That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Science (page 1 of 5)

Lenten Journal 2019 (10 April)

Lenten Journal, Day 35

Last night I looked up into the black sky
where a silver crescent moon gave way to stars
and found the Big Dipper, that major bear,
pointing to Polaris and I felt
like a kid again

In the hours before dawn this morning
walking the dog as I usually do
I looked up again and found Orion, the hunter,
with his three-star studded belt and sword,
striding across the sky

Staying up late, arising early to see the sky
I was the science kid
who knew the stars and the planets
Walking now beneath them
I recall the joy of discovery
I greet old friends

Timeless and changeless the same stars
marched the sky in ancient Palestine
but timeless and changeless
only because of distance
their now a million years gone
locked with Jesus’ now millennia gone
locked with my now still unfolding
a kairos combination of
then and now and long ago and yet to be
as it was in the beginning
is now
and will be forever

–– C. Eric Funston, “Stars,” 10 April 2019

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Note: The illustration is from NASA: The Big Dipper Enhanced; Image Credit & Copyright: VegaStar Carpentier)

Lenten Journal 2019 (10 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 4 (First Sunday in Lent)

I fell in love with science when I was in junior high school. I did well in chemistry and biology  and in math classes in high school. I went to a particular university because it was well-known as a training ground for scientists. I wasn’t sure which of the sciences I wanted to go into – marine biology and medicine were both especially attractive, but so too was physics – but I was definitely headed into the sciences. And then I met integral calculus … and ended up getting a degree in literature, then another in business, another in law, and two more in religion.

I am still in love with science; it’s just that I seem incapable of wrapping my head around abstract mathematics. In another universe, I might have been able to do that and might have followed a different path. Perhaps that is why quantum mechanics, superstring theory, and the multiverse fascinate me. I may not quite grasp the math, but the ideas make all sorts of sense to me, especially the notion of multiple universes and alternate realities.

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Reading Comprehension: Sermon for Pentecost 26, Proper 28B, November 18, 2018

When you sit there in the pew and I stand here in the pulpit and say to you “The Bible says this . . . .” or “The Church teaches that . . . .”, how do you know that I’m telling you the truth? When the writer of the Letter to Hebrews admonishes you to “approach [the sanctuary of God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” how do you have that assurance? When that writer, again, encourages you to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” how do you know what that confession is? And when Jesus commands you, “Beware that no one leads you astray,” how do you make the judgment to exercise that caution? In a word, how do you determine what is true?

I submit to you that all of those questions have one answer: on-going Christian formation, lifelong Christian learning, adult Christian education, call it what you will it boils down to the same thing – using, on a regular basis, the sense, reason, and intellect with which God has endowed us to enter into ever-deepening understanding of our faith. And it begins, as our opening collect suggested, with hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Holy Scriptures.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[1]

One of the first things Thomas Cranmer, the first Reformed Archbishop of Canterbury, did after being appointed in 1533 was to convince King Henry VIII to publish an English translation of the Holy Bible and to authorize its public use. Cranmer hired Myles Coverdale to undertake the task and between April of 1539 and December of 1541 seven printings of this translation were made. Because of its large physical size, it was called The Great Bible. Copies of it were distributed to every church in England, chained to pulpits or lecterns, and there made available to any literate person who wished to come and read the Holy Scriptures for themselves. In addition, a reader was provided in every church so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English.

Cranmer then undertook, with the assistance of other bishops and scholars, to translate the church’s liturgy from medieval Latin into the common English of the day. He is the chief architect of The Book of Common Prayer, the first edition of which was published in 1549. Cranmer’s vision was of an English national church gathered in household units each morning and evening, gathered in parish churches each Sunday morning, reading through most of the Bible each year. His vision was of a Christian people who would be, in the words of one of our Lenten prayers, “fervent in prayer and in good works.”[2] Fervent – on fire – energized for their mission “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and . . . to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.”[3]

Our church continues that tradition with that same vision today through a Daily Office lectionary which leads us through almost the whole of Scripture over the course of two years and a Eucharistic lectionary (which we now share with many other mainstream Christian denominations) that guides us through most of the New Testament in a three-year cycle and much of the Old Testament in a six-year cycle. In this, we continue what Australian priest and author Adam Lowe has called the “extremely strong tradition” of “Anglican openness to the Bible.” (He wrote that on an internet blog in an entry posted on October 29, 2010, which is sadly no longer available; the website has expired. I mention that expiration now and will return to it in a bit.)

