Category Archives: issues

Scared to Death

lowering-a-casket-into-grave

I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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Hungry For Change

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Woman picks through food waste in Kampala, Uganda

October is World Hunger Month. It’s an important time to remember how daunting the problem of hunger is. One billion people in the world are hungry, and over 46 million Americans are “food insecure,” meaning they skip meals or cannot afford to eat healthy. That’s surprising since 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away annually. That’s enough to feed all the hungry people in the world. There’s no shortage of food. There’s an abundance of poverty. Those with enough money eat well whether they live in Washington DC or Timbuktu. There’s also an abundance of greed, corruption, and infrastructure challenges that contribute to the problem of food insecurity.

While I was in Africa I saw up close the devastating effects of a broken global food system. I remember watching a woman picking through a pile of food waste in Uganda and children begging on the streets in war-ravaged Somalia. The hunger problem in America is less obvious. Poor families rely on cheap, unhealthy processed food to get enough calories, which has led to an obesity epidemic. We usually think of skinny, emaciated people as hungry. Overweight people may not be hungry, technically speaking, but obesity is often due to a lack of affordable, healthy food.

Giving food to the hungry is a stop-gap that treats the symptom, not the root problem. What would it look like if we got serious about trying to end hunger and poverty, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem? I’m not sure, but it should start with building relationships with the poor, not just giving them food or money (though sometimes that’s what they need most to help them through a crisis). Using our God-given time, talents, and resources, we could empower those in need to work toward getting out of poverty themselves and helping others to do the same. A hand up rather than a hand out. What’s needed is an approach that captures the spirit of the following quote by Lao Tzu:

Go to the people:

live with them,

learn from them

love them

start with what they know

build with what they have.

 

But of the best leaders,

when the job is done,

the task accomplished,

the people will say:

“We have done it ourselves.”

What would that look like in the context of relief for the poor? Scholarships to help pay for education and job training. Microfinance programs to start small businesses. Childcare co-ops for single mothers. Ride sharing. Community gardens. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes the challenges seem so overwhelming that paralysis sets in. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. But the problems of poverty and hunger won’t solve themselves. We need to take action. We need to begin. To quote Lao Tzu again, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So let’s get moving.

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No Strings Attached

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I’m considering entering a no-strings-attached relationship with strangers. I’m not talking about sexual promiscuity. I’m talking about charity. For all of my adult life I’ve had a rule against giving money directly to the poor, because I feared they would use it buy drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy things. I’d rather give to my church or an established charity such as the local food pantry, which hands out groceries, not cash. However, over the years I’ve become frustrated by the amount of money most charities spend on infrastructure, staff salaries, and even investments and cash reserves. Because of overhead costs only a portion of what one gives goes directly to the poor. I’m also realizing that it’s arrogant, judgmental, and paternalistic of me to assume that the poor would squander the money, and therefore, I must create safeguards to prevent my donations from being misused.  

Recently I read about an innovative charity called GiveDirectly. It’s the first charity dedicated exclusively to cash transfers. They identify people in extreme poverty in the African countries of Kenya and Uganda, then transfer money to them via mobile phone. Crazy, huh? Maybe not.

This radical method of charitable giving not only preserves the dignity of the recipient, but there’s also good evidence that it’s working. According to a January 2014 article published by The Independent, “An evaluation by Innovations for Poverty Action found that a group of the charity’s recipients in Kenya – who received about $500 over up to 12 months – increased their asset holdings by almost 60 per cent, compared with those without. Recipients saw a 42 per cent reduction in the number of days their children went without food and lower stress levels, among other things.” In this case a handout is actually a hand up.

Some may object to cash transfers on the grounds that they discourage individual initiative and encourage laziness. However, given in the right amounts and over a limited period of time they do neither. The money simply raises recipients above starvation levels of poverty, so they can begin to focus on more than getting enough calories to eat.  

Unconditional cash transfers aren’t a panacea for the poor. People also need health, safety, education, justice, and economic opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty. But it’s one tool that seems to be helping raise the standard of living for some very disadvantaged people in Africa.

