Healing a broken system

heal atomicity creative commons

Americans read about foreign hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus and mistakenly thought those horror stories could never happen here because our health care system is so good.

We spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, which provided a sense of security that was badly misplaced.

The virus has exposed a broken system. Our faith compels us to try to heal it.

The heart of religion is about healing our individual and collective brokenness and repairing ruptured relationships with God and one another. We must be healed, and we also must be healers, both individually and collectively.

The accounts of Jesus’ life describe him as a gifted healer who offered healing to everyone free of charge. He could have leveraged his abilities, but he chose not to.

He never monetized healing. Instead, he offered it like grace to anyone who desired it. He sent his followers to heal collectively in the same unbrokered way.

We’re meant to do so as well. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Healing is far too important and central to the stories about Jesus for those who wish to follow him today to ignore it.”

We can’t pretend about our health care system anymore. Long before the pandemic, we knew it was broken.

Millions can’t afford it. Those with health coverage face crippling debt for something as common as cancer. Premiums and deductibles soar. The cost of drugs jumps exponentially.

We saw with the opioid epidemic how a profit-motivated system inflicts suffering and death on society by pushing drugs that enrich the bottom line.

The coronavirus stripped away any remaining illusions about our system.

A doctor in a New York City emergency room wrote last month about her experiences as the virus raged. Dr. Helen Ouyang described for The New York Times Magazine how the system was ill-prepared for a pandemic that the medical profession had long predicted.

She described patients crammed into the ER, lying in their own waste while dying unattended because of depleted medical staffs.

Doctors and nurses were among the sick and dying because of inadequate protective equipment, a situation Dr. Ouyang described as far worse than in any of the “third-world” countries she visited on relief missions.

Applauding health care workers every evening or posting grateful memes isn’t enough. We have the resources we need to fix the system. What’s missing is our resolve.

Profit will always be part of the system, but we can’t allow it to be the engine driving it. Providing healing at an affordable cost for all God’s children must be the overriding intent.

There are many ways to do this. We need wide-ranging discussions to plot the best path and then enact changes, knowing we’ll get pushback from those making enormous profits off the current, broken system.

When healing is turned into a high-priced commodity available only to those who can afford it, we get a sick society. What we need now is healing. And people committed to being healers.

(Photo courtesy of atomicity @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Monuments to war





The illusion of control


One of my acquaintances hated flying. He’d rather make a long drive than buckle into an airplane seat, even though he knew it was far more dangerous statistically to get on the road.

So, I was shocked when he informed me one day that he was taking flying lessons. What made his fear recede?

He said he felt safe so long as his inexperienced hands were the ones on the controls even though he wasn’t sure what he was doing.

It reminded me how we’re all addicted to the illusion of control when, in fact, we aren’t in control of very much of the big stuff.

For example, we don’t decide when or where we’re born. We don’t choose our families. We don’t decide whether we will die.

And, contrary to what we imagine, we have limited control over the course of our lives. Look at how one virus has upended so much of it.

I wonder if our unease during this time is realizing we’re not all that much in control. Perhaps part of the pushback against social restrictions is an attempt to feel more in control, even though we know it will make things worse.

We see our craving for control spill into religion. The Garden of Eden parable teaches us that things go to hell when we pretend we’re in control and can do whatever we like.

Instead, we see how some religions snatch a few scripture verses, ignore the rest, establish a code of conduct – what to do, who to shun – and insist God has to welcome us at the pearly gates if we abide by the rules.

And if we don’t, God will be forced to reject us because God doesn’t have a choice in the matter, we say.

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, Catholics taught that Protestants were going to hell because they didn’t recognize the pope. Protestants taught that Catholics were going to hell for the opposite reason.

This notion that we can control God’s decisions is the height of hubris and folly, the Garden of Eden all over again.

We forget that God gave up control – gave us free will – because there’s something more important. Love is what God is about, not control.

Loving relationship involves creating space where we can reveal ourselves and be known and affirmed, free of judgment or manipulation.

Entering the divine relationship involves giving up our illusions of control – control of God, control of others. When we acknowledge our dependence upon God and our mutuality with others, we discover who we are.

We’re not the pilot. We don’t decide the destination or the flight’s duration. We’re not in control.

