Saturday, November 30, 2013


Some shots from 2013, which have been hanging out on my desktop for too long.

First, my friend Don, whose journey to a community house for the disabled occupied much of my time and heart in 2011 and 2012. It was a journey filled with frustration and disappointment, but also filled with amazing graces from the Lord and divine appointments. Here he is, proud to be functioning well again:
 And the community with which he now lives, supported by two saints, husband and wife, who care for their charges 24/7:
 Two shots from the youth Game Nights at Nineveh: evenings filled with crazy games, good food, raucous fun, and of course the offer of the gospel of Jesus Christ:

 My Lovely, working on a painting project while Daddy does some woodworking at The Shop (with goggles in case the paint splashes):
 Lintel over the door of a former train station in Ithaca, New York. Uncle Jim tells me that a train used to run from Ithaca to the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. My grandmother used to ride the train direct to Bethlehem during her Cornell years. Now, if I wanted to ride the train to the Lehigh Valley, I would have to drive from Ithaca to Rochester (90 minutes), then take the train to Albany (a couple hours), then the train to Penn Station, NYC (an hour or more), then the train back west to Pennsylvania (90 minutes). Driving from Ithaca to the Lehigh Valley takes about three hours.
 Two shots of the bridge from Louisville, Kentucky across the Ohio River to Indiana, taken during one of my business trips to Luhville this year. Something about the blue light on the girders attracted my lens:

 Beans, rocks, beads, and salt, mixed together as a material illustration for Time for Children during worship. I can't remember exactly what I was illustrating, but I remember that the kids were not interested in eating this bean soup:
 Two pieces of hard evidence that as much as teenagers (and thirty-seven-year-olds) want to be considered adults, when placed in a room with building blocks, they will inevitably return to a child-like state:

~ emrys

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All You Need Is . . . Justice

My regular interactions with retired pastors come with certain benefits. One of the minor benefits is early pickings from their shelves when they decide to simplify and disperse their personal libraries. I have long forgotten from whose library I harvested it, but I recently pulled from my shelves Joseph Fletcher's Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work. This compilation of lectures and essays was published in 1967, an era that now seems well bygone but whose legacy is very much a part of my generation's thinking.

I had heard the term "situation ethics" or "situational ethics" uttered in several fora; but the term was usually conjured only for the purposes of its summary dismissal rather than engagement and evaluation. As a result, the contents of Fletcher's book, as old as they are, broke new ground for me.

The gist of situation ethics is that the answer to any question about the rightness or wrongness of any action is "It depends." Fletcher's ethics envisages ethical maxims for guiding ethical thinking, but does not embrace absolute instructions for behavior that apply unconditionally. To take one overwrought example: the injunction not to kill other people is a good maxim for most of life; for a soldier on the battlefield, however, the greatest good may well result from taking the life of another person.

Here is the sine qua non of Fletcher's thinking: ethical decisions arise from weighing carefully what action in this situation will result in the greatest good.

This approach to ethics offers a credible response to a grand conundrum in Christian ethics, illustrated in the gospel according to John, chapter eight. The religious authorities bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They ask Jesus if she should be stoned, as the law dictates. Jesus' response leads to the woman being forgiven and released without stoning. Jesus teaches his disciples to follow "a new commandment," to love another. Why is this commandment new? Because, as John 8 attests, it calls for something more nuanced and difficult than obeying the letter of a codified ethics. It calls for love.

Or, as Fletcher helpfully insists, it calls for justice. To rid the conversation of the fluffy connotations of our present use of the word "love," he presses use of the term "justice," making a cogent argument why love and justice are really the same thing. The ethical mandate of Christians, then, is in every decision to do that which will bring about the greatest justice for all.

My eyes were opened to the problem of absolutist ethics by Fletcher's insight that "rules are designed to minimize obligation." That is to say, the game of "following the rules" is a game of "how much must I do to pass," or not to get in trouble. The ethic of justice--and Jesus--is about pursuing justice for all those affected by our actions. Checking off my daily list that I have not killed anyone today is much easier than asking whether my decisions furthered the life and prosperity of those around me. Situation ethics are difficult. They're not for those who want to stay out of trouble; they're for those who--to borrow a phrase from the Salvation Army--want to do the most good.

