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As a subscriber to The Wired Word, you will receive a weekly email such as this:

Dear Teacher,

Two stories about the problem of debt caught our attention this week: The first highlights debt forgiveness for students, and the second concerns the way many poor people become trapped in a cycle of debt, incarceration and collateral negative damage when they are charged with misdemeanors and are unable to pay fines, fees, and/or bail.

For this lesson, we will explore attitudes and practices of individuals and institutions regarding lending and borrowing, and consider what our faith teaches us about debt.

If you'd prefer a different topic, look at our second lesson, which tells of schools and churches making special efforts to include young people with special needs. It invites us to think about matters of inclusion of such individuals as opposed to mere accommodation.

You are welcome to email the student version of either lesson to your class members, depending on which lesson you prefer to use for your class time. To do so, click here.

May God bless you as you teach the scriptures this week.

The Editorial Team of The Wired Word

Americans Across Different Sectors of Society Burdened by Debt

The Wired Word for the Week of January 13, 2019

In the News

Career Education Corp. (CEC), a for-profit higher education company, announced last week that it will not require repayment of $493 million in education loans from nearly 180,000 students who took out loans with the company over the past 30 years. The average amount of debt each incurred was $2,750. This compares to the average undergraduate student loan debt of just under $33,000, with a median of about $17,000.

CEC made the announcement after reaching settlements with 48 states and the District of Columbia.

While CEC denies that they did anything wrong or have liability, state attorneys general charged the company in 2014 with misleading prospective students about the costs associated with their educational programs, the transferability of class credits to other institutions, and probable job prospects upon graduation. CEC will now be required to be transparent about costs, projected debt, job placement rates, and potential future earnings of graduates.

In related news, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos was ordered not to delay implementation of regulations such as "borrower defense" and "gainful employment" that are meant to protect students from predatory lenders. That means the department is to facilitate at least $150 million of student loan debt forgiveness for students who have been defrauded by educational institutions that engaged in deceptive practices.

According to the Federal Reserve, in 2017, the average American household carried $137,063 in debt, while the median household income was just $59,039. On average, an American owes about $38,000 for education, car loans, medical care costs, credit card purchases and other debits, not counting home mortgages, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress Study.

It should be noted that "credit card purchases" includes those credit card purchases used as convenience (or in order to collect the "points" offered by the credit card company) and for which the balances are paid off each month and incur no interest, so these figures should not be taken as precise.

Some factors that contribute to debt in America are greed (wanting more than can be afforded); pride of status and envy of others' possessions and lifestyle ("keeping up with the Joneses"); sudden unforeseen expenses (automobile breakdown, medical emergency, funeral travel); loss of income; poor planning; over-easy access to credit; and pressure from marketers to overspend on non-essentials.

In a recent interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air on National Public Radio, law professor Alexandra Natapoff spoke about another factor that contributes to rising debt among poor people: America's misdemeanor system. In her new book, Punishment Without Crime, Natapoff details how the system often pushes impoverished defendants into a never-ending cycle of unpayable debt, by setting high bail to provide a revenue stream for courts, probation offices, public defenders, prosecutors or the general budget of municipalities.

Many jurisdictions set high bail for misdemeanors (low-level offenses that cannot be punished by more than one year of incarceration). Bail for minor crimes, such as trespassing or marijuana possession, can range from $500-$1,000, amounts that many poor people cannot pay. As a result, they may be incarcerated primarily because they can't pay, not necessarily because of the seriousness of the original offense.

The problem of inability to pay is exacerbated by an overburdened and backlogged justice system geared to quick resolution of cases, because public defenders don't have adequate time or resources to prepare a proper defense for their clients, who are often encouraged to take a plea even if  they aren't guilty. Once they plead guilty, they may be required to pay crushing fines they can't afford.

Whether or not those accused of petty crime are guilty, an inability to pay bail, fines or fees can land people in jail or on probation, which can result in loss of job opportunities, employment, welfare benefits, housing, assets, educational opportunities and financial aid for education. Incarcerated individuals with children may risk losing custody and incur more debt in the fight to keep the family together. If individuals borrow money to pay what they owe, it may often come at higher interest rates, resulting in layers of more unpayable debt that ruins their credit.

In addition to fines imposed as punishment for misdemeanors, defendants may be subject to a slew of fees, including charges for their own incarceration, supervision, application for or use of a public defender, drug or DNA tests, failure to appear in court. In a seemingly unending debt cycle, defendants can also be charged late fees for not paying other fees on time.

