Archive for December, 2009

Christmastide in a secular culture

Sunday, Dec. 27 — Today was the first Sunday of Christmastide, and for congregants at my parish church, Apostles Anglican, and other traditional Christians around the world, it was a time of joyous celebration of the arrival of the newborn King.
The church was resplendent in the colors of the Christmas season — brilliant white and gold, representing purity, joy and truth, and the altar was covered in the greenery of God’s creation, adorned with brilliant white lights, reminding us of the Light of the World.
The songs were carols of celebration — “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” for example. And the liturgy and sermon centered on one of the most beautiful and hope-inspiring passages of Scripture, the opening lines from the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word (Christ), and Word was with God and the Word was God. … In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Eucharist service filled my heart with reverence and brought me to my knees — an experience I shared with millions around the planet.
Sadly, though, for those who treat Christmas as a secular holiday (and that includes most Christians), it was just another Sunday.
Most people think the Christmas season begins after Thanksgiving (or even before) and ends at 11:59 on Dec. 25. But for those of us who consider Christmas a holy day and the start of the 12 days of Christmas, it is just the beginning.
The four weeks before Christmas are known in the church calendar as Advent, which means “coming.” It is a time of penitence and preparation, a season of waiting for the coming of the Christ child and the second coming in glory of the King who will bring justice and make “all things new.”
In our materialistic culture, the time leading up to Christmas is a blur — a frenzy of stress and excess. It’s hard to find time for reflection or preparing one’s heart for any kind of spiritual experience.
So why not just do away with Advent? Isn’t it one of those anachronistic traditions of the church that, to use the trite word of contemporary Christians, is no longer “relevant”?
That’s what Paula Gooder, an Anglican theologian, wondered until she was pregnant with her first child. In her book about Advent that I read just before the holidays, “The Meaning is in the Waiting,” she explains that waiting is “not just about passing time,” but that it has a “deep and lasting value.”
It is a nurturing time, not a time for passivity, but for active waiting that “knits together new life.”
Without it, she concludes, “our Christian journey is impoverished.”
I think she’s right. Without Advent, Christmas isn’t really Christmas. And for those who don’t observe the Christmas season, the period after Christmas Day is one big let-down.
So, if you want the Spirit of Christmas to last into the new year, I encourage you to leave the Yule tree up for another week, greet everyone you meet with a hearty “Merry Christmas,” and visit a church that is still celebrating the season of light.
And join with others next week, when we will celebrate the Epiphany on Jan. 6, which marks the day Jesus was revealed as the Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi, or Wise Men.

The light shines in the darkness

Light shines in the darknessIt must have caused quite a scandal in the barrio when neighbors learned that Maria was pregnant. The girl was only 15, and was engaged to a man who was a few years older — a carpenter from Juarez named Jose.

Jose had not slept with the girl before their wedding, so he was hurt and angry when she told him she was expecting. He considered breaking up with her to avoid the ridicule they would encounter in that culture. But he loved her, and after a strange dream, he decided he would not leave her, and would love the child she was carrying and bring him up as if he were his own.

Maria was a poor campesina, but descended from a noble family. She was a deeply spiritual person, but not in a haughty way. She was also a woman of the people. She believed in a God of liberation, one who defended the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Before Emanuel was born, Maria gave an incendiary speech denouncing the social order in which small farmers and sweatshop workers were heavily taxed, and corrupt leaders had members of their own families assassinated to get what they wanted.

Maria believed God’s revolution would right such wrongs, and that her own son would have a role in bringing about this new order.

Speaking without fear, Maria said of her Lord: “He has accomplished great works and scattered those who are proud. He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his followers and shown them mercy, just as he promised.”

It was easy to see where Emanuel got his passion and compassion, as well as his piety.

Maria may have been a sweet girl, but she was a little rough around the edges, as was her son, from the beginning.

He was, after all, born in a barn while the couple were traveling to a little town just south of the capital, Mexico City. They couldn’t find a hotel to stay in, and there was no hospital, so Maria gave birth to Emanuel amid the stench of manure, wrapped him in some cloth and laid him in a feeding trough lined with hay.