The idea also makes me think that with a little creativity and courage we could accomplish the goals of our local charities in the US more efficiently and effectively. Traditional brick-and-mortar approaches are expensive and labor intensive. We need creative solutions using available, lower-cost means. For example, instead of staffing and operating food pantries, we could give grocery store gift cards to those who need food. Rather than maintaining soup kitchens we might provide restaurant gift certificates to the hungry. We could pay rent to provide housing for the homeless rather than spending wads of money building and staffing shelters. Following the GiveDirectly model, we could even use cash transfers to get money to the needy quickly and inexpensively. What would lose? In a word, control.

One reason we hang onto labor-intensive and expensive-to-run models is that we want to control the means of our charity and feel good about ourselves in the process. Handing a bag of groceries to a poor person brings a sense of satisfaction while giving us power over the recipient of our generosity. I remember volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where patrons were subjected to a DMV-like waiting room experience, then when their number was finally called, they were required to listen to an evangelistic appeal before they could receive their food. Families in homeless shelters often live under rules we wouldn’t put up with. Unconditional giving might make us uncomfortable, but it restores the dignity and freedom of those we’re seeking to help.

The idea of giving with no strings attached sounds radical, I know. But it’s not nearly as radical as what Jesus said to the rich man: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

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I’m a Coward

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The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I have a secret desire to be a great writer one day, or at least a very good one. I doubt I will be either. Not because I lack the intellect or talent, which may be true, but because I lack courage. At its best, writing – even fiction writing – is a form of truth telling. Camus famously remarked, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” That’s why novels and fictionalized autobiographies can be more true to life than their non-fiction counterparts. (The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski and Elie Wiesel’s Night come to mind.) Telling the truth requires courage. I’m a coward by nature, at least when it comes to going on the record.

My two favorite clergy autobiographies are St. Augustine’s Confessions and Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly. I count their authors among my heroes, not only because of what they did for God and humanity but also for their courage to expose their ugly, sinful sides. They were brave men who didn’t hide behind their words. Paul Tillich said, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.” If Tillich was right, then self-knowledge and self-acceptance are keys to developing the courage I need to be a better writer.

Even when the topic isn’t autobiographical, good writing requires brutal honesty about the world around us. Honesty forces authors to take up themes and discuss topics that aren’t always welcome in polite society, even less in church circles. The gritty details of life make stories more believable, more real. We don’t live in a G-rated world. When authors write as if we did, the result is an artificial, watered-down version of the real thing, like the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and the stuff from a can.

Having something to say is more important than saying it well. That’s why there’s always work for ghost writers. For me the problem isn’t lacking something to say but lacking the courage to say it. The kind of transparency and openness that’s prerequisite for good writing makes my palms sweat and my stomach churn.

I’m not ready to bare my soul on paper, but I am willing to take the first step and begin as anyone in recovery begins, by admitting I have a problem:

Hi, my name is Travis, and I’m a coward.

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Why We Still Need the Liberal Arts

Hortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_Künsten

Philosophia et septem artes (12th century)

Yesterday a colleague of mine made the statement that he thought the government shouldn’t fund the liberal arts. That is, public fund shouldn’t be used to subsidize the humanities at colleges and universities, only practical “STEM” majors in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. His argument was twofold: (1) the humanities don’t pay for themselves, and (2) they don’t add enough value to society. I mean, what good is a literature degree compared to engineering? At least an engineer can build stuff. What’s a literature major gonna do, write a haiku? Someone with a history degree might get a job teaching history but how long would it take to pay back $80K in student loans? A lifetime? I fumbled my response. This blog post is an attempt to redeem myself, and, if nothing else, provide a morale boost to my fellow liberal arts degree holders.

Off the bat I must concede that the cost of college education is out of control in the United States no matter what one chooses to study. The ridiculous cost of a university education in America is a problem that won’t be solved by excluding the liberal arts from public funding.

