Archive for March, 2017

Grateful For Health Care

March 23, 2017

As we watch this astounding legislative day unfold before us in which the future of health care for many Americans may well be determined, those of us who are clergy of the Episcopal Church might well pause in gratitude for the committed lay people and church leadership over the years who have worked so hard to provide amazing health insurance coverage to say nothing of an extremely generous pension program which is virtually impossible to disappear as so many have in corporate America in the last decades.

“The seed for CPF (the Church Pension Fund) was planted by the Rt. Rev. William Lawrence of Massachusetts when, in 1910, he brought before the General Convention of The Episcopal Church a resolution to create a Joint Commission on the Support of Clergy because he was appalled by the ‘suffering and poverty of the aged servants of the Church’.”

“In 1913, the General Convention voted to establish CPF to provide retirement and disability benefits to eligible clergy…Initial funding for CPF was raised by a committee working with Bishop Lawrence that was led by J. P. Morgan, Adolph Ochs (owner and publisher of the New York Times, and Newcomb Carlton (president of Western Union Telegraph)). More than $8.5 million was collected by March 1, 1917 … the value of that $8.5 million raised to start the fund is over $159 million in today’s dollars.” (Church Pension Group web site — http://www.cpg.org)

Today, the Church Pension Group has expanded to include other products and services and to cover lay employees so critical to the Church’s ability to carry out its mission. In 1978, The Episcopal Church Medical Trust was formed to provide health benefits to eligible clergy and lay employees. And in 2009 the Denominational Health Care Plan was established to provide equal access for lay persons as well as clergy for health care benefits.  The DHP has not been without its difficulties in implementation, but is a much-needed attempt to be just and fair to lay as well as clergy employees of the Episcopal Church.

I have been the beneficiary of fine health insurance since my ordination in 1972 and now continue to count on its benefits in retirement as well as enjoying the security of a rock-solid pension. Having served congregations large and small as a parish priest for sixteen years and walking with similar congregations as a bishop for nearly forty more, I am well aware of the struggles many congregations have had to go through to provide such health insurance and pension payments for their clergy.

In a time of declining church attendance and participation, it has become increasingly difficult for smaller congregations to provide this health coverage and various attempts at premium cost-sharing with clergy and lay employees and other cost-saving measures are being discussed all across the church. Whatever the solutions are, I have confidence that my church will be there for its clergy and lay professionals and will do all in its power to keep us healthy as we serve and financially secure in retirement. I am so grateful for that.

Perhaps because Episcopalians have worked so hard to address this issue and we clergy realize how very fortunate we are, we continue to advocate for universal coverage, for health care seen as a right and not as a commodity, and — many of us, at least — eventually for a single-payer, “Medicare For All” type of national health insurance such as that which much of the developed world enjoys.

Let us continue to advocate for those whose health insurance coverage and long term retirement security are at risk in the modern world and specifically in today’s debates.

And let us do so, motivated at least in part, by our mindfulness of how very blessed we are and how grateful we must always be!

 

Watergate Redux?

March 20, 2017

In August of 1974 my wife and I were on vacation in a parishioner’s cabin in the hills of North Carolina. As I remember it was near Blowing Rock. And as much as we enjoyed hiking in the mountains and exploring the rustic beauty of the area, we were glued to our small television the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. I remember the feelings, a sense of relief that justice had been done mixed with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach about the future of our democracy.

His resignation was not exactly a surprise for we had watched with fascination and horror as the Watergate investigation rolled on and the bipartisan committee did its work. We were no Nixon fans (even though I had actually voted for him in 1968, so sick was I of Lyndon Johnson’s lies about Viet Nam) but even we thought perhaps he had somehow been kept unaware of the clandestine work of the “plumbers” and the other nefarious deeds which comprised this whole sordid affair. Yet, the evidence was clear.

The evidence is not yet so clear that Donald Trump had/has colluded with the Russian government in general and Vladimir Putin in particular to win the 2016 presidential election. It will in fact never be possible to prove that if there was in fact collusion that this decisively affected the outcome of the election. But that is hardly the point.

The most important thing is to determine if Russia did indeed interfere to the degree it is beginning to seem and to take steps to minimize the chance of such things happening again. But an equally important thing is to discover whether or not the President of the United States is in fact, formally or informally, consciously or unconsciously, acting as an agent of the Russian government. It is not necessary to believe that Donald Trump intended to end up in this position or not.

Those of us who are spiritual directors, or find ourselves on a conscious spiritual journey through life, know how subtle and maliciously sin works in our lives. The giving in to small temptations lead to compromise with even greater ones. Avoiding the consequences of sin early in the game can lead us to believe that we will never be found out, that the wages of sin really are not death in any real sense. We roll down the slippery slope of self-centeredness and deceit and wake up one morning in the garbage pit of the lost.

It is particularly difficult for an egocentric narcissist like our current President to catch the early warning signs of such a descent. His wealth and personality disorder has so sheltered him, throughout his long life, from suffering any of the consequences of his actions (or any consequences at all!) that he would be a ripe target for the Adversary (whether one understands that term in the cosmological or geopolitical sense!).

