Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why I Didn't Write Anything About Health Care

Why didn’t I preach about health care? Why didn’t I write about it? The question of whether to raise the issue of health care in any venue has been eating at me for months. I feel strongly about the issue, but have remained silent. I’ve been wondering why.

I think it may have to do with my underlying belief in respectful, grace-filled dialogue. Simply put, I think that as soon as anyone utters the phrase “health care,” all kinds of walls and labels go up that make true dialogue impossible. It has become a loaded term. If I were to preach or to write about the issue, I thought, the chances are slim that anything helpful would happen as a result, thanks to the way in which the national conversation has been degraded in these last few months.

John Wesley taught, “First of all, do no harm.” I actually think that to voice my opinion on health care reform would do harm. I just do not believe that an open, honest, and truthful conversation can happen on this topic with the kind of respect and graciousness that I value. It just seems like people get angry and resort to denigration and belittling of their opponents so quickly, and that’s not good.

So if it wouldn’t do any good, and in fact it would do harm, I have decided to just let it be.

To be clear, I’m not worried about someone getting mad at me. The harm that I’m concerned about is not harm to me personally, but rather to the relationships around me. They call them “wedge issues” for a reason; they split groups apart. They split people apart. For me, that’s not worth it.

“But what if the status quo is causing more harm than discussing the issue would cause?” I ask. “Good question, me,” I reply. Let’s say that the status quo was such that thousands of people were getting sick and dying because they could not afford health care. Hmmm… do we dare compare the harm of thousands of people dying with the harm of a potentially divisive conversation?

Oh, if only that were a hypothetical question…

Can I just say that we seem to have misplaced the goal? The goal should be healthy people. Affordable health care, access to insurance, all that stuff – just means to the end. Healthy people, you know:
- people who don’t get sick just because they are poor,
- people who don’t have to choose between dinners for their kids or a visit to a doctor,
- foster parents who don’t have to wheedle their way into a doctor’s care on behalf of their kids because of the hassle the doctor’s office has with Medicaid,
- children who can go ahead and visit their doctor because a mid-level bureaucrat somewhere hasn’t deemed their condition “pre-existing,”
- and so forth.

The objection may be, “I agree that the goal should be healthy people, but the reforms don’t achieve that.” Then we might go off into specifics of how I think it does and you think it doesn’t and so on, which I am all too happy to do if we can do so with respect and graciousness.

What I’m not going to do is engage any idea that ascribes an insidious agenda to another person. I do not want to wrestle with straw men. I really believe that elected officials at all levels are there because they want what’s best for their communities, but they just happen to see things differently. Is that na├»ve? Maybe. But here’s how I think of it:

I think that otherwise well-intentioned, good and decent people kind of lose their heads when the spotlight is on them, and they end up saying things that sound differently than they would if you were having a one-to-one conversation with them at a coffee shop. Honestly, that’s what I think. I believe that power corrupts, but I believe that notoriety corrupts even more. Unfortunately, average people like us will never know, because the only time we hear from a politician is when they are in the public view, and they know it, so they act differently.

It happens to everyone, teachers, preachers, journalists, people speaking from the floor of Annual Conference, etc. We tend to veil our true selves with a public persona when we realize that attention is focused upon us, sometimes without even being aware of it. And for a politician, for whom so much is at stake every single time she or he speaks, it is especially noticeable.

One of the most apparent ways this phenomenon is manifest is when people act or speak with limited information. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” said Tower of Power, and they got that right on! I went to the library last night and was stopped by a woman who wanted me to sign a petition to change the way judges are chosen back to a partisan election rather than appointment. I told her no thank you, then I went on to say that we could vote to retain judges every so often, anyway. She looked at me blankly and said, “We can? I didn’t know that.” Yikes. She didn’t know the current system that she was volunteering her time to get changed.

Nobody is going to argue for less healthy people. (I don’t think.) It’s really just the means to that end that we don’t agree on. And that’s okay! Its okay to disagree on stuff, but it is not okay to label and slander and denigrate other people, people who happen not to agree with you. So if you disagree with me on this, I invite your response. (I invite your response if you agree, too!) But please do so with respect and grace. Thanks.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Getaway

Isn't it amazing how you sometimes don't realize how much you need a rest until you are actually resting?

Erin and I dropped the kids off at my mom and dad's house Sunday afternoon and then headed up to Rocheport for two nights at Yates House B & B. It was wonderful. We did nothing for two days. It was like a Seinfeld episode. Two days about nothing.

