Heart of the Matter

I missed my grandmother’s birthday this year.  My internship ran right over the top of it, so I missed the party.  I guess the least I can do is write something since she asked me to write while I’m away.  And chances are she’ll be the only one to read it anyway.

So here you go, Grandma.

I just finished my second week in Washington.  I’m working on Capitol Hill for a religious liberty advocacy group, and I’ve been learning the key to success on Capitol Hill—the golden ticket for everyone here, from the most senior of Senators to the lowliest of interns (such as myself): that is, looking busy without actually being busy.

If a Congressman masters this art, he or she will get re-elected.  If an intern masters the art, he or she has promise as a future congressman.

Anyway, the job is going well.  I’m happy to be back here after having spent two college summers (2008 and 2009) in the District.  To embrace with old friends and to share stories of past times and to worship in a much-missed place always feels right.  It’s funny to me how living in Washington changes one’s vision, like switching a glasses prescription. And it’s funny how living in Washington as an outsider can tweak not only the way she sees the world or reads the news, but also the way she looks at herself.

I see not only these powerful symbols, centers, and people but I am sleeping and waking, working and playing, walking and talking among them.  It’s not just that an outsider has a heightened awareness and appreciation for these power structures, but to be among those structures (logically) creates a heightened awareness and appreciation for one’s own status.

Which is tricky.  And perhaps dangerous.

My first day on the job I had lunch with a few coworkers at the Senate cafeteria next door.  As I ate my soup a senator took a seat at the table next to ours.  It’s easy to become enamored at a senator casually sitting next to you eating his macaroni and cheese; it’s also easy to become enamored with yourself as you watch.

I’ve been walking up and down the charcoal arteries named Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Constitution that pump the lifeblood through the powerful heart of Washington, admiring the energy, the sheer significance of the pulse—thinking ‘This is what matters—this is real and alive and ultimate.’  It’s a rush, no doubt.

A few days later, last Sunday, I was driving my car down one of those traffic-packed avenues toward the Capitol thinking those thoughts.  And unexpectedly the battery-light flickered.  And the engine trembled.  The tachometer vacillated. And the alternator died.

‘Hell,’ I thought.  As I desperately tried restarting the dead car, I heard people honking their horns and could feel their scowls.  As I glanced at the gleaming capitol dome a few blocks ahead, being within this nucleus of power suddenly wasn’t significant to me—not at all.  I didn’t care if I was in Washington, DC, Tightwad, Missouri, or Timbuktu, my goddamn car was dead and blocking traffic—what’s so great about the stupid capitol anyway?

It only took about four seconds to switch priorities.

I cursed and muttered as my car was pushed out of the road, towed to a mechanic, revived back to usability, and paid for out of my pocket.  By that time I couldn’t help but be preoccupied with my bank account, my income, my bills, and the fear that another big expense might ambush me anytime.

Even afterward, when walking up and down those prestigious avenues I wasn’t taken by the ‘significance’—what good is living among the powerful when you’re daunted by your own weakness?

But as I lamented my struggle, giving Job a run for his money, my cell phone rang.  It was my best friend from high school, who is recently married, just blessed with a daughter, and soon to be a college graduate.  I answered the phone, glad to hear from him.

His voice sounded shrill.

He told me that his baby daughter, my baby goddaughter, who was only two months and two days old, had suddenly passed away that afternoon.

In that moment it was like a vacuum hose had shoved itself in my mouth and sucked the air from my lungs.  The only thing to do was cry.

What ‘significance’ is car trouble when you’re crippled by grief?  How ‘significant’ is a bill, an assignment, or a mistake when one you love is suffering?

‘Hell,’ I thought again when he hung up.  And I was right.

I still walk up and down those charcoal arteries weaving throughout these powerful places and famous names, and I still might occasionally see another senator lunching on his macaroni and cheese; but I save the wonder and fascination for something else—something more significant, something more ultimate.






Are You For Real?

I invited a friend of mine and my family, Dr. Michael Newheart (formerly Willett) to come to the church on Sunday to give a guest lecture during Sunday school, and he did an outstanding job. Coming from the viewpoint of a New Testament professor, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and former Baptist he presented a unique perspective on Christian pacifism. His presentation was thought-provoking and those present actively engaged in constructive discussion afterward.