That night a bright comet was visible in the sky, and Jose and Maria wondered whether it had some strange meaning.

Like his adoptive father, Emanuel grew up to be a migrant worker, a carpenter. He was also a sort of itinerant preacher, spreading his liberation theology among the people.

Emanuel was often homeless, wandering from one desert town to another. With his long hair and beard and dusty sandals, he wasn’t much to look at — nothing about him that would mark him as special. But people were oddly attracted to him, and he gathered about him an unlikely assortment of friends, from Pedro the headstrong fisherman to gentle Juan, who was something of a mystic.

He had a cousin, also named Juan, who appeared to some to be a little loco. He lived outdoors and ate grasshoppers and honey. That Juan was a street preacher who had a dangerous habit of criticizing corrupt officials. No one was surprised when he was murdered in jail, although the way it was done was shocking; he was beheaded.

Emanuel, too, was a troublemaker. He didn’t advocate violence, only resistance to injustice. But one day when he was at the cathedral in the Zocalo, he became so incensed about loan sharks preying on the faithful that he couldn’t control his anger, and he started yelling at the swindlers and kicked over their tables.

“This is a house of God, and you’ve turned it into a den of thieves!” he shouted.

That kind of behavior didn’t sit well with the establishment, and some tried to discredit him, saying he was a drunkard and glutton because he drank wine and ate with outcasts. He befriended prostitutes like Magdalena, as well as AIDS victims and other untouchables and tried to help them.

About the only people he lacked patience with were the self-righteous preachers and fundamentalist hypocrites who had close ties to the some of the country’s worst politicians and their wealthy benefactors.

Emanuel defended the poor, called for the release of captives, fed the hungry, cared for those who were ill and envisioned a godly society of love and justice that would turn the selfish values of the old society upside down.

He advocated peace, but he met a violent end. A former friend betrayed him for money to those who couldn’t stand his egalitarian message. They had Emanuel tortured and executed. He was taken to a garbage dump on a hillside, where they fastened him to a wooden post, stabbed him in the side with a machete and left him to die.

Yet some say he isn’t dead — that his spirit lives on, and that at this time of the year, when his birthday is celebrated, he is reborn into the hearts of all who believe in what he stood for and follow his example of a life of love, forgiveness and sacrificial giving.

His light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Randy Patrick is the managing editor of The Winchester Sun. Contact him at rpatrick@winchester sun.com.

Real health reform plan dies in Senate

Lost in the debate over the Democrats’ health care reform plan was another reform bill that would have done what Republican opponents falsely claimed the majority House and Senate bills would do: create a single payer health care plan. But the single-payer bill, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was killed in the Senate last week without being given a real hearing.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. UPI.com

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. UPI.com

Sanders’ proposal would have made America’s 1,300 private health insurance companies irrelevant by providing a better, simpler, more affordable system similar to Canada’s government-funded insurance plan. It would have covered everybody, so there would have been no need for private insurance.

A single payer plan has been a long-time dream of liberals, including Bill Bradley and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (both of whom preferred simply expanding Medicare to cover every American). But many of those who would really prefer a single-payer plan have worked instead for the convoluted 2,000-page Senate plan that would be a massive giveaway to private insurance companies and probably forever destroy any chance of real insurance reform.

Sanders, always the true believer, still hopes an opportunity for single payer insurance will return when the realization dawns on people that private insurers “are no longer needed.”

The Senate’s only socialist since the early 20th century said his approach is the only one “which eliminates the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, administrative costs, bureaucracy and profiteering that is engendered by the private insurance companies.”

It is also the only one that makes sense.

But Sanders withdrew his bill after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., exercised his prerogative and required Senate clerks to begin reading the 767-page proposal aloud to a nearly empty chamber. After three hours, they were 139 pages into it, according to the Associated Press.

