Hitting the wall?

My church attendance might be hitting a wall. The trouble started last week during a discussion of the renunciation of wealth in my book group. I had never heard Christians discuss renunciation because my usual experience of them has been that they only differ from non-Christians in that they go to church, equate Christianity with American patriotism, blame the desperate for their desperation, and tend toward smugness and hypocrisy. By contrast, many of the people at Trinity take part in a feeding program for the poor and open their church doors on cold nights so that the homeless will have a warm place to sleep. Then there’s their priest who spends much of his time helping the homeless on the streets and visiting people in jail.

I don’t want to help the poor or visit people in jail, and church isn’t even on my list of deserving charities. Most notably, I find no meaning in Christ because too little is known about him to picture what he was like. As for the Biblical account, it portrays him as angry, impatient, self-contradictory, and a teller of troubling parables with uncertain meanings. What, therefore, do I have to offer to this church? I enjoy going; I owe a minor allegiance to its priest; and I try to make a positive contribution to the groups I’m in, but even if Francis is somehow right, and I will still be welcome as my atheism becomes more widely known, I will never really belong because I won't let myself really belong.

John’s children held an estate sale last weekend (John---pictured--was a friend whose death in July somehow inspired my return to church), and as I perused his 200 or so books, I saw that several of them were by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. In terms of right-wing hatefulness, Coulter makes even Rush look tame, yet reading such books didn’t inspire George to talk politics with me. He was ever gracious, ever generous, and while he could still be active, he volunteered at the local Catholic hospital and took a friend with Alzheimer’s into this home. Clearly, one doesn’t have to be a liberal Christian to be a good Christian. When I compare myself to this reader of Limbaugh and Coulter, it becomes obvious that I give almost nothing of myself, and I carefully measure what I do give.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine that any church is composed of saints, but it just so happens that the kinds of activities that I engage in at Trinity are the same activities that those who take their religion seriously engage in. For example, I go to Saturday mass, and my last book group read the autobiography of Dorothy Day, the woman who started the Catholic Worker movement. She was definitely hardcore in terms of renunciation, and Francis, as well as others, looked upon her as someone to emulate. I enjoyed the group until the discussion of renunciation, for it was only then that it hit me that I was on another planet from everyone else, because of my selfishness as well as my utter lack of belief in Christ on any meaningful level.

Another thing that has hurt me of late is that I’ve shared my blog address with a couple of people at church only to have one of them pointedly avoid me and the other act uncomfortable in my presence (all he said about my blog—not that I asked—was, “I tried to read your blog.”). I’m not too surprised by these reactions, and maybe I was even tactless to share my blog. Besides, I'm only talking about two people, but they and Francis are the only people I’ve shared my blog with, so their reaction has increased my feelings of estrangement and consequent disengagement. One of them is a transsexual, and I had imagined that he, at least, would understand what it is like to be hated for who he is, and to go through life with the feeling that he is looking in from the outside. Yet, he’s the one who goes out of his way to avoid me.

To complete my list of problems, Trinity and a local Lutheran church held a joint Thanksgiving service last night. I lasted ten minutes before I became so bored that I left, but I only mention this to illustrate how little patience I have for things that bore me, which means that I wouldn’t attend Trinity if it wasn’t truly important to me. Still, my main point is that this church is something of a sister church to Trinity, and on its website, it welcomes all ages, races, marital statuses, and sexual orientations, as well as addicts, the impoverished, the disabled, and people with a criminal record. It struck me that in advertising who is welcome (as is popular among liberal churches), churches likewise advertise who is not welcome. For instance, the list didn’t include atheists, racists, pedophiles, the morbidly obese, or anyone else liberals consider it acceptable to scorn, including conservatives. I believe the list could have been on Trinity’s site. Despite Francis’ optimism, I have no thought but what I will be held at arm’s length once my atheism becomes known, as it’s sure to do if only because of the comments I make and the questions I ask.

Anyway, my feeling of not belonging doesn’t come from any one thing, and maybe I’ve even made a poor case for it because I can’t always be sure but what a particular feeling predated the reasons that I give for it. In other words, did the reasons cause the feeling, or did the feeling exist below my conscious awareness until it found one or more reasons with which to justify its existence? 

My experience with Medicare, Peggy's attempts to get Obamacare

First Medicare

I’m about to start my second year on Medicare (the US government's healthcare insurance program for the disabled and people over 65), and I’ve learned two things. One is that I love my Medicare Supplement insurer—State Mutual of Georgia—and the second is that I loathe my Medicare drug insurer—Humana—and its lame-ass online pharmacy, RightSource. I just switched my drug insurer to Express Scripts, which has the highest customer satisfaction rating of any stand-alone drug provider, and, like Humana, has its own pharmacy. After what I pay for my four prescriptions is figured in, I’ll come out cheaper paying Express Scripts $55.90 a month instead of the $12.80 that I’m currently paying Humana. My total Medicare insurance costs for 2015 will come to $3,500. Medicare is what happens when the government takes what should be an easy to understand insurance program and throws it to the wolves, that is to the private insurers that hide the true cost to consumers behind a wall of options, legalese, and acronyms. It is not for the good of the individual that scores of companies offer scores of impossible to compare plans.

I started Medicare two months after breaking my back last November. I had plenty of time on my hands, so I began to study my Medicare options in the naïve belief that it would be fun and interesting, but it turned out to be a nightmare, the understanding of which would require a team of lawyers to evaluate and compare 120 page insurance contracts, one after another after another. This is why most people buy their Medicare policies from private agents. The downside of doing this is that these agents are themselves largely ignorant, and their primary goal isn’t to help the consumer but to make money by selling the policies of the very few companies that they represent. It’s also true that not all insurance companies sell through agents, and those that don’t can offer better prices because they don’t have to pay commissions. State Mutual of Georgia is one of them. You either buy from them yourself or not at all.

