Why Ash Wednesday?

Imposing ashes is one of the distinctive attributes of Western Christianity. It is the beginning of Lent – the Great Fast of Spring. Lent begins on Wednesday a traditional day of fasting for weekly practice. Friday is the other traditional fast day. Carnivale and Mardi Gras are celebrations before the fast begins. They are celebrations of being alive. Shrove Tuesday – the English version of Mardi Gras – is much more subdued. It is a time for giving thanks for being alive.

My first participation in the ritual of Ash Wednesday was while I was in seminary. I was working as a hospital chaplain near Atlanta. It was part of our practicum or “field education.” A few Roman Catholic lay ministers brought ashes to the hospital and went to every patient’s room asking if they would like to receive the ashes to begin the fast. I thought it was nice. But, I saw very little reason for it. I also note that it was Ash Wednesday 2001.

The next Ash Wednesday was much more significant. The Ash Wednesday 2002 took place six months after the coordinated terrorist attacks that now are simply called 9/11. I was in my second year of seminary. I went to chapel for the worship. The message the visiting Lutheran minister gave us was oriented to the aftermath of the attacks. Dust was his topic. We remembered the images of the people running away from the cloud of dust, people being covered with the dust, and the absolute fear of death everyone felt. The words used in imposition, “You are merely dust and to dust you shall return,” were sobering. Yes, the second time was much more meaningful. Years later, after several Ash Wednesdays have passed, I am forced to ask what does it continue to mean?

The doctrine known as substitutionary atonement presents a theological stumbling block for many people. One person confided to me, “I can sooner believe the Resurrection occurred than believe Jesus died for my sins.” Why? It’s very simple. Punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is unjust. No, it does not matter the Christ was raised three days later. Murdering him for the sin of everyone in the world including those who murdered him is an injustice. It would not alleviate any “original sin.” In fact, it only makes it and the associated feelings of guilt worse.

The questions remain. What is the significance of the death of Jesus? What is the “propitiation” which St. Paul discusses in Romans 3:25? John gives a curious understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. Christ lays down his own life. It is not taken from him. Why? He does it for divine love of the world. When St. Paul discusses what happened with Christ’s death he includes the Resurrection. We are reconciled to God by Jesus’ obedience, righteousness, and life. The “sacrifice of atonement” or “the propitiation” as the King James version puts it is actually the place of atonement. Jesus is the Temple. Sin is remembered at the Temple. And reconciliation is made at the Temple. The Temple is where God dwells. But God is greater than the Temple. Prayers are made facing in the direction of the Temple. Why does the Temple exist? Does it exist for God? No, it exists for the people.

Now we are ready to answer the question of why Ash Wednesday. If “Jesus paid it all,” Ash Wednesday is an unnecessary fast. In fact, all fasting would be unnecessary if the sacrifice was punishment that satisfied divine law or honor. Fasting is necessary if we are continually seeking to find the experience of God.

I visited a church one time where I heard the pastor describe God in this way. “Until God sees the blood, either yours or Jesus’, you will not be forgiven.” I told a friend who was a member of that church that I really despised the idea of a bloodthirsty God. Another time I was appalled when I heard that before the end of time the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrifices would be restored. It was still the bloodthirsty God I had heard about before. When a member of a congregation I served made such a claim I told her that such an action being supported by Christians was Anti-Christ. Even if Christ was the substitute why would we support something extra?

Fasting is not meant to satisfy God with suffering. It is meant to remind human beings that we are weak, self-righteous, and in fear of death. For all the bravado and swagger we demonstrate, we are cowardly covering up these characteristics for which we cannot be proud.

Jesus cautions against swearing oaths on glorious stuff. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say ‘whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by it and everything on it, and whoever swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.'” (Matthew 23:17-21 NRSV)

There is another caution about the attitude of prayer this time from Luke. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9) The parable is about two men who go to the temple. One man prays thanking God for making him so great, pious, and better than many others including the other man who is praying. The second man asks for God’s mercy. Jesus says the second man is justified by God.

Jesus told us to fast because of the beatitude characteristics we could learn and re-learn. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Advent are times for every spiritual good we wish we otherwise had time to receive. Fasting is not about punishing ourselves, trying to feel guilty, or even self-loathing. The Lenten fast is about remembering the life work of Jesus was bringing about and teaching life in reconciliation with the divine that is within us and surrounds us.

May all of us look forward to the celebration of Easter, Pascha, or the Resurrection and be ready for it.

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The World of Cleverly Devised Myths

Transfiguration Sunday has passed. St. Peter reminds us that the world is becoming new. The experience of the Apostles was real. Jesus was giving his disciples a preview of the glory of the Resurrection and the life it would bring. 

