Justice

THE TRUE UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE

This blog was also preached as a sermon and featured by the Huffington Post.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth believed that we should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So let’s try it.

Here’s a recent headline from the New York Times: “High Risk Strategy Proposed for Repeal of the Affordable Care Act.”

And now here’s something from the Bible: As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” (Mark 10:46-52)

If you take Barth’s advice and read this scripture in combination with the New York Times, you get this modern version:

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Several of the disciples went over and said, “Be quiet and wait your turn. Can’t you see there’s a crowd waiting to see the Messiah?”

As Bartimaeus paused in silence, he felt a clipboard being thrust into his hands.

“Now,” said John, “fill out the following thirteen forms. We need name, address, social security number, next of kin, and whether you have an HMO, PPO, or POS. Please indicate whether you have additional vision and/or dental coverage. Check the box on page five if this is a work-related injury. Fill out the duplicate form if you have any secondary insurance, read and sign the privacy statement at the end, and then return it to me with your insurance card.”

Bartimaeus shook his head in shame, mumbling something under his breath.

“What did you say?” John demanded.

“I’m uninsured!”

A gasp came from the disciples. “Uninsured?” they said looking at each other with disgust. And the crowd began to back away from Bartimaeus.

“Do you have cash?” John demanded.

“No,” said Bartimaeus.

“Do you have a credit card?”

“No.”

“Do you even have a job?” John added in desperation.

“No.”

“Well, then,” John snapped, “you’ll simply have to find another Messiah.”

Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus heard the man and stopped what he was doing and said, “Who is that? Call him here.”

And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, you’ve been pre-qualified.”

Throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus. Then, Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Bartimaeus said, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Jesus said to him, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And as he left, Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Under no circumstances is this man to be charged a co-pay.”

Two thousand years later, in this, our privileged nation, would Bartimaeus be able to get help? As a poor, blind beggar, I seriously doubt it. Especially given that 28 million people still do not have health care in this country, and 15–20 million will probably lose their coverage if the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is repealed.

No, I’m afraid Bartimaeus would be out of luck.

So, here we are in our privileged country, a place that owns 41.6% of all global wealth, where people are having to choose between food and medicine, and people are dying because they can’t afford treatments or surgery. The sad fact is that this is a country where people can get insurance for their pets more readily than human beings!

Houston, we have a problem.

The healthcare crisis in this country is not just some intellectual Rubik’s Cube for us to chew on. This is a political and ethical mandate.

Why political? Let’s remember the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

It’s a pretty simple argument. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness clearly envisions and encompasses health and safety. And, according to the Declaration, governments have been instituted to secure those rights. Therefore, health and safety are a political mandate.

It is also set forth in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care . . .” (Article 25:1)

They are also an ethical mandate. Consider our religious teachings that command that we care for the poor, heal the sick, bear each other’s burden, and love our neighbor as our self. Perhaps the clearest of all the teachings is found in the Good Samaritan story in the Book of Luke. There, the Samaritan is the only one who will help a wounded man lying on the side of the road. He not only dresses the man’s wounds, but he pays for his health care. “He took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’” (Luke 10:35) If that story is not clear enough, at the end of the telling, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go and do likewise.”

Go and do likewise? One of the greatest ironies of our modern era is that so many of our political leaders claim to be Christians, yet they ignore, even deny, the basic tenants of the religion. In fact, a first-term Congressman from Kansas was recently quoted as saying that the poor “don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Go and do likewise.

And we can. The Canadians did it. The UK did it. The Scandinavians did it. And guess what? The federal government has done it, too. The healthcare plan for federal employees is one of the broadest, most comprehensive health insurance programs available. Why not roll that out so that everyone might also enjoy it? As the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said, Americans should get “exactly what we [as Congress] have.”

The irony today is that Congress has been removed from the cushy federal plan and placed under the ACA. And if Congress repeals the ACA, they rejoin their fellow federal employees in their cushy federal plan. Makes you wonder about their personal motivations for repealing it.

It also makes you wonder if a group of monochromatic wealthy, privileged individuals who face no risk of losing their own personal coverage should be the ones deciding the fate of the rest of the country. I share the words of Carol Folt, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina and an internationally recognized researcher. “As a scientist, I’ve never seen an answer to a problem come from a group that all looked the same and thought the same.” Well amen to that.

Let me share a plan we should consider as a prototype. It covers everything: physical, mental, and spiritual healing. It is very affordable. In fact, it’s free. There’s not even a deductible or complicated forms.

