Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
August 18th, 2011 · Comments Off on Is There an ACO in Your Future?
As individuals and small groups, physicians have proved to be an independent lot — “herding cats” a common metaphor for getting the profession to toe the line, even on matters beneficial to them. Once they have been herded under one roof, however, the job of controlling and coercing them becomes far easier.
Ever hear the term “ACO”? No? Better get familiar with it, because this is your future.
Accountable Care Organizations are the government’s new carrot & stick to control costs and micromanage the health care profession and industry. Those of you who’ve been around a while may remember HMOs — the insurance industry’s innovation in the late 80’s to get control of spiraling health care costs. Using a mechanism called capitation, the HMO would pay a lump sum to physicians and groups to manage “patient lives.” The theory — which worked, unfortunately — was to flip the incentives: rather than “reward” physicians for providing medical services and ordering tests and procedures, remunerate them instead for doing less: the less care provided, the more money the physicians got to keep.
Can you say, “moral hazard”, boys and girls?
It worked–all too well. Primary care physicians became “gatekeepers” whose job it was to make sure no “unnecessary” care was given. Need to see a specialist? No can do. CT scan? Unnecessary, don’t you know. Every time the doctor said “no”, their wallet got a bit fatter. It cut costs dramatically when introduced. Of course, patients got sicker; cancers took longer to diagnose and treat; needed diagnostic and necessary but expensive treatments were deferred or not done at all. While some unnecessary and redundant care did get eliminated, the overall effect was disastrous. Since the HMO’s bore significant financial risks, it became a fine art to “manage” those risks, to wit: you had to make sure that the “patient lives” you contractually managed were not very sick, lest you break the bank taking care of medical disasters, poorly-compliant patients (typically the poor), and the elderly. The system imploded when patients revolted, followed shortly thereafter by politicians (who had been prime movers behind the HMO juggernaut) demonizing the monster they themselves had created. No worries: they now had a new straw man to attack, the “evil insurance companies” of their own design; this ogre lives on to this day.
They say that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing, while expecting different results each time: enter ACOs.
So what are ACOs?
Like most bad ideas, the concept originated in the think tanks of academia, where “health care experts” who never take care of patients dream up idyllic solutions to problems they don’t understand. ACOs are defined as follows:
ACOs can generally be defined as a local entity and a related set of providers, including at least primary care physicians, specialists, and hospitals, that can be held accountable for the cost and quality of care delivered to a defined subset of traditional Medicare program beneficiaries or other defined populations, such as commercial health plan subscribers. The primary ways the entity would be held accountable for its performance are through changes in traditional Medicare provider payment featuring financial rewards for good performance based on comprehensive quality and spending measurement and monitoring. Public reporting of cost and quality information to affect public perception of an ACO’s worth is another way of holding the ACO accountable for its performance.
ACOs have three main characteristics:
- The ability to provide, and manage with patients, the continuum of care across different institutional settings, including at least ambulatory and inpatient hospital care and possibly post acute care;
- The capability of prospectively planning budgets and resource needs;
- Sufficient size to support comprehensive, valid, and reliable performance measurement.
In English, for those fortunate souls unschooled in the lingo of academic health care policy , this means a health care organization, comprised of hospitals (with their associated services, such as radiology, operating rooms, inpatient beds, physical therapy, etc., etc.), doctors and other health professionals (e.g., PAs and nurse practitioners), all centrally managed with an eye toward controlling costs and those who generate those costs (see “providers”, above), large enough to generate meaningful statistics on costs and health care “outcomes”, reportable back to Medicare and Big Insurance for their “review.”
The benefits to providers of aligning with such a cumbersome, micromanaged, top-heavy beast? You got it: the lure of filthy lucre:
In exchange for investing in this reformed health care provider structure, the ACO members will share in the savings that results from their cooperation and coordination. Thus, ACOs can–theoretically–act as a reform tool by incentivizing more efficient and effective care. This would help to combat the current perverse incentives of overutilization and overbuilding of health care facilities and technology.
So what could possibly go wrong with this model?
[The ACO model] was built on what is (to my consulting colleagues, anyway) a stunningly obvious discovery: Medicare spending for physician services tends to cluster around hospital service areas.