We did stuff, of course. But it was stuff that we did because we wanted to and we could, not because we had to or it was expected of us. Which is what makes all the difference. We walked on the Katy Trail and shopped in a used book store and stood under the interstate and watched Revolutionary Road and Shakespeare in Love and sat in comfortable chairs to read our books.

There was a goose who thought he was an eagle and a squirrel that risked it all for the last nut on the branch and a host who always kept his shirt tucked in. There was creme brulet french toast and a sweet pepper stuffed with goat cheese and freshly baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. There was a wonderful bottle of wine made out of grapes grown just a few miles away.

Erin and I talked about our kids and our jobs and our dreams and our vacation plans and the mud and the sunshine and how small towns were really nice to visit but we would never want to live there. I'm not sure, but I think I may have fallen in love with her again.

But mostly we just rested. I think they call it sabbath. I encourage all of you reading this to take every opportunity that comes your way to rest. Not "vacation" - rest. It was truly wonderful, and I didn't realize just how much I needed it until we were there.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Chosen Cup

The Gospel according to Matthew uses much of Mark’s version of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. One of the most notable differences is the way Jesus refers to the cup from which he is about to drink.

According to Mark in the NRSV translation, Jesus says, “…remove this cup from me…” whereas in Matthew, Jesus says, “…let this cup pass from me…”

(In the NIV translation, it is, “Take this cup from me” in Mark and “…may this cup be taken from me…” in Matthew.)

In Mark it is a direct request, while in Matthew the request is in a passive voice. So what’s the difference?

Mark cuts right to the chase – Jesus asks God to act so that he will not have to go through what lies ahead of him. It would be like wanting to break up with someone and knowing that the other person also wants to break up, but hoping that they would break up with you first so that you won’t have to be the bad guy/gal.

Matthew nuances it a little bit – Jesus asks that he might not have to experience what lies ahead, but stops short of asking God directly to intervene. That would be more like wanting to break up with someone, but the other person doesn’t want to, so if you don’t do it yourself the two of you will just stay together.

It leads me to understand the crucifixion as a choice Jesus is making, and if he doesn’t actually pick up the cup himself, it will just remain on the table un-drunk. I’m not wanting to split any Christological hairs here, but in Mark it feels like the crucifixion is inevitable unless God acts to prevent it, whereas in Matthew Jesus chooses crucifixion for himself. Therefore, in Mark if Jesus just stays in the garden, it would still lead to crucifixion; in Matthew the consequence of inaction on Jesus’ part means there would be no crucifixion at all.

It may be a subtle thing that I am making too much of, but I prefer the way it reads in Matthew to Mark’s version. It means something more to me if I can think of Jesus’ crucifixion as something he chose rather than something inevitable. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It makes a difference to me that Jesus laid down his life for us, rather than having it taken away.

And then, when Jesus finishes his prayer with, “…yet not what I want, but what you want,” it means two different things: in Mark it seems to imply, “I don’t want to, but I’ll go along with what you are making me do.” In Matthew, however, it feels more like, “What I might want to do is not as important as what you want, so I choose your way.”

This distinction makes a big difference in thinking about suffering. The suffering of Jesus is not something inflicted on a powerless victim, as if he was just a prop in the drama of the crucifixion. His suffering is something he chooses to experience on behalf of another, namely, us.

That’s what makes it possible for us to condemn the violence of, for example, domestic abuse or poverty or prejudice (gasp - sounds like social justice to me), flat-out not including such suffering in the kind of suffering the New Testament seems to affirm so often (i.e. Romans 5: suffering > endurance > character > hope). This "Christian" suffering is chosen, and is for the sake of someone else, to make another person’s life better somehow.

The cup of the crucifixion sat on the table in front of Jesus. He asked that it disappear, if possible, so that he would not have to drink it. But it didn’t – and he did. He chose it, picked it up on his own, and drank it – to make our lives better somehow.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Focus. Or not.

I’m having a very difficult day. I cannot get my brain to focus on anything. I keep feeling the lure of a sunny sky and a warm breeze. I have a Bible study to prepare and a sermon to write, but every time I sit down to pull something together, I get distracted.

There have been a bunch of remodeling related interruptions today, and so that kind of throws off the rhythm a little bit. The last little details of a big job like this just take forever to finish up, it seems. Who would have thought that the color of the caulk in the joints on the exterior walls would have taken so much of my time today? (Thank God for Misty and Don, who are really good at just getting stuff done that needs to get done, and done well.)

