Thursday, August 27, 2009

Writing and Reflecting During the First Week of Ramadan

The first week of Ramadan is drawing to a close, and it's been a time of reflection. Monday, August 23, marked the third month since my wife passed on, and I found it more difficult than I had thought. For the first time in many weeks, the pain of her loss returned, and tears flowed.

My plan for this month had been to spend time writing, so I looked over our cancer notebooks, which I hope to turn into a book. Re-reading this journal proved to be too much for me to handle. I became quite sad, and finally called up my dear friend Bill Miller, a retired pastor who lost his wife to cancer many years ago and has since remarried. We got to know Bill, an dedicated peace activist, when we lived in Whittier. I often stayed with Bill and his wife in their Whittier home while Kathleen was at the City of Hope, and he always has a very sympathetic ear. I realized that it would probably be best for me to work on the Brinton book rather than the Cancer Journey book during this still sensitive period.


The Brinton book concerns Howard and Anna Brinton, a Quaker couple who were directors of Pendle Hill from 1936-1950. Howard authored some of the major Quaker writings of the 20th century and is probably the most important exponent of liberal Quakerism of this era. I started researching this book nince years ago, and was planning to complete it at Pendle Hill during our sabbatical leave. God had other plans, we were obliged to stay in Santa Monica, and I nearly gave up this project because I thought I needed the resources of East Coast libraries at Haverford, Swarthmore and Pendle Hill to complete the work. But in March I decided to try writing up something in preparation for a workshop I was supposed to teach at Pendle Hill in May. As soon as I began, my old enthusiasm for the project returned, and words came pouring out. Within two months, I had written nearly 50,000 words.


The Brinton book also brings back memories since much of it was written in the two months prior to Kathleen's final hospitalization. During that period, I wrote nearly 1000 words per day and read my daily output to Kathleen, often while walking through Palisade Park. She was my inspiration. (She always has been!)


It has taken me much of the week just to gather together the pieces of this project and set up my office so that I can begin writing again. I am finally ready. It helped to receive an encouraging email from Peter Bien, a retired professor of Greek from Dartmore College, who has served on the board of Pendle Hill for many years, focusing mainly on publications. Peter is a kindly as well as extremely intelligent man--he translated Kazantsakis's "Zorba the Greek" and is one of the leading experts on modern Greek literature. I feel blessed to have his friendship and support.


Along with writing, I've also been working on Parliament business and getting ready for Melbourne. A Quaker from Berkeley named Ketih Barton informed me about an obscure gnostic sect called the Mandaeans who are followers of John the Baptist. They lived more or less peacefully in Iraq until the Americans invaded and sectarian violence broke out. Then this pacifist group was persecuted and forced to leave the country. 5,000 of them settled in Sydney. It's a fascinating story, which is told on Australian radio:

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/stories/2008/2378162.htm

The story of the Mandaeans reminded me of the Doukhabors, the Russian pacifist sect that attracted the attention of Tolstoy and the Quakers, who helped them to escape persecution by fleeing to Canada. The Doukhabors became somewhat infamous because of their habit of going naked as a witness to their faith and the Quakers were called in to mediate. But therein hangs a tale, as they say.


Keith has informed me that the Mandaeans are in touch with the Parliament and will be present at this gathering. Meanwhile, I have been in touch with Friends in Sydney and hope to meet the Mandaeans when I visit that city.


Last night I went to the Activist Support Group, led by Jerry Rubin (not the famous racical from the 1960s, but a local peace activist of the same name). Shown in this picture are Jerry and his wife Melissa, Maricela Guzman (AFSC), and yrs truly.

Jerry the local activist likes to tell the story of a radio interview he had with the famous anti-war radical. This icon of 60s radicalism and founder of the Yippies went into business and became a millionaire, and the radio interviewer asked him if he regretted his radical days. "Hell, no," responded Jerry, "Opposing the immoral war in Vietnam was the best thing I ever did in my life!"

A few days later he was struck and killed by a car and died. Jerry (the local) went to his funeral, along with Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger.


During last night's Activist Support the focus was on Quakers and the theme: "Avoiding Burnout." The speakers were Laurel Gord (a member of Santa Monica Meeting who spoke about Friends Committee on Legislation), Maricela Guzman (a young peace education staff person from the American Friends Service Committtee), and myself (a freelance Quaker peace activist). We each shared our stories and concerns.

My cure for burnout consisted of three bits of advice: 1) Focus on friendship rather than achievement. Friendships nourish the soul. As a Muslim peace activist once said, "Peace is created one friendship at a time." 2) Avoid judgmentalism and self-righteousness. Negative feelings sap your energy. 3) Take time for medication and silent reflection. Gandhi said: "In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness." He also said: "Prayer is not ...idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action." The more active you are, the more you need to spend time in silence and in prayer.

On this note, let me close so that I can go to my meditation session at the Self-Realization Fellowship!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The gift of Muslim hospitality

When I began fasting during Ramadan nine years ago, I had my first experience of Muslim hospitality. It was unforgettable. I was invited to an iftar (fast-breaking meal) by Asima Butt (far left, next to my wife Kathleen). Asima was a beautiful young woman who worked as a cultural affairs director for the city of Whittier, CA (named after the great Quaker poet). Her father, Dr. Hassan Butt, was a well-to-do physician from Kashmir who lived in a huge house, a kind of compound, with his extended family (some of whom are shown here). He and his family welcomed Kathleen and me into their home with such generosity and kindness that I was moved to say, "God is so good. He asks me merely to give up lunch, and in return gives me a feast and a wonderful family to share it with!"

Over the years I came to know and appreciate this gracious Muslim family who gave me my first taste of the Muslim way of life. We had many fascinating conversations about theology and politics and shared many personal stories.

This year I have been apprehensive about observing the Ramadan fast since each year the days grow longer. (Mulsims use a lunar calendar, so the month of Ramadan moves ten days forward each year.) When I began fasting nine years ago, Ramadan started in early December and I had to fast for only 10 hours or so. Now the fasting time is 14 hours!
I became so stressed about this that I developed a severe back ache
and had to take a muscle relaxant on Thursday, when I was working on my talk about health care reform for ICUJP. By Friday I was feeling better, but woozy. How would I feel on the first day of Ramadan?

To my surprise, when I woke up at 5:00 AM on Saturday, I felt great! My mind was clear, and my back ache gone, and I felt intense gratitude. I knew that God will give me strength to observe this fast, as He had in previous years.

I was also pleased that I was going to an iftar at the home of my dearest Muslim friend, Shakeel Syed. Shakeel is the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "I am like a bishop," he sometimes jokes, "but without any power." The Shura Council is an umbrella organization for all the mosques in Southern California. Shakeel visits the mosques, helps them in their work, and is their voice in the public arena.

He is one of the most compassionate and spiritual people I know, and from the very first time I met him, I felt a heart-connection with him. He serves on the boards of various organizations that I am also connected with, such as Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and the American Friends Service Committee. Two years ago he went to Israel-Palestine with a group sponsored by the AFSC and came back profoundly moved by what he saw. He has spoken out passionately about the plight of the Palestinian people. I honor him for his courage in speaking out since many Muslims have paid a heavy price for doing so.

Shakeel is also an incredibly warm and generous person. In April of this year, several weeks before my wife went to the hospital, we went to the AFSC to chat with Eisha Mason, the associate regional director. She told us that Shakeel was coming over for lunch. I thought she meant that she and Shakeel were going out to lunch together. It turned out that Shakeel had purchased a Middle Eastern meal for the entire office staff of the office. He brought his family with him and we had a wonderful feast together!

When my wife was in ICU, Shakeel and his wife came to visit and to pray for her on Mother's Day. I was incredibly moved that he would take the time to honor my wife in this way.

A week ago, when Shakeel came to visit me at my home, I asked him if the mosque in Culver City had iftars open to the public, like the mosque in South Bay. He told me it didn't, and then proceeded to invite me to his home for an iftar.
"I am very busy during Ramadan because of my position," he explained. "But I have the first night of Ramadan free. It is my family night."

