United Methodist Bishops Meet President Bush

A delegation of United Methodist bishops presented President George W. Bush with a leather-bound Bible today in a tradition that goes back more than 200 years. The Bible was signed by United Methodist bishops from around the world. the practice of giving Bibles to U.S. presidents began in 1789 with President George Washington.

Five representatives of the Council of Bishops, which is meeting this week in Washington DC, met with President Bush to talk with him about shared concerns and to express their commitment to working together for the future of a better world.

The bishops expressed appreciation for the cordial welcome they received from President Bush, and said they felt the visit was an important step in continuing to build a relationship for working together.

“We wanted him to know that we are praying for him, and that we share with him the commitment for a better world. We are looking forward to finding ways to work together on common issues such as AIDS in Africa,” said Bishop Peter D. Weaver, President of the Council of Bishops and Bishop of the Boston episcopal area.

The delegation included officers of the Council of Bishops, as well as bishops from the Metropolitan Washington, DC area. Accompanying Bishop Weaver were “Bishop Janice Huie of the Houston area, president-designate; Bishop Ernest S. Lyght of the West Virginia area, secretary; Bishop John R. Schol of the Baltimore-Washington area and Bishop Charlene Kammerer of the Richmond area.

After their meeting with President Bush, the bishops also participated in a meeting with other religious leaders to talk about world concerns.

Religion and Politics

A few years ago when there was an organized left and a smaller and less organized right it was often said that religious people should stay out of politics. Religion and politics don’t mix. It was evangelical leaders who promoted this message.

They spoke out of genuine belief that faith is not something that can be contained in a political wrapper. They believed the central mission of the Christian was to make disciples, individual by individual. They were suspicious of government intervention in the affairs of religious organizations. And they felt, I suspect, marginalized in the majority culture.

Today, the situation is almost totally reversed. There really isn’t a left in the traditional sense. I think it’s a misnomer to call moderates “left.” The landscape of Cold War categories doesn’t apply to contemporary social and political realities on the ground, at least not in the United States. Those who call the leadership of the mainline churches leftist today are simply mischaracterizing those leaders, in my opinion. There is no leftist, radical voice advocating change by taking to the streets, tearing down institutions and upsetting the social order today as was the case in the sixties.

Neither are there theoretical frameworks advocating for socialism or state capitalism coming from the the left. That form of sixties radicalism has either been co-opted, marginalized or abandoned. Those who in former times would have been known as moderates or progressives are called leftists by some today, but, that doesn’t make it so. As I view the leaders I’ve seen in mainline religious groups, they don’t have a leftist agenda, nor any political agenda.

A few have called the federal budget a moral statement. Surely, that’s not a radical position. A few have called for social justice for the poor and vulnerable, but within existing public policies, and that’s not a radical position. It’s simply calling for critical review of priorities about how we expend national and state resources. I can’t figure out why this is viewed as politically unacceptable. It’s a fundamental part of the democratic process.
At most, those who advocate this position say that our values should inform our decisions about how we spend our money. That is hardly radical.

If I step back from the super-heated rhetoric of James Dobson and others who share his views, and look dispassionately at the religious landscape, I see a great moderate middle that is not prone to taking extreme positions from any direction. And if we are to believe the Barna Group’s polling over the past ten years, it confirms that there has not been significant shift in the religious landscape. Evangelicals still account for approximately 7% of the religious population, as they did ten years ago. Other groups have waxed and waned slightly, but not by precipitous change. National elections have hinged on razor thin margins. Votes in the General Conference of The United Methodist Church reveal a consistency that is tenuous at best. If a mere 10% of delegates changed their votes on some of the most contentious issues the church faces, the outcome would be very different. That’s not a church caught up in the grips of extremists on any side.

So, I see more reason to hope than to be discouraged. We need to keep hope alive. And we need to stay in dialogue

The Difficulty of Dialogue

As an interviewer I learned early on that an individual sharing a story with me is engaging in a relationship of trust. Trust is a two-way street. The person must trust that I will tell his or her story as truthfully and accurately as possible. I generally was not engaged in investigative or political reporting in which other dynamics come into play.