It’s God’s healthcare plan. A plan you are given at birth and keep all your life, unless you yourself decide you don’t want it (and even then you’re still covered). There are no pre-existing conditions; it is come as you are no matter how wounded or broken. Most importantly, this plan is offered to everyone – from every walk of life. It’s the true universal healthcare plan we should be working towards.

So, I return where I started: Karl Barth was right. When we overlay a biblical, ethical perspective on modern-day problems, we begin to see each other as God sees us. Compassion and mercy become an integral part of the conversation. We remember our political and ethical mandates to care for each other and lift up the downtrodden.

The world is full of people like Bartimaeus, who through no fault of their own, are unable to access basic rights and services in this country. This is not an issue involving only statistics. This is an issue involving human beings. And the moment we remember that, is the moment when we begin to transcend the red tape, greed, political wrangling, and fear, and move slowly, but surely, to the true universal health care that all God’s children deserve.

 

Empowerment Hope

Building Walls

This beautiful piece was written by my friend Brian Crowson, an artist, poet, historian and . . .   wall-builder. 

 

Over the last few months much has been made in the news about building walls and the question of who will pay for them.  And while the debate over erecting a barrier across our southern border has been rancorous, the idea of using a wall to keep people out – or in – is hardly a new theme.  Just look at the famous walls from our past:  the walls circling the ancient city of Jericho, Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain, the Great Wall of China, and the Berlin Wall.  As a former history teacher, I’ve long been interested in the stories behind these walls.  I even had the opportunity to walk a section of Hadrian’s Wall on a rainy Northumbrian morning many years ago.  But today I’m more interested in walls of a different sort.

Driving through New England, one can’t help but notice miles of stone walls lining the countryside.  Some still delineate clearly the fields and orchards laid down by our hardy ancestors who worked diligently to clear their land of the frost-heaved stones and make a living from the rocky soil.  Others seem to meander through the forests without purpose.  I’m always struck by their apparent permanence – their resistance to time and the effects of weather.  For Robert Frost, these stone walls provided a source for his famous poem, “Mending Wall,” and the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Frost may have questioned his neighbor’s wisdom and the need for a wall that only separated apple trees from pines.  Nevertheless, he continued the yearly ritual of walking the wall and making necessary repairs.  Frost understood their significant place in the landscape.

Last October I traveled to the headquarters of The Stone Trust in Putney, Vermont, to acquire the secrets of dry stone wall building – just stones and gravity – while enjoying the colors and advancing chill of autumn.  The Stone Trust is an organization dedicated to preserving the craft of dry stone wall building through teaching a new generation of builders.  I had signed on for a weekend beginner’s class.

After instruction from the Trust’s master craftsmen and about eight hours of deconstructing and rebuilding a section of wall, I must admit that it was very hard work, especially when one tried to muscle a 50-lb. stone into just the right spot.  I learned that building a stone wall is not such a straightforward process.  It requires careful planning, from a level foundation of larger stones to the more decorative smaller stones that often anchor the top.

Yet the most important component in a wall that should stand for a century or more – the part one doesn’t see when driving Vermont’s scenic back roads – lies at the center.  At the heart of any well-made wall is a tightly-packed collection of small stones, usually no larger than one’s fist, called “hearting.”  These stones keep out animals and others pests that like to build their nests in walls, and they limit the collection of excess water that can quickly compromise a wall’s integrity through the seasonal process of freezing and thawing.  Indeed, our instructors repeatedly emphasized that a wall without adequate hearting will fail in a surprisingly short time.

Reflecting on that weekend’s lessons, I’m struck by how the process of constructing a simple stone wall might seem analogous to building one’s faith, especially in the context of the season of Lent, just a few short weeks away.  Many of us will wonder, “what can I give up for Lent,” and the list of possibilities can seem endless:  sugar, Facebook, meat, alcohol, TV, caffeine.  But faced with this prospect of extraction – cutting something out of our lives – we too often give up and abandon such efforts in much the same way we discard New Year’s resolutions.

A few years ago an old friend, an Episcopal priest, suggested an alternative to the usual Lenten ritual.  Rather than giving something up, he suggested, take on something new.  Add a new stone to the wall of your faith, whether that means working on the foundation or adding “hearting” to its core.  Take on a new spiritual discipline.  The choices – just as with giving something up – are legion:  volunteer in your community, recommit to attending church, join a Bible study group, or start a daily prayer routine.  Moreover, recognize that just as erecting a stone wall requires hard work, building our faith requires no less effort.