Ironically, if you can't afford a lawyer, you are eligible for a public defender, but you still may have to pay a court "recoupment" fee to apply for one. So poor people often waive their right to a public defender, simply because they can't afford to pay the fee.

"Jail fees are particularly egregious and ironic for individuals who are being incarcerated precisely because they couldn't pay their fines and fees," Natapoff said. "Once they go to jail, in many jurisdictions, the jail will then charge them a fee for having been in the jail. There are fees for the use of health care in jails, so many people forgo health care." And once individuals are jailed, of course, they cannot earn a paycheck or pay taxes which would contribute to the fabric of the community.

"When individuals are locked up because they can't pay a fine or a fee," Natapoff explained, "It's not because they're scofflaws. It's because they're poor."

"I'm not arguing to do away with the misdemeanor system," Natapoff asserted. "We need to be able to respond to low-level crimes, to low-level harms. [But] … We need to dial back the penalties and the use of debtors' prison so that the misdemeanor system can do its job, so that it can go after crime and low-level offenses in a meaningful way and impose punishments that are not so wildly disproportionate to the crime."

More on this story can be found at these links:

Nearly 180,000 Students Won't Have To Repay Loans From For-Profit Higher Ed Company. NPR
'Punishment Without Crime' Highlights the Injustice of America's Misdemeanor System. NPR
It’s Official: Most Christians Are Currently in Debt. Crosswalk.com
This Is How Much Debt the Average American Has Now -- at Every Age. Money

Applying the News Story

According to the New York Federal Reserve, Americans were in debt to the tune of $13 trillion in 2017, more than $280 billion over the previous record set in 2008. Because over 70 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, we can assume that many Christians also take on debt for one reason or another at some point in their lives. Therefore, a periodic review of where we stand with respect to our finances is appropriate.

The Big Questions

1. Have you ever been a lender, or co-signed a loan for someone? What potential benefits or problems did you anticipate when you accepted that role? What precautions (if any) did you take to minimize risk and ensure a positive outcome of the transaction?

2. Have you ever been a borrower? What were the circumstances? Why did you choose to take on debt? What were the benefits and the costs associated, and how did you decide to balance the two.

3. What biblical principles can we turn to for guidance if we become lenders?    

4. How can our faith help us avoid unnecessary debt? What can our faith teach us about how to emerge from a cycle of oppressive debt?

5. How should Christians deal with institutions and systems that engage in predatory lending practices?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

2 Kings 4:1-2, 7
Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves." Elisha said to her, "What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?" She answered, "Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil." … She came and told the man of God, and he said, "Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest."
(For context, read 4:1-7.)

This passage records the story of a prophet's poor widow, who appealed to Elisha about a creditor who threatened to enslave her two children to settle her debt. Elisha didn't throw money at her problem, or offer to "fix" the situation for her. Instead, he asked questions, partly to gain information, and partly to ascertain what resources the woman had that she might not have recognized as assets. All she had left in the house was a single jar of oil.

Perhaps her husband had incurred debts, for which she was held liable. Or she may have fallen into debt after she lost her one source of income. Since she had only one item of value in the house, she probably had already sold everything of value she had to settle as many debts as she could. But she had come to the end of her rope. Now her situation was desperate.

But Elisha reminded her that in addition to her jar of oil, she had neighbors with assets, and children who could help work through her problem. She was not alone after all.

Sometimes, when things seem hopeless, we turn in on ourselves and withdraw, when we need to do just the opposite. Elisha told the widow to take bold action: to go outside and borrow "not just a few" empty vessels "from all her neighbors." Those containers may have been of little value to her neighbors, but for her they would become a lifeline to resolve her debt problem.

Once she had collected as many bottles or barrels as she could find, she and her children were to go inside and shut the door. Then she was to take the jar of oil she had, and pour oil into the containers they had collected. This she did until all the vessels were full, and then the oil stopped flowing. Elisha told her to sell the oil to pay off the creditor, and use the rest to pay living expenses for herself and her children.

Note that Elisha acknowledged the debt as real: He didn't suggest that the creditor should let it go, but instructed the widow to pay the debt she owed.    

Questions: What does this incident teach us about God? Should we expect miraculous intervention to solve debt problems in every situation? in any situation? Why or why not?

What can we learn from the instructions Elisha gave the widow that may apply to us when we face mountains of debt?

What can we learn from Elisha's approach that might guide communities of faith in how to support people as they seek to cope with debt?

Exodus 22:25
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.
(For context, read 22:25-27.)
Luke 6:34-36
[Jesus said,] "If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (For context, read 6:27-36.)

