July 23

The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous: A Response

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.

May 14

Revelation Part 3: The Ongoing Restoration

 

In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.

Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.

This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.

Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.

As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.

With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.

With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.

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.” (11:15)

The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:

Let anyone who has an ear listen:

If you are to be taken captive,
    into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
    with the sword you must be killed.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)

Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.

Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.

Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)

Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:

[H]is servants will worship him;  they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)

In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)

Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.

Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.

 

May 7

Where Are Your Works?

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. John 14:12

I was sitting in class one day listening to a lecture. Suddenly, I saw a vivid image of Jesus’s side as he hung on the Cross, at the moment before he was pierced by the spear. At the same time, I heard a cacophony of voices chanting, “Where are your works? Where are your works?” It grew louder until I couldn’t hear what my professor was saying. This went on for about five minutes before it began to fade. But the image reappeared to me several times throughout the day.

Modern Christians are skeptical of works, and rightly so. In the 1200 years following Constantine, works were sometimes viewed as the means of salvation. They aren’t. The Bible clearly tells us that we are saved through grace. Surely any evangelical Christian can quote this verse:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Yet for some reason, many tend to ignore the following verse:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

The presence of grace does not negate works, it makes them inevitable. How do we miss that? In our skepticism of works, we discount the words of James, the brother of the Lord:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith [alone] save you? (James 2:14)

Martin Luther seems to have found a conflict between Paul and James. (He preferred Paul.) I don’t see any conflict at all. If we have received grace, if we have received faith, we will do works–not to become saved, but because we are saved.

What were the works that Jesus did, which he tells us we will do more of? He welcomed sinners and outcasts. He fed the poor, healed the sick, and challenged traditional authority. He prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles. He warned the rich about the dangers of wealth. He reminded his listeners that they were sinners, that they (in Paul’s words) fell short of the glory of God.

And he gave his life to save others.

Look around at the Church today. Do you wonder, as the voices caused me to do, “Where are your works?”

I look at my own life, and I wonder, “Where are your works?”

By this, I mean works of the Spirit. I’ve done works. I gave up a lucrative career that was, in my view, unethical. I believe strongly in social justice, and have written, protested, organized, and campaigned. I helped bring about a six-year cease-fire in a faraway, war-torn country. I’ve fed and housed people who needed it. I’ve “loaned” money to people I knew couldn’t pay it back. But I did it to try to get closer to God, not because the Spirit moved through me.

(I do believe that the Spirit moved through me when I was doing peace work. But that wasn’t because I had faith. The results we achieved were clearly the work of God, but at the time I was not a Christian and I came home scarred and exhausted. I was not living in the Spirit. Thankfully, God can use anyone to achieve his intentions.)

Last August, I finally accepted the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for my sins. I’ve shared before about my long and meandering journey. I’d been baptized, but still hadn’t fully accepted Christ. Have I fully accepted him now? I think there’s still another step I need to take. Perhaps more than one.

Following my acceptance, I began to experience gifts of the Spirit. I had already learned that I can (sometimes) see demons. This gift grew stronger. I also began to have visions. I’ve had one experience in which, through me, the Spirit healed someone. This is all to the good.

Yet I’ve read the Gospels and seen what Jesus did. “You will do the works that I do,” he said.

I’m not there yet. But I’m willing.

How about you?

April 30

Revelation, Part 2: Three Faces of Christ


Jesus appears in three ways in Revelation. We first encounter him as the Son of Man in 1:13:

clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (1:13-16).

This is Jesus the warrior, as we will see in 19:11. Yet Jesus’ weapon is his tongue. We are told,

his name is called The Word of God… From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (19:13-14).

It’s noteworthy, however, that the word ποιμανεῖ, translated as the verb “to rule,” is more appropriately translated “to shepherd;” the same root appears in Jesus’ command to Peter in John 21:16: “Shepherd (or feed) my sheep.” Despite the warlike images Revelation offers, Jesus’ “war” is conducted with Truth, not steel, and his goal is to care for, not conquer. If this seems ironic, presumably it is meant to be; like the Gospel of John, Revelation contains a great deal of irony.

The Son of Man appears again in Chapter 14:

“Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14:14).

Here, Christ the majestic becomes the reaper of the earth. The text does not say exactly what was reaped. In the following passages, angels reap grapes and make wine (14:17-20).

