That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Medicine

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.

Cancerous Distortion – Sermon for RCL Proper 11A – July 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 11A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13,16-19; Romans 8:12-25; and St. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Again, this week, we have another familiar parable in our Gospel lesson, the story of the wheat and the weeds. I will come back to it. But first, I’d like to tell you about my older brother who died 24 years ago.

Richard York Funston was born on July 27, 1943; this coming Thursday, he would have been 74 years old. Rick was a very, very smart man; I would even describe him as brilliant. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas, a master’s in the same field from UCLA, and a PhD in political science specializing in constitutional law also from UCLA. He published five books on constitutional law and taught the subject in five universities, ending up as chair of the political science department and vice-president for academic affairs at San Diego State University. Had he lived, I’ve no doubt he would have been president of a major university.

But he did not live beyond his fiftieth birthday; in fact, he didn’t even get to that milestone. In October of 1992 he exhibited the first symptoms of some sort of brain dysfunction and was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke; three months later that diagnosis was proved wrong. He, in fact, was suffering from primary site brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, the same disease with which Senator John McCain has recently been diagnosed.

When Rick was diagnosed, I did some research into the disease and learned that, at that time, it was (and still is) considered incurable and invariable fatal. In 1993, 50% of patients died within six months of diagnosis; almost 100% percent, within two years. I’ve learned from the recent news about Senator McCain that medical science has extended the median survival to 18 months, but that outside life expectancy is still only about three years after diagnosis. Rick died on Father’s Day, June 21, 1993, less than five months after his accurate diagnosis. I spent the week before his death at his bedside.

So, I know all too well what John McCain and his family are facing and what they will be going through, and my heart goes out to them; they will daily be in my prayers. I would not wish what they are going through on anyone.

It’s because of Rick’s influence that I am the political junky that I am. He loved politics and we often discussed and debated the issues and races of the day. I have often wondered what he would make of 21st Century America and our current political climate. One of the things he taught me was to eschew what we have come to call “bubbles,” the self-insulating and self-reinforcing political and social circles in which we hear only those views that accord with our own and acknowledge only those facts which support our beliefs. So I read news reported by a variety of journals and read opinions and editorials written from a variety of points of view. I follow blogs and news-feeds from the Right, from the Center, and from the Left. And that is why I know that some self-identified “conservative Christians” have written that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice” and that “God is punishing him” for his political views. (See Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek, 7/20/2017.)

That is pure, unadulterated . . . nonsense! It’s that sort of offensive rhetoric by self-proclaimed “conservative Christians” that turns people off (and against) religion. What sort of person actually thinks and teaches others that God works that way? A god who did would not be a god to worship; such a god would be worthy only of contempt. Such a god would be one to follow; such god would be one to be fought. If I had even the slightest scintilla of a belief that that’s the way God operated, I’d not only not be a religious person, I’d be an anti-religious crusader. I am sick to death of the twisted, anti-human, distorted muck some people pass off as the Christian faith.

Which brings me back to Jesus and the parable in this morning’s Gospel text.

It is believed by many scholars that, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds in question are darnel, a type of grass sometimes called “poisonous darnel.” The darnel itself is not poisonous, but it harbors a destructive and deadly fungus called “ergot.” If the infected darnel is harvested along with the wheat or rye, the ergot gets into the good grain and any flour or meal made from it, and the result can be fatal.

The scientific name for darnel is lolium temulentus, the second word being Latin for “drunk.” The French name for darnel is ivraie from the Latin ebriacus meaning “intoxicated.” Both names refer to the drunken, potential deadly nausea caused by eating the infected plant. Ergotism, as the symptoms of eating the fungus are called, is characterized headaches and nausea, convulsions and painful seizures and spasms, hallucinations and psychosis, and tingling and burning in the extremities, sometimes called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, these can also be the symptoms of glioblastoma.

Darnel is common throughout the Middle East and infestations of grain fields are a constant danger. So Jesus’ parable would have struck home forcefully with his original hearers; they knew well what might happen to someone who ate that fungus-infected grain. Later, Jesus explained the allegorical meaning of the parable to the Twelve, “the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one.” (Mt 13:38)

In his commentary on this story, scholar Eugene Boring suggests that “we can surely see, shimmering behind [this parable], the experience of Matthew’s church – and ours, too.” He goes on to write:

It chronically comes as a shock to find that the world, that the family into which we are born, that even the church is not an entirely trustworthy place. The world has places of wonder, but alleys of cruelty, too. Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes in with bad. “Where did these weeds come from?” is a perennial human cry. (Commentary on Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VIII, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1995, pg 311)

Where did these people, these self-proclaimed “conservative Christians,” these poisonous weeds who cancerously distort the Gospel, blaming a devastating disease on some warped notion of “godly justice” come from?

Part of me, the part that still remembers my brother’s suffering, the part of me that sat by his death bed, would like to go root them out, pull them up root, stem, and head like the bad weeds they are, simply exterminate them. But, of course, the other part of me pays heed to the rest of the parable, to the master’s order to his servants to leave the darnels be until the harvest. This is, writes Boring, “a realistic reminder that the servants [which is to say, you and me] do not finally have the ability to get rid of the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good.” (Ibid.)

