The economics of health

I pray that our leaders may be given wisdom – all of them. They are walking in unchartered waters. And they are making decisions that might be right, or might be wrong – we’ll only know after the fact. The decisions could save lives. Or it could cost lives. I don’t envy any of them. But I lift them all up in prayer – President Trump, Senate Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, both Democrat and Republican Members of Congress, Governors, state legislative leaders, public health officials, and more.

Decisions are going to be made soon – continue to hunker down in order to flatten the curve, as the phrase goes, but at great economic cost – maybe even a depression. Or to loosen restrictions so people can get back to work, potentially strengthening the economy, but at great potential health cost – possibly many deaths.

In Star Trek, there is something called the Kobayashi Maru. “The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in the fictional Star Trek universe designed to test the character of Starfleet academy cadets in a no-win situation.” (Source)

This certainly feels like a no-win situation doesn’t it? Our leaders’ character have been tested and will continue to be tested. We are and will continue to see the core of who they are.

But this isn’t only about our leaders. This is about us too. Crisis shows our character as well. It reveals a great deal about who each of us are. The facade of who we want to portray ourselves as is stripped away in a crisis. All that is left is the real us. The real us in terms of what we truly believe, what we really value, what is really important to us. There’s no faking your way through a crisis. We don’t have that luxury. And neither do our leaders.

I have seen several news stories over the last week that have caught my attention from various new sources. In many cases these stories show the author’s partisan slant. Many of these stories are written to score political points. Our political leaders often speak in these ways too. And I wonder, how many of our people, and us specifically, listen for partisan talking points and to be able to point fingers and to scapegoat and blame. This tells me that the crisis is still fresh. Not enough time has passed yet for people to let go of the habit of partisan identity. It’s a strong idol that doesn’t let go easily. And that identity comes with a cost – most likely the cost being that the crisis lasts longer than it has to. Being right might feel good, but it is destructive and costly.

We’ve gone from the shock of the restrictions placed upon us to coping now. Uncertainty remains as decisions are yet to be made. Finding a new routine and a new normal are starting to settle in. And the questions resounds – what is the cost? What is the financial cost? What is the health cost? What is mental health cost?

But there is another set of questions that we should be asking – where do we see God in the midst of this? What is God calling us to right now? What is the cost of our discipleship right now? How does the theology of the cross speak to us now?

These may not seem like relevant questions – but really, they are more relevant now than ever. Theology and faith are at their best in times of crisis. Jesus did the work he had to do – the work he set out to do – in times of crisis. He healed the sick and outcast at great cost to himself. He raised the dead. He confronted the leaders of the Temple. He cleared out the money changers out of the Temple. He willingly went to death. It was costly. And it was in that cost that we more fully understand Christ – the cruciform God who saves. The incarnate God who suffers with us.

There is a cost to the decisions being made – both by our leaders and by us. Often the cost can not be calculated. And often the cost goes way beyond dollars and cents. And it should.

I pray that our leaders may use the wisdom they are given for the benefit of all people.

Is the church alive or dead?

To say we are in an unprecedented time is an understatement. This is a unique time in history in which the entire world faces the same threat. Not everyone is taking that threat seriously yet though. Which will only make this last longer. Often that happens when we think we are the center of the universe and that reality will bend to our will. But it won’t. Reality doesn’t care what you or I think.

This is a time when we do some self-examination – both for ourselves and our lives as well as the life of the church. This is the time when we grasp the idea that the church is not the building. It is the Body of Christ – a living breathing thing.

I’m reminded of John 2:19 in which Jesus is recorded as saying, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” He wasn’t referring to the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather his body – the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Is the church alive or dead? The buildings are dead right now – no life in them. Were the buildings ever alive though? Hasn’t it always been the people in them that made the building come alive. And we are seeing how alive the church can be right now in the midst of crisis.

We would do well to remember that this is not the first crisis the church has ever faced. Nor will it be the last. The church, the Body of Christ, has survived worse – other pandemics, wars lasting many years and causing great destruction, persecutions, and more.

Is the church alive or dead? Life comes with some basic characteristics. Mike Breen, in his book “Building a Discipling Culture,” talks about seven life characteristics that are attached to any living being or organization. And the church certainly fits into this.