We cite these passages about lending together because of the description of God as kind and merciful (Luke 6:35-36) and compassionate (Exodus 22:27). God's nature is seen as the template for human character and conduct toward others.

Questions: What principles can you draw from these passages to guide individuals or institutions that lend to others? Should these principles be considered normative for modern lending institutions? Why or why not?

Should lenders have different lending policies for different socioeconomic groups?  Defend your position.

Proverbs 22:22-23
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the LORD pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.
(For context, read 22:1-8, 22-27.)

In this chapter, the writer acknowledges the reality that the rich exercise power over the poor, and the lender rules over the borrower like a master over a slave (v. 7). But he warns that those in positions of power and privilege who sow injustice "will reap calamity" (v. 8).

The Lord made rich and poor alike (v. 2), he writes, which means that the rich have reason to be humble and the poor have reason to be encouraged.

In the news article above, Natapoff presents a case for reforming aspects of the criminal justice system, such as high bail for misdemeanors, that impoverish people who are already poor.

God opposes those who target poor people for mistreatment and who crush the afflicted "at the gate," a reference to the place where legal verdicts were rendered. Powerful people have an even greater responsibility to treat those in a weaker position fairly.

Questions: How does this text speak to Natapoff's concerns? Where do you see the Lord pleading the cause of the poor and afflicted today? What role, if any, should the church play in that kind of advocacy, and how might the church engage in such a ministry?

Matthew 6:12-15
And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
        but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
(For context, read 6:8-15.)

Many followers of Christ pray The Lord's Prayer every week as part of corporate worship.

Questions: How would you characterize the debts we owed that God has cancelled and forgiven? To whom did we owe those debts?

What debts do we think others owe us?

How do you think this passage about debt forgiveness should be applied or not applied in our personal lives? In our society at large?

For Further Discussion

1. A popular national radio voice on the subject of debt in a Christian context is Dave Ramsey. On this site Dave talks about biblical principles on debt.
    If you have followed Ramsey's teachings about financial health, what have you found helpful in your own handling of money?
    What other resources have you found that might be useful to other group members as you seek to order your finances according to biblical principles?

2. In the book Ten Reasons to Love Leviticus, Robert W. Neff and co-author Frank Ramirez, a TWW team member, wrote:
    "It's hard to figure out the average lifespan of a person who lived in biblical times, but 30 years is probably a safe figure. Many died in infancy and childhood, and there were always some who lived to an advanced old age. Nevertheless, this tells us that no matter what happened economically -- debt, loss of land, even loss of freedom resulting in slavery or serfdom -- people could look forward to the Jubilee for themselves or for their children, and with it a fresh economic start.
    "The language that describes the purpose of this year does not arise from reflection about the Sabbath but from the declaration: 'And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants' (Leviticus 25:10a). The Hebrew word for liberty or release (deror) comes from the Akkadian duraru which implies in that language 'the emancipation of indentured slaves, the return of confiscated land, and the cancellation of debts' (The HarperCollins Study Bible, 192).
    "The year of Jubilee (the time of release) in Leviticus is a time of liberation for the entire population: 'It shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property, and every one of you to your family'" (Leviticus 25:10b and c).
    Could the principles of the Hebrew concept of Jubilee work in our society? Why or why not? What would be required to implement such a practice?
    Who might resist implementation of a restructuring of economic practices along the lines of Jubilee, and why might they resist? Who might welcome such a change, and why?
    What potential disadvantages or advantages might an economic system based on Jubilee concepts bring to society as a whole?

3. Comment on this, also from Ten Reasons to Love Leviticus, by Neff and Ramirez: "Jesus began his ministry in the Gospel of Luke by opening the Isaiah scroll 61:1 in front of his friends and family in the synagogue in Nazareth, and reading this declaration: 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord' (Luke 4:18-19).
    "This is a clear reference to the Jubilee. It was not a popular choice of topics. His neighbors, though looking forward to a dog-and-pony show of miracles, healing, and wonders, eventually react angrily when they realize that their wallets might be involved in the salvation God is offering to the poor, the disabled, the imprisoned, and the oppressed.
    "My suspicion is that many Christians prefer sermons about salvation that put other folks literally on the hot seat, instead of Christ-inspired messages about putting us smack on the hot seat when it comes to proclaiming an economic jubilee to the poorest peoples and the poorest nations on the earth.
    "But this is the game plan Jesus announces in his hometown. Is it the game plan preached in churches of Jesus in our country? Are we ready to bring the Jubilee?"

