Archive - December, 2012

Continuing the Fight Against Malaria

Training Community Health Workers to install bed nets. UMNS photo by Mike DuboseA World Health Organization report raises concern that lack of money will weaken efforts to combat malaria. This is disheartening news. Great progress has been made against this disease and it has produced life-saving results.

Last year more than one million children were saved as increased funding made it possible to provide more bednets, diagnostic kits and medicines. However, distribution of nets dropped sharply according to the WHO from 145 million two years ago to 66 million last year. As more children are born and existing bednets wear out, this drop will result in an increasing number of children left unprotected. The result will be more deaths and debilitating illness.

This is bad enough, but a hidden result concerns me even more. In the past, when the world cut back on funding malaria treatment and prevention, the malaria parasite spread rapidly and developed greater resistance to existing drugs. An even stronger parasite evolved making it more difficult to contain and control.

A particularly strong parasite has been identified in parts of southeast Asia in the past decade and some malaria specialists believe it could spread to Africa with devastating results.

The WHO estimates the disease could be contained with an expenditure of $5 billion per year globally. The cost of the war in Afghanistan to the U.S. is $3.6 billion a month. Tackling malaria is not beyond the capacity of the world’s governments and non-governmental organizations.

The fight against the diseases of poverty–HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and polio among the many–is a longterm fight. They all deserve funding and a comprehensive approach to global health is within the world’s capacity.

The tendency of politicians and others to focus on a disease for a season, or with a short-term view is inadequate and dangerous. It provides opportunistic diseases the time to develop into more virulent strains which makes the task of combatting them more difficult. The result in the loss of life and debilitating, costly health problems for more people. NPR is providing a comprehensive overview of malaria in a series called Malaria: Pushing Back.

The effort to contain and significantly reduce malaria is a longterm struggle. If the world reduces the funding to support this struggle, the result will a stronger foe in the future, and a more costly one.

Our short attention span can be deadly. Over 100 global health advocates from The United Methodist Church last month delivered the message to their representatives that we want to continue funding the fight against malaria, for the sake of children who deserve the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

In addition,United Methodists and members of the ELCA continue to raise funds to combat malaria. The United Methodist effort is Imagine No Malaria. It’s necessary to take a long view toward this life-saving struggle as the Rotary Club International has done in its fight to end polio. Today, the disease is limited to regions of India and Pakistan. It has taken twenty five years, and Rotarians have been consistent and committed for the long haul, an admirable commitment in light of the difficulty the effort faces as it approaches its successful end. Let’s hope this commitment under hardship inspires governments and non-governmental organizations as well.

The risk of failure is too great. And too many lives are at stake to pull back now.

A House Big Enough for All the Pain

When the church bells ring across the nation this morning it will be a time to honor those who have been lost, and more. The sounds remind us of a house big enough for all the pain.

Speaking of the pain his community is going through, The Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor of the Newtown United Methodist Church, told journalist Art McClanahan, “The church becomes the community to hold that pain and to allow people to feel that pain.”

In a society that seeks diversion and palliatives, denial and avoidance, often to mask pain or run from it, these words are more than pastoral, they are prophetic. As some call for the arming of teachers and the potential use of even more lethal force, Rev. Kawakami issues an invitation to bring your pain into a house where it can be expressed, and shared.

This isn’t a defensive invitation to lock and load. It’s an invitation to open up and unload. Give up the fear, the toxic anger, and, yes, even grief; the whole burdened load we feel when we think of the tragic loss of these sweet, innocent young ones and those tender adults who died caring for them–all for whom we grieve–and give it over to a community who believe that in God’s grace we can absorb the fear and pain, take a share of the load and get through together.

I’ve been thinking all day of the words of the Martina McBride song, “Love’s the Only House Big Enough for all the Pain in the World.” “The pain’s gotta go someplace, so come on down to my house,” McBride sings. It’s the song of the church, and the invitation of God. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1,2) “Come to me, all of you who are weary and loaded down with burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. (Matthew 11:28)

Anne Lamott writes in her wonderful reflection on prayer, Help Thanks Wow, “Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the feet of the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises.”

And so it is in this house. A house whose people believe this love beyond understanding comes to us in human form–in Jesus who meets us with open arms, knows our pain, shares it, and shoulders it. When I hear the bells toll on Friday morning, I will say a prayer for those families in grief, I will remember the lives that ended so violently, and I will give thanks for a loving God whose house is big enough for all the pain.

Faithful Discipleship and Thinking Big

I like big thinking. I don’t mean big for the sake of bigness. I mean thinking about how to transform the world for the better–at scope and scale so that the billions whose lives are a daily struggle can see a better future, and live healthier, more comfortably and safely. Now.

I’m not opposed to small groups and individual action. Early in my pastoral ministry, I helped organize a small support group for parents of terminally ill children and I found it enormously helpful personally.

