I don’t know if this is still happening, but a year ago there was a restaurant in the coastal city of Netanya that, in an effort to combat Israeli/Palestinian violence, offered a 50% discount to Jewish and Arab customers who sat together.

“If there’s anything that can bring together these people, it’s hummus,” the restaurant manager said.

What does hope mean to you?

Seriously, I’d like to know you answers, so please post your definitions in the comments. 

I raise the question because I ran into this definition in an old Christian Century article, and I like it. 

“Hope means that the story’s not quite over, that the future is yet to be written. And it means that God has called each one of us for just such a time as this.” ~Matt Gaventa


Elections are about answering questions — not just about who will be elected, but about what we as a society value. We are just a little over two weeks away from an election in my country, the United States of America, and the presidential contest is getting all the attention and press. Interesting since who gets elected to that office will still leave  some important questions unanswered. The President’s powers are limited, so who holds that office will not determine the answers to questions like:

  • Will low-income Americans earn a higher minimum wage?
  • How will the public pensions issue be resolved without leaving current and future retirees financially insecure?
  • How will funding be allocated to public universities or for child-care assistance or for mental health care?
  • Will poor people have access to health insurance?

It’s the so-called “down ticket” elections that will answer these questions and others like them. And I’m not just talking about who we elect as U.S. Senators and Representatives. As an editorial in The Christian Century put it (11 November 2015), “The real action is at the state and local levels. This is where minimum wage ordinances are being debated and passed, where public unions and social welfare advocates are squaring off against budget hawks, where federal money often arrives in the form of flexible block grants that might or might not be put to effective use.”

The editorial goes on, “Local levels of government are also where an individual’s voice and vote count the most. And the smaller the jurisdiction, the more likely a political conversation will involve citizens who know each other — people whose real relationships can help get them past slogans and entrenched positions.”

So, pay attention to those “down ticket” elections. Please.

“Joining a religious group may do more to offer ‘sustained happiness’ than other forms of social participation. Researchers in the Netherlands, analyzing 9,000 Europeans over age 50, looked at four areas: volunteering or working for a charity; taking educational courses; participating in a religious organization; and participating in political organizations. Taking part in a religious organization was the only one of the four that resulted in sustained happiness. The researchers were’t able to conclude whether the benefits came from the religious organizations themselves or from faith.”

From the “Century Marks” column of Christian Century, 16 September 2015 edition, page 8.

Another possibility could be that happier people are more likely join religious organizations, but maybe if you’d like to be happier, you could give a religious organization a try.

A prayer, a thought, a poem in the shadow of Hurricane Matthew

Gifts in Open Hands

Not every sound of rushing wind
is holy spirit, nor
every Matthew a good news.

But every wind calls us to speak hope
in the languages needed –
Haitian Creole and Spanish,
Portuguese, English, Sign,
and the lexicon of kindness
understood by the old and the young,
the anxious and the lovers of pets,
who are afraid to leave home.

This is Pentecost –
speaking comfort to those
who grieve in Haiti,
rescue to those who fear in Florida,
and a not one-morning-newscast
but a long gospel of helping
in Cuba and the Bahamas
and the Carolinas
and wherever there is need
for cleaning and housing,
feeding and building,
restoring and reminding
the last words of Matthew
spoken in the midst of Matthew —

“Remember, I am with you always
to the end of the age.”

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Before the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan asked voters (and encouraged votes to ask themselves), “Am I better off now than I was four years ago?”

In this presidential election year, my answer is, “Yes. Yes, I’m better off than I was four years ago and eight years ago. And that’s the wrong question to ask.”

Or maybe it’s only one of may questions we should be asking.

How about my neighbor (whom I’m supposed to love as myself)? Is my neighbor better off them she was four or eight years ago? And not just my next door neighbor. I should be asking this about all my neighbors in my city and state and country. And I should be asking this about my neighbors in other countries.

But let’s not stop there. We should be asking it about other species and the environment as a whole.