This reflection demanded by situation ethics is what Fletcher calls "moral responsibility." Rather than moral correctness (right or wrong), his ethics calls for individuals to live in justice-seeking (moral) ability to respond (responsibility) to the needs of the social world in which we live. I find this description of the moral and ethical dimensions of life corresponds better to what I see in the life and teachings of Jesus than much of the conversation in the air. For this fundamental re-focusing of the Christian life I believe that Fletcher's ideas are indispensable.

His discussions in this book have two weaknesses. First, Fletcher ignores the self-sacrificial element of Jesus' life and teachings. There are some passages which smack of triumphalism, as if the world will never abuse those who seek justice, or that seeking broad justice will be as profitable (in worldly terms) to the individual as not. I wonder if Fletcher's 1967 work is not still basking in a generational optimism that humanity can cure all of its own ills if it just gets everybody on the same page. One of the central teachings of Jesus, embodied in the end of his life, is that living well will require sacrifice, often of our most valuable possessions. An ethics that does not take sacrifice into account is, in my view, deficient.

Second, Fletcher's discussion seems limited to the individual. In what may again be a symptom of his times, Moral Responsibility describes ethical decision-making as happening in a vacuum. In my brief experience, the maze of the world is too convoluted, the possibilities of our society too vast, and the human heart too deceptive for individuals to develop ethics of justice. Another benefit I glean from colleagues older and wiser than I is intentional reflection on the dilemmas of my life and the lives of which I am a part. It may be possible to follow an ethical code alone; without a community of support and accountability I do not think that any of us can make decisions in pursuit of justice.

I also believe that all justice is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. His spirit living in us makes possible self-sacrificing pursuit of the good. Only his presence makes following him possible. But with his spirit, justice will grow out of us.

Fletcher's work has sparked an interest in me to read more current works on Christian ethics. I hope that someday I'll have a chance to do so.
~ emrys

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Africa Bound!

In February four members of the congregation I serve, along with two other folks from neighboring congregations, will travel with me to Ethiopia. Our presbytery (local grouping of congregations in our denomination) has a seventeen-year relationship with several congregations of western Ethiopia, in which we send delegations back and forth across The Pond every two to three years. It's our turn, so the delegation from upstate New York will spend seventeen days visiting church leadership and congregations in the region around Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia.
Our involvement with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters has had two foci: First, to pray for and support the church leadership there. The Church is growing in Ethiopia, so much so that she has difficultly training enough pastors to serve in all the congregations. So we do what we can to equip the leadership for its task of cultivating congregations on the rise. Second, we have supported the Ethiopian Rural Education Project. After the Communist government of the 1980s destroyed all rural schools (and church buildings), rural Ethiopians from the 1990s to the present have had difficulty obtaining education for their children, especially at the younger ages before students are eligible to move to the cities for government-supported schooling. So we have been involved in an ongoing effort to design, distribute, and implement curricula that provides literacy and numeracy for five- to ten-year-old children, in their native tongue.

When we meet with our brothers and sisters in February, we will discover how we can help with the needs of the Church and the furthering of education there. I also hope that we will discover how the Ethiopian Church lives out its faith, and allow that discovery to be instructive to us. The Church there continues to pray for us regularly; I hope that we may receive even more tangible encouragement from them on our visit.

While we are there, the Church in Dembi Dollo will be celebrating the 95th anniversary of Presbyterian missionaries coming to Ethiopia. We have heard news of many missionaries and church groups with Ethiopian affiliations who plan to be present for the event, so I expect we shall experience a grand and lively party!

We crave your prayers for the journey: that God would give us grace in the many details, joy in the experience, servant attitudes in our time there, and safety throughout. If you would remember us to the Lord, we will be blessed. If the Spirit moves you to it, you may also contribute to our financial need: we need to raise about $6,400 amongst the group to provide for our needs while there. Checks may be made out to: "Susquehanna Valley Presbytery--EPT," with "Ethiopia Trip 2014" on the memo line. They may be sent to: Ethiopian Partnership Team--SVP, PO Box 87, Nineveh, NY 13813.

~ emrys

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Festivals of Booths

A.J. Jacobs, in his (hilarious and insightful) book The Year of Living Biblically, describes trying to obey the scriptural injunction to spend a week of each year living in a booth made with one's own hands. He lives in a Manhattan apartment, so a bit of marital drama unfolds when he fills up the living room with two-by-fours, nails, and canvas for his booth.

