It's warm enough now to start doing Tai Chi outside again. Feels good to be back at it. The other day, Jorj and Miranda were out in the back yard doing it with me, a little community exercise.
There are online pictures of the whole routine I do, here.
And we're taking a little vacation this weekend. At Pere Marquette State Park, down near St. Louis. The weather doesn't look too promising, but it will be good to get away and be out in nature.
It's warm enough now to start doing Tai Chi outside again. Feels good to be back at it. The other day, Jorj and Miranda were out in the back yard doing it with me, a little community exercise.
Health care costs and the rising number of uninsured people happens to be a hot topic right now, I've noticed. A new study just came out about the large number of uninsured Americans, over 45 million, as reported in this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. This blog article further outlines the vast overpricing of health care in the U.S. and the need for a change. It also mentions the new bill in Massachusetts that would require all people to get health insurance (like we must get auto insurance to get a license), making this possible by providing lower cost insurance or free coverage to those who cannot afford it, and using funds that are now spent covering losses due to uninsured patients who cannot pay. Many other states are watching this plan to see how well it works.
This could be very important for Heather and me in the future, especially with the medical needs of our kids (God willing). There's already a good clinic near the retreat place in Virginia, but clinics can't take care of everything.
Medical care has been one of the biggest challenges as I try to follow Jesus' example and teaching, "You received without paying, give without pay." (Mt 10.8) I'd like to help people for free, then trust that God will inspire others to help me freely when I need it. In many ways, I've experienced this already, in remarkable ways. But medical care is tough. Because in an emergency you can't wait until someone offers help, and the way the hospital system is organized now it's so complicated and incredibly expensive. What to do? I remember once explaining to some Christian friends that I wanted doctors that would care for me because they wanted to, even when they knew I couldn't pay, and one person said "then you'll die; because that's not how the world works."
So far I've just tried to explain up front that I couldn't pay, and be willing to be turned away. But in emergency situations hospitals have to treat you, no matter what. So afterwards I just try to work with the financial counselors, explaining my situation and cooperating, and so far it's worked pretty well (though I do still have some bills that were sent to collection agencies). Maybe with some changes in the healthcare system, it will get easier.
But I still think the ideal is to find some doctor(s) who would willingly offer free care because they want to support the work I'm (or we're) doing. Or just out of love for us. I'd like to inspire others to follow Jesus in this way, freely giving because they received so much for free.
My thoughts of life in Virginia have been so idyllic, I think it's good for me to be shaken a little by Heather's absence soon after we visit there. I've also been shaken recently by another run-in with medical establishment. It didn't turn out to be anything serious, but the emergency room bills totaled over $2200. Incredible.
Of course I've been through all this before, two years ago. (See these entries from 2004: June 21, July 10, August 7, and August 31.) Two bills are still unpaid from then, but I've been very up-front with the collections people and they haven't bothered me at all. And having made some decisions after my last experience, this time before checking in I told the hospital that I didn't have insurance and couldn't pay them (and therefore I didn't sign the waiver and patient responsibilties statement). So I was frustrated that I had to go through this again, but not too worried.
Then I did a little research and found this Wall Street Journal article. It tells about very aggressive collections tactics by hospitals, including suits and summons (and jail for those who don't show up at court) and focuses on the two hospitals in this city. My new bill is from one of them. That gave me pause.
The article says that the hospital I went to has made changes because of that report. And I am cooperating with their financial representatives. So I'm not really worried about getting in serious trouble, and they may even be more generous with their financial aid because of the WSJ scrutiny.
But this has made me very aware that this is more than an inconvenience. Incredibly high health care costs and the large number of uninsured people (who get charged more than the insurance companies) is a serious problem. Especially for poor people. I need to pay more attention and be willing to speak up against the problem, even in court if necessary.