Foreign agents and spies are always on the look-out for men like Donald Trump who they can turn and manipulate. But I’m sure few could have imagined that such a potential mole could win election as President of the United States. The evidence is, as I say, not in yet. I actually hope the bleak scenario painted above is not so.

But I remember another leader of the free world once assuring us, “I am not a crook!”

And he didn’t even have a Twitter account.

An Isolationist Budget Blueprint

March 17, 2017

I am not as worried about the Trump administration’s proposed budget blueprint as some are. It is as much a campaign document as a serious attempt at a budget. And, as David Jackson points out in a recent USA Today article, “Even some Republicans balk at some of the proposed double- digit reductions in programs ranging from foreign aid to the Environmental Protection Agency, with outright eliminations of programs that range from the National Endowment for the Arts to legal aid for the poor.”

Trump’s “art of the deal” style, it seems, is to put out the most outrageous proposals, claims, or statements and then begin to walk them back under the rubric of “negotiation” and making a deal. That’s not all bad as long as everyone understands what he is doing and that we should never, ever take this man seriously as to what he says. His rhetoric may be horrifying, but what we need to do is fight like hell to counter and soften the actual policies and legislation which will actually pass. Make no mistake, the final budget will not be good (after all, Republicans control both Houses of Congress and the White House) but it can be improved.

My concern though is that the budget blueprint signals the kind of priorities this Administration will pursue. A release from J Street (the pro Israel, pro peace lobby) puts it most succinctly: This “…blueprint embodies an isolationist worldview and dependence on military might to solve problems at the expense of multilateral diplomacy.” The draconian cuts to the State Department (apparently rolled over for by Secretary Tillerson) mostly in the area of foreign aid makes it clear that the Trumpites much prefer the “hard power” of military threat and action to the “soft power” of actual diplomacy which has proved so effective since the end of World War II.

I do not dispute that one of the chief responsibilities of government is to provide for the common defense and to keep its people safe from “enemies foreign and domestic.” I do dispute the assertion that the best way to do this is through massive investment in military spending when we already have — far and away — the most powerful and effective fighting force in the world.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, makes the point that this budget plan simply reflects what the President campaigned on, but he did pledge to work with Congress to resolve disputes and stated that this is not a “take it or leave it” kind of plan.

Let us devoutly hope not. For, if they try to force us to take it, we will simply have to leave it!

Our Rapid Slide Into Tyranny

March 10, 2017

Let me be clear (as our old friend, Bernie Sanders is wont to say): I am for a single-payer, universal, Medicare-for-all health care system paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the extremely, obscenely rich. I would have supported it when Harry Truman tried to get it passed, I was for it when the Clintons tried it once again, and I was for it when Barack Obama and the Democrats got at least something through Congress in the Affordable Care Act.

I am not naive to the fact that there are many problems with the A.C.A. but I am certain that, with all the energy and political capital now being used to “repeal and replace” it, we could “mend it, not end it” in a bipartisan manner and probably within one presidential term. But not, obviously, with this President.

Watching wonky Paul Ryan with his rolled-up shirt sleeves and outdated power-point presentation the other day, it was as though the unreal world in which we seem to be living these days was unfolding before me. He actually believes that the “free market” system and competition between health care providers and health care savings accounts would provide better coverage at a lower cost to consumers (I prefer the word “patients,” you know – sick people!).

Does anyone actually believe that a single mother of two, working a job and a half to keep food on the table would have the time and energy to run around to multiple doctors’ offices, get a price (a bid?) on what might turn out to be a much-needed, life-saving medical procedure, “comparison-shop” the market and then decide where she should take her suffering child for treatment? The absurdity of such an approach is only rivaled by its heartlessness.

And, in contrast to the Democrats’ principled opposition to this new proposal, the GOP opposition is mainly arguing for even worse approaches with Rand Paul’s (for whom I used to have at least some respect) being the most callous. And he is a physician. Maybe that explains it.

Except that the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the AARP all oppose this Trump-endorsed, Republican plan. They know that it will throw millions off of their health insurance and put in place a system which will actually cover fewer people at a higher cost.

Donald Trump’s fall-back position is reportedly to step back if the Republican plan fails, let Obamacare collapse under its own weight, and blame the Democrats! All this while thousands suffer and die because their previously relied upon health insurance has been cancelled. His narcissistic and vengeful personality has probably not even thought about those likely consequences. Only how sweet it would be to blame the hated Obama and his Party for the chaos which would most certainly occur in the face of this kind of neglect.

It has been hard for me even to sit down at the computer and compose a blog in recent days and weeks. I cannot believe that this country I love is spiraling out of control and to such depths. Except for fruitless opposition by the minority Democrats in Congress and noble protests at Republican town hall meetings and in various state capitals, nobody even seems to be doing much about it. I do not understand how so many people consistently vote against their own self-interests even when they are motivated by the scare tactics of the oligarchy which supports Donald Trump and his minions.

These are scary times, my friends. Join me in resisting these trends whenever and however you can. And please, please, please cast your votes in 2018 and 2020 for Democrats or progressive Independents who can actually win and begin to slow our increasingly rapid slide into tyranny.

