Friday, June 26, 2009

Change in a Culture of Contentment

John Kenneth Galbraith's theory of social change seems to hold up in that there's no change until enough people get ticked off enough to organize and vote to make it happen. It's called the Misery Index. That's the question regarding the public option for health insurance. If it happens it's because enough of us who are doing OK find it intolerable that 40+ million men, women, and children are unprotected.

Again, the question about the critical mass for change is relevant. It would seem that the 2008 election answered that question. In addition, it appears that the misery index- the anger and frustration over the greed and neglect in the present system is outstripping the fear of change, "Trojan horses" notwithstanding. Besides, most are clueless about what that analogy means anyway.

We come back to Galbraith's theory of social change- that people really don't care about changing anything until their own contentment is threatened. Does the same thing hold true for personal and community change? What about changes in spirituality? Do we value our contentment and prize a comfortable life at all costs? And once that is messed with, then and only then do we think about moving, changing?

Though I hate to admit it, that strain is in me, because I like the path of least resistance and choose it regularly. That's why practices and disciplines of the spirit are so helpful-- they can tame our animal adaptation to pleasure and help us to live beyond just our own contentment, where we can experience God's grace and life as gift, not possession. Disciplines like prayer, study, gratitude are not "add- ons." Rather, they are the medicines, the daily prescriptions if you will, that keep us from grabbing our way through life. And grabbing from others.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Choice is Better!

Remember when the "deserving poor" first hit the PC talking points of the Reagan Revolution? The memorable movie, Pursuit of Happyness, told the story of what it was like to be poor and out on the street in those days. Other phrases like the "truly needy" were used over against examples of welfare cheats, so that it seemed there were just as many, or maybe more people, ripping off the system, than being helped by it.

"Homeless" was another word that cropped up too. As mental health patients were released en mass from closing treatment centers, they would somehow be transformed into healthy people who would take their meds, and get a job as well as a place to live. In counseling the unemployed, the Great Communicator suggested that we check the want adds. To make it easier for Americans to get a healthy diet, he suggested that ketchup be considered a vegetable.

The New American Poverty Micheal Harrington so well documented and described in the "me" decade of the 1980's has come full circle. Now millions of working and even middle class families totter on the edge of poverty, one health calamity away from it. While millions are still uninsured, many politicos still shriek the refrain of "socialized medicine" and bureaucrats "getting between me and my doctor."

But those phrases are beginning to sound as senseless as the "deserving poor" now does. Those who use them do so only to churn the gut, but don't use logic or economics. The reason why everything is too costly is because the middle man called insurance makes health care the for profit enterprise it is. And that behemoth doesn't want a public option, instead, it wants more public funds sent its way. It knows that if greed is taken out of the equation, then more and more will choose the public option.

Now, insurance companies not the "guvmunt" get between me and my doctor. They tell me what treatments I can and cannot have, what tests will be paid for, and to what extent. To do this, both companies and providers hire teams to haggle. The goal of the company is to pay for less, while the goal of the provider should be dispensing the best medical care. But, when almost 50 million people are not apart of the system (except when other "customers" foot the bill), then it's "broke" and past time to fix it.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Like hobbies, we need to be able to identify our friends. Because our work as pastors is very relational, when I took my first appointment, a student pastorate in a small textile- mill town in North Carolina, I remarked to an old college friend from Texas, that being a pastor was LIKE being a friend. Friendship was the most comparable frame I had at the time- 29 years ago.

In discussing a theology of ordination, No Longer Servants draws on friendship love not servant-hood as the metaphor in describing the person and work of the pastor. I like it because it is a corrective to some of the abuses of servanthood. Regardless of where you stand normatively, the question is, who are your true friends?

Can the same people you pastor also be your friends? In a word, no. Not because you cannot support each other mutually as Christ's body, but because their receiving spiritual care from you does not include your getting friendship in return. To be among friends means that I can be myself, totally, and, while I overlook and learn to accept the "that's who they are" aspect of others, they also can learn to tolerate that in me.

So while, aspects of friendship love (mutual support, trust, communication, respect) are very important in all we do as church and clergy, it's just not fair to expect others who are in our care to be our friends.

So the question returns, who are your friends and do you spend regular time with them? If I blow that question off, then I start expecting things from people that they cannot be expected to provide.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thinking About Sabbaticals, 2

Clergy sabbatical, we hardly knew ye! It's not that we haven't ever heard of them, it's just that we've never known anyone to take one. At least I haven't heard of many UMC clergy doing so.

Popular author and church-planter Wayne Cordiero in Running on Empty chronicles what drove him, literally, to create sabbatical for himself. Faced with a nervous breakdown and never having taken a rest, he talked his doctor's advice down from one year to 3-4 months. Cordiero was battling both severe energy depletion and depression.

The recovery is holistic, even if the signs don't appear to be. Sometimes when people speak of "nervous breakdown," it's code for anxiety disorder, like panic and/or agoraphobia (the fear of having panic attacks). I consider these symptoms warnings that our physical, as well as emotional health, is being compromised and will be damaged further without appropriate action.

The UMC Discipline allows for clergy sabbaticals as tailored between the church and pastor. Here are words from the UMC Book of Discipline, P. 352:

A sabbatical leave should be allowed for a program of study or travel by the conference Board of Ordained Ministry. [Clergy members] in full connection who have been serving in a full-time appointment for six consecutive full-time years....may be granted a sabbatical leave for up to one year. Whenever possible, the compensation level of the last appointment served before the leave should be maintained in the appointment made at the termination of the leave.
This is nice talk allowing sabbaticals to happen, but as far as financial support during the rest, even if the proper channels are followed and the time off is approved, this is not a leave "with pay." Difficulty with funding your sabbatical is the real reason I believe why most full-time clergy never take a rest. Also note that a rest is not necessarily the same as a "study program" mentioned above.

Advent 2020 Provides Necessary Reset

A December a few years ago, my retreat  director said to me, "Maybe this year, instead of going to Bethlehem, you need to meet Jesus at...