Right now I'm trying to find a way to make gifts to the hospital and doctors, according to what I feel is fair, without being pressured by the huge bills. I'll let the financial counselors worry about those, and maybe the collections agents, though I hope it doesn't come to that. But I'd like to offer some money now, before people start demanding it and making threats. Because I know I won't want to offer anything then. I'm still trying to figure the best way to respond, but I think I'm doing better this time around.
By the way, the hospital has a Christian heritage, with a mission statement that says they offer care "in the spirit of Jesus Christ."
I wonder if I should mention at some point that Jesus offered his care for free...
Müller was less interested in caring for orphans than in demonstrating God's power: "The chief end for which the institution was established is that the church would see the hand of God stretched out on our behalf in answer to prayer." Müller never borrowed money, nor would he ever mention the orphanage's current needs to anyone. He was, nevertheless, a tireless and relentless publicist. For 50 years, he wrote copiously and traveled widely, telling dramatic, nail-biting stories about the orphanage's desperate needs, its fervent prayers, and God's never-failing last-minute rescue from disaster.
Moody, by contrast, was bold as the winter wind in asking for money. He used personal appeals to people's religious sentiments, buttonholing industrial tycoons and sending out thousands of what he cheerfully called "begging letters" every year.
...Moody's method of fundraising prevailed over Müller's. After 1945, evangelicalism gradually abandoned its old faith principle of praying rather than asking. This freed evangelical organizers to dream up new ways of raising funds that produced more money than simply praying.
It is important to remember that evangelicals first adopted faith principles as a way to demonstrate God's power, not because faith principles were an especially efficient way to raise money. In the years since World War II, evangelical entrepreneurs have showed less interest in demonstrating God's providential care and more in growing their ministries.
I think this is an important difference, and the trend is moving in precisely the wrong direction. As if God's work depended on how much money we can raise. As Jesus demonstrated so clearly, the point of Christian work is not resources but the message. The good news that we can trust God completely. That trusting God is our only hope. This is what we need to communicate in all we say and do.
I've begun to have thoughts about going out walking again. One motivating theme that has risen to the surface of my mind has to do with Christian ministry. Perhaps a good introduction would be this journal entry from over five years ago (I guess it's a continuing theme for me...):
January 23, 2001
I found this passage in an article by Richard John Neuhaus (in this month's issue of First Things):
Even in these flush times, $22 billion is a hefty piece of change. That is how much evangelical Protestants spend annually in support of a vast array of parachurch groups, ranging from Campus Crusade for Christ, World Vision, and Prison Fellowship to countless evangelistic ministries. Michael S. Hamilton offers an instructive survey of the phenomenon in a Christianity Today article, "We're In the Money!" ...So has the success of the innumerable entrepreneurial empires of the parachurch world corrupted evangelicalism? Hamilton recognizes that being in the money is probably not what Jesus had in mind when he invited his disciples to take up the cross and follow him:Given the enormous temptations to sin that always accompany wealth, it is a bit surprising that we have displayed so little ambivalence at the wealth that is now in our hands. I suspect this is so because we believe in the marrow of our bones that our ministry organizations are doing God's work in the world. So any decision that might lead to a decrease in an organization's activities will hinder God's work (not to mention threatening the livelihood of its employees).If only the world, and the religious world as well, was limited to "the best cases." What would seem to be missing here is a place to stand from which the driving, and sometimes demonic, logic of growth and success can be brought under judgment. I left the article wondering whether somebody might someday write a version of "The Grand Inquisitor" updated for the religion business of our day.
Once this conviction is in place, the very act of preserving and defending the ministry becomes a self-evident, self-sustaining virtue. And it nurses the common idea that when an evangelical organization prospers, the prosperity is a sign of God's approval. Such thinking is not biblical, of course. The Bible makes it clear that God often gives good gifts to those who do evil. It is equally clear that when Christians do as God asks they will sometimes lose money, respect, freedom—and even life itself.