Our household does not take that injunction literally, but I think we begin to approximate the spirit of it when we celebrate the pilgrim character of our lives by constructing a chair-and-blanket fort in the living room:

I say "we," but should be clear that Gwendolyn and I did this project, fueled with the excitement of sleeping inside it that night. (Mommy stuck to the comfort of the bed upstairs.)

~ emrys

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Out of the Depths of Vietnam

I hear many things on NPR that cause me to exclaim to myself, "I need to read more about that!" By the time the next radio story has finished, however, I have remembered that my reading list is backed up until 2035 and I really don't have that much disposable income. So I make myself content with what light NPR has shed on the subject and get on with my day. Except this once.

In Lent of this year an NPR show did an interview with John Borling, author of Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton (Master Wings Publishing, 2013). Borling was an Air Force pilot shot down during the Vietnam War and kept in the prison camps in Hanoi for almost seven years. The way he kept sane in that largely solitary experience of wretched imprisonment was to compose poetry (mentally and orally) and communicate it to his POW neighbors through a code of tapping on the walls.

I heard the radio story, got home, and ordered the book online.

I only surmise what drove me to buy this one. First was the fact that my dad wrote his own book about Vietnam from a physician's perspective, and something about a POW's poetic meditations gave me a sense that I would be connecting with a piece of my dad's history. Second was the intriguing thought of poetry composed orally and memorized over years, then recorded only after returning home. Third was the thought of poetry composed in prison, as a defence against what might happen to the soul in a place like the Hanoi Hilton.

In rare exception to the usual patterns of my life, my impulsive decision to buy was richly rewarded. Borling's poetry is fascinating. Some poems stir the soul with their verbal mastery, and could have been composed by a man sipping margueritas in San Diego; "First Light Flight," a proper sonnet, begins, "Pale golden talons stir the eastern sky / Another fledgling day departs the hills," offering a genius dance of aerial and avian metaphor. That sample comes from the lighter material about the pilot's passion.

From the "dark and bitter stuff" come works like "Hanoi Epitaph," which draw the listener (poetry must be read aloud) into a cold and vacuous place where "The years have passed, the many Decembers / And no one knows and no one remembers / The sound of your voice, your face, or your name." It is difficult not to go back and read it (aloud) again, and sink deeper into the void that so many of us are blessed never to have known. These words draw us into the repugnant mystery of what it must be like to live alone in a cold concrete cell for more than six years.

Some pieces read like lyrics to rock songs; others with the half-smile twang of a country ballad. Borling's work runs the gamut of styles, structures, and content. Much of it is not "good" (I put the word intentionally in quotation marks) from a technical perspective; but oral composition and memorization in a North Vietnamese prison tends to soften my critical standards. The epic poem that closes the book tried my endurance--but then again, I was forewarned by the introduction, and by the end of the book I felt dedicated enough to Borling to see it through. He warns his readers about the abundance of pilots' jargon and provides a glossary at the end to assist the land-lubbers like myself. Nonetheless, in the more well-constructed poems I found it possible to read through the strange acronyms and let the sounds work where comprehension could not--to good effect.

The ink of erudition has been spilled across many the page of Vietnam War history; the finest film producers have applied their craft to that era of America's story. But Borling has, I think, found a unique niche well worth exploring: the poetry that comes from a special kind of suffering. I have been enriched by his work and willingness, at last, to share the versified distillation of his experience.

~ emrys

The Perfect Favor

I have been to several weddings. And I have crossed a point in my work at which the number of weddings at which I have officiated exceeds the number I have attended simply as a guest. I have, by virtue of these, acquired my share of wedding favors.

I have also, several times, found an empty miniature bubble bottle lurking in a box long unpacked. I have found, in the bottom of long-neglected drawers, little plastic leaves, moons, and doves etched with the names of bride and groom. I have discovered that the durability and significance of wedding favors is far exceeded by the cost that goes into selecting and purchasing them.

At the reception for the couple that I most recently joined in matrimony, we guests found at our seats a small piece of parchment paper rolled up and tied with a simple orange ribbon. Upon unfurling the scroll I found this favor:
This favor has extra flavor for me, as the husband of a cancer survivor. But had the cause been feeding the hungry, providing clean water for underdeveloped villages, or supporting AIDS education in plagued areas, the favor would have been just as sweet. We enjoyed a fine meal, good dancing, and the warmth of two families celebrating the union of their own. The last thing I need is a small piece of plastic to be lost the next day in the whirlwind of my life. The world needs a bigger favor, too. This one, I think, will endure.

~ emrys