When I realized that he considered me part of his family, I was touched. I knew this was a sign from Allah that I was indeed supposed to fast for Ramadan!

Last night I went to Shakeel's home, which is located not far from the King Fahd mosque in Culver City. He lives on the second floor and you can see the beautiful blue minaret from the porch.

Shakeel has three daughters (Khadija and two others whose Arabic names escape me) and a son Mujahid. They range in age from 11-16. His wife Sarai is a school teacher. They live in a modest apartment in which the most prominent feature is a book case well supplied with books on Islam and current affairs.

He is a man after my own heart!

Shakeel referred to me as "Uncle Anthony" and made me feel like part of the family.

I chatted with the children and learned that Mujahid (who is twelve or so) played basketball that day in spite of his fast. I commended the children and told them that when I felt that fasting was too difficult for me, I remembered that Muslim teens fast.


"You are my inspiration," I told them.

I learned that Khadija has been studying Arabic at Cal State San Bernardino. Most Muslims learn enough Arabic to be able to recite Qur'an. Khadija is studying colloquial as well as classical Arabic.

I am always impressed with how Muslims make such an effort to learn Arabic, the language of their scripture. Very few Christians--even pastors--bother to learn Greek. Even more impressive to me is the fact that many Muslim teens memorized the entire Qur'an in Arabic. It was struggle for us to get Christians kids just to memorize a few Bible verses in English!
When the sun set, we had a light fast-breaking snack (which was preceded by a prayer said by one of the children). Then the family had formal prayers, which I joined.

I always feel so uplifted when I pray with Muslims, and this time of prayer was particularly moving since I was part of the family. After the formal prayers, there was a time of "dua"--personal prayers, spoken from the heart. Shakeel's prayers for "Aunt Kathleen" and "Uncle Anthony" touched the depths of my soul.

After the prayers, we had a delicious meal of spicy Indian food prepared by Sarai. We had such good conversation about everything from family affairs to politics and religion that the time flew by. It was 10:30 when I finally left.

I learned that Shakeel and his family usually goes to the mosque after iftar and prayers for two hours! They go to bed at 11 PM and get up at 4 AM for morning prayers (called fajr) and breakfast.


I feel so blessed to have come to know Muslims and Islam in this intimate and personal way. If only other Americans could come to know Muslims and Islam as I do, I am convinced our country would be deeply enriched spiritually and we would have a much saner view of the world.

I am grateful that President Obama gets this. His Ramadan message showed remarkable understanding of Muslim theology and impressed Shakeel as well as me. I hope that Obama show respect for Muslim not only in words, but also in deeds.

President Obama's Ramdan message: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R4KfYuDrvU

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why do I fast during Ramadan?

Today is the first day of Ramadan, celebrated by Muslims because it was during this month that the Holy Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammad.

During Ramadan Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Most get up before dawn to pray and to eat a light breakfast. When the sun goes down, Muslims break fast and pray. The fast-breaking meal, called an iftar, is often a time for celebration since Ramadan is the month when God revelead the Qur'an to humanity.

I have been observing the fast during Ramadan ever since 9/11. At first, I fasted as a way to purge myself of the despair and other negative emotions I felt after 9/11 and our invasion of Afghanistan. I also found that fasting opened me up to the Muslim community and to interfaith work in a profound way.

Over the years I have come to appreciate fasting as a spiritual practice. Fasting has deepened my relationship with God as well as with my Muslim brothers and sisters. Fasting has also deepened my empathy with those who are poor and hungry.
I look forward to Ramadan each year as a time for spiritual renewal (just as I look forward to Lent, Christmas, and Yom Kippur).

Quakers don't believe that it is necessary to observe holy days since every day is holy, but I find that observing these seasonal holidays can be a helpful spiritual practice.
Because many people wonder why I fast during Ramadan, I wrote the following explanation a year or two ago.


“Why do you fast for Ramadan if you are not a Muslim?”


I was asked this question while having dinner with Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a well-known Palestinian professor of peace studies who has taught at Hebrew University and now teaches at the American University in Washington, DC. The author of numerous books and articles relating to conflicts in the Middle East, Prof. Abu-Nimer had come to a Quaker center called Pendle Hill near Philadelphia to give a lecture about the situation in Israel/Palestine. As editor of a Quaker magazine, I was there to hear what he had to say about this topic.

It was my first encounter with Prof. Abu-Nimer, and Pendle Hill is a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation, so I paused in silence to reflect before answering his question. My response surprised even me.

“I have been fasting during Ramadan since 9/11 to reach out and express my solidarity with the Muslim community,” I replied. “And I also find fasting to be an excellent spiritual practice that helps me to empathize with the poor.”
So far, the words were ones that I had given many times before when asked about fasting. But then came the unexpected part:

“I plan to keep fasting during Ramadan until there is peace in Israel/Palestine.”
Where these words came from, I don’t know, but they felt like what Quakers call a “leading of the Spirit.”

Hearing my words, Prof. Abu-Nimer smiled. He obviously appreciated this response, but I didn’t realize how much until later.

That evening, Prof. Abu-Nimer lectured about the heart-breaking situation in Israel/Palestine. He spoke about the deteriorating political conditions, and how every effort to promote a non-violent solution or approach had met with resistance and ultimately failure.

Finally, someone asked, “Do you have any good news to tell us about what can be done to promote peace?”

Prof. Abu-Nimer paused and reflected, and then he smiled.

“Yes, I have good news,” he said, “I met a Quaker during dinner this evening and he told me that he was fasting during Ramadan until there is peace in Israel/Palestine. This gave me goosebumps…”

At that moment, I had goosebumps, too. I felt as if God had confirmed my leading, and that from now on I really am committed to fasting during Ramadan until there is peace in the Holy Land.

A few months later, I found myself attending a peace event in Tel Aviv on the first day of Ramadan. For two weeks, I had been traveling with an interfaith delegation of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Quakers visiting and listening to Muslims, Christians, and Jews of all backgrounds and political persuasions at refugee camps, settlements, kibbutzim, and cafes. It was a powerful experience that help me connect with the people of this region at a heart level.

On this first day of Ramadan, Muslims and Jews were scheduled to go on a silent peace walk through the streets of Tel Aviv. This event was sponsored by Middle Way.
It was 9:00 AM in the morning, and already 80 degrees. I had had nothing to eat or drink before dawn, as I usually do when I fast during Ramadan, and was wondering if I would have the strength to make it through this four-hour walk in the heat of the day.

Just then an Arab in white robes began addressing us. He welcomed us to this event and spoke glowingly about peace and cooperation and then told us that he had purchased bottles of water and snacks for all participants. No mention was made of the fact that he and other Muslims would not be eating or drinking anything.
I was impressed, and humbled. Clearly this was another sign that God wanted me to fast during Ramadan until these wonderful children of God—these peace-loving Muslims and Jews—know real peace.

Our silent walk through the streets of Tel Aviv is one of the spiritual high points of my life. We didn’t solve all the problems of Israel and Palestine, but for one day we all knew what peace feels like. This was a blessing for which I will always be grateful to God.

I encourage everyone, regardless of religious persuasion, to “fast for peace.” Fasting can teach us feel in our gut (and not only in our heads) what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are those who HUNGER and THIRST after justice.” Jesus understood from personal experience what hunger and thirst were all about, and why we need to work for justice. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. He lived in poverty, in solidarity with the poor. All his life lived in complete and humble submission to the will of God. This is the way to true peace.

Fasting for peace may seem like a small thing, but if we do with a pure intention, only God knows where it will lead and how it will change your life, or even the world.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Yes, We Can, but Will We? Health Care Reform....

This is a talk I gave this morning at Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (icujp.org):

As many of you know, I have a personal stake in health care because of my wife’s bout with cancer. But I’m sure all of us know of people who have suffered because of our sick health care system, so we all have a personal stake in health care reform.

