Archive for the ‘anabaptism’ Category

Sometimes I wonder if Menno Simons would approve of how we’re using his name. If one pauses to look around one can find a plethora of institutions, products and websites that have added the prefix “Menno” to their name.

Some have ties to official church institutions or ministries in one way or another. MennoMediacomes to mind, along with church camps MennoHaven and Mennoscah. Then there are various groups of MennoSingersMennoHouseMennoHof, at least three different MennoTravel services and a host of Menno hospitalsclinics and retirement communities.

An Internet search also brings up numerous other gems, including MennoTeaMennoDiscuss,MennoMeet, and my personal favorite turn of phrase, Mennolicious.

With almost every kind of institution or product under the sun bearing the name of Menno Simons, it seems as though it’s worth pausing to examine why we’re invoking his name and whether or not we may be using it in vain.

As best I can tell, the addition of the name Menno to an institution or product serves a couple of key functions. First is that it identifies a product with an already existing culture, set of assumptions and worldview. It is an attempt to communicate something about the character of the business or product and the people who make it. Some, like MennoTea, are explicit about this, saying, “We’re brewing a culture.” That being said, there does not seem to be one particularly unified worldview among the various organizations; each draws on a part of the Mennonite worldview to which they are attracted.

The other reason the prefix Menno is used is to draw in a very specific demographic. To the people who are steeped in Mennonite culture, hearing the prefix Menno is almost like a Labrador hearing a dog whistle. While Menno does communicate a potential set of values, more fundamentally it sends the initial message “they’re one of us.”

Using Menno for these purposes is not inherently reprehensible; however it should raise some questions for us. Namely, does using Menno this way stay true to what Menno Simons actually believed? Someone once pointed out the irony to me that Che Guevara’s image has become an iconic, trendy engine of American capitalism, which is the exact opposite of everything for which he stood. Has Menno fallen into the same trap?

It’s worth noting that the primary list of reasons to use the name Menno as a prefix does not include communicating our faith. One can make the argument that our worldview and even our sense of community flow out of our faith, which Menno would conceivably approve of. However, if we’re honest, that’s not the primary reason for using it. If our faith really is the primary thing that some groups do want to communicate, using Menno only communicates a very specific version of faith.

To be clear, I raise this question as someone who most certainly has blood on my hands. I helped to start the website MennoShirts.com, where we sold a bunch of clever shirts (or so we thought), most of which were based on Anabaptist-specific theology or culture.

What’s more, I have been a vocal opponent of the trend to remove the name Mennonite from churches and church-related institutions. My resistance to these changes being that it sends the message that the name Mennonite is more of a liability than an asset.

Menno Simons had a clear and consistent message that the core of all faith was Jesus, not himself. Would Menno approve of how we’re using his name? Would he approve that we’re even using it at all?

Cross posted from Mennonite World Review

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Fair warning:

Severe pessimism ahead.

In my more pessimistic moments in the last few years I have made the comment that the existence of MCUSA over the next 10 years is not a certainty to me.  It is well within the realm of conceivability that the denomination could fall apart.

Now I have something of a road map for what that could look like, and it starts in my back yard.

To begin the progression, you have to go back a couple of years.

1) 2010- Joanna Harader, pastor at Peace Mennonite in Lawrence, Ks, performs a same sex union ceremony.

2) 2011- In may, according to the agreement set out at the founding of MCUSA, Western District Conference Leadership Commission (the credentialing committee) reviews her credentials and finds them to be “in order”.  This is the first time in the denomination that a pastor has preformed a same sex union and has not been disciplined.

3) 2011- This upsets the conservative end of WDC and at the annual meeting of WDC in July they try to have the actions of the Leadership Commission overturned.  This motion is voted down because delegates a motion of this magnitude needs to be carefully considered by the whole constituency.

4) 2011-2012- over the next year the conservative churches get organized and bring several resolutions to be voted on at the July gathering.

As of this post, these are the current events.  From here on is my speculation.