The question that continued to arise in the discussion (and a question that I’m sure is regularly directed to pacifists) raised the notion of realism vs. idealism: realistically, would you (a pacifist) withhold from violent self-defense even if your family was at risk? Should violent conflict be avoided even when dealing with events analogous to the rise of Hitler, the implementation of the Holocaust, the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the terrorism witnessed on September 11, 2001? Et cetera. In other words: are there any circumstances in which violence is permissible for a pacifist, and if not, how could a nation, community, or individual living in a hostile context function reasonably?

Good questions, no doubt. And Dr. Newheart grounded them effectively–providing answers with references to the perpetuating spiral of violence, along with the Christian responsibility (as outlined by the Sermon on the Mount) to absolute humility, self-sacrifice, and peace.

As I reflected on the discussion, I realized that I agreed wholly with his interpretation of scripture: one cannot reconcile violence with the teachings of Christ, namely in the Sermon of the Mount. From my view, this is a settled matter—Christ was a sold out advocate of peace and nonviolence, even in the face of hostile aggression, and if one wants to fully emulate Jesus today he or she can never consider violence as an option in addressing conflict of any sort.

Thus the question in my mind is not “Does Christ insert pacifism into the Christian ethic?” but rather “Is the Christian ethic as outlined by Christ an idealistic and unrealistic standard?”

The truth is, I would love to be a pacifist—I think any morally grounded person would want to join me. But I left the lecture deeply saddened by the thought that perhaps it is simply our human nature that prevents the ideals of pacifism—world peace, equality, cooperation, justice—from moving out of the ideal world into the real world.

Yes, there’s nothing I’d love more than for us all to be pacifists, and perhaps I am one at heart, but the world around me keeps me from turning such conviction into complete practice.

Nonetheless, I am wholly convinced that the values held by Dr. Newheart and the Religious Society of Friends are essential for a more just and peaceful world. Christians on the whole need to follow the lead of Quakers in speaking out against any act of violence that is not absolutely warranted and used as only a last resort; in placing the environment at the forefront of our attention, insuring that peace is not only advocated throughout society, but throughout creation as a whole; in taking our witness and energies outside the sphere of religious agendas and into the realm of social struggles and injustice.

I was truly enriched by the testimony of Dr. Newheart and I hope that people like him will continue to influence the American Christian practice.

Health Care Fix: The role of a public option

Here is a guest viewpoint piece that is exceedingly relevant in the political world. Dorrien is a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and this piece is taken from The Christian Century.

Health Care Fix: The role of a public option
by Gary Dorrien
The Christian Century Foundation, 2009

LONGTIME advocates of single-payer insurance like me are thrilled, anxious and deflated simultaneously by the state of the debate on health-care reform. The debate that we wanted has finally come, and it is coming with a legislative rush, but the plan that we wanted is being excluded from consideration. Should we hold out for the real thing, or get behind the best politically possible thing?

I am for doing both: Standing up for single-payer without holding out for it exclusively; supporting a public option without denying its limitations; and hoping that a good public plan will lead eventually to real national health insurance.

Single-payer basically means Medicare for everyone, without the copays and deductibles of the current Medicare system. It is not socialized medicine, as in England or Spain, where doctors and hospitals work for the government. It does not violate the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which bars the government from taking private property for public use without appropriate compensation, since it does not nationalize any private firms. The single-payer plan is a system of socialized health insurance similar to that of Canada, Australia and most European nations. Essentially it is an extension and improvement of the Medicare system, in which government pays for care that is managed and delivered in the private sector.

We don’t need private health insurance companies. We certainly don’t need a system that wastes $450 billion per year in redundant administrative costs and leaves 45 million Americans without health coverage. We could do without a system that excludes people with preexisting medical conditions and limited economic resources. We don’t need a system that cherry picks profitable clients and dumps the unprofitably ill in HMOs featuring lousy care and little choice. Businesses and other employers would do much better not having to provide health coverage for their employees, who often end up underinsured. We could do better than a system that ties people fearfully to jobs they want to leave but can’t afford to lose because they might lose their health coverage.

