Archive for the ‘The Episcopal Church’ Category

Iowa’s New Governor

May 25, 2017

Yesterday was an historic day in my adopted state of Iowa. The longest-serving governor in American history (Terry Branstad) resigned his office to be sworn in as the U.S. Ambassador to China. Within the hour he was succeeded by the Lieutenant Governor, Kim Reynolds who, incidentally according to her, happens to be the first woman governor in the state’s history.

Branstad has been a relatively moderate Republican governor, off and on, for 22 years. Like most Republicans he has moved farther to the right over the years but, in my opinion, has stayed in the moderate range in the GOP. I have disagreed with him over the years on a whole host of issues, but I will give him this — he is the most effective politician I have ever seen.

Part of it is that Terry Branstad is a quintessential Iowan. He is, of course, a native of this state and has kept his ear to the ground in order to remain completely connected to the heartbeat of Iowa voters. If they lean left on a particular issue (wind and solar power) so does Terry. If they are conservative on something (abortion) so is Terry. If they fall into the moderate camp (women’s advancement) “plump”, there falls Terry.

I’m not sure how much of that is shrewd political gamesmanship and how much of it is attributable to the fact that Branstad is filled with Iowa DNA and bleeds Iowa blood from his core. It may seem strange that the governor of a flyover Midwestern state has been chosen to be ambassador to China, but Terry has developed deep ties over the years not only to Chinese President Xi Jinping, but also with business leaders to whom he has marketed Iowa agricultural products (beef, corn and soybeans) with remarkable effectiveness. He did surprisingly well in his confirmation hearings, answering questions on China’s nuclear threat to its human rights violations and concerns about intellectual property theft.

Kim Reynolds is cut out of the same mold as Branstad. A fifth generation Iowan, she was born in the little town of St. Charles, she grew up in the metropolis of Osceola (!). After a classic Iowa upbringing where she played six-on-six basketball, worked as a checker at the local Hy-Vee (Iowa based grocery) as well as in Younkers Department store, she began her public service as clerk in the Clarke County Treasurer’s Office and as county treasurer. From there she was elected to the Iowa Senate and, in 2010, answered Branstad’s call to run as his lieutenant governor. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is, of course, too soon to know how she will govern. So far, she has been the good soldier always standing at Branstad’s side and, from that position, having his back. I was pretty impressed with her “inaugural address” in which she outlined her four top priorities as tax reform (lowering rates and simplifying the code), energy innovation, education, and workforce training. The devil is in the details, obviously, but those are things which could conceivably receive bipartisan support and move the state forward in some solid ways.

I am sure that I will disagree with Reynolds as often as I did with Branstad. But I am encouraged that she is a woman and I believe women govern differently. More collaboration, more likely to reach out across the aisle, deeper concerns for matters affecting women and children. She may disappoint on any or all of these issues. But, for now, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best.

After all, anyone who, on her first day in office as county treasurer, enlisted her husband and some friends to assist her in literally tearing down a wall within the office to improve customer service and collaborative communication among employees can’t be all bad!

Interfaith Dialogue and Evangelism

May 22, 2017

In 2001, I was asked by the Presiding Bishop of our church, then one Frank Griswold, to come onto his staff in New York to oversee ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church. It was not an easy decision because I had loved being Bishop of Iowa. But I had lost my wife, Pam, to an untimely death and decided (after much spiritual direction and counsel) that a new venue and context for ministry might be just what I needed.

And I had become deeply involved in the ecumenical movement, especially with the Lutherans, while still bishop here. So I thought I might be of some use to our church doing that ministry fulltime. I knew less about interfaith relations, dialogue with Jews and Muslims and the great Eastern religions, but I had studied them some at the university and even once taught a community college course in comparative religions while I was still a young priest in Florida.

It turned out that I had a steep learning curve in both ecumenical and interfaith relations, but I wouldn’t take anything for those nine years where I was blessed to travel around this country and the world engaging in conversation with fellow Christians and people of other religions on behalf of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Most of the people in our church understood ecumenism – the movement to draw closer one another as Christians, heal the divisions between denominations, and seek closer cooperation or even full communion with each other when possible.

But interfaith relations were a different matter: Often, people would say – in an adult forum or coffee hour discussion — what are we doing dialoguing with the Muslims? Are you trying to create some kind of one world religion and do away with the uniqueness of Christianity? Do you think all religions are the same and one is as good as another? I always tried to assure them that, No, we are not trying to merge all the religions together. In fact, It’s been my experience that the more committed you are to your own faith the more you will be respected by people of other faiths.