Our gradual this morning is not taken from the Book of Psalms, as it usually is. Instead, we have a reminder from the deuterocanonical book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” that God, the source of righteousness, does not judge unjustly, that instead God judges with mildness and governs with forbearance. “Through such works,” we say to God as we recite the text, “you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.” (Wis 12:19)

Paul writes in the same spirit in this morning’s epistle lesson. Echoing the parable’s message that the world is “not an entirely trustworthy place,” he writes, “The creation [is] subjected to futility.” (Rom 8:20) But we know that creation, and we ourselves, will one day be freed of that futility:

We know [writes Paul] that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (vv 23-25)

We could hope that our brothers and sisters, those so-called “conservative Christians,” could hear and learn that message. We could hope that they would stop broadcasting the perverse notion that God causes brain cancer, or earthquakes, or hurricanes, or floods, or whatever as punishment for human failings. We could hope that they would recognize what the great theologian Karl Barth stated so simply, that “God is either known by grace or he is not known at all.” (Church Dogmatics, II/1, 27)

We live in an imperfect world and we belong to an imperfect church, and there is very little we can do to change either of those facts; as much as we might wish to rip out and do away with those who distort the Christian message, the poisonous darnels among us, that isn’t our job. “We are given the task of living as faithfully and as obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.” (Boring, op cit) We are to “wait for it with patience.”

But not with passivity! The master’s prohibiting the servants from weeding the field “is not a divine command to ignore injustice in the world, violence in society, or wrong in the church.” (Ibid.) No! We must stand in witness not only against “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but also against other self-identified “Christians” who pervert the Gospel. Whenever we hear or witness such nonsense as suggestions that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice,” we must answer clearly that it is not! We must have the courage of our Christian convictions and proclaim the truth of our faith in the face of such distortion. What we hope these so-called “conservative Christians” hear and recognize and learn, we must say and demonstrate and teach.

In this respect, last week’s opening prayer bears repeating: When we are faced with such twisted falsehood and misrepresentation, O Lord, “grant that [we] may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. Amen.” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Collect for Proper 10, page 231)

(Note: The illustration is a representation of glioblastoma cancer cells from Glioblastoma multiforme – stereotaxic radiotherapy brings promising results? by Aleksandra Jarocka, MD, and Anna Brzozowska, PhD.)

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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.

No Grief So Profound: Sermon for Pentecost 3, Proper 5C (5 June 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 5C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Luke 7:11-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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raisingthewidowssonI am convinced that there is no grief quite so profound as that of a mother whose child has died. I know that fathers in the same situation feel a nearly as intense sorrow at the death of their sons or daughters, but having spent time with grieving parents, I am convinced that the grief of a mother faced with the loss of her child is the deepest sadness in human experience.

About nine hundred years before the time of Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet Elijah spoke the word of God during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel was a foreigner who worshipped the god Ba’al and this was an abomination in Elijah’s eyes, and he was not remiss in letting the queen and everyone else know what he thought of that. He challenged Ahab about his wife and her religion, something the king did not appreciate. So Elijah fled the country; the First Book of Kings tells us that he did so at the command of God, who apparently wished to preserve the life of his prophet.

God sent Elijah during a time of famine to a widow in the Phoenician town of Zarephath. The woman was surprised by Elijah’s demand, pointing out that she had just enough flour and oil to make a last meal for her and her son, after which they expected to die of starvation. Elijah (as we heard) told her not to worry, that if she would feed Elijah, her canister of flour and her flask of oil would never run out until the famine ended. Sure enough that proved to be true. But not long after that meal, her son died.

In anger, out of the depths of that profound sorrow, she lashed out at Elijah: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Elijah, faced with his hostess’s grief and anger, was also angered by the boy’s death. “He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’”

Nearly a millennium later, Luke tells us that Jesus also encountered another grieving mother. Entering the town of Nain, he encountered a funeral procession for a young man and was confronted by the deep maternal sorrow of his widowed mother. In our English translation, Luke says that Jesus felt compassion for the woman. The Greek word is a little earthier: splagchnizomai. It is derived from the word splagchna, which means “entrails” or “intestines”. It means, literally, to have one’s gut wrenched; it says that one has a feeling deep in one’s gut, the deepest of all human emotions, the kind of feeling that is physical as much as emotive. The best definition I’ve ever heard of splagchnizomai is that it is a lurching feeling deep in your gut that compels you to do something. That is a great description for both Jesus’ compassion for the widow of Nain and Elijah’s anger at the death of the son of the widow of Zarephath.

Today, in follow up to our Ninth Annual Gentlemen’s Cake Auction, we welcome and honor Michelle Powell, a single mother of two, who in the summer of 2000, had that sort of feeling deep in her gut that compelled her to do something. With limited resources, offering nothing more than a simple meal and a game of kickball at the local park, she started Let’s Make a Difference and began a journey that would ultimately change her life and positively impact the lives of many at-risk children in need in the Medina community. The mission of Let’s Make a Difference is “to provide positive social growth in the lives of children in need through educational, spiritual and creative experiences, promoting the fact that each person can make a difference.” This summer Let’s Make a Difference will offer character development activities, field trips, academic enrichment, arts and crafts, games and lots of fun, and make a huge difference in the lives of many of Medina’s underprivileged children.

