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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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.