The policy leap that led to the ACO idea was that since these “communities” already use hospitals, let’s assume that they and their hospitals are actually “virtual organizations” and give them a global budget. Consumers would not be aware that they were being treated by ACOs. Rather, they would be “attributed” to them: virtual patients of virtual organizations. Aggregate health spending for attributed patients would be tracked, and increases in that spending would be capped using a form of “shadow capitation.” ACOs that lived within the caps would get their fees increased. Those that overspent would see their fees reduced or frozen.
Some policy types on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) became intrigued with the ACO idea and saw it as a solution to the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) problem, a durable policy headache bequeathed by Congress to physicians in the Balanced Budget Act
The SGR cuts payments to physicians when health care costs rise, nominally maintaing “budget neutrality”, and has been routinely overridden by Congress because of real concerns over restricting access to medicare patients.
If a national SGR didn’t work to constrain physician behavior, why not create a hospital service area–specific SGR?
Fisher and colleagues theorize that when you cap the total resources coming into a specific “community,” hospitals and physicians would form organizations to accept and manage the global payments. This would create an economically motivated community lobby for not building more hospital beds, not recruiting additional cardiologists, not putting CT scanners in physician offices. Little delegations from the ACO would visit the high utilizers and work with them to get them to give up their diagnostic equipment and reduce their incomes. (As Dave Barry would say, “I am not making this up.”)
The problem with this movie is that we’ve actually seen it before, and it was a colossal and expensive failure. During the 1990s, many hospitals and physicians believed that the Clinton health reforms would force them into capitated contracts with health plans. This catalyzed a flurry of mergers and physician practice acquisitions, all motivated by a desire to control the stream of payments from health plans, rather than being subcontractors to those who did. Many system builders assumed that they would increase their market share through selective contracting at the expense of docs and hospitals that remained unorganized.
Risk-bearing physician/hospital organizations and hospital-sponsored preferred provider organizations (PPOs) sprang up all over the country. They typically paid their docs a discounted fee based on prevailing rates in the community … in anticipation of capitated health plan payments. Some of these hospital/physician efforts actually succeeded …
However, these were outliers in an expensive failure. Employers and patients preferred open panels managed by health insurers to closed panels managed by providers. Billions of dollars were lost. After rivers of red ink, most bold 1990s hospital risk-sharing experiments were terminated, along with the CEOs and physician leaders who created them. Many of the practice acquisitions were reversed, as hospital systems sought to rein in their expenses and adjust to an open-panel world dominated by point-of-service style health plans.
Why did they fail?
The State of Massachusetts seems headed toward imposing an all-payer mandatory, communitywide ACO model for cost containment purposes. There is time to reconsider what I think is a reckless decision. … the Massachusetts ACO experiment is likely to be a gory and comprehensive failure. Virtual assignment of patients, virtual organizations, “shadow capitation” superimposed on fee-for-service based economically independent docs, further consolidation of local hospital monopolies: we really ought to know better….
The sad reality is that most hospitals, even the well-managed ones, simply lack the tools, leadership, and leverage to enable them to bear and manage global risk. Many will not possess them in a decade. The mandatory ACO (apparently still a live option in the June 2009 MedPAC report) is one of the worst health system reform ideas since the Health Systems Agency. Fisher and his colleagues are attempting to broaden the idea to encompass independent practice associations (IPAs), existing multispecialty groups, even academic health centers. But the core idea remains that physician communities and hospitals in defined geographies are viable economic units. They are not.
The elephant in the room — never addressed in this grand schema to control costs — is the medical liability monster. Huge amounts of medical services and costs are driven by defensive medicine. ACOs will provide no protection to their physicians as they drive down costs by haranguing them while denying services, diagnostic tests, and procedures based on cost, thinly disguised as “quality.” Every physician hears the voice of an attorney when he decides to order a medical test, which may be of marginal benefit to the patient: “Doctor, didn’t you realize that by ordering a CT scan, Mrs. Jones’ cancer could have been diagnosed earlier, and cured?” The defense that “My ACO told me it was unnecessary and expensive” will be no defense at all: “And when you refused to order that scan, Doctor, you stood to make more money, didn’t you?” Devastating–and inevitable.
