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 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 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.”