We also welcome and pay tribute to retired educator Carol Andregg. In 2007, as an outgrowth of Let’s Make a Difference, Michelle and Carol started an after-school program for students at Claggett Middle School. Called Achieving Connections through Education (or “ACE”), the program assists students on four days of a typical five-day school week with daily homework assignments, longer term projects, behavioral issues, and developing respect for self and others. ACE has made a significant impact in the lives of their students, many of whom have successfully completed high school and gone on to college. Today, we honor and support Michelle, Carol, Let’s Make a Difference, and Achieving Connections through Education with a grant of $2,635, the total amount raised through this year’s cake auction. (See the Let’s Make a Difference Website)

Writing about the gospel story we have heard this morning, the Rev. Lia Scholl, pastor at Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia, has offered what she calls a four-lesson, do-it-yourself guide to healing like Jesus.

#1: Pay Attention

The first lesson? We have to be paying attention. Jesus is walking along, sees a funeral procession and notices the mother of the deceased boy or man. He notices her.

#2: Give a Crap

The second lesson? Give a crap. How easy it would have been for Jesus to just walk on by. No one expected him to heal every sick or dead person who crossed his path. Jesus gave a crap.

#3: Be Willing to Feel

The third lesson? We have to be willing to feel. The NIV translates this passage as “his heart went out to her.” We have to be willing to hurt. That’s what compassion is. To share in someone’s pain.

#4: Healing Can Happen

The fourth lesson? We just walk up to someone who is dead and we command that they get better. It works! It really works. No, it doesn’t.

The fourth lesson is that healing can happen if the other things are in place. It may not be supernatural, immediate healing. But healing can happen . . . .

(How to Heal Like Jesus: Luke’s DIY Guide to Healing People)

I think Pastor Scholl has pretty well encapsulated everything we need to learn from these stories of mothers whose children died and from the ministry done in each case by Elijah and Jesus: pay attention, care so much you do something, be willing to be hurt, and trust that healing can happen. That’s what Michelle and Carol have done and why Let’s Make a Difference is making a difference. That’s what good people throughout time have done.

polio-deaths2The year that I was born was the worst of the mid-20th Century polio epidemic; about 55,000 Americans contracted the disease that year and more than 3,100 died, mostly children. As a society, we decided that that much illness and death was simply unacceptable, and an all-out effort was underway to put an end to it. Within just a few years, Jonas Salk and his team developed the vaccine which ended the epidemic; a few years later, the Sabin oral vaccine was developed and polio has been just about eradicated throughout the world. (Graphic from Polio Cases, Deaths, and Vaccination Rates.)

We are now in the midst of an even more deadly epidemic in this country, an epidemic of gun violence, and that is the point of the odd-colored stole I am wearing today.

Wear_Orange_InstagramOn January 21, 2013, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student from the south side of Chicago, marched with her school’s band in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. One week later, Hadiya was shot and killed. She was shot in the back while standing with friends inside Harsh Park in Kenwood, Chicago, after taking her final exams. She was not the intended victim; the perpetrator, a gang member, had mistaken her group of friends for a rival gang.

On Hadiya’s birthday, June 2, her friends chose to wear orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves, to remember her life. What started in a south side high school to celebrate Hadiya has turned into a nationwide movement to honor all lives cut short by gun violence. Now, June 2 each year is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and those who participate wear orange to celebrate of life, to raise awareness of the scourge of gun violence, and to call for action to help save other lives from gunfire. (See Wear Orange)

This year, beginning here in Ohio, Episcopal clergy and clergy of many other denominations, including many of our bishops, have decided to wear out-of-the-ordinary orange vestments for the same purpose. (See Episcopal News Service) Too many of us have sat with and held the hands of too many mothers, too many fathers whose children have died, too many widows of Zarephath, too many widows of Nain. We have felt the rage of Elijah and the gut-wrenching compassion of Jesus but, unlike them, we are unable to change the circumstances. If we could have prevented those deaths, we would; if we could raise those dead children, we would. We can’t. But what we can do is raise awareness.

Here are just a few of the realities of the gun violence epidemic in this country:

  • On an average day in America, 91 people die from gun shots. If you compute that out, you’ll find that the number of deaths per year is more than 33,000; that is ten times the number of deaths from polio in the worst year of that epidemic. (See Everytown for Gun Safety)
  • Sometimes we hear people claim that the risk of gun death, especially the risk to children and teens, is higher in urban areas than in the suburbs or in rural communities. The fact is that the risk of gun death is the same in all areas, although the underlying reason for the death may be different: “Youth (ages 0 to 19) in the most rural U.S. counties are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties. Rural children die of more gun suicides and unintentional shooting deaths. Urban children die more often of gun homicides.” (See Brady Campaign: About Gun Violence)
  • 64% of all gun deaths are suicides. (See Everytown for Gun Safety) “Someone with access to firearms is three times more likely to commit suicide” than someone living in a home where there are no guns. (See Access to Guns Increases Risk of Suicide)
  • Last week there was an enormous amount of news coverage about the shooting and killing of the silver-back ape Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo. While that was a tragedy, I suggest to you that even more tragic were the three shootings of human beings in Ohio which were statistically likely to have happened the same day. Did you know that? That, statistically, an Ohio resident is shot to death every eight hours? In 2011 in this state “an average of one aggravated assault with a firearm [occurred] every two and a half hours.” (See Fact Sheet: Ohio Gun Violence)
  • Did you know that during the current year alone there have been 121 mass shootings (in which four or more persons were injured or killed) in the United States? That’s more than five per week, and more than half of those were the result of a family or domestic dispute; very many of the victims of those shootings were children. (See Gun Violence Archive)
  • Did you know that since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, there has been at least one on-campus shooting in a school or college nearly every week? More than 160 incidents in which 59 people were killed and 124 were injured. (See Analysis of School Shootings)
  • Did you know that seven children and teens (age 19 or under) are killed with guns in the U.S. on an average day? (See Brady Campaign: About Gun Violence)