But the bottom line is that medical decision-making will become further removed from the patient and his physician, decisions now moved to faceless bureaucrats with Excel spreadsheets and no medical degree. Once again, the “experts” will win — and you will lose.
Be afraid — be very afraid.
Tags: Health care reform · Medicine
Almost cut my hair,
Happened just the other day.
It was gettin’ kinda long,
Could’ve said it was in my way.
But I didn’t and I wonder why,
I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
And I feel like I owe it to someone…
I’m suffering from whiplash — perhaps I should call one of those attorneys whose ads I see at bus stops and on the back of grocery carts…
In a recent post, I waxed euphoric about a big transition in my professional life, wherein I would move from being a solo practitioner to a hospital group employee, working predominantly in an inpatient capacity, with a much reduced load of office paperwork and business responsibilities, with the expectation of significantly more free time. I was truly excited about these possibilities, and felt great relief at the promise of unloading the crushing burden of paperwork, compliance with endless government regulatory demands, intrusive and abusive audits, and a host of other ugly and unpleasant parasites which suck all the life out of the profession of medicine.
More pay, less work — what’s not to like?
That was yesterday. And this is today: I have decided not to pursue this course — or perhaps, more accurately, this is not the course chosen for me to pursue.
The decision is, in a way, rather shocking, a wrenching change of direction for which I was wholly unprepared, and which is still deeply unsettling. I feel in some ways like the shipwreck sailor, watching a passing ship — recently his only hope of salvation — sail slowly into the distance, as he floats, unseen and unsaved. At yet there is a certainty that this sudden change of course is the correct one — though I’m quite in the dark about what comes next.
So what changed?
Nothing whatsoever about my current situation: private solo practice, as it is now configured, has become an enormous burden in so many ways. It’s ugly — and getting uglier in a hurry.
Much of the non-medical world seems dimly aware, if at all, of the tectonic changes occurring in health care. Patients are beginning to notice that their doctor’s practice name has changed to something like “Big Hospital Medical Associates”, but otherwise see little change: they can still see their doctor, the staff is, by and large, the same familiar faces, no worries, carry on.
Behind the scenes, however, the changes are enormous. As of 2009, 65 percent of established doctors were in hospital-owned practices. That percentage is growing rapidly, as physicians and other providers, such as nurse practitioners, flock to the perceived safety and security of large groups and hospital-owned practice affiliations.
The attraction is undeniable: offloading the burden of burgeoning administrative and regulatory requirements; attractive first year salaries and sign-on bonuses, combined with the promise of more free time and predictable schedules; and the lure of better reimbursement for services due to a large organization’s greater heft in negotiating contracts with insurance companies. It’s easy to overlook the potential downsides when the eye candy is so attractive.
After much happy talk and eagerness from the hospital recruiters and medical administrators, the process of merging my practice with the hospital group moved like continental drift. Months passed with no action; emails and phone calls were answered slowly, if at all. My frustration was enormous, but the delay proved a blessing in disguise.
The bad news trickled in slowly, as I waited, impatiently. A large local hospital group announced layoffs of nearly 400 people, for starters — no administrators or middle managers, of course: only the clerical and support staff that keeps a practice running. A busy surgical practice with an incompetent scheduler could not fire her (her race guaranteed a discrimination lawsuit), so they simply eliminated her position — and now they have no permanent scheduler for a year. Other schedulers were moved offsite, far removed from the physicians and practices whose lives they controlled. A former associate, a true workaholic who routinely saw 50-60 patients a day, had his salary cut because he wasn’t productive enough(!!). Highly-trained support staff were told they could not perform certain procedures because the hospital legal department decided their license did not permit them to perform them — although the procedures themselves were not restricted under their state licensing privileges, and they were far more highly skilled and experienced at these procedures than those “credentialed” to do them.