If an interview is a relationship, however brief, it demands respect for the other person, give-and-take, a basic commitment to truth and a commitment to discover the full context of the individual’s story. I’m probably leaving out some essential components of this relationship, but the point is, communication at this level, if it is to have depth, requires respect and trust. Authentic communication is fundamentally about mutuality.

If I got God
on my side,
what’s a Microsoft?
What’s a Microsoft?
It’s nothing.
–Rev. Ken Hutcherson

This thinking comes about because two stories I’ve been watching are receiving treatment today in major media. One is the conversation between officials at Microsoft and a local pastor who opposes anti-discrimination legislation in Washington state designed to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. He’s outspoken as the quote from the New York Times illustrates. There is no room for dissent, “misbehavior,” or subtlety. It’s apparently his way or the highway.

The story has been reported for several weeks. Microsoft has shifted positions. It is taking a neutral position on the legislation and the pastor claims credit.

A second is the struggle at Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also widely reported, that pits the chairman against some of the executive leadership. He claims liberal bias in program content, a long-standing complaint by the right against PBS and National Public Radio.

In this debate the issue being raised is balanced and objective reporting of all sides. It is, of course, a legitimate concern. What leads one to be slightly suspicious is the partisan environment, the connections to political appointments in government and the use of staff who have had partisan jobs to conduct the content review.

But at the heart of it is the lack of mutuality. The public dialogue today isn’t really a dialogue for some. It’s a shouting match or an exercise in bullying. If we continue down the road we’re on–shouting and bullying–the quality of our community life is damaged, the quality of our national conversation is notched downward to slogans and braggadocio and our ability to live in mutually respectful ways is undermined. What we need is a higher commitment to dialogue.

Spending Money and Social Relationships

Victorian evangelicals
believed in an
orderly universe
and saw the
economy as
the fulfillment
of God’s plan.
–Gordon Bigelow

The last couple of days I’ve been part of a conversation in which a small group attempted to understand what the words “health and wholeness” mean.

Of course there are dictionary definitions that define health as the physical state of the body. But health–a healthy life–is much more.

And that gets to the meaning of the word wholeness. What exactly does it mean to speak of wholeness, as when we strive to live a “whole” life? These questions are not just philosophical exercises removed from the realities of everyday living. In a time when more people are reporting increased levels of stress, less time with their families, greater pressures to increase performance at work and striving to achieve the “American Dream,” these questions take on particular connection to day-to-day life.

We live our days in a culture in which extraordinarily well-funded, creative and competitive forces seek to attract us to buy, and then buy more. Consumption is reinforced by the culture and it’s remarkably strong reinforcement. The culture of consumption has become our way of life.

Gordon Bigelow makes an intriguing case that evangelical Christianity is at the root of the idea of economic free markets in his article in the May issue of Harper’s, “Let There Be Markets.” (As I write this it has not been posted on the web, so I can’t link to it, however, it’s available on newsstands.

Victorian evangelicals believed in an orderly universe and saw the economy as the fulfillment of God’s plan, Bigelow says. This put the emerging theory of economics into an individualism that it has never escaped from. What is missing from the economic view of modern life “is an understanding of the social world.”

The great weakness of traditional economics, Bigelow says, is its reliance on the belief that individuals make decisions to buy things based on their own individual choice. This is rooted in evangelical theology which greatly influenced free market advocates in the 1820’s who needed moral justification for their own wealth and the stark suffering of the poor. This was the era of industrial transition that is chronicled by Charles Dickens.

With this foundation, Bigelow says economic theory embedded individual choice as a foundation. But we don’t live as individuals. We live in a modern community that is buffeted with hundreds of thousands of messages, with cultural values and with class affectations that all bear down on us when we make economic decisions.

we buy things
partly based on
who we are,
but at the
same time we
believe that
buying things
makes us who
we are and
might make us
into someone
–Gordon Bigelow

Thorstein Veblen said in the 1890s that consumption and work are carried out within boundaries set by class and culture. But this has not penetrated economic analysis, probably because it doesn’t serve the purposes of traditional economists, nor those who benefit from the myth that wealth is the reward for individual acumen and hard work.

