Thursday, December 24, 2009

At 7:15 EST on Christmas Eve Morning

At 7:15 on Christmas Eve the Health Bill was passed by the U.S. Senate 60-39. It's name includes patient protection and affordable health care. Much has been written and will be written about the contents and concessions. Much is yet to be done as the House and Senate bills are reconciled and integrated. Which provisions will prevail?

But as I watched the vote this morning, just concluded at 6:15 a.m. my time, I note some seemingly small things. Certainly it's understandable that quite a few senators left the floor immediately following their particular vote...airplane travel will be difficult given the weather right outside my own window here in Dubuque. (Yes, we are starting out on the road this morning, too, to head towards the congregation my husband is serving as interim half way across the state.) But notable was the fact that it was the losing side who mostly left the floor.

And I also noted with some consternation that it seemed hard to find a channel that kept focused on the vote all the way through. (The vote took only 15 minutes, hardly a lot of time.) Even C-Span announced a few votes in that we would need to turn to C-Span 2 to see the rest of the vote while they cut away to take calls from viewers. MSNBC was doing a pretty good job letting us actually see our Senate at work, but when the reporter covering the vote was asked to clarify what was happening (two senators were yet out of the room and the vote was being held for a moment to make sure everyone could vote), she acknowledged that she wasn't paying attention because she was doing an interview with the Today show which would air shortly.

[In the time it takes to write this, I note Sen. Al Franken from snowy Minnesota, is lingering 20 more minutes, taking time to cross the aisle and talk personally to many Republican senators. And 92-year-old Senator Bird is still there, in his wheel-chair.)

Can we not stay in the room? Can we not pay attention? Is our attention span so short? Are we so distracted, even when something, such as informing the public, is our direct responsibility? Just things to ponder as all of us are called to careful, thoughtful, collaborative deliberation in the communal decision making in our daily lives.

It's Christmas Eve. We pray for safe travel as we watch and wait. Where will we see the Christ Child coming this very day?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chronic Illness: Globally and Personally

Chronos is actual, specific time. Kairos refers to the timely moment, the “right” time. Chronologically I have been ill for 27 years this month. Chronologically the world has always been at war, somewhere. Chronologically the globe is warming. How much time, specifically, we “have left” is open to debate; however there is no doubt about the fact that the glaciers are melting at a faster and faster rate.

Was the speech President Obama gave in Oslo when he received the Nobel Peace Prize the right speech at the right time? It was a great speech. Great in spite of, perhaps because of, the challenge of the timing, right after he sent more forces to war. War is very much with us. He said, “The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God.” And so, in the midst of the chronic nature of war, he dared to live as a man seeking peace.

There are only a couple of days left of the 2009 United Nations Summit on climate change. “Will anything get done?” “What will have been accomplished?” “Will expediency cause such compromises that any action will be meaningless? “Will the nations that live in poverty be overlooked once again?” Long lines, protestors, entrenched super powers. And yet they gather. And we dare not be merely skeptical viewers; we must gather too. The earth is chronically ill. So what do we do? How do we live?

Twenty-seven years ago I was struck by a disease with a terribly misleading name, and with no known cause and no cure, Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFS). I must deal with unrelenting exhaustion, weakness, depression, seizure-like episodes, triggered by sudden loud noises, with times of being unable to walk or speak. While many become bedridden, unable to work, with the aid of two wonderful doctors and supportive family and friends, colleagues and students, I have been able to life a fully productive life. Similar in a way to global warming, progress has been impeded by those who through the year have had doubts about how real the disease is since it could not be identified under a microscope, even though more than l million people in this country and millions more globally suffer from CFS.

This fall researchers have identified a strong connection between people with CFS and an infectious human retrovirus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV). After so many years I have simply accepted that fact that I will need to live with this chronic illness the rest of my life. How do I receive the news that there could be a breakthrough, that things could change? Will research be too slow to make any difference?

On a much larger scale, we human beings have come to believe that war is inevitable. What would a world without war be like? And, in regard to climate change (also an unfortunate name that does not describe its devastating effects), people may assume there is nothing we can really do. Research will be too slow to make any difference.

The president’s poll numbers are down. Four years for a presidential term presents relentless chronological pressure to get something done quickly, lest “time run out.” President Obama knows this. And still he called the peoples of the world to vision, hard work and persistence in thinking about just war and the imperatives of a just peace. “Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.” He called for three ways to build such just and lasting peace: 1) We need to develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior; 2) Peace is not just the absence of visible conflict; just peace is based upon inherent rights and dignity of every individual; and 3) Just peace includes not only civil and political right but economic security and opportunity.

Chronological time presses on. Sin is real. War is relentless. The earth is ill. Those of us who live with chronic illnesses grow weary. And one could say that all human beings are chronically ill, at best only temporarily able bodied.