This particular Christian truth only rarely works its way into the decision-making process of our ministry organizations. The engine that drives us is a compelling vision for ministry, and who can say that the vision was not vouchsafed by God? So we pursue the vision by building and growing the organizations that embody the vision. Growth means more money; more money means more ministry. In the worst cases, means and ends become reversed, and growth and influence become goals unto themselves. In the best cases, more ministry means more people who become newly aware of the great gift God has given them in Jesus Christ--and who then, in gratitude, reach into their own pockets and give, so that others might also know.
That's the contemporary setting for my recent struggles against the "success" vision for ministry. And it's not just evangelical Protestants, either. "We're in the money"... "the engine that drives us"... "growth means more money; more money means more ministry"... "growth and influence become goals unto themselves"--it all sounds very familiar and yes, a little demonic. "Probably not what Jesus had in mind" is an understatement. It reminds me of the passage, Mt 7.21-23--I can hear it: "But, Lord, did we not do many mighty works in your name?"
Speaking of celebrations and joy, Heather and I have been together two years now. In honor of our anniversary, I put together a little something...
We also just found out that Heather will be able to go with her good friend to Nigeria this summer and work with the Mashiah Foundation. It's a great opportunity and I'm glad she's going. Though it will be hard being apart so long (she's leaving in June and probably not coming back until after Christmas).
She's dreamed of going to Africa for a long time, which also means she'll be discerning if God might want her to stay there. That makes it extra hard for me. But yesterday I remembered these words, written in my journal very early in our relationship, almost two years ago:
...I learned that what I am called to in my relationship with her is a lot like faith. That I cannot "hold" her. That I have to let her go (again and again) so that she is always free to give herself. Or not. But, in any case, she must be free or it's not love.
Heather and I had a great Easter celebration back up in Evanston. That may be the last time we are there for quite a while, so I'm glad it was so good.
The overwheming enthusiasm of the celebrations, though, made me stop and think. And I was reminded of a journal entry from over five years ago. I think it still raises some interesting points...
January 3, 2001
Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may;As I've thought about these lines [by G.K. Chesterton], I've become more conscious of the true nature of joy. It has the nature of goodness, as a sharing of God's own nature. Thus true joy springs from an eternal source.
its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw.
I think this important truth is obscured in many of our "joyful" celebrations. A celebration or holiday should be the result of some good in our lives, the expression of a joy that springs (hopefully) from some very deep well. But often the holiday or celebration becomes for us the cause for rejoicing. We anticipate and cling to the celebration, the holiday becomes exceedingly important, because it is a precious moment of happiness in a life that seems otherwise depressing. At least that's how it looks, especially during the holiday season. This season is seen as a crucial morale-booster, and when it's brief festivities are over, people are left in a funk. If there was truly something to be joyful about (besides the party itself), then the celebration would be a bonus, a brief expression of a joy that continues long after the streamers are swept away. Then celebration could be the enjoyable emotional release it's supposed to be. It could be the happy accessory to joy, because it doesn't have to be its source. Like a wedding reception: the newlyweds leave the party early, anticipating the lasting joy of a life together. Or like an ancient harvest festival: the celebration could be light-hearted, because the real joy was in the rich harvest that would sustain the community throughout the winter. Real joy does not need to grasp at brief pleasures "for their own sake," like a parched man straining for a drop of water. Because real joy has a real source, even an eternal source.
Chesterton makes another interesting comment about joy at the end of his book "Orthodoxy." He writes, "Joy... is the gigantic secret of the Christian." And he emphasizes both 'gigantic' and 'secret,' even connecting the two in the life of Jesus:
The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.Jesus himself spoke of his own joy, and commended it to his disciples: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."(Jn 15.11) But it does seem that his joy was somehow restrained or hidden. That's odd.
