Archives for December 2015

A Matter of Perception

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Lego

How one acts depends upon what one sees.

My wife and I sometimes disagree about what clothes I am able to wear. This is because we sometimes see clothes as having different colors. She will see black, while I see dark blue. She will see gray, while I will see green. No matter how hard we try, we cannot convince the other that they are wrong. We are each certain that we are seeing the correct color. And of course, that influences what clothes we believe can go together.

There is a deep difference of perception within The United Methodist Church today. (Actually, there are several differences of perception.) One group perceives that the Bible (and by extension, God) mandates that sexual relationships be maintained only within a marriage between one man and one woman. Another group perceives that the Bible is not clear about that issue and leaves room for same-sex marriages. Some even go so far as to perceive that the Bible is really outmoded when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, and that it is perfectly acceptable for people to engage in sexual relationships whether or not they are married (and no matter which gender people are), as long as those relationships are consensual and life-affirming.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. Those in the first group believe the church must set a clear boundary prohibiting sexual relationships outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Many in this group believe that it is a matter of fundamental obedience and faithfulness to God to maintain this boundary. Those in the second group believe the church must enlarge its boundaries to encompass same-sex relationships. Many in this group believe it is a matter of fundamental human rights (and obedience and faithfulness to God) to ensure that same-sex relationships are not only allowed, but affirmed and supported. Those in the third group believe that the church shouldn’t be in the business of setting boundaries in the first place. Many in this group believe that the church’s role is to allow people the freedom to determine for themselves (in conversation with God) what is right or wrong for them.

Just as in my disagreement with my wife about what color we see, it is nearly impossible to convince people in the other groups that they are seeing incorrectly. Because each group has such a vastly different perspective, the groups are pulling the church in different (often opposite) directions. This is a recipe not only for stalemate and “gridlock,” but it is harming the church’s ability to minister in this world. Because we perceive differently, we cannot agree on what the church stands for and what ministry the church should and should not provide.

How can we decide?

The church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) had a problem of perception. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (vs. 17). What the church perceived was different from what Jesus perceived in them. I think it would be best to agree with Jesus’ perception, don’t you? He offered the remedy of true wealth (gold refined in the fire) and white clothes to wear to “cover your shameful nakedness.” But before they could get these things, they needed “salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (vs. 18).

Jesus alone can change our perceptions. It is essential to be in relationship with him. He knocks at the door of our lives and desires to have fellowship with us, which will transform our perceptions (vs. 20).

According to my perception, the current United Methodist teaching defining marriage as between one man and one woman and limiting sexual relationships to heterosexual marriage has many advantages. It is consistent with the univocal message of Scripture, with 2,000 years of near-unanimous Christian teaching, and is supported by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Those who perceive things differently have to fudge the teachings of Scripture and go against centuries of Christian tradition, as well as disregard the perception of the vast majority of the worldwide Body of Christ.

But all three groups maintain that they are being led by the authentic Spirit of Christ and that they are being faithful and obedient to what God wants. Since United Methodists don’t have a pope to make the final decision, we turn to General Conference. However, many who disagree with General Conference no longer feel bound to honor what the General Conference decides. Their way of perceiving things causes them to believe that they must follow a “higher law” than to submit to the church. We are not talking here about disagreements over what shirt goes with what pair of pants. We are dealing with foundational matters of the inspiration of Scripture, our theology of marriage and sexuality, and our theology of the church.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. When we see so differently, how can we act together or in concert? How long can we live in a church where some groups see other groups as unfaithful, and where some groups have determined to act according to their perception, no matter what the church says?

Health Care Justice

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

HC

Our country is having difficulty getting it right when it comes to providing health care for all its citizens. This is an area of great controversy and much political disagreement. Despite the enactment of the fairly comprehensive Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” both the controversy and the problems with health care access and cost continue.

Recently our home area of Houston suffered a major shift in availability of health care. All the insurance companies that have been offering plans on the open market have shifted from PPO plans, which provide a wider range of available doctors and hospitals, to HMO plans, which provide a much narrower range of available doctors and hospitals. (As a point of comparison, our current PPO lists 15 rheumatologists within ten miles of our home, while our new HMO lists four.) The reason for shifting from PPO’s to HMO’s is that the insurance companies lost $400 million dollars last year on their PPO plans.