If the Democrats prevail, we will end up with a monstrously complicated piece of legislation that requires people who aren’t covered by their employers or existing public plans like Medicaid and Medicare to buy insurance from private companies (whether they can afford it or not) or pay a penalty. According to Dr. Howard Dean, former Democratic Party chairman and 2004 presidential candidate, it also allows insurers to charge elderly people three times as much for premiums as they charge young people.

In exchange for accepting such weak regulations, private insurers will get millions of new customers, and if some of these customers can’t pay, the taxpayers will subsidize the private companies.

Those who critics who scream about “socialized medicine” are willing to tolerate socialism for the rich but not for all. Those who call real health reform “welfare” for the poor are comfortable with welfare for big corporations in the form of a national mandate to buy private coverage.

This is neither free enterprise nor economic democracy.

Why I don't like the Democrats' health plan

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. msn.com

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. msn.com

When I was in my 20s, I faced the same problem as many young adults: being uninsured.
My first newspaper job was a great learning experience and provided free lodging in an old hotel, but meager pay and no health benefits.
Prior to graduating from college, I had been covered under my parents’ plan, but insurance plans drop children when they reach their 20s, so I had to go shopping in the individual market.
It was an eye-opening experience. I was able to get a basic plan with Golden Rule, but because I was asthmatic, they charged me more. However, the plan wouldn’t cover anything that might be related to my asthma — which could be nearly anything.
So when Golden Rule and other cherry-picking insurance companies left Kentucky after the legislature enacted a moderate health care reform plan in 1994, I said “good riddance.” The market doesn’t need those kind of companies.
I remember at that time interviewing a middle class, middle-aged couple who couldn’t purchase insurance at any price due to a pre-existing health condition.
Almost every family has a similar story.
It’s encouraging that the Democrats’ health care reform bill now before the Senate would do several things to provide insurance to most of the 40 million or more Americans who are uninsured.
For one thing, it would prohibit companies like Golden Rule from refusing coverage — although it might not keep them from charging more. And it would require larger companies to provide insurance for their employees or pay a fine to fund a public insurance option (or, more likely, a publicly funded private nonprofit option) for those who aren’t covered by employers.
Those provisions are good. But there are many things about the Democrats’ plan I don’t like.
I don’t like the mandate that those without group coverage must purchase individual insurance.
If many young people are uninsured now because they can’t afford coverage, requiring them to buy insurance doesn’t solve the problem.
What we ought to do is go back to “community rating,” which was the old policy of charging everyone about the same amount regardless of age, gender or health conditions. After all, the whole purpose of insurance is to spread risk.
In my column yesterday, I noted that a proposed amendment would allow uninsured people ages 55 to 64 who meet certain conditions to buy into Medicare. Why not just make Medicare the public option and let anyone who wants buy into it?
That might save Medicare, which is at risk because of an aging demographic. And having a massive public insurance pool that includes young, healthy people might also drive down costs and improve coverage.
Of course the Republicans (and some Democrats) wouldn’t go along with that, not only for ideological reasons, but because it would jeopardize private insurance companies that are large political campaign benefactors.
What might have garnered support from Republicans though, would have been a tort reform provision to control the extravagant jury awards that drive up health care costs. It needs to be in there.
Finally, the Senate should have followed the lead of the president and the House in backing a bill that would restrict abortion coverage.
An ABC poll earlier this year showed that most Americans are against abortion except in some cases, such as rape and incest, or danger to the mother’s life or health. For them, this is a moral issue, and their tax dollars — and insurance premium dollars — shouldn’t be used to pay for it.

