Healing 5000 plus 12: Health care in God’s Economy
Thank you very much for asking me to speak today. I’m really grateful for the opportunity. When Tonya emailed me she mentioned that I could speak for 40-45 minutes and there would be 15-20 minutes for Q&A. Though I knew exactly what I’d talk about when she asked, it was hard for me to imagine having anything important enough to say to speak for 45 straight minutes, so I’ll probably flip the script. Like most of you all I am much more comfortable in the listening mode. I’d much rather dialogue through questions, answers, responses, and reactions. The free flow, improvisation of back and forth is more within my comfort zone. So, if it’s ok with you all, I’ll speak for 20, we can discuss for 40 minutes and maybe we’ll have a few extra minutes to breathe. That is a luxury in this economy that we don’t get to take too often. I promise to give you enough to chew on and plenty of blanks left to fill in.
I think it would be helpful to begin with an explanation of the title of today’s presentation. “Healing the 5000 Plus 12: Health Care in God’s Economy” is a little cryptic, alluding to, and recombining, impressions in our memory. Before getting to the specifics of the title I should say that I’ll be drawing on Christian images and teachings because, along with being a licensed counselor, I am also Christian minister. Now, there may come a time during this presentation where you may start to think I have slipped roles from one to the other, but hang with me. It all ties in together. In the current context of Christianity, I’ll also add that my understanding of God, Christ, Spirit is not exclusionary. After these brief remarks, I think you’ll understand what I mean. If the way some Christians talk about Jesus triggers you, rest assured. I’m not like them and neither, in my opinion, is Jesus. So, let’s break this title down.
“Healing 5000” is a reference to feeding of the 5000 in the Christian gospels. If you’re even vaguely familiar with this miracle story of feeding numerous people with a small amount of food, that will be enough for now. I have a client who finds himself often torn between serving two masters; one known by many traditions and many names including God and another also known by many names including mammon. My client yearns to earn tons of money so someday he can retire early and “become a good Christian.” Certain stories in the Gospels trouble him though including the feeding of the 5000. In this particular story Jesus never says, “Oh well, we don’t have enough money so I guess we cannot feed them.” Nor does he say, “They have no money so they cannot eat.” He never says, “Fabulous! They are very hungry. Demand will be great while the supply is low! We should be able to profit greatly off from this venture.” What he does say, essentially, is, “Here is food and here are hungry people. Now go.” It is true. One cannot serve two masters. This troubles my client greatly.
“Plus Twelve” refers to the disciples themselves. Like my client, who has never known material hunger or want, there is much healing that needs to occur among providers in our economy. The healing that Jesus prescribes is not to convert the hungry into fearful and driven capitalists but to convert the materially secure into faithful sharers of the gifts God freely gives: Life and Love. The disciples in Jesus’ story are witnessing as much, I would argue more than, those who are hungry. Those who live on the margins in our society are already aware they belong within God’s Kingdom. Ironically, it’s those who believe they are far from the margins who are more often the nearer to being lost.
“Health Care” because we are all health care providers who wish to integrate our spiritual lives into our roles as healers in this economy. We also, coincidentally, live in a democracy that is founded on the principle of freedom of the people to make choices rather than the government to dictate choices to us. I interpret this to mean that health care reform and accessibility begins with us. Where we go, our leaders will follow or they will not be considered leaders much longer. Simply put, much of the inaccessibility of health care is determined by the locations where we choose to meet, the hours in which we choose to meet, the defined scope of our practice, and the cost of such meetings. It is the latter, as you might have already gathered, that I’d like to speak to today.
Lastly, “God’s Economy.” This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the areas I get to describe today. Many people, particularly Americans, particularly those who subscribe to the mindset of so-called white America, believe there are only two economic models to choose from: One is so very, very good, the best ever in fact, and the other one is absolutely evil. These are, of course, capitalism and communism. Substantively, I find very little difference between these two as they have manifest themselves on earth during the industrial age. Fortunately, another economic model exists and it is fully functional and operational each and every day. It has been ongoing since the dawn of Creation and as long as Life and Love exist it will continue on indefinitely. Some say eternally. To make this economy more visible, I need to point out one fact first: Human beings, as far as I know, are the only creature on the planet which use anything which resembles money to conduct exchanges. Indeed, in the economic model human beings have inherited and adopted, essentially no exchange occurs unless some money is involved. On the other hand, what you and I refer to as “the environment” is what every other creature on the planet knows of as the economy; the economy of our origins or God’s economy. It is the free exchange of materials and energy for the perpetuation of Life. All we need to survive is given to us freely from sun to rain, to soil and seed, to wisdom, courage, faith, and Love. Only humans have created concepts such as money, profit, debt, and ownership which authorize us to take and withhold for a profitable ransom the means for another person’s survival in order to facilitate our own. This arrangement is, to put it mildly, deleterious for our spirits and for our neighbors’ as well So, there is the story of the title.
Now, I’d like to tell you three other stories: one about a snow day, one about a birdhouse and one about a holiday. Then, I’d like to open us up for dialogue. The story of the snow day is the shortest and, in my opinion, least significant until we reach the end of today’s presentation but the snow day represents a beginning for the other two. For the sake of chronology, let’s begin with it. Several years ago, I noticed that our relationship with money was probably not healthy for us. As it turns out, it seems many other people think the same. It seemed to me that much of the suffering and hardship in the world could be traced back to our relationship with money. So, I decided to take a Sabbath from commerce. One day out of the week I would try to refrain from spending or earning or frequenting a place where spending or earning occurred. I called these ‘snow days’ and these snow days eventually led me to the birdhouse.