The seven characteristics are:

  • Movement: living things move under their own will. It is a sign of life. Things that are dead move because some force acts upon them. This is true for the church too. Scripture describes the early followers of Jesus as those who followed “the Way.” It implies movement. Jesus led and leads a movement. To be a follower of Jesus is to move, not sit and watch. But to live out one’s faith. And that requires movement.
  • Respiration: we literally have the breath of God within us. It is what gives us life. The church takes in this breath and breathes out the spirit to all. It’s a part of who we are.
  • Sensitivity: We are sensitive to our environment – what is around us. For Christians, we observe and then act. We come to the aid of those hurting. We act to right wrongs. We work to change unjust systems. We don’t just shrug our shoulders and give up. Regardless of the cost, we see reality, and respond.
  • Growth – Living things grow. And growth happens in a variety of ways. It can be numbers or money. Those are traditional measurements. But they aren’t always the best measurements, or the only ones. Growth happens in our faith too. We shouldn’t have the same understanding of faith that we did as a teenager. It should grow to much deeper levels. Prayer should grow. Our reading of Scripture should grow. Our worship should grow. Our relationship with God and others should grow. Our desire to be in alignment with God’s will should grow. Our desire for Shalom (wholeness) should grow.
  • Reproduction – Living things have the ability to reproduce. What does this mean for the church? How are we making new disciples? How are we training up new disciples?
  • Excretion – Living things get rid of waste and what doesn’t help them with the other life characteristics. Living churches should be doing this also. Too often though, churches have spiritual constipation – the refusal to excrete anything. It’s not healthy in a living being, or in a church.
  • Nutrition – without nutrition, a living being will die. And so will a church. The church is fed through the sacraments, through Scripture, prayer, and being in community.

Living things adapt. Their bodies change over time.

This is the time when we recognize that these facts are vitally important. We have to stop fooling ourselves with the false belief that the life characteristics don’t apply to the church. We have to stop lying to ourselves that the church will be fine if we just remain the same and never change. We have to stop kidding ourselves into believing that the culture will go back to telling the story for the church (not that the culture did a good job anyway). We have to open our eyes to the reality that the culture no longer gives the church a position of privilege. We have to be open to the reality that the model of the church that we have used since church held a position of privilege isn’t working anymore.

None of the beliefs that I describe above are helpful anymore. None of the old assumptions are true anymore. The sooner we embrace this change, the better we will be able to adapt, adjust, be transformed. The sooner we embrace this reality, the better we will be able to create new systems, structures, and methods to carry out the ministry and mission of Jesus.

Part of this is also recognizing that the next generation will have to let go of whatever new methods and models we adopt because that is what living things do – they adapt to new circumstances so that life can go on and thrive.

If we choose to reject these realities, then we are set on a path towards death as a church. I’m not willing to be a part of those systems that are intent on death.

Let me be clear – this path is not easy nor comfortable. There will be resistance. So be it. We will go forward anyway. Jesus is the standard that we follow.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The church exists to carry out the mission of Jesus. Jesus encounters us. Jesus transforms us. And Jesus sends us out.

For such a time as this…

Our faith exists for such a time as this.

Faith doesn’t exist and isn’t given to us for the good and easy times. Not for the comfortable times in which there are few real challenges.

Faith wasn’t given to us for the times that we have been so used to for so long for so many of us.

No. Faith exists for such a time as this. This is a time of disaster. Of chaos. Of suffering. Of poverty. Of financial meltdown. And more.

This is when we really “get it”. These are the times that faith becomes clearer to us – what it is really about. Faith is a gift from God that reminds us that we can’t do this on our own. Is there really any more doubt about that? When I see stories about people ignoring the risks in a variety of ways, what I see is selfishness – the idea that I am an island and no one has an impact on me and I have no impact on anyone else. That kind of attitude will make this pandemic last longer than it has to.

See, this is the time when we either “get” it or don’t. I’m not talking about getting the virus either.

This is the time when we ask if we really embrace all that we preach – do we really buy it? Or is it just a bunch of words? Are we all in? Or does that seem a bit much? Is this the time when we shed what we claim to believe because we never really bought into it anyway?

This is the time when we either really understand and embrace Jesus’ words to pick up our cross and follow him, or we just walk away in order to turn inward on ourselves and only look out for our own interests.

This is the time when we truly embrace God’s message that is spoken throughout Scripture – “Do not be afraid.” Or we just yell out at God and tell God “You’re full of it!”

This is the time when we find out what we truly believe. We’ll know what we believe, and what others actually believe, based on what we do. Faith isn’t just a set of beliefs. It’s the core of who we are that drives what our behavior is. You can’t do actions that contradict your true beliefs. I’m not talking about your stated beliefs – the ones you would tell someone when asked. I’m talking about what you actually believe when it comes down to it. The set of beliefs that are at your core. You may never actually state what those beliefs are. You don’t have to. You will know what you actually believe in based on your actions. Your actions never lie.