5) 2012- The two motions are brought forth to the delegate body and both are defeated because a majority of congregations either a) agree with the original decision or b) do not see this as a big enough problem to overturn the authority structure of the conference.

6) 2012-2013 –  most of the Oklahoma churches leave not only WDC but also MCUSA.  Maybe one or two join South Central Conference, but most likely none will.

7) 2012-2013 – WDC is now out of step with the rest of MCUSA leading to two implications:

7.a) The MCUSA denominational leadership will begin to deal with the implications for church polity.  Specifically, how do pastoral credentials transfer from conference to conference when the conferences are at odds over credentialing standards?

7.b) There will be a congregational level backlash throughout the denomination.  There will be several churches that simply leave the denomination altogether, but most will wait for the denomination to respond to WDC with some sort of disciplinary action.

8) Most likely MCUSA leadership will not take a major disciplinary action towards WDC because a) it is one thing to remove a church, but removing a whole conference is a matter that they will defer to the delegate body and b) even if they wanted to, the polity structure isn’t really set up for that.

9) 2013- MCUSA gathers in July in Phoenix, AR.  Numerous resolutions and motions are brought to the floor (in spite of there still being no official resolutions allowed) calling for WDC to be sanctioned or removed from the denomination outright.

10.a) If there is no official action taken by MCUSA, many individual congregations will leave the denomination as well as several whole conferences (most likely led by Lancaster).

10.b) If there is an official action taken by MCUSA there will probably be an exodus of the more liberal churches, but more concerning there will probably be a mass exodus of individual young adults for whom this will be the final straw.

11) Either way, however, there will be a mass exodus of young adults for whom this is not a central issue (or they are in support of Gay rights) and who are tired of fighting about this issue.  This exodus is primarily facilitated by the fact that when this fight comes before the MCUSA delegate body, it will be an ugly, nasty, and hateful fight.

Other possible implications from this course

1) A new conservative Anabaptist denomination takes shape made up of the conservative churches and conferences that leave in the near future as well as those who have left in the past.

2) A new liberal Anabaptist denomination, or potentially a rather simple network of independent churches, takes shape.

3) Young adults leave Anabaptism for other denominations.

4) Young adults leave the faith altogether.

Best case scenario: 1/3 of the churches in MCUSA leave by 2015.

Worst case scenarios: MCUSA splits along several different factions and, combined with severe disillusionment, there is no denomination in 2015.

I genuinely hope that neither of these things happen.  I genuinely hope that the spirit of love and unity in the name of Christ prevails.  But in order for that to happen it is going to take some pretty amazing leadership.  What’s more, it’s going to take the entire denomination embracing a spirit of humility that, quite frankly, I’m not sure we’re capable of.

Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is putting out a campaign called “Fear Not, Seek Peace”.  As part of that campaign there’s a learning tool to help people understand how much we actually spend on our military compared to what most of us think the government actually does.

I’ve adapted some of this information using something called Prezi.

Unfortunately, WordPress.com doesn’t really allow for flash animation to be embeded right here in this post, so you’re going to have to actually click through on the link.



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Today Congressman Bobby Rush was removed from the floor of the house for wearing a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) in support of Trayvon Martin, the young black man who was gunned down by George Zimmerman. (video below)

What’s made the news is mainly his being removed, but I don’t actually think that’s the most important part of this.  I’m most drawn to the fact that as he was being removed he was quoting scripture as he was doing it.  Specifically he was quoting two core Biblical texts on justice.

Micah 6:8 ” He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

Luke 4:18-19 “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As a pastor this wanted me to stand up and cheer because, finally, someone is actually quoting scripture in the way that it was meant to be quoted.  Yes, I do think that a massive injustice is/was being done to Trayvon and yes, race plays a factor (but not the only factor) in this situation.  It has exposed some deep systemic problems in our culture, problems that result in peoples deaths.

This is bigger than Trayvon’s death.

This matters.

Pay attention.

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Church and State

Some people find it odd that I am both a pastor and that I am against having mandatory prayer in the public school system.  After all, didn’t Jesus say things like, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” and “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory”?[1] Aren’t we called to boldly proclaim the Gospel in every area of our life?