Empowerment Religion and Spirituality Self care

Not Today Satan!

Last week on vacation, I bought this sign. The obvious reason I bought it? It’s hilarious. But I also found some great wisdom in its words: “Not Today Satan!”

The devil takes all kinds of forms. One sinister form is the negative voices in our heads. The great psychotherapist Carl Jung called these our shadow selves — our weak spots. A voice that says things like you’re not good enough, you’re not important, you’re not loveable. A voice that urges us to be right all the time, to be in control all the time, to think only of ourselves. A voice that steals our grounding, encourages us to make bad decisions or act in destructive ways.

To fight Satan and his corrosive words, I devised a short, sure-fire, three-point plan. It’s quick, easy and it’s simple to remember because the first letters of each step spell P-O-W.

Step #1: P  PIVOT – Pivot out of his line of fire 
It’s a simple concept. In life, if you see you’re about to get hit, you duck. It’s the same with negative voices. We know our weak spots. The things that drive us crazy, that wear us down. When we see them coming – pivot!

If it’s a person – then pivot and walk away.
If it’s the daily headlines, then pivot and take a news break.
If it’s the crazy people on Facebook… then pivot and get off line!

STEP #2: O – Occupy the light
We get so caught up in the dark shadow of negative messages that sometimes we forget what it feels like to walk in the light. Once we pivot out of that shadow, we have to restore ourselves with positive healing. We must occupy the light. It’s like the book of Philippians teaches: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When we pivot out of the line of fire, and then occupy the light, the devil has no chance. And that’s where step three come in.

Step #3: W – Whack the devil upside the head
I am reminded of two things here. First, Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew: “Get behind me, Satan!” And second, a quote I recently saw on Pinterest:

The devil whispered in my ear,
“You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devil’s ear,
“I am the storm.”

POW!

We can’t afford to let our weak spots weaken us. We can’t afford to burn energy on infighting, and corrosive behavior. There is work to be done. There is life to be lived. So when the shadows come . . . and they will . . . we pivot, stand in the light, and proclaim, “Not Today Satan!”

For the full sermon, check out the YouTube video here!

Justice

Atlas Didn’t Shrug

Please mark your calendars for this blog scheduled to appear in Baptist News Global on Friday, January 20, 2017 – Inauguration Day. It puts Any Rand and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in conversation and is entitled, “Atlas Didn’t Shrug: An Inauguration Day Reminder of the Things We Must Hold High.” Here is an excerpt:

Today, we face a world where justice is not sure, where civil rights warriors are disrespected by side-liners who never marched or fought, and where the fate of the poor leans dangerously close to the pages of Atlas Shrugged. As my friend Ken Sehested explained: “It has become too easy to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream.”

Hope

A Star is Born

This blog is a transcript of my sermon delivered on December 18, 2016 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. Video and audio of the sermon can be accessed here.

The title of my sermon is “a star is born.” Now some of you may be worried that I am trying to do a mash-up of the 1970’s movie and Christmas. I am not. That would be just too creepy. Barbara Streisand as Mary? Kris Kristofferson as Joseph? And the baby Jesus played by a young Gary Busey? That’s just wrong.

No, the title of my sermon is “a star is born” because I’m preaching about real stars. The kind that shine from the sky, not the stage.

Obviously with Christmas a week away, we think about the star of Bethlehem rising in the East to mark Jesus’ birth. And this week, I couldn’t stop thinking about that star.

For thousands of years, humanity has been drawn to the light of the stars. Watching the constellations, tracking the paths of the planets, studying the cycle of the sun all in an attempt to understand the great mysteries of life. NASA does it, Galileo did it, and 2000 years ago three Wise Men did it – tracked the stars – in an attempt to find the Messiah.

But the human draw to the heavens is more than just imagination and exploration. It is organic, even hereditary. The stars are our old ones, our wise ones, for we as human beings actually carry their genetic imprint.

Joni Mitchell sang the famous lyrics “we are stardust.” And it turns out she’s right. Literally.

In a recent article, National Geographic news explained that our human bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. Carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, iron and sulfur—most of the material that we’re made of — comes out of the star dust scattered across the universe kicked off by those explosions. As the article explained, “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.”

Given that we are stardust, we should ask what can we learn from these heavenly bodies. I did a little research this week and let me share with you what I found:

There is a striking parallel between the life cycle of a star                                                                      and the spiritual life cycle of human beings.

