It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.
Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” 
I remember the first publicized school shooting, back in 1979.  Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, CA. She came from a broken home, lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child.  When asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”  That response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.
My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.
Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.
My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.
To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.
By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?
Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?
Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?
Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population.  We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country.  We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco). Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.
Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.
Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.
Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom.  What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. 
Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?
In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.
On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?
 Julie K. Brown, “To longtime friend, school shooter Nikolas Cruz was lonely, volatile, ostracized,” Miami Herald, February 17, 2018, (http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200754714.html, accessed November 15, 2018).
 The first school shooting as we now define it occurred in 1974, but if it got much publicity, I wasn’t aware of it.
 Böckler, Nils; Seeger, Thorsten; Sitzer, Peter; Heitmeyer, Wilhelm (2013). School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies, and Concepts for Prevention (1st ed.).Springer Science+Business Media. ISBN 978-1-461-45526-4. Cited on Wikipedia, “Cleveland Elementary School Shooting” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Elementary_School_shooting_(San_Diego)#CITEREFB%C3%B6cklerSeegerSitzerHeitmeyer2013, accessed November 15, 2018).
 “School Sniper Suspect Bragged of ‘Doing Something Big to Get On TV’,” Evening Independent (AP), January 30, 1979, 2A (https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=r8EwAAAAIBAJ&pg=6676,3418018, accessed November 15, 2018).
 “Top 20 countries in primary energy consumption 2017,” Statista.com (https://www.statista.com/statistics/263455/primary-energy-consumption-of-selected-countries/, accessed November 18, 2018); “What is the United States’ share of world energy consumption?” EIA.gov (https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=87&t=1, accessed November 18, 2018); “Countries in the world by population (2018),” Worldometers (http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/, accessed November 18, 2018).
 “10 world’s leading food producing countries,” Mediamax, (http://www.mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/261583/261583/, accessed November 18, 2018); “Food Consumption by Country,” World Atlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/which-country-eats-the-most.html, accessed November 18, 2018); “Global Obesity Levels,” ProCon.org (https://obesity.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006032, accessed November 18, 2018).
 “Motor Vehicles per 1,000people: Countries compared,” Nationmaster (https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Transport/Road/Motor-vehicles-per-1000-people, accessed November 18, 2018).
 Joshua Cohen, “’Deaths of Despair’ Contribute to Declining U.S. Life Expectancy,” Forbes, Jul 19, 2018 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2018/07/19/diseases-of-despair-contribute-to-declining-u-s-life-expectancy/#513a22be656b, accessed November 18, 2018); Maya Rhodan, “Gun related deaths in America keep going up,” Time, Nov 6, 2017, (note that the title is misleading; the article states that rates have begun to go up after a long period of stability; http://time.com/5011599/gun-deaths-rate-america-cdc-data/, accessed November 18, 2018); Y. Chen et al, cited in “US leads developed nations in drug overdose deaths,” Healio, Nov 12, 2018 (https://www.healio.com/internal-medicine/addiction/news/online/%7B95b75228-d6be-4e72-bb3d-e1a3a17cedcb%7D/us-leads-developed-nations-in-drug-overdose-deaths, accessed November 18, 2018).
 John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or: the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/, accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance, Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus, Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.
 Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives that do not conform to its professed worldview.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.
In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.
Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.
What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:
Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)
If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?
Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.
Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.
Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)
Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.
Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.
When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)
So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.
It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.
Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.
Stephen Cottrell writes,
“If what you’re doing is worthwhile, if you are persevering to the best of your ability, if the vision that inspires you is worth the investment of your work, your gifts, your energy, your soul, then don’t make success into a god… Do not be deterred by failure.”
These are wise words in a culture that worships success, money, and power!
(Stephen Cottrell, Hit the Ground Kneeling: Seeing Leadership Differently, London: Church House, 2008, 77-78.)
“In the most radical and existential uniqueness which he is, man has to reckon with the fact that this mystery of evil is not only a possibility in him, but that it also becomes a reality, and indeed not insofar as a mysterious, impersonal power breaks into his life as a destructive fate.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996, 102-103.)
