how do we treat the sick?

There’s been quite the flurry of noise on the Internet about the American Health Care Act that was passed in the House of Representatives today. Something that caught my attention is an interview with Mo Brooks (R, Rep. AL), in which he said:

‘People who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people — who’ve done things the right way — that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.’

Source: CNN Interview with Mo Brooks by Jake Tapper (around 3.20 of the clip)

His statements imply that people who lead healthy (‘good’) lifestyles don’t have pre-existing conditions, which also implies that people who do get sick or have pre-existing conditions somehow did something to deserve their poor health.

Brooks does immediately add, ‘Now, in fairness, many of the people who have pre-existing conditions have those conditions through no fault of their own.’

It’s the earlier statement that is getting the headlines and the attention, and for good reason. The problem here is in placing a moral value on a person’s lifestyle — whether they exercise regularly or diet or eat well — which is what the first statement does: people who lead ‘good lives’, who have done things ‘the right way.’ How, then, do you reconcile the second statement, that those with pre-existing conditions are not at fault for having them, with the first? You have already established the premise that ‘good people’ don’t have pre-existing conditions. So how can someone have a pre-existing condition and not have done something to deserve his or her condition?

This is not a new question. I am reminded of the disciples asking Jesus when they see a man blind from birth: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9.2) We might not express it as outright as that, but we still sometimes have that sentiment that if something bad happens to someone, then they probably deserved it: this idea of, ‘Well, they had it coming.’

But we need to remember Jesus’s answer: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ (John 9.3)

Granted, in the gospel, the work of God is Jesus restoring the man’s sight, which isn’t exactly something we can expect to happen today (it wasn’t common then, either). That doesn’t mean we can write off Jesus’s answer, though.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Often I see the focus of this passage placed in the following sentence or in the events after the miraculous healing, to the point that this sentence is overlooked. If this sentence is evoked, it’s usually done after some misfortune or tragedy, along with the platitude, ‘All things happen for a reason’ (with which I politely disagree, but that is another subject).

What are the works of God and how might they be displayed? What does that look like today? Right now, in the wake of the AHCA passing the House, this is what I hear from that passage:

The works of God are displayed in how we treat the sick, the poor, and the needy.

Our words, our thoughts, and our actions: what are they when we encounter someone who is ill? What are they when we encounter someone who is chronically ill or differently abled? Not just how we treat that person as an individual; but how do we treat them as a group when we shape our ideas about health care and when we vote? Are we treating the sick, the poor, and the needy in such a way that it displays the work of God?

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salt of the earth

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Poland’s wealth in the Middle Ages lay buried deep beneath the ground. There, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, miners dug, chipped, and carved away salt out of rock. The deeper they went, the larger the caverns became. The miners lived and breathed beneath the world. As they carried away the salt of the earth, hoisting it to those who lived above the ground, they shaped the empty spaces into places of beauty. These salt miners carved out of stone not just the practical spaces to eat, sleep, and keep the livestock (yes, they kept horses underground to help turn the great wheels), but they also carved places of worship. The grandest of these is the Chapel of St Kinga, dedicated to the thirteenth-century queen of Poland whose wedding gift to Poland was the miraculous transfer of a salt mine from her native Hungary.

Here, in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, all is an eerie grey, save for where the rock salt is carved so thinly that the light shines through a pale orange. One has to remember that the grouting in the floor is carved; the floor is not tiled. The “bricks” along the walls have also been carved into stone. The entire chapel — from the stairs, the floor, the wall carvings depicting different scenes from the Gospels, to the altar itself — is all carved out of living stone. Here, deep beneath the earth, is an example of devotion.

Photo: Chapel of St Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland.

the doors of the passion

Jesus - Sagrada Familia

Imagery abounds in cathedrals, and in churches of certain denominations: the windows, carvings, statues, tapestries all tell stories through both illustration and symbolism. One cathedral I’ve been to takes its role of storyteller seriously: La Sagrada Familia. Construction began in 1882 and in 1883 Gaudí took the reins as architect. Every column, every arch, every piece of stone is infused with significance in Gaudí’s designs–which are still being followed to this day, 133 years later. From a distance, the cathedral’s baroque exterior reminds me of melted wax; no less symbolic to me, having once been an altar server and acolyte.

In front of the doors of the Passion Façade stands a column, set forward from the entrance, which you have to pass in order to enter the building. To this column is tied a statue of a man, Jesus, as he might have been when he was flogged before the crucifixion. Facing west, the words behind him shine gold in the last rays of the sun. These words bear his testimony. I què és la veritat? the doors ask in Catalan, echoing Pilate.

Jesús De Natzaret Rei Dels Jueus, they answer.

Meanwhile, the statue of Christ slumps against the column. Clustered above the doors is a collection of figures narrating the stations of the cross and of the crucifixion, the latter of which most of us are familiar–perhaps, too familiar. Down at ground level, where we mortals walk, Gaudí presents a scene given only one sentence in the Gospel of Matthew, often passed over: “But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Matt. 27.26b). It is as if Gaudí knew the cathedral’s visitors might have become inured to the image of the cross. Instead, visitors are faced with the image of Christ tied to the column, a reminder that Christ bore our pain long before he was put on the cross.