In movies, Jesus has often been characterized as stoic or solemn, but as Chesterton points out, that's a characterization of our own worldly ideals, not Jesus. Just as the recently popular image of a "laughing Jesus" is a characterization of our own ideal. Obviously, our ideals change. But Jesus did not conform to our ideals; he didn't try to impress us by hiding his grief or his anger, or by showing off his joy. All of these have been selling points for philosophers and religious leaders throughout history, and we continue to see them today. But Jesus demonstrated a grief and an anger that didn't need to be hidden, and a joy that didn't need to be paraded.
That brings me back to the true nature of joy. Real joy doesn't necessarily need a celebration, it doesn't need to draw attention to itself, just as true grief doesn't need to be ashamed of itself and righteous anger doesn't need to suppress itself. But, as Chesterton notes, expressions of joy are noticeably absent in the Gospel descriptions of Jesus' life, making it seem like he was hiding his joy. Why? I like the suggestion that Jesus' joy was something primarily between him and his Father, best expressed in solitary prayer. And I also can believe that his joy was somehow too great to be publicly displayed. I can imagine a divine joy that might not be fitting for expression among sinful people. Or maybe Jesus wanted to avoid a serious misunderstanding; because the way to happiness is also the way of the cross. I have a feeling all these are hints about the truth. But I firmly believe that Jesus knew real joy, eternal joy, and that he is the eternal source of joy for us. Also, I believe the more real our joy is, the more it will look like his.
I had recently read the "Give to Caesar" story in Luke 20 when I noticed an online discussion on tax exemption yesterday (suggesting that churches avoid tax exempt status). It's a relevant topic for me. Here's most of what I wrote:
In general I agree with the arguments about not cooperating with the government when what they demand is wrong. Not too long ago I wrote an article about my experience going AWOL from the Navy (then later turning myself in to accept the consequences of my choice) and how I think that my non-cooperation was better than applying for CO status. (The folks at the Catholic Peace Fellowship asked me to write it; it's available as an RTF file here.)
But of course this all depends on what we think about paying taxes. I know many people here (and in the Catholic Worker movement) advocate tax resistance. But I agree with others who think Jesus said (and demonstrated) pretty clearly that we should pay taxes when they are due, since Caesar's power is what establishes and guarantees the value of money (in people's minds; it has no absolute value) and we should "give to Caesar what is Caesar's." Money seemed to be of little value to Jesus, so he saw no point in resisting or struggling over it. But I don't want to get in an argument here on this subject (I've argued it at length in this forum long ago, and even posted a short story on the topic--if anyone's interested, it's here).
If we as Christians should pay the taxes demanded by the government, then I don't see any problem in accepting their provisions for tax exemption. It's their money, their tax, they get to set the rules. (In a way, I personally accept tax exemption now, since I don't make enough income to have to file, according to the government's rules.) But of course I agree that this shouldn't limit our critical speech or actions, shouldn't stop us from telling the truth. We should be willing to tell the truth even if it means losing tax exempt status. But I would expect that in most cases, the government is not paying much attention to what some little group is saying or printing in it's newsletter. That church that got the IRS inquiry seems like it was very big and pretty influential politically, which is why they caught the government's eye. I would imagine for most of us here, we aren't interested in promoting any political party and maintaining tax exempt status wouldn't interfere much with what we want to do or say.
The Catholic Worker I live at now is non-profit and tax-exempt, and the one I'm moving to this summer is that way as well, as far as I know. I didn't set them up that way, but I don't see any reason to encourage them to change and start paying taxes. (Of course, if people do choose to reject tax-exemption, I have no problem with that--unless they start arguing that Christians shouldn't pay taxes.)
I've been working on the layout for the newsletter and it's looking good. Stayed up too late last night editing, then got up early with an idea to improve the masthead. I find it very satisfying to do work like this.
Here's a shot of the front page (click on the image for a larger version):
The pink magnolia trees are starting to bloom. Heather and I noticed them Sunday when we went to the park to enjoy a few hours reading together in the sun.
