Merry Incarnation!

The whole idea that God took on flesh, came to us and lived among us, has challenged the human ability to understand and comprehend since that first Christmas.  There are all kinds of questions and few, if any, answers.  Answers that give us a thorough explanation of the details of how the creator of human beings becomes a human are not forthcoming. Mystery is the word that the church has often used through the centuries to explain that which is beyond explanation.  That is what we say when we don’t know anything else to say.  Granted, it is no small thing to be able to look into the pages of scripture, the annals of history, or the faces of the living, and utter a single word in response to the unbelievable, the incredible or even, the unthinkable.

Faith is the gift that enables us to believe what we would not otherwise believe or consider.  It gently nudges us beyond the questions of how to look at why God did what God did.  John’s gospel tells us that it is love that moved God to come into our world with flesh and bone.  God loves us enough to come to where we live and experience life as we experience it.  Faith gives us the ability to know that we are loved and accepted by God.

What we should not allow faith to do is to distort the reality in which we still live.  God takes on flesh and comes to us at Christmas time.  God does not come and get us to remove us from where we are now — not yet anyway.   Faith is not an escape hatch from the world in which we live.  It is, however, refusing to believe that the world in which we live is the sum of our living.

Because Christ has been born, when we hear of a tragic death of a neighbor, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Bethlehem has happened, when we see that someone has had to spend the night in a car in our parking lot we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the one who would be our Savior was wrapped in swaddling clothes when we continue to see the poor and needy at our door, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the Prince of Peace slept in a manger when distant wars are brought near by the deployment of a friend or family member, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Mary and Joseph did not turn away from God’s call, when we experience the stress, the strain and sometimes the brokenness of human relationships, we can say even still, Christ is coming.

We can and do say it, not as sugar coating or denial, but as a truth born from the gift of faith. Christ comes to the place of pain and suffering, misery and malaise, and of betrayal and disappointment.  He comes to us.  In coming, he calls us to himself.   The call is such that somehow we become a part of the mystery of his incarnation.  We become his hands, his feet, his body.  Led by his Spirit, we find our greatest joy in following his path to the places where there is hurting and want, injustice and wrong.  Far from taking us away from the trial of earth-bound living, his coming to us points our lives in the direction of those who are broken by sin and sinned against, those who are left out, and left alone.

Christ is coming!

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The Insightful Beggar

When I came out the back door of the church, I immediately saw him. I stood their watching him for a moment before he noticed me. When he did notice me standing there, he did not acknowledge my presence. Instead, he tried to act as if he had not seen me or I him. But I knew that he had seen me because he picked up the pace of his activity. He hurriedly tossed his last bag of trash into the church’s dumpster, hopped in his car and sped away. In broad daylight, he had just stolen space in our dumpster for his trash.

Why did that guy feel the need to use our dumpster? Maybe he does not have the money to pay to have his garbage picked up curbside. Perhaps he did not have time to go all the way over to Oak Ridge highway to the convenience center where there are dumpsters with ample space provided by Knox County for residence of Knox County.

He was not the first person to toss their garbage into our dumpster and he will not be the last. Every time I see someone doing it, I remember a night long ago in inner-city Louisville, Kentucky. Patti and I were in seminary. We had not been married long, less than year I believe. We lived in a small, two room apartment on the third floor of the Jefferson Street Baptist Chapel. I was taking the trash out to the dumpster and as I stepped out of the back door of the building, I heard something move in the dumpster. The sound frightened me significantly. I went back in the building. The trash could wait until morning. I did watch from a window as a man climbed out the dumpster and made his way into the night.

Which brings us to Bartimaeus, the blind beggar on the side of the road as Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho. The dumpsters make me think of Bartimaeus because he is beggar. He stays alive by collecting what others toss his way, what they can do without. He stays alive with a coin here and scrap there tossed his way. What is the purpose? So that he can do it all over again the next day? What kind of existence is that? It is the kind that is not well thought of by most of us. At best we pity people like Bartimaeus, at worse we have scorn for them and their willingness to live off the efforts of others, not willing to work for their on bread like the rest of us.

