Last Thursday I made a quick trip to Montreat to surprise our youth group, who was attending the last week of the Summer Youth Conference. I pulled out of the driveway around 5:30am in the new/used Prius and got there at 8. It was great seeing them; and even though I only stayed for five hours, it's like I always say: five hours at Montreat is better than not being there at all. Or something like that.
An added bonus was getting to see a friend, Kelly Wiant-Thralls, give the conference keynote. She did a great job, and one of the stories she shared really stuck with me. It was about a jogging partner who years ago started collecting the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters he found on the sidewalks and streets during his long jogs. She began doing the same. But instead of doing what pretty much everyone else does with the change - keep it - Kelly and her friend decided to set the coins aside and donate them to a favorite charity every year. They called their jogging change "Pennies from Heaven."
I liked this idea - a lot. Less than an hour later I found a penny on the sidewalk that runs beside Lake Susan, and it quickly found its way in the Cents-A-Bility cup I keep in my car. Last spring our church started taking up this special offering once a month to benefit the hungry in our community and around the world. In fact, let me encourage you (especially you First Pres. Mount Airy folks) to join me in this practice: add to your monthly Cents-A-Bility offering any spare change you find on the street, sidewalk, wherever. Or set it aside in a special jar and start making an annual donation to the charity of your choice. Sounds like a plan to me.
On the two-and-a half hour drive back home I was really rolling this "Pennies from Heaven" thing around in my head. And what intrigued me the most was that something as simple as putting aside that penny/nickel/dime/quarter we find on the sidewalk becomes the radical idea it apparently is: so much so that a keynoter would fashion it into a story for her wonderful message, that I would devote lots of thought to it on the car trip home, that a Facebook group would be created in its honor (which you should join, by the way). Why is this a big deal, honestly? Somewhere between Valdese and Hickory it occurred to me that maybe it has something to do with the very heart of our Western mindset about money and ownership. We like to own things, especially when it's money we're talking about. We feel particularly strong about this when it's money we "earn" via a salary or allowance - we put it in bank accounts under our name where it remains "ours." All of which seems perfectly reasonable. But it's saying something entirely different - and I'm not sure this is necessarily a good thing - when we make the mental jump that some spare change we happen upon along the way suddenly belongs to us too.
Something else I got to thinking about was the little value our society places on "change" like this. I mean, what can you buy with a penny these days, anyway? I imagine that's part of the reason we see no problem claiming the spare change on the ground as our own. If it was a $100 bill we might be more inclined to find its owner - maybe. But no one, we rationalize, is going to miss a penny or dime.
I think it's time for us to call both assumptions into question. Maybe, just maybe, we need to have a less possessive attitude with our money. And maybe, just maybe, chump change really is worth something. I may be making a huge leap here, but both points seem to come into play with the hot topic issue of the day: health care reform. Unless you've been living on a deserted island the past few months you know that our government is currently wrestling with how to revise and improve our nation's health care. Sadly, it has quickly evolved into a very politically-charged issue; so much so that folks are forgetting what's at stake - the lives and well-being of our neighbors and friends; people we know well and people we don't know at all.
No matter what side of the aisle you're on, so to speak, it's hard to deny that something needs to be done about our current system. Pick your study, but pretty much all of them have indicated that roughly 20-25% of Americans are underinsured, while another 15-16% lack health care of any kind. At the very least this is a health crisis waiting to happen. Public health, after all, is not individually autonomous. If the kid in my son's class at school doesn't get the needed meds to ward off his sick bug because his family can't afford them, there's a good possibility that his problem will become my son's problem too. It's hard to admit in our proudly individualistic society, but we really are much more intertwined with each other than we realize.
At worst, the issue of fair health care for all is a morality test which we as a country are failing miserably. According to this article, of the 39 industrialized nations in the world, ours is the only one that does not provide universal health care for its citizens. The only one. What this means is that the single difference between good health care and insufficient or non-existent health care is an economic one - in other words, it boils down to money. Those who can afford it are set. Those who cannot - and the numbers are growing rapidly - are in trouble. Something like public health shouldn't depend on how much money one has. Health has to be more than simply a capitalistic enterprise.
Now I don't presume to know what the solution is. I don't know that our president and his administration have all the right answers, either. But I'll give them this - at least they're moving on it. At least they're willing to wade through the murky waters of a hot-button issue, initiating a conversation that our country has desperately needed for some time. I can respect that. What I can't respect are those who are not only politicizing the health care debate but seem hell-bent on disrupting any kind of meaningful conversation about it. I'm talking about stuff like memos from certain organizations calling constituents to harass their elected officials, even going so far as to be confrontational in town hall meetings. I'm particularly dumbfounded by one directive: (make every effort to) not have an intelligent debate. Seriously?? How can standing in the way of honest, thoughtful dialogue about such an important issue be something anyone would actually want to happen?
There may be some legitimate reasons people don't want our health care system changed, but the one I least understand is the one that says it's "not fair" for some to pay for the health care of others. I respectfully disagree. The "I-got-mine-you-get-yours" mentality is fine and dandy when we're talking about cable TV or the latest edition of Rock Band, but when it comes to things like basic education or public health, we're all in this together, folks. Which brings me back to the "Pennies from Heaven" thing. When we choose to see the world this way; when we find that penny on the sidewalk and immediately realize it is not ours, we've made some headway in not only how we understand "ownership" in general, but how we perceive our responsibility to our fellow human being. When we realize how all of us are connected to each other, perhaps our defenses won't go up so quickly when it comes to adopting a new health care system that will be fair to all people - especially the poorest among us, who need it the most. And the thing is, we're not talking about huge sums of money out of each of our pockets. We're talking about "spare change" that really does have value; that really can make a world of difference.
Logically this makes sense. From a faith perspective it's down-right embarrassing that we're not already on board. There are biblical injunctions throughout scripture that speak to our obligation to care for the "widows, elderly and orphans" - not because there's anything special about these three kinds of people, but because in ancient times they represented the most vulnerable of society. The practice of "gleaning" in the Bible involved farmers refraining from harvesting the edges of their fields, leaving it for the poor (a wonderful group called the Society of St. Andrew has brought this practice back into the 21st century). And then there's Leviticus 25, which calls for Jubilee to be celebrated every 50 years, where all debts are forgiven (Bono was big on this a few years back with third-world debt). In other words, the faith that I pledge allegiance to - along with roughly 2.1 billion others worldwide - has at is core the notion of sharing a portion of what you "possess" for the benefit of all concerned.
In a great article aptly titled How Would Jesus Handle Health Care?, author Drew Smith says this:
The test of faithfulness to Jesus is always in how we treat the vulnerable of society. If we are to bear authentic witness to Jesus as the healer, and to God as the giver of life, then we must embrace the value and dignity of all human beings, but especially the vulnerable of our world. In our American society, perhaps, there is no greater population that is more vulnerable than those who do not have access to good and affordable health care.
So I hope over the course of the next month some real dialogue will take place at town hall meetings across the country, and that the disruptors will take their angry rants and go home. I hope our president and congress will come back in September and put aside partisan politics to come up with a balanced plan for universal health care that really will make a difference. And I hope that all of us will adopt a "Pennies from Heaven" mentality - because when you get right down to it, everything we have is a gift, and it's only right to return the favor.
All of this from a five-hour trip to Montreat. Remind me to get back there more often ;-)
Two other blogs you really should read on health care reform from a faith perspective:Jim Wallis, "Truth-Telling and Responsibility in Health Care"