Let me share a little bit of my own story. Although I have been concerned about health care reform for years, my active involvement began last year when my wife was diagnosed with cancer. That’s when health care became a life-and-death issue.

The first question that anyone asks when you are told you or your loved one has a life-threatening illness is: Is it curable? Is there hope?

The second question we ask is: Can we afford the treatment? Will we go bankrupt?

Only in America are we forced to ask the second question. In every other nation as comparatively wealthy as ours, health care is considered a right and is available to all through affordable, state-run or state-regulated insurance. Here in America health care is a commodity available to those who can afford, and reluctantly doled out to those who can't. As a result, 600,00 or more people will go bankrupt this year because of medical bills. 80% of them have medical insurance.

For a couple of weeks, my wife and I wondered if we would end up like many Americans who think they’re insured but find out that they have been excluded because of a technicality. My sister-in-law ended up with a $40,000 bill when her insurance decided not to cover the second of three treatments for her lime disease. Why the first and third treatments were covered, but not the second is one of those bizarre mysteries of our current health care insurance system that’s too long to tell here. Francisco, my Mexican-American gardener, told me that his insurance covered only half of the bills for his wife’s cancer treatment. He ended up in debt for $70,000. That’s a lot of lawns to mow!

As Michael Moore made clear in his documentary Sicko, having medical insurance is no guarantee of getting medical treatment in America.

Most Americans have health insurance, but over 52 million do not. According to census data, 84% of Americans have some form of health insurance coverage. 60% of Americans receive insurance through their employer. 30% receive insurance through the government—either through medicare, Medicaid, or the military. Only one in ten Americans has individual insurance. (So much for free choice!) 16% have no insurance.

Those with no insurance, or inadequate insurance, are the ones most at risk. According to the Institute of Medicine, around 20,000 adults die each year because of lack of adequate health insurance. More Americans die from lack of insurance coverage than die from homicide.

Indeed, it could be argued that denying someone needed medical care they are entitled to is a form of manslaughter, if not outright murder.

Many are denied coverage because of an insurance loophole known as “rescission.” This is a fancy word for denying medical care that patients are entitled to, and it’s perfectly legal under current laws—a situation Obama hopes to change. According to the LA Times, June 17, 2009,Executives of three of the nation's largest health insurers told federal lawmakers in Washington that they would continue canceling medical coverage for some sick policyholders, despite withering criticism from Republican and Democratic members of Congress who decried the practice as unfair and abusive.




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The hearing on the controversial action known as rescission, which has left thousands of Americans burdened with costly medical bills despite paying insurance premiums, began a day after President Obama outlined his proposals for revamping the nation's healthcare system.

An investigation by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations showed that health insurers WellPoint Inc., UnitedHealth Group and Assurant Inc. canceled the coverage of more than 20,000 people, allowing the companies to avoid paying more than $300 million in medical claims over a five-year period.

It also found that policyholders with breast cancer, lymphoma and more than 1,000 other conditions were targeted for rescission and that employees were praised in performance reviews for terminating the policies of customers with expensive illnesses.

"No one can defend, and I certainly cannot defend, the practice of canceling coverage after the fact," said Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), a member of the committee. "There is no acceptable minimum to denying coverage after the fact."

The executives -- Richard A. Collins, chief executive of UnitedHealth's Golden Rule Insurance Co.; Don Hamm, chief executive of Assurant Health and Brian Sassi, president of consumer business for WellPoint Inc., parent of Blue Cross of California -- were courteous and matter-of-fact in their testimony.
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It seems ironic that these courteous corporate killers do not realize what they are doing is tantamount to murder. It is almost unbearably ironic that an insurance company named after Jesus’ Golden Rule would engage in this murderous practice called rescission.

Despite stories such as these, people have a hard time believing that our country’s health care system is as bad as experts say. Many Americans see our bright, shiny hospitals and read about US medical breakthroughs and think we have the best medical system in the world.

It’s true that America has some of the world’s best hospitals and best physicians (many of whom are immigrants, but that’s another story). Unfortunately, this world-class medical care is not available to all. The wealthy receive more care than they need, and the poor far less than the need. Most doctors agree that the way medicine is practiced in America does not lead to the best possible outcomes. Many doctors practice defensive medicine and overprescribe tests and procedures to avoid lawsuits. Some doctors overprescribe treatment because they are paid extra for doing so. There is also little incentive for doctors to promote preventive medicine. As a result, Americans pay over twice as much as their European counterparts, and we are ranked 37th in medical outcomes.

We have the highest infant mortality rate, and the lowest longevity, of all the industrial nations.
Tragically, in some parts of the USA, our infant mortality rate is comparable to that of the poorest African countries.

For those of us in the religious community, this is a moral outrage. Martin Luther King said, “Of all injustices, inequity in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Sad to say, this moral argument does not carry much weight with most Americans, even some of those in the religious community. That’s why advocates of health care reform now say we need to stress the economic, not the moral argument.

When Kathleen and I gave our talks at churches, we found that many in the religious community are open to moral suasion, but some are not. We were mostly well received at liberal churches and meetings when we talked about the need for universal health care from a religious viewpoint. But at one church, government-run health insurance was a hard sell. When I waxed enthusiastic and showed a video about a single payer option, the crowd of mostly gray-haired, retired Methodists grew restless. They raised questions about cost, and were skeptical about whether the government could run a medical insurance program effectively.

Only later did Kathleen remind me that everyone in the room was the beneficiary of government largess, namely, medicare. Many other seniors seemed to be oblivious to this fact. As one angry person said recently in a Town Meeting, “I don’t want the government to meddle with my medicare benefits!”

Medicare has been around for several decades and is so successful that many people seem to have forgotten (conveniently) that it’s run by the government. There are dire predictions medicare will run out of money, but it can be easily fixed simply by charging the rich the same percentage of their income—both earned and unearned—as the rest of us.

I am confident that medicare is here to stay because however much Americans might grouse about government-run plans, the seniors in this country would all turn into raging grannies and grandpas if it were taken away from them. They know that if they had to shop for medical insurance in the free market, most would not be able to afford it. Many would die prematurely as a result.

Why then are American reluctant to accept a government health insurance plan when 30% of Americans are currently covered by such a plan and it provides good service and is less costly than private plans?

Yes, let us proclaim this fact boldly and often: government-run plans are more efficient and more cost-effective than private plans, despite the ideological arguments of conservatives. The administrative costs for medicare are around 2% as opposed to 20-25% for private health insurance. Those administering this government program don’t receive multi-million dollar salaries for excluding people from coverage. They are often referred to as “bureaucrats,” but given their modest salaries, they should be called by the honorable old-fashioned name: public servants.

There are many reasons that Americans distrust government, some of them valid, others the result of prejudice or propaganda. A good reason to mistrust government is because it is largely controlled by corporate interests and the military-industrial complex, and does not serve the people.

Americans become outraged when they see their tax dollars line the pockets of bankers, who receive hundreds of billions in subsidies while people are kicked out of their homes and become bankrupt because of foreclosures.

I think some of this outrage is behind the blind fury that has surfaced at town hall meetings. People mistrust the government because they sense it is not working for their benefit, but rather for the benefit of some shadowy powers beyond their control. We on the left know that this “shadowy power” consists of big business and corporate elites, but many Americans do not see this clearly.

Conservatives have done a good job in channeling this populist rage against government. Instead of attacking the source of the problem—the greed of big corporations like the insurance industry and big pharma—the anti-government, anti-tax crowd lash out against Congressional leaders, seeing them as elitist and out of touch with the people, which many of them are.

One of the deep failings of America is its parochialism and its unquestioning belief that we are number one in everything because we have more weapons and bigger armies than anyone else. Most middle class Americans, especially those of European heritage, have little knowledge of other countries and are easily duped by those claiming that the public health care systems in other countries are the pits. When I told my brother-in-law, a conservative Christian, that France was ranked the best health care system in the world, he sneered: “Do you want America to be like France?” “Why yes,” I replied. “If the French make great wine, and if I wanted to start a vineyard, wouldn’t I want to learn from them? Why shouldn’t we learn from other countries that do things better than we do?”