Seven mothers every day suffer the profound, gut-wrenching, soul-deep sorrow of the widows of Zarephath and Nain because of the preventable deaths of their children.

Gun violence is an epidemic far worse than the polio epidemic. Unlike the polio epidemic, however, it is one about which we need do no research to stem! We know the cause and we know how to stop it. If guns were a disease that killed 30,000 or more, this epidemic would have ended long ago. And yet we take no action to put an end to it.

Scholars often debate the historical accuracy of stories from the Bible; these two stories today get a lot of attention in that regard. But whether they are historically accurate or not is really not the point. These stories have a lesson to teach. As theologian Bill Loader says,

Whether or not one wants to defend the historicity of such accounts or is happy to see them as legendary expressions of faith, they still have a role within a broader perspective. [The story of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain], in particular, deserves to be allowed its symbolic potential. The ministry of Jesus and ours is about addressing real human need and it is about compassion. This is indeed his mission, God’s mission.

Such compassion and caring in action has few short-cuts to success, if any. A cross stands in the road, which unveils reality for both the carers and the world in need of care. In the midst of the complexity of human need is hope and the possibility of renewal and life. It is built on the foundation that all people are of value and none is to be dismissed or despised. Our world still needs that kind of good news and our challenge is to become it and help others become it. (First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary)

Our gift to the good people of Let’s Make a Difference and the marvelous work they do with at-risk children in Medina is a significant step in God’s mission of compassion, but it is only one step. These children, our children, our grandchildren are at risk every day from dangers, some of which we cannot know or imagine, but one of which we know all too well, the epidemic of preventable gun violence.

About the story of Elijah and the dead boy in Zarephath, Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana, author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, writes:

As a minister of the gospel, I cannot bring ailing boys back to life – how I wish I could. But this story convicts me that while I am called to offer presence and a message of grace to people hungering for wholeness and justice, presence and eloquent words are not enough. This widow would surely offer an “Amen” to James when he wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Elijah is not off the hook simply because the jars of meal and oil have not run out. He must do all he can for the continued well-being of her son. (Political Theology Today)

We are not let off the hook by our grant to Let’s Make a Difference; we must do all we can for the continued well-being of the children they serve and of all the children of our community and our nation. That means being aware of and working for the end of the epidemic of gun violence which threatens them.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is another Presbyterian elder who writes hymns. Her hymn God of Mercy, You Have Shown Us was written at the request of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program for an International Peace Day in September, 2009. I will close with her lyrics as a prayer:

God of mercy, you have shown us ways of living that are good:
Work for justice, treasure kindness, humbly journey with the Lord.
Yet your people here are grieving, hurt by weapons that destroy.
Help us turn to you, believing in your way that brings us joy.

On a street where neighbors gather, shots are heard; a young girl dies.
On a campus, students scatter as the violence claims more lives.
In a family filled with anger, tempers flare and shots resound.
God of love, we weep and wonder at the violence all around.

God, we pray for those who suffer when this world seems so unfair;
May your church be quick to offer loving comfort, gentle care.
And we pray: Amid the violence, may we speak your truth, O Lord!
Give us strength to break the silence, saying, “This can be no more!”

God, renew our faith and vision, make us those who boldly lead!
May we work for just decisions that bring true security.
Help us change this violent culture based on idols, built on fear.
Help us build a peaceful future with your world of people here.

(Gun Violence Prevention: Worship Resources)

There is no grief so profound as that of the widows of Zarephath and Nain, the grief a mother whose child has died. Let us do all in our power to prevent that grief whenever we can. Let us learn from Jesus: pay attention to what is happening, care so much we do something, be willing to be hurt, and trust that this epidemic can be healed. And let us make a difference! Amen.

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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.

You Did Not Return – From the Daily Office Lectionary

You Did Not Return

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (3 December 2015)

Amos 4:6 ~ . . . . yet you did not return to me, says the Lord.

The fourth chapter of the prophet Amos is a litany of the things God had done to punish the people beginning with the oddest of all, “I gave you cleanness of teeth . . . ” obviously a reference to lack of food. After each calamity is described, God laments its ineffectiveness with these words, “Yet you did not return to me.” Five times this is repeated in today’s Old Testament reading. The reading concludes, then, “prepare to meet your God.” You did not return to me, therefore I am coming to you. The implication, of course, is that this meeting will not be pleasant.

Yesterday the 355th mass shooting of the year for the United States took place in San Bernardino, California. (A “mass shooting” is defined as an event in which four or more persons are killed or wounded by gunfire.) Immediately, politicians of every sort began to tweet, to post on Facebook, to issue statements, to hold press conferences, to be questioned by news reporters . . . and in every instance some variant of these words were uttered: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” This year . . . 355 times people have died; 355 times politicians have offered thoughts and prayers. “Yet you did not return to me.”