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18 NRSV)

To say Peter was impressed would be an understatement. Matthew 17:1-9 gives an account of the story where Peter is amazed to see Christ glorified and in Christ’s glory he sees the great Prophets Moses and Elijah. We know the story. Peter wishes to build three shrines. He does not realize that he sees Moses and Elijah (both of whom in traditional teaching had been assumed into Heaven) are present in the glory of Christ and not their own. Peter is corrected on this matter by the voice from God the Father. This second letter attributed to him shows the lesson has been learned. There is no “Oh, and Moses and Elijah were there too” statement. 

The point made in this letter is that it was not a cleverly devised tale. It is not Odysseus building a wooden horse to fool the Trojans. There is no tale of Aeneas escaping Troy to eventually settle near Rome. Nor is there even a rumor that when Caesar Augustus died his spirit ascended to the Heavens. These stories and many like them made a world of heroes and servant/admirers. They made heroes out of weak people and nations. They hearkened to the glorious past. And they legitimized present day (St. Peter’s time) evils done by the rulers who were regarded as heroes. 

Peter says this is very different. He is not creating a new myth. He is giving a good news greater than that evangel previously given by Augustus bringing the Peace of Rome to the benighted world. It is greater and will bring more changes to the Mediterranean world than anyone can imagine. More changes than Peter himself could have thought possible.

Peter saw in Christ the reign of God. He saw the Resurrection and the restoration of all things. He saw Moses in the Promised Land. Peter and his fellow disciples witnessed greatness to come. He saw divine promises kept. And he knew the important action he needed to take was to listen, really listen, to the Son the Beloved to know what being pleasing to God meant. 

What Makes A Pastor?

What is a pastor? It is commonplace to define the words minister, pastor, evangelist, and preacher as labels for anyone who wishes to speak in the name of God. Unfortunately, doing this gives too vague a definition and makes the work done as a pastor as somehow marginal. I want to define the term in this column because many preachers and teachers wish to take that title on themselves without being responsible for the work the title implies.

Evangelists often call themselves “pastor” as in, “I am Pastor John Wesley.” In fact, an evangelist is not a pastor. If a title is given then one should say, “I am Evangelist John Wesley or Reverend John Wesley.” The denomination in which I was raised often referred to the preacher as a “minister.” Usually, the term is given for the person who serves in a ritualistic capacity. The person who officiates at a wedding or funeral is often called a minister.

The word “pastor” is another word for “shepherd.” A pastor has been given charge of the material and spiritual health of a church. The mainline Protestant churches as well as the Catholic and Orthodox churches refer to their clergy given this kind of responsibility as “pastor.” Being a pastor is a task, a job if you will. The United Methodist Book of Discipline gives a very long job description for a pastor. An ordained person may be a pastor whereas a licensed person must serve as an appointed pastor to do the job. I am aware everything is more nuanced than I am saying here. That is the basic gist of the matter.

Only the Christian Churches use this term for their leaders. The only exception that comes to mind is the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am told the Gaelic term translates as “chief sheep herder.” And heaven knows being a pastor is often like herding sheep. Why? Because the sheep tend to wander into areas that are not good for them. Years ago, another clergy person that was not serving a church said that all the lay members of a congregation want is for the pastor to confirm their prejudices. He was correct for many people. Recently, those people have found confirmation for their prejudices in various media. The church does not become a priority for such people. And they like sheep wander off.

Both Jesus and St. Peter use the word shepherd to describe the work of Jesus in the church. Jesus claimed that he was the true shepherd who would call the flock to him and lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:1-18). St. Peter asks the elders who have charge of the “flock of God” to care for those in their charge. Pastors are not to serve for the paycheck. They are not to serve for human glory. Pastors carry out the ministry to the lay people to train them in ministry to others (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Something appears to have gone wrong. The flock of God cannot listen to the voice of the Chief Shepherd. There are too many voices, often competing voices, that so many people want to be true. Why? Many of these voices flatter and stroke the egos of people who then refuse to listen to another voice. Pastors are concerned that the platform from which they speak and lead simply isn’t big enough or shiny enough. Most Christians have listened to serpents and hid from the voice of God.

Pastors often feel isolated. The congregations they serve are confused. Aging congregations are primarily made up of people who live in fear. The outside world scares them. It is not because they wish to see an improved world either. It is because they wish for a world that they thought they saw as children. Younger members of the congregation are expected to either buy into the nostalgia or go elsewhere. And many younger people go elsewhere. Why?