What we did try to do was to find common ground with those folks. We tried to see where, with all our differences, we might find some agreement, at least as a place to start. I think we were trying to do what St. Paul was doing in our First Lesson today. As Luke tells the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was in Athens, that great seat of intellectual and philosophical curiosity and dialogue in the first century.  He was standing in front of the Areopagus which was a big rock outcropping located northwest of the Acropolis in ancient Athens. In Paul’s day it had become a popular center for trying court cases and engaging in all kinds of debate.

He begins his conversation with these intellectuals (as he often does in his epistles to the churches) by complimenting them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For, as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17)

He even goes on to affirm their common humanity as children of the one God as he speaks of “The God who made the world and everything in it (who) gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…” These are themes the church will explore on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week as we observe the Rogation Days which some of our hymns pick up on today. A celebration of the Creation!

Now, clearly, Paul’s purpose here was not interfaith dialogue. He was trying to convert the Athenians as the rest of our passage this morning makes clear. But he started, as we do in interreligious relations, by finding common ground.   He doesn’t ridicule the Greeks’ faith. In fact he commends them for being extremely religious. He doesn’t begin by disrespecting their worship of other gods. But he finds an opening by referring to an altar they had dedicated to “an unknown god” (covering all their bases, I guess!). And he says, what you acknowledge as unknown, this I am proclaiming to you!

He’s starting with them where they are, not where he would have liked them to be! Unfortunately the church has often forgotten this diplomatic approach by the greatest missionary who ever lived. Our latter day missionaries have often gone into cultures – be they Native Americans right here in our own land, or societies overseas – and have begun evangelizing by trashing their indigenous religions and even making it appear that they had to adopt Western culture in place of their own if they converted to Christianity.

Desmond Tutu puts it this way about our missionary work in South Africa: “When the missionaries came to us, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, Let us pray, and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land!” Not exactly high praise for Christian missionary work in the 19th century! We’re doing a little better today for we often send our missionaries into foreign lands, but as partners not conquerors these days.

We establish hospitals and schools not primarily to convert people but to carry out Christ’s command to care for the least of these. And to show the people what Christ was like. Missionaries today look to raise up indigenous leadership in new churches, hoping to ordain native deacons, priests and bishops and to – as it were – work themselves out of a job as soon as the new leadership is trained and deployed. That’s how the Anglican Communion has developed so rapidly and why our churches in Africa are among the fastest growing and most committed in the world.

But what I want to point out most of all this morning is how this missionary strategy can work for us right here at home. Each one of us is a missionary in our day.  Our culture has become so secular, so “anti-religious” in some quarters that it’s almost like we’re starting over again, evangelizing in America! Well, let’s take as our model St. Paul, as I said perhaps the greatest missionary who ever lived, and modern missionaries be they Anglicans or Jesuits or Maryknoll Sisters around the world.

Start where people are, not where you would like them to be. Become a good listener before you become a talker.  Let people tell you of their lives, their joys and their sorrows, their struggles and their successes. People long to be listened to today. Listened to deeply and not only with 140 characters on a Twitter feed… or by so-called “friends” on Facebook.

Listen to other people deeply and compassionately. Then, when you can, make a connection with your own life perhaps even with your faith. “You know,” you might say, “when I was going through something like what you’re going through my church was really helpful. It was so good to have a community I could rely upon.” Or, in another conversation: “that’s fantastic, thank God (literally!) you had the gifts necessary to take advantage of that job opening.”

Something like that simply can be a way of sharing the good news with your family members, friends and neighbors, and others who so desperately need to hear such news these days. When you do something like that, know that you are standing on the shoulders of St. Paul the Apostle and countless missionaries and evangelists around the world.

And, like them, know that you can rely on the same Advocate Jesus promised his first disciples in our Gospel reading this morning. He said “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be…in you!”

That’s a promise, dear friends, from Jesus to us. His spirit is within us to guide us in our sharing of the good news. And we can rely on that Holy Spirit!

One Hundred Days Of “Accomplishments”

April 29, 2017

Even though Donald Trump has said repeatedly that the “100 days” marker is an artificial one and ridiculous to comment on (one of the few things he has said with which I actually agree!) he has nonetheless decided to commemorate it with a campaign style rally today. So, artificial or not, I guess that gives us permission to commemorate it as well.

The President has claimed that no chief executive in history has been able to accomplish as much as he has in the first 100 days. Certainly his volatile personality, Twitter fetish, and braggadocio have resulted in his receiving more press coverage than any of his predecessors. But does that equal actual accomplishment? I don’t think so.