Big picture insights also came into play:
Hospitals lose $150,000 to $250,000 per year over the first 3 years of employing a physician — owing in part to a slow ramp-up period as physicians establish themselves or transition their practices and adapt to management changes. The losses decrease by approximately 50% after 3 years but do persist thereafter. New primary care physicians (PCPs) contribute nearly $150,000 less to hospitals than their more-established counterparts; among specialists, the difference is $200,000. For hospitals to break even, newly hired PCPs must generate at least 30% more visits, and new specialists 25% more referrals, than they do at the outset.
Chained to the oar, the galley master pounding out the cadence…
After 3 years, hospitals expect to begin making money on employed physicians when they account for the value of all care, tests, and referrals. … Outpatient office practices of employed physicians seldom turn a profit for hospitals.
Interesting — most private outpatient office practices are profitable, although less and less so.
Hospitals are willing to take a loss employing PCPs in order to influence the flow of referrals to specialists who use their facilities. In the 1990s, hospitals usually guaranteed physicians nearly 100% of their previous year’s salary during their transition to hospital employment. This arrangement invariably led to losses, since drops in productivity were coupled with higher overhead expenses and less-effective revenue-cycle management. Today, aggressive hiring of PCPs is returning, in part because hospitals fear physicians’ becoming competitors by aggregating into larger integrated groups that direct referrals and utilization to their own advantage. Hospital-employed PCPs generally direct patients to their own hospitals and specialists affiliated with them. In addition, by employing physicians, hospitals retain maximum flexibility in the market, should health plans change their reimbursement structures to require providers to bear risk and manage population health…
Though hospital employment may offer physicians some protection from system reforms, it comes with more performance management than it once did, and the option of reverting to independent practice later may be far less attractive in the future. Employment choices that physicians make today may not be able to be undone.
The hospitals hope to make up for their physician employment losses by improvements in productivity and “performance management” [read: controlling physicians’ decision-making based not on quality, but on cost]. That these economic “efficiencies” are largely illusory — and will harm patient care — will become evident in time. This scenario played itself out in the early 90’s, when hospitals bought up practices in anticipation of Clinton Care. They proved financially untenable and ultimately imploded, after massive cuts in support staff and physician salaries made continued hospital group affiliation untenable. The enormous economic pressures soon forthcoming through ObamaCare and ACOs (more on these anon) will invariably result in similar scenarios — with far fewer escape hatches for increasingly unhappy physicians. They will be locked down by highly restrictive regulation and “care standards”; locked in by non-compete clauses and the insurmountable hurdles to starting or returning to practice; and locked out completely of the decision-making processes which control their lives and their profession. Expect a tsunami of early retirements and career changes when this is fully implemented.
And in the unlikely event the hospitals succeed economically at this venture, through the will to power, you may be assured that the vultures will soon descend to strip the pink flesh off their bones:
The consolidation wave [hospitals acquiring practices] is raising red flags among some regulators, researchers and health insurers, who warn that bigger health systems can use their leverage to push for higher rates. “We’ve always been concerned about combinations that are being done to increase prices,” said Karen Ignagni, chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans.
These factors made for a long and poignant pause in my rush to employment. But the final straw proved to be the realization that my reconstructive infertility specialization, built laboriously over 30 years with much hands-on care and effort, would die on the vine under hospital management. I would lose control over pricing; lose control over my superb supportive employees who are masters at communicating with patients an the many issues involved in these cases; and lose the freedom to provide discounted and charity care when the Spirit leads.
So my “Dear John” letter went out, two weeks ago. My employees were ecstatic at the news, my wife enormously supportive of the decision (she had previously been a major force prompting me to seek the security of hospital employment, and has now done a complete 180), and I have an enormous peace with the decision in my own soul. Perhaps, like Odysseus, I have been tied to the mast, lest the Sirens lure me onto the rocks of disaster.
Of course, the problems of sustaining and surviving in the hostile environment we now inhabit in health care remains; thus it becomes now a journey of faith.
Ah, faith: not the blind confidence in the unbelievable, but trust in the eminently Trustworthy, without the clarity of vision one might wish, but with the vision of hope based on experience. He has never let me down; He will not do so now.
It should be a most exciting journey.