Instead, we’re all equal passengers. There’s no first-class section — everyone is privileged here. Our role is to care for all other passengers on the divine journey.

Living in liminal spaces

searching gfdnova1 at creative commons

I watched my parents drive away in the station wagon after dropping me off at college the first time, and I knew every part of my life was about to change.

Instead of living in my house with my family, I was sharing a small cinderblock dorm room with a roommate I’d never met. I shared a bathroom with the dorm wing and ate in a cafeteria.

Those first few weeks, I carried a map to find my way to the next class – I had nightmares for decades about being loss on campus!

It was a deeply unsettling transition, something that Richard Rohr refers to as a liminal space – a time and place where we’re challenged to think and act in new ways.

Moving into liminal space is never comfortable, but it’s essential if we’re to grow. The only way we move toward God and each other is by stepping outside our comfort zones.

The alternative is to stagnate and never know what it means to truly live.

We’re all in a liminal space now with the pandemic. A virus has challenged so many of our assumptions about ourselves – what we need, what really matters – and about our society as well.

What’s so unsettling is that we’re moving away from patterns of thinking and acting that provided a sense of comfort and predictability. When we can anticipate what comes next, we feel more in control.

In a sense, we’ve lost our security blanket. And we say: Now what?

Liminal times invite us to look beyond our limiting patterns. We have to leave our bubbles in order to see what’s outside of them.

This is especially true in spirituality. We’re raised in traditions that are sometimes very limited and confining. Over time, we feel ourselves outgrowing the small theological boxes, but it’s disconcerting because it’s all we know.

How do we replace them? What do we replace them with? Can we grow outside a bubble while still being friends with others inside it? The answers aren’t apparent right away.

It takes great courage to step outside our confines and become a seeker, but that’s what it takes. I love the line in the gospels reminding us that if we seek, we will find, but we must leave the safety of certitude and go look for God’s presence in unfamiliar places.

We will find – that’s the promise – but first we have to seek, even though that part of the equation is always unsettling.

As Rohr says, “It’s no surprise then that we generally avoid liminal space. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new.”

The longer we spend in liminal space, the more acclimated we become. We relax into it a little more. We feel ourselves growing in important ways that bring us more peace and joy, and we want to keep growing. We’re glad to have moved away from our old ways.

Let us use our liminal time well. May we let it teach us what we need to know. May it show us how we need to grow.

May we move closer to the re-creative God who wants to make all things new and better, including us. The God who invites us into those liminal spaces and reminds us that She’s there with us the whole time, so there’s no reason to be afraid.

(Photo courtesy of gfdnova1 @creativecommons.org)


Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

When faith gets infected

bible pexels

During the 1970s, a pastor named Jim Jones moved his communal church to Guyana to avoid scrutiny. Investigators responding to reports of abuse at the compound were killed.

Jones then ordered the 918 commune members to kill themselves by drinking a cyanide-laced grape beverage. One-third of them were children.

Everyone wondered: How could this happen?

How could people be so influenced by a leader that they’ll follow self-destructive orders, killing their own children? What kind of person purposely hurts those in their trust?

We’re asking that second question again in response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Some religious leaders refuse to do the right thing and tell their congregants to watch services from home. Instead, they’re encouraging them to worship in large crowds that will spread the virus, resulting in avoidable illness and death.

Also, some religious schools refuse to close, insisting that God will make sure nobody gets sick even though young people are in dangerous proximity on campus.

Congregants and students alike have become ill, as will countless others who had contact with them.

And Jesus weeps.

Instead of caring for people in their charge, arrogant religious leaders and school presidents have turned public safety into a perverse test of “religious liberty,” using congregants and students as leverage.

They insist any attempt to impose safety measures is a violation of their religious rights. They refuse to accept their religious responsibility to love and protect others.

Let’s be blunt: Jesus would never act this way. He’s about healing people, not selfishly putting them in harm’s way. He’s about caring for our neighbor, not carelessly putting them at risk.

We need to pay attention and follow advice of our medical experts about best ways to slow the virus’ spread, save lives and prevent misery.

Although we can’t force reckless leaders to do the right thing, we need to challenge them as Jesus pushed back against harmful religious leaders in his day. We need to make sure everyone knows such leaders don’t act on behalf of a loving God.