On this Maundy Thursday I remember these doors of La Sagrada Familia and how they so poignantly, and so simply, depict the betrayal and pain of the days leading up to Easter.

Photo: The doors of the Passion Façade, of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

Time for healing

It’s the time for Lent already. Today is Ash Wednesday, and though I will try to catch a service while I swing through London today, I doubt I will start Lent in the traditional manner.

Apparently yesterday was “International Pancake Day” according to IHOP (International House of Pancakes), and I felt a mixture of emotions as a national chain capitalized on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. The reason many people eat pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday is because Lent is supposed to be a lean season. Thus, families needed to use up the extra lard and flour and eggs and that sort of thing before Lent began — and the easiest way to do that was to make pancakes. Loads of them. This is the same reasoning behind Mardi Gras — party now, because you won’t be able to party again until after Easter. Lent is a period of fasting, of spiritual discipline and reflection, a penitential season. Part of me is always bemused to find people celebrating Mardi Gras when they don’t recognize Lent. But then, people will take any excuse to party.

And yet, even I will not be observing Lent in the usual way. Those who know me know that it is far too easy for me to engage in self-flagellation, self-abnegation, regardless of the time of year. I have been prescribed rest and compassion for myself. I have had various people insist that I take the next few weeks, if not months, to be gentle with myself, to show myself kindness and grace. For me, this cannot be a time of fasting or self-denial. This needs to be a time of healing, of discovering the things that bring me comfort and embracing them.

So if I do not make it to an Ash Wednesday service, that is fine. I do not need to be reminded that I am dust; rather, I need reminding that out of the dust a seed is sprouting, growing, alive.

Dust to dust

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and follow after Christ.

I have posted in the past about Lent and reasons for celebrating it. It is a time of spiritual discipline and intentionality. This year I am again giving up the computer between 9PM and 9AM. I get too easily distracted by the lure of the Internet — even if there is nothing ‘new’ to read in email or blogs, I will go find something new. I have plenty of things I want to do off the computer, and I need to be far more disciplined regarding my sleep schedule and getting to work early.

This year I have been introduced to the concept of ‘Carbon Fasting’, or going Green for Lent. I’m also going to take a look at these suggestions and see how I can incorporate into my lifestyle the things I’m not doing already. I encourage you to do the same — we are stewards of the earth, after all. Why not take better care of it this Lent?

Diosese of Cape Town: Carbon Fast

The Tributary Fund: Green Lent Daily Activities

The Daily Green: 9 Things to Give Up for Lent

Favourite things

My church:

I love the services, its people, the clergy and servers, the buildings. All Saints is wonderful. I am so blessed to be a part of the ministry of this church.

Miracle on the River Kwai

Opening line: ‘I was dreaming, and I was happy with my dreams.’

Thus opens the first chapter of Miracle on the River Kwai, ominously titled ‘The Death House’. Ernest Gordon, an officer in the 2nd Battalion, 93rd Highlanders — or the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders — was deployed with his regiment to fight the Japanese during World War II. Miracle on the River Kwai is his first-hand account of his capture by the Japanese and his experiences as a prisoner of war over the next three years until the end of the war. One of the prisoners forced to build the Death Railway and the bridge over the River Kwai, Gordon recounts the appalling, horrifying conditions and treatment suffered by the P.O.W.s, including his own very near encounters with death. Through retelling his experiences, Gordon demonstrates the very depths human beings can reach — and the very height. For while toiling in the jungle, surrounded by death, Gordon and his fellow prisoners found Hope. Unbidden, unsought, the faith of two men who cared for Gordon led to his own spiritual awakening and of others’. The revolution of hope was Christ revealed in those prison camps.

I had known a bit of Ernest Gordon’s story, having once seen the film To End All Wars several years ago. That did not make the story in Miracle on the River Kwai any less powerful. What I appreciated most was Gordon’s sincerity: free from ‘churchy’ lingo, skeptical of religion as a crutch in hard times, he wrote with honesty about how in the blackness of a P.O.W. labour camp in the jungle of South East Asia, he encountered Christ and came to be a disciple. It wasn’t easy. How does one love one’s enemies, especially when they are so near at hand, at whose hands one experiences only brutality and hate? And yet nothing is impossible with God. Near the end of the war — even if the prisoners didn’t know it yet — Gordon tells of a group of emaciated prisoners tending, of their own volition, the wounds of dying Japanese.

‘We were beginning to understand that as there were no easy ways for God, so there were no easy ways for us. God, we saw, was honouring us by allowing us to share in His labours, aye, in His agony — for the world he loves. God, in finding us, had enabled us to find our brother.’ (218)

What a message for the Church today — for Christians in this safe, Western world! There are no easy ways for God; there are no easy ways for us. Faith isn’t supposed to be easy. Faith takes us, human and flawed and broken as we are, and transforms us, over time, through trials and challenges, into the perfect image of Christ. To share in God’s work is to share in Christ’s agony. I pray that my own faith would be as brave as that.