The short answer is “yes.”  Unfortunately, that’s an answer to the wrong question.  The real question for me as a pastor does not have to do with religious freedom but rather with religious coercion.  In other words, the question is not, “can I freely share my faith” but rather “can I force others to share my faith”.  As I said, the answer to the first question is “yes”, but the answer to the second is “no”.  More importantly, considering that our schools and teachers are representatives of the federal government, the second question is not simply “can I force others to share my faith” but rather “can the government force others to share my faith”.

In fact, these two questions are tied together, and the answer cannot be “yes” to both of them.  If we live in a society where the answer to the second question is “yes, we can force others to have or express a particular faith”, then it is also true that “no, we do not truly have the freedom to express our faith as we see fit.”

This should of particular importance for Mennonites for a couple of reasons.  First of all, we should be committed to the separation of church and state because it was our idea to begin with.  Yes, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but that’s not the reason I hold this view.  I’m more concerned with what founding documents like the Schleitheim Confession say; “the rule of government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the spirit…Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven.”[2]

The reason that I want to keep church and state separate is not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the church.  Besides inviting corruption when the two are joined, we would do well to remember that the persecution that our spiritual forbears suffered was at the hands of other Christians, empowered by the state in an attempt to force us to believe, pray, and worship as they did.

I’m continually perplexed by Mennonites who argue vehemently that prayer and other religious activities should be mandatory in public schools.  How is it possible that we can have forgotten our own core values and history so completely that we some can argue against those values that our people pioneered?  What’s more, how is it possible that we have forgotten that Mennonites are still in the minority in this country?

I support a strong separation of church and state, not because I believe we should be ashamed of, or limit our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I support it because if the government did start forcing our children to pray in school, the prayers they would be saying would not be our own.

[1] Mark 16:15, Luke 9:26

[2] Dyck, C. J., & Koop, K. (2006). Confessions of faith in the Anabaptist tradition, 1527-1660. Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press. Pg. 31

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This winter the invasion has begun.  The motels are full indefinitely.  Buildings have quickly and mysteriously been bought up.  Hundreds of trucks from 10 different states roll around town.  They found oil in Harper County.

Natural Gas to be specific.  At first it was a rumble of a rumor, but sometime this winter it really became official as several oil companies began to set up shop here in town.  There has been all kinds of speculation as to what this will mean for our community.  Some of it is pretty wild (quadrupling the population of the county within five years) and some of it is worth thoughtfully considering (how can the churches reach out to this new group of people).

While I’ve had a couple of passing conversations about this changing dynamic, I have yet to say something in my official pastoral role.  Perhaps this is an attempt to begin to articulate what I’d like to say.

The place that I want to start is with the Bible.  Specifically with an understanding of Biblical Shalom that I will shamelessly steal from Marion Bontrager and Michelle Hershberger.  Essentially the idea is that God created the world to be in a particular harmony, order, or relationship.  This right relationship we call Shalom.  These right relationships can be described in four ways: being in right relationship between each of us and God, us and other people, us and ourselves, and us and the earth.  Sin, then, is when these relationships get broken, which is something that can happen both on an individual level and on a larger systemic scale.

As I reflect on the impact of the oil boom I can see that there are some benefits to be had.  The biggest of which is that Harper County has been on an economic and population decline for about 40 years, and yes, we can definitely use the income and jobs.  But this is only a surface benefit.  The questions I have are much bigger and much deeper.  Most of the large scale questions that I have can be framed in Marion and Michelle’s understanding of Shalom and what it means to break those relationships.

Between each of us and others – There are two main areas of concern for me here; 1) housing costs and 2) unequal income distribution.

