Monday, September 14, 2009


Sorry for yet another break in the action. In my defense, we have a brand new baby to thank for the time off.

Here's a sermon I preached on September 6th. (PDF).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Alpha Male And The Canine Mystery Blood

This is the best song about aging and being a parent that I have ever heard. God go with him, amen, indeed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cuban Health Care

Sorry again for the hiatus. This summer turns out to have been a really bad time to start a blog, since I was away for long periods of time, and now that I'm back, I'm buried in the debris of fall kickoff stuff.

I'll try to soldier on, though.

I've been enjoying NPR's series on health care in other nations. Today's segment was on Spain's system, and it jogged my memory on the health care system of one of our neighbors: Cuba.

About ten years ago I traveled to Cuba with a group from my college (back before Bush made it more difficult to do). We were basically an educational and humanitarian trip, connected to some Baptist communities there, which are surprisingly numerous. We took a LOT of medical supplies with us, since the embargo makes getting even simple things like Tylenol very problematic.

The entire trip was eye-opening, for sure. Cuba is a beautiful nation full of beautiful and engaging people, and not at all like the enclave of evil our national rhetoric leads to believe it is. We began our trip in Havana, one of the coolest cities I've ever been to, and then traveled down the northern coast to Matanzas, Yaguahay, and eventually to a village called Piedrecitas. We stayed there for a few days, before making our way back to Havana for the flight back home.

Along the way, one of our major focal points was health care. We toured several medical facilities, and spoke to several doctors and patients about it. You might think that decades of the embargo would have crippled the Cuban health care system, but that's really not true. It's true that there is a perpetual shortage of equipment and medicine, but the care itself is really quite excellent. Cuban doctors are in demand all over the world, and many Europeans (who are not bound by the embargo) travel to Cuba for medical procedures.

As a communist nation, of course, Cuba provides health care to all of its citizens. I don't want to romanticize this, as Cuba clearly has a sketchy human rights record, and money can certainly buy you access to great care there. But the philosophy, and usually the practice, is that everybody gets care. Did you know that the Cuban infant mortality rate is better than that in the United States? Or that the life expectancy is roughly identical to that in the US? This without access to the cutting-edge technology that we employ so routinely in the US.

I'm not sure I would advocate for a system like Cuba's in the US (although my excellent experiences with Kaiser Permanente's HMO dispose me to admire managed-care systems), I think we could learn a lot about how frugality and excellent care can go together from our southern neighbors.

And while we're on the subject, I want to know where I can sign my name to this.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Sorry for the long stretch between posts. I was on vacation for a while, and in the week I've been back, we've moved and I've been planning the Senior High Mission Trip (which departs in a few days).

I promise to update more soon, possibly even from New Orleans! Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Atlas Asked For A Bailout

Lately, I've been hearing lots of people talking about Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged. I should say right up front that I think this book is wrong about everything, and I've thought so since I read the book while on my honeymoon 9 years ago. (I know. I know).

It seems that sales of the book have spiked since January, and there is a renewed interest in discussing the book and seeing whether its ideas might apply to our current context. Some are even suggesting that we are on the verge of a generation of "John Galts" taking a cue from the book and dropping right out of our society.

In case you haven't read the book and aren't sure why it should have become so much more popular lately, here's a synopsis: in the world of the book society has become something of a socialist welfare state, where a few motivated individuals carry the rest of us on their backs of their genius. These titans of industry and commerce, one day, realize that they don't have to. Their intelligence and wealth have given them the ability simply withdraw from society, and that's just what they do. One by one, they withdraw to a valley that they've somehow hidden from everybody else (in Colorado, if my memory serves). There, they build their capitalist utopia while the rest of the world, robbed of its erstwhile sugar daddies, descends into chaos.

This is the scenario some think is playing out right now. In America. Especially given the presidency of Barack Obama and his obviously socialist ways.

This is, of course, ridiculously stupid. Monumentally dumb.

Let's review the current situation, shall we? Here's a quick synopsis: those titans of industry and commerce, the great capitalist leaders of our time? THEY'RE THE ONES WHO SCREWED EVERYTHING UP! The rest of us are bailing them out! The guys who run GM and Countrywide and AIG and Wells Fargo aren't carrying us on their backs. We're carrying them. Pure unbridled capitalism isn't the only thing holding our nation together. At this point, there's a good chance that only the "socialist" bailout is saving us from disaster.

Yes, the world right now is just like the world of Atlas Shrugged. Except it's totally opposite.

Attention right-wingers organizing book clubs around this book: stop for a second, use that "liberal" critical thinking skill for a moment, and take your copy back to Barnes and Noble for a refund. And send the $12.95 to a CEO in need.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In Plain Sight: The Orant as a Hidden Transcript of the Subordinate

I spent most of the weekend working on a paper on the orant, a motif in ancient Christian art. That's the orant over there on the left, taken from a 3rd century catacomb just outside of Rome. She's the one with her hands outstretched. To her left is the Good Shepherd, another early Christian motif.

