Casting out Demons in Haiti

People are giving in all kinds of ways to relieve the suffering in Haiti.  Many are giving through their cell phones. Some are giving with credit cards through the websites of various relief organizations. Others are putting dollars into the offering plate at their places of worship.

The sad reality is that when all the millions of dollars are given and used to relieve the suffering in Haiti, Haiti will still be under crushing debt.  Centuries of exploitation and oppression have left Haiti an impoverished and indebted country.

Contributions to relief organizations are needed to help Haiti recover from this devastating earthquake.  Debt cancellation is what is needed to set Haiti free from the demons of greed and abuse that have haunted her for centuries. You can add your voice to those seeking justice for the poor and suffering of Haiti by signing this petition urging the cancellation of Haiti’s indebtedness.

You can be a part of casting out the demons that have tormented the least of these in Haiti.

Pat, don’t blame the Devil.

Often times, when something bad happens, God gets blamed for it. When something really bad happens, the devil gets blamed. The earthquake in Haiti has been attributed to a curse that resulted from a pact that the people of Haiti made with the Devil in their effort to gain their independence from France. While their is no evidence that such a pact was ever made, the history of Haiti is certainly one marked by tragedy and turmoil.  The devil though is undoubtedly given too much credit in the matter.

The devil was not responsible for the nearly complete annihilation of the islands original inhabitants one hundred years or so after Christopher Columbus first landed their in 1492.

The devil did not import and enslave Africans to provide the labor for the islands coffee and sugar plantations

When Haiti won independence from France in 1804, the Devil did not cause the United States to wait until 1862 to recognize Haiti as an independent and sovereign nation. The idea of nation born of a revolution led entirely by African slaves was too much for a still slave-owning America too acknowledge much less figure out how to relate to diplomatically.  President Thomas Jefferson argued that it was best to “confine the plague to the island.”

The devil did not demand that the new nation of Haiti make reparations to the tune of 150 million gold francs (roughly 21.7 billion in today’s dollars) this insuring that Haiti would always be a debtor nation.

The list of events and actions that have impacted Haiti’s history not perpetrated by the devil could go on and on.  Centuries of exploitation and oppression from other nations and from brutal dictators has caused Haiti to appear to be cursed.  The spiritual principle that seems to be tragically at work in the nation of Haiti is that of sowing and reaping.  From the first European to the last dictator, the seeds of justice and mercy have found few places to take root in Haiti. Yet, exploitation, corruption and cruelty have sprouted like so many weeds in a wet, hot summer after wet, hot summer.

Today the people of Haiti need blessing not cursing. They need blessing not just for the enduring and surviving of this latest tragedy, they need blessing for the tragedies of centuries that have left them worn, weary and appearing cursed.  May God’s grace and mercy be may evident to them by both the deeds and the words of those who profess to know God.

A Hungry Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  The memories of long ago gatherings of family, food, and football at my grandparents’ house are some of my fondest.  These days we go to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, trying to give to our children their own memories. This year, we are breaking our tradition of frying the turkey.  My brother-in-law wants to try to smoke it.  I feel a new memory in the making.

Recalling fond memories and making new ones is not all that makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.  In fact, memories take second place to the reminder that Thanksgiving gives to us to be, well, thankful.  While every day is filled with opportunities to give thanks, this holiday gives us a chance to slow down and take a whole day to reflect and be grateful.  Nurturing gratitude in our lives moves us toward a more mature walk with the Lord.  Gratitude in the face of adversity often indicates a life that is resting in God’s grace.

Some of you may remember me telling the story that my Uncle John told of my grandmother making biscuits and gravy with water and flour for supper when he was a boy.  She did that because that was all that she had to put on the table.  He will always remember that time, and I will always remember his telling of it.  For me, it is a story, not a memory.  I have no memory of times being that hard.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I recall that story.  Rather, it comes to me, not as if I have to exert any effort to think of it.  When I think of things I am thankful for, I cannot help but be grateful that the biscuits I ate at grandmother’s table were always made with milk — buttermilk if she had it — and she often did.   Even more so, I am grateful that my children do not have such memories.

Not all children are so fortunate.  A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that a record number of families had difficulty obtaining sufficient food at some time last year.  The number of people living in U.S. households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition rose to 49 million people in 2008.  That is 13 million more than in 2007.

On a global scale, the number of hungry people is staggering. The United Nations reports that more than a billion people face starvation.  That number represents an increase of about 100 million people over last year.

In the face of such need, I am grateful not just for the basic blessing of food and shelter, but also for the many people and organizations who work every day to alleviate the suffering caused by hunger and hunger-related illnesses.  Many of those people and organizations are motivated by their commitment to Jesus Christ and His teachings.  Some of those people are missionaries that we support in this country and around the world.  They do what they do as an expression of their faith in and dedication to the life and teachings of the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto to me.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to remember and to be grateful.  It is also a perfect time for followers of Christ to recommit themselves to living, giving, and following so that the least of these might also have reason to be thankful.

Blanket Blessings

Dr. Roy Honeycutt, then president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was at Carson-Newman College to preach a campus revival during my senior year.  I remember very little of what he said except that in one service, he did preach from the 28th Chapter of Isaiah.  The verse that has stuck with me all these years is verse 20: “The bed is too short to stretch out on, the blanket too narrow to wrap around you.”  I think this verse has stuck with me because it is just so very true.  What it is more uncomfortable than a bed that is too short, unless it is a blanket that is too narrow.  What is more pleasant than a comfortable bed and warm blanket on a cold night?

We cannot ponder such a question without being mindful of the many people who do not regularly, if ever, enjoy the simple pleasure of a comfortable bed and warm blanket.  I was recently reminded of those who have no place to sleep and no blanket to keep them warm while watching the trailer for the upcoming movie about the life of Michael Oher, The Blind Side. Oher grew up on the streets of Memphis, literally raising himself.  In the clip from the movie, Oher’s adoptive mother is getting him settled into his new bedroom.  He says, “I never had one.”  She says, “A room of your own?”  He says, “A bed.”  The young man had never had a bed of his own.

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To be without bed or blanket is a hard thing, especially when you consider that one of the things that we all have to do every day is to sleep. To have to sleep in less than restful conditions is not really rest at all.  The prophet Isaiah creates just such an uneasy picture to describe the relationship between God and those he is preaching to.   For those who have strayed from their covenant with God, life is as unpleasant and as frustrating as a night spent in a bed too short, trying to stay warm with a blanket too narrow.  This is what life will be for those who led Israel to excessive indulgence and away from justice and mercy.

A blanket is a small thing unless you don’t have one when one is needed.  A blanket given may seem like an insignificant gift, but to receive a blanket when one is cold is no small thing.  Neither is it a small thing to give a blanket in the name of Jesus.  In so doing, followers of Christ put flesh on the idea that the church is the body of Christ.  The church being the presence of Christ in a world full of restless people, that all too often ignore their worn out souls, that have found no rest in a bed too short with a blanket too narrow, means offering a different way of ordering life.  Giving a blanket to someone who is cold becomes both an act of faith and a word of testimony.  It is an act of faith in the life and teachings of Jesus.  It says that we believe that if he taught us to pray “. . .thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven…” then we believe that it is coming.

Giving expresses that belief and bears witness to it.  God is at work in our world and God has invited us to join in the work of announcing the reign of God in our lives and in our world.  Whether we are giving blankets to the homeless in our city, dollars to send workers to the uttermost parts of the world, or our prayers for the peace of neighbors near and far, we are bearing witness to the reality of the coming of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is coming. Let us give ourselves to it cheerfully and sacrificially so that the presence of Christ might be made real in a world that grows colder each day.  Let us live in the light of his love showing the way with our words and actions, the way to warmth and rest.

Health Care and Abortion: Coercion or Compassion?

A Public Religion Research poll released in September indicates that 83% of conservative religious activists identified abortion as the most important issue on which to focus their energy. At the same time, only six percent of conservative religious activist identified universal health care coverage as an important issue.