Not only is there going to be a much narrower range of doctors and hospitals available, some of the top-rated doctors and hospitals in the country are now excluded from all local insurance plans. It was front-page news in our paper that M.D. Anderson, the nation’s #1 rated cancer treatment facility, is not going to be covered in network by ANY local insurance plans on the open market. People travel from all over the world to get the best treatment at M.D. Anderson, but that treatment will be unavailable to many Houston residents. Not only that, but patients who are in treatment at M.D. Anderson locally will have to switch to a different doctor and hospital in the midst of dealing with a life-threatening disease. Moreover, these patients may no longer have access to cutting-edge treatment trials being run at M.D. Anderson.

The Houston situation is not an isolated event. United Healthcare, one of the largest health insurance companies in the country, has announced its plan to cut back participation in the open market in 2016 and possibly withdraw from it altogether in 2017. This is due to anticipated losses of $200 million on those plans in 2015.

After several years of slower healthcare cost inflation, the pressure to raise insurance premiums will be very strong. There is also the move to shift more of the costs to the individual and family through higher deductibles and co-pays. Out-of-pocket costs for many plans are in the range of $6,000 to $7,000 per year per person, in addition to insurance premiums of $10,000 to $17,000 per year (for those not receiving insurance subsidies from the government).

The effect of these changes is to reestablish the two-tier system in health care that existed prior to Obamacare. Those who are in the top ten percent of earners or who have a good job with robust health insurance benefits will be able to afford good quality health care, and even get the best care in case of a life-threatening illness. Those who don’t have health insurance benefits through their jobs will be unable to afford good health care, and many will be unable to afford any health care at all. Lower middle class folks are putting off getting treatment or filling prescriptions because they have to pay for it out of pocket, and they are unable to pay the bill.

This was exactly the problem that Obamacare was designed to address, namely, that there was a whole segment of society that could not receive health care because they were priced out of the market (or were excluded because of pre-existing conditions). Now, our health care system is evolving right back into that same situation.

I think part of the problem is a fundamental philosophical question: Is health care a right or a commodity? Many on the right view health care as a commodity that should be purchased by users, and that the market system can bring about the most equitable distribution of resources in the most efficient manner. Many on the left view health care as a basic right of people that should be assured by the government, which leads them to propose government-run health care. (The U.S. is the only Western country that does not have government-run health care.)

If health care is a commodity, then how do we make the health care system operate in an open-market way? The prices for doctors and procedures and prescriptions are normally not available for everyone to see prior to making a decision on what health care to receive. It is nearly impossible to compare prices between one provider and another. Even if “list prices” were fully available, the price negotiated by each insurance company is different and normally not available for comparison. So the “shopper” for health care has to buy a product for which he/she does not know the cost.

Furthermore, people often make health care decisions under duress. The patient has a difficult or painful condition that needs to be resolved ASAP. Even if it were possible to compare prices, taking time in midst of the pain often makes it unrealistic to “shop around.” It is one thing to compare prices for routine physicals or planned elective procedures. It is quite a different thing to be lying in a hospital bed being told you need an emergency heart bypass operation and then to look at three different hospitals and three different doctors to get the best price on the operation.

Finally, if health care is a commodity, how do we ensure that everyone can get treatment? How do we prevent a situation where people who can afford health care receive it, and those who cannot afford it either receive substandard care or no care at all—leading to chronic loss of health or even death? It’s not like we’re looking at the difference between a Chevrolet and a Cadillac. Both cars will get you around, one with more comfort and luxury than the other. But cancer treatment is not a luxury—it is an essential. And some cancer treatments are better than others. If I can’t afford the best treatments, does that mean I have to be resigned to an earlier death?

