Recording of today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo
“Our ‘wounded-ness’ is the part of us that God loves with that same maternal care that holds Lazarus to her bosom.”
Recording of today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo
“Our ‘wounded-ness’ is the part of us that God loves with that same maternal care that holds Lazarus to her bosom.”
We had an amazing time during Bible study today.
The setting is the Rickman House, a single-room occupancy (SRO) subsidized apartment complex for adults who live with mental illness in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Rickman is often many residents’ last stop before (or first step after) being homeless. The names of participants have been changed and comments have been paraphrased.
There were two participants in today’s study, in addition to myself.
One participant, let’s call him Tom, is a socially awkward man in his late thirties who likes to dress in leather. He self-medicates his mental illness with alcohol and other substances. On Sundays, he sits on the steps of the Roman Catholic cathedral, but doesn’t go in, afraid that he doesn’t have enough faith. He says, “I just need a break from this place (i.e. the Rickman) sometimes.” He was raised in an evangelical Christian household but now isn’t quite sure what to make of faith. He says, “I believe, but I don’t believe… y’know?”
Our passage is Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16:19-31
I’ve been wrestling with this passage all week as I prepare to preach on it this Sunday. As is often the case, participants in this Bible study hardly ever attend church (if at all). I lead this study using techniques I learned from Bob Ekblad, one of my seminary professors and author of Reading the Bible with the Damned.
Looking at the text, we read, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”
Looking for equivalent images in contemporary society, we decide to imagine this rich man as a business man in a three piece suit who eats lobster and filet mignon at a swanky downtown restaurant.
Continuing to read: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”
They decide that Lazarus was probably like a homeless panhandler in the city. They notice that Lazarus was sick, like so many of them who live with mental illness at the Rickman. Thinking specifically about the sores, they recognize that there are many “sore spots” in their own lives and minds: painful wounds that refuse to heal after so many years. Without access to proper medical care, Lazarus reaches out for some kind of temporary relief from the pain, even if it comes from a dog’s tongue.
“He’s self-medicating,” says Tom, noticing the similarity with his own tendency to ease the pain of his emotional “sores” with drugs. It may not be good or healthy (like letting wild dogs lick open sores), “but that’s the only thing that quiets my emotions,” he says. Like so many other people who are substance-dependent, Tom assumes that his addiction is due to his own moral failing. He thinks he shouldn’t call himself a Christian if he is still using. He sometimes worries that he will go to hell if he dies in his current condition.
I decide to test this assumption by looking carefully at the biblical text.
In the next sentence, the text reads, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
I ask, “Does it say that, when Lazarus died, the demons came up and dragged him down into hell?”
Looking puzzled, he says, “No, it says angels came and took him to heaven. They were compassionate. They showed him mercy.”
I note that Abraham was an important figure in biblical history. He is the founder of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, to be with him is to be in a place of great honor.
I ask a very important question: “What did Lazarus have to do in order to earn his place of comfort and honor in Abraham’s bosom? Does the text say that he repented of his sins? Did he accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior? Did he join the church and put a big, fat check in the offering plate?”
“No, definitely not,” Tom says in reference to the last question.
“What did Lazarus have to do, then?” I ask.
“Nothing,” Tom says, “he was just poor and in pain, and God showed him mercy.”
I suggest that God wants to do the same thing for him.
There are two linguistic details that want I clarify for the group from the text. The first is the name of the homeless man: Lazarus. In Hebrew, that name is Eleazar, which literally means “God helps.”
“This is not a coincidence,” I say, “It’s very intentional and important to the meaning of this text. When Lazarus is dying, what does God do?”
“God helps him,” they say.
Does that mean God ignores Lazarus?
“No,” they reply, “God helps.”
Does God judge or criticize Lazarus for letting the dogs lick his sores?
“No, God helps.”
Does God shout, “Go get a job, you lazy bum”?
“No, God helps.”
