the Facebooks for the loss of what sociologist Robert Putnam called “social capital” (see Bowling Alone), but I am suggesting that it is our responsibility to use the technologies and media they offer in appropriate ways, ways that enhance rather than disrupt the formation and sustaining of human community. I am suggesting that the owners, executives, managers, employees, and customers of those corporations share in that responsibility.

We cannot with integrity and authenticity say that we “have heard with our ears [what] our forefathers have told us” if we have only seen a Tweet, viewed a Facebook page, or read a blog entry. We cannot with integrity and authenticity say that we are not hiding the story of our community from our children if we are not sharing that story with one another in person. If we are to sing these psalms authentically, we must tell with our own voices, hear with our own ears, see with our own eyes, not with those of technology. It is our corporate responsibility.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Spiritual Center – From the Daily Office – December 13, 2013

From the Prophet Haggai:

Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Haggai 1:5-6 (NRSV) – December 13, 2013.)

Spiral GalaxyIt never ceases to amaze me how directly Scripture can speak to the present day! The admonition to “Consider how you have fared,” and its description of an economy in a shambles, where the people work but do not enjoy the produce of their labor, continue to be hungry and thirsty, cannot find warmth, and find their earnings dribbling away to nothing, could be addressed to anyone anywhere in today’s world, I think.

Haggai’s purpose in speaking his prophecy is to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple in the years immediately following the end of the Babylonian Exile, sometime around 520 BCE. His thesis seems to be that if the Jews can reclaim their spiritual center, in his eyes quite literally the physical center of the universe, the Temple of God, their lot will improve. It’s a good point, I think.

I’ve noticed over the past few days that a lot of people were remarking that today would be “Friday the 13th,” not a few with noticeable dread. Many of the same people regularly check their horoscopes and will make it a point of telling others, “I’m a Sagittarius,” or will explain someone’s behavior with, “Well, he IS a Leo!”

My late mother was one such person. She didn’t put much stock in concern about the number 13 (live and work in Las Vegas, Nevada, and you see and learn to dismiss a lot of that sort of thing), but she sure seemed to pay attention to astrology. She was a Cancerian; she constantly reminded my brother and me that he was a Leo and I, a Libra. Whatever personality traits we exhibited were explained by the stars! But all that changed when she entered her 70s.

Something else changed then, too. Her son became a priest. About a year after my ordination, my family and I were visiting my parents and I noticed on her nightstand a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, an old study bible that had been on their bookshelves unused for years, and a newcomer’s pamphlet from a local Episcopal Church. I picked up the BCP and walked into the living room.

“Uh . . . what’s this?” I asked innocently.

“Well,” she said in that almost-sarcastic tone of voice on which I think she had a trademark, “I guess you’re serious about this, so I thought I’d better check it out.”

And check it out she did. Both she and my step-father became official members of the Episcopal Church later that year. He became a regular handyman volunteer around the church, and she became an active member (and even an officer) in the Episcopal Church Women. They attended Mass every week, took part in social events, and worked in the church’s outreach ministry. Both pre-planned their memorial services using the burial rites of the Prayer Book, and their ashes are now together in the memory garden next to the larger church sanctuary their capital contributions help to build.

Here’s the interesting thing: after that day when she admitted she was “checking out” religious faith, I never again heard a word about horoscopes or the zodiac. God, Jesus, and the Christian faith had made astrology unnecessary in her life.

I have atheist and agnostic friends who will scoff at that. In their minds there is no difference between belief that the stars control our destiny and belief that there is a God who loves us. There is, however, a significant difference and it is exactly in that verb I just used – love. The stars, the number 13, rabbit’s feet and lucky clovers, the things of superstition are indifferent to human beings; God is never indifferent.

When we put the indifferent (indeed, the inanimate) at the center of our lives, life suffers. Whether that indifferent thing is a distant star or a bank account, a good luck piece or a career, that thing cannot give back any of our devotion. Center on the indifferent, we will sow much and harvest little. When God is at the center of life, our devotion is returned. Our hunger and our thirst are satisfied.

Haggai was on the right track and his prophecy does address our current situation. A religious re-centering was needed and perhaps the Temple was a visible sign of that re-centering of the returned exiles, but one does not really need a physical center. The people, each individually and all together as a society, needed a spiritual center. The people, each of us individually and all of us together as a society, still do.

It is Advent: the Advent call to self-examination continues in Haggai’s prophecy. What is at our spiritual center? As the morning psalm says today, God is our “strong rock, a castle to keep [us] safe,” and God will lead us and guide us. (Ps. 31:3)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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