This view of why we buy actually distorts us as human beings, and that is the connection I see to the definition of wholeness. Bigelow says “we buy thing partly based on who we are, but at the same time we believe that buying things makes us who we are and might make us into someone different.” This excludes the better part of us, as Bigelow writes, the part that makes us human; our social interactions and our irrational desires. It excludes our inner spirit and our outward-reaching spiritual concern. It excludes our understanding of ourselves as created for sacred purpose in a creation that is the work of a loving God. It excludes our understanding of responsibility for each other, and it leaves us alone as individuals rather than included as parts of vital, encompassing communities.

In short, we are more than consumers. Consumption cannot make us whole. We are more than our plastic can buy.

New Media and the Decline of Old Media

To many Americans,
today?s newspaper is
irrelevant, and network
news is as compelling
as whatever is
being offered over
on the Home
Shopping Network.
Maybe less.
–Terry Eastland

New media are threatening the power and dominance of old media. This isn’t a new story, but analysis about why it’s the case is sparse. Most writing on the new media is still written from a point of view that seems to be either gee whiz promotion or by those who are discovering it for the first time.

Terry Eastland provides an overview that explains how the new media are replacing the old, and why. It’s a good summation of what is happening and offers a clear historical perspective of the growth of the elite mainline media and their humbling decline today.

The divide between
publishers and the
public is collapsing.
This turns mass
media upside down.
It creates media
of the masses.
–Stephen Baker
Heather Green

BusinessWeek writers Stephen Baker and Heather Green explain why blogs are necessary for businesses and how major corporations are using the blogosphere.

They also say that blogs are not like the dotcom bubble that burst because it had no substance. Blogs will continue, they say, because they are in the hands of “masses of people with computers, no budget, no business plan, no burn rate…and no bubble.”

The most striking statement is the role the web is beginning to play in the lives of everyday people. Blogs are a public connection. Constantly changing. Ever updating. “They create a global conversation.” Baker and Green say blogs track what’s on our minds. This is the exciting thing.

Not so exciting is their claim that big companies have scale that individual bloggers don’t have, and therefore, the ability to reach niche audiences in a targetted way unavailable in mass media. What’s not exciting about this to me is the absorption of blogs as yet another tool for the self-serving ends of corporations. Yet another form of advertising.

However you feel about this, both articles present a clear and compelling case; blogging is redefining media. Blogging is not only making history, blogging is changing the global conversation.

Can We Talk?

John Richard Neuhaus asked in a rhetorical aside last night on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer if a national conversation is possible on the issue of the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the civic community to protect those rights. He was part of a panel dissecting the Terri Schiavo story.

A national conversation is occurring about these complicated matters of personal rights, legal protections, moral obligations, ethical considerations and the role of government. It’s a healthy conversation.

I’ve read several printed comments on the web and find the level of thought in the printed media to be, for the most part, insightful and notably balanced. That’s encouraging.

The television coverage, on the other hand, reveals conflict and extreme opinions that don’t leave me hopeful that the conversation can be conducted in a civil, constructive way.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the medium. Visual media need action. They are better at depicting conflict than unraveling subtlety. Thus, the conversation on television often degenerates into polemics.

In the television stories I’ve seen spokespersons for the various groups with agendas in this debate have made statements for impact. This doesn’t necessarily add to our understanding or move the conversation forward constructively.

Perhaps its the nature of the respective media that creates these results. Print results in more reflective, analytical processing of information. Visual media engage us in emotional identification and reaction.

Understanding this, and how different people use the media, may be a necessary survival skill if the debate about end-of-life decisions is to be conducted constructively. That means, to me, that I must take a step back and assess both the messenger and how the messenger is using the medium in order to evaluate the message adequately.

It’s very important to do this today in order to guard against manipulation and exploitation. There are those who have mastered the use of media and seek to manipulate and exploit us to achieve their own ends.

This is not a diatribe against the media. But I do think we who are witnessing this event through the media need to approach media coverage with a critical eye and, perhaps, even with a skeptical frame of mind.

As I write this, I am of the opinion that the national conversation that will be most constructive will occur in the reflective media, which are primarily print-based, and not in the visual media. Television is looking for the cryptic and sensational. This story requires more. It requires dissecting complex rights and responsibilities, moral positions and ethical behavior. Television isn’t good at this.