The Washington Post reported that there are now known to be at least 357 million firearms in a country with a population of 317 million. That’s more than one gun for every man, woman, and child from newborn infancy to deathbed old age. “Yet you did not return to me.”

Even though the Congress refuses to fund gun-injury and gun-death research or to allow the Centers for Disease Control to treat gun-injury and gun-death data as a matter of public health, such research and data exist. The statistical correlation between prevalence of gun ownership in a population and the rate of gun death or gun injury in that population is well established: more guns, more death. It’s a simple and statistically valid correlation that our political leaders refuse to acknowledge. “Yet you did not return to me.”

Repentence. That’s what the Lord’s lament is about. A failure of repentance, really. To turn around and return to sanity; to heal relationships among people, and between people and God; to get off the treadmill of daily mass shootings; to end the until-now ceaseless refrain of “thoughts and prayers” and replace them with effective action.

Does anyone doubt that the time has come for something more than thoughts and prayers? Does anyone doubt that the time has come to do something about the prevalence of excessive gun ownership in this population? Does anyone doubt that the time has come to permit the CDC to do its job and treat gun violence as a public health concern? Does anyone doubt that that the time has come repent?

If we cannot, if we do not, there will be a meeting . . . and it will not be pleasant.

#AdventWord #repent

Fear Not – From the Daily Office – October 27, 2014

From Ecclesiasticus:

Have you heard something? Let it die with you. Be brave, it will not make you burst!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 19:10 (NRSV) – October 27, 2014)

Ben Sira’s admonition is set in context in a discussion of gossip, but in the United States today it could also apply to the silly, ignorant, unthinking panic that has attended the arrival of the ebola virus in our country.

Today’s morning headlines include news of yet another state adopting rules and regulations requiring a 21-day quarantine for any person arriving from certain west African countries. I don’t know what to make of this nor do I care for the precedent it sets. Incarceration without due process, which is essentially what this is, probably has more chance of spreading than does the virus from which it allegedly is protecting us.

Ben Sira’s advice about gossip – “question a friend” (v. 13) and “question a neighbor” (v. 14); in other words, check it out! – is equally applicable here. Get the facts! Know what you are saying! Know what you are doing!

We are in the midst of an epidemic, but it is not an ebola epidemic. It is an epidemic of mindless, ill-considered panic and prejudice which (continuing another disturbing trend in our society) ignores science and good medical practice. This epidemic is not a medical issue; it is a spiritual problem. It is an epidemic of fear ignoring the constant reassurance of scripture: “Fear not.” (Here’s a website that’s collected a bunch of verse references for this.) As Ben Sira says, “Be brave.”

Have you heard something that made you afraid? Check it out and “let it die with you. Be brave.” Don’t help the panic pandemic to spread.

Please Do Not Feed the Fears

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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 Storm of Depression – Sermon for August 19, 2014, Pentecost 9, Proper 14A

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On the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 10, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; and Matthew 14:22-33. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Icon of ElijahThere is a very strong possibility that at least five people in this nave today are suffering from depression. Not just garden variety, feeling a little bit down, depression, but from clinical depression that is being (or should be) treated with medication and therapy. Psychiatrists see more people suffering from depression than people suffering from all other emotional problems combined. It is currently estimated that one in every twenty Americans has been medically diagnosed is currently under treatment for depression. If all of those patients were formed into some sort of organization it would be more than twice the size of the Episcopal Church.

So there’s a very, very good chance that a few of those patients are here today. And it’s a certainty that there is at least one former depression patient in the room: me. I won’t go into the gory details, but about 17 years ago, I had my own bad run-in with clinical depression, but with medication, cognitive therapy, and most importantly spiritual direction, I came through it.

I bring this up because we have two lessons today that directly address the matter of depression and human failure to cope with failure, chaos, and fear. These lessons are instructive not only for those who suffer from clinical depression, but also for those who live and work with them, and for everyone who occasionally suffers from disappointment with life, with frustration and regret. The first is part of the story of Elijah, the Man of God.

Today we have heard a famous and familiar story from the 19th Chapter of the First Book of Kings, the story of Elijah encountering God at the entrance of a cave on Mt. Horeb, which is also called Mt. Sinai, the very place where Moses received the Law from the hand of God. Technically and religiously, what Elijah experiences is called a theophany or epiphany, a manifestation of the divine, but practically what he has received is treatment for depression. Elijah is a classic example of a clinically depressed human being and Yhwh does for him exactly what modern psychiatry has come to understand as the best treatment for depression.

But let’s back up and get the back story on all of this.

This is actually the second theophany Elijah experiences in relatively short order. The first was on another mountain, Mt. Carmel, which is about 280 miles north-northwest of Mt. Horeb. The occasion was Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal. You may recall that at the time Ahab was king in Israel, the northern kingdom. Ahab’s queen is a woman named Jezebel who is a princess of Tyre in Phoenicia and a worshiper of Baal. One of Elijah’s prophetic complaints against King Ahab is that he has allowed his queen to establish Baal worship in Israel. As a demonstration of the supremacy of Yhwh, Elijah challenged the 400 prophets of Baal who served Jezebel to a duel. They would each offer a sacrifice on Mt. Carmel and the one whose sacrifice is accepted will be shown to be the prophet of the true god.

