Monday, March 20, 2017

Healthcare: Right or Responsibility?

The debate in this country about healthcare insurance has been going on for decades.  And recently it has come to my attention that for many people it boils down to a simple binary.  Healthcare is seen by some as a responsibility, and by others as a right. 

On one side, it is said that each and every person should take primary responsibility for his or her own healthcare and the necessary financial provisions that make that possible.  Most folks on that side of the debate are willing to exempt children, although they would, most likely, argue that each child's parents are responsible for the care of their own child.

On the other side there are those who say, healthcare should be the right of every citizen.  Each and every citizen in this country should be able to expect high quality healthcare, provided for by the government.  Many on this side of the argument would even extend that right to those who are not citizens of our nation, but merely residents.

Like most binaries, I think such black and white thinking tends to polarize rather than clarify.  The answer to our nation's healthcare dilemma must lie somewhere between the two.  Or maybe, even better, in a combination of the two.  Does seeing something as a right automatically rule out personal responsibility?  Of course not!  I have the right to vote, but I also have the responsibility to exercise that right.  I have the right to speak freely about any subject I wish, but I also have the responsibility to use that right in ways that advance the common good.

Rights and responsibility are not mutually exclusive!  So how can we craft a system that makes quality healthcare accessible to all, and yet which encourages, fosters, personal responsibility?  The answer to that question, I suspect, is the answer to our dilemma.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Poem a Day

I've taken up a new discipline to go along with my Bible reading, and prayer and meditation.  I am reading a poem a day.  Right at the moment I am working my way through
a volume of poems by Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States.

It all happened because one day in doing some research for a sermon I came across an exquisite poem, which really prompted me to stop and think about its meaning--and ultimately about meaning in general.  I realized, as much as a love poetry (I have quite a few volumes of it), as much as I enjoy writing poetry (I've even had a poem or two published), I just don't read enough of it.  So I vowed to begin.  I'd always wanted to read some more Collins--so I went out and purchased one of his books, and began to read through it.  A poem a day.

I suspect we would all do well to read a poem a day.  I know, some people just don't like poetry.  And others feel they never "get it".  But I'm not sure most poets want you to "get it".  I suspect most poets want you to simply experience their poems.  Live into them, so to speak.   After all, good poems invite the reader to engage with the words, the ideas, even the implied silences.  Good poems invite you to pause . . . to think . . . to feel . . . to be.

Here's the wonderful irony of it all for me at the moment.  I am co-teaching a course which includes a look at Emily Dickinson.  And I just discovered Collins has a poem called "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."  It is something of an inside joke--while at the same time, offering some wonderful images.  And when Collins writes, "What I can tell you is/it was terribly quiet in Amherst/that Sabbath afternoon . . ." you can hear a pin drop!  A hair pin that is.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Grandmothers to the Rescue: A Gustatory Proposal

Enoteca Maria.  In Italian it literally means "Maria's wine repository".  But enoteca can also mean "restaurant" or "bistro."  In particular, Enoteca Maria is a restaurant on Staten Island owned by Joe Scaravella, and named for his mother.  I've never been there, but I read about it in this past Sunday's New York Times, and I am intrigued!

As the name implies, it is an Italian restaurant.  Well--sort of.  Half the menu (the permanent half of the menu) is indeed made up of classic Italian dishes.  All overseen by Adelina Orazzo, a sixty-one year old transplanted Neapolitan. 

But the other half of the menu changes every day, as a rotating group of grandmothers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, fashion their own menus and prepare the dishes that they feature.  They come from Sri Lanka, and Japan, and Russia and Poland.  Some speak English, others are very limited.  But all of them take great joy and pleasure in preparing the foods that have comforted generations of folks in their homelands.  So one night you might have a choice of lasagna or gyoza and shrimp dumpling soup.  Another night, it might be ravioli or curried lamb. 