From the time he falsely claimed that his inauguration was the largest in attendance of any one in history, Trump’s statements — mediated through, initially, the evil Kellyanne Conway (what ever happened to her, by the way?) and now the clownish Sean Spicer — have been laden with so-called “alternative facts.” No one in this country or world knows whether or not they can take Donald Trump at his word or whether he has any core beliefs whatsoever outside an all-consuming desire to line his pockets with more and more wealth.

He has successfully branded any media reports unflattering to himself as “fake news” and in so doing insulated himself from any revelations that might lessen support from his “true believers” base. It has become virtually impossible for the legitimate news media to do its job as watch dog on the powers that be since almost no one pays them serious attention anymore. Some of this, it must be said, is the media’s own fault for their slavish coverage of the Trump campaign (to the near exclusion of other candidates) from day one.

Accomplishments? Well, the travel/Muslim ban is hung up in the courts. The repeal-and-replace method of undoing Obamacare has been an embarrassment which shows no real signs of resuscitation at this point. After all, “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” right?  The absurd claim of a “wire tap” by the previous administration on Trump Towers has now resulted in FBI and Congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in our election process and possible collaboration by the Trump campaign.

Our President is a laughingstock around the world as far as foreign policy is concerned. From his snub of Angela Merkel to his oft repeated promise to “build a wall and have Mexico pay for it” (how’s that working out for you, Donald?) to his back and forth position on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO is obsolete; NATO is not obsolete after all!), no one knows what to think about this new President. Including Canada which has now been threatened with some kind of trade war concerning lumber and dairy products.

A certain amount of unpredictability may indeed be successful in the short run (i.e. keeping North Korea off-balance with a good cop, bad cop approach), but over time our allies (and our enemies) must know that the leader of the free world will keep his word and that he has certain core beliefs which guide his actions and this country’s.

Is there nothing we can point to in these first hundred days that is positive? Well, firing Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor because of his Russian involvement was a good decision. But why was he hired in the first place? I believe the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is a plus overall because he seems to be a man of integrity. Surely, he will be a conservative vote for the next 30 years, but I do not believe he is a rubber stamp for anyone.

The recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the Russian investigations was appropriate given his huge role in the Trump campaign. But it is troubling that the first action taken by the new chief cop in our nation was to recuse himself from a major investigation! While most of Trump’s Cabinet are billionaires who have no experience whatsoever in their new spheres of influence, I do believe Nikki Haley has handled herself well at the United Nations and appears willing to stand up to Trump while still keeping his confidence.

The one positive thing about a non-ideological president is that he can, and does, change his mind when confronted with new information. His new embracing of NATO, willingness to work with China, the souring of his opinion of Syria’s Assad after the latest chemical weapons attack will be positive provided nothing happens which allows him to flip flop once again.

However, none of these “accomplishments” are enough to keep the Donald’s approval rating from being the lowest of any sitting president since such polls have been taken. It seems to be becoming clearer and clearer that the one thing Donald Trump is focused on like the proverbial laser is making huge profits for himself, his family, and their vast joint holdings. The skeletal proposal for tax cuts (not real tax reform) should make that clear.

The only thing that gives me hope for the next four years is the genius of the United States Constitution with its checks and balances on the three branches of government. Even with the Republican Party in control of the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, there seem to be enough level heads to counter the narcissism, misogyny, and just plain ignorance of the man this country somehow elected to be President of the United States. At least so far.

One hundred days may indeed be an artificial marker for evaluating a new President. But let’s hope the next hundred…and the hundreds to follow that…will show improvements.

 

Disappointed in Barack

April 24, 2017

I will be very interested to see what Barack Obama has to say this week in his first post-presidential address at the University of Chicago. So far, I have not been impressed.

It’s not that I begrudge the Obamas taking a well-deserved vacation after eight grueling years in the White House. But it seems to me that he could have sent a better signal than jetting off from Washington for Palm Springs and then to the British Virgin Islands where he was seen kite-surfing with British billionaire Richard Branson. Oh yeah, and then the Obamas spent nearly a month in the French Polynesia on another yacht.

This is the same kind of disappointment I felt when learning that my former president was moving into a nine-bedroom mansion a few miles from the White House instead of returning to their relatively modest, but lovely, home on the South Side of Chicago.  After his speech to at-risk youth in the Windy City today, Barack will begin a series of handsomely paid speeches in a conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin (which should actually be quite interesting — she is something else!) and then embarking on a speaking tour in Italy and at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Is Barack Obama really no different from every other politician?

I did not expect him to criticize openly Donald Trump in his first 100 days in the White House. The ” we only have one president at a time” philosophy is a time-honored one. Except when the Donald himself chose to violate it time and time again during the campaign. As Sarah Kovner a New York Democrat who raised more than a million bucks for Obama’s campaigns recently observed, “Why are we not hearing from him? We’ve got to hear from him. Democrats are desperate!”

