Pink Flu and Politics

Last week was not a good health week for members of KPUMC. Some of those who traveled to New York with Credo Choir came back with the “pink flu” (because only women got it); Dwight Lind, Bill Millsap, and Linda Jackson all found themselves in the hospital at some point; Bob Smith had a surgical procedure.

But this week is not a good health week for the country. The health care bill winding its way through the Senate has just been exposed as potentially leaving 22 million more people uninsured in the future, not to mention the enormous cuts to Medicaid.

All this uncertainty about the health of our friends and ourselves causes a great deal of anxiety. Each one of us has been impacted by the high cost of health care, and even if we have decent insurance, we can’t help but worry about those who don’t.

I don’t have a solution to the nation’s health care woes. I have spent a lot of money on medical bills in my lifetime, plus I have lots of anecdotal experience in the strengths and weaknesses of our health care system. But I can’t tell you how it can be fixed.

However, as a pastor, I believe I can put a theological lens on the problem, and in that spirit, I offer the following thoughts on the health care crisis:

First, I give you the official United Methodist Church position on healthcare, which can be found here in its entirety. In summary, we believe that “health care is a basic human right.”

I support this sentiment, and would link this idea to our own confession that “God’s will for us all is shalom.” Shalom connotes wholeness and health; people who are sick are not experiencing God’s shalom. Thus, if we truly believe that the will of God is that all humanity be healthy, then we must support the idea that everyone should have access to health care.

I admit that this is a fairly simple and idealistic hope. The problem quickly becomes how best to realize this dream. To put it in the starkest possible terms, who pays for it?

I recognize that there is no unanimity over the best way to do this. That’s what is polarizing the country. What is most disturbing to me over the last few weeks is the way that the current debate about health care has been framed by certain players in government. Increasingly, the argument has been advanced that those who are sick bear a certain amount of blame for their sickness. The words “personal responsibility” are starting to float around the whole issue, as if the reason people are not healthy is solely because of their lifestyle choices. That is the clear implication of a recent tweet by the Vice-President: “Before summer’s out, we'll repeal/replace Obamacare w/ system based on personal responsibility, free-market competition & state-based reform.”

I do not doubt that lots of us don’t always make the best decisions about our health; we eat too many burgers and fries, don’t exercise enough, drink and smoke too much. But it’s scandalous to overgeneralize about who or what is to blame.

And why should the amount of health care one receives be tied to matters of innocence and guilt? Why does someone have to “deserve” health care before they receive it? Who would be the judge?

According to the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, there are different levels of responsibility in health matters, but no casting of blame: “Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all, a responsibility government ignores at its peril.”

Frankly, I am also worried about the intrusion of free-market competition into health care matters. Competition may be a positive force in commerce, driving prices down and ensuring quality and choice, but I am not certain that it has the same effect in an industry that is vital to human prosperity. The problem with a competition-model is that there are winners and losers, but human society cannot afford to have “losers” in health care. Every health care provider must adhere to standards and regulations which ensures that no harm is done. I would argue that this is best done through the machinations of democratic, participatory government.

I am also convinced that government ought to take the lead in creating the system that provides care to all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. The importance of caring for the widow, orphan, and stranger is a principle that permeates the entire Old Testament. Throughout the Torah/Law, God is concerned that the poor are not left out or forgotten. Much of God’s wrath toward Israel comes because the vulnerable are exploited and oppressed by the rich.

So the number one question that ought to be asked of any issue that our government decides is, “How will the most vulnerable among us fare?”

If the Congressional Budget Office is correct, then the poor will not fare well under the Senate’s health care bill. According to The Atlantic, the CBO found that “a disproportionate number of the 22 million people who will lose health-insurance coverage under the BCRA will be people with low incomes. Their losses will come even as $700 billion worth of tax breaks also contained in the BCRA largely benefit the top quintile of earners … In order to pay for that tax break, the BCRA cuts more than a trillion dollars from subsidies and Medicaid. Almost all of those cuts come from the people with the least.”