4. Comment on this, from TWW team member Joanna Loucky-Ramsey: "When I lived in Alaska, I worked for a man who said that he never loaned someone money that he wasn't prepared to give away. That philosophy allowed him to focus on people and to hold material wealth lightly in his hand."

Responding to the News

This might be a good time to ask God to reveal whether there is someone you have been holding hostage to a debt that you need to forgive.

Perhaps you owe a debt you cannot pay. What prevents you from seeking counsel about this problem? Brainstorm in the group about trustworthy persons, companies or websites that provide debt relief solutions. If you need advice, don't be afraid to ask for it.

Prayer

O God, to whom we owe the very breath we breathe, we can never repay you for your kindness toward us. We humbly accept your many blessings, thankful for your goodness. Help us to "pay forward" those blessings to others, and to owe no one anything except the debt of love. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Other News This Week

Staff at Schools and Churches Make Special Efforts to Include Kids With Special Needs

In the News

Thanks to a caring school staff and the generosity of a band instrument company, Paul Ebihara, a sixth grader at Glen Westlake Middle School in Lombard, Illinois, now has a clarinet that doesn't emit squeaks when he plays it.

If that doesn't sound much like news, it's because you haven't yet heard the whole story.

Paul has cerebral palsy, a condition that impairs muscle coordination, and in his case, causes him to have difficulty with fine-motor activities. That, coupled with Paul's small hands, made playing clarinet in the school band a challenge.

"My fingers didn't cover the holes all the way," Paul said. "It squeaks."

"He loves that experience of being on stage and being part of that group," Joanne Ebihara, Paul's mother, said. "He loves learning, being part of the collective and really feeling like he has that place."

Paul's band director Julie Syperek didn't want Paul to lose the sense of community. So she phoned Conn-Selmer, an Indiana company that manufactures and distributes instruments for children and adults across the country.

Conn-Selmer agreed to help and custom-made a clarinet for Paul, which the company donated to him. Called a plateau clarinet, it has pads that cover the holes when Paul pushes on them.

Rather than a serial number, Conn-Selmer engraved Paul's name on it.

According to WGN9, which reported Paul's story, "The difference is remarkable. Paul can play easier, there's no more squeaking and his confidence has increased dramatically -- not only in band but in the classroom as well."

Paul's parents said Paul feels that he has a place now, and that his part, no matter where he is, is just as important as everyone else's.

About the same time as Paul's story appeared, we happened on a somewhat similar account involving a special-needs boy named Casey, who is a late talker with a language delay. His story also includes a church. (The story is at The Presbyterian Outlook link below and is accessible only by subscription, But the author gave TWW permission to repeat it here.)

Casey's family attends First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan. Of the church, Casey's dad, Brian O'Connor, said, "Inclusion is a really basic concept there." He went on to explain that when he worked with his son in other activities, he's "accommodated." "But accommodated is not the same as inclusion," O'Connor said. "Accommodated sort of suggests we'll make room for you and won't be bothered by your differences or quirks."

But at the church, when Casey was ready for confirmation class, a pastor worked one-on-one with him. Like the other confirmands, Casey had to write a statement of faith, but instead of requiring him to meet with the entire examination team, he met with just two elders.

"For my son," O'Connor said, "conversations are very stressful because his language is several years behind." But with the tailored arrangements the church made, the confirmation process for Casey worked.

That church already had some experience with inclusion of kids with disabilities: When a family with triplets who all had autism began attending, the church formed a separate Sunday-school class for those kids and others with disabilities, but then decided inclusion was a better model.

Eventually, in the worship service, "the congregation began to get used to [the triplets'] noises, their behavior, their presence and acceptance grew over the years," said Cindy Merten, the congregation's director of Christian education.

TWW team member Heidi Mann told about two children in her community:

There is a seventh-grade girl in my son's middle-school choir who lives with a number of disabilities, including being blind and nonverbal. In the winter concert in December, she had a special role in one of the pieces -- playing bells as the choir sang. They were "jingle bells" that she could hold and shake at will, not needing to worry about any particular rhythm. My son reports how she loved her role in that song and got visibly excited as it came time for practicing the song and her chance to contribute.

We have a third-grade boy at church, too, who is nonverbal and lives with various disabilities. I love how the Sunday-school teachers include him in the Christmas program each year, doing such things as playing drums for "Little Drummer Boy" (no concerns about a precise or "perfect" rhythm -- just the joy of his participation alongside all the others).

