Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My father taught me that a person is known by the company you keep.

I tried to be what they call “pro-life.” It was 1970. I was 21-years-old and running for the state legislature for the first time. It was the year a Texas woman filed a lawsuit known as Roe v. Wade.

In 1970 hundreds of Americans and thousands of others were dying weekly in Viet Nam. The death penalty was being challenged in legal, academic, and political circles. It seemed abortion was simply one more way the government sanctioned the taking of human life. So I decided that to be consistent, I would be a pro-life candidate.

I had then and yet have many friends who consider themselves “pro-life” who offer honest, thoughtful, reasoned ideas on how to limit or end the practice of abortion. Others insist on radicalizing the debate by saying those who disagree are murders. They block doors to doctors’ offices, calling women making tough personal choices “baby-killers.”

My time as a “pro-life” advocate didn’t last long. Soon I realized I just didn’t like the company one had to keep on that side of the aisle. The same doubts should be occurring today among members of the National Rifle Association. The company one has keep in order to oppose gun safety proposals in the post Sandy Hook era is unsavory at best and, at times unpatriotic.

As with abortion, there are honest, reasonable, responsible arguments on both sides. Even gun owners can understand that while we want the freedom to have guns, there are common sense reforms that will make us safer.

But, to keep membership in the NRA you must align yourself with a ruthless public relations lobbying campaign that attempts to equate the President of the United States with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The lunacy of the NRA’s response to a call for national dialogue about gun safety means members’ names and dues are used to peddle the perverse lies the organization uses to stop the discussion before it begins.

The NRA sends out bumper stickers supporting its “A” list of congressmen. They may read “Sportsmen for Lummis” or whomever, but sportsmen are not the organization’s top priority. According to The Nation, “there is much evidence to suggest that corporations that profit from unregulated gun use are propping up the NRA’s activities, much like how the tobacco lobby secretly fronted ‘smokers rights’ and libertarian anti-tax groups, or how polluters currently finance much of the climate change skepticism movement.”

The NRA benefits from its special relationship with arms manufacturers like Bushmaster Firearms Inc., the company that manufactures the assault rifle allegedly used to massacre children in Newtown. The NRA uses your dues to block law enforcement efforts to revoke the gun-selling licenses of crooked dealers, to assure continuation loopholes allowing “private” gun sales with no background check, to allow concealed guns to be carried into bars, restaurants, churches, schools and malls, to block research into the causes of gun violence, and to oppose legislation designed to prohibit gun sales to people on the federal government's terrorist watch list. They also use your money to demolish any politician who questions their radical agenda.

There are no limits in truth or decency to the NRA campaign to prevent a gun safety debate despite the fact that the U.S. suffers more gun violence than any other industrialized nation. For example, when the father of one of the children killed at Sandy Hook testified in the Connecticut legislature for gun safety, he was booed and taunted by NRA hecklers. No class.

Another example is the recent attack on the President’s children. The NRA called Barack Obama a “hypocrite” because he allows armed secret service officers to protect his children. That silliness places the NRA on the far side of the lunatic fringe. They claim guns are necessary to protect ourselves from a “tyrannical government” to persuade people the government is the enemy and the President is coming to take your guns.

No reasonable voices are calling for confiscation of a single gun. Legitimate arguments exist for and against the President’s ideas. But the National Rifle Association seeks to prevent any debate by espousing an unpatriotic, borderline treasonous campaign.  

My father taught me that a person is known by the company you keep. If you are an NRA member, that’s the company you keep.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Was it something I said?" Yesterday's sermon at Highlands

“Was it something I said?”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
January 27, 2013

The lectionary stops where Cathy did…but we can’t leave it there, here’s why. That’s not how the story ends. This is the rest of the story.

Luke 4.22-44 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And Jesus looked out at them, saw their smiles and how pleased they were by the sermon that had ended without challenging anyone to do anything…and he began to speak again, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to one widow at in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and not one of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I am not sure that the words of Jesus have much power anymore. We’ve read and heard these stories so often over so many years that they may have lost their power. After all, what’s a story about Jesus insulting a bunch of uptight folks in the synagogue 2000 years ago have to do with us?