And lest you think this is just about the current presidential election, it’s not. Let’s consider the TPP – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – under consideration by Congress right now. The TPP is a complex trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries (including the United States). And when I say, “complex,” I mean complex. It took ten years to develop and has over 30 chapters.

I have yet to hear any politician speak to the particulars. In this election year, the TPP is really not much more than a symbol, a symbol that is being spun primarily to represent global trade that threatens American jobs. “A Trump Administration will end [the war on the American worker] by getting a fair deal for the American people. The era of economic surrender will finally be over,” is how Trump is spinning the symbol.

The Clinton campaign isn’t much different. “I will do everything in my power to defend American jobs and American workers. Any trade deal must meet three tests to earn my support: it must create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security.”

Both candidates are only asking if the TPP will make us better off in four years than we are now. What about asking how it impacts our international neighbors? What about asking how it impacts the environment? What about asking how it circumvents legal system in the partner countries, perverting justice? What about asking how it protects (or fails to protect) the environment?

The TPP aims to cut 18,000 different tariffs, all in the name of “free trade” across international borders. If the only thing I have to trade is my labor and I can’t freely transport it across international borders, is it really a “free trade deal”?

Given the complexity of international trade – including national differences in resources, worker skills, labor supply, labor laws and protects, markets, and political and social conditions – the terms of mutually beneficial trade can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker or a 30-second sound bite in the spin room.

I oppose the TPP and will until my questions are satisfactorily answered. But that’s really not the point of this post. The real point is that we need to move beyond our shortsighted, self-centered questions and think about our local and international neighbors (and not just our human neighbors) when it comes to trade deals and elections and really any policy decision we make.

This is a beautiful rendition of a beautiful old hymn.


What prayers are on your heart today?

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One year ago, in the fall 2015 edition of EARTHletter, the newsletter of the Earth Ministry in Seattle Washington, Dr. Kevin O’Brien published this article titled,”Finding Hope Outside.” It is too good a column to not share, so I do so without express permission. The Feast of St. Francis seems an especially appropriate day to share it.

We are only beginning to understand all that Pope Francis was signaling when he chose to name himself after a medieval friar. This name, never used by a previous Pope, suggests that he is pulling the church outside – outside of the merely-human world into God’s whole creation, outside of its gilded image to the poor within its midst, and outside of any barriers that separate human beings from one another.

St. Francis is most famous today because of his love for the natural world. One story tells of the cricket that kept him awake one night by singing outside his room. Francis opened his window and sang along rather than sleep that night. Another story tells us that when Francis took a 40-day retreat on Mount Alverno, a falcon came to visit him every morning at exactly the same time so he could maintain his rigorous monastic prayer schedule. Francis called every creature “sister” or “brother,” and had a deep sense of his connection to all: brother sun, sister moon, brother bear, sister wolf, sister ant, even brother mosquito. He prayed for and with every creature.

This love for nature changed the way the Saint worshiped. As a teenager, while praying alone in a dilapidated Assisi Church, he heard a voice say, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” He immediately began to gather stones and build up the church around him, and that church still stands in Assisi today.

But, as time went by, St. Francis begin to wonder if the “ruined” house of God was not a physical structure, but the Christian community itself: a community that focused more on itself than service to others, more on ornate structures than feeding the poor or praising God with all creatures. He spent his life not constructing church buildings but going outside them with a wandering religious community. They lived outside, along with God’s sun and moon and ants and mosquitoes. Francis synthesize the spiritual and the natural; his love of nature and his love of God were two notes in perfect harmony.

Many of us draw hope from St. Francis for our world: if a holy man one thousand years ago could learn to love God’s world so deeply, then perhaps more of us can learn to love it, too. Perhaps we can use that love to save it from the ravages of climate change, of extinction, of pollution. If he could build a new kind of faith outside the walls of churches, perhaps we can build a new kind of life that celebrates God’s creation rather than degrading it.

We live in troubled times, and it often seems like human beings are waging war on the rest of the planet. Francis offers the hope that we can step outside of that conflict by meeting God’s other creatures and recognizing our kinship with them.

