Archive - August, 2007

American Cancer Society and the Uninsured

Recently a letter writer told me I was both a bad citizen and a poor Christian because I had said we need to “fix the health care system in the United States.”

I thought it was obvious things aren’t working so well with the uninsured growing by two million a year. Now I read the American Cancer Society is devoting its advertising budget to call attention to the uninsured and the need to fix the system. So, perhaps I’m in better company than I thought.

More importantly, the cancer society says chronic disease can’t be reduced so long as so many are not receiving necessary care. It’s a new tack for the society, and one that I applaud.

The ads are reportedly not partisan but they lay out a case that’s necessary for policy-makers to hear, and to act on–fix the system. Building support for a grassroots movement to improve health care delivery is necessary and the voice of the cancer society can be a very helpful encouragement.

The society deserves our thanks and our support for doing the right thing.

Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa expressed profound doubt about the existence of God throughout her adult life according to a new collection of her letters. This revelation is a source of shock and curiosity for some, and proof of the falsehood of religious faith for others. It’s the cover story in TIME this week.

Apparently Mother Teresa wrestled with these questions throughout her adult life. They led her to ask if the charitable work she was known for was hypocritical. “What do I labor for?” she asked in one letter. “If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

Doubt is a profound part of religious life. Many of the greatest saints in the Christian tradition experienced doubt. The Book of Job is an extended discussion of doubt and it offers no safe harbor. Similarly, many Psalms express open, raw questioning. Jesus asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” For the biblical writers, the experience of evil was too profound to be ignored, so profound that it had to be a part of the life of faith. And the Bible provides no easy answer. In our culture of fast food theology, we tend to forget this biblical complexity. The absolutist morality of some religious teachers has made doubt appear to be a sign of weakness, not a part of the mature life of faith.

It’s understandable that doubt would creep into the inner lives of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order). They carry out the most difficult work imaginable. I met with a group of these nuns in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia some years ago and we discussed doubt and faith. The nuns drove a van into the city streets in the evening and picked up the most vulnerable and ill. They also received terminally ill patients from the hospitals and were among the first to operate a hospice for patients with AIDS. Daily, they witnessed death, and actually sought out the dying.

In the hospice, I met a little girl whose face was severely disfigured because a soldier had hit her with a rifle butt. She was also scarred from some type of burn. Her disfigurement was so great it was difficult to see the form of a face.

How can a caring person not experience doubt in these circumstances? As we discussed the question, the nuns were forthright. They did get overwhelmed at times, but they always felt the strength of a spirit beyond their own resources, they said. I thought how remarkable that must be, and also how inadequate my faith was.

The little girl’s face still haunts me. And the reality of the evil that disfigured her cannot be easily resolved with platitudes, nor philosophical treatises discussing evil. It’s just too deep to be explained away. It’s no wonder Mother Teresa wrestled with this.

The fact of evil doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God, nor the correctness of belief. Paradoxically, the presence of doubt is no measure of faith in the long term. Perhaps it’s more important for us to know a figure no less charitable and self-giving than Mother Teresa, as Job before her, experienced the same doubts and fears the rest of us harbor. Doubt is an existential reality and in that realization is maturity and perhaps a measure of hope. To doubt is not simply to be lacking in faith. It is to be human. And to be faithful is not to be free of doubt, it is to engage the difficult questions and struggle with life’s meaning in the face of the evil that distorts and disfigures in many different ways. And In the meantime, we serve, each in our own way, we serve because no matter the answer, the suffering must be eased, the ill cared for, the dying comforted and held close.
This, we do know.

Do You Have A Life List?

Do you have a life list? Earl, of television’s My Name is Earl, has a list. So does Ellen DeGeneres and Beyonce, and apparently millions of others as well. According to an article in the NY Times this morning, life lists are becoming the tool busy people are using to give order to their lives and move toward goals they might not otherwise accomplish.

The website asks visitors to “Discover what’s important, make it happen, share your progress. Find your 43 things..” It offers to help you complete the task. Given the demands on our time, the stresses that most of us feel, and the tendency of a lot of U.S. citizens to be workaholics, making a list of the important things we’d like to do before we die is probably a good idea.

Making a list is a variation on an older method I’ve used, first as a skeptic because I’m not much into visualization exercises, but later with appreciation. The list not only brings focus, it raises to consciousness important thoughts, wishes and desires that get buried in the mix of our everyday activities.