More on this story can be found at these links:

Boy With Cerebral Palsy Gets Custom-Made Clarinet and a Boost in Confidence. WGN9
Conn-Selmer Inc -- Paul's Clarinet. YouTube
Everyone Welcome, Everyone Included. The Presbyterian Outlook (subscription required)

The Big Questions

1. What are the similarities between accommodation and inclusion? What are the differences? Under what conditions might each (as described here) be appropriate?  When might each be inappropriate?  What are some of the trade-offs involved?

2. What is the theological case for inclusion? Is there any theological case against it, and if so, what is it? When, if ever, is accommodation sufficient? When might both be inappropriate?

3. It has been said that "a ramp alone does not make a church building accessible." What do you think that means? What does the attitude "we have no one here who needs handicap access" mean for the future of your church?

4. How does your church include those who live with disabilities? What do you think remains to be done?

5. What does it mean for a church to be a "community" or a "family"? How are special-needs persons' sense of community or family strengthened when they are encouraged to join in as fully as they are able and desire to do? How is our sense of community or family strengthened by the same?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Leviticus 21:18
For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long ... (For context, read 21:16-24.)
Leviticus 19:14
You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. (For context, read 19:9-18.)

The statement in 21:18 is from the list of requirements about who could be a priest in ancient Israel. The man (and it was only men at that time) had to be physically "whole," without "blemish." In fact, verses 21:18-20 actually itemize physical "defects" that disqualified men from the priesthood. Ironically, the list of blemishes is restricted to the physical body, while moral blemishes are not even mentioned (though they may have been covered by the earlier stated requirement that candidates be "holy" [21:6]).

This demand for physical wholeness should be understood as a reflection of how the people of that time viewed the holiness of God, not of how they valued -- or failed to value -- persons. God, they felt, was so holy that they should offer only their "best" -- animals without blemish for sacrifice and men without blemish for service in the place of sacrifice.

That persons with disabilities were not written off is evidenced in the stipulation in 21:22. Men who, aside from physical wholeness otherwise qualified for the priesthood, were still allowed to eat from the portions of the animal sacrifices that were reserved as food for the priests.

To get a better understanding of the view of persons with disabilities in that age, it's useful to read Leviticus 19:9-18. This was part of the "holiness code" of ancient Israel, the description of what it meant for all persons to live a holy life, a description that reaches its high point in 19:18 with the summarizing statement, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Verse 19:14, quoted above, not only prohibited ridiculing persons with disabilities, but was also concerned with not allowing such persons to be taken advantage of. And note that the way one treated such persons was related to how one honored ("feared") one's God.

Questions: How has your view of what it means to be "without blemish" before God changed as you have grown? What does it mean for you now?

Regarding "blemishes," Miracle in Lane 2 is a 2000 Disney Channel original movie about the difficulties faced by real-life Justin Yoder, a child with disabilities who wanted to take part in the Soap Box Derby. During the movie, he meets God in several different ways. At the end of the movie, Justin wants to know if people like him, confined to wheelchairs, are perfect in heaven. View the ending of the movie here and discuss it together.

Luke 1:66
All who heard [the details about the child's birth] pondered them and said, "What then will this child become?" For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. (For context, read 1:57-66.)

Although this verse applies to Jesus' cousin John in particular, it is a universal question that can be applied to every child born on earth. When it is applied to a child with a disability, the question may be expressed with anguish, hopelessness or inquisitiveness about how God may be revealed in and through that child.

Questions: If you are the parent of such a child, how did you or others ask this question? And how did God answer that question, if at all? In what ways do you see the hand of the Lord with your child?

Matthew 8:1-3
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (No context needed.)

Questions: Jesus could have healed the leper with a look or a word, but he chose to touch him. Why was that significant? While physical touching may not be appropriate in every case, in what other ways may we engage fully with persons with disabilities? Who loses when the relationship is kept at arm's length? Who benefits when the relationship is more fully developed?

Acts 3:4, 6-7
Peter looked intently at [the lame man], as did John, and said, "Look at us." ... Peter said, 'I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. (For context, read 3:1-10.)

Peter and John come upon a beggar, lame from birth, at the temple gate, where people had placed him so he could ask for alms. Standard operating procedure was to toss money and not make eye contact, but Peter and John really see him, and invite him to make eye contact with them, creating a relationship.

Questions: What do you have to offer a person with special needs that is better than money? What did Peter do that strengthened this lame man?

Read the context verses to answer these questions: What kind of relationship did the lame man have with Peter and John after this encounter? How did the man affect people around him? What does this say about how God can use persons with disabilities?