Health care is a fundamental human right that should be available to all people regardless of their economic resources. A society that takes seriously this elementary principle of social justice does not relegate the poor and underemployed to second-class care or status. The only Western democratic society that doesn’t even try to live up to this principle is the United States. When wealthy and middle-class people have to rely on the same health system as the poor, as they do throughout Europe, they use their political power to make sure it’s a decent system.

But single-payer deliverance is not on the agenda for President Obama and this Congress. The insurance companies are too powerful and politically aggressive to be retired in one legislative stroke. The House bill that calls for replacing for-profit insurance companies has only 79 cosponsors, and the Senate bill has only one–Bernie Sanders.

Obama rightly urges that significant health-care reform has to happen this year if it is to happen on his watch. In May he told a town hall meeting in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, that if one were starting from scratch, a single-payer system might be the best option. However, he observed, “the only problem is that we’re not starting from scratch.” The system that we have comprises 14 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Reinventing something that big and politically connected has no chance of happening this year.

The best we can hope for this year is a public Medicare-like option that competes with private plans. This reform would save only 15 percent of the $350 billion insurance overhead costs that converting to single-payer would achieve. Most versions currently being touted would not get everyone covered, though Obama suggested recently that he might be open to changing his position on requiring all Americans to have health coverage. In any case, even the better proposals along this line, like the one that Senator Ted Kennedy has championed for years, would not get us close to equality in health care. But a strong reform bill would offer an important alternative to private health insurance that might pave the way to real national health insurance.

The insurance companies are gearing up to prevent a public plan because they don’t want to compete with one. The American Medical Association doesn’t want one either–which preserves its bad-smelling record in this area. The AMA was against Medicare, it has opposed every previous proposal for universal coverage, and today it is against providing a public option even for people lacking the economic means or opportunity to buy health insurance.

Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is almost right in contending that the crucial either/or of the battle over health care is whether reform delivers a public option. But Krugman’s point needs to be put more precisely. The acid test is not whether reform delivers a public plan, but whether it delivers a good one. A good public plan would be open to all individuals and employers that want to join. It would allow members to choose their own doctors. It would eliminate high deductibles. It would allow members to negotiate reimbursement rates and drug prices. The government would run it. And it would be backed up by tough cost controls and a requirement that all Americans have health coverage.

A bad public plan, however, would be worse than getting nothing. A plan that isn’t open to everyone or that prevents choice or negotiation would be a plan designed to fail. It would take the pressure off private companies to do something about the uninsured and underinsured without solving the problem. It would be like Medicaid–poorly funded and managed because its beneficiaries lack political power. The failure of a designed-for-failure plan would kill the cause of real national health insurance for another 16 years. Some insurance industry leaders, having figured this out, are ready to indulge a bad plan. The political task for health-care reformers is to create and push through a public plan worth having.

In this phase of the debate, political and industry opposition to health-care reform is mostly warning that a public option means socialized medicine. A fair amount of time has to be spent repeating over and over that single-payer is not socialized medicine, and a public option among private competitors is even farther from it. But we are approaching the point where opponents of health-care reform will start to stress the opposite concern. Their concern is not that a government program won’t work. The real worry, for all who want to keep the present system, is that a government program will work too well.

Overwhelming majorities in blue and red states alike would love to dump their policies containing high deductibles and health exclusions. A public plan could be a magnet for health-care workers that got into this business to serve human needs, not to be cogs in a profit machine. If that happens, opponents will have been right about one important point. Mere reform could lead to the real thing, a single-payer system where substantial savings and equality are achievable. Medicare’s average overhead cost is 3 percent, and provincial single-payer plans in Canada average 1 percent. HMOs range between 15 and 25 percent. If we create a public plan that people want to join, we may well go the rest of the way too.

Rest in Peace

The other day I spent the afternoon with a friend who led me through part of Arlington Cemetery. My friend is a widow who lost her husband, a veteran, ten years ago and she has since dedicated time to making weekly cemetery visits to comfort visitors enduring fresh pain and grief from losing a loved one in the current wars overseas.

The fallen men and women of the ongoing conflicts sent to Arlington to be entombed are buried in Section 60, which is where my friend spends almost all her time as a special comforter, minister, and friend.

