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.

Advertisements

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.

 

A Few More Considerations of The Crisis of The United Methodist Church

A recent blog post here titled “The Crisis of The United Methodist Church” brought some interesting responses. Most of the responses were positive in nature which leads me to believe the writers got my point. Other responses seemed to get my point and dismissed it. My point was simple. If the denomination divides, fellowship will be broken. The unity of which Jesus spoke in John 17 and St. Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4 will not only be broken but sinfully broken. Those people who argued that “doctrine” was more important than continued unity misunderstand what the “doctrine” of the Church is.

The doctrine of The United Methodist Church is not one’s own interpretation of Holy Scripture. Nor is our doctrine the product of a group of Bishops, or Pastors, or Lay Members interpretation of Holy Scripture. Doctrine is not the product of any body within The United Methodist Church. Doctrine is not the product of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. And therefore doctrine is not the Book of Discipline. However, the Book of Discipline discusses the doctrine of our denomination.

The “Basic Christian Affirmations” of Paragraph 102 gives the following statements as subheadings.

  1. We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
  2. We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.
  3. We understand ourselves to be part of Christ’s universal church when by adoration, proclamation, and service we become conformed to Christ.
  4.  With other Christians we recognize the reign of God is both a present and future reality.
  5.  We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal.

These basic affirmations are the product of the doctrinal heritage of the Church Universal. We are not a creedal church per se. We are one that recognizes a basic understanding of what Christian doctrine is. Our UM Hymnal approves the usage of both versions of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed in our worship.

The paragraph on Our Doctrinal Heritage tells us John Wesley’s theological work was in the area of practical theology. “He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship…The distinctive shape of the Wesleyan theological heritage can be seen in a constellation of doctrinal emphases that display the creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity of God.” The task John Wesley undertook was one of renewal and not a reinvention of church doctrine. The paragraph continues to describe those particular Wesleyan emphases regarding grace.

Here is where our confusion begins. Under the subheading of “Doctrine and Discipline in the Christian Life,” we read, “No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Methodists have always been strictly enjoined to maintain the unity of faith and good works, through the means of grace…the coherence of faith with ministries of love forms the discipline of Wesleyan spirituality and Christian discipleship.” The spiritual principles of the General Rules (I have written about these in earlier posts) are derived from this understanding.

The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical and United Brethren contained in paragraph 104 are considered doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Article XXII of the Articles maintains the importance of openly rebuking a person that, “Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority…”

The United Methodist Church, according to our common heritage with other Christian bodies and our doctrinal standards, recognizes only two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion – which are open to all people. There is no doctrine of marriage or sacrament of marriage in our doctrinal standards. There is no doctrine of ordination or sacrament of ordination contained in these doctrinal standards. It can be simply stated that we have no interpretation of Scripture regarding marriage or ordination.

What we have in The United Methodist Church are practices of marriage ceremonies and ordination standards and ceremonies. It is true that these practices are upheld by simple majority votes of the General Conferences. And here we see that the denomination is threatened with a split over these practices rather than doctrines. We can disagree over practices. The special called General Conference of 2019 violates the Wesleyan spirit of our doctrine and Christian living. The General Conference was called to discuss and vote on issues of practice and codified certain violations of practices as church law. It is a bad precedent. Because fellowship are often broken by “official acts” of churches. The papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther broke the Western Church. Henry VIII feared to die without a male heir and leave England open to another series of civil wars. The Church of England was declared independent of Rome for that purpose. Later, under Elizabeth I that breach was solidified.

Some people advocate division of The United Methodist Church and cite potential growth as a result. It is doubtful that a new protestant division will result in church growth in the United States considering the present trends in religious identification within the U.S. A few others believe that their faithfulness is being tested in such a way that they cannot listen to other people’s point of view. Either way these people are advocating further sectarian division (the actual meaning of heresy) to avoid the hard work of reconciliation. The Wesleyan understanding of original sin means none of us are absolutely correct in our views. This is an important doctrinal point. If we cannot acknowledge the evil in ourselves and the good in others, than we have become something Jesus knew and experienced all too well.

A friend contacted me after I wrote the original post. He thanked me for what I said in it. He takes an opposite side from mine. I replied to him that for all of our differences God made us brothers and sisters. He replied, “Amen.” I fear, most of all, that we have lost the vision God has for the church. Another person told me that those who only see the “big picture” often miss those of us who live in the “little picture.” I agree with that statement too.

Bob Crachit’s Goose.

Have you ever asked, “What happened to Bob Cratchit’s goose?” What do I mean? Let’s review. When the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to view the Christmas dinner at the Cratchits home, the family has a “rather small goose” for the meal. Then when Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day he sends the family a “prize turkey” for their dinner. My point is that the Christmas dinner at the Cratchits that Scrooge saw never did not happen. But he saw it didn’t he? In fact, none of the Christmas activities viewed by Scrooge over the twelve day season could have taken place because he awakes on Christmas Day.

A Christmas Carol is a tale of ghosts showing shadows. Many readers get the impression that the stories of Past and Present are merely filler until Scrooge sees the warning that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scares the hell out of him to get salvations. Scrooge changes and everything else changes. Dickens does not craft his story that way. The story is a carol with stanzas just like any other.

This is the point. Christmas carols are meant to tell some version of the Christmas stories. They may be calls to remember. They may be admonitions to be joyous. They may be giving someone a sense of the wonder of the stories. Dickens makes a story about the Christmas story.