An easy way to answer the cost-benefit objection liberal arts degrees is to say that money isn’t the measure of all things. Earnings potential shouldn’t be the only or even the primary yardstick by which to measure an education. Teaching, public service, and a host of altruistic endeavors would be automatically eliminated as viable career choices, if money were seen as the greatest good. Even those with marketable degrees such as computer science or math would have to steer clear of lower-paying but highly rewarding jobs to justify the cost of their degrees. Yet intuitively we know that there is great value added in having teachers, public servants, and others who earn far less than they could in profit-oriented careers.

The original purpose of higher education wasn’t to train worker bees but to produce better citizens and even better human beings. The term “liberal arts” has nothing to do with political liberalism. The term derives from the Latin artes liberales, meaning “skills fit for a free man.” The focus of an education for the children of the wealthy in the Greco-Roman world was to train them for careers in public service, not for building a better chariot wheel. Slaves received such practical training, not those who were being groomed to serve in the Roman Senate or a king’s court. Liberal arts education is still needed today. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” A liberal arts education teaches wisdom; technical training does not.

No one would question the contributions to civilization made by scientists and inventors. Neither should anyone question the contributions of poets, philosophers, musicians, and painters. Even though college graduates with STEM majors typically earn more than humanities majors, this fact shouldn’t be seen as a measure of their intrinsic worth or value to society. An engineer may be trained how to build a nuclear bomb, but unless he has had some education in the humanities he won’t be equipped to decide whether it should be dropped on a city.

The reason I value my history degree isn’t because of how much money I am able to earn as a historian, which isn’t much. I value my history degree because it taught me critical reading, thinking, and communication skills. Those skills are useful in a variety of pursuits outside the field. I also value my history degree because it helped me see the world through another’s eyes. In other words history developed in me the virtue of empathy and made me a better person as a result. It’s difficult to put a price tag on that.

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What Good Is Religion?

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A few weeks ago I received a hostile comment about religion on my blog from someone who accidentally stumbled upon it. I chose not to post it. Instead I sent an email to the person who wrote it, asking for clarification. I received a long and thoughtful reply, explaining that the author isn’t against people of faith, only organized religion. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has become a modern mantra. It’s made me wonder, Is personal faith enough? What good is organized religion? Is religion better than irreligion? Here’s my attempt to answer these important questions.

For starters, I reject the dichotomy between faith and religion that has become popular in Protestant Christianity since the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth first drew the distinction. Just as you can’t have an army of one (despite what the US Army’s recruiting ads say) you can’t have a religion of one. Faith is by its nature a group activity. There’s certainly a place for the private practice of one’s faith. Everyone needs time alone to study and pray. But it’s misguided (if not arrogant) for individuals to think that they can attain to the truth about ultimate reality on their own or even live as persons of moral and spiritual integrity without a community of faith to support and guide them.

I will admit that not all religion is good. That’s true of any human activity. Not all government is good. Not all education is good. Not all medical treatment is good. Institutions are only as good as the people in them and saints are in short supply.

One of the most pervasive myths of the modern age is that religion has caused most of the wars and violence in the history of the world. It’s not true. Indeed irreligious people have arguably caused more death and destruction than religious people ever did.  Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong are prime examples. Religion certainly has had a hand in war and other social evils like slavery and persecution, but it hasn’t been the sole or even primary cause of them. Complex social ills like war and slavery never have a single cause. It’s wrong to blame them all on religion.

Keep in mind that religious people use religious language to justify their choices – some good, some bad, some neutral – even when the underlying cause is something else. Although economics made slavery lucrative and therefore desirable, the institution was both defended and condemned in religious language by people of faith on both sides of the debate.

Organized religion has given the world a host of institutions that have made life better. Secular humanists didn’t invent the university; the Catholic Church did. Long before the Enlightenment there were hospitals, hospices, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, and a host of other charitable organizations paid for and run by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Christian missionaries are often condemned for exporting western culture to the non-western world, and it’s true they did. But they also exported western medicine which saved countless lives. Recently I read that by 1938 there were over 1,000 hospitals around the world founded by missionaries. Even today the only food pantry in my town was founded by six local churches, not secular institutions or humanist societies.