As an antidote to parochialism, I recommend that people watch an excellent series called “Sick Around the World.” Produced last year by FrontLine, this documentary shows how five capitalist democracies have created universal health care systems that are cheaper and more efficient than ours. None is perfect—and the documentary is scrupulous about showing the weaknesses as well as strengths of each system—but all are better than ours and have something to teach us. I recommend this documentary to church groups because the journalist who put it together, T.R. Reid, is much more balanced and fair than Michael Moore, and is therefore more convincing to those who are middle-of-the-road in their political views.

I want to briefly discuss the health care system in two countries that are portrayed in this documentary--Taiwan and Switzerland—and have something to teach us about health care reform. Taiwan adopted a single payer system, similar to Canada’s, and got it up and running in less than ten years. So a major transformation is possible in a short period of time. Switzerland has a totally private insurance and health care delivery system, but it’s much more efficient and cheaper than ours. The Swiss example shows that a free market health care system can work, but it must be strictly and intelligently regulated.

As I compare these two systems to ours, keep in mind that we spend over 16% of our gross domestic product on health care—and it’s expected to rise to over 20% in the next five years if we don’t do something to cut costs. As Obama and others point out, these costs aren’t sustainable and could lead to another collapse in our economy.
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Taiwan


Twenty years ago Taiwan was in a health care crisis worse than ours. Forty percent of their people lacked health insurance coverage. Taiwan addressed this problem by adopting a "National Health Insurance" model in 1995 after studying other countries' systems. Like Japan and Germany, all citizens must have insurance, but there is only one, government-run insurer. Working people pay premiums split with their employers; others pay flat rates with government help; and some groups, like the poor and veterans, are fully subsidized. The resulting system is similar to Canada's -- and the U.S. Medicare program.

How does it work? Taiwan's new health system extended insurance to the 40 percent of the population that lacked it while actually decreasing the growth of health care spending. The Taiwanese can see any doctor without a referral. Every citizen has a smart card, which is used to store his or her medical history and bill the national insurer. The system also helps public health officials monitor standards and effect policy changes nationwide. Thanks to this use of technology and the country's single insurer, Taiwan's health care system has the lowest administrative costs in the world.

Percentage GDP spent on health care: 6.3.% (instead of our percentage; 16%).
Co-payments: 20 percent of the cost of drugs, up to $6.50; up to $7 for outpatient care; $1.80 for dental and traditional Chinese medicine. There are exemptions for major diseases, childbirth, preventive services, and for the poor, veterans, and children.

What are the concerns? Like Japan, Taiwan's system is not taking in enough money to cover the medical care it provides. The problem is compounded by politics, because it is up to Taiwan's parliament to approve an increase in insurance premiums, which it has only done once since the program was enacted.

Switzerland


What is it? The Swiss system is social insurance like in Japan and Germany, voted in by a national referendum in 1994. Switzerland didn't have far to go to achieve universal coverage; 95 percent of the population already had voluntary insurance when the law was passed. All citizens are required to have coverage; those not covered were automatically assigned to a company. The government provides assistance to those who can't afford the premiums.

How does it work? The Swiss example shows that universal coverage is possible, even in a highly capitalist nation with powerful insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Insurance companies are not allowed to make a profit on basic care and are prohibited from cherry-picking only young and healthy applicants. They can make money on supplemental insurance, however. As in Germany, the insurers negotiate with providers to set standard prices for services, but drug prices are set by the government.

Percentage of GDP spent on health care: 11.6

Average monthly family premium: $750, paid entirely by consumers; there are government subsidies for low-income citizens.

Co-payments: 10 percent of the cost of services, up to $420 per year.

What are the concerns? The Swiss system is the second most expensive in the world -- but it's still far cheaper than U.S. health care. Drug prices are still slightly higher than in other European nations, and even then the discounts may be subsidized by the more expensive U.S. market, where some Swiss drug companies make one-third of their profits. In general, the Swiss do not have gatekeeper doctors, although some insurance plans require them or give a discount to consumers who use them.
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If governments in other countries can ensure universal health at an affordable cost, I say, “Yes, we can do it here.” The question is: “Will we?” I think we will, but as Winston Churchill once said, “You can always rely on Americans to do the right thing after they have tried every other alternative.”

Besides parochialism, another stumbling block to universal health care is racism: many of those opposed to health care reform are white folks afraid they are losing control of the country. They see Obama not as a duly elected leader, but as a tyrant. Hence the Vermont man who brought a loaded gun to an Obama rally and carried a sign saying that “The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants.” After he was acquitted of all charges, a group of gun fanatics stood outside a convention center in Arizona to protest Obama’s health care program. One carried a loaded AK-47 and proudly pointed out this was his legal right. The cops agreed. I must point out when when AFSC protested during the Democratic rally in LA, they were not allowed to carry large wooden crosses because these were seen as potential weapons. How weird we American must seem to the rest of the world: it is okay to automatic weapons, but not crosses!

It is hard not to see racism behind such violent feelings, especially when this same gun-loving, Obama;hating group violently insists that health care benefits should not be extended to what they call “illegals.” As a result, Obama has had to say repeatedly that undocumented workers will not receive health care under his plan.

This is bad policy, but given the intensity of anti-immigrant feeling, it’s the politically expedient thing to say at this time. In reality, sooner or later, we must give coverage to everyone who works in America, just as they do in Europe and other civilized parts of the world.

By far the biggest challenge to health care reform is not the people, most of whom support medicare for all, but the corporations who funnel vast sums of money to influence our legislators.

What can we do to make a difference?

There are basically two choices that I see: one is to stand up for the health care plan you believe is the best, and the other is to stand up for the best possible plan.
I don’t think both options need to cancel each other out, as long as we agree to be honest and civil as we promote whatever approach we feel is best.

Advocates like Ralph Nader have taken the uncompromising approach. According to Nader, single payer (“medicare for all”) is the best option, and we should fight for it whether or not it has a chance of success right now. Nader believes that ultimately, history will vindicate those who right for single payer, as it did those who fought to end slavery, to give women the vote for women, and to pass the Civil Rights Act, etc.

Others are concerned that in our pursuit of what is best or perfect, we may lose what is good. If we can raise the number of insured from 85% to 98%, and if we can institute “consumer protection” for private health insurances through regulation, and if we can cut costs and make insurance more affordable, then we will have done a good thing and moved a step forward along the road to real reform.

Some advocates of single payer disagree. They feel that a compromise won’t work-the system itself is fundamentally flawed—and the sooner we convince our fellow Americans that health care as a right, not a commodity, and get rid of private insurers, the better.

For the long haul, I agree with the Ralph Nader approach and believe the best solution to our health care problem is to extend medicare to all Americans as soon as possible.

For the short term, however, I agree with the Quaker lobbying group, Friends Committee on National Legislation (see fcnl.org).

Here are the FCNL talking points:

1. A strong public insurance option should be made more widely available to people who want to sign up for it.

2. Insurance coverage should be available and affordable for everyone, either through employers or through affordability credits. Caps on out of pocket expenses and the competition provided by the public plan will keep health care premiums low.

3. Real reform of the health insurance market must include guarantees that no one can be denied health insurance because of their current or past health conditions, limits on co-payments and other out of pocket expenses, and requires that health insurance premiums be spent primarily on health care services instead of administration and unreasonable profits.

4. Progressive financing can be made possible by cutting back on wasteful administrative costs, reforming the health insurance market and increasing the tax contributions of wealthy households with incomes over $350,000 a year.

In addition to advocating for the public option and a bill ensuring these points, FNCL,has also suggested that we go to the offices of our elected officials with flowers to show our support for universal health and to change the tone of the debate from rancorous to civil. I find this tactic to be very Quakerly and hope it catches on and gains media attention.

Can religious communities make a difference?