1) Harper County just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the influx of people that we are beginning to experience.  As a result, landlords can begin to raise the cost of rent quite drastically because they know that the higher price will be paid by someone, usually by the oil company.  I have already heard several stories, however, of landlords who have tripled someones rent, sometimes with less than a months notice.  Here’s the difficulty of sin: landlords are struggling too, and it seems pretty reasonable that if you could get a higher rent, you would charge a higher rent.  It’s an obvious choice.  The problem is that when a whole society does this, large populations of poor people who have been life long residents of Harper County are being pushed out on to the street for the sake of oil field workers who may not be here a year from now.  As individuals, it’s hard to fault a landlord, but as a whole, it’s definitely sin.

2) Yes, there is a tremendous amount of money flowing into Harper County because of the leasing contracts with the oil companies.  And yes, some of that money has begun to trickle down into some specific parts of the economy.  However, it is very important to note that this influx of money is not shared equally.  If you own land, you stand to make a tremendous amount of money.  However, the number of people who own land in the county is relatively small in comparison to the overall population.  This kind of massive inequality will, and already as begun to, breed resentment, hatred and injustice between neighbors.  Again, this is a difficult situation because I know many landowners do genuinely want to do the right thing, but what that is isn’t exactly clear.  Nevertheless, as a whole society, this is going to cause some problems.

Between each of us and the earth – I have jokingly said that yes, I think we need the economic boost in our county, but I also don’t want my water to light on fire.  Water is scarce enough already around here.  The damage that the hydraulic fracturing process does is irreparable and highly taxing on our already limited natural resources.  This is a major concern for me, and yes, I put the damage done to the earth in the category of Sin, not just politics.

Between each of us and ourselves – Money brings a lot of things with it, most of them aren’t particularly good.  I worry about what the greed and envy will do to each of us.  I worry about whether our hearts will be turned to stone or moved to compassion as the economic landscape changes.  Whether we are only peripherally connected to this change in our community or a direct recipient of it, it is going to change us.  The question is how.

Between each of us and God – Economics is always spiritual.  On on hand, these changes will affect our own personal spirituality, but they will also impact us as a church.  The impact on our church is coming.  Even in my own mind I’ve begun to think about new possibilities for additional programing or staff or buildings, all of which could be made possible because of the oil money floating around.  The question for me is yes, but at what cost?  Are we being bought off?  How will in change our church?  There’s at least one church in our area who was almost completely destroyed because they found oil under church land.  While I don’t know the answer, I feel like we need to ask the question whether or not our ideas for the future of the church are actually the leading of God or are they are something else.

I think that the most concerning thing about how our county has reacted to this industry moving into town is that there has been (or it feels like) little to no critical reflection on the deeper impacts on our community, our relationships and our faith.  The most telling example of this to me was an article in a local paper last fall that was talking about the economic growth in our county.  They outlined two major industries moving into the county.  One was the oil companies and the other was the large wind farm going in on the west side of the county.  In the article the only discussion was that of jobs and economic opportunities.  There was no reflection about the environmental or social impact of either of them, let alone the idea that they are two opposing industries in the energy industry.

I’m aware that right now I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping to start to identify some of the issues.  Now if I can just figure out how to start the conversation in church and in the community.



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Sometimes I feel like a paradox, especially when it comes to food. On one hand I’ve grown to love fresh exotic food like sushi. On the other hand, I find a certain joy in licking the orange powder from my fingers after a bag of Cheetos. I deeply question the use of pesticides and genetic modification in our food production system, yet as my watermelon vines were eaten alive by bugs, the thought of chemical warfare crossed my mind. For that matter, I’m fully aware of the issues of energy inefficiency and mistreatment of animals in meat production in our country, yet I’m also a Certified BBQ Judge.

I’ve become more aware of the opposing tensions that exist in our food system between ecology and economic justice. Over the last year I’ve made a number of lifestyle changes, one of which is a significant change in my diet. As I have become more intentional about the kinds of things that go into my body, I’ve become especially aware that good nutrition is directly related to income and educational levels.

Author Michael Pollan notes that the things our grandparents would have recognized as food are all around the outside of a grocery store. All of the stuff in the middle is just pretending to be food. These two areas of the grocery store also carry a cost difference. All of the things in a grocery store that are the healthiest are far and away more expensive than the pre-packaged, shelf-stable food in the middle. On top of the cost, the knowledge of what to do with a raw beef roast or green peppers and onions is something that has gradually become exclusive to the middle and upper classes.