This is a time of clarity.  

Faith was given to us for such a time as this. Let us use it wisely. Let us embrace its message. Let us let it abide in us and transform us so that faith is evident to all who encounter us.

This is the time.

New Normals

What is your new normal? You probably can’t answer that question adequately yet. I can’t. I think we are still figuring out what this looks like. The real question is how long it will take for people to get a handle on what their new normal is.

We’re not used to such sudden and all encompassing change. It doesn’t happen very often in the US for most people. And it has been a long time since day to day life was impacted by anything of this magnitude.

Here’s our new reality – we are being forced to reconsider things. The questions about this is how are you approaching it? Is this a disaster for you personally? For organizations and institutions you are a part of? For the nation? For the church?

Or is it an opportunity to examine what church is really about at its core? To be creative? To fine alternative ways to be community? To recognize what worked in the past and to recognize that these are different times that require different solutions?

The answer to all of those questions is yes. It is both a disaster and an opportunity.

In my past, I managed and did strategy for political campaign. In many respects, this situation reminds me of those days. Lots of work. Lots of communication. Lots of managing expectations. Lots of making things up on the fly. Lots of embracing a solution one day only to discard it the next. Lots of jettisoning long standing things because they just didn’t work any longer. Lots of innovation. Lots of trial and error.

Campaigns teach people many lessons, if they are open to them. Even in a loss, there is much to learn. One of the biggest predictors of how successful a campaign would be is its willingness to adapt to a changing situation. And how well could you control the message and the discussion. That requires people – lots of people to help. It requires an entrepreneurial mindset and risk taking. It requires calm decision making in the midst of chaos – decision making that can look past the immediate situation and see down the road. It requires being able to see the potholes that you could potentially come across and figuring out how to avoid them, or at least how to get through them. And it requires the recognition that this too shall pass. But no worries, a new crisis will take its place. That means panic has no place at the table – only level heads who consider the information and situation and determine how to go forward, ready to adjust as needed.

These are times in which we all figure out new normals. We are forced to. I choose to see this as an opportunity unlike any before. Maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m not diminishing the disaster of the situation. It really is a disaster. But the disaster shall pass.

This is important for the church especially. Too many of our churches have maintained systems, structures, attitudes, and methods that worked in the past – worked very well in fact. But their success is their weakness. In their success, they got lazy. They got comfortable. They stopped adapting, assuming that life would always be good. And now we have a crisis. What worked before doesn’t work now. The church is forced to change and adapt. Or it will die because of a refusal to adapt. I refuse to curl up and die. I refuse to try to keep putting a round peg in a square hole.

If this crisis is anything, it is something that is forcing the church to re-examine itself. Those churches that adapt new techniques, attitudes, technologies, structures, methods will the churches that will come through this battered and hurt, but in a much stronger position to thrive after the fact. Churches may lose people and finances as a result. But the faithful remnant that persist will make the church even stronger than it was before. They will form the core of the community. They will pursue discipleship. They will be stewards. They will grow in faith. They will have stories of encounters with Jesus to share. They will be living the faith in new ways unthought of even a month ago.

I choose to see this time as an opportunity. It is a disaster and a gift. It is forcing the church to decide what it is – a social club or a church. And when it decides it is a church, then it will embrace what has been preached for centuries – life, death, and resurrection.

After the disaster passes, we will experience resurrection. And resurrected life is glorious.

Never Again!

That’s the rallying cry after something terrible happens. Never Again! we shout at the top of our lungs. Never Again! we demand. Never Again!

How about this instead – Let’s just not do the terrible thing in the first place! Doesn’t make for such a great rallying cry does it?

Instead of waiting for mass deaths or destruction, how about recognize at the start when something is going to go badly and then not do it.

Instead of doing things that harm the poor and dehumanize people, how about we just don’t.

What if, instead of our apparent natural inclination to do otherwise, we didn’t do things that hurt people, moved us towards war, blamed and scapegoated, caused destruction of the planet. Is that so much to ask really?

Why is it that we always have to make the mistake and do the bad thing, and then supposedly learn from it? Except, do we really learn from the bad things? I don’t think we do. Why else do we have to continue to repeat bad ideas that are destruction and cost people their lives?

But the problem isn’t that simple. If it was, I wouldn’t be posting on this. Two people can look at a situation and come to two very different conclusions. Each conclusion includes a rational method to get there. Each person see the errors of the other person while only seeing the good of their methods. That’s how this works – it’s messy. And it becomes a problem when we each get addicted to being right. When we worship the idol of thinking we know what’s best for everyone.