Well…it must have been something he said. Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you need to make them laugh. Otherwise they may kill you.” There was no one in the synagogue that morning laughing. They weren’t just sitting there seething, waiting to get to the parking lot where they left their camels to start complaining. His words made them darned unhappy, hopping mad. And they hopped up and drove Jesus, drove him out of the synagogue, and then they drove him out of town…and then they drove him to a cliff and they wanted to throw him over it and into the abyss.

Now I’ve had folks walk out on a sermon. I’ve even had a few drop their membership in the church when they were unhappy about what I said. I suspect there have been times when others have complained quietly or not so quietly. But I have yet to be driven from the church, chased out of town and have my life threatened.

So when I read the account of Jesus first sermon and the fan reaction, I feel lacking. What have I done wrong that no one ever tried to toss me over a cliff?

Jesus had a peculiar knack of getting himself into trouble. He read that passage from Isaiah, and could have said something innocuous, like, “I’ve got some thoughts arising from this passage that I’d like to share with you.”
No, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “I’m the guy Isaiah was talking about.” They kinda rolled their eyes and said, oh sure, you’re the son of Mary and Joseph but they let that one go by…until he goes on to tell the folks that it’s foreign widows and lepers that will receive God’s gifts, not the good and proper folks there in the synagogue.

We listen and say, “Go get ‘em Jesus! Hit ‘em where it hurts. You’ve got truth on your side and, hey, it was a long time ago when people over-reacted to such criticisms.

But it all got me thinking. There are a couple of questions that came to mind. One, WHY would Jesus want to say something that would cause his listeners to become so angry…and TWO…what would it take today, in today’s church…in this church? What would someone have to say today in order to make the folks so incensed that they would chase you toward the nearest cliff?

Think of a similar scenario. A young person in your church – a young person who maybe grew up in the community. You know her parents, dad is a carpenter, mom stays at home and raises the children. Good people…and you recall this young girl when she was small and occasionally came to church.

Now she comes to church as a young adult…with assorted hardware-piercings in her nose, ears and lips, tattoos across arms and neck, she’s the reader one Sunday morning, know one seems to know how that happened, tat crazy pastor probably lined her up…she stands up and reads one of the passages about the return of the Messiah. We all smile and say, “isn’t that so-and-so’s daughter. My she has grown up. I’ll bet her parents are not happy with those tattoos…but she is so well-spoken and she read the scripture so well.

But then she suddenly stops. There is a glimmer in her eye. She looks out at the congregation and with a perfectly straight face says, “I’m it, folks. I’m the Messiah these guys were talking about. I am here to tell you what you need to know. And you know something else? God cares more about the HIV positive drunk lying homeless on the street and the malaria infected African pauper, than about any of you.”

It was sort of like that. In your face…or as the kids used to say, “up your nose with a rubber hose.” Why would Jesus say such things? That gentle fellow we see in paintings holding children and petting lambs, who speaks of love and kindness? Well, I think Jesus knew that the pews are too comfortable. That’s where the saints come to hear stories about the sinners. From the pews of the church we have a window on the world, not a mirror into which we can look and see our own reflection.

Jesus knew kingdom building on earth was too important not to tell the truth and he knew that if he wasn’t causing someone to be uneasy or even angry, he would never be able to motivate them to do the hard work of kingdom building.

So…we read the scripture and we know that from time to time he said things that made folks unhappy. Today’s reading describes a time when they were so angry by his words they tried to kill him. Later…they will.

Make a note. Jesus wasn’t there just to make them mad. He was trying to get them to think first and then to act. Jesus knows that delusional thinking keeps us from doing the tough work. If we sit here and allow ourselves to believe there is no racism in our community, that everyone has a fair break, that poor people are poor because they make bad choices, that homeless people choose to be homeless…well then…there isn’t much we can or should do about those problems.

But what about us? What needs to be said today to stir such emotion?

What if one of the family’s from Family Promise came to speak. A mother, let’s say, with three children. She and the kids step up to the lectern. First she gives thanks, tells us how nice it was that we brought her and her children dinner, strayed with her and talked, read to her children. She appreciated that.