Some people are afraid of the idea of “rationing” health care. This is usually framed as government bureaucrats determining which health treatments will be covered and which will not, and which patients are eligible to receive which treatments. But “rationing” is already going on. It is not the government bureaucrats, but the health insurance bureaucrats who are determining which treatments will be covered and who will receive them. And health care is now being rationed by income, in the sense that the rich or those with good jobs can receive whatever care they want, while the rest of the population are excluded from certain treatments because they cost too much.

I don’t know the answer to solving the health care crisis. I have read some good ideas that could make things better. But until we decide whether health care is a commodity or a right, we will be at loggerheads in trying to fashion a solution. As Christians, I think we need to apply the lens of justice and fairness to proposed solutions. I’m not sure I would want to face the Lord on judgment day after telling a couple, “I’m sorry, we cannot give your seven-year-old daughter treatment for her leukemia because you didn’t come up with the $70,000 it will cost.”

What do you think? How should our Christian values influence our opinion on resolving the health care crisis?

Acknowledging Flawed Heroes

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Students at Princeton University made news recently with their demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings and from the School of Public and International Affairs due to Wilson’s racist views and discriminatory actions. He apparently supported the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, refused to hire blacks in his administration as New Jersey governor, and believed that black students did not belong at Princeton, among other transgressions.

Woodrow-Wilson_Health-Crisis_HD_768x432-16x9Wilson was honored by the university as a former university president who went on to become governor of New Jersey and President of the United States. He was also honored for his work toward creating the League of Nations as an attempt to prevent future wars after World War I. He received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was well known for his progressive political views, even as his racist views have been hidden from public view.

Princeton has decided to agree to the students’ demand and remove Wilson’s name. Whether one supports that decision or not, it has implications for how we acknowledge our history as a nation. Two of our greatest founders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, and Jefferson may have even fathered six children with a slave. To be consistent, do we demolish or rename the Washington and Jefferson memorials? Does slaveholding (reprehensible as it is) disqualify someone from being a national hero or having their accomplishments recognized?

As Christians, we have a different way of looking at our heroes of faith. Reading the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 points out that many biblical heroes were deeply flawed persons. Abraham took matters into his own hands to fulfill God’s promise and also allowed his wife to be taken as a concubine by Egyptian and Canaanite rulers. Jacob deceived his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and parented his sons with favoritism. Samson was sexually promiscuous. Jephthah made a rash oath and sacrificed his own daughter. Barak was a coward who refused to lead Israel’s armies unless the prophet Deborah came along. David, an adulterer and a murderer, was considered “a man after God’s own heart.” Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines and turned away from following God, yet is renowned for his godly wisdom.

When it comes to the New Testament, Peter denied Jesus three times, and after the church was formed and began admitting Gentiles, he reneged on welcoming Gentiles and began separating from them. All the apostles (except perhaps John) deserted Jesus in his hour of trial. Paul persecuted the church and killed Christians.

We realize that every one of us is flawed and guilty of sin. Were it not for the grace and mercy of God, we would be totally lost. And it is only God’s grace that is able to use flawed people to extend his love and accomplish his Kingdom work. As Paul said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

We American Christians tend to idolize certain leaders of the faith and gloss over any imperfections they might have. But the Bible treats heroes of faith with wide-eyed realism. Their sins are not glossed over, but recorded for everyone to see. That takes the focus off of the person and puts it on the Lord, who is the reason why we are able to do anything worthwhile.

And yet, we do not repudiate our flawed heroes, we celebrate and learn from them—from their successes and faith, as well as their failures and flaws. The good news of the Gospel is that God does use “cracked pots” (or is it “crackpots”?) to do his work in the world. God is able and eager to forgive our sins and redeem our flaws for the sake of his Kingdom. He wants us to grow into maturity, which means leaving behind flawed thinking and behavior, overcoming failure, and taking advantage of the Lord’s “second chances” that we are given.

I don’t know whether Woodrow Wilson’s name should remain on any Princeton buildings. But I do know that we will be better off as a nation if we are able to acknowledge the great accomplishments of our leaders, while at the same time being aware and learning from their faults and failures. There is no such thing as a perfect hero, only persons who are redeemed by God’s grace and used in his service.