The text says that angels picked Lazarus up and took him “to be with Abraham.” The original Greek text of this phrase literally translates as “Abraham’s bosom”. I compare it to the image of a mother holding a crying child close to her chest for comfort and love.
“Yeah,” Tom says, “my girlfriend used to do that for me, before she died.”
I suggest that maybe God wants to be his girlfriend and care for him in the same way, holding him close in God’s arms.
“I don’t know,” he says, “I’m not really into guys that way.”
I point out that God is not exclusively male; there are several feminine images for God in the Bible. Jesus described himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks. Deuteronomy describes Yahweh as a mother eagle, teaching her young to fly. And then there is Sophia (“Wisdom”), a feminine image for God in the book of Proverbs. She is a beautiful woman who stands in the door of her house and invites us in to share a feast. “I never knew that,” Tom says as he smiles and nods his head.
Before I leave, we pray that God will help Tom experience God’s care and compassion for himself, even in the midst of his struggle with illness and addiction.
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
This is a slogan we often use in the recovery community. And I find that it is accurate. For those who are recovering from an addiction, or those who care for those in recovery, denial is often the first and greatest obstacle standing between the addict and sanity.
Before the journey toward freedom can begin, the addict first has to admit that there is a problem.
This is why the first of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Those who are able to honestly take this one step find themselves on the road to recovery and a new life. In the words of the Chinese sage Confucius, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” On the journey to recovery from addiction, that first step is the overcoming of denial and the admission that there is a problem.
As many of you know, I worked as a substance abuse counselor before I was ordained. During that time, I encountered a lot of denial in my clients.
Typically, this denial would take one of two forms:
Now, I don’t think this logic of denial and deflection applies only to those people who struggle with the compulsive use of substances or behaviors that we typically think of as addictions. I believe that we are all addicts at some level. It’s just that some addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We find it easy to look down on those who are addicted to things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. But we admire those who have an addictive relationship with family or work; we call them dedicated, when in reality, their behavior is destructive to themselves and others. I’ve come to believe that political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism are also forms of addiction (see September 11, 2001 and the Holocaust as examples). These addictions are just powerful and dangerous as any drug.
We, as an addicted society, have learned how to maintain our denial over our dysfunction by deflecting the blame onto others. We say, “I’m not the problem; the problem is with those liberal/conservative, black/white, feminist/misogynist, rich/poor, gay/homophobic, Muslim/atheist people.” We look everywhere for the source of our problems. Every place but one… within.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shines the light of truth on a very similar process taking place in his own society.
It begins with the scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant and morally upstanding pillars of the community (I like to call them the Upright Citizens Brigade …improv comedy fans take note). These members of the “moral majority” are grilling Jesus about his disciples’ failure to observe proper handwashing protocol before eating dinner.
Now, I can’t totally fault them for this because, as a parent, I regularly (daily) have to remind my kids about the importance of washing hands before dinner. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual of handwashing was not simply a matter of religious observance, but also a matter of public sanitation. Historians have noted that Jewish communities in Europe, for example, were disproportionately unaffected by plagues because their religion required regular bathing and other sanitary practices, whereas the Christian religion did not. So, the handwashing thing really did serve an actual purpose.
But Jesus isn’t faulting them over their concern for public health. He’s less interested in what they doing and more interested in why they’re doing it. The real matter, for Jesus, is not having clean hands before dinner, but having a clean heart before God. That’s what Jesus is concerned about.
What Jesus sees in the scribes and Pharisees is an attempt to deflect attention away from the condition of their inner lives by focusing on the externals of religious observance. Moreover, they were doing this in a way that was specifically designed to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher, thereby preserving their own power-base. They weren’t really concerned with religious observance or public sanitation, just making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.
That’s why I tend to be skeptical when I see preachers in the media with an ax to grind, bashing other people over the head with their Bibles. When I see that, I think, “Somebody’s deflecting.” There’s something they don’t want us to see (or don’t want to see in themselves), so they put all the negative attention on someone else in the name of truth and righteousness. It’s classic addict behavior.