That is simply not acceptable. And it reminds this pastor of the time when a bunch of goats asked,“Lord, when did we see you sick and did not take care of you?”

Finally, I think of the time that Jesus was preaching in a house that was full of guests. Four guys showed up carrying a paralyzed man who presumably had no health insurance. They couldn’t get the patient into the house because there were so many people; instead, they went up on the roof, pulled the tiles away to create a hole, and then let the paralyzed man down into the middle of the room next to Jesus, who promptly healed him.

Notice that Jesus didn’t ask any questions about the man, how much money he had, or what had happened to him, nor did he assign any blame. He simply healed him.

What goes unmentioned is the important role that the four buddies played in the man’s healing. They are the unheralded heroes in the story, because they are the ones who took responsibility for the man’s health care. They carried him to Jesus; they shouldered the burden. In their strength and wholeness, they provided for the weakness of their neighbor.

In order for health care to work in our own time, the strong must care for the weak. This means that those who can shoulder a larger part of the burden must do so. Not to absolve the weak of their own responsibility, but in recognition of the fact that we will all be sick at some point in our lives. We are not always healthy; even the strongest and most fit will go through periods in which their health flags.

When we are strong, we help care for the weak. When we are weak, the strong care for us. It’s a mutual arrangement; it’s the way God meant for human society to work. We care, and we are cared for.

Please join me in praying for our lawmakers, that health care in America will come to be more fair, just, and affordable.

Staff Turnover

For the last several months, the Staff Parish Relations Committee and I have been fretting over upcoming staff changes. We’ve been doing the hard work of revising job descriptions and interviewing candidates, as we also consider the future direction of our church’s ministry.
I am very happy to announce that we recently completed our work, and are ready to move forward with some new faces, while saying goodbye to a familiar face.

Finance Secretary

After Pier Crenshaw left us in April, the church contracted with Rebecca Creighton to lead us through the process of moving our financial records from Shelby to QuickBooks. She did such a great job handling the transition that we have asked her to stay on as Finance Secretary, while also shifting some of Pier’s responsibilities to Yvonne Boyack, our Office Manager.

Starting last week, Rebecca will be in the office once a week to cut checks, reconcile accounts, and run financials. Yvonne’s weekly hours have been increased, as she will take over data entry, handling bills, invoices, and contributions.

All questions that you have concerning your own giving may go directly to Yvonne in the front office. She has proven to be a capable and reliable member of our staff, and she handles everything with a friendly smile!

Youth Minister

Matt and Paige Bell

Matt and Paige Bell

Four years ago, the church hired a relatively unexperienced young couple to be the Youth Minister and Children’s Minister. Matt and Paige Bell quickly assimilated into the Kessler Park congregation, and Matt began studies at Perkins School of Theology.

After two years, Paige stepped away from her work as Children’s Minister to focus on her new teaching job in Seagoville. Matt spent his fourth and final year at Perkins as a full-time intern at the church, and we have been the beneficiaries of his creativity and energy over the last year.

Originally Matt was planning to go into public education as an extension of his call to Christian ministry, but he got a surprise call from Rev. Mike Baughman, church planter and founder of Union Coffee Shop in Dallas. Mike invited Matt to join the Union staff as a Church Planter Resident, which means that Matt will be learning from Mike and others the skills and abilities needed to start new churches and ministries.

Personally, I’m very happy for Matt, as I think this position fits his unique skill set. But I’m also grieving that he is leaving our church community. Matt has served us well, and built great relationships with people of all ages.

We will wish Matt and Paige a fond farewell this coming Sunday, June 25, with a reception after the service, in which Matt will preach his last sermon for us.

Eva Englert-Jessen, new youth minister

Eva Englert-Jessen, new youth minister

The good news is that a new Youth Minister will start with us on the following Sunday, July 2. Our new staff member is Eva Englert-Jessen, who graduated from seminary last month herself. Eva earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociocultural Environmental Studies, with a Minor in Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Arkansas, and a Master of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology. She has just moved back to Dallas, her hometown, with her husband, whom she met in seminary.