For Further Discussion

1. Read and discuss together 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 in light of today's topic.

2.  If your church has healing services and you pray for a person with a disability, is there healing only if the disability is removed? If so, what is the theology behind this and do you agree with it?

3. Which, if any, of the following items does your sanctuary provide:

  • Special spaces -- sometimes called cutouts -- for people in wheelchairs?
  • Large-print bulletins?
  • Hearing assistive devices?
  • Gluten-free communion bread?
  • Projected liturgy and hymns?

Are there any of these that you don't provide that might be helpful to specific members of your church or visitors? (We know of one Roman Catholic parish in Miami Beach that has installed equipment to amplify services directly into synced hearing aids. They also do a live broadcast of one Sunday Mass online for those finding it impossible or impractical to physically attend.)

4.  What limitations do you or yours deal with? What accommodation or inclusion if any, do you receive?

Responding to the News

This is a good time to consider this: By some estimates, one in four members of every parish has a disability. Do you know who these people are? Is there anything about your building setup that keeps them from participating in your church? Are there unspoken attitudes among attendees that might discourage a person with a disability from attending?

Prayer

O God, sensitize us to the humanity of the persons with disability in our midst. Let us not make them "invisible." Help us to be genuinely supportive as well of those who provide daily care to others. Enable us, like Jesus, to bridge the distance that keeps us from seeing the struggles of those in need around us. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Copyright 2019 Communication Resources

 

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Your subscription will also provide you with a student version of the weekly lesson, which you can freely edit prior to sending it out to your class members. Here's a sample of what your students will get:

Dear Class Member,
Two stories about the problem of debt were in the news this week: The first highlights debt forgiveness for students, and the second concerns the way many poor people become trapped in a cycle of debt, incarceration and collateral negative damage when they are charged with misdemeanors and are unable to pay fines, fees, and/or bail.

For our next lesson, we will explore attitudes and practices of individuals and institutions regarding lending and borrowing, and consider what our faith teaches us about debt.

If you wish to start thinking about our topic in advance, below is some introductory material.

Americans Across Different Sectors of Society Burdened by Debt

The Wired Word the Week of January 13, 2019

In the News

Career Education Corp. (CEC), a for-profit higher education company, announced last week that it will not require repayment of $493 million in education loans from nearly 180,000 students who took out loans with the company over the past 30 years. The average amount of debt each incurred was $2,750. This compares to the average undergraduate student loan debt of just under $33,000, with a median of about $17,000.

CEC made the announcement after reaching settlements with 48 states and the District of Columbia.

While CEC denies that they did anything wrong or have liability, state attorneys general charged the company in 2014 with misleading prospective students about the costs associated with their educational programs, the transferability of class credits to other institutions, and probable job prospects upon graduation. CEC will now be required to be transparent about costs, projected debt, job placement rates, and potential future earnings of graduates.

In related news, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos was ordered not to delay implementation of regulations such as "borrower defense" and "gainful employment" that are meant to protect students from predatory lenders. That means the department is to facilitate at least $150 million of student loan debt forgiveness for students who have been defrauded by educational institutions that engaged in deceptive practices.

According to the Federal Reserve, in 2017, the average American household carried $137,063 in debt, while the median household income was just $59,039. On average, an American owes about $38,000 for education, car loans, medical care costs, credit card purchases and other debits, not counting home mortgages, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress Study.

It should be noted that "credit card purchases" includes those credit card purchases used as convenience (or in order to collect the "points" offered by the credit card company) and for which the balances are paid off each month and incur no interest, so these figures should not be taken as precise.

Some factors that contribute to debt in America are greed (wanting more than can be afforded); pride of status and envy of others' possessions and lifestyle ("keeping up with the Joneses"); sudden unforeseen expenses (automobile breakdown, medical emergency, funeral travel); loss of income; poor planning; over-easy access to credit; and pressure from marketers to overspend on non-essentials.

In a recent interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air on National Public Radio, law professor Alexandra Natapoff spoke about another factor that contributes to rising debt among poor people: America's misdemeanor system. In her new book, Punishment Without Crime, Natapoff details how the system often pushes impoverished defendants into a never-ending cycle of unpayable debt, by setting high bail to provide a revenue stream for courts, probation offices, public defenders, prosecutors or the general budget of municipalities.

Many jurisdictions set high bail for misdemeanors (low-level offenses that cannot be punished by more than one year of incarceration). Bail for minor crimes, such as trespassing or marijuana possession, can range from $500-$1,000, amounts that many poor people cannot pay. As a result, they may be incarcerated primarily because they can't pay, not necessarily because of the seriousness of the original offense.