The dying church is both in the world and of it. Those people who are seeking an authentic spiritual life see in the church the same materialism and consumer mentality that governs the rest of the world. The dying church makes the pastor feel isolated. When the pastor surrenders to the world, then the congregation is definitely lost and ineffective.

I know many Pastors who are frustrated and teetering on the edge. They are ready to reject the churches. They are ready to join “the dones” who have already walked away. It is a dire situation. And few clergy are equipped to handle it. What kind of exhausted surgeon, covered in blood and lacking the tools necessary to operate and give care, would be expected to continue? The answer is all of them are expected to do so. The same holds true for Pastors. Morally injured Pastors fill meetings, conferences, and continuing education programs only to walk away with nothing helpful to them. They have done this for centuries.

The film Calvary comes to mind. It is about a good priest who pastors a parish that is very normal. The difference is that he is under a death sentence. A member of his parish intends to kill him and told him so. The movie shows the priest go through a very difficult week. He tells his bishop what is happening. The bishop can do nothing. The priest starts to run away towards the end of the movie. His murder is not very dramatic. He doesn’t die at the altar during mass. He dies while asking his killer not to do what he intends.

I see a very good question being asked in the film. What would happen if he quit or never took up the task to begin with. What would these people be like? They would be the same. They would do the awful things they always do. But, in those times when they were nearing despair, where would they go for help? Whether they recognize it or not, they need the pastor.

Being a pastor is a calling to serve, to suffer with, to love, to be merciful, and to give the message of liberation to people called Christians. Pastors have a charge, a task, a job that requires the spiritual strength and faith to fail and be victorious.

 

I DID NOT KNOW

“I had no idea?”

The statement above is one I have heard many times since I began the sobriety journey. It is usually said with a varied senses of amazement, pity, and sorrow. One friend in particular said, “I was with you every week for a year; and I had no clue.” It was not a surprise to me that he said it. We were in a clergy covenant group. We met to discuss the issues of our ministries and lives. We were supposed to be there to tell the truth. We usually did. The problem was that the weekly meeting only allowed so much time for discussion. One or two people at most got to bring something forward to the group. I found it very easy not to say anything about my addiction.

Addicts lie. It’s that simple. The situation of the friend, co-worker, relative, and employer who claim they didn’t know proves that the lies of the addict worked. When someone says to me, “I didn’t know.” The answer is simple. “You friend were not supposed to know or ever find out.” I knew I had a problem. I intended to control it until I died with it.

Alcoholics and addicts who enter treatment must learn to admit they are suffering from a problem they cannot control. To put it another way, alcoholics and addicts have to stop lying. I had to stop lying to myself, my family, and others. Once having done this, then putting away the booze or drugs is done.

I was indeed aided and abetted in my lying. The really monstrous lie were the ones I forced other people, especially my children, to tell. I abused my position of being their father to make them cover for me. I hope one day they will forgive me for it. The others who helped were those people of the community who usually do not care to hear someone else’s problems. This is not merely a clergy issue. But clergy members find themselves in the double bind situation of hiding their problems while everyone else wants assurance that this person will be strong enough to be available for their needs. Clergy members are expected when called upon to provide a sense of emotional security to the people they serve. I know most people never consider this issue. I once had a lay person say to me that the congregation(s) usually “minimize” the deaths and illnesses in the family of clergy people. And if the lay members of the congregation will do that, they will also minimize the more “trivial” needs of the pastors (the need for time off, renewal, recreation, rest, and even the continued training required in the profession). Why are clergy in these untenable positions? Because everyone else is or at least has been.

Consider the co-worker who you learn self-harms or commits suicide. The usual response on learning about it is to say, “I didn’t know.” There are reasons for that. The same hiding, lying, self-deception, and cover-up is happening. It is hard to accept the following statement. People do not care to know. It is easier to condemn than to understand. It is easier to disregard than to be concerned. It makes demands on a person’s time to care. And everyone is too busy playing the game of “Don’t worry about me I am okay.”

We believe the lies the alcoholic, addict, and suicidal person tell us. The US military has been plagued with suicides in recent years and is a good indicator of the lack of care for its members. It surprises many people when I say that all illness is stigmatized in some way. If a chain smoker develops lung cancer, what is the usual often unspoken response? It is a judgmental one. When HIV/AIDS became known the people infected were often from already stigmatized people including addicts. Mental health is stigmatized the same way by ascribing moral problems to those who suffer with it. How many people that you know who battle with a mental illness do you consider worthy of trust? People with untreated mental illnesses are the ones that cannot be trusted. Those people who seek treatment are usually worthy of trust. It is because of the stigma that many go untreated. The simple unavailability of mental health treatment is another very important issue.