When Cranmer and his colleagues devised the annual cycle of prayer and reading embodied in the Prayer Book, they created also the cycle of weekly collects which begin Sunday worship services. On the First Sunday of Advent each year, their calendar of collects bid the church pray for God’s grace to “cast awaye the workes of darknes, and put upon us the armour of light.”[4] We still offer that same prayer on Advent 1. On the Second Sunday of Advent, they prescribed the original version of the collect which we now pray on this, the penultimate Sunday of the church year.

Although the “collect of the day” is (according to the rubrics in the BCP) normally said only by “the Celebrant,” today I asked that we all read that prayer together. I did so to underscore the corporate nature of that and every prayer said during worship; the Presider does not pray alone. The word “Amen,” in which the congregation joins at the end of every prayer, is a Hebrew word meaning “So be it.” It means, “Yes! We agree. We said that prayer with you. That’s our prayer.” So, this morning, we made it our prayer not only in agreement but in fact, our prayer and our commitment that we, each one of us and all of us together, will “hear [the holy Scriptures], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” We Anglicans have all been making that commitment, at least once a year, for 469 years!

We’ve been making that commitment, but let’s be honest, we’ve not been very good at keeping it. Even though our church teaches – in something called “the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation” – that “faith formation . . . is a lifelong journey with Christ, in Christ, and to Christ,” a lifelong process of “growth in the knowledge, service, and love of God as followers of Christ . . . informed by scripture, tradition, and reason,” I’ve been told by adult members of our church that (and I quote) “I don’t need any adult education.” Well . . . I can only tell you my experience.

When I moved back to Las Vegas as an adult in 1976 and, after a half-dozen years of not being active in the church, decided to attend Christ Episcopal Church, one of the first things I was invited to do was attend an adult education class. I’m glad I accepted the invitation. For the next dozen years I took part in at least one adult study every year, then I read for Holy Orders and got ordained, and for the last almost-30 years as a professional clergy person I have studied Scripture and church tradition nearly every day . . . and I still learn things. In fact, preparing for this sermon this past week I learned some things about The Great Bible that I hadn’t known before.

I believe that what our bishop calls the “tag line” of the Diocese of Ohio – “God Loves Everyone – No Exceptions” – is unqualifiedly true. With equal fervor, I believe that the statement, “I don’t need any adult education,” is unqualifiedly false. No one is ever too young, too old, or too knowledgeable to learn. And when we don’t make the effort and take the opportunity to do so, our commitment diminishes, the fire dies, the energy dissipates, and (in the words of our Ash Wednesday litany) we “fail to commend the faith that is in us.”[5]

So we have prayed every year for the grace to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures, and by so praying have committed ourselves to undertake the lifelong Christian formation that that implies, but what do these five educational activities entail? English priest and poet Malcolm Guite has called them “five glorious verbs” which “deepen as they follow one another in intensity of engagement.”[6]

Of hearing, Guite writes that this is “where most people, at the time of [our opening collect’s] composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else.” And many people are still there, at the hearing stage. We may hear the words proclaimed in worship and preached on from the pulpit, but though we may have a Bible in our homes, it is seldom opened. We really have to take the next step of our commitment: we have to read Holy Scripture ourselves.

Guite correctly notes that “the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains today one of the great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.” It was the Renaissance scientist Galileo Galilei who said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”[7] When we fail to read the Bible, we do forego their use, but when we study Scripture and tradition for ourselves we honor these gifts of God, with all the literacy, education, and good that flow from them.

The third verb in our prayer is “mark,” which in Cranmer’s day meant simply to “pay attention.” I’m one of those people who actually does mark pages as I read. My books (including my study Bible) are filled with color-coded highlights and marginal notations. Guite suggests that the action flows in both directions, that when we study the words of God they “underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us.”

We all know what “learning” is; it happens when (as the dictionary tells us) we “acquire knowledge of or skill in [something] by study, instruction, or experience.” Guite reminds us, though, that we often talk of “learning by heart” and drawing on that he describes learning as creating pathways in and through our hearts. He tells the story of visiting an elderly woman suffering dementia when he was newly ordained:

At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong sense that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” were the last words on her lips.

Though dimmed with age and dementia, the fervor, the fire, the energy of her learning still coursed the pathways in and through her heart.