My roommate in college was Cambodian. He fled the killing fields of Pol Pot before migrating to the US. He learned to read in a Buddhist monastery and learned English at a Baptist church. A Protestant missionary named Frank Laubach, developed a literacy program that taught teachers how to teach reading. Millions of people in dozens of countries learned to read through this program – a program born out of a desire to spread the Christian faith. Religion teaches more than dogma. It teaches compassion and the obligation to be good and act benevolently toward others.

Even atheists and agnostics have inherited the bulk of their morality from religion. Organized religion gave us principles such as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The great legal traditions all flow from organized religion. Hammurabi, Moses, and Justinian all credited the Divine as the source of their laws. For a millennium and a half before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, Christian monks and nuns had renounced private property and were living communal lives. The monastic traditions of Christianity and other religions have stood the test of time in a way that secular communism has not. The ethical code of secular humanism is largely the product of organized religion.

Government has been taking over the charitable work once left to religious institutions, and some might argue that organized religion has outlived its usefulness. However, if all of the faith-based schools and charities were removed from the earth, there’d be a humanity gap bigger than all the non-religious organizations and governments could fill. Even if they could, religion meets needs that other institutions can’t.

Religion creates communities and spaces that bind us together with other people in ways that civic organizations can’t. The word religion comes from the Latin prefix “re-” plus “ligare,” which means to tie or bind. Religion reconnects us to God and others, making us stronger and better than we are alone. Religion ritualizes all the stages of life. It teaches us how to celebrate new life and how to grieve when life comes to an end. It points us toward ultimate meaning and helps us understand transcendent things. Only religion can provide the hope of a salvation that endures beyond this material world. To irreligious people that may sound like a bunch of bunk, but everyone has a desire to find meaning that transcends the here and now.

I can love my religion while admitting its faults for the same reason Noah could love the ark despite the noise and smell. It’s not perfect but it’s better than treading water on my own.

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Care for the Dying

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Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child” (1896)

After two deaths and three funerals in just nine days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Watching a loved one die can be a sorrowful experience even for believers who have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the hope of eternal life. But the time before the end can also be an important time for giving and receiving love and forgiveness as well as preparing for death. Here are some tips on how to care for and minister to those who are dying:

  1. Be knowledgeable. To help those who are dying we must understand the meaning of death. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Death doesn’t mean that the person has stopped breathing or that their heart has stopped beating or even that they are “brain dead.” The soul isn’t “in” the lungs, heart, or brain. It isn’t in any particular part of the body. The only way we can know for sure that the soul has left the body with moral certainty is when the process of corruption has begun. We must treat all who are in the process of dying with Christian love and dignity, even when death seems imminent.
  2. Be patient. While there is no moral imperative to prolong life by unnatural means, we shouldn’t hasten death. God calls people home in His timing. It is difficult to watch people suffer, especially those we love, but as Christians we believe that there can be spiritual benefit in suffering.
  3. Be honest. Don’t try to spare a dying person’s feelings by telling him that he will recover and don’t use euphemisms to discuss death. As Christians we should always tell the truth, even when it hurts. Being honest will help the dying person prepare for death. Dishonesty only feeds denial and prevents the dying person from being able to prepare mentally and spiritually for death.
  4. Be receptive. Ask the dying person what they need. If they can’t talk, try to get moisture to their mouth. Do what you can to meet the dying person’s needs, but be honest if they ask for something you can’t provide.
  5. Be creative. Try to create a comforting and meaningful atmosphere for the dying person. Play or sing Christian songs. Bring sound recordings of the Bible or voices of loved ones. Read aloud. If the person loved baseball or crochet, decorate their room with objects that remind them of their favorite pastimes.
  6. Be realistic. Even if you are the primary caregiver, you can’t be there for the dying person 24/7. You need time to eat, sleep, cry, and recharge. Arrange for respite care. You will be a better caregiver if you take care of yourself.
  7. Be prayerful. Pray for and with the dying person. If possible, pray so they can hear you. Even those who are in a coma may be able to hear your prayers. Pray that the person would die ready to meet God, not just that they would have less pain or go quickly. If you’re not sure whether the person is truly a believer, invite them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Don’t hesitate to call on a minister to pray for or with someone who is dying.

Death can be unpleasant but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). It can become precious in our sight too when we have God’s perspective of death.

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