That said, I thought the News Hour provided us with a well-rounded discussion by people who were informed in end of life matters and who, while certainly opinionated, were civil. It presented a fuller range of opinion than I’ve seen on other programs.

I hope we can conduct this conversation in a manner that leads to constructive policies, if such are needed, and provides all of us with better information to prepare us for important decisions about our own lives and those of our loved ones.

I hope we rise above polemics and simplistic slogans and get to a conversation that does inform and enlighten.

Obsolete Schools, Declining Industries

“American high schools
are obsolete. By
obsolete, I don’t
just mean that
our high schools
are broken, flawed
and underfunded. …
By obsolete, I
mean that our
high schools – even
when they are
working exactly as
designed – cannot
teach our kids
what they need
to know today.
–Bill Gates

No matter where you turn today, it seems the basic institutions and organizations that have been the foundation of the society in this country are found to be wanting. Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, is concerned that our educational institutions are not preparing young persons with the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace.

While his point is that the educational system must teach skills that make youth more competitive in a global marketplace, there is another lesson there that isn’t about competition. It’s about the ability of an institution to help people function in new social and cultural realities.

That’s a much more challenging concern, it seems to me, because it’s about how we adapt to new conditions, conditions so fundamentally different from past eras that the institutions can’t keep up with the changes.

Managerial capitalism
has outlived the
society it was once
designed to serve.
It successfully achieved
the efficient production
of goods and services,
but today’s individuals
want more.
–James Maxmin
Shoshana Zuboff

Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin contend that managerial capitalism has outlived its effectiveness. They claim that newly empowered individuals demand more today than the old form of capitalism can deliver. The search for meaning and purpose is deeper and more complex than mass market capitalism can meet. They propose “deep support” services for a fee as the next generation of capitalism.

While Zuboff and Maxmin concentrate on consumption, their analysis–that people want more meaningful relationships is helpful. I’m don’t agree with them about consumption, but their analysis helps us to understand the society in which we live and how it is responding to human needs and desires. We can study it without accepting the premise that a more helpful form of consumption is the answer. In fact, more consumption isn’t the answer, but it’s all the marketplace can offer. The model is breaking down.

Not only are
our various civic
and religious structures
and systems in
in fundamental
disarray, but our
conceptual frameworks
are shattered too.
–Gary Gunderson

A compelling analysis from a faith perspective is found in Gary Gunderson’s book Boundary Leaders. Gunderson is a prophetic, even loving, voice critiquing the existing religious and civic structures. He’s not a harsh critic, he’s a product of the very institutions he’s concerned about. He says they are not only in disarray, they also lack the conceptual frameworks to function well today. They’ve fallen and they can’t get up.

Each critique offers its own suggestion for a way out of this dilemma. Gunderson’s is more attractive to me. His thesis is that boundaries are not limits, they are artificial lines that can become intersections where opportunity is found, if we see them in that way and work to intersect with those who are on the boundaries. The bad news is that established institutions can’t, on their own, make the change that is required to create new solutions to the long-term problems that plague us. New thinking is required and existing institutions get mired in thinking about how to survive.

The good news is that there are people working already at the edges. Gunderson calls them Boundary Leaders. Because they are free of institutional encumbrance, they can think new thoughts and create new solutions.

There is hope in each of these critiques. Each critic is holding up higher standards, better organizations, more effective relationships. None is criticizing merely for the sake of criticism. Each sees hope and is working on steps to get to a better place in the future. This is healthy criticism, and organizations that want to recover their vitality will do well to hear and enable change to start.

Health Facts–Did You Know?

Every major
developed nation
has achieved
universal coverage
while spending
one half to
two-thirds as
much per capita
as we do and
achieving health
outcomes at least
as good as ours
or better.
America does not
need more money
for health care.
We need a better
–Dr. Henry Simmons

Health and wholeness are moral and ethical issues that go far beyond economics and delivery of services. But the debate in this country bogs down in these two areas. Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times says entrenched interests have kept the current inefficiencies in the U.S. health care system because they profit from the present conditions. He also says this makes it enormously difficult to change.