I'm intrigued, not just from an epicurean perspective, but also because of the fact that Scaravella says the grandmothers are learning from one another.  "They can't be jealous," he says, because they're from two different world . . . The only thing they can say is 'Oh, how did you do that?' . . .  There's an exchange of culture and stories ands recipes."  (New York Times, 3-5-17) 

So here's my idea.  Instead of leaving international diplomacy to the professional politicians and diplomats, why not convene a conference of grandmothers?  Why not put them all in a huge industrial kitchen and set them to work cooking up a plan for peace.  Maybe we can learn something from them.  And worse case scenario, a la Babette's feast, we'll have one heck of a fine meal!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Credible Fear

I heard a new term this morning--new to me that is.  "Credible fear."  Its used by those who vet potential refugee immigrants when they are trying to enter this country and are claiming they have a legitimate reason to be afraid to return to their own country.  A credible fear.

I got to thinking about that and began to wonder who are the people these days who have credible fears?  After all, we seem to be driven by fear in many of our actions.  Those who support the current administration, those who don't.  Those who protest, those who don't.  Fear seems to be rampant.

Blue collar workers who have lost their jobs due to the exporting of manufacturing to overseas locations and who are concerned about finding new employment.  Do they have a credible fear?

Person who are currently covered under the Affordable Care Act, who have pre-existing conditions and are worried that repealing s-called Obamacare without replacing it will result in a lack of insurance coverage.  Do they have a credible fear?

Parents of young black boys who feel the need to sit them down for "the talk" so that they will not run the risk of provoking arrest or worse.  Do they have a credible fear?

Police officers who deal tentatively with certain people because they are concerned they might be labeled as racist.  Do they have a credible fear?

Trangendered folks who see the whole bathroom controversy as just the beginning of what may become an increasingly hostile atmosphere.  Do they have a credible fear?

Proponents of one man, one woman, who see same-gender marriage as undermining a sacred institution.  Do they have a credible fear?

I suppose how you answer each of these may have something to do with where you stand on the liberal to conservative continuum.  But here's a thought.  What if we simply accepted the fact that a lot of people, on all sides of every issue, are running scared these days?  Wouldn't that make us a bit more compassionate?  A bit more willing to listen, and then find solutions?

On the Christian liturgical calendar, this past weekend we marked Transfiguration Sunday.  I won't go into details here (you can read the Biblical story for yourself in Matthew 17:1-9) but when Peter, James and John experience an overwhelming vision they are paralyzed by fear.  In terror they fall to the ground, not even able to look up.  But Jesus comes over to them and says, "Get up and don't be afraid."  

Maybe that's how we need to approach one another in these challenging times.  maybe we need to remind one another that we are not alone in all of this.  That God is with us, and we are in it together.  And while there are real issues that need real solutions, we can only address them if collectively we let go of fear, look up, get up, and then do what needs to be done to make this a better nation, a better world, for everyone.

(Image:  Edvard Munch, "The Scream")

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Niemoller Was Right

Martin Niemoller was a U-boat commander during World War I and a loyal German citizen.  Following the war after a brief time as a farmer, he attended seminary and was ordained as a Luther pastor. 
When things started falling apart in the Weimer Republic he supported those who opposed the regime in hopes of a revived Germany.  And to that end he supported Hitler and the National Socialists in the early years of their rise to power.  But in time, especially after Hitler issued regulation after regulation, stripping away the rights, and eventually the humanity of Jews, Niemoller began to have second thoughts.  He formed a pastors' organization to fight the discrimination against Christians with Jewish backgrounds.  And then took a step further, joining the Confessing Church, an organization that fought against the Nazi party in a number of ways.
Niemoller's preaching against the party did not go unnoticed, and 1937 he was arrested by the Gestapo.  Initially released, he was rearrested and ended up spending eight years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau. 

While in prison, Niemoller wrote a poem, which is his best known legacy:

            First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out--

            Because I was not a Communist.

            Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--

            Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

            Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--

            Because I was not a Jew.

            Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak out.