Eva is a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church, and is hoping to be commissioned as a deacon in the North Texas Conference next summer. When she is ordained, she will become the first third-generation female clergy person in the state of Texas — both her grandmother and mother were ordained in North Texas. Her mother, Rev. Valerie Englert, currently serves as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Garland.

And if you haven’t figured out the connection yet, Eva is also the niece of our very own Office Manager. Yep, Yvonne is Eva’s aunt!

We are all very eager to learn more about Eva and her interests and passions, and that will be forthcoming. But for now, we will say goodbye to Matt and Paige, and celebrate the good work they have done among us!

To Live a Ghost Story

Last weekend, our neighborhood was the site of the sixth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival. Thanks to a sponsoring church member, I had access to a VIP pass, which enabled me to attend quite a few films over the weekend.

I geek out over film festivals; my favorites are the shorts and documentaries. But this year, I also got to see the big closing feature film, “A Ghost Story,” written and directed by local David Lowery.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw our very own church members, Margot and Sylvie Tomerlin, in a scene! (Spoiler alert: they played pioneer kids in a covered wagon.) I have no doubt that one or the other will end up being a famous performer; remember that Margot is our star liturgical dancer!

The film itself was an eye-opener. Don’t let the title or the marketing materials fool you; this is not a horror film, nor even a suspenseful thriller. And the one best-known actor in the film, Casey Affleck, spends most of the film under a white sheet. To be honest, “A Ghost Story” fits more comfortably in the “arthouse” genre. But don’t let that designation fool you either — the film is accessible to anyone who has just a little more patience than the average “Fast and Furious” filmgoer.

It’s certainly a different kind of movie from most Hollywood fare. For example, a few of the scenes are single takes that last four or five minutes. In one instance, Rooney Mara, playing a bereaved young widow, walks into her apartment and eats an entire pie. The whole thing is captured in only two shots, each of which seem to last forever. But the scene portrays grief in the most authentic manner I have ever seen on-screen.

The film is also very quiet. There is little dialogue, not much background music. Only natural sounds of night and quiet meadows. And so it gives the viewer the chance to really engage, not only intellectually, but emotionally with the striking images.

Yes, the story is about a ghost. The ghost walks around with a white sheet over his head. It sounds gimmicky, but it works in a very interesting way. He doesn’t come across as spooky or ethereal. Rather, the ghost is a clear symbol of loss, of a void.

The ghost functions as a screen upon which the viewer projects his or her own fears about belonging and identity. As I watched the ghost, I found myself wondering about the weighty matters of faith, love, and spirit. It wasn’t so much about the question of the afterlife, but upon what remains when one dies.

This particular ghost found himself rooted to one specific space; his identity was tied up in one location in a very particular period of time. As the people and things which inhabit his space disappear over time, the ghost becomes more and more disoriented; he becomes rootless and restless.

The point is clear: we humans inhabit time and space. Everything we do is bound by our place on the earth, limited by the seventy or eighty years we are given. We can’t transcend those dimensions as human beings, no matter how much we may strive to make ourselves “immortal.”

Only God transcends the dimensions of space and time. And God’s revelation in Jesus Christ makes plain to us what ultimately lasts, what goes on into the distant future, beyond our limited lifespan. Three things remain in the end — faith, hope, and agape/love — says the apostle Paul (I Cor. 13:13).

What matters is faith — the unconditional trust that we place in God’s love.

What matters is hope — the undying flicker of possibility in the future, however distant.

What matters is agape — the love that gives unconditionally and completely to the other.

These are the things that go on, that remain.

I know that I will die someday. But I sure hope that I don’t find myself in a white sheet, loitering around the house long after my death. Instead, I hope to find myself in God’s presence, enjoying the shalom I have sought all my life.

And I pray that my acts of faith, hope, and agape will last for a little while, at least, if only to encourage those who come after me to do the same.