On the face of it, the current system is broken and must be repaired. You don’t have to be an expert analyst to know this. Everyone one of us who has come up against the health care delivery system has experienced it. That’s why it’s so important. It’s a day-to-day part of our lives.

No one lives without coming into contact with it, and its problems. Therefore, it affects us in fundamental ways–our dignity, our use of resources, our sense of wholeness, our relationships, our ability to live a life of quality. We should have a system that includes everyone, and it should be carried out fairly and equitably. That’s a theological issue. It’s about justice. Justice is an expression of faith.

The National Coalition for Health Care offers these facts that, it seems to me, pertain to justice and the wholeness of life:

  • The number of uninsured rose by 1.4 million people between 2002 and 2003.
  • Approximately 45 million Americans, or 15.6 percent of the population, had no health insurance coverage in 2003.
  • Young adults (aged 18 to 24) remained least likely of any group to have health insurance in 2001. More than 28 percent of adults in this age group lack health insurance coverage.
  • Uninsured children face a higher risk of developmental delays than those with health coverage.
  • Uninsured adults hospitalized for a traumatic injury are more than twice as likely to die in the hospital as insured adults — even after controlling for the severity of the injury.
  • In 2001, the cost of medical care for uninsured Americans residents totaled $98.9 billion.
  • The United States spends about $35 billion per year to provide uninsured residents with medical care, often for preventable diseases that could be treated more efficiently with earlier diagnosis.
  • Americans spent 1.4 trillion dollars on health care in 2001.
  • The United States spend a greater portion of the gross domestic product on health care than any other industrialized nation.
  • Despite its high level of health care spending, the United States has a higher infant mortality rate than the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and Japan.
  • Americans use about 3 billion prescriptions each year.
  • On average, seniors spend about $2,300 on legal prescription drugs.
  • More people die in a given year from medical errors than from automobile accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS.
  • Twenty-two percent of sick adults in America were sent for duplicate tests by different health care professionals in the last two years.
  • In 2002, twelve percent of sick American adults reported receiving the wrong medication or dose by a hospital, doctor, or pharmacist in the last two years.
  • All “Did you know?” facts can be found under the “Facts About Health Care” section of the website of the National Coalition on Health Care .

The Health Care Crisis

Frankly, the
problems of
our health
care system
have become
so large,
so serious,
and so pervasive
that they
are beyond
the ability
of any one
no matter
how large
or shrewd,
to overcome.
–Dr. Henry Simmons,
National Coalition
on Health Care

“We are in very serious trouble. And unless our political leaders act quickly, our problems will become even more severe,” Dr. Henry Simmons, President of the National Coalition on Health Care , told the members of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church recently. He was addressing the national health care crisis.

The nonpartisan coalition, whose members include Verizon, Pfizer, Lucent, Georgia-Pacific, the AFL-CIO and the National Council of Churches, among many others, believes health care reform must occur quickly and comprehensively in order to stave off even worse conditions than we already face.

Dr. Simmons told the GBCS that rapidly escalating costs, a huge and growing number of citizens without health coverage and an epidemic of substandard care threaten our health, our national economy and our industrial base. The coalition projects 53.7 million will be uninsured in five years. Today 45 million are without health coverage, an increase of more than 10 million in two years time.

Every 30
in the U.S.
files for
in the
of a
–Prof. Elizabeth Warren
Harvard Law School

The economic toll in this escalating crisis is both personal and systemic, undermining individuals, governments and corporations. Every 30 seconds someone in the U.S. files for bankruptcy in the aftermath of a serious health problem, according to Professor Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School. Dr. Simmons told the group “the projected liability of Medicare alone (excluding Medicaid) is $27 trillion in 75 years, eclipsing the projected deficit for Social Security which is estimated at $3.7 trillion by the Comptroller General of the U.S. , David M. Walker

Simmons said uninsurance results in staggering economic losses. Citing figures from the Institute of Medicine, he said total economic losses attributable to uninsurance amount to between $65 billion and $130 billion a year.