Tags: Faith & Reason · Faith & Religion · Medicine · Prayer
August 3rd, 2011 · 1 Comment
Well, now, isn’t that special…
Forbes reports on a new investment vehicle, tailor-made for the get-rich-quick crowd:
Playing The Odds: Hedge Funds Finance Medical Malpractice Claims:
An entirely new industry has cropped up in recent years as trial lawyers set their sights on making money off physicians, corporations and other targets–particularly financing malpractice suits through hedge funds. In 2010, hedge funds invested $1 billion in these types of suits, much of it for medical malpractice cases…
… the rewards can be remarkable for investors, which is why dollars are flowing into these hedge funds. Payouts can result in tens of millions of dollars.
George Soros, call your office…
Having milked all the money they can from sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, credit default swaps, and political largess from wholly-owned and operated politicians, and after causing a depression or two, our financial wizards now turn their attention to where the real money is: suing doctors. Gotta love it. Ya think, maybe, just maybe, our tort system is a little out of control?
In days gone past — when there was hope about changing such things — I would have launched into a diatribe about the need for reigning in the lawyers, tort reform, etc. etc. Perhaps age, experience, and a touch of wisdom have led me to see the futility of such righteous indignation. Simply put: the system is never going to change. Sadly, we are locked in: the consequences of our current tort system is carved in stone, and they will be both inevitable — and ugly.
The system will never change because the system is the problem: most politicians are lawyers, and lawyers pour ungodly amount of money into the politicians’ pockets — the Democratic Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trial Lawyers Association (90 percent of its $30.7 million in contributions since 1989 went to Democrats). The AMA — purportedly representing physicians — is now a political, socialist animal, having embraced the dark side themselves, making hundreds of millions selling the diagnosis and procedure codes to physicians required to be (under)paid by the Feds and big insurance.
Tort reform? Fuggeddaboutit. When it has been passed at the state level, it has been gutted by the courts (need I mention that judges are lawyers, too?). And tort reform will do nothing to change the enormous cost increases brought about by defensive medicine — at best it may moderate malpractice insurance premiums, when it survives the courts, which it rarely does.
So what’s the inevitable consequence of this disastrous medicolegal monster? Access, my friend, access — as in: none:
Frivolous lawsuits are helping drive physicians out of the profession and pushing up the cost of health care. A Gallup-Jackson health care survey released last year found that $1 in every $4 spent in health care is for unnecessary tests and procedures that doctors order to prevent from being sued.
As 32 million new patients acquire health insurance under ObamaCare and the number of Medicare recipients doubles over the next decade, the physician shortage will be worse than ever. Hedge funds that target doctors will not only make health care more expensive, but they will make a doctor very hard to find.
The parasite has grown fat and happy sucking blood from its host — but at some point the host weakens and dies. Best pick his pocket now, while the gettin’ is good. His days are numbered.
Stay healthy, folks — the doctor will likely not be around when you need him. Maybe you can call your lawyer instead — or your friendly hedge fund manager.
Tags: Medicine · Medicolegal
Word of my demise, widespread and nefarious as it has been, is most assuredly premature. I must put these scurrilous rumors to rest…
But life has been, well, most interesting…
The past year or so has been one of the most challenging in many a season, on a number of fronts. Professionally, the passage of Obamacare has made it abundantly clear that the independent private practitioner is a dying breed, and likely will disappear — with the exception of cash-only, concierge-style arrangements — within the next few years. The administrative burden is crushing — unfunded mandates, such as pay-for-performance, compliance programs, HIPAA, mandated “government certified” EMRs (even though existing, non-certified ones are fully functional), and intrusive, abusive audits by the Feds and third party carriers. Such mandates and regulatory excesses place, or will soon place, such an overwhelming burden on the solo physician or small group as to make their continued existence unsustainable, even in the near term — and the full implementation of Obamacare will put roses on their grave. Reimbursements are dropping precipitously (my income dropped about 25% last year), as expenses spiral upward (employee health insurance rates are up 25%; malpractice rates up 15%, etc., etc.). The small business model of solo practice or small medical group is rapidly becoming extinct: its executioner, Big Government and Big Insurance.