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What we almost always fail to see when we see people like Bartimaeus is what they might reveal to us of ourselves. Why the pity? Why the scorn? Why do we find their plight so heart-breaking, so repulsive, so moving or so frightening? We think we are asking questions about the beggar, but if we listen a little deeper, we hear the beggar answers questions, not about himself, but about us.

Amazingly, if we pay attention to Bartimaeus, we discover that he understands something way ahead of the rest of us. Bartimaeus gets it. He cries out to Jesus and calls him the Son of David bestowing on him the Messianic title as Jesus and his disciples leave Jericho and make their way to Jerusalem, the City of David. How is it that a blind beggar sitting on the side of the road can see what no one else can see before anyone else can see it? For all we know Bartimaeus might have climbed out of his own dumpster that morning. How can he possibly know that the King is coming, that Jesus is the one. Have mercy indeed.

There are many like Bartimaeus who in their own way sit beside the roadways of our lives. What would they say to us if we listened? If we responded to them with something other than pity or scorn, what might we learn about ourselves and God’s calling on our lives?

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.

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.

Will the Syrophoenician Woman be Covered?

She is a desperate woman. Her daughter is gripped by the power of a demon greater than all of the available remedies. She has exhausted them all. To be certain, she has tried everything that she knows to do. Neither the advice of friends nor the wisdom of those who often times know what to do in cases of sickness and injury provides any relief. She is a desperate woman.

So desperate that she forgets her place. Without regard for race, creed or ethnicity, she moves out to find help for her daughter. She is blind to any customs, mores or values that would deny relief to her tormented child. What is or is not socially acceptable means nothing to her so long as her little girl is hurting. What has always been, and even what she has always held to be true, is secondary now to finding someone who can ease her child’s pain.

She is hearing stories of a man who does such things. He is a Jew from down south. Why he finds himself in her town she knows not nor cares. The reports of His deeds seem incredible, too much to believe. Something in the stories ring true. Her hope is gaining momentum. Her desperation has a direction, but it is no longer simply desperation that drives her. No, her desperation has turned to determination as she becomes convinced that this itinerant miracle worker is the answer that she is longing for.

She falls down at His feet when she finds him and begs him to heal her daughter. Now her daughter will be made well, so confident is she in this man’s power and compassion.

But it is not happening. He is refusing. Rather adamantly he tells her that his power is not for people like her. His mission is elsewhere. He is in her town to rest, not to heal the sick. He will not do for her before he has done for those that he was sent to do for. The children must eat before the dogs are fed.

She has no time to be insulted. What she does have is a certainty that it is within this man to heal her daughter. Yet, it is more than that. She sees in him what others do not see. Not his most adamant opponents, nor his closest followers, have yet seen what she sees with absolute clarity. One wonders if even he sees what she sees, that he is for everyone.

With such certainty, she moves through clouds of desperation gripped by a mother’s determination, refusing to be denied His healing power. With great clarity and not a little cleverness, she reminds Him that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. What can he say? She has spoken a timeless truth. If there is a dog in the house, there will be no food left on the floor.

For seeing what she sees, and saying what she says, her daughter is made whole again. The demon leaves her daughter.

Does this encounter mark a change in mission for Jesus, a broadening of the focus of His life and ministry? Does it in any way affirm His assertion that “. . . God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish?”

What is it about this mother that moves Jesus to move beyond His initial reluctance to healing her daughter? Was it her determination or her desperation? The story as it is told in Mark’s gospel would seem to indicate that it is the wisdom of her reply that won Jesus over. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Whatever the limitations or restrictions that Jesus understands to apply to the range and scope of his ministry get obliterated in this encounter. Compassion trumps gender, religion and ethnicity. With Jesus, compassion always overrides whatever would withhold treatment, deny care or hoard mercy. She is persistent and he is compassionate. As followers of Christ, we are called to both that kind of compassion and that sort of persistence.