This disparity in concern between universal health care and abortion among conservative religious activists raises some interesting questions when one considers that Belgium and the Netherlands have two of the lowest abortion rates in the world and also universally provide extensive pre- and post-natal health care for mothers and children. As Glenn Stassen pointed out in 2005, “Belgium and Holland have the lowest abortion rates in the world (6.8 and 6.5 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 1996, compared with 22.9 in the U.S). This is because, though abortion is legal, those countries provide strong support for mothers and babies. By contrast, countries in Latin America, where abortion is illegal but mothers are not well supported, have among the highest abortion rates.”
(The Christian Century) February22, 2005

Whether or not the intention of the universal coverage in those countries was to bring about a lower rate of abortions, it would seem to be a least one of, if not, the major factor in contributing to such a low rate of abortions. So I wonder wouldn’t it be worth a try? Maybe universal health care in the United States would not reduce the rate of abortions to the levels found in Belgium and Holland, but wouldn’t any reduction be better than no reduction or even an increase?

What really matters most in the abortion debate, that abortion be made illegal or that fewer abortions are actually performed? In Latin America where abortion is illegal except for in Cuba, the abortion rate is higher than in the United States. Making abortion illegal does not make it go away.

If laws will not stop abortion, perhaps compassion would at least reduce its frequency. People coerced to to good rarely do good for long. Compassion and care might just do what coercion and shouting have been unable to accomplish.

Salt and Peace

When I read Jesus’ words about stumbling, I cringe. For the person who causes a little one to stumble, he states emphatically that drowning would be a more pleasant consequence than whatever it is that will eventually befall such people. Then, with brutal bluntness, he declares that chopped off hands and feet and plucked-out eyes that have caused one to stumble are preferable to hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

His exaggerated language certainly grabs the attention even in a twenty-first century culture desensitized to violence and brutality. Why such graphic language to make his point? Maybe because it is an important point and he wants to make sure that we get it. So he says what he says, and we come away knowing that his overstated word choice is only a literary device to underscore the importance of his point. But still, there is a faint whisper somewhere in our head that wonders if maybe he really meant what he said just the way he said it.

Spiritually speaking, could we ever find ourselves in a situation similar to Aron Ralston? Ralston was the hiker who got his hand and forearm pinned beneath a boulder in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon. After five days of being trapped, he cut off his arm in order to save his life. No exaggeration, no hyperbole, he just did it because he realized that he was going to die if he did not do it.

While I am confident that Jesus does not intend for us to mutilate ourselves, I am just as certain that he does desire for us to handle our spiritual lives with a sense of urgency — to follow Christ as if what we do or do not do matters — knowing that in following him, we are making decisions that are a matter of life and death. We make our way in a world that is fraught with pits and snares eager to take from us the life that Christ has called us to.

After his vivid admonishment to separate ourselves from whatever would cause us to stumble, Jesus speaks of salt, and of being at peace with one another. What does it mean to have the salt in us that Jesus speaks of, and to be at peace with those around us?

I learned this week of the death of Chris Leggett. Chris was murdered on June 23, of this year in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Two days after his death, al-Qaeda issued a statement claiming responsibility for his death. Chris lived and worked there with his wife and four children. His job was to create learning opportunities for the poor in Mauritania’s capital and throughout the country. His work took him to prisons as he helped former inmates re-enter society. The training center where he worked taught people skills that would help them get jobs. The small business loan program that he directed impacted the lives of numerous people.

Chris grew up down the road in Cleveland, Tennessee. He attended First Baptist Church there, and graduated from Cleveland High School. He continued his education at Cleveland State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Chris walked in and around many of the same snares and pits that we have, yet he did not let them keep him from living the life to which Christ had called him. He was full of the salt of which Jesus speaks. He lived and died seeking to be the peace of Christ for those with whom he was sharing his life. May we each so flavor the lives that we touch as well as those that touch ours.

Why Say No to Universal Health Care? Part 3

The reasons just keep piling up. I can hardly keep track.