The prophets of Baal erected an altar, as did Elijah, and they placed upon it several butchered animals, as Elijah did on his altar. Then the prophets of Baal began to solicit their god; they danced and prayed and sang and prostrated themselves but nothing happened. Then it was Elijah’s turn. Before invoking Yhwh, however, Elijah had the people douse his altar and the offering on it with water, not once but three times. Then, when he called upon the Lord, heavenly fire consumed not only the sacrificed livestock, but the very stones of the altar. This is the first theophany.

As a result, the people repented of their faithlessness, fell on their faces, and worshiped Yhwh. Then Elijah ordered them: “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” (1 kg 18:40) Which they did, and they killed all of the prophets of Baal. King Ahab was present during the challenge and witnessed the slaughter of his wife’s religious leadership.

At the beginning of Chapter 19, Ahab rides back to his palace in the city of Jezreel and tells Jezebel what has happened. Her response is to threaten Elijah with death. She sends him a message: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of [the prophets of Baal] by this time tomorrow.” (v. 2) So he flees the northern kingdom for Mt. Horeb and this is where we are in our reading today.

Elijah experiences the second theophany. He hears the voice of God asking him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” (v. 9) Elijah’s answer is the that of a severely depressed person! “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (v. 10)

What do we know about this answer. We know that most of it isn’t true. The Israelites have not forsaken God’s covenant: at Mt. Carmel just a short while before they had repented of any allegiance to the religion of Baal and sworn themselves faithful to Yhwh. They have not killed Yhwh’s prophets with the sword: they have, in fact, killed the prophets of Baal. Elijah is not left alone: there are all those people who swore that oath of repentance at Mt. Carmel, if not many others. They are not all seeking his life: only Jezebel and her followers are doing so.

Elijah, exhibiting classic signs and symptoms of depression, has focused on and exaggerated the negatives in his life, completely ignoring anything and everything positive.

So God decides to get his attention, maybe shake him out of this funk. God sends an earth-shattering wind, then with an earthquake, then with a great fire, but (our scripture insists) God is not in any of those things. Lastly, there is “the sound of sheer silence” and in that deep, deep desert silence Elijah hears a small, still voice . . . the voice of God . . . asking once again, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” (v. 13)

And how does Elijah answer? Almost exactly as he did before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (v. 14) Despite this dramatic theophanic event, in which God has intended to lift Elijah out of his despondency, Elijah’s responses to Yhwh, both before and after the theophany, are nearly identical. His thoughts, words, and actions are those of severely depressed person — withdrawal and escape, moodiness, apprehension and fear, self-pity, feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope and confidence, anger, irritability, wrong headedness, fixation on negative events, and physical exhaustion to name just a few.
And what does God do?

God doesn’t tell him cheer up; God doesn’t tell him to snap out of it; God doesn’t try to reason with him and convince him that all is well. No, God sets Elijah a goal; he gives him a task to perform. Yhwh gets Elijah active and involved once again in his prophetic ministry. “Get up and go do this,” God says, “anoint two new kings in Aram and Israel, and prepare for your retirement by taking Elisha as your apprentice and successor.” (vv. 15-16) This is precisely the sort of specific goal-setting that modern psychology prescribes for the treatment of depression!

Just last year a study published at the University of Liverpool demonstrated that people with clinical depression tend to describe personal goals lacking a specific focus. The lack of specificity makes it more difficult to achieve the goal and this, in turn, creates a downward cycle of negative thoughts. Setting specific goals and realizing them triggers an electro-chemical chain reaction in the brain that makes the patient feel rewarded, and this stimulates happiness, motivation, and self-esteem. (Generalized Goals Linked to Depression)

This is exactly what Yhwh does for Elijah, setting specific goals. What is scientific research has shown to be psychologically true is shown here in scripture to be spiritually true.

The second lesson that I believe directly addresses the issue of depression is the gospel tale of Jesus walking on the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee.

I must be honest with you; this is one of those Jesus stories with which I am decidedly uncomfortable. I don’t think these stories of Jesus violating the laws of nature are meant to demonstrate Jesus to be some sort of superman or a powerful magician or even to be God. I believe they are, rather, prophetic actions, physical metaphors from which we are to learn something much more important, something about ourselves and about human nature.

Throughout the biblical canon, in other literature of the ancient middle east, and even in our world today, the image of a storm at sea is a powerful metaphor of chaos and even of uncontrollable evil. Twice the gospel writers use it as a way to demonstrate Jesus’ power. First, there is the incident when Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, asleep during a storm. They awaken him and he rebukes the wind and calms the sea. According to Matthew, whose gospel we are exploring in this year of the lectionary cycle, that incident took place earlier. This is the second time the disciples on are on the Galilean lake in bad weather at night, but this time Jesus isn’t with them.