The orant is important because it's the most common image in early Christian art. It's everywhere. (The Good Shepherd is the second most common). The orant (from the latin for "praying") has befuddled scholars and art historians for a long time. It's one of only two images in early Christian art (along with the Good Shepherd) that uses a human figure. It's almost always female, even when it depicts a male character like Noah. Its hands are always outstretched in a praying fashion.

There are lots of theories. Some people think it just means what it meant to the Romans--piety, or the personification of the deity Pietas. Some think it's evidence of a long-lost female priesthood, or goddess-worship in early Christianity. Some think it's just a woman praying, and some think it's an early example of the veneration of Mary.

My thesis is that the first option--personification of Pietas--is correct. The orant figure was common on coins in the imperial era, usually with a female figure from a royal family posing as the goddess Pietas. (The coin on the top is real; the bottom one is a replica). I think Christians used the figure of the orant in an effort to both blend in with broader Roman culture (and thus stay unnoticed) and to assert certain beliefs. This is the tricky part.
There's a guy named James Scott, who wrote about the "hidden transcript of the subordinate." Basically, he says, whenever one group is in charge and subjugates other groups, the group in charge demands that certain things be said about them--that they're benevolent and wise, etc. The subjugated group says those things because they don't want to die. But when they're in private, they say other things about the ruling group. I suggest that the orant is adapted from the Pietas symbol to blend in with the rest of Roman culture, but that in reality it stands in for the cross as a symbol of suffering and death. (There weren't crosses in this period of Christianity...they didn't come along until later). The outstretched arms of the orant mimic those of Jesus on the cross.
Two other little bits of info bolster this case. First, the orants show up mainly in two ways: as characters in biblical stories of conflict or danger (like the 3 men in the fiery furnace) or on funeral art like sarcophagi. I think that's because Christians wanted to connect the orant (i.e., Jesus) to suffering and death. The second bit of evidence: in two cases the orant actually has stigmata on its hands. That seems like a pretty clear indication that it recalled the crucifixion.
There's lots more to it, obviously. (The paper was 18 pages). But that's the gist of it. I'm looking forward to presenting it Tuesday and getting some feedback.

Monday, May 18, 2009

An Afternoon of Unfortunateness

This afternoon, I had my first appointment with my new doctor. My employer just switched health insurance a few months ago, so this was my first time going for an appointment.

The striking thing about visiting the doctor is how many statistics they gather about you. And they are not fun. They measure how tall you are (not as tall as you'd like to be), how much you weigh (wow), your body mass index (substantial), the amount of time since your last physical (umm......), and they catalog your many ailments. It's a very revealing process. There's nowhere to hide, and no excuses to make. And even if you have an excuse, they've heard them all before.

One of my ailments today was a mole in a very unfortunate place. No, not that place. The other one. I'm not telling which one. But it was unfortunate. And my doctor? About my age, female, and hot. If I passed her on the street, I'd probably unconsciously suck in my gut. Five minutes after meeting this person, I found myself in a very compromising position, with her clinically peering at my mole. I don't know if there's anything that will make you self-conscious faster than an attractive member of the opposite sex examining your nether regions. If there is, I don't want to know about it.

As I was lying there (she called in the nurse to help, obviously, thanks doctor, appreciate that), I was thinking that it was probably way worse for me than it was for her. (Debatable, but we'll go with that). She does this for a living, after all, and while the situation was unfortunate for all concerned, I'm sure she's seen worse. (Marginally worse).

And I started thinking about what it must be like for someone to approach a minister with a problem. Even if you do somehow work up the nerve to go to a "professional," you still face a daunting gauntlet of foreign terminology and concepts, administrative assistants with knowing grins, and the nagging feeling that everyone is judging you. We ministers often see people who are in the midst of situations far more compromising than anything I went through this afternoon, who are both desperate to get help and desperate to keep their problems hidden. It's a harsh dichotomy.

In the end, my problems at the doctor were easily fixed. Ten minutes later, I was fully clothed and sheepishly shaking my doctor's hand. I can rest easily in the knowledge that by the time I visit again, she will probably have forgotten about me (one can dream). But how different is it for someone who still shows up at the church week after week, knowing what you know about them? In some ways, I'm sure that's comforting. But in some ways it must also be very intimidating.

I'm not sure what to take away from this, except to remind myself and others that we carry a pretty big responsibility to our parishioners. They entrust us with tremendous parts of themselves, and become vulnerable in ways we can rarely imagine. "Bedside manner" is a big deal in medicine; shouldn't it be in ministry too?