I encountered the following sentence as an undergraduate. It is a pivotal thought on evil in one of the most important books by Karl Rahner, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. But what does it mean?
Diagramming the sentence suggests that it is self-contradictory. So what is Rahner trying to say? I’ve puzzled over it for ten years, and I still don’t know. His “pivotal” thought makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a translation error, though my understanding is that Rahner was no more intelligible in his native German. His brother, when told that Rahner’s work was posthumously being translated into English, is said to have quipped, “That’s wonderful. I hope someday they translate him into German!”
Obviously precision is important when postulating a systematic statement of the nature of God, his Creation, and our relationship to both. Many theologians, like Rahner, go to great lengths to express complex thoughts in precise terms.
Unfortunately, the result is unreadable for even many university-level readers.
This level of theology creates an ivory tower, a bastion of particular intellect that develops its thought in enforced isolation from the world by virtue of its unintelligible diction. (How’s that for a wordy sentence?)
In other words, Christians and theology live in separate worlds that can never (or at least only rarely) meet.
Can you imagine if Jesus spoke like that? How many followers would he have gained? Instead, he spoke in simple concepts. “The Kingdom has come.” “Feed the poor.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We take Jesus’ simple concepts and discuss whether they are prophetic or apocalyptic, pre-millennial or post-millennial, and the veracity of dispensationalism.
Perhaps these are valuable intellectual exercises. Surely some people enjoy such parsing. And I have to admit, Rahner challenged my horizons when I studied him as an undergraduate. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much this level of thought contributes to the Kingdom of God.
This semester, we’re reading Charles Scobie. He’s much more readable than Rahner, but just as wordy, dissecting and analyzing (not always effectively) the main points of Christianity. The 1,000+ page book contains five (5!) chapters about Jesus. He’s written more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves!
This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a pre-Christian Jewish reformer:
“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary…”
In my congregation, there is a woman whose brain was damaged in an accident when she was a child. She reads at what I would describe as about a third-grade level. Yet she is one of the most loving, Christ-centered people I have ever met. If you want to know what the Kingdom looks like, meeting her is far more demonstrative than reading Rahner.
The truth is, I don’t really hate theology, but I do fund it tedious and often distracting. Often wonder which is the better use of my time: reading 1,000 pages of systematic theology, or going out and doing what Jesus told us to do.
This is the day that the Lord has made! (Psalm 118:24)
I’ve been thinking lately of my friend, Margarita Mike. We called him Margarita Mike because he got sober when he was in college, stayed sober five years, went out and drank one margarita, and came back. He stayed sober another five years.
Then Mike decided he could have another margarita. This time, things didn’t go as well. He couldn’t stop. He’d been drinking for eight months when I called him about a business situation for a mutual client. I asked him how he was doing.
“I’m not doing well at all,” he replied. “I can’t stop drinking. Would you have coffee with me sometime?”
I readily agreed. Helping people get sober as I got sober is one of the top priorities in my life. We agreed to meet the next afternoon at a local coffee shop.
That night, I got a phone call. Mike had wrapped his car around a telephone pole. My friend was gone.
I have always wondered whether things would have been different if I’d met him for coffee the day we spoke. Maybe they would have. Maybe they wouldn’t. The point is, I’ll never know–because I didn’t. I know from experience that alcoholism is a deadly disease. I almost died from it. I’ve been to more funerals than I can count on my fingers and toes.
No one expects that today is the last chance. Sometimes it is.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a couple of situations I’ve run into. One was a woman I rode the elevator with at the hospital. I didn’t know her and didn’t speak to her. Yet I could feel that she was toxic, so oppressed by darkness that it was rolling off of her. We got off the elevator and went our separate ways, and I said nothing. Surely she’ll realize her torment and seek help when she’s ready… right?