The medical-legal environment remains as hostile and capricious as ever — I have endured two lawsuits in the past three years, both resolved with decidedly mixed outcomes while taking an enormous toll both in time wasted and emotional sobriety. I hope to share some insights thus gleaned on this horrendously dysfunctional system in the not-too-distant future.
Personally, although my health remains good, the exhaustion borne of these and other struggles had taken much of the joy and energy from life. The time for renewal was long overdue.
And so, big changes are in store: my practice will be sold in the next few months to a large medical group affiliated with a nearby hospital, and I will have as a primary responsibility inpatient hospital care, with a much diminished office practice focusing primarily on my specialty of male infertility and vasectomy reversal. I have decidedly mixed feelings about this change — I anticipated going to my deathbed as a private, solo practitioner, loving the independence and rich patient relationships which this brings.
But I am weary. After nearly 30 years in private practice, I am not sure which straw broke the camel’s back, but it is most surely broken. It is a weariness born of 14 hour days; of dictating charts and finishing paperwork until 8 or 9 pm each night, after starting the day at 7 am; of endless audits by the insurance industry and Medicare; of the constant threat of litigation; of the crushing burden of one more federal requirement mandated but never recompensed; of a host of ever-expanding administrative burdens having nothing to do with patient care, and everything to do with bureaucratic micromanagement of the profession. And this before we have even begun to see the nightmare which Obamacare will inflict. Camels weren’t designed to carry such a load.
But the change is nevertheless much anticipated in a host of other ways, with its reduced administrative and regulatory burdens, and substantial increase in free time. For me, the war is over: I have fought the good fight, and no longer see it as profitable to battle the inexorable forces which threaten to crush a beloved profession. My spirit is in many ways free now, as though a great burden has been lifted. God is good, and has been gracious and kind to me in so many ways.
I have needed an extended break from blogging to process these many life changes, but in its absence have heard the siren call of the muse quietly whispering to my soul.
So I am back — bitterly clinging to God, guns and guitars — and hope to speak of each in their turn, among others, as the spirit moves. For those who have checked back regularly, only find a petrifying post from the past, you have my great gratitude for your loyalty. I hope to reward that loyalty with something of worth in the coming days.
Tags: Blogging · General Interest · Health care reform · Medicine
Today is Good Friday. It has been my custom, on this extraordinary day, to post an old meditation on the meaning of the cross, called Three Men on a Friday. Today, however, I feel led to meditate on something rather different, though not unrelated.
Good Friday, of course, is the Church’s remembrance of its most central truths: that God became man, was crucified to pay the price which we could not pay, and was raised victorious on the third day. Good Friday is a somber day, a day to remember that we individually are responsible for the torture and agony which befell Christ — that he hangs on the Cross in our stead.
Yet, in the deep sorrow and humility which we bring to mind on this profound day, there is also an extraordinary hope: that in our greatest disasters, in our biggest failures, in our most agonizing and painful moments, there is a purpose, a plan, a hope which is both utterly irrational, yet absolute and sure.
Good Friday teaches me that failure is not to be avoided at all costs, but instead embraced as a great opportunity. Good Friday teaches me that my lifelong struggle for perfection is doomed to failure, and is chasing after the wind. Good Friday teaches me that I have no idea what is best for me, that pain and suffering have a purpose which I need not, and often should not, understand. Good Friday teaches me that God can make sparkling diamonds out of filthy coal, that my worst attributes, my most painful failures, the most disastrous events which have befallen me beyond my control, are but the building blocks of a new and far better life in hands of God.
I have recently shared some of the struggles in my life, especially my professional trials, and these have indeed taken no small toll on my spirit. Beyond that, like many, I have watched as a country which I love, whose institutions and traditions have blessed and prospered millions, is undermined and corroded by greedy men lusting for power who serve only themselves. Like many, this has been most painful to watch, engendering much anger, frustration, dismay, and discouragement.
Yet I must not forget that I too am greedy, that I too seek to control others and manipulate my world for my own benefit and betterment. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves, and our instincts scream to return evil for evil. Yet by so doing, I enslave myself to those who would enslave and destroy me.