And, finally, our collect commits us to “inwardly digest” what we hear, read, mark, and learn. Guite reminds us of Jesus words to Satan, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[8] Says Guite, “We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.” Daily, lifelong learning gives us the fervor, the fire, the energy needed for life.

What I have just said to you, I have said before. In fact, nearly everything I’ve just said is an almost verbatim repeat of a sermon I preached three years ago when we introduced the JOLT! intergenerational learning program which sadly only lasted for two years. Back then, that blog of Australian Anglican Adam Lowe was up and running and I could have given you a web address where you could read all that he had written about bible study; it was very good and I’m sad to have learned that it’s been wiped away like so many stray electrons.

And that’s a problem in our world. Friday, I listened to the NPR program Science Friday on which there was a segment with a neuroscientist named Maryanne Wolf who has recently published a book entitled Reader, Come Home[9] in which she explores the differences between reading from an actual, printed, ink-on-paper book and reading from a computer screen or a digital “reader.” She asserts that:

Human beings were never born to read. The acquisition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo sapiens. To our knowledge, no other species ever acquired it. The act of learning to read added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain’s repertoire. The long developmental process of learning to read deeply and well changed the very structure of that circuit’s connections, which rewired the brain, which transformed the nature of human thought.[10]

And she argues on the basis of research data that reading on a computer screen or digital “reader” rewires the brain in other ways. Particularly, the data show that such reading encourages what she calls “skimming” rather than the “deep reading” that physical, printed material encourages. What electronic readers are reading is not being “consolidated in their reservoirs of knowledge. This means that . . . their capacity to draw analogies and inferences when [and from what] they read will be less and less developed.”[11] The “deep reading” encouraged by reading from a printed text, she said, gives us “the time to critically analyze and evaluate the truth of what we are reading;” it gives us “an opportunity to engage our feelings of empathy and also our engagement with alternative viewpoints.”[12]
On the other hand, the “skimming” encouraged by reading from an electronic screen leads to a loss of the ability to engage in critical analysis and to develop insight.

Reading from a computer or a digital “reader” discourages deep reading in three ways. First, the very act of using an electronic screen predisposes the reader to an expectation of “evanescence.” This encourages us to read quickly, to skim over the material rather than linger on it thoughtfully. In the words of our Bible Sunday collect, we don’t take time to “mark” what we are reading. Second, digital formats discourage what Dr. Wolf called “recursion,” the going back to reread and reconsider something from a prior page. And this, in turn, inhibits the third element of “deep reading,” what she called “comprehension monitoring,” that internal process of self-checking our understanding. This is the “inward digesting” which we prayed God would give us in regard to Holy Scripture.

We live in a world of digitized information which appears and disappears, which flits by and is gone, to which we devote little time or attention, which we skim, do not reread or critically reconsider, and whose effect on us we do not monitor. We must make the effort to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” not only the Scriptures, but all forms of written communication, else we will not be able to “analyze and evaluate the truth of what we are reading.”

This is the danger about which Jesus warned. “Beware,” he said, “that no one leads you astray.”[13] Jesus spoke of “wars and rumors of wars;” he might in our world speak of tweets, of Instagram, of Facebook postings, or of blogs and websites which come and go. These things can be and often are filled with lies and distortions which distract us from the truth and, because of their impermanence, they render us unable to distinguish truth from falsehood. “Beware that no one leads you astray!”

The truth, said Jesus, will make us free.[14] May we hear the truth, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that we may embrace and hold fast to freedom. Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

The lessons used for the service (Proper 28, Year B, Track 2) are Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; and St. Mark 13:1-8. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Proper 28, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 236

[2] Preface for Lent, BCP 1979, page 379

[3] Catechism, BCP 1979, page 855

[4] The Book of Common Prayer of 1549

[5] BCP 1979, page 268

[6] Bible Sunday: Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest!, Malcolm Guite Blog, October 23, 2016, online

[7] Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615

[8] Matthew 4:4

[9] Wolf, Maryanne, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins, New York:2018)

[10] Excerpt from Reader, Come Home, published on the Science Friday website, November 16, 2018, online

[11] Ibid.

[12] Audio recording of radio program segment, Science Friday website, November 16, 2018, online

[13] Mark 13:5

[14] John 8:32

Transfiguration and Multiverse – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year B, February 11, 2018

Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.

My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:

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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.

A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the July 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

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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.

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.

Where Is the One Who Is Wise? – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Where is the one who is wise?