Our Problems are Intertwined

But as I travel, I see that the problems we face as a global community are intertwined. We’re all affected by climate change, water management, infectious diseases, interrelated economic ups and downs and galloping technological changes. While small groups can tackle some of the effects of these wide-ranging issues, in many instances they are bigger and more complex and we need to tackle them at a level of scope and scale that can truly affect global transformation. We need to work on them together.

Traveling through the mountains of the Philippines last week, a local man riding with me pointed out mountaintops left bare by clear cutting. He told me when he was a child, they were forested with old growth trees as wide as six feet. The global market for exotic wood led to their decimation.

Local groups mounted a protest and the cutting was eventually halted. This complex interweaving of global and local binds us in ways that we sometimes don’t appreciate because the connections are nearly impossible to perceive at each end of the chain.

Making Connections and Confronting Complexity

Therefore, I’m really glad for the likes of Bread for the World  and Sojourners who help connect disparate parts of the complexity. They seek to inform and affect policies and perceptions at a level that achieves scope and scale. When Bread for the World provided an analysis last week of President Obama’s approach to the U.S. budget compared to that of Rep. John Boehner, it was a helpful guide with useful information for a constituent group who can act collectively to influence policy. David Beckman, the head of Bread for the World, said in a meeting recently it’s essential that the faith communities in the U.S. advocate for a “circle of protection for the poor,” a phrase I’m told was suggested by my colleague James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. That’s scope and scale. And it’s transformational.

Sojourners is perhaps the most effective ecumenical voice in the faith community today bringing biblical teaching to bear on economic policies and how they affect poverty and human wellbeing.

The Common Good is Global

Such efforts lift our thinking from how taxes and budget cuts will affect me and put the question into a larger context. How will these cuts affect us, all of us, particularly those of us who do not have the same influence, strength of voice and access to policy-makers that the rich and powerful have?

For people of faith, it’s important to recall that Jesus was steeped in Jewish teaching about justice and mercy, community and individual responsibility. Jesus instructs us how to treat each other individually and how we treat each other in the wider community. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are clear about our responsibility to each other at a level that rises to the whole community. There is a common good, and today it is global.

I am grateful that Bread for the World and Sojourners remind me frequently that a fundamental part of being faithful is seeing the wholeness of God’s creation, beyond the reductionist definitions of life: it’s about me, my house and neighborhood and my tribe and my people.

And more importantly, I’m grateful that they understand that individual transformation and collective transformation are not polar opposites. They are interwoven parts of a whole cloth called faithful discipleship.

The Shiny Black Cushman Eagle at Red Rutherford’s Skelly Station

A Cushman Eagle similar to the one I received as a Christmas gift.

When I was a child I would pore over Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs. I turned the pages until the ink smudged and the paper became soft with wear. I also savored magazine ads for Daisy and Red Rider BB guns, Schwinn and Huffy bicycles, Lionel and American Flyer model trains. I lost myself in anticipatory pleasure.

But sometimes when I got one of my wished-for toys and played with it for a while, it seemed less pleasurable than the anticipation beforehand. Once I became accustomed to to the toy, the pleasure diminished. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened often enough to detect a pattern. Things, in and of themselves, don’t make us happy. Desire and happiness are more complicated.

Sometimes, the pleasure we experience is worth the asking price. One day as I walked past Red Rutherford’s Skelly service station after school I spotted a used, shiney, black Cushman Eagle motor scooter with a chrome gearshift, and day after day it became an object of desire. I knew I’d have to mow a lot of lawns to buy it, and it wasn’t lawn mowing season so I was depressed in equal measure with my desire for this lovely machine.

Shortly before Christmas it was gone. I was heartbroken. My fantasies of tearing around town, shifting that two-speed transmission with its characteristic sound of grinding gears were deflated, and it was hard to bear. I went into a funk.

On Christmas morning, however, I was led into the front yard at my grandparent’s house and there sat the Cushman Eagle. It seemed the best Christmas ever. And truth to tell, I got a lot of pleasure from that motor scooter for quite a long time.

A page from a 1957 Sears catalogue.

How my single parent mother, caring for three children on a nurse’s salary in our small town, managed to put the money aside to buy it still mystifies me. But she did, and I was ever grateful.

These memories are called to mind because United Methodist Communications is asking us to Rethink Advent and give the gift of ourselves rather than become engulfed in the material commercialism that so infects Christmas these days. It’s a worthy suggestion. Uncritical indulgence can lead us into financial problems, emotional letdown and buyer’s remorse. These don’t make us happy, they make us feel worse and leave us economically and emotionally bereft.

We do feel happier when we give of ourselves, and the feeling seems to affect us in multiple ways. We feel contentment and inner warmth. And we don’t experience buyer’s remorse.

Our relationship to things is directly connected to our sense of self-worth, our relationships with others and our beliefs about what things can or cannot do for our well-being. Things don’t replace, or even enhance, our relationships if those are not in good repair. They don’t buttress our flagging esteem if we’re depressed, fearful, or emotionally damaged.