But Jesus isn’t buying their act. He sees into people’s hearts, which is why he calls these religious leaders hypocrites and says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.
He shines the light of truth on their denial and deflection when he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”.
The problem, according to Jesus, is not what goes on around us, but what is going on within us. Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”
Again, it’s not about what goes on around you; it’s about what’s going on within you. The real issue is not the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but the log in your own. Recognizing this and admitting it is the first step on the path to sanity, recovery, enlightenment, and salvation.
Many years ago, there was an essay contest for a newspaper in Britain. The prompt was: What’s wrong with the world? And it was the famous Christian author G.K. Chesterton who wrote the winning response. It read:
Are we willing to admit that about ourselves? Are we willing to look deep into ourselves, past the mental fog of denial and deflection, to that place where we recognize that the real problem with the world is not what goes on around us, but what’s going on within us?
That’s a tall order. It’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be impossible for us to even begin this task, were it not for the grace of God leading and loving us to honesty.
The first of the Twelve Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted that we are powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.” But that is only the first step. It leads immediately to the next two steps: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” These three steps form the bedrock of our recovery from any addiction, whatever form it may take.
Here in the Church, we follow a similar path in our liturgy each Sunday at the Examination of Conscience and the Confession of Sins. In that moment, we pause and take a break from our denial and deflection. We cease from pointing the finger and look instead within ourselves:
“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done, and in what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
We say this prayer each week, not to wallow in guilt, but to rest in grace: God’s amazing grace, which is given to us free of charge. God is not interested in making us feel guilty, but in helping us face reality. This is why the very next thing we do is listen to the words of the Assurance of Pardon:
“Almighty God has mercy on us, forgives us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthens us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keeps us in eternal life.”
These words are spoken to us, this grace is given to us, not just so we can get our tickets stamped for heaven, not just to get us a second chance with God, but to strengthen and empower us on the road to recovery (which we in the Church have historically referred to as sanctification).
This journey begins, continues, and ends in God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we go from strength to strength, from glory to glory, being transformed, one day at a time, ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
Hey there Superfriends and Blogofans!
I’m delighted to report that I have an article that’s just been published for Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice. The article is a theological piece I’ve been working on for the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Task Force on Drug Policy Reform.
Check it out at their site:
Preventing drug abuse and treating addiction on a societal level means ‘building a Rat Park’ for humans. The solution to the drug problem is not more incarceration or military intervention, but the pursuit of shalom and the kingdom of God. As our communities begin to reflect the love of the Triune God, with resources invested in community development, social justice, substance abuse prevention, medical care, education, and treatment, we will be creating avenues toward healing human pain, rather than simply numbing it with addictive behavior or chemicals.
As many of you already know, in the years immediately following my graduation from seminary, I worked as a counselor at the Addictions Crisis Center, which is part of the Rescue Mission of Utica. This is a great program. They serve as the “first line of defense” that people come to when they’re beginning their recovery from dependence on drugs or alcohol. They offer food, shelter, medical care, treatment, and counseling to folks in the earliest stages of recovery. Some of them would even show up on our doorstep still under the influence of whatever substance they had been using. As one friend of mine put it, “Basically, [we] meet people on the worst day of their lives.”
One of the most interesting (and often frustrating) things about people in those first few days away from their substance of choice is their adamant (and sometimes violent) resistance to the treatment, which was usually their last, best hope for healing and recovery. They would kick, scream, and test every rule and boundary of our program. Their substance of choice had such a hold on them that they would fight the treatment process, even after they realized they had a problem and voluntarily checked themselves in to our facility.
Working with them for two years gave me a new appreciation for the meaning of the term possessed. My clients’ addictions, their compulsive, uncontrollable desire for drugs or alcohol had taken over their rational faculties so thoroughly that they perceived our attempts to heal them as an attack. The addiction owned them in a manner of speaking and led many of them to do all kinds of destructive things to themselves and others. Most people in our facility had sacrificed money, friends, jobs, houses, and relationships to appease the false gods of their addictions. There are many things worth sacrificing for in this world, but I think we can all agree that recreational substances are not among them.