The hope Francis found outside church walls was not just about the natural world, though. By bringing his friars outside the walls of traditional monastic life, he brought them into conversation with the people who were living there without choosing it: the homeless, the sick, the marginalized. Francis’ connection to nature was inherently also a connection to the poor. And, just as he did with the natural world, he found hope and love in his connection to them.

This may be the deepest lesson that Pope Francis’ Laudato Si asks us to learn from St. Francis: to love the earth is to love the poor, and to love the poor is to love the earth. As the encyclical puts it, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment” (§49).

It can be easy to live our lives within our own social class. Those who are economically comfortable all too often create enclaves where we never encounter the less fortunate. The saint and the pope both remind us that if we love God and love God’s earth we must move outside, encountering God’s people who are poor, learning from them, and empowering them.

We must also learn to overcome other boundaries we put up between one another, the other walls that separate humanity. St. Francis model this during the 5th Crusade, deciding he was needed when he heard that Christians were battling Muslims in Egypt. He walked across enemy lines and requested a meeting with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, and spoke honestly with the Sultan about his faith. This is the first time we know of in the history of the Crusades that a Christian and a Muslim leader sat down together to talk about their faith in God. Francis was allowed to go in peace and given an escort to visit Jerusalem as a Christian pilgrim. While other forces kept the war raging, Francis offered a model of stepping outside one’s narrow allegiances to recognize common ground.

Earth Ministry offered another example of stepping outside narrow allegiances during the effort to move Washington State beyond coal a few years ago. By working not only with environmentalists but also with workers and management at the states’ only coal plant, Earth Ministry helped to shepherd a plan agreed to by both the industry and the environmental community in 2011, a plan that will end the industrial burning of coal in our state by 2025. Because Earth Ministry talked to all sides and kept communication open, the deal serves as another model for people coming together and talking rather than fighting across from familiar battle lines.

Pope Francis also crossed boundaries in Laudato Si, insisting that he writes not only for Catholics but for all people of good will. The encyclical tells us that the only way to solve the problems of war, poverty, and climate change are for human beings to come together in universal solidarity, to understand that all people – all creatures – are sisters and brothers in God’s family, sharing one world and one future.

The assertion that moved me more than any other comes near the encyclical’s conclusion: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (§233). Here Pope Francis expresses his faith – the universe is unfolding in God and calls people to make faith real by finding beauty and meaning in the creation … a leaf, a trail, a dewdrop – in our neighbors – in the faces of the poor.

The Pope’s message resonates with the Saint’s, and both promise that we will find hope in our world when  we move outside the structures we have built into the natural world. We will find hope when remove outside the limits we have placed on ourselves and into the full family of humanity.

Hope is right outside.

Dr. Kevin J. O’Brien is the treasurer of Earth Ministry’s Board of Directors and the co-author of An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, and Ethics.

Here are my recommendations for the 17 (count them: 17) proposition on the California Ballot this fall. You can gauge my support based on how it’s typed – from YES! to YES to yes to no to NO to NO!

51 – School bonds: YES
Today’s students will be supporting me in my old age. I want them well educated. Children in substandard buildings do 6-11% less well than children in excellent school facilities. Sometimes local school districts can’t afford to improve their facilities without some help from others in the state, so let’s come together to give our children their best chance at their best education.

52 – State Fees on Hospitals: YES
This makes permanent (it would require a 2/3 vote to cancel or reduce the fees) a fee that the Legislature routinely raises and maintains, paid by private hospitals, to be in compliance with federal regulations that qualify California for MediCal funding. Until we have MediCare for everyone, we need insurance programs like MediCal, and making sure we’re eligible for federal funding for the program is completely worthwhile.

53 – Statewide voter approval of revenue bonds: NO
Let the Legislature legislate. If they think state funding of a local project to deal with a crisis situation (like the drought or rising sea levels is appropriate) or some other local need (like building a new public hospital), let them fund it. There’s no reason the people of Fresno should be able to stop the construction of a hospital in San Diego, but if this passes, this could happen.