In this story, Jesus is walking on the water and (Mark asserts in his version of the tale – Mk 6:47-51) intends to pass them by. However, they see him, think he is a ghost, and cry out. He identifies himself and reassures them, at which point Peter decides he would like to try this water-walking thing and asks Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Mt 14:28) Jesus says, “Come” and Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the stormy sea. Note that — Jesus has not quelled the storm. The wind is still blowing; presumably, the water is still choppy, the waves still beating on the boat. Peter successfully takes a few steps, but then is distracted and frightened by the weather and begins to sink. Jesus rescues him; they get in the boat; and that’s when the storm ends and the sea becomes calm.

So what does this say to us about dealing with depression and disappointment?

Let’s say that the stormy sea, the wind, the waves, and all of that are a metaphor for the negativity, chaos, and fear which is clinical depression (and, to a lesser extent, any experience of sadness or grief). And let’s say that Jesus is setting for Peter (and by extension the other disciples) the same sort of goal that Yhwh set for Elijah, a specific, attainable goal, something easily accomplished . . . just walking on the water. We know it can be done; Jesus hass just demonstrated that.

And Peter in fact does accomplish it — he takes a few steps. But then he is distracted; the negative thoughts of depression, the repetitive ruminating over the fear and chaos sets back in. This can and does happen. Recovery from depression is not the quick and easy path the story in First Kings might suggest (and, in fact, even there it isn’t clear that Elijah recovered — he only accomplishes one of the three goals set for him). Recovery from depression takes time; dealing with disappointment, grief, and sadness takes time, and there can be (probably will be) set backs.

The set backs, however, if proper support is given by family, friends, therapists, spiritual directors, and others, don’t prevail. Recovery does happen. Depression can be conquered. The storm of grief can be weathered. The sea can be calmed.

In the epistle today, Paul tells the Romans that the righteousness of faith is not something far away. One doesn’t have ascend to heaven or descend into the abyss to find it. It is, he says, very near; it is, he says, “on your lips and in your heart.” So, too, is the strength that overcomes depression, that gets through regret and grief. Every person has it, has been gifted with it by God. Recognizing that fact takes time and support.

Most clearly in our lesson from Elijah, but also found in our other lessons, the psychological truth demonstrated by modern science are the spiritual truths set out in scripture. “Listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him,” especially those who are struggling with depression or emotional illness, with sadness, frustration, and regret. Let us pray:

Heavenly Father in whom we live and move and have our being: yours is the small still voice of guidance in good times and bad. In your infinite mercy, bring peace and comfort to those who face days sometimes filled with pain and depression. Help us to realize that through you there is joy and the promise of lasting peace. Help us through the rough times and over the stormy seas. Walk before and beside us that we may reach out to you in our journey through life. Help us to focus not on our misfortunes, but on our blessings, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord who calms our seas and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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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.

Psalms Are Not Science – From the Daily Office – May 17, 2014

From Book of Psalms:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 139:13-16 (NRSV) – May 17, 2014)

Human FetusLet me make one thing clear: I do not want to get into the abortion debate! I never want to get into the abortion debate!

Whether and when to end a pregnancy is a personal and painful decision, one which I believe is ultimately to be made by one person, the pregnant one. Others may offer her advice and counsel, but when it comes right down to it no one other than her has any business making the decision. Abortion should not be a debate; it should be a private, medical decision by one person.

But I find myself rather frequently pummeled by those who do want to get into the abortion debate, beaten over the head by one side or the other with their particular arguments — most often, I must admit, by the so-called “Pro-Life” side. As a Christian pastor, I get mail, emails, and phone calls from (mostly) the anti-abortionists encouraging me to support their current efforts to restrict access to medically supervised termination of pregnancy.

And nearly every piece of literature they provide includes somewhere the assertion that “human life begins at conception.” And very often that statement is coupled with a citation to this part of Psalm 138.

So let’s make another thing clear: the psalms are not science. The Psalter is poetry and metaphor; the purpose of the psalms is primarily to praise God and secondarily to teach God’s people that the Almighty is to be praised because of the intimacy with which God loves us. These verses simply do not mean that God creates the inmost parts or the unformed substance of every fetus in every womb; nor do they address the issue of when human life begins! Even taken literally, all that this psalm is saying is that God made plans for David; it has nothing to do with when David’s, or any, life began or begins.

That is, basically, what the entire abortion controversy boils down to: when does human life begin? When does a fertilized ovum become a human person? That is a question with so many dimensions — theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical, spiritual, and more — that I’m not sure I can count them!

What I notice about these verses today is that all they name are the physical parts of the body: inmost parts, frame, substance. The spiritual aspect of human life is not mentioned; there is no thought given here to the soul, the spirit, the breath.

In Jewish and Christian theology a human person is only a human person when there is unity of the physical body with the spirit. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew noun nephesh is often translated as “soul,” but it is most often found in combination with adjective hayyah, meaning “living” or “alive.” In combination, the two are rendered “living being” or “soul alive,” but perhaps the best translation is “person.” There is human personhood only when there is both physical body and living spirit.

So when do they come together? The technical theological term is ensoulment. To ask “When does human life begin?” is to ask when ensoulment occurs.

In Jewish tradition, a baby is not considered to be a human person until its head emerges from the birth canal. According to the Talmud, “the fetus is the thigh of its mother,” which means that it is not considered an independent person until after birth. Indeed, some medieval Jewish sages held a child was not a bar kayyama or “lasting being,” i.e., a viable human being, until a month after being born. Obviously, traditional Jewish law and medieval Jewish wisdom did not give Psalm 138 the meaning our contemporary “Pro-Lifers” give it.