Temptation

March 5, 2017

This first Sunday in Lent is always marked by the story of Jesus’ Temptations in the wilderness, his 40-day fast, upon which our season of Lent is based. Years ago, I did a sabbatical at our Anglican College of St. George in Jerusalem and spent some time in the very Judean wilderness we heard about in our Gospel this morning.

The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem. In fact, it’s positively startling to drive, or walk, a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and to find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in the world. This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow white sand drifts like we sometimes picture it.

It is bleak, barren, rocky ground so hot and dry that you have to wear a hat at all times and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry. My assumption is that Jesus fasted mostly from solid foot during those forty days (as a matter of fact, others have done that) but that he did drink water.

And, during those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have been more like midlife – struggled with just what his life and ministry were going to look like from this point on. He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John, but immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat, a time apart to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead.

And Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he had to wrestle with several primary temptations. First of all, Jesus was tempted to try and meet everyone’s needs by turning miles and miles of rocks and stones and boulders into bread enough to feed the known world. And, as wonderful as that would have been, Jesus came to see that not even ending world hunger would satisfy what we are really hungry for. Deep down, we’re hungry for God’s Word.  We want to hear from God, and to know that we are loved and cared about. And so Jesus said, “It is written: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

Then, Jesus was tempted to do something even more dramatic, to do something spectacular to prove that he was God’s Son and that God would come through for him by sending angels to protect him just like Psalm 91 had promised.  Actually, we’re told later that Jesus was ministered to by angels, but not in the showy, egocentric way the Tempter had in mind. So Jesus said, “Again it is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7)

And, finally, Jesus was tempted to “sell out” for this world’s goods. “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours, Jesus, if you’ll just worship them…and me…instead of God.” But Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord our God and serve only him.” (Matthew 4:10) (Pause)

I don’t know what your specific temptations are, but if you’re anything like me, they may not be all that different (in substance) from those Jesus faced. The temptation to try and meet everyone’s needs…the temptation to do something spectacular to draw attention to yourself…and, maybe above all else, the temptation to “sell out,” to forget that we cannot serve God and Mammon and to cave in to the values of the world rather than the values of the Gospel. But, you know, you can ward off those temptations too — in much the same way Jesus did. By being attentive to God’s Word…by refusing to put God to the test…and by rededicating yourself to put God first in your life – and nothing else! (Pause)

We’re entering more fully today into the season of Lent. Like Jesus’ experience in the desert, it is a time for fasting and for prayer. A time to listen for God’s Word…a time to stop putting God to the test…a time for worship and for service. I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines to help you do some of that. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy told you what some of those disciplines are (but it’s not too late to begin today, if you missed the first days of the season!)

Those disciplines are: self-examination and repentance…prayer, fasting and self-denial…reading and meditating on the Bible. I invite you – once again – to keep a holy Lent this year. May our prayer for these days be the prayer of the Psalmist this morning…a prayer which, quite likely, Jesus himself prayed during his Lent, his forty days in the desert.

You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with shouts of deliverance. (Psalm 32:8)

 

 

 

Reading The Bible Again

March 2, 2017

I am choosing an unusual Lenten discipline this year. In addition to acts of abstinence and dipping back into some Marcus Borg, I am once again embarking on “the Bible Challenge” (reading the Bible through from cover to cover). But this time I am daily reading three chapters of the Hebrew Bible, one Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament — in the King James’ Version!

Why in the world would I do such a thing? Well, after decades of reading only the most recent translations of the Bible — The Revised Standard Version, The Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, The New Revised Standard, etc. — I felt the need to immerse myself once again in the elegance of the English poetry and prose of the KJV. Certainly I am aware of the fact that more recent translations are more accurate in the rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts and that recent scholarship is reflected in these editions which was simply not available to the translators of King James.

Yet I am thoroughly (or should I say “throughly!”) enjoying the melodic rhythms of this classic text and remembering that one of the reasons it seems so ponderous and downright difficult to follow in places is because the translators of the KJV followed pretty much the order of the Hebrew and Greek words of the manuscripts they had available. Sometimes, new (or rather old) meaning can be gleaned from this original word order  — or at least, so it seems to me.

Undoubtedly some of the pleasure I am receiving from this exercise hearkens back to the fact that I was an English literature major in college and remember with pleasure reading Shakespeare, John Donne, Spencer and Swift marveling at the sheer beauty of their use of the English language. It is a joy once again for me to relish in, and wrestle with, such literature.

I would never recommend the King James Version (or even Rite One, for that matter) for regular liturgical worship these days. Clarity of thought and contemporary theology is best understood in the language “understanded of the people.” That was the whole reason for translating the Holy Scriptures from their original languages into Latin and eventually, by the Reformers, from Latin into English. People need to be confronted with the “Word of God” in language they understand easily.

But, like browsing through an old photo album and thus immersing oneself in one’s history, from time to time it may well be worth meditating on the words of the venerable King James’ Version of the Bible. Or, at least, this Lent, so it seems to me.