He said substandard care is also a result of the current system. Reviewing the findings of a RAND study that reviewed thousands of patients in 12 metropolitan areas, he told the group the study found that patients received on 54.9 percent of recommended care.

Simmons said the health care crisis is not beyond solutions but reform must be systemic, it must be implemented systemwide, and it must be accomplished quickly (within three years.)

The National Health Care Coalition calls for five measures to solve the crisis:

  • coverage for all Americans within 2-3 years after passage of enabling legislation;
  • manage costs more effectively through a core benefit package and transparent supplemental coverage;
  • accelerate development of an integrated national information technology infrastructure and incentives and capital for upfront investments to build infrastructure;
  • reduce or eliminate cost-shifting (charging one patient more to cover costs for what another patient doesn’t pay);
  • simplify administration of health care.
  • The most hopeful thing Simmons told the Board members is that despite the enormity of the problem, it can be solved if we are determined, comprehensive and committed.

How Health Care Costs are Changing Ministry

In recent
months, GM
officials have
said soaring
health care
spending has
the leading
the automaker?s
–The Detroit News

General Motors attributes some of its current problems to the rising costs of health care for workers. The company says $1,400 of the cost of each car it makes goes to pay health care costs. That’s not the whole reason for GM’s difficulties, of course, but it’s significant that the company sees health care as a contributing factor

It’s not being discussed in these terms yet, but health care costs are also contributing to the re-shaping of ministry in many mainline denominations. Those denominations such as mine, The United Methodist Church, with many small local congregations–roughly 25,000 in our communion–are seeing personnel costs increase so rapidly they threaten placement of seminary-trained clergy.

My point here is not to debate whether this is a good or a bad thing. I have no axe to grind in this debate. But, it seems to me decisions about the quality of education and professional skills we want in our pastoral leaders should be made based on solid theological and biblical discussion and not on economic necessity. Economics should not dictate how the church carries out ministry.

the health
system is
a health
–Barbara Ehrenreich

However, when health care costs increase by double digits as they have for the past several years, that’s exactly what happens. The costs of maintaining full-time clergy become too burdensome for small membership congregations to sustain. They reduce costs by moving to part-time clergy leadership, lay pastors and the placement of a group of pastors defined in our denomination as “local pastors.” Often, these are persons who have full-time jobs and function as pastors in addition to their first vocation.

They are highly dedicated and often skilled in multiple disciplines. However, they face time constraints which limit their ability to seek seminary training in the disciplines that have historically been considered important for effective ministry–church history, Bible study, theology, and religious education. They are unlikely to pursue clinical pastoral education and other forms of specialized skill development because these require a time commitment they can’t make.

I came into the ministry through this route and I’m especially sensitive to the extraordinary demands that confront an individual who is trying to work full-time, serve the needs of a local congregation and complete a course of study leading to licensing and, ultimately, ordination.

costs are
sucking the
blood out
of the
–Barbara Ehrenreich

Moreover, these individuals usually function without the community support of other clergy because they can’t attend group meetings except during their few off-hours. They do course work for ministry through correspondence. Thus, they function without benefit of professional support and pursue knowlege outside of an educational community while attempting to meet the considerable demands that dual vocations, family and congregations place upon them.

What does this have to do with health care? My denomination is sliding into this pattern not through a conscious, planned strategy, but by default. It’s the result of adaption to economic circumstances driven by health care costs.

Barbara Ehrenreich says in the LA Times that health care costs are sucking the life out of the economy of the United States. If General Motors and The United Methodist Church are both experiencing economic constraints because of health care, why, for Pete’s sake, isn’t someone doing something about it? Neither of these is a small business lacking in the resources to tackle a problem that is fundamentally changing them. You would think they’d rather be in control of their own destiny, in so far as possible, than to be in a reactionary posture that, basically, leaves them out of control.

I believe access to health care should be a universal human right. It should be beyond question that with the resources available to us in the 21st. Century that everyone should have access to prevention and treatment that make for physical health. But if that’s not enough reason to change our health care practices then the survival of our basic industries and institutions should be. We are at a point where that survival is put in jeopardy by runaway health care costs.

Rather than spurious debate about Social Security, we need to be problem-solving the health care crisis in this country.

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