1. Because Cigna needs the 13.6% premium increase it will take to keep my policy in place in 2010 more than the uninsured people in our country.
2. Increased premiums and higher co-payments for the same level of coverage are preferable to being a part of system that provides equal access to all of our citizens.
3. I have no desire to live in the two additional houses that I could afford to pay for if for some reason I did not have to pay health insurance premiums.
4. The health insurance bureaucracy employees a good number of people. Think of all the claim deniers and coverage terminators that would be out of work if real reform were enacted. Better that they should have jobs than for us to pay lower premiums.
5. Likewise, doctors have to employ people to argue with the claim deniers in an effort to get them to pay for services that the policy is supposed to cover. These people earn their money. I would not want to reform the system in such a way that the important work they do was no longer needed.
6. In a similar vein, think of all the lobbyists that get paid with dollars generated by the payment of health insurance premiums to make sure that no laws get passed that would interrupt the continuous flow of those premium dollars. These folks have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. I would not want my desire for more reasonable premiums to negatively impact their chosen way of making a living.
7. Without sky high premiums, how could health insurance companies afford to make lucrative contributions to the campaign funds of members of congress? I am sure that there are no strings attached to such contributions. The health insurance companies probably realize that with the high cost of television advertising, those guys need all the money they can get when it is reelection time.
8. When I consider the number of career paths that are funded with the proceeds of health insurance premiums, I am proud to be making such a contribution to our robust economy. It would be heartless and unpatriotic to even consider reforming such a system. Frankly, I wonder if a 13.6% increase is enough to keep it going.
9. Emergency rooms have adapted to serving as a point of primary care for people without health insurance. Imagine how bored the people who staff emergency rooms would be if we had a health care system that provided primary care in less costly more efficient way to all of our citizens.
10. Finally, people who want reform often mention the poor, the working poor or the uninsured as their motivation for supporting health care reform. What about all the social service agencies that work to provide services to these people? What about the ministries, the community clinics and that sort of thing? What about the United Way? The point is there are already all sorts of resources out there for people who don’t have insurance. Most of the people who provide those resources find a great deal of satisfaction in helping people who are less fortunate. What would all those human service workers do if all of sudden their clients had access to health care? Think of the many rewarding experiences that might be denied this caring group of professionals if health care reform actually came to pass.

You may already be opposed to universal health care. If that is the case, then hopefully these points will only strengthen your resolve to resist changing the effective, efficient health care system that most all of us enjoy. However, if you are not convinced that universal health care is a bad idea, then move to Canada, Great Britain or Sweden. There you can have your universal health care and for some reason you will be statistically more likely to live longer. Go figure.

Health Care Reform? How about Manners Reform?

Being old and not from South Carolina until just a few a days ago I knew of neither Joe Wilson nor Kayne West. There names have now been linked together by their mutual lack of good manners. Wilson, a congressman and West, a musician have both behaved so poorly in recent days that rudeness has made the headlines. Wilson interrupted the president’s speech to call him a liar. West interrupted an award presentation to point that someone other than the recipient was more worthy of the award.

Miss Helen, my eighth grade American history teacher would have described such behavior as “rude, crude, impudent and socially unacceptable.” I know this to be to true because on more than one occasion I heard her describe far less ill mannered behavior with just those words. Yes, on one occasion it was my behavior that she was describing, but only once.

As pressing as the need for health care reform is in our country, the need for manners reform seems to be ever greater. Obviously, Kayne and Joe either did not have a teacher like Miss Helen or they failed to heed her words. Our country and our world would be better served if they had learned such lessons. We face serious problems. We are still at war in two countries. The economy is still struggling. Not only are an increasing number of Americans living below the poverty level but there is also an increasing number living without health insurance. Such issues will not be resolved with interruptions and insults. No, what we need are some well-mannered leaders willing to engage in polite and respectful dialogue.

I Have a Friend Who Knows a Rabbi Who is Talking about Health Care

My friend Michael Usey pastors College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the same city, Rabbi Fred Guttman serves Temple Emanuel. Michael recently called Fred’s post on the health care debate to my attention. The post says some things that need to be heard by everyone who wishes to engage in the debate in a helpful and responsible way.