The problem of inability to pay is exacerbated by an overburdened and backlogged justice system geared to quick resolution of cases, because public defenders don't have adequate time or resources to prepare a proper defense for their clients, who are often encouraged to take a plea even if  they aren't guilty. Once they plead guilty, they may be required to pay crushing fines they can't afford.

Whether or not those accused of petty crime are guilty, an inability to pay bail, fines or fees can land people in jail or on probation, which can result in loss of job opportunities, employment, welfare benefits, housing, assets, educational opportunities and financial aid for education. Incarcerated individuals with children may risk losing custody and incur more debt in the fight to keep the family together. If individuals borrow money to pay what they owe, it may often come at higher interest rates, resulting in layers of more unpayable debt that ruins their credit.

In addition to fines imposed as punishment for misdemeanors, defendants may be subject to a slew of fees, including charges for their own incarceration, supervision, application for or use of a public defender, drug or DNA tests, failure to appear in court. In a seemingly unending debt cycle, defendants can also be charged late fees for not paying other fees on time.

Ironically, if you can't afford a lawyer, you are eligible for a public defender, but you still may have to pay a court "recoupment" fee to apply for one. So poor people often waive their right to a public defender, simply because they can't afford to pay the fee.

"Jail fees are particularly egregious and ironic for individuals who are being incarcerated precisely because they couldn't pay their fines and fees," Natapoff said. "Once they go to jail, in many jurisdictions, the jail will then charge them a fee for having been in the jail. There are fees for the use of health care in jails, so many people forgo health care." And once individuals are jailed, of course, they cannot earn a paycheck or pay taxes which would contribute to the fabric of the community.

"When individuals are locked up because they can't pay a fine or a fee," Natapoff explained, "It's not because they're scofflaws. It's because they're poor."

"I'm not arguing to do away with the misdemeanor system," Natapoff asserted. "We need to be able to respond to low-level crimes, to low-level harms. [But] … We need to dial back the penalties and the use of debtors' prison so that the misdemeanor system can do its job, so that it can go after crime and low-level offenses in a meaningful way and impose punishments that are not so wildly disproportionate to the crime."

More on this story can be found at these links:

Nearly 180,000 Students Won't Have To Repay Loans From For-Profit Higher Ed Company. NPR
'Punishment Without Crime' Highlights the Injustice of America's Misdemeanor System. NPR
It’s Official: Most Christians Are Currently in Debt. Crosswalk.com
This Is How Much Debt the Average American Has Now -- at Every Age. Money

Applying the News Story

According to the New York Federal Reserve, Americans were in debt to the tune of $13 trillion in 2017, more than $280 billion over the previous record set in 2008. Because over 70 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, we can assume that many Christians also take on debt for one reason or another at some point in their lives. Therefore, a periodic review of where we stand with respect to our finances is appropriate.

The Big Questions
Here are some of the questions we will discuss in class:

1. Have you ever been a lender, or co-signed a loan for someone? What potential benefits or problems did you anticipate when you accepted that role? What precautions (if any) did you take to minimize risk and ensure a positive outcome of the transaction?

2. Have you ever been a borrower? What were the circumstances? Why did you choose to take on debt? What were the benefits and the costs associated, and how did you decide to balance the two.

3. What biblical principles can we turn to for guidance if we become lenders?    

4. How can our faith help us avoid unnecessary debt? What can our faith teach us about how to emerge from a cycle of oppressive debt?

5. How should Christians deal with institutions and systems that engage in predatory lending practices?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
We will look at selected verses from these Scripture texts. You may wish to read these in advance for background:

2 Kings 4:1-7
Exodus 22:25-27
Luke 6:27-36
Proverbs 22:1-8, 22-27
Matthew 6:8-15

In class, we will talk about these passages and look for some insight into the big questions, as well as talk about other questions you may have about this topic. Please join us.

Copyright 2019 Communication Resources

Staff at Schools and Churches Make Special Efforts to Include Kids With Special Needs
The Wired Word for the Week of January 13, 2019

In the News

Thanks to a caring school staff and the generosity of a band instrument company, Paul Ebihara, a sixth grader at Glen Westlake Middle School in Lombard, Illinois, now has a clarinet that doesn't emit squeaks when he plays it.

If that doesn't sound much like news, it's because you haven't yet heard the whole story.

Paul has cerebral palsy, a condition that impairs muscle coordination, and in his case, causes him to have difficulty with fine-motor activities. That, coupled with Paul's small hands, made playing clarinet in the school band a challenge.