The story of the birdhouse goes like this. When I first began my private practice, accessibility was a buzz word. Before I leased a space, I wanted to find an office that was on a bus route. It also had to have wide doors and ramps for those who utilized walkers and wheelchairs for entry. My hours were flexible so I could see people during the day, evenings, and Saturdays. My fees were affordable; less than the market average. I found the space but eventually I realized that though persons could reach my waiting room, they still some couldn’t come into the office. I volunteered for the Pro Bono Counseling Network for a while and applied to become a Medicaid provider. But during the Medicaid orientation I realized that as a solo practitioner I would not be able to maintain the paperwork to remain compliant. I’d have to hire someone to take care of the paperwork which totally defeated the purpose. I’d receive a tiny co-pay and the Medicaid reimbursement would pay for a clerk to do the admin work. This was my first tangible experience on the other side of systemic racism. The system made it difficult to care for people in spite of my willingness to try. I was at a loss. What became clear to me at that time was that one form of 21st century segregation is not done with signs that read ‘whites only’ or ‘colored.’ It is done with signs that say, “If you can afford it, you are welcome. If you cannot, please move along.” Like for like, the higher the rate, the more exclusive the practice.
One day, while I was taking a shower, an idea dropped into my mind and I literally laughed out loud. If you’ll allow me to put it this way, God said I was to hang a birdhouse on my office wall. In that birdhouse, clients would deposit their payments like they were feeding the birds. In addition, my clients would be told they could make up their own mind about how much to pay. God went even further and said I would not need to know how much they chose nor even if they paid. I laughed at the absurdity of the idea and I knew in the marrow of my bones all was going to be well. On my website I post for my clients how much it costs me to live and to run my practice as well as how many clients I see. I also post how much clients collectively, and on average, pay into the birdhouse. Everybody comes. My clients do their best, as do I, and it all works out. This is what we mean by universal access to health care.
What the birdhouse taught me is that this capitalist economic model we have inherited and adopted deceives us to believe that humans are rationally self-interested consumers, not to be trusted, both driven by profit and absolutely lazy and unimaginative without it. It teaches that if given the option people are more likely to pay nothing or to pay as little as their conscience will allow. But what is actually true, and I have data to prove it, is that most humans are good, trustworthy, and responsible. Collectively, my clients actually pay more than I need; not less. Which brings us to the last story about the holiday.
Like any good business person, I monitor my expenses and try to keep them low. This year when I completed my taxes, I realized once again that taxes are by far and away my single largest expense. Therefore, they are also my client’s largest expense and the largest obstacle to universal access to health care in my practice. So this year, partly motivated by my faith in God’s economy as well as a strong desire to not cooperate with the current political machinations in DC and Raleigh, the powers and principalities as it were, I decided to lower my income tax payments. But to do so legally and ethically means to lower one’s income. So in April I made a pledge that once I had earned all the money I needed to meet my financial obligations for the year, I would close the birdhouse. That season, what I’m calling a tax holiday, began on September 5. From that date until the end of the year I will see my clients as I always do but no money will be exchanged for the services rendered. Due to my clients’ generosity from January to August, for the last four months of the year, we will have a glimpse of what it would be like to live within the economy of our origins; in God’s economy.
I do this, partly because God has asked me to (and I have found that one is well-advised to go along when that happens.) I also do so because, as foolish as it may seem, this is what it would look like to join with the web of Life and to love one another as God has loved us. In January, I’ll have to go back to receiving income for my work but hopefully next year the tax holiday can be even longer. Not only to further universal access to health care but so we may find universal health. What others call Shalom. One last thing that I have learned from that birdhouse: In this country, we adhere to two social agreements. One is to earn as much as you possibly can and the other is to spend as much as you want. I believe these two social agreements are at the root of much of the suffering of this planet and all those who inhabit it including us. My hope is that someday we will, first individually then collectively, begin to make new social agreements, to rejoin the web of life, and to learn to care for others as God cares for us. Begin small, with something like a snow day, and expand outward from there. See where it might lead.
As I said at the beginning, I’d much rather dialogue and listen. I also enjoy questions way more than answers. So, I’ll leave off with a couple of those. Franz Fanon, in his book “The Wretched of the Earth,” writes, “The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers, are shown by barracks and police stations….In the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors and ‘bewilderers’ separate the exploited from those in power.”
We are in a unique position existing as we do on the boundary, the border, the dividing lines in our society. This unique position also comes with unique opportunities. The persons who come into our offices are victim-survivors as well as past perpetrators. Sometimes they are both at the same time. We can focus all of our attention on relieving the outcomes of the suffering or we can divide our attention, walk upstream, and see what can be done about the sources of that suffering. We can be compliant with systems we have inherited and adopted or we can join with the One Source of Life and Love, created for and freely given to all of us. If you were to start small, where would you begin? Will you imagine where we all might end up? Thank you again. I’m happy to try to answer any questions you may have and to show the website too if that is helpful. Thank you.