But then she stops, looks around the room as a tear falls from her cheek, and she says, “Why do good folks like you sit quietly in your warm homes and tolerate the way poor people are treated in Cheyenne?  Why is it acceptable for employers and landlords, payday loan sharks, and businesses to take advantage of the poor in this Christian community? God said, there would be no poor people if you all followed God’s law…so what’s up with all these hungry, homeless children?”

Imagine one Sunday…perhaps during prayer time…someone stands up, a newcomer who has been quietly listening to us and and says, “You call yourselves Christians? Jesus touched and helped the lepers of his day. The leper said to Jesus, “You can help me if you choose.” Jesus said, “I will help you.” But you…you brood of vipers (to use Jesus’ words) you brood of vipers create more lepers than you help.

Jesus said, “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and not one of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

After quoting Jesus, she says, “There are many lepers today…in this community…people who because of their sexual orientation, their addictions, their criminal records or economic status…are lepers…created by the laws and the lawmakers and the people of God who read the word of God as literally as those Jesus confronted 2000 years ago.”

And as she looks into my face and yours, she says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and the homeless and to the gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexual people, to the addicts and to the others your laws and beliefs have turned into lepers and to proclaim to them the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And as she took her seat, she says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel says that upon hearing those words, we have three choices. One, we can do nothing, act as though those minutes passed in silence…or two, we can turn red in the face and chase her to the nearest cliff and toss her over…or three…we can examine ourselves, our own thinking, the behavior of ourselves and others with whom we share the community and become advocates for the lepers.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 13th. We will have a series of Lenten suppers beginning on February 19th and running for five consecutive Tuesdays. We will use our Lenten season to think and dialogue and pray about how to make the third choice. We will study the prophets of the Old Testament, what they said and why. We will hear from local folks who have learned from personal experiences in this community what it’s like to be an advocate for the lepers.

And at the end of Lent, we will remember the crucifixion of he who risked his life to be an advocate for us all…remembering not only his death but also his resurrection. AMEN

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Medicaid Expansion: It’s the math, Stupid!”

Politics should be more like mathematics. Take this problem. Susie has one apple. She needs ten to make an apple pie. If Johnnie gives her nine apples, will Susie have enough? Mathematicians would say, “Yes, 1 + 9 = 10.” Whether the mathematician is a Republican or a Democrat 9 + 1 should equal 10, unless the facts are manipulated. Unlike mathematicians, politicians can equivocate and say, “I just don’t trust Johnnie to give her any of those apples.”

Forty-percent of Wyoming’s high school graduates require remedial math because they didn’t learn it well enough in high school. Before the legislature adjourns we’ll see what that percentage is among our legislators.

When Congress enacted Obamacare, it gave states some math homework. Some states have been better at the math than others depending on whether they really want to help Susie make that apple pie.

The law provides for a “mandatory expansion” of Medicaid and an “optional expansion.” Congress didn’t care whether states agreed to the optional expansion. There were some people they had to cover regardless, mainly children. That will cost Wyoming (jot down this number) 80 million dollars.

The 80 million dollar figure is critical to getting this math problem correct because the state legislature must spend that regardless of whether they like Obamacare or not. Those dollars are gone!

Then Congress added to the equation. Knowing a lot of other folks, namely the working poor, still need healthcare, Congress said that if the states choose to participate, the federal government would pay no less than 90% of the costs of covering those families.

This number is critical to the math because today Wyoming taxpayers are paying all of the costs for providing medical care to these folks. Programs created by state legislators to provide care for the uninsured cost you millions. Some of the costs are paid when uninsured people end up in hospitals and can’t pay. There’s also a cost when health insurance premiums increase dramatically because the costs of caring for the uninsured are shifted to the insured.

In addition to the millions of dollars the legislature appropriates every year for these programs, local hospitals lost 200 million dollars last year caring for folks who could be insured with Medicaid expansion.