A lot of people in the general public, people who don’t struggle with addictions, wonder why these folks can’t just stop what they’re doing and make better choices. What most people don’t understand is that it’s not a moral issue. Addiction is not a choice; it is a disease. The electro-chemical processes in the brain have literally been hot-wired and hijacked. And just like an airplane hijacked by terrorists: it’s not going where the pilot (the rational, moral part of the brain) wants it to go. They are not in control. They are possessed and they need help.
This, in a metaphorical sense, is what I see going on in today’s New Testament reading. There is no mention in the text of any addictive, mind-altering substances being used. All we know about the Gerasene man that Jesus encounters is that he “had a demon”.
In pre-modern times, all kinds of things were blamed on the activity of demons (e.g. seizures, mental illness, socially unacceptable behavior, bad luck, other religions, etc.). They didn’t have the kind of knowledge or diagnostic equipment we have today. For example, we now know that a person with schizophrenia doesn’t need an exorcism from demons, she needs anti-psychotic medication in order to make the voices in her head go away. That’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of spiritual element to people’s problems, but I think we have developed a more informed, nuanced, and holistic way of looking at things than our ancestors had.
When people come to me as a pastor, asking for exorcisms (and they do, believe it or not), my first question for them is always, “Have you seen your doctor?” I often end up making referrals, doing short-term pastoral care, praying with, and visiting these people in distress. I find that a combination of medication, counseling, and prayer tends to resolve the vast majority of cases where exorcism was initially requested.
I don’t tend to think of demons as beings or entities in their own right. The image of monsters with horns and bat-wings that take over your mind is the stuff of horror movies. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the reality of the demonic. I believe I encountered a kind of demonic possession every day when I was a substance abuse counselor. The people I worked with were possessed by their compulsive need for a particular substance. The things they did as a result of that compulsion were truly evil, you might even say demonic: They lied, stole, neglected and abused children, some of them had even hurt or killed others. Those who found recovery from their addictions often had to own up to and make amends for the horrible things they had done under the influence.
And the amazing thing is that, in spite of all this harm to self and others, they continue to refuse to let go of their addiction. They cling to their substance of choice as if it were more precious than air. Many of them would refuse treatment and walk out of our program. The average recovering addict has to go through rehab four or five times before they finally get clean and sober for good. Only about one out of every ten clients finds recovery. The rest go back out, pick back up, and continue to use or drink, despite the consequences. That’s what I call possessed.
The Gerasene man in today’s gospel reading was similarly resistant to Jesus’ efforts to heal him. When Jesus commands the demonic spirits to leave the man alone, the man cries, “I beg you, do not torment me”. Torment him? Didn’t this guy realize that Jesus was trying to help him? It was the demons that were tormenting him! But then again, as we’ve already seen today: people sometimes prefer an old, familiar slavery to a new, unknown liberation. Getting over that hump is often half the battle of recovery.
The good news is that this doesn’t seem to present a problem for Jesus. He just keeps at it with this possessed man, this hopeless case, until he has sufficiently separated the person from the problem. That’s a key difference between Jesus and the people of the Gerasene region. They just tried to lock him up and forget about him, but Jesus went out to see and to save the man behind the madness. I think our task, as followers of Jesus in the present-day, is to do the same with those outcasts in our society, those people our culture of achievement has given up on.
Where God is concerned, there is no such thing as a hopeless case.
Now, it would be easy enough to leave things at that: the addict finds recovery, Jesus sweeps in and rescues the man from the demons, and everybody lives happily ever after. But life is more complicated than that.