It seems my experience here has been in tune with the seasons. My lowest points were in late December and January. And now, as everything warms and greens, I'm enjoying a very good time here. Like I've said before, I'm glad I stayed (and didn't leave in January) or I'm glad I was made to stay. Not only did it give me a better look at my own darker side, but I also managed to work out some of the struggles I had here and learn how to respond better to some of the harder situations. And I was able to decide to leave, not out of desperation or fear, but out of conviction. (Those convictions are reflected in the article I just posted.) That feels very good.
And life's gotten easier now, too. Almost every day I've been able to spend half the day at the Methodist student center, using the computer or just enjoying the quiet. And I actually have my own room now (after seven months without). The Mahoneys' letters continue to be encouraging ("So much of what you say really seems to point to this being a perfect place for you two to join in--we are encouraged and most hopeful"). And the end here is in sight.
On top of all that, Heather and I are spending a long Easter weekend in Evanston, then there's a house retreat at a nearby state park during the last weekend of the month. And spring.
Our hope is in you, Father, who richly provide all things for us to enjoy.
Jesus himself also focused his attention on healing people at the deep spiritual level. This is obvious in his preaching and in stories like the one where he first responded to a paralytic's spiritual need, then told him to rise and walk, "that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins." (Mk 2.10) But also in his other healings, Jesus made it very clear that the physical healing was an outward sign of what was happening in the person spiritually. "Your faith has made you well." (Lk 8.48, 17.19, 18.42) And when people did not come in the right spirit, Jesus did not offer physical healing (Mt 13.53-58, "And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.") His response was similar when people came to him seeking only food (Jn 6.23-66); instead he gave them a challenging teaching. "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him." Yet this didn't deter Jesus, because his focus was on our most important need; if people weren't willing to admit that need and address it, he let them go. Jesus wasn't fighting poverty, or solving the problem of the poor. He came to meet the deepest human need, a spiritual one, of which all other problems are merely symptoms.
Heather and I are leaving in May, and will be visiting the place where we may be serving next. It's the St. Francis Catholic Worker community in eastern Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. They've been there over twelve years, out in the country, offering hospitality and spiritual retreats for poor people who want to heal and deepen their spiritual lives. I hope to be able to apply much of what I've learned here. Please pray for us, as we will for you.
That's it. It will probably appear in our upcoming newsletter. The full essay is available here (as an RTF file).
[Attention] is something anyone can give. And it responds to the deepest human need. It is often said that physical needs are the most immediate and therefore should be our first priority. But I have to question that based on my experience here. One night I was woken by the doorbell and found a woman on the porch. She was crying. She said her boyfriend had stolen her money for drugs and she had to go to court tomorrow and now she couldn't pay her fine and would go to jail, and when she got angry and yelled at him he called the police and they took her away and dropped her off here. "He smoked my freedom," she cried. I invited her in, then just listened and tried to calm her. "If I had a gun," she said grimly, "I'm not sure whether I'd shoot him or myself." I gave her something to eat and tried to get her to sleep, as it was after midnight. But she was just reaching her deepest grief. "And no ones cares," she repeated again and again. "No one cares."
Thinking about that later, I realized that she was expressing a spiritual need. A need for someone to care about her suffering. Perhaps ultimately a need for God to care. But it wasn't about her pressing needs to find a new place to live or a way to get food, or her fear of going to jail. Right in the midst of those very serious concerns, at her lowest point, the need that rose to the surface was a spiritual one.
While living here I've also spent some time learning about 12-step programs and attending an Al-Anon group. I was surprised to discover that these programs are primarily about spiritual growth. They recognize that our physical and emotional problems are often symptoms of a deeper spiritual need, so addressing this need becomes the way to recovery. I've even heard people express gratitude for the physical and emotional problems that convinced them to seek help, because they ended up finding healing for their much more important spiritual problems. And 12-step groups assist in this healing without fundraising or costly facilities. They simply share with one another what God has done for them, listen and pay attention, and support each other in community. This is the kind of help anyone could give. And it responds to the deepest, most fundamental human need.