Christian tradition has been all over the board on the question.

Some sects (Mormons, for example — and another debate I don’t want to get into is whether members of the Latter-Day Saints are Christians) believe that the soul pre-exists the body, that God has parented or created numerous “spirit children” who await physical bodies in this world.

Some of the earliest theologians, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa, taught that the egg and the sperm each carried a soul derived from the souls of the mother and the father, and that at conception these two proto-souls merged to form a new and distinct soul. This theory, called traducianism, is a direct and necessary development of the doctrine of Original Sin, which teaches that our sinful nature is passed from parent to child via concupiscence (sexual desire) and its (sinful?) satisfaction.

Interestingly, Augustine, who was responsible for much of the formulation of Original Sin, rejected traducianism; he favored what came to be known as Creationism, which is not the creationism which today does battle with evolutionary science.

Traducianism was rejected by the theologians of the Middle Ages — Thomas Aquinas, especially — and in favor of creationism. This view, based in part on Genesis 2:7 (“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”) and Hebrews 12:9 (which distinguishes between our “human parents” and God who is the “Father of spirits”), holds that while the body is formed gradually the soul is directly created by God and enters the body when it is ready to receive it (a determination made by God).

Creationism was the accepted teaching of the church from the Fifth Century on . . . until recent times. In fact, from the late Middle Ages until the end of the 19th Century, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (and the generally accepted position of most of Christianity) was that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening,” when the mother first feels movement.

So when does the soul enter the physical body? When does a fertilized ovum become a human person?

I don’t know.

Years ago I sat on a panel discussing abortion law and religion with an older colleague from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He made this statement which I will never forget: “I would rather counsel a woman about legal abortion than bury a woman who’s resorted to an illegal one. And I’ve done both.” I have had to do the former, both before and after the procedure; that’s why I know so much (and so little) about this theology. Fortunately, unlike my colleague, I’ve not had to do the latter and I hope I never will.

I don’t know when “human life” begins, but I do know this: I do not want to get into the abortion debate, ever, even though I am often forced to. And I know this: abortion is a private, personal, and painful decision which is ultimately to be made by only one person, the pregnant one. And I know this: the psalms are not science.

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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 Deadly Pestilence – From the Daily Office – March 28, 2014

From the Psalter:

He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter
and from the deadly pestilence.
He shall cover you with his pinions,
and you shall find refuge under his wings;
his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler.
You shall not be afraid of any terror by night,
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the plague that stalks in the darkness,
nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 91:3-6 (BCP Version) – March 28, 2014.)

Robert Hooke's MicroscopeThe past couple of weeks my wife and I have suffered the slings and arrows of some sort of intestinal virus, or so we think. She had it first, seemed to get better, suffered a relapse. I didn’t seem to “catch” it from her, but a few days after her last bout I suffered an attack of what I thought was “food poisoning.” Three days later I’m not so sure.

In any event, it’s the sort of thing we’ve all suffered through and can hardly be described as “the deadly pestilence” or “the plague that stalks in the darkness” or “the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.” Still, reading this psalm today I have some small appreciation for the terror with which populations in pre-scientific societies must have viewed disease.

Today, of course, we have antivirals, antibiotics, and other medications to assist in treatment of these ills. We have indoor plumbing and sewage systems to remove the stuff our bodies produce when fighting them off. We know what causes these complaints and what the body needs in the way of fluids, rest, and other care to be best able to combat the infections.

We have all of that because modern science and modern medicine have done the hard work of scientific research, experimentation, and discovery. How did that get started? By religious people . . . by people of faith seeking to understand the Creation with which God had entrusted them.

For example, the 13th Century Franciscan, Roger Bacon was instrumental in formulating the process of research now generally called “the scientific method.” Further, he defended the need to utilize the philosophical and scientific writings of the ancient Greeks in Christian theology. It was his position that what was then called “natural philosophy” provided an essential complement to theology.

Another is Robert Hooke, the 17th Century Anglican who first saw cells in living matter and, in fact, coined the term “cells” (drawn from analogy to monastic cubicles). Hooke was the son and brother of Anglican clergymen and was the student of Dr. Richard Busby who had championed the church’s role in scientific investigations. In addition to his scientific achievements, Hooke was a devout church member who sang in choirs and designed church buildings.

Joseph Lister, the Scottish physician who pioneered modern surgery, did research into sepsis and infection, and developed modern antiseptic techniques. His name lives on in the antimicrobial mouthwash Listerine. He was raised a Quaker and later in life became an active member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Lister has been quoted as saying, “I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.”

My point in rattling off this list of religiously-inclined scientists whose work laid the foundation for our modern understanding of disease and illness (and there are many, many others) is two-fold. First, there is (or, at least, there should be) no conflict between science and religion, despite what the hard-line proponents on either side of that divide may think or say. Second (and most pertinent to my Daily Office reading and experience today), it is through the work of these pioneers that we are no longer at the mercy of “the plague that stalks in the darkness” or “the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.” It is through the work of generations of scientists (believers and non-believers alike) that God has delivered us from “the deadly pestilence.”

So today, I sip my Gatorade and take my medications thankful to God for that deliverance.

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