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Tuesday in the week of Proper 19, Year 1 (Pentecost 16, 2015)

1 Corinthians 1:20-25 ~ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Is it possible that our current American era, in which ignorance is extolled and foolishness seems to run rampant, results at least in part from a “biblical literalism” and belief in scriptural “inerrancy” which leads to a misreading and misunderstanding of passages such as this? Thirty-five years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote in Newsweek magazine, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

Recently on the internet (on Facebook and other forms of social media) an advertisement for a “Bible Believers” church has been making the rounds; it asks if the reader is tired of preachers using “Greek translations” and promises exclusive use of the “King James Version.” Such things do make one wonder, “Where is the one who is wise?”

But churches alone are not responsible for the “cult of ignorance” seen by Asimov. American educational institutions and our business enterprises must also accept responsibility. In an effort to create a workforce of specialists, prepared for specific careers meeting the needs of corporate America, our colleges and other schools seem to have abandoned broad-based curricula.

When I was an undergraduate in the decade before Asimov diagnosed that “strain of anti-intellectualism,” my college laid out a program of “general education requirements,” a core curriculum which every student had to pursue before specializing in a major. My first term (we were on the quarter system) my class schedule included calculus, physics, a course called “The Humanities” (a series over six terms which included the literature, history, art, philosophy, and so forth of specific time periods; the first, entitled “The Jews and the Greeks,” covered classical antiquity), an art course, a language course, and a class in developing study habits. For the next two years my course schedule was pretty much determined by this program of core requirements; there were very few electives and there was no emphasis on specialization. This was a broad-spectrum, “Renaissance” education.

Today, as an old curmudgeon parish priest, I talk with the young adults from my congregation and find that they are being asked to make life career decisions as high school sophomores and juniors, to decide at age 16 or 17 what they will do for the rest of their lives. Their guidance counselors then funnel them into programs designed to prepare them for specific colleges which will give them those career skills, and only those. I know recent college graduates whose education is so narrow and so limited that they are truly ignorant outside of their major. For example, I know a young person who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business who took no biology course during college, who read not a single play by Shakespeare, and whose only exposure to the French Revolution was the music of Les Mis . . . .

How have we come to this point? How have we arrived in world where ignorance and foolishness, not the foolishness of God but the intractable folly of humankind, are order of the day? Have biblical literalism, a belief in scriptural inerrancy, and a system of “higher education” catering to the needs of corporate business conspired to “dumb down” America?

This is sort of thing is not, of course, what Paul was addressing when he wrote to the church in Corinth, but it’s what is on my mind this morning as I read both his epistle and a newspaper report of yet another politician answering a question with the opening line, “Well, I’m not a scientist, but . . . .”

“Where is the one who is wise?”

Learning, Ignorance, Insanity – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Learning, Ignorance, Insanity

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Tuesday in the week of Proper 16, Year 1 (Pentecost 13, 2015)

Acts 26:24 ~ While [Paul] was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

I confess to a fondness for this verse and often wonder can too much learning drive a person insane? I don’t think so, but it’s certainly worth contemplating. It may just be a matter of perspective; perhaps in some circumstances the actions of a learned person can appear irrational to those lacking knowledge which the educated person possesses. In any event, with two masters degrees and two doctorates, I’m hardly the person to scoff at education.

In fact, I believe in life-long education and continue to take classes when I can and to read and study new things. Each year I find a subject about which I knew only a little and strive to learn more. Last year, I read several texts on quantum mechanics, string theory, and the nature of the universe (or the multiverse, according to some). Did I understand it all? Of course not! There times when what I was reading seemed absolutely crazy, but I continued my course and I think I’m a better person for having done so. This year, I am reading the history of Palestine and Israel from a variety of perspectives.

I don’t believe that too much learning leads to insanity. But I do believe that ignorance can produce irrational conduct. Consider, for example: the anti-vaccination craze, denial of human causation of climate change, so-called “creation science,” congressional refusal to fund federal research into gunshot injuries as a medical issue, a state legislature’s refusal to allow its state agencies to properly measure changes in sea level along its coasts, laws requiring doctors to give their patients misinformation about birth control and abortion, etc. We now live with governmental policies affecting nearly every facet of our lives adopted by people who say, “I am not a scientist, but . . . . ” and then enact laws regarding the very scientific issue about which they have confessed ignorance. That’s crazy!

I don’t believe that too much learning leads to insanity, but I do believe that too little does. You are out of your mind, America! Too little learning is driving you insane.

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