I was out of a job, facing the prospect of no reliable income and needing to move quickly to set a new direction. I sought out a career counseling service that specialized in developing career plans and one step was to collect articles of interest. We were also required to interview people in fields that attracted us, the idea being that these efforts would identify subjects we had passion for, and it was good research for skills needed in the marketplace. It also made it possible to network with people. However, the most unpalatable task for me was the requirement to visualize an enjoyable project or activity we’d like to do in the next five years and write about it. But this became the most valuable exercise of all.

I think it was unpalatable because it seemed a bit “airy fairy.” I was without a steady job, I didn’t have time to dream. I needed practical, concrete steps to get myself employed. But, the visualizing turned out to be a practical, concrete foundation for action, much to my surprise. I visualized sitting in a room overlooking Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and writing. I also visualized producing a documentary on street children in Brazil. I had no clue about how to make these things happen, and truth to tell, didn’t even know where the image about writing In Addis came from. It was pure daydream. But I had heard about ancient stone churches in northern Ethiopia carved from rock deep in the ground, and I had filed that interest way down in my subconscious where it lay undisturbed for many years.

What emerged was my desire to produce documentaries with an interest in people in the developing world. Because I had been doing film, video and photography, plus writing, this wasn’t new. But it seemed highly unlikely to me at this low time in my life, when I needed to get on the stick and support a family, that producing documentaries in Ethiopia and Brazil would put food on the table. Never the less, I began to make contacts and met a few people who shared this interest. Over the course of the next several months, some of them pretty bleak and discouraging, these contacts led to others and I found supporters who were willing to help find funds for a documentary on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Later, I met with some mothers from Brazil visiting New York and heard their stories about street children being murdered by vigilantes. They wanted the story told, but had no money and no prospects. Neither did I.

So I filed that away and set about putting together the documentary on Ethiopia. The funding developed and we were in production for nearly two years. I found myself sitting in an apartment overlooking Addis writing a treatment, and later a script. The daydream became a reality. (Actually, because the government of Ethiopia was a cruel, tightly controlled Marxist machine, working in Ethiopia was a nightmare but that misses the point).

As this was wrapping up I received a call to talk with a church group interested in telling the story of seven street boys who were massacred in a “safe house” in a suburb of Sao Paulo. It was a horrible story. A nighwatchman hired to protect the kids was bribed into letting gunmen enter a social service center that gave the kids a safe room to sleep in and they were murdered in their sleep.

We worked out a research trip and I went to Brazil, stayed with the street workers and kids for two weeks and began to get a handle on how to approach a documentary on the tragedy of these children. Funding was arranged and within a few months I returned and produced the documentary.

I think the value of the list, or visualization, is to bring focus and specificity to inner yearnings that get submerged in the rush of daily living. If we draw aside and let these inner yearnings rise to the surface they become important and more attainable. I suspect they must be realistic. I had more contacts who shared my interests than I recognized in my depressed, panicked state, so my submerged documentary ideas were more attainable than I thought. Visualizing had made them more than mere figments of imagination. Research gave me necessary background. Networking made the contacts required. It’s an interesting rode to empowerment and fulfillment.

So, airy fairy or not, I suspect list making is a good thing. I’m stopping this essay now. I think I need to start making a list.

What is Your Spiritual Type?

What is your “spiritual type?” A survey on offers the opportunity to compare how you experience the Holy with several types. The site also offers resources for deeper examination based on the interests and practices you identify. The website is a gentle offering of tools, ideas and practices that can lead to helpful answers to questions of faith. The survey results present you with suggestions for further study.

Out Of Body–We are More Than We Can Understand

“Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see.” Those lyrics from a country song in another era ring true to the the out of body experiments reported yesterday.

Scientists successfully induced out of body experiences in which people responded to touch one part of the body as if it were applied to another area which they were seeing through 3D goggles. This induced state of consciousness mirrors reports of out of body experiences by people who have gone through traumatic episodes, according to the scientists conducting the experiments.

What intrigues me is the assessment of one scientist about reality and our perception of it. The experiences “call into question the axiom that everything you are is anchored in your body,” said Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, of the U.C. San Diego Center for Brain and Cognition.

But if we are not anchored in our physical bodies and our perceptions can be altered to such a degree through relatively simple optical illusions, then our conscious ordering of “reality” is certainly open to considerable question. We can’t believe everything we hear, only half of what we see, and who knows how much of what we feel. How many times have I heard, “perception is reality,” to explain away a dubious act otherwise open to question. Well, maybe perception isn’t reality. Or maybe reality isn’t limited to what we can see, hear, feel or think. Or maybe the Matrix is all there is after all. But, how can we ever know…for sure?