Congress said to state mathematician/politicians, “Figure out how much of that money you could save if you expanded Medicaid insurance to cover your uninsured.”  The Wyoming Department of Health studied those costs and concluded that if legislators decide to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, there are 127 million dollars in Wyoming’s budget that could be saved. That doesn’t include the 200 million in uncompensated care at Wyoming hospitals, most of which would also be saved.  Jot down the 127 million dollar savings while keeping in mind the additional 200 million dollars (they’re your tax dollars too).

Now you are ready to do the math.

Whether legislators like it or not, we must come up with 80 million tax dollars for the mandatory expansion. Wyoming starts 80 million dollars in the hole. If legislators agree to the optional expansion, we’ll save 127 million tax dollars (plus, always remember, the hospital money). Simple math. After paying for the mandatory expansion, you’ll save 47 million dollars. That’s why the Department of Health calls Medicaid expansion a “great opportunity for savings.”

There’s another number in the formula. If Medicaid is expanded, approximately 864 million federal dollars will be added to Wyoming’s healthcare system, creating jobs, improving the state’s medical infrastructure and helping local economies.

Medicaid expansion saves tax dollars whether a Democrat or a Republican does the math. But easy math problems become complicated by partisanship. Math collides with ideology. Some governors are better mathematicians than others. Republican governors of North Dakota, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico opposed expansion but they did the math and decided that saving millions trumped their dislike of Obamacare.

If a majority of Wyoming’s legislators need remedial math, it’ll cost us millions.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How can we help children?

As Director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, I was often asked, “What is the one thing you would change to strengthen families?” My answer, “Create more responsible young men for women to marry.”

Wyoming has a high divorce rate. It exceeds the already unacceptably high national rate by almost one-third. The impact falls most heavily on the mother left behind with her children. Census Bureau data show when a Wyoming father leaves behind a wife and young children, more than half of those single-parent homes survive in poverty.

There are innumerable ideas for getting young men to “man-up.” From fathers to brothers, uncles, grandfathers and just concerned neighbors, men need to become mentors. But young women can’t wait for that glacier to move. They must be given the tools to take responsibility for their own lives now. Helpful strategies begin with the decision that no man in your life is better than an irresponsible one.

An unique example of how young women can make an informed, more than romantic choice, is the growing trend of using credit scores to decide whether to pursue a relationship. Credit scores are the tools banks and others use to determine whether someone is financially responsible, arguably one of the most critical qualities for a good mate.

According to FICO, one credit score source, this metric is the best way to determine whether a person practices “consistently responsible financial behavior.” That quality says more about a potential mate than that he pays his bills on time. It says he maintains employment, spends and saves wisely, and that he cares about his responsibilities to family and others in the community.
Manisha Thakor, founder and chief executive of MoneyZen Wealth Management, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that credit scores are “a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. tests give some information about a person’s sexual past.”
The other threat young women (and sometimes men) face when inviting someone into a relationship is violence. Statistics show that when children are most viciously abused, it’s more common the abuser is a boyfriend or subsequent spouse, not the biological father. There seems to be an almost primal instinct among some men to do harm to the offspring of another male. Unless mothers are careful when they invite another man into their home, their children can be put at serious risk.
But unlike credit scores, there’s no place to go for answers to the question of whether someone is potentially violent. She can and should check the sex offender registry. If she finds her potential mate’s name there, it should be a deal breaker, no questions asked.
Nevertheless, many violent suitors never commit the kind of crimes that land them on that list. Domestic violence is an example. Abusers pose an unacceptable risk, not only for their partners but also their partner’s children, who are often collateral damage. Even when the children are not the physical target, those exposed to family violence are harmed. They are more likely to develop social, emotional, psychological and or behavioral problems than those who are not.
How is anyone to know whether the person they invite into the lives of their children is potentially harmful or even deadly? Asking the person seldom produces the truth. Even when you’ve heard the rumors, the accused often rationalizes the incidents, absolving him or her from any responsibility.
This is where government can help. The legislature should create a domestic violence registry. Serial abusers of family members are arguably a greater threat to the future women or men and children in their lives than are many of those who find themselves on the sex offender list. There should be an official, accessible list of those who have been convicted of domestic violence, men and women alike.
If our culture has a problem turning out responsible men, it should at the least help women identify those who should, at all costs, be avoided.