Reform must not shortchange Medicare

Image by whig.com

Image by whig.com

At last week’s meeting of the Winchester Kiwanis Club, Dr. Shanda Morris of Winchester, a general medical practitioner, shared some of her thoughts on the health care reform legislation currently making its way through Congress.
While it’s hard to say whether or not one supports reform — because there are so many different versions of legislation out there — all of the main proposals would do a few things that have somewhat wide support, she said.
Legislation would prohibit insurance companies from refusing coverage to people who are sick, and there would be limits on charges for coverage of pre-existing conditions.
Young adults could remain on their parents’ coverage through age 26. (This is a provision that appeals to her, Morris said, because she went three years without coverage when she was in her 20s.)
The bills would cap annual out-of-pocket expenses, offer tax credits for those up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, expand Medicaid and increase competition through an exchange or by including a public option plan.
Individuals, employers and the government would share responsibility for insuring people, and purchase of coverage would be mandatory. Small businesses would get assistance through tax credits.
Those are some of the broad outlines of the latest Senate plan, which is about 2,000 pages long. But the devil is in the details.
The biggest concern most critics have is how to pay for it.
In his speech on health care reform earlier this year, President Obama said he would not support a plan that adds to the country’s deficit. I don’t think there are many who believe that an overhaul of our health care system, which is one-sixth of our national economy, wouldn’t involve some additional public cost.
One of the assumptions, however, said Morris, is that the government would realize greater efficiencies in Medicare through cost controls and reduction of fraud.
But this may be an unrealistic assumption.
Already, Morris said, many doctors, like her, “under-code” what procedures cost so that they’re paid by Medicare without any hassle. Bureaucrats often assume, she said, that doctors are overcharging Medicare (and some do), but many more actually charge less than what private insurers pay because it’s easier than haggling.
Many doctors in Clark County, she mentioned, have stopped taking patients with Medicare Advantage because of reimbursement rates. That affects about 40 patients in this community who now have no local primary care physician.
Also, in terms of administrative costs, Medicare may already be the most efficiently run insurance program — public or private — in the marketplace. It isn’t only liberals that say this. I recall a conversation a few years ago with conservative political activist David Adams, who, at that time, was selling health insurance, and he admitted that Medicare has a lower overhead than any private insurance program.
It concerns me, therefore, that any reform plan the Democrats pass could damage one of their party’s signature accomplishments of the last century: Medicare.
While conservatives’ paranoia about a public option (that would only cover an estimated 2 percent of the population) would amount to “creeping socialism,” one of the alternatives being proposed is to simply expand Medicare to cover those in the 55 to 64 age range who are not insured by their employers. I would be in favor of that because Medicare is the one single-payer (i.e. socialized insurance) program we have that works beautifully.
In fact, rather than the convoluted private insurance plan being pushed by President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, I would prefer that Medicare gradually be expanded to cover everyone, starting with children and those 55 and older. But it wouldn’t work unless it adequately reimbursed those private businesses and professionals who provide the health care.

Next: Other concerns about the Democrats’ health legislation.

Randy Patrick is the managing editor of The Winchester Sun. Contact him at rpatrick@winchestersun.com.

Empty Bowls fills hungry in Clark County

Last week, NBC reported online that 40 percent of food in this country is thrown out, yet one in six Americans don’t have enough to eat.

This is what it means to live in the richest nation in the history of the world, where many of our neighbors are poor.

We see that here in Clark County as well as anywhere. On Thanksgiving Day, my sister and brother-in-law were among the volunteers who helped Winchester First United Methodist Church deliver meals and feed others at the church — nearly 1,100 people in all. Kim recalls visiting one young couple who had no food in the house to feed their children — none at all. The father had applied for food stamps, but had not yet received them.

One of the agencies that does the most in our community to provide food to those in dire need is Clark County Community Services. Tomorrow you will have an opportunity to support Community Services and hungry people in our own community, support the arts, enjoy a steaming hot meal and buy an inexpensive Christmas gift that will remind others how privileged some of us are and that we have a responsibility to help those who aren’t.

Joe Molinaro, an Eastern Kentucky University art professor, has produced 300 hand-made ceramic bowls, and some friends have made another 100, which will be sold for $10 each from 11 to 1 Friday at First Presbyterian Church off Winchester’s Bypass. For that price, supporters will not only get the bowl, which would make a good Christmas gift, but it will be filled with hot soup and served with bread.

It’s a good price for a good meal, and an opportunity to do good.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the Fellowship of Believers, Grace Bible Church and many other congregations will be supporting the Empty Bowls Project. (Read more about it in Rachel Parsons’ story today in The Winchester Sun and on www.winchestersun.com.)

I hope to see you there.

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