Their faith has developed a deadly infection hurting not only them but anyone who follows too closely.

(photo courtesy of Pexels/Wendy van Zyle)

Protecting our peace

peace sky pexels

These last two weeks, I’ve struggled to find peace while everything around me is in turmoil. My groundedness evaporates a little with every dire prediction and mindless comment.

How do I find secure peace? Where is God in all this?

During our online church service yesterday morning, we recalled that a group of people had a similar crisis long ago. The person who embodied peace, love and God’s presence for them was crucified, and everything changed overnight.

They self-quarantined for fear of being killed. They sheltered in place, unsure what to do next.

As the story goes, the last person whom they expected to see visited them again. The first thing he said: Peace be with you! There’s no need for fear. God is right here with you. Always.

We need that reminder.

Peace is the starting point for handling challenges. Without it, we lurch every which way. Our brains get overwhelmed, our hearts locked in fear, our lives frozen in place.

We need to hear that voice reminding us that peace is ours. Nobody can take it from us, nothing can diminish it, so long as we hold onto it, protect it and nurture it.

Protecting our peace doesn’t mean closing our eyes and burying our heads – we mustn’t ever do that.

Rather, it means refusing to let someone’s fearful actions or selfish comments diminish our peace. It means finding healthy ways to channel the righteous anger we feel when people use the pandemic for personal gain.

It means taking a deep breath and letting go of the frustrations we feel when political, social and religious leaders promote policies that will harm people.

Once we’ve protected our peace, we respond from it. Our peace is the starting point for our actions and reactions, showing others a different way.

We can’t be healers if we lack a peaceful spirit. We can’t be leaders if we lack wisdom that requires peaceful contemplation. We can’t be lovers – lovers of God, lovers of creation, lovers of each other – unless we have peace in our hearts.

So, let’s work at securing and promoting our peace. Only to the degree that we have peace can we bring it into our world.

Don’t let the folks acting out of fear, selfishness and foolishness get inside our heads or our hearts. Instead, nurture a peaceful spirit that can act upon the world in creative and healing ways.

Peace is with us! May we share it with our world.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com/@luizclas)

Our fixed points

Starry sky

Last night gave us a gloriously warm spring evening. We lit a fire as the sun set and poured a glass of wine. One by one, the stars and planets began to dot the deepening sky.

Saturn appeared first, a bright point in the southwest sky hanging above the treetops. Soon, Orion made its appearance. Eventually, the sky was filled with all these dots of light.

It was very soothing to do something that we humans have done as long as we’ve been around – light a fire for warmth, look up at the sky for inspiration and wonder and a sense of connectedness to our vast and amazing universe.

People have done the same thing since our earliest times. We’ve gathered and gazed up during the most horrific times in human history – wars, natural disasters, pandemics.

We’ve looked up at the stars from all regions of Earth, including the vast oceans and lakes, where stars are necessary to navigate — fixed points in the darkness that lead us where we need to go in unsettling times.

Times like now.

May we be reminded to look for the fixed points in our lives – the people who love us, the faith that directs us, the miracle all around us and within us that inspires and reassures us that we belong.

Let’s also aspire to be fixed points for one another, helping each other get through the times, just as we always have.

As Alexis Castle put it in her graduation speech: “There’s some people who are so much a part of us, they’ll be with us no matter what. They are our solid ground. Our North Star. And the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us always.”

Through their voices we experience another Voice, the One who creates fixed points to guide us. Our role is to look for the light and listen for the voice.

(photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/@philippedonn)

Why is all this happening?

eye photo pexels

When things happen as fast as they are now, we ask a lot of questions.

What’s the latest news? When do the newest virus-related restrictions go into effect? Who’s affected by them? Where will I be able to go?

And then the best question which we humans tend to ask most often throughout our lifetimes.


Why is all this happening?

We’re hard-wired to seek explanations – answers to “why” — so we can understand better. Parents know how often a young child will ask that question. Why do I have to do this? Why can’t I do something else?

Why is everything this way?

Sometimes, however, “why” isn’t an especially useful question when we’re trying to deal with a challenge. There are more helpful questions for the moment.

do I navigate this? How do I help others get through it, too?