The Cross teaches me another way. It teaches me, quite simply, that God is in control of all things, and that His ways are not my ways. It teaches me that the darkest hour comes before dawn, that God can use evil for good, and that only by bending my will and my knee before Him, no matter what the cost, can my own victory and deliverance, and that of others, be purchased.
We are at war. This is a war, not merely of bombs and guns, nor of words and arguments, nor of politics and power. It is an ancient war, from the very beginning of time: a war between the will of man and the will of God. One way is the way of hatred, anger, revenge, and destruction, whose outcome, no matter how fleeting its seeming victories, will inevitably and invariably lead to defeat and destruction. The other way is that of submission, of self-crucifixion, of “not my will but Thine.” Every fiber of my being strains against this way; every inclination of my will and spirit runs contrary to such surrender. Yet on the Cross, surrender, humiliation, agony, and defeat became the very instruments used of God to reconcile man — stubborn, rebellious, hateful man — to Himself, and to bring new life, and new power, and new hope to those who would follow in the irrational ways of God. And this war must be fought and won, first and foremost, within me.
Yet in this way of submission, brokenness, and humility, we are not called to passivity nor defeat. We are called — each in our own way, using our own gifts — to do battle. For some this will be a way of persuasive words, or prophetic proclamation of the evil which surrounds us. For some it will be writing letters, contributing money, volunteering time and effort, running for office, becoming involved.
But for all, first and foremost, it must begin with prayer, with self-examination, with the submission of every aspect of our lives to the will and wisdom of God, for judgment begins with the house of God. It is time, quite literally, to be on our knees; it is time to fast, to repent, to make amends, and take hold of that joy and purpose which can only come by aligning our wills with that of Him who paid the ultimate price to make us whole.
We do not know — we cannot know — what the outcome will be; the ways of God are vastly higher than our capacity to understanding, and our efforts will come to naught if we try to bend the plans of God to the will of man. We must submit to crucifixion if we are to see the Resurrection.
There are many paths, the broad leading to destruction, the narrow to life. May God give us the will and the wisdom to follow that narrow path.
Tags: Christianity · Cross · Crucifixion · Faith & Religion
November 24th, 2010 · 4 Comments
This post was published first several years ago, just after Turkey Day. But before T-day makes more sense — so here it is.
OK, just when you thought it was safe to forget about the overindulgence and caloric excesses of Thanksgiving day, here comes another blog post on Thanksgiving recipes. This one sticks to the basics: roasting the turkey itself and making gravy. It is my traditional holiday task to make the dim-witted bird into a delectable feast (and yes, I know wild turkeys are very smart), so this recipe has matured with age–unlike me. So grab your blunderbuss, put on your Pilgrims hat, and let’s get to it.
Continue reading: Doin’ da Bird →
November 22nd, 2010 · Comments Off on Thoughts on Thanksgiving
Before the joys and trials of family get-togethers, the bacchanalian consumption of endless pounds of poultry, and the weariness of holiday travel tempered only by the thrill of a TSA patdown, it is perhaps fitting to pause and reflect a moment on the reason for the season we celebrate this week: Thanksgiving.
Like most of our holidays, Thanksgiving has become commercialized, sterilized, and neutered, long ago detached from its original significance, its spiritual roots withered and wizened, lost in the ever-longer lead-in to the crass commercialism of Christmas. To be sure, we nod in its direction, with cursory platitudes of gratitude for material blessings and bountiful food. Yet our lives betray the truth behind the truisms: we are a most unhappy, ungrateful, ungracious, and resentful lot. We who reside amidst the greatest wealth ever accumulated, suffer from an acquisitive sickness, a deep and abiding unhappiness which even greater and ever more cannot heal. We live in expectation more than acceptance, revenge rather than reconciliation, greed not gratitude. For all we have, we have not peace, and thanksgiving is the farthest thing from our minds and hearts.
So what then of gratitude, of true thanksgiving? It is not the cheap grace of the smug acknowledgment of all we possess, lest we be seen by others as a selfish boor. Nor is it some warm emotion poured forth like spirits from a crystal decanter, transparently empty after its contents are spilt. It is indeed poorly expressed by words alone, which cost far too little to repay our debts.