54 – Public posting of legislation: yes
Sure, more transparency in government is a good thing.

55 – Tax extension for education and healthcare: YES
This would extend for another 12 years (2018-2030) part of the tax increase voters approved in 2012. Impacts those making $250,000/yr (couples making $500,000/yr) or more. We need to support education. Those who can most easily afford to pay this extra tax burden should do so. Again, let’s come together to give our children their best chance at their best education.

56 – Cigarette tax: no
An excellent idea that the Legislature should do – but this shouldn’t be an initiative. So I’ll be voting “no” (or abstaining) on this one.

57 – Criminal Sentences; Juvenile Proceedings: YES!
I worked in juvenile justice for three and a half years while in seminary and immediately after seminary and saw first-hand how much our juvenile justice system needs to be overhauled. If the Legislature won’t do it, we should. And the proposals in this proposition are sound.

58 – English Language Education: yes
This allows for more local control of education, allowing individual school districts to decide how they will teach non-English speaking students. Prop 227 (1998) was a racist, xenophobic proposition and it’s high time it was overturned.

59 – Campaign Finance: yes
This referendum is only advisory and it is sufficiently open-ended to get my support. Citizens United was a travesty of justice and needs to be overturned. Note that the League of Women Voters of California opposes it, but I support it because it is only advisory.

60 – Adult films; condoms: no
Should people performing sex acts in pornographic movies use condoms? Yes. Does requiring it need a citizen’s initiative to make it happen? No. This is something the Legislature should do; legislating is what we elected them to do.

61 – State prescription drug purchases: YES
The state spends roughly $3.8 billion (with a B) each year on pharmaceuticals (Medi-Cal, state hospitals, prisons). That’s about half of all prescriptions purchased in in the state. This initiative seeks to reduce costs by leveraging that purchasing power. Seems like a darn good idea to me.

62 – Replaces the death penalty with Life Without Parole: YES!
The Legislature should have done this years ago. They’re not acting, so we will.

63 – Firearms, Ammunition Sales: yes
Tightens regulations on background checks and the sale, purchase, and import of ammunition in California. The Legislature should be doing this, and they have taken steps, but they’re not acting fast enough, so I give this a soft “yes.”

64 – Marijuana Legalization: no
Sure, marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol, but the Legislature should do this, and it’s not urgent. We can wait for the Legislature to act.

65 – Charge for plastic bags: NO!
This is a green-washing initiative proposed by the out-of-state manufacturers of plastic shopping bags to try to stop the banning of plastic shopping bags. Can you say, “Self interest”? I knew you could. It’s dressed up to look like a pro-environmental proposition, but it’s not.

66 – Death Penalty procedures: NO!
This poorly written measure would greatly increase California’s risk of executing an innocent person by shortening the time for appeals and limiting the prisoner’s ability to present new evidence of their innocence. Let’s just save a bunch of money and make sure we don’t kill someone who is innocent by doing away with the death penalty (by voting “yes” on Prop 62).

67 – Ban on single-use plastic bags: YES
Retain California’s plastic bag ban. The question on a referendum is not intuitive; you are being asked if you want to retain the new law. Vote YES to keep the 2014 statewide law prohibiting single-use carryout bags.

Click here  for a summary of my positions, along side those of the California Council of Churches IMPACT, the League of Women Voters-CA, the Sierra Club, and the California Democratic Party.

“The International Geological Conference suggested last month that in about 1950 the earth entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene epoch, marked by a human impact on the earth so profound that humans are not likely to survive it. The previous epoch, the Holocene, with 12,000 years of stable climate since the last iceage, was the period when human civilization developed. Among the first marks of this new epoch were the radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests that were blown into the stratosphere before settling down into the earth. Another sign is the emission of carbon gases that are causing global warming, the rise of sea levels, and the extinction of some plant and animal life.”

From the 28 Sept. 2016 edition of Christian Century, page 9, citing the 29 August edition of the Guardian.


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