Some of us may feel that it is futile to reach out to the religious community on causes such as health care or dismantling the war machine. But many in the religious community care deeply about this issue. Our voice is being heard and it can make a difference. This week I participated on a conference call with the President sponsored by Faithful Reform for Health Care. Over 150,000 people took part and I’m sure Obama was glad to know he had so many people in the religious community supporting health care reform. I receive daily emails from various liberal religious lobbying groups urging me to contact our elected officials, write letters to the editor, and talk to our friends and neighbors. I do what I can, trusting that my little drop of truth and passion can swell the choir and help drown out the voices of defeatism and fear.

These anti-tax, anti-government voices are loud, but are not necessarily taken seriously by our elected officials. I am sure that many elected officials silently cheered when Barney Frank had the hutzpah to speak truth to a young woman who asked the absurd question: “Why do you support Obama’s Nazi health care plan?” Being Jewish, he resorted to biting humor. He replied, “I will revert to my ethnic heritage and answer a question with a question: what planet do you live on?”
I love this response, but as a Quaker, I would have been obliged to say something a tad friendlier.

As a Quaker, and as a person of faith, I am obliged to counter lies whenever I hear them. We all need to do the same. This week I received a weird email from a friend I thought was sane and intelligent, and who usually is, but he got duped by a viral email claiming that p. 435 of the Obama health plan would require seniors to go for counseling on euthanasia every five years. “This is chilling,” he wrote. “Contact your elected officials and tell them you’re opposed to this plan.”

I sent him back a response from Fact Check.org showing that this allegation was a fabrication by the right to discredit Obama. What p. 435 actually says is that if people want end-of-life counseling from a doctor, the plan will pay for it, but only once every five years. This counseling is purely voluntary.

We need fight these malicious lies as quickly as we can. As Mark Twain once said: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

The crisis in our current health care system is a sign of a deeper malaise in American political and social life. Our system exalts profits over people, and as a result turns health care into a commodity, and people into mere consumers. As a person of faith, I believe “we the people” are made in the image of God, and that each of us is infinitely precious. When we begin to think of ourselves merely as consumers, and health as merely a commodity, we lose touch with who we really are. We end up becoming addicted to consumerism, and ultimately to war.

We need to transform our core values so we can transform our society. That’s what we in the religious community are called to do. That’s our job. I ‘d like to close with words of the Talmud: "It is not upon us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it." (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21). And what is “the work”? Tikkun Olam, which means: “Repairing or healing the world.” Beginning with ourselves of course…

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Simple gifts



Yesterday I went to see a sci fi flic called "District 9" with my South African Friends Andre and Debrah, along with their son Jarryd and daughter Sarina, shown here in front of the landmark Culver City Hotel (circa 1928).


I enjoy good sci fi--I even wrote a sci fi novel called "Relics of America"--and found this one to be very engaging. The idea of connecting the aliens with the blacks under apartheid in S. Africa is very clever, and the director made good use of inexperienced (but very talented) actors to create the effect of a documentary. It was also fun to see the film with some savvy S. Africans who knew (and explained) the in jokes and references.

After the film, I went with my S. African Friends to a Greek fast food restaurant. Much to my surprise, and delight, they treated me!

Today I treated my friend Kathy to lunch at Govinda's. She is back from Japan, where she took her 14-year-old nephew on his first big international adventure. Kathy deserves a treat for being such a world-class aunt as well as for being such a dear Friend!

This afternoon I biked down to the beach and decided not to boogie board because it was cool and cloudy. Instead, I went to the library and picked up books on Australia, including one on the founding of Australia by Robert Hughes (whom I mainly know as a savvy art critic).

I am looking forward to going to Australia in December and attending the Parliament of World's Religions. For the past few weeks I've been in touch with a delightful Australian Friend named Trish who is helping me find accommodations and people to visit. She has set me up for eight free days at the Friends House in Melbourne and is helping me to find home stays with Friends.

That's one of the things I love about Friends--our hospitableness. Anywhere I go in the world, I know that I can visit and stay with Friends who will treat me like family.

This week I had a video conversation with Trish via Skype--which was quite amazing. We talked for half an hour for free, and were even able to see each other. O brave new small world that has such friendly gadgets in it!

I am now in the process of selling Kathleen's Honda and thinking about how to dispose of the things that are being stored in our portable storage unit, or "POD." I am eager to get rid of all my excess stuff and live a simpler life. That's another good thing about being a Quaker--we make a virtue of simplicity. "Tis a gift to be simple," goes the old (Shaker) song that Friends love to sing. "Tis a gift to be free. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be." I like the image of "coming down." Instead of scaling the spiritual heights, we go down, become humble and meek, and we connect with Spirit "in the valley of love and delight."

I feel as if I am sinking down, day by day, into a simpler life, one that enables me to appreciate with increasing delight good friends and the everyday joys of life as a gift of the Spirit.

I resonate with what Jennie Ratcliffe says about simplicity in a recent Pendle Hill pamphlet called "Integrity, Ecology, and Community: the Motion of Life" (PH 403):

"Moving toward simplicity--both materially and in our innermost being--requires us to be willing to empty ourselves, to submit ourselves to something that we recognize is greater than ourselves; it requires patience, compassion, and willingness to suffer, to remain teachable, and to forgive. Above all, the qualities we need are a radical humility and a radical love. Elaine Prevallet writes that 'the way to simplicity is the purifying way of love.' This simplifying purification, as I have said, does not demand self-denial or rejection of the material world., but a humility and love which allow us to do without those things, especially of the ego, that we imagine are necessary to our survival, but which separate us from relationships." (p. 20-21)

In other words, if your stuff (either inward or outward) gets in the way of your relationship with your friends, family, or God, get rid of it for love's sake!

How liberating it is when we finally come down to a "place just right" and know that we are not owned by our possessions, but simply have them on loan while we go about doing the work of the Spirit...what a blessing it is to give our lives freely and abundantly to friendship and love!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Celebrating with Friends....

I have been too busy this week to post daily. Besides going to meetings, I went to two concerts:

On Friday night I went with Jeff Utter and a contingent of interfaith folk to a Tchaikovsky concert at the Hollywood Bowl, where there were spectacular fireworks accompanying the 1812 overture. I thought the best fireworks were generated by the Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursulaesa, a 30-year-old who looks like a teenager and plays with incredible passion and power.

Last night I went with Joseph Prabhu (chair of the local chapter of the Parliament of World's Religions) to the Huntington Garden picnic where we heard a concert by Ian Whitcomb, a former British rock star who now bills himself as the foremost ragtime and tin pan alley ukulele player in America. (See http://www.picklehead.com/ian.html). It was fun to hear the tin pan alley tunes from a witty old Brit whose love for this music is irresistible.

It's ironic that a couple of weeks ago, I was concerned about how to have a social life without my sweetie around to take to concerts and movies. Now I feel almost overwhelmed with social engagements, having gone to five concerts in the past week!

Thank you, God, for answering my prayers so abundantly. Now may I please have a little peace and time to write and reflect?

Besides going to concerts, I've been attending meetings, as usual: ICUJP, UDC, and today the World March for Peace.

Today I'm looking forward to a birthday party for Grace Ridley, a 90-year-old member of my Quaker meeting who is currently in hospice care. Grace is a delightful person who dresses up rather elegantly, often in bright purple, with scarves and fashionable hats, like an actresss. She has a very upbeat attitude towards life and a mystical perspective on spirituality. Our meeting has decided to give her a special birthday "send off" as a kind of a preview of her memorial meeting. We are putting together a booklet of pictures and anecdotes remembering all the good things about her, and today we are going to have a time of sharing so we can tell her how much we love her and how much she means to us.

It seems so much nicer to do this while Grace is still alive rather than waiting until, as another old timer in our meeting says, she "falls from her perch."

I don't know if other religious denominations do this, but from time to time Quakers like to organize special celebrations for elderly Friends who are nearing their time of transition. I think it's a great way to celebrate and honor our elders.