So, in the midst of these realities, how do we hope? At the kairos moment Christ came and comes again. Christmas presents us again with realities and possibilities.

I cannot depend upon the identification of the human retrovirus XMRV to change my life, but perhaps, after all these years of no progress on CFS, maybe it will. Whether or not that will happen in my lifetime, CFS cannot hinder my commitment to live and serve. .
We cannot depend upon a U.S. president alone to solve the problems of war and make peace (our work being only to give him “grades.”) Working for a just peace is the responsibility of all of us. Obama’s speech in Oslo recognized the chronic human predicament, saying that human nature is not perfect and we do not live in an idealized world. And yet he said that if we lose faith, dismiss it as na├»ve, we lose our sense of possibility.

We cannot wait for countries to agree on one strategy to keep our earth from becoming fatally ill. The Copenhagen summit will end, but those attending and those of us watching are called to continue our commitment to live and to serve and to work towards global health. The kairos moment is here.

Chronically ill? Yes! A kairos time? In Christ, always.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tithing is Big News

Christopher deForest posts this latest entry from his new location in the U.K:

Recently, a story broke here in Scotland about a 30-year-old Oxford academic, Toby Ord, who plans to donate $1.7 million to charity (to read the story, click here). He is not independently wealthy. As a scholar in the fields of ethics and philosophy his salary is not high, and he doesn’t anticipate big raises or bonuses. Nor does his pledge include contributions from his wife, his family, or any other source – merely from his own earnings.

So how does he plan to reach this extraordinary goal? Simply by giving 10% of his income every year until he retires.

Is that even possible? You’d think the numbers just couldn’t add up, but they do. And if one guy of modest means can give that much – what about two people? Five people? Ten? A hundred? A million?

That’s the whole idea behind a new grassroots movement called “Giving What You Can.” Maybe it’s premature to call it a “movement.” It only started three weeks ago, with the launch of their new website (click here). So far, they only have 23 “members” – that is, 23 people who have signed up to make the same pledge: to donate at least 10% of their lifetime earnings to organizations that are fighting extreme poverty in the developing world.

The group does not solicit or take donations directly; they merely invite you to take the pledge. And though they do endorse a few NGOs that they think are doing a great job, they leave it up to members to decide, on their own, where they give. All they ask is that the 10% goes towards aiding the poor or eradicating extreme poverty.

And how’s it all going, after three whole weeks? So far, a mere 23 individuals have pledged over $9.5 million dollars.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? The members also do something else that seems highly counter-cultural these days: they publicly post their names, right on the website. Not to boast, or to show off their moral superiority, but to make themselves accountable to each other and to the whole world. And to say, they believe they have a personal stake in the welfare of the whole human family, especially those who suffer most.

Again, let’s be clear: these aren’t wealthy philanthropists. These are at best middle-income academics. And half the listed members are students!

I am deeply humbled and inspired by what they’re doing. But one thing does give me pause. Scanning the list of members, not one claims to be clergy or faith-affiliated, nor are there any scholars or students of religion or theology.

I doubt there’s any deliberate exclusion. Rather, this may say something about the place of religion in society today – certainly in Europe, but increasingly in the U.S. as well. It seems, once again, that another creative and courageous secular group has taken what should be our message and mission, and they’ve run with it: a gracious invitation to reorient one’s life towards grateful generosity; towards simpler, more joyous living and giving. Once again, we religious folks are left in the dust, either because we’re seen as irrelevant, or out of touch, or ineffective – or because we’ve had our chance, and we’ve blown it.

Here’s another observation. Go to this link and read the stories in the press about this new group. The articles I’ve read all express a range of opinions, from doubt to shock to ridicule, not only that regular people could ever give this much – but also the very idea that anyone would consistently give 10%. What I find interesting is, never once does any journalist mention the historic religious practice of tithing – offering ten percent of your produce or income, either directly to those in need, or indirectly by way of church, synagogue or mosque.

Here’s my question: Has the whole world really forgotten what “tithing” is, and where this old concept comes from? Or have we religious folks so abused, misdirected, or marginalized the whole point of giving, that tithing has become a dirty word, or an onerous relic?

I do strongly encourage you to check out the website for this new group. They offer a wealth of data that de-bunks many myths about giving, and really makes a case for the power of personal commitment and, yes, for tithing. They may not start with God, but they end up in the place God invites us all to be: daring to believe that we are called to love extravagantly, and to declare that belief through a very public and personal witness.

Let’s celebrate and endorse this new way, that’s really very old. A way that finds its source and its hope, for us and ultimately for the whole world, in the crucified and risen Christ. Whether that’s old or new, it’s still very Good News indeed.