And so, we’ll continue down our path – re-learning from our mistakes and intentional sins. And yelling “Never Again!” And we know full well that humanity will do something just as bad if given enough time. That’s what humanity habitually does.

Lord have mercy.

Unhealthy systems

Yesterday’s lectionary readings both dealt with unhealthy systems. The Old Testament reading had us wandering in the Wilderness of Sin with the Israelites. They were thirsty. They demanded Moses give them water.

They had left Egypt, and reminded Moses of this. The Israelites were slave in Egypt for 400 years. In that time, they were victims of an unhealthy and abusive system. And when they finally were set free and faced their a real crisis, what did they do? They went back to something familiar – an abusive system. Instead of “make more bricks” it was “give us water.” They went from being the victim to being the abusers in an unhealthy system. But can you really blame them? 400 years of being in an abusive system would convince anyone that the abusive system was normal.

In our Gospel, we encounter Jesus in Samaria. Samaritans and Jews did not talk. They did nothing together. Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds. They were worse than tax collectors (those that worked for Rome). And yet, we find Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, talking with a Samaritan. Not just any Samaritan – a woman. Two abusive systems in play – a man not talking with a woman, and a Jew not talking with a Samaritan. The Scripture makes sure to tell us that these actions are considered normal. But they aren’t. They are abusive and unhealthy.

And Jesus doesn’t fight against them. No, he just breaks through them. He creates new systems – healthier systems. And as a result, lives are transformed. In this case, a whole village is transformed. So transformed that they invite Jesus to stay with them, and he does. The unhealthy and abusive system is buried.

Abusive and unhealthy systems exist in our world. the #MeToo movement show us this. The abuses of priests and pastors in churches show us this. White collar crime in businesses are abusive as well. Politics is full of unhealthy and abusive systems. Our country has a long history of abusive and unhealthy systems when it comes to race, sexuality, and gender. These are real.

And if you have ever been the victim of such abuse, then all I can say is I’m sorry that you have suffered. I’m sorry if the church has ever hurt you. I’m sorry if you have been in an abusive relationship of any type.

Please know that abusive systems and unhealthy systems are not normal. they never have been. They are wrong. They are sinful. And they must end. Jesus shows us a way forward for people who are victims of abusive systems – to implement a healthy system.

But what about the abusers in abusive and unhealthy systems. Jesus doesn’t meet up with those who perpetuated the abusive systems. But he does in other instances. And each time, he acts in a particular way – he confronts them. He lays out the truth to them. And often the truth is unpleasant for the abuser. That’s because the systems they create and perpetuate are unpleasant.

Abusive systems come to an end. We are called to confront those systems and the abusers who are created abusive systems designed to continue the abuse and to protect themselves. We are called to change those systems so that victims are no longer abused. We are called to participate in the healthiest system – the Kingdom of God. Let us go forth and do so.

Would Jesus Panic-Buy?

Seems like a ridiculous question doesn’t it? Yet, when we pull out Jesus’ name, and insert our own, all of sudden it seems like a legitimate question. Why?

Is it because we know Jesus wouldn’t panic-buy, or panic anything for that matter?

Is panic-buying in alignment with what it means to follow Jesus? I don’t think the two match up. They can’t.

Panic-buying because of a virus, or war, or economic downturn, or natural disaster that is coming is not Christ-like. It is turning in on oneself – believing that we are islands unto ourselves. Panic-buying is all about saving me. And maybe those closest to me. But really, it’s about me.

Panic-buying ignores several important facts. It’s not just me that needs to keep my hands clean. It’s everyone. If I’m hoarding everything, how is everyone keeping their hands clean. How is this working to prevent further spread of a contagious disease? It isn’t. But that’s because panic-buying is based on fear. And fear is irrational.

Fear tells us to look inward on ourselves – to take care of ourselves. Fear lies to us and tells us that we are separate from everyone else, and they they have no impact on me and I have no impact on them. This is ridiculous. Our survival is intimately linked to other people – even people we don’t know. And to people that we consider as enemies. Let that sink in for a moment. Our survival is linked to the survival of our enemies. Hmm.

Instead of panic-buying, I offer this alternative – seeing the Image of God in all around us. I challenge you to adopt the belief of Shalom – wholeness in community. Shalom means that our fates are tied together. There is no us and them. There is only us. Instead of panic-buying, try loving your neighbor and your enemy because it is in loving the other that we are fulfilling the greatest command – to love God.