My big concern this week has been health care reform, which has become the test of the Obama adminstration's promise, "Yes, we can." I was asked to give a presentation on this topic to ICUJP this coming Friday and titled it: "Heath care reform: yes, we can, but will we?"

Whether we get health care reform depends on whether we get organized and let our elected officials know what we want. Following a cue from our Quaker lobbying group, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (fcnl.org), I plan to go to the offices of our Congress people to deliver flowers and encourage them to move forward with health care reform. FCLN is recommending that we bring flowers to our elected officials as a way of changing the tone of the debate on health care reform. Instead of being divisive and acrimonious, those in the religious community need to be civil and model a more enlightened way of lifting up the need to reform our sick health care system.


Thank you for this day, O Lord, this healing day!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Homeless and Interfaith Youth Work

It's been a full week, and it's not even half over! On Monday I had lunch with Melissa and Shawn, a homeless couple that Kathleen and I have been trying to help find shelter for the past few years. A few weeks ago I offered them money for a security deposit, but landlords won't accept them as tenants because Melissa was evicted from an apartment six years ago when she was married to a rather disreputable man who left her for another woman and refuses to divorce her. Melissa has been homeless ever since. Living on the street has been very detrimental to her health.

I can understand why landlords would hesitate to take Melissa as a tenant: she is crippled and must use a wheelchair, and would be difficult to evict if she stops paying rent. But it's still a sad, and I would say, immoral situation when homeless people can't get a place to stay even when they have the money to do so!

Later Melissa called to say that she is on the top of the list for Section 8 starting on Sept 16. She has been waiting for three years to get Section 8. There was a hitch, of course: they need her birth certificate and she has no money. So I sent her the money along with a letter of recommendation to her social worker (who is too busy to see her).

It's really hard being homeless, esp. if you don't have a friend or advocate. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in an editorial in this Sunday's NY TImes, Americans have adopted punitive policies towards the poor and homeless that are costly, immoral and stupid. We spend tax payer dollars to pay police to hassle the homeless with punitive fines for jaywalking and sleeping on the sidewalk. We throw them in jail for petty offenses and them charge them for toilet paper and other "services." These punitive measures are costly and make matters worse. She ends by saying: If we can't afford to help the homeless, we should at least stop spending money to torment them.

On a happier note, I met with Milia Islam-Majeed, Exec. Dir. of the South Coast Interfaith Council, to talk about interfaith youth work. We came up with a program that will include homeless feeding at my wife's former church (Walteria UMC), a beach cleanup on Earth Day, and another Tall Ships Sail. It feels good to have such a program that will encourage young people to feel compassion for the poor, concern for the environment, and a sense that people of different faith traditions can work together to make this a better world. I am also pleased that we have a program worked out well in advance so we can begin publicizing it this fall.

What keeps me balanced for work like this is my daily practice of prayer and meditation. On Tuesday morning I went to the Self-Realization Fellowship to meditate, where I was pleased to see a very good turnout.

At noon on Tuesday, I had lunch with Thomas Hedberg and Philip Freeman at Govinda's, the Hare Krisha restaurant in Culver City where they serve excellent vegetarian food prepared (s the Gita says) "in the mode of goodness." We talked about the World Peace March and how this group might participate in the USC Gandhi event that's being sponsored by the Parliament.

In the evening I went to the Hollywood Bowl with two Quaker friends and we enjoyed "Mozart under the Stars." What an enchanting evening!

Today I went to communion at St Augustine's by the Sea and heard a reflection about Sister Clare, Francis' female counterpart. Apparently her last words were: "Thank you, God, for creating me."

As Quakers would say, that Friend speaks my mind!

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Never Again!"

This was a good day. I am pictured here walking through Little Tokyo with my new friend Dr. Simon Simonian, who just recently started attending Santa Monica Friends Meeting. We are carrying umbrellas to ward off nuclear fallout and bombs (about which I will say more later).

Simon discovered Quakerism in 1943 when his family moved from Armenia to Lebanon. Survivors of the genocide, Simon's family enrolled him in a Quaker school in Beirut and he became a lifelong Friend. Along with pursuing a distinguished career as a physician/epidemiologist, Simon has also been a committed peace activist for nearly fifty years. In the late 50's he took part in demonstrations in England calling for an end to above-ground nuclear testing. This resulted in the first nuclear test ban treaty

On Sunday, Simon and I commemorated the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by taking part in a vigil at the Higashi Hongangi Buddhist Temple in downtown LA. Around 120 people showed up at this beautiful, ornate Buddhist shrine where the Rev. Nobuko Myoshi greeted us and shared a Buddhist perspective on war.

"In war there is not bad and good, right or wrong," she explained. "There is only right. Everyone thinks they are right and the other side is wrong. That is the problem.

She went on to call for forgiveness and compassion as an antidote to war.

We also heard reflections from two other Japanese Americans: Chuiji Yamada, a young student from St Andrews University, and Dr. Jimmy Hara, who represented Physicians for Social Responsibility and serves as the program director for the LA Schweitzer Fellows Program. Dr Hara was born in an internment camp.

After this time of reflection, we walked quietly through Little Tokyo to City Hall, passing out leaflets to passersby. Pictured here is Philip Freeman, Ann, and Allen White (a Quaker from Orange County) holding a banner for the World March for Peace.

At City Hall, we heard speeches by Steve Rhode (president of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace), Rabbi Freehling (LA County Human Relations Committee), Marcy Winograd (Activist and Congressional candidate), Dr. Reza Aslan (Muslim author and scholar), and Arin Ghost (UNA Pacific Chapter Youth Chair and Outreach Coordinator for Citizens for Global Solutions).

The speeches were excellent and the audience receptive. Some were the usual suspects who showed up faithfully at these events. Some were students and first timers. It occur ed to me that even if we didn't have huge crowds, we didn't need them as much as we did in the 1980s when we had a president in office (namely Reagan) who was a hawk. Our current president wants a nuclear free world as much as we do; we need to pressure him to do what he has promised.

Our speakers reminded us that organized groups like ours have more power over politicians than we may think. The Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s pushed Reagan and Gorbachev into signing a treaty that reduced the world's nuclear weapons by one half.

But half-way measure are not enough. Nuclear technology has become so accessible, Reza Aslan reminded us, that any Ph. D. student in physics could build a bomb. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty needs to be scrapped in favor of a total nuclear disarmament treaty, he claimed. "It's either no nation has a nuclear weapon, or all nations will have them."

All the speakers urged us to put pressure on our elected officials. "We have a president in the White House who says that he wants a nuclear free world," said Rohde, "but it is we who must hold him accountable to keep his promise. We must speak truth to power no matter who is in the White House." Rohde also reminded us that we need to make sure that those who authorized torture such as water boarding should also be held accountable for their criminal actions.


When Dr. Hara of Physicians for Social Responsibility spoke, I was reminded that I went with this group to the nuclear test site in Kazahkstan in the early 1990s. We were involved in an international effort calling for an end to nuclear weapons.

Marcy Winograd told us that when she was a high school teacher, she created a display showing the effects of the bomb on children and young people. "Many high school students were apathetic about the atomic bomb and even thought it was a good idea," she said, "until they saw these photos."

The final speaker was Arin Ghosh, a freshman at UC Riverside, who is an amazingly dedicated peace activist. This summer he went to Taiwan to take part in a conference sponsored by Citizens for Global Solutions. He spent the past week in New York City where he took part in a UN panel focusing on interfaith concerns. A member of the Vedanta Society, Arin represented the Hindu faith.

A devoted follower of Gandhi, Arin spoke with eloquence and passion about the need to abolish nuclear weapons.

He compared nuclear weapons to an addiction, like cigarette smoking. "It isn't enough just to have a patch and chewing gum," he said. "You have to address the causes of addiction and change attitudes."

Everyone was very impressed with Arin's speech and I am glad we had such a powerful spokesperson for the up and coming generation. We left this vigil hopeful for the future, knowing that we can pass the torch into such capable hands.