Dealing with Humana’s pharmacy—RightSource—is so bad that I would qualify it as abusive. The policyholder part of its website is all but undecipherable, and filling every order for every drug is so time-consuming and tedious that I never know if I will ever receive my order, but certainly not in less than three weeks. RightSource is such a joke that I have come to wonder if it's in Humana’s interest to deprive customers of their drugs. After it repeatedly “lost” or delayed order after order placed by my friend, Walt, on the behalf of his senile parents, Walt stopped even trying to use his parents’ insurance, and started paying the full costs for their drugs himself. The last straw for me came when someone at UPS stole my monthly order of oxycodone, and RightSource took it out on me by refusing to ever again ship me oxycodone. They knew the loss wasn't my fault, but they simply didn't want to be bothered with trying to ship narcotics to someone who had had a problem receiving them.

Obamacare, aka The Affordable Care Act

As tedious as Medicare is, it’s a hell of a lot better than what most people have. Unfortunately, Peggy is 63, and she can’t start Medicare until she is 65. Since she recently retired, she will hopefully go on Obamacare, which, like Medicare, is a government program that is run by private insurers. She initially tried to go on Obamacare when she retired this summer, and to this end, I (being the one who handles her business) registered her with Obamacare in March, but even though I started five months early, I still couldn’t get her a policy before she retired. This was due to the failure of Oregon’s Obamacare website whose creators are now being scrutinized by the feds to discover how all those millions could disappear without anything but an unusable website to show for it. Because she couldn’t get on Obamacare when she first retired, she bought a catastrophic insurance policy that is nonrenewable and expires on December 31.

Applications for Obamacare for next year opened on November 15, and I started an application for her on the national site on the 18th. No sooner had I set a username and password than I was locked out of the account that I had just created. I called their toll-free number, and an agent spent a couple of hours trying unsuccessfully to fix the problem. I spent many more hours over the next two days talking to different agents without ever getting logged-on. The last agent gave up, and said he would fill out the form himself and snail mail it to me. I didn’t see how this would enable us to buy a policy when we couldn’t even compare the policies (when I try to look at them online, all I get is six blank pages with the following words at the top of the first page: “Here are your 59 policy options”), but it seemed better than nothing. He was almost through with filling out the fairly long form when the software reloaded and all of Peggy's information was deleted.

I finally tried to create a whole new account for Peggy by using another email address, and this seemed to work, but when I tried to finish filling out the required form, the pages wouldn’t load. This has happened everyday since, so I haven’t been able to finish setting up her account, and I still can’t see the policy options, something that I should be able to do without having an account.

This is but a tiny taste of the state of insurance in America. If you work for a big company, you probably have insurance unless that big company is a franchise like McDonalds in which case you have no insurance; you don’t make enough to buy insurance; and the taxpayer is left to pay your medical bills through a program for the impoverished called Medicaid. On the other hand, if you’re disabled or over 65, you probably have Medicare. If you're not insured at work, or impoverished, or old or disabled, your insurance policy consists of hoping to god you don’t get sick because, unless you’re rich, you’re going to wind-up in bankruptcy court if you do. No matter how long and hard most people work or how much they save, few people can stay solvent when they’re too disabled to continue working, and they owe a half-million or more in medical bills, medical bills being the leading cause of bankruptcy in America. Obama promised to put an end to all that, but the dumb-fuck can’t even get a website up and running no matter how much time and money he throws at it. 

Going deeper

When I lived in Minneapolis, I had a friend who collected the antique trappings of Christianity.

Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father…

He didn’t go to church, and he wasn’t a Christian, yet he was captivated by statues, censers, crucifixes, and altar bells because he believed they were magical, and that their magic would fill him if he was surrounded by them.

We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…

I too am a dilettante and idolater. I don’t care about the poor, the crucifixion, or the Trinity, but I get off on religion just as I used to get off on women and hallucinogens.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer...

It’s not the meaning but the music, antiquity, repetition, and imagery. They’re sensual just as the wine and the bread are sensual, just as a woman’s body is sensual. For decades, I thought it was women whose holy waters could protect me, and it was only the passing of many decades that enabled me to see that beauty can’t save its possessor much less me, this despite my years of work on ambulances and in funeral homes.

For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father.

I know that Jesus can’t heal me, or save me, or even find me a parking place because Jesus isn’t there; Jesus isn’t anywhere. But while other atheists feel bored or offended by the very mention of Jesus, I get high saying the ancient prayers .

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis…

I need them now just as I needed them during my childhood before I even knew they existed, going as I did to a church that believed them to be the idolatrous creation of Satan. Year in an year out, I heard preachers say that people who attend mass will burn in eternal hell, and when I got home, I would hide under my bed because I was afraid that the Lord would return to earth that very afternoon and send me to hell. I built my first altar when I was eleven, decorating it with rocks and wisteria. I didn’t even know it was an altar, just that it seemed more holy to me than the plainness of my real church.

Ritual makes me flower like water makes a plant flower, and I wither in the presence of dogma like a flower before a dry wind, but I am less than a “white-washed sepulcher.” Like my Minnesota friend, I really just want to get high on religion, and I do get high at times, only to, at other times, think that it is just all too stupid, that my feelings about it are too bizarre, and that I have no right to take part in anything related to it.