The second appearance of Jesus is in Chapter 5. Here we find more irony, as the elder tells John that only “the Lion of Judah, the root of Davis” can open the scroll. But what John sees is not a lion, but lamb “standing as if slaughtered” (5:6). It is not Jesus’ power and glory but his sacrificial death on the Cross that makes him worthy to open the scroll.

As the seals are broken and the story unfolds, we are told more about the Lamb. Washing robes in his blood makes them white (7:14), he will shepherd (the same verb ποιμανεῖ is used as in 19:14) to the water of life (7:17, cf John 4:10, 10:11), he keeps the book of life (13:8, 21:27), and he is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14). The “great multitude” (7:9) has been saved, we are told, because “they have washed their robes and made the white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14, cf 1 John 1:7). It is not only belief in the Lamb that saves, but participation in his blood sacrifice. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more” (7:16, cf John 6:35, Isaiah 49:10).

We should note here that despite the plagues being unleashed on the people of earth (which I’ll discuss in another post), what believers are called to do is to remain firm in their faith, even in the face of persecution. There is no allowance here for violence. In no way do the followers of Jesus participate in God’s judgment. They are called instead to a radically nonviolent response in the face of gathering armies and falling empires.

In Chapter 12, we see the third representation of Jesus: the innocent infant. He is described as ““a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne…” (12:5). (Note the use of the word ποιμαίνειν, another form of the verb “to shepherd”.) Here, in the midst of God’s Kingdom being declared, we encounter the birth of Jesus, the hope for the future. In Part 1, I argued that John intends to place these events outside our concept of time, a topic I’ll return to again; this is surely more evidence of that intent.

There is one final appearance of Jesus that stands out. In the closing passage, John  writes:

 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:8-9).

But a few lines later, this very same speaker tells him,

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (22:16).

As we read Revelation, we find a great deal of ambiguity between Jesus and God, as we do also in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 14:7, 14:10-11). In this particular verse, we find ambiguity between Jesus and his servants, suggesting that just as there can be oneness between Jesus and God, there can also be oneness between Jesus and those who serve him (note the language in 22:9: “I am a fellow servant”). Again, this echoes the Gospel of John: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (e.g. John 15:4a).

Books could be written about Jesus as he appears in Revelation (and they have been). However, this short summary of the three (or four) representations of Jesus do give us an overall feel for where Revelation is taking us. Jesus is the Savior, and Jesus is the Word. Yet despite the warlike language describing him, Jesus does not fight his battles with military force. Instead Jesus conquers through Truth and through his own sacrifice on the Cross– a ritual execution by a conquering power that, to readers of the 1st century, was conventionally associated with defeat.

April 23

Revelation, Part 1: The Context

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.

April 17

Science:Religion::?

The Helix Nebula

I woke up at 2:00 this morning thinking about analogies. My brain is funny that way. Specifically, I thought about the relationship between science and religion.

I have a friend who would probably describe it this way:

Science:Religion::Nonfiction:Fiction

To him, science is real and religion is made up. Yet fiction does capture and express important ideas. Why else do we still enjoy Shakespeare? And even today, who can read The Grapes of Wrath and not be moved? With a nod to my friend, fiction can also promote negative ideas. Consider, for example, the global impact of certain people’s interpretation of Atlas Shrugged!

And yet there’s more to it than that. Science provides facts, but not morality. When it does provide morality, it is frequently unpalatable–utilitarianism and Social Darwinism, for example. The latter argues that if the point of existence is survival of the species, then only the strongest should survive, a view used to justify the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. The former argues that humans are inherently replaceable, one is the same as another, and are thus disposable. One Australian ethicist argues not only that abortion should be legal throughout pregnancy, but that children should be allowed to be killed even after birth! It seems to me that science is a better source for facts than it is for morality.

So perhaps the analogy should look this way:

Science:Religion::Dictionary:Literature

This still doesn’t capture the full picture, however. Science measures what exists as matter and energy in the physical (corporeal) world, and theorizes based on that and only that. It does tell a story, though that story is based in a conservatively historical perspective: events happened in this order, with no apparent underlying theme.