So I’m writing this meaningless little blurb as a way to jump start my mind.

Or maybe I’ll just go sit outside and bask in the sunshine.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Note to Our Foster Kids

Dear Boys,

Two more days.

For more than a year you have been with us. You have trusted us with your care. You have let us feed you and bathe you and put you to bed. You have been our kids for 13 months, and it has been so wonderful. Let me tell you some things:

You do not like vegetables, but will consent to sample a carrot if we insist. Sometimes. We know this because there were times in the past year-plus-a-month that we had to practically force you to eat anything at all, but now you do so well. And we are so proud of you when you do.

You like to read a couple of stories, sing a couple of songs (“Twinkle, Twinkle” and “I See the Moon” are particular favorites), and then say a prayer (the one that starts “Now I lay me down to sleep…”) every night before bed. We know this because we have done just that every single night for more than thirteen months now.

After breakfast, you simply must dance. And you absolutely must listen to “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 when you do. If neither of these things happen, you often burst into tears until it does. We know this because we are so sick and tired of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 that we’ll probably never “want it back” ever again.

You have taught us so much about what it means to trust, especially when you fall asleep in the back of the car as we drive through a rainy night. We have felt the great weight of responsibility for you, and have done our very best to meet it. They all say, “Oh, they have come so far in the past year; it’s amazing!” And they are right, you know. You have changed … a lot.

You knew how to say one word between you when you came to us – “Stop.” And now you know all the letters and can count to ten and use such wonderful words to tell us things. When we watch you run, we remember you way back when, just crawling, and are absolutely amazed.

One other thing: I want to tell you that your birth mommy loves you very much. That is honest. We know this because we have talked with her about you a lot during this last year. She was just having a really hard time taking care of you. So remember that. She loves you a lot.

And so – now, in just two days, you are moving to your forever family. Now you will trust them with all those things you trust us with now. I hope that in learning to trust us, you learned that trust is a good thing and it will be easier for you to invest it in your forever mommy and daddy. They are so nice and good and loving, and you are going to love it there.

You have made us laugh and made us cry and made us so angry. It’s time for you to make someone else laugh and cry and angry, now. In just two more days.

There will be different carrots to eat around a different table, but I’m pretty sure they’re going to make you eat them, too. There will be different story books and new songs and prayers to learn, but I’m confident that there will be reading and singing and praying there. There will more than likely be dancing, but I’m not sure about the Jackson 5. You might have to learn how to cope without that one, little guys.

We’re not gone, remember. Your forever mommy and daddy have told us that we’re going to be able to keep track of you, stay in touch with you, see pictures of you as you grow up, and send you presents on your birthday and stuff like that. That’s so great! I personally cannot wait to see what you’ll be like as teenagers – ha! What a hoot!

And so we’re going to say bye-bye, and it’s going to be a real one, for a long time, and way different than we’ve ever said bye-bye before. (Which, by the way, you still say sometimes when you mean to say “hi,” but keep working on it and you’ll get it – we know you will.) This is going to be a pretty big bye-bye this time.

We’ll probably be crying, so don’t freak out. They are such good tears! We are so happy for how far you have come and for how bright your future is. You are going to learn and grow and sing and dance and run and play and cry and laugh and bonk you head and skin your knee and go to school and fly a kite and throw a baseball and maybe ride a horse someday and …

… in two more days.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Thirsty Much?

Psalm 63 uses the powerful metaphor of thirst to describe our soul’s longing for God. The Psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you…as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

I am aware of that thirst in my own soul, and because of my life experience I am able to name that deep desire as a longing for God. But how many people, because of their own unique life experiences, may sense that longing but are unable to identify it as such? How many people we run across in our day-to-day lives are feeling an unnamed thirst?

In an anxious scramble to quench that thirst, many people turn to unhealthy things, things that may seem at first to refresh us, but prove to be shallow and momentary. We try to quench our thirst with drugs and alcohol, or with career and financial success, or with television and internet entertainment, or something as simple as status or reputation, or … whatever it may be.

It’s all false, but it is so insidiously veiled in such lovely packaging, we are often fooled. In fact, we might even feel like the thirst is actually satisfied … for a while. But it always comes back.
Jesus said, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Once we realize that our thirst is for God, and stop trying to quench it with other things, we realize that God has been trying to offer us living water all along, and we find that we never thirst again.

“How is it with your soul?” Are you thirsty? With what are you trying to quench your thirst … instead of God?