The only way to overcome the stigmatization of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, and other ailments is to build a culture of care. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General of the United States once said that what is missing most in healthcare is “the care.” He was right. We believe that is a near impossibility to develop a community of caring for other people. And we are correct to think so. But it is not impossible. Cultures of care existed and continue to exist as subsets of communities. The Bruderhof immediately come to mind. Early Mormonism does too. The Book of Acts describes the lives of the early disciples as reflecting what ancient philosophers like Epicurus considered the good society. A people who decide to care for other people will never get it completely right. All of the ones I describe here failed to be perfect. It is the plight of human beings to be imperfect. It is though the privilege of human beings to try for perfection. To care means to believe and to act. Care and charity are from the same Latin derivation. We can believe and act in ways that show more care.

What do we have to lose? If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back to being our worst selves.

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.

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.”

The Twelve Days Christmas

I like Adam Sandler’s song about Hanukkah. I really like the line about it being “eight crazy nights.” It is a fun song. I enjoy it. He makes it relatable even for those of us who do not celebrate the holiday. I know what Hanukkah celebrates. It is often called the festival of lights because of the legend that when the Second Temple was cleansed the oil for the menorah was only going to last one day. It would be eight days until replacement oil would arrive. Miraculously, the light continued to burn until the replacement oil arrived. The Fourth Gospel (John) indicates Jesus celebrated this festival (John 10:22).

The song “Twelve Days of Christmas” always seemed strange to me. Christmas was celebrated on two days during my childhood. Rarely, did we have to wait until another day to celebrate it because of work schedules. I grew up in a church that did not recognize Christmas as a Christian celebration. The argument was that there was no biblical command to celebrate Christmas so it was considered wrong (or at least risky) to celebrate it. For the most part, I understood it and Easter as secular holidays. It may sound strange to many people. But that is the way it was.

The Twelve Days refer to the season of Christmas that begins sundown on December 24th and continues to January 5th. The next day after the twelfth day begins the season of Epiphany (or Theophany) which celebrates Jesus’ presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). It is a season of feasting and worship. December 26th is celebrated as commemorating the martyrdom of St. Stephen the Deacon (Acts 7). The 28th of December recalls the murder of The Holy Innocents recorded in Matthew 2:16-18. Watch Night (December 31st) is an American innovation recalling the Emancipation Proclamation. While it is an accident of history that Emancipation began on New Years Day, it is a fortuitous addition to the Christmas season for some churches.

There are some articles one can find that gives some interesting allegorical interpretations to the song Twelve Days. None of these are true. In fact, it throws off the whole point of the celebration of the Twelve Days. One person I spoke with on Christmas Day this year was surprised to learn the Twelve Days “is a real thing.” It is what I would have said growing up. I spoke with someone on Christmas Eve this year that felt like he had lost as he put it “the wonder and awe” of Christmas. I understand that person’s dull feeling all too well.

It is easy to blame our culture of commercialism that surrounds Christmas gift buying for corrupting the meaning of Christmas. It is also convenient to blame people for not learning the meanings of Christmas or for not feeling as they should. Ultimately though, the fault of not understanding Christmas or the failure of many “not getting it”  belongs to the Church.

Protestant Christianity has lost the meaning of Christian worship. Remember that I just said I was taught that there was no commandment given to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some teachers said the birth of Jesus did not matter. They did not realize that Christmas celebrates the miracle of the Incarnation of the Word of God as the Only Begotten Son of God.

Christian worship centers around that Person who is both the Son of God and the Word of God. Our worship is meant to tell his story. The purpose of the Church is to glorify God in this world. We do that in worship, teaching, evangelizing, and service. Oddly enough worship is the most corrupted part of Protestantism in America. This criticism applies to the mainline, evangelical, and fundamentalist forms of Protestantism. The story we tell in Christian worship is the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian calendar and lectionaries are designed for weekly worship to tell this story. The seasons of preparation and fasting are important because they help us understand the meanings of the festivals. Sacraments are important to telling the story. St. Paul describes baptism as the form of the gospel (Romans 6:1-11) and holy communion as proclaiming “the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:27)

The Church has failed in this area. We may say, “Christmas is Jesus’ birthday” or “Jesus is the reason for the season.” These platitudes are meaningless without getting the whole story. I remember an “adult confirmation class” I taught one year where a couple that attended were fascinated by the film “The Miracle Maker.” It is a Claymation film about the gospel story. They regretted leaving early because they “really wanted to know how the story turned out.” Well, so do I. I want to hear it every year in every place. And I don’t want it done by the culture or society. I want it done by the Church. Perhaps, we will get John’s words about how “the light shines in darkness” that the darkness neither can comprehend nor overwhelm.