Religion looks at the corporeal world, and beyond it to the noncorporeal world that we encounter in glimpses, seeking links between the two. (Yes, even eminently pragmatic Buddhism believes in the noncorporeal.) Religious truths are generally Ultimate Truths that are difficult to express in words. So perhaps we might look at it this way:

Science:Religion::Prose:Poetry

This seems appropriate in the sense that science tells us things we can (or at least some people can) readily understand, while religion tends more toward imagery. But there’s one aspect that is still missing. Religion brings many of us comfort and meaning. Admittedly this can, in extreme forms, become pretty ugly, justifying prejudice, hatred, and violence. But it can also bring service, justice, and peace. So here’s yet another way to look at it:

Sceince:Religion::Nutrition:Cuisine

Nutrition gives you everything you need to survive. I’ve been told if I ate bran muffins, beans, and kale, I could live forever. Or maybe it would just seem like forever. What would life be without fried chicken, cheese, and strawberry pie? (Or bengan bharta, tom kha kai, and papusas?) They may not be biologically necessary, but life is pretty dismal without them. Cuisine gives us comfort and identity. It gives us a place to gather and pause together. It brings joy and hope to a landscape littered with bran muffin wrappers and empty water bottles.

For me, this highlights the primary shortcoming of science in the absence of religion: it lacks humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the universe was created for my own needs and desires. Let me put it another way: science explains the creation of the Helix nebula and allows us to see it. But it’s not science that causes us to perceive it as beautiful.

April 16

Thoughts on the Resurrection

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.

Wind with her fist kid, Luna, before splinting.
Luna in splints.

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.

Wind in a sling.

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.

Brisa was born not breathing on April 6, 2009.

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.)

Brisa as a doeling. She become our best milker.

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.

 

April 16

Book Excerpt: An Easter Sermon Gets Hijacked by the Spirit

This is an excerpt from the book Steve’s Grace by D. J. Mitchell.

“Christ is risen!” I begin.  “Imagine the sorrow his mother must have felt, going to the graveside to mourn her son, whom she watched die just three days before.  But instead of a grave and a memory, she finds an empty tomb and the question, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’  What a shock that must have been!”

So begins my Easter sermon.  I perform it for my family on Good Friday, two days before I will give it to the congregation.  They seem to love it. Cindy and Zephyr both proclaim it the best one yet, and even Susan seems impressed.

That doesn’t keep me from being nervous Easter morning.  I focus on each step of the service so I don’t obsess about the moment I will stand before the congregation and preach.

After the hymn, I read from the Gospel of Luke.

Then the moment comes.  I stand before the congregation, spread my hands and arms upward, and begin.

“Christ is risen!” I proclaim.

Then I pause.  The next line won’t come out.  I know what I’m supposed to say, but I can’t say it.

I’m not expecting what happens next.

“Christ is risen!” I repeat.  “He who was dead now lives.  Christ is risen in me!”

I continue in a softer voice.

“He is risen in every one of us who was once dead through sin, yet now we live through the Grace of God and the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ!  We have been redeemed, that we may escape the death penalty for our sins and live in Grace!”

“Do we fall short of what God wants us to do?” I ask.  “Let’s be honest.  I fall short far too often.  How about you?”

I raise my hand.  About half the congregation raises theirs, too.

“Do we try to play God in our own lives, and the lives of other people?” I ask.  “I do.”

I raise my hand.  More hands go up.

“Are we sinners?” I ask.

I open my hands, inviting an answer as I repeat, “Are we?”

“Yes!” they reply.

“Yes,” I agree.  “But we found new life through Jesus Christ.  Amen?”

“Amen!” they reply.

“Did you ever have an experience when something strange was happening in your life and you couldn’t figure out why?  Then later, you looked back and realized it was God?”

I pause, and see heads nodding.

“That’s what happened to the disciples of Jesus,” I continue.  “They were walking on the road to Emmaus, and a man joined them and talked to them.  And it was only after they had walked for some time that they realized that man was Jesus.

“That’s a little odd, don’t you think?” I ask.  “They spent three years traveling with Jesus.  He was their teacher.  They saw Him after the Resurrection.  They saw the holes in His hands and feet.  Yet here is a man they don’t recognize, and it turns out to be Jesus?

“Maybe he was in disguise,” I suggest.

Some people chuckle.

“Or maybe,” I continue, “Jesus appeared in a guise they didn’t recognize at first as being Him.