The other was someone I know fairly well and consider a friend, but not a close friend. As we were praying together, I felt a deep heaviness from this person. As I focused on it, I realized it was a curse. (Yes, curses exist. And Jesus died cursed so that our curses may be broken.) I brought up the subject of curses as an invitation, but my friend said nothing. We parted with no further discussion.
I have some knowledge of the ways of darkness. My family was tormented for five years. We experienced accidents, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, and illness, not to mention a ridiculous series of random setbacks in our lives. We became self-destructive. More than once, I was close to suicide. My wife nearly died twice from reactions to benign medications.
The torment of darkness can be fatal. And it’s surely miserable, especially compared with reconciliation to God. Moreover, if we believe what Christianity teaches us, the repercussions of what we do today can follow us beyond death. I’m not talking about merely accepting Jesus as Christ to avoid going to Hell. There’s far more to it than that. Sometimes, as any addict will attest, Hell follows us.
Yet most of us, including myself, don’t approach our religion with the urgency this suggests.
There are those who stand on street corners wielding a Bible and a hand-made sign proclaiming that you need to find Jesus today. I wonder if anyone listens to them. I hope so, but I never did.
There are those who go door-to-door and teach [their version of] what the Bible says. They are committed, loving people, and I think sometimes they do some good.
Most of us accept that other people are responsible for their own spiritual health. Yet when my own spiritual health was in jeopardy, I was unable to solve the problem myself. I needed help. This was as true last year when I sought deliverance as it was 32 years ago when I got sober. In both instances, I had no idea how to solve the problem. I needed someone who did.
Since Mike’s death, more than five years ago, I never put off meeting with an alcoholic or addict who asks for help. I also confront someone who appears to need help but not be willing to admit it. It often doesn’t help. Statistically, some 90% of alcoholics and addicts die from their disease. But I’m one of the 10%, and I want them to have every chance to be one, too. And never again do I want to be a day too late.
Why don’t I take the same approach with those who are suffering spiritually? I hate confrontation. I don’t have the confidence; after all, I’m new to this myself. Maybe I’m afraid of being labeled a religious nut. Maybe I’m afraid of damaging a friendship.
Would I damage a friendship to save someone’s life from addiction? Risk being labeled a nut? Step out on a limb and take a risk? You bet I would.
But religion is a private thing… right?
In a nation in which suicide rates are rising, violence against people unknown to the perpetrator is rising, drug overdose rates are rising, and antidepressant use is rising, I’m not so sure that’s true. We are a spiritually sick culture, and that sickness affects us all.
I’m tired of going to funerals of people who died too young, and seeing misery on the faces of people who are materially well off compared with much of the world. Not when there is an answer.
The challenge set before me, then, is to take the same attitude with those who suffer any kind of spiritual malady as I do toward those dying of addiction. I have been saved from misery, and it’s my responsibility to pass that on, today.
It’s a challenge I set before you, too.
“Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”
That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.
All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.
I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.
When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:
- Life is suffering.
- If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
- If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
- The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.
This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.
Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?
As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.
I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.
It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.
I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.
It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15).
This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is here, now.
Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)
The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:
[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)
Then there’s John’s report:
“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)
The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)
The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.
The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.
Gabrielle Glazier’s article in The Atlantic, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is an interesting read–thought provoking, despite the fact that it contains misrepresentations and misconceptions about AA and a good deal of irrational thought itself. I’ll come back to those points.
Let’s begin by noting the question, stated more than once, that if alcoholism is a disease, why don’t we treat it medically? The answer, obviously, is that medicine has little to offer the true alcoholic. As Glazier notes, alcoholism is a complex set of symptoms. Psychiatry has advanced a great deal since AA was founded in 1935, but it remains basically alchemy. What is known about the workings of the human brain is dwarfed by what is not known. And in practice, psychiatry itself ignores scientific method (and the well-being of the patient) in favor of generalized strategies untailored to the individual and unreliable in the hands of individual practitioners. Some time ago, over a three year period, four professionals diagnosed me with four different psychiatric conditions, each indicating a very different course of treatment. All four were wrong. We must remember that there is no test for chemical imbalance. There is no test for alcoholism.