Bob Cratchit is a cypher in Scrooge’s world. He is the clerk who works in his office who later becomes the object of his employer’s charity. But that is a terrible way to view Bob Cratchit. It is how Scrooge begins to see him. The shadows that the ghosts show Scrooge opens his eyes to finally see Bob Cratchit. Bob is a father, a loving husband, a religious man, and a generous man. He is everything Scrooge isn’t but could have been. Bob also sees Scrooge. He refers to his boss as “the founder of our feast.” Scrooge had never considered before what Bob Cratchit sees in him. His view was that the world seeks to use him and take what he has. He thinks Bob the clerk uses him for his wealth. Bob “picks his pocket.” There is something happening deep inside of Scrooge when he sees Tim and learns he would die a death that could be prevented with proper medical care. Tim too sees what happens in the world around him. He cannot play as the other children do. But he enjoys watching them playing. He is also religious and thoughtful. Again Scrooge sees someone who he could have been.

The stories of the nativity of Jesus is a story about seeing. It is said the popular Nativity Scene was invented by St. Francis to remind the people that Jesus was born in poverty. Matthew tells about Herod who cannot see the glory of the Messiah’s birth. He tells about foreign Magi who do. Luke tells about how announcements and recognition of the Messiah is done by women (Mary and Elizabeth) and the shepherds. The Messiah, the glory of God and the peace of God, is recognized by people who do not matter.

Scrooge matters in this world. And now Scrooge sees what he should have seen all along.. The first place Scrooge visits is church. And then he appears at his nephews home to rejoin his family. The next act is to tell Bob in ways the clerk could not have expected that Scrooge sees him and will improve Bob’s situation in life and help Tim to live. Christmas, Dickens tells us, is about opening our eyes and seeing the peoples of the world. The ghosts and their shadows taught Scrooge about reality in a more concrete way than citing figures in ledgers or statistics concerning poverty that blind us to reality. His eyes are open. Scrooge could close them again. But he realizes his life is wasted if he does that.

People who will not see are the most blind. We invent fantasies and call them real. As Chesterton says, it is the ethics of elfland (attributes we learn from characters in stories that begin “one upon a time”) that are the most real and make us beings that are true. Don’t criticize stories that are not “biblical” this season. There is something greater going on in them than are found in merely keeping traditions.

Persuasive Words

“They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” John 7:52 (NRSV)

Prior to the famous reading of “the woman taken in adultery,” there is an exchange in John’s gospel between Nicodemus and his Pharisaic brothers. Nicodemus is secretly a disciple of Jesus. He makes an argument that no person should be condemned as a violator of the Torah without being given a hearing. His friends on the court are outraged by such common sense that they utter the above quoted text. All that needs to be done here is for the reader to imagine the pitch and volume of the voice of the person saying it. When said forcefully, many people get the impression that it is said with conviction. Many things said with conviction are not true. This statement is one of them.

There is an old story about a church custodian who finds the minister’s Sunday sermon notes on the podium in the sanctuary the following Monday morning. She notices that the minister has jotted a note in the margin of the otherwise carefully written sermon. The note reads, “Weak point! Yell like mad!” It is a humorous anecdote only because there is a ring of truth in it.

The Pharisee who uttered the nonsense to Nicodemus overlooks some simple facts from the scriptures. Prophets did come from the area of Galilee. Jonah was from Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25). St. Peter’s hometown of Capernaum derives its name from the phrase “city of Nahum.” And it is likely that the Pharisee detractor knows this without needing to be reminded. Ironically, both of those prophets talk about the influence of bad thinking and acting leading to the downfall of the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria. John knows this, of course, because later in his book he makes it clear that this fear of destruction motivates the murder of Jesus (11:49).

I was reminded of this story during the constant yelling staged by the “leaders” that sit on the House Judiciary Committee. The story is definitely not a parallel narrative to our own present situation. The tactic is still the same, confuse the situation by yelling like mad hoping to move someone to an “Amen” of agreement. St. Paul claims he did not use “elegant wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:17) to manipulate his listeners. Rhetorical tactics do not make statements true. The Christians of Antiquity were rather suspicious of such manipulations. It did not keep St. Paul and others from using them. One need only read the work of St. Augustine against Pelagius to see how the former teacher of rhetoric employed the ad hominem (attack the man) ploy.

The Pharisees talking to Nicodemus intend to shame him by asking if he too is a Galilean. They are not accusing him of anything short of impurity. Why? Because impurity is the greatest sin in the mind of both a Pharisee and a Sadducee. John is very aware of this mindset. He quotes John the Forerunner (or the Baptist) who claims Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). The paschal lamb was to be very pure “without spot or blemish” for the meal marking the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Purity was of the utmost importance because that which was “unclean” could not be made “holy.” Pharisees wanted holiness in the person. Sadducees wanted holiness in the Temple practices. Both groups demanded “purity” as a means to their goals.

The desire to be without fault can be a consuming wish. It destroys all relationships eventually. Human beings cannot love purely, have faith purely, or keep hope purely. It is easier and deadlier to insist on purity in other ways. The manifestation of this kind of sickness is seen in how evil we will act to maintain the right to demand purity of other people.

We see this sickness in the text. The Pharisees and the chief priests will ensure the continuation of the program of making the nation pure by murdering Jesus and even Lazarus (12:10). Logic indicates more people would have to die in order to maintain this power. False accusations are offered for the greater good. False assertions are given in the name of the best for the nation. And one or two of the Ten Commandments must be sacrificed to save the list itself.

The question that remains is, “Do we want to continue being sick?” Will we decide to take a less easy path so that the dross can be burned out of us? I do not believe we want to ever take our medicine. But, as Kierkegaard observed, only a half dosage allows disease to kill even if it is only hampered a bit. History demonstrates the Temple and the Holy City were lost only forty years after the events described by John.