There are basically two stages to the life of a star. The first stage is when a star is born. Gravity begins to pull gases towards a center core. The temperature begins to rise, and eventually the density of the gases causes a nuclear reaction. It’s then that the star begins to shine, drawing energy toward the light, to its core, then radiating that light back out into the galaxy.

This can go on for billions of years, until we come to the the second stage where the star’s center can’t hold anymore. The star has too little fuel left to maintain its core temperature, so it’s light goes out and it collapses under its own weight, drawing everything around it into a dark abyss.

Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar.

We’ve all been there.

Sometimes we are in a place in life where we draw our energy toward the light and reflect it warmth and back to all around us. And sometimes we have lost all fuel, our light goes out, and we collapse, emotionally or otherwise, into a dark abyss.

These days it’s easy to find ourselves in that abyss. The holidays can do that. Between crazy schedules, and job stress, money worries, health issues, worries for our country, worries for our world, not to mention the fact that it’s dark all the time … it’s easy to find ourselves drawn to the darkness.

And just like the stars, the only thing between a heart that draws in the light and a heart that collapses into a black hole is a strong center. A center that can hold.

William Butler Yeats wrote a poem entitled, “The Second Coming”, and it begins with these words:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Well that’s a lovely upbeat holiday message. Yet we all know that sometimes life can be like that poem. Chaotic, scary, unpredictable, ominous. Kind of like the explosive chaotic energy of a star. And in the midst of the chaos, like that star, we try desperately to hold onto some semblance of a core. Unfortunately, the centers we tend to create won’t hold.

There are all kinds of crazy things that we choose to put in our center that weaken our core. We put titles, and bank accounts, and status and stuff at the center of things. We look to other people—our spouses, partners, friends and family to fill our core. We put ego, anger, resentment and fear at the center.

And we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Just look at our scripture today from Ecclesiastes 2 that lists the types of things King Solomon puts at the center of his life to hold it together:

“I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces . . . So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.”

 But then, in verse 11, Solomon realizes that this earthly center cannot hold. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”  

Inevitably, there comes a point in life where the things we have put in the center can’t hold anymore. The job won’t last forever, money gets spent, Botox only lasts for three months, the latch on the designer purse will eventually break, marriages falls apart. Like a dying star, when our center can’t hold, the light goes out, and we begin to collapse into the darkness.

We simply must find a center that will hold. And we need look no further than the scriptures to find that center. Consider:

Psalm 55:22 “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.”

Isaiah 40:31 “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

Matthew 7:24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and DOES them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”

There is the center that will hold, there is a center that will not fall, there is a center that will never collapse. And that center is God.

Our message today reminds me of the 12 step program. The first three steps cut right to what we are talking about — finding a center that will hold.

STEP ONE: We admit we are powerless over ________. Here we fill in our addictions, our weaknesses (alcohol, drugs, anger, food, relationships).

STEP TWO: We believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity – is a center that can hold.

STEP THREE: We turn our will and our lives over to the care of that power.

What do you have in the center of your life? Is it strong enough to hold you through the good times and the bad? If your center is not holding, if your light is starting to go out, go outside and find a place where you can look up into the heavens and remember the stars. Remember how the stars take chaos and turmoil and transform them into light. Remember how their warmth and power is radiated far out into the universe. And most importantly, remember that it was a star that pulled the wise men towards the light – the true light of world.

We have the power to shine as brightly as the stars. In fact, our highest and greatest calling is to be like the stars, to draw our energy toward the light, towards God’s great power in our core, and then send that light back out bringing light and warmth throughout the world.

All we have to do is find a center that will hold.

All we have to do is find a place in our hearts . . . where a star is born.

Hope Religion and Spirituality

Why We Need a Little Christmas

Please enjoy this recent newspaper article from Great Bend, Kansas in which I talk about “Why We Need a Little Christmas.”  Here’s a preview:

“Christmas delivers hope in the form of a baby, and it reminds us not only of that baby’s potential, but our own,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

“For 364 days of the year, we are bombarded by news of the inhumanity of the world: the violence, racism, hatred and callous disregard. On this one day, we are reminded that in addition to the inhumanity, we as a people carry a spark of hope and joy,” she said.

“These are gifts bestowed at birth, but often forgotten as life attempts to beat them out of us. Like the balsam tree needles we find six months later behind the couch, Christmas drops a hint of hope on our hearts — a hint that is hard to brush away.”

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