Case in point, our local food bank gives away boxes of food during the holidays. A couple of years ago they stopped giving away whole turkeys in their food boxes because too few people had ovens. Even fewer knew how to cook the turkeys, so they were all winding up in the trash.

The moral ambiguity of food was really pointed out to me when I had a conversation with my wife about relatives who are trying a “100-mile diet.” This means they are only eating food grown within 100 miles of where they live. My wife pointed out, however, that this works fine when you live in Kansas. It doesn’t work so well for those in most major cities, especially the most economically depressed parts of most cities. She then told me about a summer spent in Washington, D.C., and how a neighborhood of 20,000 to 30,000 people had no grocery stores. Finding any food at all, let alone healthy food, meant very long trips across town. Suddenly, in comparison to this situation, voluntarily choosing to be a locavore seems like an embarrassing luxury of the super wealthy.

When it comes to the ethics of food, I find myself being pulled in a number of different directions. Perhaps I occupy a middle ground that others resonate with as well. The trick with occupying this middle ground is to not become mired in the ambiguity but rather work to change the things that we can and should. In the end, it seems as though the tag line from my favorite BBQ show sums up my feelings: Buy local, think global, stay sustainable and for goodness sake, always hug your momma.

This also appears on the Mennonite Weekly Review Website.

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Two things that seemed worthy of sharing.  First is the MCC Penny game about the National Budget, and the second is a video from Sojourners.


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Anyone who has known me for a while has probably heard me say some version of this sentiment:

“Anabaptists center their faith on Jesus and the Gospels and read the rest of the Bible through Jesus”

But this sentiment has some interesting implications.   The biggest of which is; to say that Anabaptists focus on Jesus is to imply that other Christians don’t focus on Jesus.  And that feels like a rediculous thing to say because wouldn’t all Christians say that they center their faith on Jesus?  Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian after all?  Am I really saying that other Christians don’t really have Jesus at the center of their faith?

Well…….actually……….yeah, I am.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean by this with a look at current events.

This last week Michelle Bachmann got herself a couple of headlines for making a joke about how God is trying to get the attention of Americans by sending an earthquake, hurricane to the east coast.  While many people were up in arms about this being in rather poor taste (and generally not really being a joke), the thing that stuck out to me was the theology behind the joke.

While Bachmann might claim to have been joking, she’s still drawing on a particular theological understanding of how God works.  Namely, the assumption is that God  punishes and rewards behavior in this life in very real and concrete ways.  The other side of this belief is that when good or bad things happen to people, either individuals or entire groups of people like whole country, that is taken to be evidence that they have done something deserving of either reward or punishment.  In short, external events of either natural or cosmic origin are taken as punishment or reward by God.

In Bachmann’s case, this logic took the form of a “joke” implying that God was sending a message to the U.S. in the form of natural disasters.  While Bachmann was joking, there have been many people who understand God in this way who are most certainly not joking.  This understanding of divine punishment in reward could be seen right after the September 11 attacks when two leading Evangelical Christians (Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell) said that the ones who were really responsible were liberals/ gays/ abortionists/ the ACLU and the like because they made God mad and brought God’s punishment upon us.

Fallwell and Robertson are in good company along with Fred Phelps and the Westboro baptist church who are known for things like maintaining the website godhatesfags.com, maintaining a virtual memorial dedicated to the number of days Matthew Shepherd (a high school student beaten and killed for being gay) has been in hell, and (most visibly) keeping up a rather incredible schedule of picketing various public events especially the funerals of armed service members who have  been killed in the line of duty.  For Phelps, the logic is that God hates the U.S. and is punishing the U.S. by allowing our soldiers to die in war because of a whole slew of things that Phelps deems as sin.