It is also ironic that at a time when religious people and even scientists are rediscovering the power of prayer for healing, psychiatry is dismissing God as unscientific. Well, yes, it is. But science is beginning to admit that it does not have all the answers, and psychiatry in particular should be at the forefront of that admission.
Glazier notes that there is not a bright line division between alcoholic and nonalcoholic. That is true in a sense. Yet we know from scientific research that there are physical characteristics associated with alcoholism, including changes to liver cells that result in processing alcohol differently, resulting in physical addiction to alcohol. Part of the problem with the article is its fallacy of equating alcohol abuse with alcoholism. Our society has largely adopted this attitude: people who get in trouble because of alcohol are sent to AA by judges, by parents, and by treatment centers. Not all of them are alcoholic. Some may become so, and some are just going through a period of heavy drinking due to negative or positive conditions in their lives. (My brother had to “re-evaluate his drinking habits” while in college; he’s never had a problem since.)
But the main complexity in treating true alcoholics– those who have both the physical addiction and a mental compulsion to drink– is that alcohol is a treatment for an underlying condition. Despite Glazier’s assertion to the contrary, AA well recognizes this fact: “Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 64). Of the twelve steps, only one of them even mentions alcohol. The others speak of finding a higher power, admitting fault, forgiving others, and setting things right.
The underlying condition of an alcoholic is difficult to identify. When I was drinking, I would have told you I was drinking to kill the pain. But it wasn’t physical pain. It was a deep, psychic pain. I might have told you it was the pain of living. Today, I would characterize it as a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with life that only alcohol (and various other drugs) could relieve. Until I found AA.
Therein lies the problem: Glazier relates that doctors in Finland are using a drug called naltrexone to block the components of alcohol from reaching the receptors in the brain. This would work for a person who drinks for the effect of getting drunk. Why drink if alcohol does nothing for you? But imagine for a moment that alcohol is the only thing you’ve found that makes life bearable. Take it away and life becomes unbearable. Naltrexone makes the alcohol not work. Will you live in agony, or stop taking the blocker? For an alcoholic, the answer is obvious. Absent some other way to ease the pain, we will return to alcohol again and again, regardless of the cost to our health, our families, and our careers.
Glazier, a self-described non-alcoholic, relates that she tried naltrexone and found that her desire to drink diminished. My wife (a recovering alcoholic thanks to AA) relates that to trying my prostate medication to see if it makes a difference. Absent the mental and physical addiction to alcohol, which non-alcoholics can’t grasp, an experiment like that is meaningless. Can Glazier imagine wanting a drink so badly that she would leave her baby alone in a crib while she went to a bar or liquor store, or drive drunk with her child in the car? So badly that she would drink the night before she was scheduled for a court-ordered urinalysis test to verify she was still sober? So badly that she’d drink even while taking antabuse, which would make her vomit violently and uncontrollably when she did so? So badly that, like my uncle, she would drink even if her liver had failed and the doctor told her that one drink would kill her? I seriously doubt it. I wonder of she can imagine the efficacy of naltrexone in those situations?
How can this underlying pain of an alcoholic be addressed? Carl Jung said a massive psychic change was required. AA suggests a spiritual experience. Buddhist practitioners have had success with intensive meditation. There’s been some success with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). But in general, psychology and psychiatry have little to offer. Psychology too often fails because alcoholics themselves do not tell the truth. We fear giving up the only thing that makes life bearable, and we lie and obfuscate to ensure that doesn’t happen. Psychiatry fails because, well, it’s a science only when compared with astrology. They don’t know why an alcoholic is so maladjusted to life. How can you fix something when you don’t understand its cause?
AA offers a simple (but not easy) approach that creates a spiritual experience in the practitioner. Yes, it works. I’ve been sober 32 years. But does it work for everyone? Obviously not.