Right now, we’re all trying to get through our lives being turned upside-down in many ways. We’re full of lots of questions, most of which don’t have well-formed answers.

But we intuitively know the answer to the most immediate questions.

How do we get through this? How do we heal from all this?

Together, as we always do.

There’s so much fear and pain and grief around us and within us now. We’re grieving the loss of how our lives were only a couple weeks ago. We feel pain from losing jobs and routines and connections.

We also grieve the loss of long-awaited events, things we’d worked so hard to achieve and celebrate – graduations, weddings, proms, big events that we’d circled on our calendar.

We fear what might happen in coming weeks and months before we begin to see an outline of our new normal.

But here’s the thing: We can get through by entering into not only our pain and fear and grief, but others’ as well. Once we share it, we no longer shoulder all the weight by ourselves.

And then it becomes manageable.

As Richard Rohr put it, “When we carry our own suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s.”

Even as we create physical separation to keep each other safe, we need to create shared, common spaces within us to heal together. We can’t withdraw from each other.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com/@magoi)



Being scared … and courageous, too

cowardly lion

When I was young, my mom turned our annual visit to Santa into a big day. She, my younger brother and I would take a bus to downtown Cleveland and visit the Sterling Lindner department store. We’d sit on Santa’s lap and then eat at the lunch counter.

One year, I remember standing in a long line to see Santa. “The Little Drummer Boy” was playing on the sound system. When it was my turn to sit on Santa’s lap, I got scared for some reason.

I remember my mom saying, “It’s OK. I’m right here.”

Hearing her voice made everything OK.

That memory came to mind today as I read about the upheaval in our world because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s scary stuff. The virus is dangerous. People are losing jobs. Events we’ve eagerly awaited are being canceled. Every aspect of our daily lives is in flux.

We don’t know how long it will last, or what the new normal will be when we emerge.

At times like this, everyone’s scared in different ways, to varying degrees. They should be! It’s our natural reaction, though it’s important to avoid getting trapped and frozen in our fear.

We need to be courageous, even when our legs are wobbly.

Courage isn’t an absence of fear – the two usually coexist. The question is which one we’ll choose to guide our response to whatever’s going on.

The cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” was a scaredy cat, literally afraid of his own tail. Yet when Dorothy needed him, he tucked that twitching tail into his outfit and went to help, in spite of his fear.

We can acknowledge our fear without letting it hold us back from doing what’s important.

And when we feel frozen in place, when we get that shaky feeling, we can remind ourselves to listen for our loving Parent’s voice reminding us: “I know this is scary. It’s going to be OK. I’m right here with you. Always.”

Artwork by Michael Scott Murphy

Tending the garden

hand with leaf

We wrap up our visit to the garden of Eden by noting the most neglected part of the story, which comes very early. We’re placed in this beautiful garden and given an important role in God’s ongoing act of creation.

As the text says, it’s our responsibility to “cultivate and care for it.”

God could have done all the cultivating, of course. But God enlists us as full partners in nurturing her precious creation.

God provides parental guidelines to help us do our part properly. We’re told that we’re free to enjoy the garden and share its fruits, but not all of them.

We don’t have a blank check to do anything we want. There are limits.

It’s not our garden, after all. We’re beloved guests extended a divine invitation to enjoy it, take what we truly need from it, and roll up our sleeves and care for it.

This is one of several powerful and poetic stories early in scriptures that tell us we’re made from the same stuff as everyone and everything else, and we must live accordingly. We’ll all interconnected. What affects one part of creation affects all of it.

When we lose sight of this truth, we go off the rails.

When we think we’re God and can do whatever we wish, everything breaks down at the fundamental level. We withdraw from each other and from God. We damage our relationships. We destroy the garden we were meant to tend.

We fight over land and water and air, which should never be divvied up possessively. We hoard things that were meant to be shared.

We monetize beaches and forests and other natural resources for personal gain. We ignore the destruction caused by our policies.

Instead of protecting God’s creation, we desecrate it for profit.

The Eden story is a cautionary tale from centuries ago that applies to us today. It’s a reminder that we have a role to play, but it’s not the role of God.

It’s not our garden. We’re only the gardeners. And God’s counting on you and me together to do a good job.

(photo courtesy of Daria Shevtsova)

A couple of songs that remind us that we’re living in God’s world: