St. James Church

I find from time to time that I ask an old question. What kind of church would Ss. Peter or Paul recognize as reflecting the values of the Christian Church? Today I want to consider what sort of church St. James would recognize.

James the Brother of Jesus was all the rage a few years ago. First, there was the St. James Ossuary. An Ossuary is stone burial box. One year after the death and entombment of a person in ancient Judea the bones would be gathered placed in the box and reburied forever presumably awaiting the Resurrection of the last day. The box that caused the stir merely said James the brother of Jesus (Jacob the brother of Joshua). Jacob and James were common names in ancient Judea. For that matter, Miriam and Joseph were too. It was interesting to see all four names on the inscription. It was no more than that though. There were some more study done on the legend of St. James the Brother of the Lord. I am sorry to say though that there was little material written about the New Testament book that bears his name. I want to use that book to identify the Church St. James would recognize.

The Epistle of St. James, Bishop of Jerusalem, has a lot of practical advice. It has been called the “Proverbs” of the New Testament. It could be called a book of practical theology. I prefer the term “practical spirituality.” James makes several statements that justify this point.

“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive themselves their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” 1:26-27

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” 2:8-9

“For the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” 2:26

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” 3:36

“Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” 4:17

“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.” 5″1-3a

“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” 5:15

All the words surrounding these verses are good too. It is difficult to teach James and hold the attention of the audience. It all seems too practical. Your audience might say, “Well everyone should do that.” And then they may add, “We try to do these things. But it is too difficult because of all the demands on our time.” Some might say (but not out loud), “This is all wrong. The poor aren’t really that needy. If they would just…” or “You can’t be gentle with people who are teaching wrong doctrine.”

A shallow approach to the topic I have chosen is to say the church James would recognize would do all of the things he urges the churches of his day to do. A friend of mine once remarked when we were looking at a list of actions and expenditures that cannot be used for nontaxable income. “When you get a list like this it means someone tried each of these things.”

The Church James would recognize would either do the exact opposite of what his book teaches or do what he says imperfectly. Let that sink in some more. James, St. Paul tells us, got it wrong one time. James sent emissaries from Jerusalem who taught that the gentile believers in Antioch had to submit to circumcision and keep the Law of Moses. Paul argued against this even “getting into Peter’s face” in front of everybody. The issue was settled later. Paul claimed that James and the others urged him to “remember the poor.” (Galatians 2:10)

Churches are led by fallible human beings. The only leaders the church should reject are those who seek power for its’ own sake. James warns against that type of person. It is good to remember that. Church leaders should ask their motivations. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” 3:16.

I believe that by paying more attention to what James teaches the churches will grow stronger. It is an important piece of writing. Some say it may even predate Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. If this is true then, it is the first scripture of the New Testament. Consider that for a few hours. And then find ways to put all of this into practice.

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A Strange Day for Remembering

I opened my copy of Common Prayer this morning. The heading for this date concerns the Supreme Court decision in 1973 Roe v. Wade that ended restrictions on abortion up to the time when the fetus can survive outside of the mother. Honestly, if it had not been for that reminder I would have not even thought about the issue. My faith-practice does not revolve around the issue. I believe that with the exception of people who see abortion as the paramount issue of the time most Christians rarely if ever think about it. I certainly do not mean that abortion is condoned by the majority of Christians. I have no statistical information to point me to any such conclusion.

I find that there is little real information on the issue of abortion. A lot of opinion pieces are published. But opinions are not information. I know this is a shock to many people. All anyone must do is ask, “what information about Christian teaching on this subject do we possess?”

The Bible never mentions abortion. There are inferences taken from the Scriptures to oppose it. These are Psalm 139:13-18, Jeremiah 1:5, and Luke 1:41-45. The passage from the Gospel of Luke is the most interesting of the three. The action involved in the narrative is that the fetus-to-be-named-John moves when Mary greets Elizabeth who is carrying the fetus. Elizabeth is then “filled by the Holy Spirit” and declares the blessed state for Mary and “the fruit of her womb.” Elizabeth then says, “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (NRSV translation) The word in Greek Brephos is often translated as infant or baby and can be used to indicate childhood. Before we get too far here, we should consider the angel’s words to Mary in verse 36 “and this is the sixth month for her who (Elizabeth) was considered to be barren.” Elizabeth is at the end of her second trimester when Mary arrives. We are told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then left her. Perhaps, Mary was present when John was born and named. The text does not say. What conclusions can we draw from the text. The baby Elizabeth carried leaped for joy when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting. The child is dependent on the mother. Some people infer that John recognized Jesus before either of them was born. This conclusion is only tangentially supported by the text itself. Elizabeth’s child is responding to Mary. It is difficult to base an ethical teaching on this text.

The poetic statements of both Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1 are statements about the power and knowledge of God. Inferences made from those texts cannot be a basis for a teaching not even the omniscience or omnipotence of God. The simple fact that there are inferences being drawn here is problematic. We often make bad judgments and misread situations because of mistaken inferences. To claim “because the Bible makes no statement regarding abortion it is then permissible” is also problematic. It is the logical fallacy of making an argument from silence. I was raised in a denomination where “necessary inferences” were used to oppose using musical instruments in worship. Inferences along with arguments from silence make for bad logic.

The ancient Christian text The Teaching of the Twelve Apostle commonly referred to as Didache contains these words. “Do not abort a fetus or kill a child that is born.” (2:2) I once argued that this text demonstrates the Christian Church always opposed abortion. It is appropriately regarded as part of the Christian Tradition dating back to the beginning of the second century A.D. Catholic teaching maintains opposition to abortion. The question that should be asked is why are the two equated? The logical explanation, to me anyway, is the culture of the time allowed the head of the household to order the abortion or exposure of a child. Roman patriarchal society allowed the pater familias to order a daughter or daughter-in-law to abort a fetus or the death of a child that was “unacceptable” for any reason. Unfortunately, there is no reason given by the text as to why the teaching is there.

Roman Catholic teaching on this subject is well known. Protestant denominations have differing positions. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (paragraph 161.K) concludes with this paragraph. “Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

The guidance provided by the Social Principles is very important. A young woman who has an abortion is stigmatized in the churches and in the communities in which they live. Abortions are kept secret by most people. The stigma creates a barrier between the patient and the pastoral care any other patient would receive from the church. It should not be the case that a person feels unable to confide in a pastor or trusted Christian friend. A clergy friend told me about one time while in a retreat he let it be known that he would provide pastoral care and confidentiality for anyone who has been involved with the decision to abort. He said this to a group of men. He told me that he has had people drive hours to come talk to him.

My friend should not be the only one who does this. I too am willing to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for a person who needs to unload or simply discuss their feelings before or after seeking an abortion.

 

A CRISIS OF PAIN

I was glad to hear my Annual Conference was offering grants to congregations to aid in fighting the opioid addiction crisis. I still am happy this is being done. Addiction has plagued communities, families, and congregations. Bad information has caused many congregations to misunderstand addiction. The misunderstandings have taken several forms. Here are a few

  1.  Moral Failure. I was brought up among people who saw alcoholism and other addictions as moral failure or lack of self-control on the part of the addicted person.
  2. Blame the Drug. The misnamed Temperance Movement that brought prohibition laws and even a constitutional amendment has the unintended consequence of stigmatizing the person who drinks or uses by putting the use of the substance outside of the law.
  3.  Spiritual Unfitness. Some assume that an addicted person lacks a “relationship with God.” Since there is no way of demonstrating this it is a mere prejudice.
  4.  The Defective Disease Model. This one is very tricky because it is misunderstood. A person is often stigmatized as being so ill that they cannot ever considered to be whole. Such an individual cannot be trusted. If that person ever slips, then the response should be severe.

People are confused by addiction and rarely know how to respond to it. The Disease Model is not intended to stigmatize the person who is addicted. It is not meant to be used to punish a person who has been caught driving under the influence or who fails a drug test one time. A person who drinks and drives is not automatically an alcoholic. The Courts often order a person to twelve-step recovery meetings for a period of ninety days. The ninety days of meetings and not drinking or using is not meant to be a cure. And many people who are court ordered disappear as soon as they can. They never come to a point where they think of themselves as addicts or alcoholic who are powerless over the substance. If the person is not sick, that person cannot be cured.

The Disease Model of addiction is just that – a model. There are no blood tests that prove anything more than a level of the substance in the bloodstream of an individual. Blood tests over several days may demonstrate a person may be an alcoholic. Even that is no basis for a diagnosis. The Disease Model is only effective if individuals ask certain questions of themselves.

  1.  How much time, energy, and money am I putting into using or drinking?
  2.  Can I control my drinking or using without becoming irritable or demonstrate physical symptoms of withdrawal?
  3.  Why do I want to use or drink in the quantities (or the frequency) that I do?
  4.  How often have I been told I drink too much? What do I think is the real motivation behind the question?

Answering the questions given above may help the person determine how bad the situation is. However, the question of, “Why do I do this,” continues to be elusive. There have been numerous attempts to offer an explanation. Below are a few of those.

  1. There is a genetic predisposition to addiction.
  2.  Drug and Alcohol abuse are attempts to medicate from trauma.
  3.  Addiction can happen to anybody regardless of environment or other factors.

Some scientific papers have been published that demonstrate a “gene for addiction.” The only issue is that no one can agree on which gene that is. Addiction often runs in families even when the children of addicts become determined not to be addicts. The truth is that lots of bad attitudes, actions, and coping issues run in families. These problems do not have a genetic basis.

Trauma is a word that is in vogue at the moment. A person self-medicates to cope with past trauma. I think this reason looks at the wrong end of the issue. Trauma is not the cause. Emotional Trauma is very real in the lives of many people. The effects manifest in different ways. However, the issue for the addict is how one copes with the after effects of trauma. Most children who live in traumatic situations survive them but never learn to overcome the behaviors they learned to cope with the trauma. These behaviors eventually become toxic and cannot be unlearned easily. Therapy (as opposed to counseling) is needed to help the adult survivor of childhood trauma learn new methods of coping.

Finally, we come to the most baffling issue. Addiction can happen to anyone. It does not mean it can happened to everyone. The problem is there are no warning signs for who would become and addict and who wouldn’t. I suspect if there were communities would begin defining such persons as defective in some way. I was in treatment with many pharmacists and railroad workers. There is no commonality to their vocations. Nor is there any reason to assume they would become addicts because of their jobs; or that addicts are attracted to those jobs.

We have briefly given reasons here why most pop ideas and assumptions about addiction are incorrect. There is only one common issue involved for all addicts. We abused substances because of pain. The pain could have been emotional or physical. Two questions are involved here. When does a person decide to use or drink? When does the person begin to feel relief? For my part, I would be anxious about a situation and felt that I needed to use alcohol to relax. I drank more than enough to unwind. I often became just the opposite. But, I thought I felt relief when I drank. I actually began to feel relief when I chose to pour the first drink. Before the booze got to my mouth, I felt relief from my anxiety that eventually manifested in real physical ailments because of drinking and an ever increasing sedentary lifestyle. I have read anecdotal evidence that my experience was not the only one.

The pain a person feels may stem from trauma, or failing to learn good habits growing up, or any number of reasons. And all emotional and physical pain leads a person to desire healing even if they cannot recognize it. The person who cannot yet recognize that need will not be persuaded they need it. That person has too many protective habits of the mind to keep from seeing it until they realize it for themselves.

Churches getting involved in ministries of recovery to addicted people must understand that the ministry is about healing. Addiction is not caused by demonic influences. Addiction is not a moral failure. Addiction is not a spiritual death. Addiction happens to a person that is beloved by God who needs the healing effect of community and a method of living into their healing. This type of healing recognizes pain from many sources including the pain from the substance abused. If we view this as a relationship issue then it is the relationship with a toxic substance (or person or behavior) that should be ended. Just as a friend of mine realized she needed to learn to live without a toxic spouse, abstaining from the substance or the behavior is important acknowledging that the connection likely will not be restored.

As one sober alcoholic person speaking out on this issue for churches, I offer this advice.

A Grateful Guy

I worked with a master carpenter. No, I wasn’t his apprentice. He worked in a clothing factory when I met him. Leonte Leuczuc was a refugee from Romania who escaped during the Communist era. He in a refugee camp in Italy for three years. During that time he learned English and Italian. They were additions to his list of languages that included Russian, Polish, and Hungarian. I watched how he worked and helped his fellow refugees in the plant. Often he had to translate for management.

Leonte was a lay leader of a Pentecostal Church in nearby Washburn, Tennessee. He had help bring the congregation from his home country to the area. He enjoyed the fact that I worked that line with them. He did not know many American pastors. The congregation had many questions about how Christians in America went about doing things. Their experience of communist Romania led them to try and understand how faith was practiced in a place where they were free to practice faith.

He was a carpenter by trade. He bought a “fixer-upper” house and remodeled it. I saw pictures. He was in the process of building “the nursing home” as he put it. I asked a few more questions to learn that he was building a home for his aging parents. He was missing his forefinger and thumb on his right-hand. He would have preferred to be a carpenter, he said, but no one would give him a chance. The pictures were part of a resume like package. He was a hard worker. When he finally got an interview with a construction company, the interviewer could not keep his eyes off his right hand. “Don’t look at my hands.” Leonte told him,” Look at what I can do.” The interviewer took him up on the offer. Leonte demonstrated that he could work with the tools and get whatever task needed to be done accomplished.

Leonte was not always an easy person to get along with. However, when he learned my wife was pregnant he stopped work on the line announced the fact to the other Romanians on the line. A brief celebration ensued. “Don, you want a boy don’t you? Yeah, you want a boy!” He said to me. We had a boy. “Ah, a little King!” He shouted joyfully when the baby was born.

What I think of when I consider my former co-worker is how he embodied the spirit of the “work” Scriptures. “Thieves must give up stealing: rather let them work honestly with their own hands, so that they will have something to share with the needy.” Ephesians 4:28) and 2 Thessalonians 6-12 “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who living in idleness…we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” Especially the words of 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters…for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another…But we urge you beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly to outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

Leonte was obviously a talented person. He would never have learned all of his potential if he had not tried, taken the risk of escape, and wanted to learn. Quite a few people had their lives improved by his efforts.

Here is a controversial statement. The Church has done more good in the world than most people ever consider. Yes, I know about the civil wars of the Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades. I have learned a lot about the Salem Witch Trials. And I refuse to ever defend the Church by claiming the people involved were not true believers or followers of Jesus. They considered themselves to be good Christians. They were simply wrong. The Church is made up of people. And we do terrible things to each other.

The problem is our perspective. The quotes made above from a couple of the earliest writings of the New Testament are attempts to get believers into a way of thinking and living that shows a dedication to divine concerns. The “Enlightenment” gave humanity a perspective on thinking and living that has left human beings desperate for meaning and fulfillment. It also made lives better and more informed through science and technological achievements. George Orwell was correct in showing how humans have become mere objects to be used by self-important people running systems for the sake of institutions. We even learn history as being about great rulers and the events they create.

What if it was never meant to be this way? What if we are simply to try to do what we can do and to live in love with other people? It would give us the courage to either escape the dependency human systems and institutions demand or to make such thrones and powers irrelevant eventually.

I can hear someone say, “But wait! How do you intend to prove the Church has done more good than harm?” The answer to that is simple. Great evils are measured by suffering, murder, and other lasting effects. Evil like money can be quantified. Goodness cannot be. There can be no measure that says, “Eight out of every ten people are benefited by an action,” without there being a moral question involving the fate or condition of the other two people. Money is only a benefit if it is used to benefit other people. My friend Leonte is one of millions of people who have lived and died while using their talents, resources, and ability to love to help improve the lives of “the brothers and sisters.” There is no concrete way to measure what we already know has happened and continues to happen.

People like Leonte demonstrate by their actions how immensely grateful they are for the lives they have been given. It is the only reason he could accomplish the things he did. He was most of all a grateful guy.

A New Year’s Revolution

The Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the first Sunday after the beginning of Epiphany. The day presents Pastors good opportunities to ask their congregations to reflect on the meaning of the Sacrament as well as the story of God identifying Jesus to John the Baptist as the “beloved Son.” The theme is easy to comprehend. We are identified as followers of Jesus and that Baptism also represents the witness of the Holy Spirit that we are the children of God. The thought of whether God is pleased with us is up to the disposition of the preacher.

One practice I often do for this day is to invite the congregation to renew their baptismal vows and ceremonially remember their baptism by contemplating or touching the water of the baptismal font. Some people are surprised when I introduce them to this practice. Baptism is a one time experience. United Methodist churches do not “rebaptize” people into membership of the denomination or congregation. When people present themselves for membership, if they have previously experienced Christian baptism, they are not asked to undergo a second baptism.

Jesus’ baptism, according to the gospels, is the beginning of his three-year ministry that ends with his death. His baptism by John is a ceremonial washing that foreshadows the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah. To say it differently, baptism means a new life is being given to Jesus the Carpenter from Nazareth. Christians begin a new life when they receive baptism. When time passes, disciples of Jesus forget that their lives have been renewed and are to be growing in life of the Spirit. Life is able to dull our memories and spiritual senses. We forget what our baptism was supposed to mean for the rest of our lives. Most of us have a lot more than three years to live after our baptisms. I find the practice of ceremonially remembering baptism important for this reason.

The practice of remembering opens the believer to new possibilities in their spiritual life. Before I step from the font so the members of the congregation can individually approach it, I say the words given in the Book of Worship, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Being thankful for grace, redemption, mercy, salvation, and the charge for righteousness is part of recalling one’s baptism. I remember how it mattered to one person in particular.

One church I served hired a youth director who not only served the youth of the congregation. The director made it a mission to serve the friends of the youth. The friends were part of the youth group. There was no sense of “our kids” as opposed to the “visiting kids.” When I became the Pastor for the church, I expressed my views on youth ministry and told the director I fully supported how the youth program was not simply for “our kids.” I don’t recall if he used any of my suggestions. The program worked very well. I was able to participate in some activities and met a few of the parents of the youth that did not attend our church. I spoke to the father of one youth member who was doing his Christmas shopping. We had met before. Even then, it did not occur to him that I was the Pastor. He assumed I was another parent. His family were members of another United Methodist congregation. His daughter had friends in the youth program at our church. She took part. Her father and mother decided to attend a service during Epiphany. They returned on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. After the service, he approached me.

“I had no idea you were the Pastor.” He began. I hoped it was because I looked too young. I never found out for certain. “Tell me; what is it you had everyone doing?”

I explained the purpose of the celebration and the ritual.

“Can I do that?” He asked.

“Of course.” I said and led him to the font. Keep in mind the service was over and everyone else was departing.

He asked me what to do. I gave him some suggestions. He bowed his head over the font and reached his fingers to the water. He made the sign of the cross. “Thank you.” He said and then left.

They were back the next Sunday. And they came back the next one. I visited them at their home. They continued to be present every Sunday from January until July. The second Sunday in July he spoked up during the prayer request time of worship.

“I am now fifty-one years old,” He began, “And for the first time in my life I have not missed a Sunday this year. I am thankful for this church being here.” Later, he said to me, “You’ve changed my life!”

It was not just my having been friendly one day because I recognized him in Sears. Something deeper was involved. I reflected on how the grace we experience with Baptism opens us up to many spiritual possibilities. The gentleman was a member of another congregation he had some experience in churches already. Our congregation decided a youth program would be an important ministry for it. I performed my pastoral office as well as the priestly one. The congregation continued to welcome his family. The Gospel story was working in his life and the life of his family. It had already done so. And then, he gained the eyes that allowed him to see it.

There was more than a New Year’s resolution at work in this life. It was a spiritual revolution that took place. A new era was coming into being for him. He understood his part in God’s reign better than he had before then. The church is supposed to demonstrate that sort of grace in the world. There are so many potential changes for the better. When we are spiritually dull, we don’t see them.

Baptism of the Lord Sunday is not about renewal or revival. It is the day to celebrate the beginning of the spiritual revolution that is simply called “the Faith.”