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. 

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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.

WHY THEY BELIEVE THE LIES

It was late.

The knock on the door of my hotel suite interrupted my settling in after the long day. We were with the church youth group at the annual big youth gathering with the big number results hoped for at the end. It was just beginning. I was already tired and a little frustrated. I answered the knock.

It was one of the college age volunteers who was to help with the sixth to eighth grade age boys. The look on his face said he was troubled. I asked if everything was all right with his group of kids. Everything was fine, he told me. Then he asked, “That story the preacher told, do you think it’s true?”

Ah yes! The preacher’s miracle story. It was the key to my frustration that night. Youth gatherings are plagued by the visiting evangelist. They are usually hired because of their track record of bringing in the numbers of conversions or “pledges of faith.” They get them in some manipulative way. One way is by telling stories about young new drivers or young cancer patients or young accident victims who died after claiming Jesus as their Savior. That is the worst manipulation tactic I know. Another is the miracle story.  This one is of the incredible type that includes the following structure.  An armed mob decides to run the evangelists out of a village in some country of the Global South – this time it was somewhere in Africa. Someone with a powerful presence intercedes (this time a little old grandma). The armed toughs dropped their clubs (or whatever) and go away. The hook of the story is where the villagers that do speak to the evangelists have no idea who the intercessor was. It is a tale designed to produce chills and wonderment. Such feelings are evidence that it must be true. I answered the question.

“No. I don’t believe it is true.” I said.  He nodded and went to his room. I was glad he asked. I did not care if he told any one, “Pastor Don says it’s not true.” Simply because it wasn’t true. I am reminded by Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” I think telling lies to manipulate others into any action, even “making a decision for Jesus,” is wrong.  The text quoted above is a warning for those who do that. I do not tolerate lying evangelists.

Lying evangelistic charlatans are the primary reason so many church people fall for the lies of leaders like the President of the United States. Even when people know they are being lied to, they will shrug it off and say, “the other side lies too.” Moral equivalency is based in lying. It is a logically false statement. When a person claims someone is lying the act of claiming another lie has been told (as in “well, what about…”) does not negate the falsehood described by the prior claim. All that is being said here is, “Yes, I know. And I don’t care.” It is similar to the claim a friend made about the Left Behind series. “I know it is radical right wing propaganda. But, if someone is saved because of it, what does it matter eternally?” Why didn’t Jesus think of that? “By lying lips you shall be saved.” Actually I believe he said freedom came with the truth (John 8:32).

The belief in a lie is also wrapped up in the identities people wish to claim for themselves. A person may believe an untruth because they wish to be accepted by others or even rejected by others as a contrarian. A human person may believe a demonstrated untruth because they wish to be faithful, and seen by others as faithful, to a cause whether that cause is religious, culturally traditional, philosophical, or secular is immaterial to the situation. Still a small group of people believe lies in order to maintain the insularity of the group. Often challenged with demonstrable truth as in science or textual analysis or logic such persons resort to tactics like moral equivalency, irrelevancies, ridicule, accusation, and then ultimately violence.

The means of overcoming a lie is to offer unvarnished fact in its’ face. I am reminded of the time two political candidates wrangled over the meaning of the first amendment to the United States Constitution. The debate ended when one candidate read the text of the document out loud in front of an audience to his opponent. The debate ended even though the opponent kept wanting to clarify that the actual text was being read.

Why do they believe lies? It surprises us too often that it isn’t because of ignorance of facts. It is often because of a desired identity on the part of the believer of the lie. It is more often because of a desired goal that can be reached by using a lie. And most commonly it is because the person or group have been conditioned through long habit that the truth or fact does not matter. These are the reasons great evils triumph for a short time.