“Has this ever happened to you?” I ask.  “Something in your life happens, and it seems so painful or wrong that it doesn’t even occur to you that it could be God working in your life?  But later you realize that’s exactly what it was?

“It happened to me,” I say.  “I was comfortable in an ungodly life, but God shook it up for me.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this could be God working in my life.  I mean, I got into a situation where I did some bad things and almost lost my family over it.  I should have gone to prison.  How could that be God?

“And it wasn’t,” I say.  “I did those things, not God.  Just like the man on the road to Emmaus who was not Jesus.  But he was.  They saw the Risen Christ in a stranger.  And I can look back now and see the hand of God even in that most despicable moment of my life.  That’s what it took for God to get my attention.  I had to fully live up to my capacity for sin in order to realize I needed God.  Because how can I ask for redemption if I don’t know I need it?

“I am a sinner,” I say.  “I was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ.  How many of you are willing to say that with me?”

“I am a sinner,” I repeat.  “I was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ.”

About half of the congregation says it with me.

“Let’s say it again,” I suggest.

This time, everyone joins in.

“Christ is risen!” I proclaim.  “His tomb is empty!”

Then, in a softer voice, I add, “And so is ours.

Steve’s Grace is available here.

April 9

Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God

The synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) portray Jesus’ ministry as an inexorable journey of Jesus to Jerusalem where he enters the city in triumph on Palm Sunday. “Hosanna!” the people shout. Their king, the Messiah, has arrived, bringing with him great expectations. Yet, as we know, actual events were not what the people expected. Jesus did not take the throne, nor did he inaugurate a new political structure based in justice and peace. Instead, he was arrested and executed as a common criminal. We can only imagine the disappointment of his followers on Good Friday. Not only were their expectations disappointed, but the man they looked to (yes, they saw him as a human being) died in disgrace. Their hopes for their future and their confidence in this man both lay in tatters before the Cross.

Palm Sunday is thus a day of hope, and yet also a day of impending despair. Through its lens, our hopes for the imminent Kingdom appear to be misplaced.

And yet, to this story of temporal disappointment, John adds an important perspective that offers hope.

The Gospel of John is clearly different from the other three. He focuses not on Jesus’ temporal ministry, but on the spiritual nature of that ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, he tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He emphasizes the eternal presence of Jesus.

John tells us,

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11)

In the very next chapter, Chapter 2, John tells us that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” where he cleansed the temple (John 2:14ff). Yet it is not until Chapter 12 that Jesus enters Jerusalem as King (John 12:12ff). Clearly this diverges from the accounts of the synoptic Gospels. But if we concern ourselves with the historical issue of chronology (Did Jesus go to Jerusalem before Palm Sunday or not?), we miss the point. John is telling us something deeper than names, dates, and historical facts: Though we as humans perceive Jesus’ ministry as linear, though we perceive his entry into Jerusalem as a triumphal and climactic event, he was already there, just as he was already among us before his birth. But we couldn’t recognize him.

Why does this matter? Because it says something important about the Kingdom of God as well. The synoptic Gospels portray Jesus preaching that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (e.g. Mark 1:15). Other translations use the words “at hand” or “nigh.” The implication is that the Kingdom is imminent. We can reach out and touch it. And yet we can’t see it. Clearly the Kingdom is not the driving force in this broken world of ours. Paul expected the Kingdom to be established before his death (e.g. 1 Thess 4:15). And people have been waiting expectantly for it for two millennia.

We’re still waiting.

But John gives us another perspective. He tells Pilate,

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here… You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (John 18:36-37)

John uses the word “kingdom” very infrequently, choosing instead the language of “abiding” and “being.”

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:18-21)

“You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:3-5)

And yet John’s vision is not of a group of disciples who sit around, content to abide in Jesus:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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.” (John 14:11-12)

For John, Jesus is the King, and belief in Jesus brings us into the Kingdom. Yet there is an expectation that being in the Kingdom will motivate and empower us to do the works that Jesus did. He leaves it for the synoptic Gospels to describe those works in detail. The point is, in a very real sense, for John, the Kingdom is now.

We, the readers, are human. We cheer as Jesus enters Jerusalem, waving our palm fronds, anticipating the inauguration of the Kingdom. Our hopes are dashed on Good Friday, and renewed on Easter. We look forward to that day in the future when the Kingdom is fulfilled.

And yet, like Jesus himself, it is already here.