And lest you think this theology only shows up in horrible post-tragedy statements and crazy picketers, this is the core theological principle behind most televangelists who preach the prosperity Gospel.  In the last 10 years this was seen in the rise of the Prayer of Jabez book/ movement/ study/ merchandising line/ anything-else-you-could-sell.  It also shows up in many wealthier churches because the logic is, “God rewards good Christians, therefore if I’m wealthy then I must be a good Christian”.  My favorite was the luxury SUV with the bumper sticker that said “Thanks God!”

Now the problem here is that this understanding of God is very Biblical.  It is most certainly in the scriptural texts.  The Prayer of Jabez comes from I Chronicles.  In Deuteronomy in the Ten Commandments God says that he will punish and reward to 3rd/4th and 1000th generations (respectively), not that God will punish and reward in an afterlife.  In many places in the Bible, the reward and punishment for faithfulness and right behavior comes from God in this life in real and concrete ways.

The problem is that this is a particularly Old Testament way of understanding God.  More specifically, it’s an early Old Testament way of understanding of God.

Granted, the book of Job does some damage to this theology.  Job’s friends are the ones who firmly believed that the horrible things that were happening to Job were God’s punishment and that Job must have done something truly horrendous to deserve it.  (They turn out to be wrong, by the way)  However, in the Old Testament, Job is kind of on his own.

Jesus, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game.

When you look at Jesus, and how he understands how God works, the idea that good or bad things happening in this life are absolute proof of God’s reward or punishment just doesn’t hold water.  This can really be seen in the story from John 9 about Jesus healing a man who was born blind.  The story opens with the disciples asking Jesus the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”.  To this Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  The core assumption that the disciples start with is that God rewards and punishes directly and thus either this man or his parents surely had sinned and that his blindness was evidence of this.  Jesus soundly rejects this idea offering the possibility that he was born that way to show the glory of God.  This is a fundamentally different way of understanding how God works than what we see in the Old Testament.

So, back to the politicians, TV preachers and Anabaptists.

My original claim was that Anabaptists center their faith on Jesus and that other Christians….well…..don’t.  What I mean by this is that there are many Christians who fully claim Jesus as the Son of God and publicly profess a faith in Jesus, yet when it comes to things like which parts of the Bible are elevated, the understanding of the basic character of God,  the center of ethics, the basis for justice, the understanding the importance of taking care of the most vulnerable in society, basically everything that actually affects how you follow God these Christians look to other places in the Bible long before the look to Jesus.  In many cases, when Jesus conflicts with other parts of the Bible, certain Christians will go to rather extensive lengths to disprove either the validity or sincerity of Jesus and his teachings.

So, have a grand ol’ time claiming that God is punishing or rewarding people the next time a hurricane or earthquake hits, just make sure to leave Jesus out of it.

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I find that government, that is the idea of government as well as specific local to national governments, have taken a beating in the last few years.  The rhetoric that government can do no good and that it should just get out of the way has been around for about 30 years, but it has intensified recent years across all political lines.

While I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind in the grand scheme of things, let me offer one example of government doing something right, at least ethically and morally.

Our local hospital is designated a “Critical Access” hospital.  This is a medicare designation and program that is to meant to help rural under served populations have access to some amount of health care.  One of the things that this means is that we are a partially government funded hospital which means that we have access to the same health care plans that the other State of Kansas employees have access to.  Now, we can cuss and moan all we want about the finer points of health care these days, but there was one thing about this plan that has really stuck out to me.

The premiums are on a sliding scale in relation to your income.

Translation: the lowest income employees at the hospital are able to afford health insurance.  This means that my wife and I pay higher premiums but it also means that when the hospital went onto this plan a few years ago, for some people it was the first time that they’ve ever been able to get health insurance.

The reason that this is on my mind today is because last night the hospital board met to decide whether or not to stick with the state plan or to switch to a private insurance company plan that was similar, but not the same.  They decided that, for now, they’ll continue with the state plan.

For this I simply want to say thank you.  From a Biblical and Christian perspective, it is imperative that we take care of the most vulnerable around us.  And, for the record, when it comes to health insurance, available but not affordable doesn’t count.

To my local hospital board members, thanks and keep up the good work.

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