I won’t write long about the experience itself, simply because my words cannot give any justice to such a place and atmosphere.

I had been to cemeteries before—even Arlington Cemetery. I had been to funerals—my dad has preached hundreds in my lifetime. I am not a particularly emotional person, although I have been outraged with both the handling of the current wars overseas and the mentality that makes war anything but an absolutely last resort.

But I had never been to Section 60. I had never seen with my own eyes the faces stricken with the sudden vacancy of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.  I had never seen a person weeping while embracing a shimmering white tombstone.

I followed my friend in silence as she pointed out the individual fallen with whom she has a personal connections through their families. She told stories and for a brief moment brought them to life again.

After walking for awhile she turned to me and asked if I’d like to have a private moment of reflection. I was taken by surprise, but replied with a hesitant yes. She walked ahead, leaving me alone.

I didn’t know what to do.

I turned to the nearest grave, knelt down, and read the two dates in the inscription: 1986-2005, it said.

My God, I thought, a full year younger than me.

In the moment to follow I didn’t pray. I didn’t reflect. I didn’t recite anything. I couldn’t keep the thought from pounding through my head: “A whole year younger than me.” It throbbed in my head over and over.

Truly, how great is such a loss? Can we even know? Decades of so many lives—so much potential, so much promise. And for each fallen man and woman there will forever remain a great emptiness reminding us what might have been created and accomplished in the thrust of that life. But now it’s only a shadow—only speculation constructed upon cherished memories that seem to fade each day.

I believe I left Arlington changed in some way.

Remember this when you think about the wars—remember the result that is only seen in the lives of those surviving the losses—because a casualty of battle is infinitely more than the statistic we make it. And before we take up the battle flag and chant the fight song of patriotism, let’s remember those faint shadows of lost promise and ask ourselves whether the gain is worth the cost.

A Healed Friendship

Today I’m starting to overcome some sickness that’s been lingering in my sinuses and throat the past several days. It’s a liberating feeling to finally get over the fatigue and frustration that comes with being ill—especially being away from home.

Last year I had a friend who I worked with in the ministry organization at school. During the week-to-week functions of the ministry leadership team, there was one point when my friend made a poor choice—and he was confronted and faced the consequences of his action. Unfortunately, I was given the responsibility of confronting him.

And after the ordeal had passed our friendship became tense. Some might even say we stopped being friends. The awful tension set in over us like an illness.

Time went by and we learned to ignore the awkwardness–the secret, built-up frustration—and just went on with our regular routine as if there was nothing wrong. But there was.

As I look back on the experience, we were clearly at a crossroads: we had endured an unfortunate situation and we both had a right to be angry at the other. The easy, more common path was to simply let the nagging grudge fester within us, yielding to our egos and smugness, and be satisfied with a continued unwillingness to back down from our pride. On the other hand, the path less traveled is to be vulnerable—to apologize, to seek forgiveness, to eradicate the infection of pride and be friends again.

I must say that we both hesitated at this crossroad—it has been a slow time coming. But this summer, because of his initiative, we have walked the road of reconciliation and the renewing of our friendship has been a process of spiritual healing. It’s not to say that we agree on everything—including our past circumstances—or that we’ll never have anymore problems, but we do agree that to write off a friendship to the whims of the ego is simply selfish.

It feels good to have a friend back.

Perhaps the predicament we faced at that crossroad—the choice between pride or selflessness—is fundamental to our responsibility as Christians and citizens of the world. Christ’s call is a call to recognize, engage, and nurture the community around us; hence the adversary to the Christian life consists at its base of self-centeredness, pride, and apathy.

While the choice of self-centeredness only sickens ones spirit, the choice to serve a cause greater than self revitalizes the spirit and brings new life.

As I sit here writing, I am inhaling deep breaths of air into my lungs—I have a much greater appreciation for these breaths now that the frustrating experience of illness is still fresh in my memory. It feels good to breathe easy again. It feels good to have energy. It feels good to be healed.

A Sprint for the Ages

I run most evenings here in Washington. I haven’t exercised with much regularity since high school, so anytime I’ve gone for a run, played pickup basketball, or roughed it in tackle football over the last couple years I’ve felt it—running around isn’t quite as easy as it used to be.