"My fingers didn't cover the holes all the way," Paul said. "It squeaks."

"He loves that experience of being on stage and being part of that group," Joanne Ebihara, Paul's mother, said. "He loves learning, being part of the collective and really feeling like he has that place."

Paul's band director Julie Syperek didn't want Paul to lose the sense of community. So she phoned Conn-Selmer, an Indiana company that manufactures and distributes instruments for children and adults across the country.

Conn-Selmer agreed to help and custom-made a clarinet for Paul, which the company donated to him. Called a plateau clarinet, it has pads that cover the holes when Paul pushes on them.

Rather than a serial number, Conn-Selmer engraved Paul's name on it.

According to WGN9, which reported Paul's story, "The difference is remarkable. Paul can play easier, there's no more squeaking and his confidence has increased dramatically -- not only in band but in the classroom as well."

Paul's parents said Paul feels that he has a place now, and that his part, no matter where he is, is just as important as everyone else's.

About the same time as Paul's story appeared, we happened on a somewhat similar account involving a special-needs boy named Casey, who is a late talker with a language delay. His story also includes a church. (The story is at The Presbyterian Outlook link below and is accessible only by subscription, But the author gave TWW permission to repeat it here.)

Casey's family attends First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan. Of the church, Casey's dad, Brian O'Connor, said, "Inclusion is a really basic concept there." He went on to explain that when he worked with his son in other activities, he's "accommodated." "But accommodated is not the same as inclusion," O'Connor said. "Accommodated sort of suggests we'll make room for you and won't be bothered by your differences or quirks."

But at the church, when Casey was ready for confirmation class, a pastor worked one-on-one with him. Like the other confirmands, Casey had to write a statement of faith, but instead of requiring him to meet with the entire examination team, he met with just two elders.

"For my son," O'Connor said, "conversations are very stressful because his language is several years behind." But with the tailored arrangements the church made, the confirmation process for Casey worked.

That church already had some experience with inclusion of kids with disabilities: When a family with triplets who all had autism began attending, the church formed a separate Sunday-school class for those kids and others with disabilities, but then decided inclusion was a better model.

Eventually, in the worship service, "the congregation began to get used to [the triplets'] noises, their behavior, their presence and acceptance grew over the years," said Cindy Merten, the congregation's director of Christian education.

TWW team member Heidi Mann told about two children in her community:

There is a seventh-grade girl in my son's middle-school choir who lives with a number of disabilities, including being blind and nonverbal. In the winter concert in December, she had a special role in one of the pieces -- playing bells as the choir sang. They were "jingle bells" that she could hold and shake at will, not needing to worry about any particular rhythm. My son reports how she loved her role in that song and got visibly excited as it came time for practicing the song and her chance to contribute.

We have a third-grade boy at church, too, who is nonverbal and lives with various disabilities. I love how the Sunday-school teachers include him in the Christmas program each year, doing such things as playing drums for "Little Drummer Boy" (no concerns about a precise or "perfect" rhythm -- just the joy of his participation alongside all the others).

More on this story can be found at these links:

Boy With Cerebral Palsy Gets Custom-Made Clarinet and a Boost in Confidence. WGN9
Conn-Selmer Inc -- Paul's Clarinet. YouTube
Everyone Welcome, Everyone Included. The Presbyterian Outlook (subscription required)

The Big Questions
Here are some of the questions we will discuss in class:

1. What are the similarities between accommodation and inclusion? What are the differences? Under what conditions might each (as described here) be appropriate?  When might each be inappropriate?  What are some of the trade-offs involved?

2. What is the theological case for inclusion? Is there any theological case against it, and if so, what is it? When, if ever, is accommodation sufficient? When might both be inappropriate?

3. It has been said that "a ramp alone does not make a church building accessible." What do you think that means? What does the attitude "we have no one here who needs handicap access" mean for the future of your church?

4. How does your church include those who live with disabilities? What do you think remains to be done?

5. What does it mean for a church to be a "community" or a "family"? How are special-needs persons' sense of community or family strengthened when they are encouraged to join in as fully as they are able and desire to do? How is our sense of community or family strengthened by the same?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
We will look at selected verses from these Scripture texts. You may wish to read these in advance for background:

Leviticus 21:16-24
Leviticus 19:9-18
Luke 1:57-66
Matthew 8:1-3
Acts 3:1-10

In class, we will talk about these passages and look for some insight into the big questions, as well as talk about other questions you may have about this topic. Please join us.

Copyright 2019 Communication Resources

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