I know some will draw deep theological meaning from these experiments and maybe that’s important. But this morning it’s not where I want to go with these reports. So, I’m refraining from heading down that path and just contemplating what might be, or not.

Uninsured Children

Every 47 seconds a child is born in the United States uninsured, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. At this moment nine million children are not covered by Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Most live in families with two working parents. It’s a national disgrace that 11.6% of all children in the United States are not provided adequate health care. One of the richest nations in the world cannot find the resources to care for its children but can manage to pump $200 million a day into war, at a rate of $100,000 per minute.

Having lost the debate on SCHIP renewal and expansion in the legislature, the current administration is putting into place requirements that make it difficult if not impossible for states to meet in order to qualify for funds. This will limit the availability of funds to cover uninsured children. A good backgrounder on the issue is available at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website. Information is also available at the Urban Institute website.

From the perspective of Christian teaching, this is a fundamental issue for several reasons but two stand out. First is the clear statement by Jesus in Matthew 18:5 that when we receive and care for children it is as if we are receiving and caring for Jesus himself. But there is a second important teaching that cuts through all the Christian sacred texts and that is the call to serve. The Christian gospels carry a steady call to live a life of diakonia, or service. Jesus’ teaching about receiving children is related to protecting the innocent and serving their needs. I don’t see any exceptions in this teaching–no small print that says you care only for those whose family income is at the poverty line and not those parents in a family of four who earn 200 per cent above poverty level.

There’s just this simple statement: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Here are some ways to take action:

Children’s Defense Fund

General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church

Global Warming and Health

Tennessee and Alabama are in the grips of one of the longest droughts in memory and now it’s coupled with triple digit heat. At the same time, floods are disrupting life in many areas of the world including the United Kingdom, India and Bangledesh. A tornado touched down in Brooklyn yesterday causing one incredulous resident to say, “This isn’t Kansas!” The caption on the Weather Channel today is “Deadly Heat and Savage Storms.”

As we endure the third day of 100+ degree heat, health warnings are issued for those vulnerable due to upper respiratory stress, heart conditions and other complications. The connection between this unusual heat and health is clear. Human service agencies are receiving donated window air conditioners and giving them to people with health concerns who can’t afford to buy the units. In casual conversation, people speak of difficulty breathing the humid air that hangs in a gray overcast. Local weather advisories tell us the air is holding pollution in a dome during the day. Fortunately, skies clear at night and today it’s sunny.

But heat and drought are causing people to take note and to ask if the weather extremes are related to global warming. The heat and drought also remind us of an axiom we tend to forget under normal conditions. Even in this most developed and affluent nation, if you are poor or vulnerable for other reasons, a few degrees of heat and lack of water can be deadly.
This heat wave is also a reminder that health, poverty and our individual lifestyles are not separate and compartmentalized. They are connected. We’re all in this together. And the threat to our health and well-being is bound up in our individual actions as well as our collective behavior as a nation. The sooner we learn <i>this</i> axiom, the sooner we can begin to make the changes necessary to restore balance and contribute to the health of our Earth Mother.

Reporting on HIV/AIDS

Christine Gorman who writes the Global Health Report is back from a visit to South Africa and writing about HIV/AIDs in that country. Her report on grandmothers is particularly interesting to me because I’ve seen what grandmothers have done in spontaneous care-giving for children orphaned by this disease. It’s quite remarkable. The grandmothers of Africa are in many ways keeping the social fabric together. They have voluntarily taken in orphaned children and are providing them care, guidance, shelter and food. It’s a huge challenge that probably would have been impossible to organize formally. They just do it.

Christine’s report on loveLife, a sex education and teen empowerment organization, is also a great discussion of the challenges presented by sex education and unintended consequences.

Sex education is a subject that raises emotional hackles not only in the U.S., it’s also debated across Africa, particularly abstinence programs. These are being heavily promoted. Travel in Uganda, Libera and other countries and you will see billboard ads with images of youth and young adults promoting the value of sexual abstinence. But recent studies call into question the effectiveness of abstinence education. It appears teens who have committed to abstinence don’t stay with their pledge long-term. And, I learned from Christine’s report that an unintended consequence of abstinence from sexual intercourse is an increase in anal intercourse, and this is an even more effective means of transmitting the virus than intercourse.
As infection rates seem to be on the increase in Africa, it’s necessary to take a hard look at what is working, what isn’t and how to move forward more effectively. And as discomfiting as it may be, it will take straightforward analysis and conversation. Kids lives are in the balance.