To Rethink Advent is a good thing if we think critically about why we’re giving, how giving will enhance wellbeing, how it will affect us emotionally and financially. And perhaps it will help us discover that the best gift we can give is serving others and attending to those we love and those less advantaged.

I suspect the pleasure that comes as a result will rival any that I used to find in those mail order catalogs and last a lot longer.

I Am With You Always

Photo by Art McClanahan

We struggle to make sense of the senseless. Our hearts are broken. We ask why. We’re confused, frustrated, angry. We weep. We plead. We curse. We pray.

We do what we can to express our concern, to comfort the grieving, and we wonder.

The tragic death of innocents, whether in Newtown or Kabul, challenges us because we desperately want answers. And order. But there is no explanation.

On television this afternoon Dr. Drew repeated what many people say; that God needed more angels and he called the children and adults of Newtown home. It’s a well-meaning thought and one that seems to help many people through times like these.

What comforts me is the biblical teaching that God is available to us to hear our pain and absorb our anger. God’s availability provides us with comfort and strength. It does not comfort me to think that God is the cause of the pain, nor that God wills the death of innocents.

In a post a few months ago, I wrote about this.

God Did Not Create It a Chaos

In biblical teaching, God does not bring chaos upon us, the whole story of creation is about God bringing order out of chaos for our own good. Chaos, as Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us in his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is evil. It prevents us from believing in God’s goodness. God brought order and precision to the chaos so that we could enjoy the fruitfulness and goodness of creation.

In the earthy give and take, up and down relationship between God and the people Israel, Isaiah speaks a timeless message:

“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!)” (Isaiah 45:18-19 NRSV)

Without a predictable, reliable creation, life would be unbearable, utterly beyond meaning. We would literally live in the vortex of on-going chaos. Thus, when random events occur that interrupt the orderliness of our lives, as when a troubled individual causes the carnage that we mourn in Newtown our response is to ask why God did not step in to prevent it. Or we call upon God to reverse the terrible hurt that breaks our hearts and spirits. But to do this would be to deny the fundamental structure of the creation that gives us reliability. It would introduce yet more unpredictability and imperil its goodness.

You Are My People

Instead, we are told we are never separated from the love of God. That if we call upon God for strength and courage, God will be with us. “I am he who comforts you,” writes Isaiah (Isaiah 51:12) after calling the people Israel to task when they feared their oppressor. We are reminded that we are to reach out to each other in community to lend each other strength. And we pray to remember the goodness that remains in our lives, even as we ache for that which has been lost, and in prayer we are reassured.

“I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand, stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.'” (Isaiah 51:16)

I Am With You to the End of the Age

Christians believe that in Jesus, God entered into our sorrow and grief, taking upon God’s own self our brokenness and pain, as well as our hopes and joys. “I am with you always, to end of the age,” Jesus said. (Matthew 28:18) The belief that God is with us is the heart of Christian faith.

The Apostle Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38,39)

In these affirmations, we find the strength to overcome the pain of unbearable loss when it seems beyond our human capacity. We find ourselves and our place in the universe. We form the community that helps us get through the struggle. We glimpse the hope for a brighter future in the midst of this disordered time, the vision to see life as purposeful and overflowing with possibilities, and the nurturing that gives us stability when we are brought so low that we cry to God, “Where are you? Why, O God, why?”

“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:14,16)

Philippines Central Conference Connects Globally

Communicators streamed the Philippines Central Conference using four cameras, switcher and realtime social media

I’m told it wasn’t the first time the Philippines Central Conference has been streamed live on the web, but it was the first time a full crew of communicators used four camera and a switcher to produce the conference for the web. In any case, the Philippines, one of the most active nations in social media, was able to view the full plenary sessions of the conference that was slated to elect three bishops.

When I turned on my iPad in the church sanctuary where the conference was held, forty bluetooth devices appeared in my settings. It should come as no surprise. Filipinos send a billion text messages a day and according to one website it could be even more. More than 75% of Filipinos are active in social media with 28 million registered users on Facebook.

Among Facebook users, 52% are females from age 18-24 followed closely by users 25-34. Three of the top four cities for The United Methodist Church Facebook page are in the Philippines.

What this will mean for the faith communities in the Philippines is only not yet clear. But these media, and this media engagement will likely have similar effects upon Filipinos that it has had on other peoples around the world: buffeted by a flood of commercial messages delivered through digital media, phone calls replaced by text messages, better informed, empowered individuals.

As I watched the young volunteers running webcast, I was impressed by their skills and energy. They were learning on the fly, but they were producing a professional product. Despite some technical difficulties (the roof of the church sanctuary was metal and it interfered with the walkie talkies they used to communicate remotely), they adapted and managed the live feed with great skill.

The story is very similar around the world. The church exists in a new media landscape that gives us the ability to tell our story globally, communicate instantaneously and reach more people than ever before. If we recognize this and utilize these media strategically and with theological care, it is a time of unprecedented opportunity to bring the values of the Christian faith to a hurting and broken world.