Arin is pictured below with Marcy Winograd and is pictured above with Dr. Hara (holding a poster that Arin brought from the UN).

Arin was one of the youth speakers at our Pre-Parliament of the World's Religions event in April. After this vigil, I had a chance to hand out flyers about our upcoming Gandhi event at USC, sponsored by the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World's Religions (sccpwr.org). The young people I met were very interested and one exclaimed: "I'm going to Australia!"


I ended my day by going as Simon's guest to a performance of the Jewish symphony at the Ford Theater. There we heard a wonderful selection of Eastern European Jewish music called "L'Haim."


Thank you for this day, O Lord, this healing day! And thank you for all the marvelous peace people that I encountered today!


Text of talk by Arin Ghosh:
It was 64 years ago on those two perilous days in August of 1945 that within an instant, the dreams and aspirations of generations of people would vaporize at the sight of a bright flash. In a blink, over 100,000 would perish from the map. Their houses devastated and burning, they had lost everything, everything but the fact that their faces, names and souls would live on forever. Everything but the fact that their identities would be immortalized in that instant and etched into the minds of those in the world who lived past those two fateful days of August. Everything would change from that moment forth.

A world that was so often tainted by wars in its history would now have to live for the next half century onwards in a near state of annihilation. A constant fear existed during the days of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Those days have not ended. Today the fear quotient that was once occupied with language like ICBMs and Nuclear Submarines has been seconded to language like terrorism. If terrorism is the forefront issue even then the nuclear equitation does not lag behind. Can we imagine the damage a rouge nuclear weapon could do to a nation? The Equation right now is a simple one: Terrorism + Nuclear Weapons = Disaster, just like 1 + 1 = 2. But what happens when we erase one of the parts of the equation, what if we take away the nuclear weapons aspect, what if we take one of the variables out. The answer is clear; the prospective potency of these terrorists becomes drastically reduced. Terrorism is a scourge but we have the chance to disarm the terrorist’s most potent threat and weapon if we disarm nuclear weapons that can fall into their evil hands. In disarming we can take care of at least one part of humanity’s oldest foe, fear itself.

We must be wise about how it is that we go about disarming nuclear arsenals worldwide. In order to disarm one key tenant must be realized: Nuclear Weapons are an addiction like cigarettes. Nuclear Weapons powers seek to employ as many nuclear weapons as they can much like a chain smoker will seek more and more cigarettes. Now we must apply the same principles that end cigarette addiction to Nuclear Disarmament.

But principles are just words their implementation is key. For smoking, in principle if chewing some gum and only that could cure smoking, smoking would be much reduced today. Similarly, in principle for the nuclear issue treaties seek to reduce the number, potency, mobility, and range of Nuclear Weapons, if words would solve our problems well then life would be a lot easier.
What takes us from principles to practicality is a vested interest and a will coupled with actions. The United States has made a concerted effort and this administration thus far must be lauded for their efforts to create, in the long run and in ideal, a nuclear free world. President Obama’s continual will to “strengthen” the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty while also seeking to “aggressively” pursue the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are signs of commitment, but now we have to start seeing the results, we need to see those laws passed and we need to see in the end the bottom line, to see those nuclear weapons being disarmed and out of the hands of our prospective enemies and terrorists.

Now, I’m going tell you right now, I may talk a lot about cigarettes, but I don’t smoke and I don’t like them. So now let me allude to a scenario, of course with cigarettes, to illustrate an obstacle with Nuclear Disarmament. Picture yourself trying to get your friend to stop smoking, you can give them the gum, the patches and what not, the instructions, motivation, and they can say they’re taking the gum to you. But in the end only verification, proof of you seeing that they’re not buying that pack of cigarettes that they normally would have or you not having to hear that smoke alarm go off any more, you hearing and seeing proof that they have in fact given up smoking, only then can you say their final cigarette has been burnt and stomped out. The same is with nuclear weapons. We can make the treaties and work with each country to put them on the railroad tracks to disarmament but we can only be sure the job is done when we see those ICBM’s being scrapped, when we see a nuclear countries nuclear defense budget shrink, when we hear of nuclear bomber bases closures; we must see, hear, and live around the changing conditions of nuclear weapons from active, to scrapped, and we as civil society, as the people, the real grassroots must not be made 2nd tier proponents but must be the most powerful voice because in the end government is meant to serve us, the people, and the people are making it more and more clear and are saying “ No to Nuclear Weapons !”

That’s why I’m proud to represent a group that has tens and tens of thousands of grassroots supporters nationwide promoting a nuclear free world. Citizens for Global Solutions is playing its role, as small as it may seem, in the capital to expedite a world in which the 24 X 7 Nuclear Alert that is today’s fear can be escaped from once and for all. Just this month thousands of our members are part taking in a Virtual Vigil called to commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki by submitting photos of themselves with a lit candle in observance of the loss of physical life of those in these two cities. There is more then meets the eye to this Virtual Vigil. While the candle may remember those lost, perhaps there is another side to the flame we do not see. Perhaps it is the candles that, each time lit, not only honor and remember but also illuminate the soul and life of someone lost on those two days in early August 1945. To attach a face to that neighbor of humanity we lost that day, or to attach a face to that best friend we never met and that we lost in an instant.

It was President Kennedy that once said “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. The danger of a nuclear holocaust is an ever looming and growing threat, more recently North Korea amongst other states indicate an ever emergent danger should it continue nuclear deployment, but there is an opportunity in all of this.

My fellow Americans, my fellow citizens of the world, we have the opportunity
between the confines of our very two hands to begin our quest a new to rid our world of these weapons of armageddon. When Oppenheimer first saw the mushroom cloud explosion of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos he exclaimed a phrase from the Bhagvad Gita, “Now I am become death, destroyer of both worlds”; the world cannot afford to hear this quote again for that bright flash that took the souls away from Nagasaki and Hiroshima still looms around us, like a ghost stalking us in the wind. But this time, let us say no together to this Ghost, Let us be united in our fight against nuclear weapons, knowing as President Kennedy said, that “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Brand New Day!

Yesterday I went to a meeting of the Peace Ministry of the Agape Spiritual Center in Culver City. This center for "New Thought/Ancient Wisdom" has grown enormously in the past few years, thanks in large part to the spiritual/organizational genius of Michael Beckwith, who recently appeared on "Larry King Live." This remarkably dynamic spiritual community has over 9,000 members and up to a million followers world-wide.

Agape offers a variety of programs--prayer, homeless feeding, Sufi dancing--and trains its own ministers. It also empowers its members to become "practitioners."

When I arrived, there were only a few women in the room but I could feel their energy. As we introduced ourselves, I asked who was in charge.

"Spirit is in charge," responded one of the women whose name was, I believe, either Dee or Justine Lindforth.

"That's the right answer!" I said and we all laughed.

I knew I had come to the right place.

I had come to this meeting in order to share information about the Los Angeles Area Nuclear Disarmament Committee (LAANDC) and the Parliament of World's Religions. Michael Beckwith will be speaking in Melbourne, so the work of the Parliament is already quite well known to Agape practitioners. A large number of them plan to go to Melbourne. I'm hoping to get them involved in our local chapter so they can share their experiences with the interfaith community here in LA.

There was an excellent turnout for this meeting--around 20 people--with many in the middle age range, quite a bit younger than in most mainline churches. The youngest was 14 years old!

The "visioning" process felt very Quakerly. There was time for meditation and reflection. The main difference is that the ministers in Agape are far more eloquent than most Quakers in affirming the Spirit verbally. Many Friends feel uncomfortable with "God talk." As a result, we often move from silence to intellectualizion. We miss the opportunity to connect with Spirit through the rich and powerful language of poetry and prayer.

The main focus of this meeting was on the upcoming Sept 21 "Day of Peace" sponsored by the United Nations. Our visioning session centered on how we might respond to this opportunity to promote a more peaceful world as well as inner peace.