As an aside, I’ll be the first to admit that AA is difficult for atheists. I was an agnostic when I got sober, and that was a challenge. The difficulty for atheists is obvious if you go to a meeting in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka or Thailand: there aren’t many sober Buddhists. Using AA as an atheist can be done. I’ve known atheists who have. (They often don’t remain atheists, though; the spiritual power of the process eventually causes them to acknowledge faith in God, though it may take years. I myself, formerly agnostic, am now a seminary student.) But I agree that AA is not necessarily for everyone.
Here we run into one of the first misconceptions about AA: the claim cited in the article, originally made in the 1955 version of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, that 75% of the people who came to AA stopped drinking. That number is now closer to 5-8%. But that’s not what the original claim says.
“Of alcoholics who came to A.A. and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way, and 25% sobered up after some relapses…” (Alcoholics Anonymous, xx, emphasis added)
Two things are of note: first, they were dealing with alcoholics, not problem drinkers. Oldtimers who got sober in the 1950s told me that back then, hospitals wouldn’t take an alcoholic, and health insurance wouldn’t cover their treatment. People detoxing would often go into seizures in a meeting, and no one called an ambulance because it wouldn’t come. The social stigma against alcoholism was so strong at that time that you had to be pretty far gone to go to AA. You just didn’t see the casual DUI driver or tippling college student in meetings.
The second point is the phrase “really tried.” The Twelve Steps are not rocket science. AA wisdom says that no one is too dumb to work them but some of us are too smart. They demand a level of honesty and willingness that most people just can’t muster. They demand a level of commitment that comes from the certainty that there is no other possible way to survive. The dying alcoholic is a good candidate for this program. The DUI driver trying to stay out of jail or the binge-drinking college student trying to please his or her parents is not.
As more and more sources send drinkers to AA, the proportion of alcoholics who are willing to “really try” drops. Obviously, so does the success rate. What is AA’s success rate among “true” alcoholics? No one knows, because there’s no effective way to measure them. It’s an anonymous program, after all. Clearly it’s higher than 5-8%, but no one knows how many of the people being sent to AA are actually alcoholics.
It is also noteworthy that not all step-based recovery centers take the steps seriously. During my bout with mental illness, I attended one that had patients read the first three steps while undergoing therapies, CBT, and various other activities. We didn’t actually work the steps. Meetings were optional. Perhaps it was coincidental that many of my fellow patients were there for the second or third time.
Here’s one of the more frightening things I read in the article: the statistic that some 22% of those treated for alcohol dependency could return to moderate drinking. I’m not against drinking–for the nonalcoholic. But for the alcoholic, the risk is so great, why would I take a 4 out of 5 chance that I can’t drink moderately? I’ve been told by certain ministers that if I’ve accepted Christ into my life, I can drink socially. Maybe so. But if they’re wrong, I would lose my career, my family, and probably my life. Why would I even try? That’s irrational.
Herein lies another irrationality in the thinking behind the article: that drinking is normal, and that normal is good. That idea alone drives many who struggle with alcohol back to the bottle. We desperately want to be “normal.” The truth is, from the time I first got drunk at age 16, I never wanted to just “have a drink with dinner.” I wanted to get as drunk as I could as often as I could. Yes, I’d lie to you, both about how much I wanted and how much I’d had. But honestly, I wanted to be shitfaced drunk as much of the time as I could. Periods of sobriety were miserable. (They usually lasted about ten hours while I went to work.) Why would I think that even after 32 years sober, it would be any different? More to the point, why would I take the chance? That would be irrational.
This thinking also blurs the lines between those who struggle drinking responsibly for whatever reason, and those who are alcoholic. That line can indeed be blurred, as some of the former work their way along the spectrum into the letter category. But by failing to distinguish between those who truly have an addiction and those whose drinking habits we just don’t approve of, we do both a disservice.