Today’s speech in Chicago could be a time for the former president to begin to turn things around. Even without mounting a full assault on the Trump Administration, Obama could begin to send us a signal that his post-presidency will begin to take the shape of Jimmy Carter’s or even Bill Clinton’s (whose Foundation, despite all the criticism, has done enormous amounts of good around the world). Barack Obama could begin that trajectory today. Or…

Is Barack Obama  any really no different than any other politician?

Where’s Wyatt When We Need Him?

April 13, 2017

It says something about our times that I was not even surprised to find this headline in today’s Des Moines Register, “Iowa to become latest state to allow guns in its Capitol.” And so we will join 17 others states which allow such foolishness despite the head of Capitol security’s concern about “how guns will mix with heated debates and big crowds as lawmakers take up divisive issues.”

The NRA’s answer, “Iowa state lawmakers know it is hypocritical of them to allow carry elsewhere but to ban it in the Capitol building. In the halls where freedom is celebrated, freedoms should be exercised,”Catherine Mortensen, NRA spokeswoman proclaimed. I guess that might be fine if only the lawmakers were at risk of getting shot dead, but what about schoolchildren who regularly visit the Capitol? Does no one remember Sandy Hook?

Perhaps we should be comforted by the Republican lawmakers who supported the legislation who wisely point out that weapons holders could use them to stop someone intent on killing people. After all, “despite metal detectors, an armed intruder could get into the Capitol through other doors that don’t have security check points.” Oh.

I keep thinking back to Wyatt Earp and his brothers who did their best to bring law and order to the rough and ready frontier towns of Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone Arizona in the decades following the Civil War. One of the first things they did was to require visitors to “check their weapons” at the first place they visited in town — the livery stable, the bars, the hotels.

They could pick them up on the way out of town but neither concealed carry nor open carry was permitted under the Earp “administrations.” Crime and certainly killing went down. And this in an era when virtually everyone was armed because of the wild territory they inhabited and lack of respect for the law, such as it was, by many. Nonetheless, they checked their guns in Dodge City.

Where’s Wyatt when we need him?

The Greatest Prayer

April 5, 2017

As I prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning, I was reminded of how easy it can be to say it mindlessly because it is so familiar to us. In my tradition we say this prayer twice each day as part of our Morning and Evening Prayers and it is included in every Eucharist. Most other Christian traditions use the Our Father frequently as well.

I am also aware that the prayer is difficult for some because of its largely first-century world view and the dominant masculine and patriarchal imagery (“Father,” “Kingdom,” etc.). Allow me to share how I understand what generations of Christians including modern biblical scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have called “The Greatest Prayer.”

First of all, when I say “Our Father” the emphasis is on the “our.” Alan Jones used to send his students at General Seminary out to ride on the New York subway and say the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father,” Alan would smile wryly, “surely not Their Father, God?” Yes, my friends, “father” of us all. And though the masculine image of parent should be supplemented in other prayers with more gender inclusive terms, no serious scholar debates that “Abba” was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to the God of Israel. It is at least one way to understand God.

This God “who art in heaven” surely does not only live above the clouds in the top story of a three-tiered universe. But just as surely God can be found in heaven…in the heavens. I see the Holy One in the beauty of a sunrise and in the orderly rotation of the planets around the sun, and in the dying and the birth of stars too far away even to imagine. That God is in the heavens as well as all around me and in the depths of my spirit.

“Hallowed by thy Name,” of course, refers to the holiness of the very name of God which the Hebrews believed had been revealed first to them. The Tetragrammaton (YHWH) of the Hebrew Bible is unpronounceable in the tradition but is perhaps best rendered “Yahweh” – I Am Who I Am or I Will Be Who I Will Be. Or, “Being” itself, “Existence.” For this is the essence of holiness. Holy is our very being.

I refuse to stop praying “Thy Kingdom Come” just because a monarchial system may be foreign to many today and not the best way to understand God anyway – as some kind of Middle Eastern potentate. But, as biblical scholars as different as Borg, Crossan, and N.T. Wright all remind us, to speak of the Kingdom of God really means God’s king-ship, sovereignty and reign. And it is another way of reminding ourselves that God is king and the principalities, powers, and rulers of this age are not. This has enormous implications for our mission as Christians.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we express our desire that that state of affairs, this commonwealth be established soon. And that it come into existence here on earth, in our societies just as it is wherever God is truly present. Our prayer is that the commonwealth of justice and peace which is God’s dream for this world be established in our communities just as firmly as the immutable laws of the universe in which this planet exists as a tiny speck.