After a time of silent reflection, people were asked to share images and ideas. Here again Quakers could learn from Agape's practice of encouraging people to use their right brain and to share images that come from the Unconscious/Divine. Some of these images led to fruitful ideas for action.

Overall, I was very impressed by Agape and hope to return for their next meeting.

In the afternoon, I biked down to Venice beach with my boogie board and caught some waves. I was grateful my back had recovered sufficiently to allow me to do so; I felt almost like a kid as I biked past the jammed traffic full of grumpy looking adults.

The beach was beautiful, with over a hundred sailboats gliding across the horizon, and the waves were ideal for boogie boarding.

The beach was overrun with people, however, and I was afraid I might crash into one of them, so after a while I biked over to the Venice canals and enjoyed the tranquility and beauty of this unique scene.

I was so grateful that I couldn't get out of my head a tune that Kathleen used to sing often in Kids' Club:

When I get up, I'm thankful for a brand new day.
When I go out, I'm thankful I can run and play.
When I sit down to eat, I'm thankful for my food.
But most of all I'm thankful for God who is so good.

That about sums up my brand new day. Thank you, beloved Friend. My cup overflows with gratitude.

This morning I shared this song with my Quaker meeting, so I am including the video showing my dear wife Kathleen of blessed memory singing it with hand gestures. Enjoy!


video

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Day Out of the Ordinary

Yesterday I got up at the crack of dawn to attend ICUJP and took part in a stimulating discussion about the fate/state of Israel/Palestine, led by progressive Jews: Rabbi Haim Beliak, Dick Platkin, and Steve Rohde. Another participant was Carol Frances Lichen, a woman who went to Gaza with the "Free Gaza" group last month. This group was not allowed to enter Gaza with humanitarian aid by boat, but was finally allowed to enter via Egypt as long as they stayed for only 24 hours.

"If we had stayed 24 hours and ten minutes, the gates would have been shut on us," explained Carol Frances. "We could have been stuck in Gaza for months."

Does this sound like a prison or what?

Much of the discussion focused on whether a two-state solution is possible, given the "facts on the ground." The plan of Israelis seems to be to use the model of South African Bantus tans or American Indian reservations and keep the Arab population sequestered in tiny, non-viable enclaves where their activities can be monitored and controlled. Such a "solution" will of course not be acceptable in the Arab world and will mean endless violence and war.

Speaking of which, I learned the US has geared up for a 40-year occupation of Afghanistan. According to Time magazine, are building massive new bases, complete with fast food restaurants like Burger King. We are becoming the empire of Fast Food!

After our meeting, I met with Steve and Grace to discuss fundraising/outreach and the future of ICUJP. It is my hope that we can stay focused on a few core issues--like torture, nuclear disarmament, and ending our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. I also hope we can find ways to build stronger ties with our constituent base.

When I got home, I got a back twinge, probably caused by gardening and too much activity and stress. I decided this was a message from my body: it's time to rest, so I watched "Benjamin Button," a wistful, beautiful, but ultimately disappointing film. (It's also the first movie I've watched since Kathleen passed away: I don't like to watch movies alone.)

I discussed this film over dinner with my landlady/friend Cathleen who thought the movie was "puerile" (yes, she uses words like this, bless her!) I agreed, more or less. Like much of Fitzgerald's work, it's about the passing of time and mortality--how we get only a brief time of happiness during the bloom of our youth, and then must resign ourselves to a life of boredom and ordinariness. This is the stuff of Keats and the Romantics, as well as of the 60's. With any luck, if we survive our 30's, we outgrow this outlook on life and learn to appreciate the blessings of wisdom that come with experience. Or we become like our friend Ruth, a 70 year-old Romantic who loves to sing in the choir and rhapsodizes about the full moon!

In the evening we had a time of worship (or "opportunity") at the home of our friend D., a former lawyer turned psychologist who has been in several serious car accidents and suffers from acute pain that prevents her from sitting or walking very far. D. spends most of her time apartment-bound, lying down or standing. Despite her infirmity, she counsels clients in her home and lives as full a life as she can. She seeks help from various healing modalities--chi gong, reiki, etc.--which help alleviate some of pain caused by stress. We had a precious time of worship with her, which made us all feel better.

Afterwards, we talked and Cathleen recommend that D. try using a treadmill to build up her body strength. D. thought this was a good idea and was very appreciative of our visit. She invited us back for another "opportunity."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lessons from a Cancer Journey

Today has been a day for relaxing and writing. I spent the morning working on a flyer and doing other stuff for the Parliament. I wrote article for "The Western Friend." Then I made lunch for a friend who came for a visit. Finally, I planted some impatiens outside my door. This involved swinging a pick axe and yanking up some spider plants. I made sure I apologize to the plants I was whacking.

Tonight I am going to a free concert at Marina del Rey with Cathleen and Ruth, members of my Meeting. I am looking forward to hearing some Vaugh Williams, Debussy, and Rach's 3rd.

Here's what I wrote in my article, called "Live Your Life as if Everything that Happens is Something you Prayed For: Some Lessons from a Cancer Journey"

I have learned many lessons from [my cancer journey], but I want to share just a few here.

To married couples who have expressed admiration for how Kathleen and I behaved during our cancer journey, I say: Everyone who marries, and is faithful, will probably undergo something similar to what we experienced. When you marry, you make a vow to love someone “in sickness and health, till death do us part.” Sooner or later, you will have to decide whether or not to keep that vow. Not everyone does. Some decide to divorce their spouse, or have an affair, or act in other ways that seem to me deplorable. But if you decide to be faithful, you will have an opportunity to deepen your love in ways beyond imagining. I enjoyed twenty wonderful years of marriage, and in many ways the last year was the best. When my wife had beautiful long hair, it was easy to love her. When she became bald and had a tube sticking out of her chest, it was still easy to love her. As Shakespeare says, “Love does not alter when it alteration finds.” Despite, or perhaps because of our adversities, our love grew stronger. We drew closer to each other, as well as to our family and friends and to God.

I also learned that that our Quaker testimony on community takes on new meaning and importance during a life-threatening illness. It takes a whole community to bring healing and hope to those facing a health crisis or the loss of a loved one. I can’t imagine how anyone could endure such experiences alone, or without some kind of religious faith.
Community can be especially important to those who are unmarried. Our spiritual community can become our spiritual family.

From the very beginning, my meeting set up a care committee to meet with Kathleen and me. Over the course of our cancer journey, this committee visited us at home as well as in the hospital. These visits included times of worship as well as sharing and were enormously helpful.

We also received phone calls, cards, and emails that cheered us up and reminded us that we were not alone. Our caringbrige blog became a way to stay connected with our friends and family on a daily basis.

We took part in a cancer support group at the Wellness Community and become part of the wider cancer community by going to conferences and other events geared towards cancer patients.

I came to know in a new way people who had survived cancer and had life-changing experiences. One of them was Rolene Walker, who survived breast cancer and is now walking from San Diego to Santiago, Chile, spreading a message of environmentalism. Rolene and I have been friends for twenty years. When she heard about Kathleen’s situation, she called us from Mexico City to give us support and encouragement. I was deeply touched.

During this past year, my heart has opened up in new ways to people who are struggling with health issues. I started taking elderly people to the hospital, and listening with more care and attention when people told me of their bouts with sickness.

Little by little I came to understand what “pastoral care” means. Quakers do not have paid pastors, but we nonetheless need to provide pastoral care for each other as we go through life’s challenges. It is helpful to be trained for this role—and many Friends who give pastoral care have been trained as psychologists or social workers. But sometimes experience is the best teacher.

For most of my life as a Friend, I have seen myself primarily as a peace activist. But during the past year, and especially now that my wife has passed on, I also see myself also as a kind of pastor. A pastor is someone who listens compassionately, who cares deeply, and is present for those going through difficult times. This is what I now feel called to do. It is something that I feel many Friends [and others] could also do, if we helped them to discern this gift and to develop it.

You don't need to be a professional to be pastoral: you just need to listen with your whole heart!