But nonetheless, I’ve been running his summer. And I’ve noticed that after this extended period of college-inactivity it takes longer to stretch before the run and longer to lose the soreness after the run. It never used to make me tired, but now it does. Of course, I’m absolutely sure that I will receive no sympathy as a twenty year old, but I don’t care: I can’t help thinking about the days when I played baseball, football, basketball, and track all at the same time. It was easier then.

Last night I ran over to the National Cathedral, which should say something about the motivation I require to exercise—the sunset view of the Cathedral against a background of pink and blue sky is breathtaking (especially when running). I had devoured a big dinner several hours earlier and so the run was a little on the inside. Plus, I hadn’t slept much the night before so my muscles felt tight and achy. I endured the discomfort for a couple miles, reached the Cathedral, admired the scenery, and started the second leg of the journey home.

But somewhere along the way—I wasn’t far from the house—I just felt better. My muscles finally loosened and dinner had stopped sloshing around in my stomach (thank God). I breathed easier and quickened my pace.

About that time I turned the final corner toward my destination—the last straightaway, several blocks long. At that moment, the song ringing from my iPod through my ears hit the chorus at full volume:

Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun,
But till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

And a funny thing happened: I looked up at the sky, closed my eyes, and for that moment was 14 years old, holding a football, dashing around the right end, out-sprinting the safety to the sideline, and moving my legs as fast as they could go all the way to the end zone. I’m serious, I did.

As a college student I’m excited about the possibilities that the future holds—the things I will do, places I will go, and people I will meet. I really am.

But as long as I live I will never forget nor disregard the satisfaction of running so freely, so effortlessly, so naturally as a fourteen year old kid. And for a moment last night, to totally disregard my age, to ignore the onlookers, to forget a couple years of exerciselessness, and to just run was almost as freeing as I remember.

As life goes on I hope I’m never too scared to throw off the reigns.

Bishop Deems Individualistic Salvation “Heresy”

The following Monday article is taken from the Associated Baptist Press in its coverage of the triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church last week. The discussion references some significant theological questions, especially  for Protestant evangelicals. I am sure that there will be Christians from both sides of the argument reading this, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about the implications of labeling a notion so fundamental to evengelical Christianity as “heresy.”  

Episcopal presiding bishop terms individualistic salvation as “heresy”
by Bob Allen

 ANAHEIM, Calif. (ABP) — The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church called the evangelical notion that individuals can be right with God a “great Western heresy” that is behind many problems facing the church and the wider society.

 Describing a United States church in crisis, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told delegates to the group’s triennial meeting July 8 in Anaheim, Calif., that the overarching connection to problems facing Episcopalians has to do with “the great Western heresy — that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”

 “It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus,” Jefferts Schori, the first woman to be elected as a primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion three years ago, said. “That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.” 

 Jefferts Schori said countering individualistic faith was one reason the theme chosen for the meeting was “Ubuntu,” an African word that describes humaneness, caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation.

 “Ubuntu doesn’t have any ‘I’s in it,” she said. “The ‘I’ only emerges as we connect — and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others. There is no ‘I’ without ‘you,’ and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the One who created us.”

 Jefferts Schori said “heretical and individualistic understanding” contributes to problems like neglect for the environment and the current worldwide economic recession.

 “The sins of a few have wreaked havoc with the lives of many, as greed and dishonesty have destroyed livelihoods, educational possibilities, care for the aged, and multiple forms of creativity,” she said. “And that’s just the aftermath of Ponzi schemes for which a handful will go to jail.”

 She said in order to be faithful, “we need to be continually rediscovering that my needs are not the only significant ones.”

 “Ubuntu implies that selfishness and self-centeredness cannot long survive,” she said. “We are our siblings’ knowers and their keepers, and we cannot be known without them.”

 “We have no meaning, no true existence in isolation,” she said. “We shall indeed die as we forget or ignore that reality.”

About 200 Episcopal bishops and 850 clergy and lay deputies were expected to convene for the 10-day meeting. Business items are set to include debates over human sexuality, politics and poverty.