Too many of our prayers are petitionary in nature, asking God to do this or that for us or for someone we care about. That can be a self-serving and egocentric thing. Yet surely it is appropriate to ask the Giver of all things to “give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a way of being grateful for the fact that everything we have, even bread enough for today, comes from the Creator of us all.

Now, I also believe that we spend way too much time, in my tradition, begging for God’s forgiveness (Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us) as though God has not already forgiven us because God is the essence of love and forgiveness itself. We don’t need to beg for it. But, if we truly believe that we stand forgiven because of the love and grace of God we see revealed in Jesus, then is it not right that we appropriate it, receive it into our consciousness. And, even more importantly, that we forgive others as we believe we have been forgiven?

“And lead us not into temptation” is the most problematic phrase in the prayer. We have no idea what was intended. We know that God does not lead anyone into temptation so that’s out! “Do not bring us to the test” or “Save us from the time of trial” may well be about as close as we can get to its original meaning and should remind us that, if we are faithful witnesses to the God of our salvation, we may well be called upon to suffer, even to face persecution or death. In that eventuality, we call upon God for strength and courage.

I am told that I have a “high doctrine” of original sin. That is probably true even though I do not believe it had much to do with the follies of Adam and Eve in the mythological Genesis story.  Whatever the cause (a “fall” from a primitive state of oneness with the creation we see in some indigenous communities still, or an “incompleteness” in this universe which is surely, but ever-so-slowly, evolving toward that perfection which will one day be)  evil is real and this world at least is full of it. From street violence in Chicago to grinding poverty is the two-thirds world to the nuclear ambitions of a madman in North Korea. I am not too proud to ask God to “deliver us from evil” such as that.

I’m glad at least one of the Evangelists and church tradition has included the doxology at the end of Jesus’ prayer whether or not it was original. I often slow my words and try to experience each concept as I pray “For Thine is the kingdom… and the Power…and the GLORY” forever and ever” This universe belongs to God. The power that holds it all together is the power we call love. And the beauty and majesty we can glimpse in the night sky or hear in the harmonies of a symphony show us something of the nature of the Holy One. And this Divine Being will remain forever and ever. To the ages of ages. World without end.

Amen…So be it.

 

Standing At The Mother Mosque

March 29, 2017

Not many people outside of Iowa are aware that the longest standing mosque in North America is in Cedar Rapids. It was built in 1934 by a local community of immigrants and their descendants from what is now Lebanon and Syria. My experience is that most Iowans are proud of this fact and of the surprise it brings to people who hear about its existence for the first time.

However, with Islamophobia rising across our land due largely to the Donald Trump presidency with his fear-mongering technique against all immigrants and his insistence in using the offensive phrase “radical ISLAMIC terrorism” (emphasis on the ISLAMIC), two Iowa women decided, over coffee, that they should do something about it. The younger woman, a lay person, said “Wouldn’t it be neat to form a Circle of Safety around the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids to show our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters?” The second woman, an Episcopal priest from Grinnell, said, “Go for it” and got busy using her contacts to organize the event.

And so it was that I joined four hundred people from across Iowa and as far away as Chicago on a rainy Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be a glorious occasion. They arrived by the carload and parked up and down the side streets of the modest residential neighborhood where the Mother Mosque is located. There were tours of the tiny mosque, bottles of water and cookies and doughnuts to share. And then some brief addresses.

Imam Taha began by welcoming us all and thanking us for making the effort to be there. He was clearly moved by the turnout. A rabbi (college chaplain at Grinnell College) spoke of the need to stand together. The organizing Episcopal priest used Paul’s analogy of the body with many, diverse members as a metaphor for the American vision as well as for the church. A Hindu layman spoke of peace as did a Sikh woman. A representative from the Atheist Society was bold enough to point out that his group and Muslims were now the two most hated groups in America! And he pledged their support.

And, perhaps most movingly, a gentle woman from the Meskwaki nation near Tama, Iowa reminded us that, as the original residents of this land, they welcome us all here and that we need one another if we are to achieve God’s vision for the world. She spoke, as is her peoples’ custom, with eyes lowered in humility, but with a strong voice and powerful message.

We then sang “This Land Is Your Land” complete with a final verse I had never heard, written from the Native American perspective and included the refrain “this land was stole by you from me!” And, as we sang, we fanned out to ring the little mosque which sits in the middle of a manicured lawn and full city block. We were two and three deep, all around the perimeter, four hundred in all. And it was a beautiful thing to see.

A simple act. Not terribly risky. But a reminder of the better angels of our nature as Iowans…and as Americans…and as people of faith.

What is it about this vision that Donald Trump does not understand?

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!