Anti-Christs aren’t difficult to spot

Some people make a big deal out of “The” Anti-Christ as talked about in the book of Revelation. Of course, there is debate about this figure. The more Evangelical and Fundamentalist argument is that the Anti-Christ is some future powerful figure that will wreck havoc and fool many people.

Those of us who follow more mainline theology typically argue that “The” Anti-Christ figure of Revelation is referring to Nero, the Roman tyrant (“Ceasar”). This comes from the idea that Revelation was written to an oppressed and exploited people as a way to encourage them and tell them that in the end God wins. It’s not a prediction of some distant future, but the obvious conclusion of how empires die and fall, like they have in the past. Regardless, Revelation is Good News.

Regardless of your view of “The” Anti-Christ, I argue that there are anti-christs. An anti-christ is anyone who is in opposition to the ways of God. It is someone who actively opposes the ways of Christ. I don’t see the idea of anti-christ focusing on one person so much as lived belief system that is opposed to God and God’s ways.

So this means that anyone who actively opposes and does the opposite of what Christ calls on us to do is an anti-christ, by definition.

Here’s how this works. Take a look at what Christ calls on followers to do. Take Matthew 25 for example. In this passage Jesus is talking about how the nations will be judged – mostly by how they treat the poor. In Matthew 25, Jesus calls on his followers to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned.

So this means that an anti-christ would not just not do these things. Instead, an anti-christ actively opposes these things, makes doing these things more difficult, finds ways to do the opposite, etc. So in other words an anti-Christ would not just oppose policies and measures meant to make sure the hungry received food, but would actively promote other policies and measures that keeps food away from the hungry. See how that works?

An anti-christ not only opposes policies and measures that allow the thirsty to get water, but actively promotes efforts to either block water to the thirsty, or worse, pollutes waters that are then unusable.

An anti-christ not only opposes policies and measures that clothe the naked, but actively promotes efforts to keep people naked, or lacking clothing.

An anti-christ not only opposes policies and measures that welcome strangers, but works to dehumanize strangers and keeps them away.

An anti-christ not only opposes policies and measures that care for the sick, but also works to make people sick or sicker.

An anti-christ not only opposes policies and measure that encourage visiting the imprisoned, but actively promotes keeping people locked up and keeping visitors away.

The point of this is not to identify “The” Anti-Christ. The point of all of this is that there isn’t one Anti-Christ we should be focused on. There are many. And sometimes we are an anti-christ – an active hindrance to the ways of God.

Interested in a class on faith and politics?

I’ve been invited to teach an online class entitled “‘Doing’ Politics through the Lens of Faith.” If you know me at all, you know I have been thinking about, writing, and exploring this topic for decades now.

It will be a five week online course that covers a variety of topics and includes real life examples, videos, readings, etc. At the end, participants will have their own “platform” that can act like a guide. This is more than just about voting, but really how we live out our faith.

Week 1 – We’ll take a look at what politics is and isn’t. (Sneak peek – politics is far more than just partisanship. The two are not the same thing.)

Week 2 – We’ll explore the Old Testament and politics.

Week 3 – We’ll turn our attention to the New Testament and politics.

Week 4 – We’ll look at faith and politics a bit closer. How do they relate to one another?

Week 5 – We’ll finish up by answering the question of how we “do” politics in a faith-filled way.

The course is run through the Stevenson School for Ministry run through the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. There is a cap of 20 students for this round.

You can find registration information by visiting the website – https://diocesecpa.org/shaped-by-faith-courses/#1578679766389-f8f6e935-777f.

I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about the course.

Seeing…

Here’s a thought I had the other day:

If we can’t see the Imago Dei in others, it says more about how we can’t see it in ourselves than it says about the other person/group.

If we can’t see the Image of God is others, then it probably means we are having trouble seeing that image in ourselves.

Our vision is skewed. We are somehow blinded to seeing the Image of God within ourselves. And when we can’t see it, or won’t see it, in ourselves, then we won’t see it in others. We won’t see the holiness within someone else. We won’t see similarities in others. We won’t see the fuller picture of creation in others. We won’t see how God expresses Godself in other parts of creation.

We won’t see God at all, in fact. We will see a threat. We will see an other. We will see not us. We will see them.

And when others become “them,” we also are admitting how fragile we are – not how tough we are. When we see a them, we are admitting how weak we are. We are admitting how broken we are. We are admitting how blind we are. We are admitting how closed off our minds and hearts have become.

Criticism of others, hatred of others, fear of others – most of the time all these things really are is a mirror that we are holding up. These things expose more about ourselves than about anyone else.