CARE and Food Aid

CARE’s announcement today that it will halt using U.S. food aid in its programs overseas is a courageous, controversial step but a step in the right direction. The issue is controversial because CARE, and some other nonprofits, say the food aid undermines local production and undercuts the market price for locally produced food. But the policy in the U.S. is used to provide income to U.S. farmers for their over production. It benefits U.S. farmers while also providing food to poor people overseas.
The nonprofits receive cash for administering the programs and paying local staff and they have used these funds to support programs to lift people from poverty. But CARE says the program makes nonprofits contractors on behalf of the U.S. government, which is not their primary mission. There will continue to be vocal debate about this issue from all sides with many points of view. But the action of CARE is a courageous act of principle that will cost the organization substantial dollars. It’s rare to see this in today’s world of compromise and I hope CARE is able to replace the dollars and also to contribute to public understanding of the role of food aid in U.S. policy. And ultimately, I hope the action by CARE leads to a reassessment of policy to determine how best to help people lift themselves from poverty. If it leads to that discussion, CARE’s action will have had a positive benefit for all concerned.

Gates And United Methodists Followup

It came as no surprise that a conversation between United Methodist leaders and staff of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would find common ground. But the sense of shared commitment to the claim that every life has value that pervades the Gates Foundation philosophy struck some of us as a strong complement to the religious claim that all life is sacred. So it isn’t just commonality about programs or approaches to confronting poverty, hunger and disease. It’s a shared sense of belief in the value of human life. This became more obvious to me as the conversation progressed. And it made the possibility of partnership seem possible.

Sometimes when I write about values I get a bit defensive because I’m aware of the skepticism about religion that many thoughtful people in the United States feel. And, I’m also aware that religious claims strike many people as having little authenticity. The contentious period we’re passing through makes it more difficult for some to believe these claims and to trust they are genuine. I think this is a bit of the fallout that comes from the close identification of religion with right wing politics and, equally important, the identification of religion with cultural values as if religion and culture are the same. They aren’t of course, but to state even this is to invite criticism of disloyalty to one’s nation in the minds of some.

So, I tend write less about values than I should and when I do, I write more defensively than I should. And honestly, the conversation between the church folks and the Gates folks didn’t even broach this subject in the way I’m writing in this post. But the conversation did lead me to reflect on a growing desire that I believe is afoot. People, religious or not, want to make a difference in the world and to engage the problems that make life so miserable for some.

I take this as a hopeful sign. I’ve been amazed at the way the Nothing But Nets campaign to raise funds for bednets to prevent malaria has taken hold in The United Methodist Church. Every day I get a note reporting another story of commitment and hard work to raise funds for bednets. Some are about children taking up this cause. Others are about youth. And still others are about local congregations, many of whom might have said they can’t be pushed to give more because they’re already stretched to the breaking point financially. Yet, they continue to push to raise funds for bednets.

Despite the current stock market roller coaster ride, the developed nations of the North live in abundance. We are not in a setting of scarcity. I appreciate that the abundance is ill-distributed to the point of being unjust. But never the less, the mainline faith communities exist in abundance, and many in them are motivated to do more than settle into material comfort and forget the rest of the world.

I live in the hope that this percolating concern and emerging good will can be focused into a movement, a movement to improve living conditions and provide the medicines, knowledge and support for ending much of the human suffering that exists unnecessarily around the world today. That’s a visionary hope, I know, and it probably meets with skepticism, but I hold to it none the less. And I wonder what would happen if a global movement took hold to call upon governments and civic organizations to concentrate on saving lives and put an end to the wars, poverty and diseases that are killing children and adults today at a frightening pace. I think I hear the seeds of this movement when I hear young people talk about what they want to do with their lives. And I think I witness it when I hear the reports of people who thought they couldn’t do it, reach financial goals for bednets that make them feel they’ve accomplished something wonderful. And they have.

So these are my ruminations following the much more specific and concrete conversation I was privileged to be part of with the Gates staff. I just keep wondering what would happen if a global movement were to take hold and tackle the diseases of poverty. How many lives would be saved? How many promising children and young adults might live long enough to take up the cause and find ways to unleash life, and turn away from death?
What would happen if people of faith were to take seriously the call of Jesus to live abundantly and to serve others graciously? That would provide a different view of religious faith to the world, it would save lives and it would reaffirm the biblical teaching that all life is sacred. I keep wondering.

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