Glazier highlights one fact that is undeniably true: abstinence alone will not work in the treatment of alcoholism. An untreated alcoholic will crave that which gives him or her relief until he or she eventually gives in and drinks again.
Let’s put this another way: unlike the problem drinker, alcohol is not the problem for an alcoholic, it’s the self-prescribed treatment of the problem. The problem is far deeper, and is as yet unidentified by science.
Something has to change if an alcoholic is to get sober. This article, while trumpeting the scientific method, highlights that science has so far failed in the treatment of alcoholism. In the absence of real answers (or even real understanding) from the psychiatric community, and with the increasing respect for the role of God in healing, why take aim at AA? It’s not the only answer, but it has gotten million of alcoholics like me sober.
Surely that’s a good thing.
The Revelation to John is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is gory, frightening, and complex. And it has frequently been abused. I recall over 30 years ago, a Christian man I worked with insisted that Babylon, as portrayed in Revelation, was the Soviet Union. He was convinced that the End Times were at hand, and he laid out who all the players were. Thirty years later, the End Times have not come upon us, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.
(I would add here another caveat: If Revelation is about imminent events, which nation do you really think is “Babylon the great… [of whom] all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2-3)? Does that really sound like the Soviet Union or Russia?)
What are we to do with such a complex and disconcerting work? Only now, after reading it multiple times and reading several commentaries on it, do I feel that I am remotely competent to add anything to this question.
The first thing to consider is this: Who was it written for? That makes a difference. Was it written to Christians in 1985? To Christians today? Clearly it was not. It is addressed to “seven churches that are in Asia,” namely what we refer to as Asia Minor, or Turkey. And it was written during the first century, only a few decades after the death of Jesus. We must assume that it had meaning for them, otherwise they would have discarded it. And we must assume that the symbolism John used had meaning for them. In other words, we cannot assume that the images John describes are of nuclear war, for example, There were no nuclear weapons in the first century.
The second thing to consider is this: The book was chosen (admittedly with some disagreement among the early Church fathers) to be part of Scripture. Thus, we must assume that it expresses some form of eternal truth. What was said to those churches in Asia must have something to say to us. Yet it is also clear that its message cannot be that TEOTWAWKI is imminent. If that were the case, its first readers would have been gravely disappointed. It’s now 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t yet happened. Or, alternatively, the world as its current residents knew it has ended multiple times, from the imperialization of Christianity to the fall of Rome, from the Black Death to World War II, from the discovery of penicillin to the universal presence of computers and the internet, and from the rise to the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire.
The third thing to consider is the timeline John offers for the events he describes. This is more difficult, because John mixes his verb tenses confusingly. Consider the following passage (emphasis added):
When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)
Here is a question especially pertinent for literal readers: Is this going to happen, or has it already happened? (Let’s count the verb tenses: 4 future, 2 present, 6 past.) Clearly this cannot be set literally in the past, present, or future unless we claim that John didn’t say what he meant.
We can see a similar conundrum in the Fall of Babylon cycle. The angel announces that “Babylon the Great is fallen” (it has already happened, 18:2), and “in one hour your judgment has come” (it has already happened, 18:10). But there is yet time for her people to come out of her (18:4). The shipmasters “stood far off, and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning” (already happened, 18:17-18), yet the kings “will weep” for her as they stand far off (not yet happened, 18:9-10).
There are two possible approaches to this problem. The first is the “already-but-not yet” view, which many use to describe the Kingdom itself. In other words, it has already happened in God’s view of time , but we haven’t experienced it yet. This view places the events in the eschatological future, beyond our view of history. I see this as the “distant hope” view: that all things will be made right in this world at some point in the far future that we will never live to see.
The second possible approach is one I find more satisfying: the events described take place outside our concept of time. That is, they are eternal; they are continually happening in a cosmological sense. Put another way, they happen not in chronos time, but in kairos time.