 For Niemoller, it was a hard learned lesson--the horrors of the holocaust didn't happen overnight.   They happened before, and they can happen again.  And while it may or may not be Jews who are endangered, while it may or may not be homosexuals, or persons with disabilities or political dissidents who are at risk, what matters is that we pay attention, and speak up when anyone is endangered--Muslims, women, young black men, anyone.

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are."  Certainly that was true for Martin Niemoller.  Despite all that was going on around him, it took some time before her realized the implications of what Hitler and his cronies were engaged in.  But once he did, he spoke up and spoke out.

Might we learn from history as well.

Monday, February 13, 2017


Everything old is new again--or so they say.  And certainly the theology being presented in Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell's book The Divine Dance illustrates that very point.  Which is not to say it is shopworn or boring or simply repetitive.  Rather, it is to acknowledge that their "take" on the Trinity reflects the writings not only of the scriptures themselves, but many early church writers.

To summarize the ideas put forth in the rather slim volume (as theological tomes go) in a sentence or two would be an injustice.  Yet there are core ideas that get reiterated in a variety of ways throughout the book.  Reminding us more than once that "all religious language is metaphor" (47)  Rohr and Morrell see the dance metaphor as a near perfect way to view the Trinity.  For the Trinity, they suggest, is all about "flow" and "relationship"--things that are found in dance.  "God is relationship itself," they write.  (45) 

There is something very appropriate about the fact that this volume is the product (if you will) of the work of two authors--not one.  Two authors in relationship.  Two authors working together.  Two authors engaging in a "word dance"--a phrase coined, I believe, by James Thurber.  Of course every published volume (other than some self-published works) is the result of relationships between authors and editors--but two named authors makes that even more explicit.

For Rohr and Morrell even the traditional names for the persons of the Trinity--Father, Son, Holy Spirit--become, as they put it "placeholders."  "The inner life of the Godhead," they state at one point, "this is a mystery that stretches language to the breaking point. . . . The all important thing is to get the energy and quality of the relationship between these Three--that's the essential mystery that transforms us."  (91)  Ultimately, understanding the Trinity is this fashion, the author posits, makes it possible for us to see how we can and do enter into the divine dance. 

No review can't begin to do justice to this simple, yet complex work.  Yes, that is paradoxical, even oxymoronic--but what relationship isn't?  The practices included at the end of the book can help to facilitate ones participation in the dance, but in the end, it isn't about reading or engaging in spiritual
practices, in the end, it is all about waltzing and twisting and quick stepping and more.  And Rohr and Morrell make great partners for those who wish to participate in the dance.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network.   I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part5 255.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Unity Not Uniformity

Mega-church pastor and author Rick Warren and I do not often agree on a number of issues.  But I recently rediscovered something he said in his bestselling self-help book The Purpose Driven Life which I found most helpful.  He writes:  "Christians often have legitimate, honest disagreements and differing opinions, but we can disagree without being disagreeable . . . . God expects unity, not uniformity, and we can walk arm-in-arm without seeing eye-to-eye on every issue."  (The Purpose Driven Life, 158)

I would broaden that out even further.  I would suggest people of faith in general can walk arm-in-arm without always seeing eye-to-eye.  Indeed, there are times when we can do that with people of no faith as well.  It is, whether Warren realizes it or not, a basic premise, so I understand , of community organizing.  We come together around particular issues, and work with those who share the common goal. 

Sometimes, I've discovered over my six plus decades, just walking arm-in-arm with someone helps me better understand their point of view when it comes to those different opinions.  Indeed, sometimes, I have changed my opinion, my understanding, as a result.  And sometimes others have changed their views.  But here's the trick, so to speak.  We walk arm-in-arm not to change others, but rather to live out the mandate to truly love and respect our neighbors.

"This doesn't mean you give up on finding a solution [to your disagreements]," writes Warren, You may need to continue discussing and even debating--but you do it in a spirit of harmony."  (Ibid)
Well said.