It is, rather, a proper sense of perspective, grounded in a larger vision of purpose. It recognizes, first and foremost, that we are limited and flawed, not the pinnacle of evolution but the pride — and the problem — of creation. We are magnificently made but fatally flawed; we aspire to the stars but stumble in the mud. What we have is not what we have earned, but we we have been given — and far too often used not for glory but for gain.
Thanksgiving tells us that we have a higher purpose, a calling which draws us toward the divine, in order that His highest purposes are fully served. It tells us we are hopelessly handicapped in our pursuit of this noble calling, waylaid in wanton selfishness and frivolous foolishness, distracted from our goal by baubles and the banal. Indeed there is little hope of restoring our vision but by grace, by the gracious hand of God to guide, empower, and correct us. It is in this extraordinary reality that true gratitude is found, that we who have hated the good have, in spite of ourselves, been called back home, in forgiveness and with vision restored, to be made useful and purposeful again, to be made new.
This grace empowers gratitude, for it opens all things, both good and bad, to the possibility of redemption. For the good we may be grateful, not merely that it blesses us, but that it enables and empowers us to serve and give to others. Our trials and liabilities, too, become tools by which we may reassess and redirect our lives, growing in empathy for the suffering of others, and in trust in the inscrutable goodness and wisdom of God, who uses evil for good. Our thanksgiving is a celebration of freedom — the freedom to transform all things, whether good or evil, to the higher purposes of God.
A cynical and empty culture knows nothing of this miracle of grace, and thus has no gratitude, no graciousness, no humility or hope. We are called, in this season of Thanksgiving, to be a light shining in a dark and empty world, which by disowning transcendence has destroyed its hope.
Let us, then, be truly grateful this Thanksgiving, for the grace of redemption, the hope of transformation, and the mercy shown to us through Him who is most gracious.
Have a most blessed and fruitful Thanksgiving.
Tags: Christianity · Faith & Religion · Grace
November 8th, 2010 · 3 Comments
In July 1940, an engineering marvel was completed: the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge. One of the longest suspension bridges in the world at the time, it exemplified the light, graceful architectural trend of suspension bridges built in this era. Called the crowning achievement of his career, designer Leon Moisseiff — the architect of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco — later declared “our plans seemed 100% perfect.”
Yet 4 months later, on November 7 1940, the Narrows Bridge catastrophically collapsed in a windstorm into Puget Sound.
Leon Moisseiff had unshakable faith in the reliability of his newly-completed masterpiece. He would have had no qualms whatsoever trusting its dependability in any weather conditions. Yet had he stood upon his own creation on November 7th, 1940, his faith would have been fatal. The object of his faith was unreliable, and the strength of his faith irrelevant.
Faith has become the diametric of reason … practiced only by deluded fools who reject the graceful catenary and steel-plate certainty of scientific rationalism.
Faith is an idea frequently voiced, but little understood. It is commonly mentioned in the pejorative sense in today’s secular society, where it has become a proxy for belief in the unbelievable, the unprovable, the superstitious and the mythical. Faith has become the diametric of reason — unreasonably so, as we shall see — practiced only by deluded fools who reject the graceful catenary and steel-plate certainty of scientific rationalism.
Yet faith–not love–makes the world go ’round. You exercise faith when you place the key in the ignition and start your car. You have faith when you flip a switch, expecting light to rush forth from a fixture, or music from stereo speakers. You have faith that your coat will keep you warm and dry; your plane will stay aloft; your surgeon will bring you through a heart bypass. The atheist has utter faith in his reason, that belief in God is beyond logic and therefore must be rejected. Such faith is nothing more than trust: a confidence that the object is reliable, the tool is trustworthy, its behavior predictable, its nature dependable. In the physical realm, such trust may be based in part on knowledge — one can study the flow of electrons and principles of resistance which make a light bulb glow — but such erudition is entirely optional, and rarely grasped by those who rely on its behavior. The object of faith may be entirely reliable yet utterly beyond our comprehension — or, as Leon Moisseiff discovered to his great dismay, deeply understood yet profoundly unreliable.
Continue reading: On Faith I: Faith & Reason →
Tags: Best of: Faith & Religion