As we consider that, let’s look at another passage:
“The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:14-15)
These two verses set a context: God’s Kingdom has been established, even though the woes are not yet over. Does that mean, as in the “already-but-not-yet” view, that the Kingdom is established but we will never see it in our experience of time? Or does it mean that, despite the ongoing woes, God’s Kingdom exists and is perpetually established (and being established)?
As I mentioned above, we must assume that Revelation contains some form of eternal truth, else it would not be part of Scripture. As I read the text, as a writer I am struck by the confusing use of verb tenses, blurring past, present, and future. Respect for the text demands, I believe, that we allow a reason for that blurring. What reason can there be other than that the events John describes are not anchored in time? John is describing not a series of future events, historical or otherwise, but a series of processes that are always in play. The Kingdom has been and is continually being established. Satan has been and is continually being defeated. Judgment has been and is continually being served. Salvation was, is, and will be at hand.
Sometimes skeptics ask me if I believe in the literal Resurrection– that Jesus’ body actually came back to life on the third day after he was executed. Here’s the honest truth: I’m autistic, and I have trouble believing things I haven’t seen. I used to look at the Resurrection as figurative, symbolic of the idea that death is not the end, and that the Spirit of Christ is still among us even after his death. (Why did the people who had traveled with Jesus for three years fail to recognize him at the tomb, John 20:14, and on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:15-16, for example?)
Lately, though, I’m inclined to take the Resurrection more literally. Why? Let me tell you a story…
About ten years ago, when we were raising goats and making cheese, we had a goat named Wind. She was one of the first two goats we bought, and she was a real character. But because of her breeding (part Nigerian), she tended to have kids that were too big for her. The first year, she threw a kid we named Luna, who was born with her front legs all curled up. She started life walking on her elbows. We splinted her, and her legs straightened out, and she grew up to be the strongest goat in the yard.
The second year, Wind got toxemia. Her legs swelled up to where she couldn’t even stand. We made a sling to keep her from having to lie on the ground all the time, but it was clear she wasn’t doing well. As her due date approached, in consultation with our vet, we decided to induce labor so she could (hopefully) deliver her kids and get healthy again. She went into labor, but she didn’t dilate. The contractions weakened her, and we finally decided we had to take stronger measures. About midnight one night, I began massaging her cervix according to directions my wife found on the internet. By 4:00 am my fingers were exhausted, but her cervix had finally dilated enough for the first kid to come out. It was a boy, and he was born alive and breathing, but died within minutes. This was our first loss, and it hurt–especially before dawn after several sleepless nights.
The second kid was born soon after, a girl, but she wasn’t breathing. Something came over me, and I somehow knew “This one will live.” I rubbed her down, swung her around by her feet to clear her lungs, and then breathed into her nose and mouth.
She began breathing.
We “bumped” Wind to see if she had any more kids in her, but didn’t feel any. Wind wasn’t producing milk, so we put one of the other recent mothers in the milking stand so the baby could nurse and get colostrum. Then we went to bed.
The next night, Wind developed a high fever. The vet came out and discovered that she did indeed have one more kid in her, but it was dead and had gone septic. She removed the dead kid– our second loss– and treated Wind for infection. We tended Wind night and day, but she was just too weak to recover. As her body temperature dropped, I lay down next to her with a blanket over us both, but there was nothing to be done. At about 3:00 am, we called the vet and told her, “We’re losing her!” Ten minutes later, we called the vet and told her to go back t sleep. Wind was gone, having died in our arms.
But her one kid, the one born not breathing, survived. We named her Brisa (“little wind”). She grew up to be the best milker we ever had, producing twice as much as our next best milker. At eight years old, she’s still going strong, and is now living at Red Acre Farm, where I’m told she delivered two healthy kids this year. (Luna is also there with her.)
What does this have to do with the Resurrection?
Any goat farmer will tell you that a kid not breathing isn’t going to survive. But Brisa did.
One day it occurred to me: If God can do that through my hands, who am I to say what he can’t do?
I still have trouble believing in what I haven’t seen. But I’m no longer going to say it didn’t happen.