It would be so easy for us to sit here in our (semi)comfortable pews on Sunday and say prayers for those poor addicts down in Utica, never once taking the time to look hard at our own lives. We tend to take notice of people addicted to drugs and alcohol because (A) those addictions are highly destructive and (B) they’re socially unacceptable. But there are many other kinds of addictions out there as well, many of which don’t involve recreational chemicals of any kind. In recent years, we’ve become more aware of behavioral addictions to things like sex, work, food, exercise, shopping, and gambling. Scientific studies have shown that our brains can’t tell the chemical difference between these behaviors and drugs. Either way, it’s a massive hit from a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine that our brains get used to having and eventually come to depend on in order to feel normal. The best single book I’ve ever read on this topic is Addiction and Grace by Gerald May. I highly recommend reading it if you want to learn more about addiction from psychological, medical, and spiritual perspectives.
In addition to the aforementioned behaviors, I would go on to say that anything can be an addiction, depending on the place it holds in our lives. Even good and healthy things like family, relationships, church, religion, country, and school can be addictive. Whenever we let just one thing take over our whole field of consciousness for extended periods of time, we are in danger of becoming addicted or possessed in the way we’re using that language today. Spiritually speaking, we are committing the sin of idolatry: worshiping false gods, serving a part of reality at the expense of the whole, or even treating a part as if it were the whole. We can even be addicted to (possessed by) a certain way of thinking or way of doing things. This last one especially applies to groups of people as much as individuals.
I find it interesting that, in today’s gospel reading, the demons themselves ask Jesus to let them stay in the area. They ask to be sent into a herd of pigs that immediately goes berserk and destroys itself. After that, the people of the Gerasene community approach Jesus and ask him to leave. Why? Because, according to the text of Luke’s gospel, “they were seized with a great fear.”
Isn’t that interesting? When Jesus first tried to help the possessed man, the man cried out in terror, “I beg you, do not torment me”. He was afraid of the very person who had come to help him. Now, at the end of the story, that man is “clothed and in his right mind” while the rest of the so-called “normal” people in his community are suddenly terrified of Jesus the healer.
This is another aspect of this story that bears a striking and frankly eerie resemblance to my experience of working with people who have addictions. More often than not, so often in fact that it became a predictable pattern, my clients would return home after completing treatment to discover that their families no longer know how to relate to them. In the years while my clients were active in their addictions, their families adapted in order to learn how to function in a dysfunctional environment. They were used to operating under the assumption that one member of the family would always be drunk, high, or absent. This is what experts mean by the term co-dependency: one person in the family unit is chemically or behaviorally dependent while all the others are “dependent with” that person or “co-dependent”. When the dependent person comes home clean and sober, ready to rejoin the family system, the family suddenly has to rethink their old patterns for relating to each other and learn new ones. This process is difficult and scary because they think they have to maintain the old balance and fulfill their old roles in the dysfunctional family system in order to survive. It’s not at all uncommon for families to go through stress or even break up when someone is in the early stages of recovery.
The solution is for family members to participate actively in their own recovery process alongside their loved one who is getting clean and sober. Addiction is a family problem that requires a family solution. That’s why support groups like Al-Anon exist: to help the co-dependents of alcoholic people with their own recovery
And the same goes for the rest of us in the broader community. Participating in the work of building God’s kingdom on earth is not just about helping those poor, unfortunate souls who struggle with addiction. It’s about facing our own addictions and co-dependencies (even the socially acceptable ones) so that Jesus can liberate us from our own demons and bring healing and wholeness to the entire community.
If we are open to that process taking place in us, if we can trust that Christ is here to help us and not to harm us (even when his healing presence feels scary and unfamiliar), then we can say that we are walking the path of faith toward the promised land of God’s kingdom of heaven on earth.
One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another. Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica. Thankfully, no one was injured. What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars. On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.
Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad. A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December. His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes. After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address. His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle. The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday. I hope the weather warms up this weekend.
Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company. She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered. The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it. We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.
Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak. Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help. Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.
I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others. I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity. I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand. The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor. The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.
Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way. Who knows? I still might do it. There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs. What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage. I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.
What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways. His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.