Sunday, June 26, 2016

AA and the Big Stone First

I recently decided to read the biographical story of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1917, at the age of 22, Bill tasted alcohol for the first time. He felt as if he had found 'the elixir of life.' By the 1930's, he was a raging consumer of alcohol--he had lost his job, marriage on the rocks, and simply could not stop drinking on his own. In December 1934 he checked into a hospital for Alcohol Addiction. As he underwent withdrawal from alcohol, he felt as if insects were crawling across his skin, and was so nauseous he could hardly move, but the pain too intense to stay still. In the empty room, he yelled out "If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything. Anything!" At that moment a white light filled the room, the pain ceased, and he felt as if he were on a mountaintop. He knew at that moment that he had been set free.

Bill's friend Ebby, who had gotten sober through the help the Oxford Group, planted the seed for Bill, who was initially resistant to the religious elements of Ebby's recovery. "Well then, why don't you choose your own conception of God?" Bill did just that, as reflected in the Third Step: "Made a decision to turn our will and lives over the care of God as we understand Him."

AA has been discounted and criticized by those in the scientific and psychological communities. With new studies and insight into the neurological pathways for addiction, AA can seem like folk medicine, since it has no real grounding in science of most accepted therapeutic methods. Seven of the Twelve Steps relate to God or one's encounter with a Higher Power--of course, uncomfortable to more high-minded communities. Yet, as many as 10 million alcoholics have achieved sobriety through the group.

The story of Bill's recovery reminds me of a passage in the 9th chapter of John's gospel, when Jesus heals a man born blind and gives him sight.

"They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore, the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. 'He put mud on my eyes,' the man replied, 'and I washed, and now I see.'

But the religious authorities were not satisfied with this simplistic answer. They press him further:

Some of the Pharisees said, 'This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.' But others asked 'How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?' So they were divided.

Finally, they turned again to the blind man, 'What have you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.'

The man replied, 'He is a prophet.'

Notice that the man did not reply in the manner Peter did when Jesus asked him who he thinks he is, and Peter exclaimed "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!" to which Jesus sternly warns them not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. (Mt 16:20). Peter's statement was a profession of faith, both personal and theological. The man cured of his blindness was not as much concerned with such professions, but simply recounted what happened when Jesus touched his eyes. He didn't know who he was or why the authorities had such a keen interest in him.

The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they set for the man's parents. 'Is this your son?' hey asked. 'Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?'

'We know he is our son,' the parents answered, 'and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him, he is of age; he will speak for himself.'

When the Pharisees do not get the answer they are looking for, they go to his parents. Our family knows us better than anyone, and while we may be able to 'act the part' of being a pious religious person, sometimes family will see the situation differently. In this case, however, they provide more of the same.

Finally, the deposition reaches the point of frustration. And the man nails the matter of hand in v. 25, forcing the authorities to later throw him out in disgust, exclaiming "you were steeped in sin at birth, how dare you lecture us!":

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. 'Give glory to God,' they said. 'We know this man is a sinner.'

He replied, 'Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see!'

One of my struggles as a Christian is how to balance the dogma of religious practice with the spirit of the divine. I have often made the analogy of the human body, one comprised of skin, bones, blood, organs, and soul. If we did not have a skeleton to protect our vital organs and give our extremities form, we would be a pile of loose body unable to move. If we were simply a configuration of bones and ligaments without blood and organs, we would be a scary walking skeleton. If we were skin and bones, blood and organs, but without spirit or soul, we would be nothing but material beings, hollow at our core. Everything works together. Everything is important.

But when we start to prioritize one part of the body over another, we lose sight of the whole picture. "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body." When religious practice or pietism becomes the most important thing in one's life, things can get out of whack. "Now the body is not made up of one part but of many...If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?" (1 Cor 12:17). We become like "whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones" (Mt 23:27).

Now, Paul is writing this in the context of spiritual gifts, but I think it applies to this balance of dogma and spirit, what's important and what's peripheral. Sometimes we forget what's at the heart of things, the core. And yet there is also the danger of neglecting things that seem unimportant (like, maybe, the spleen perhaps?) yet contribute beneath the surface to the health and functioning of the whole.

When it comes to alcoholism, addiction, or anything else that threatens the health, relationships, and soul of the person affected, it's like a hemorrhaging that needs to have pressure applied immediately.  The Pharisees in the story of the blind man healed are like those in the Buddha's Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, who demands to know who shot the arrow, what kind of arrow it was, where it came from, etc, as he is bleeding out. He would die and those things would still be unknown to him.

Though it seems like a trite example, I refer to it often in my life. Though it is used in the context of time management, I think it can be applied to the spiritual life as well.

A professor is giving a lecture. He pulls out a jar and places it on the table, then brings out a pile of tennis ball sized stones. He fills the jar with the stones and asks, "is it full?" The class says yes. He then pulls out some smaller pebbles and empties them into the jar, where they fill in the spaces between the big stones. "is it full?" he asks. They reply "probably not." He nods, and fills the jar with sand, while filters down into the even smaller spaces. "Now?" "No!" the class yells. "Correct," he says, and pours water into the jar until it is completely full. 

To the alcoholic in the pit--really an analogy for all us sinners, unable to escape from the bondage of sin on our own--the first big stone that needs to go in first is God, or, in the context of AA, a Higher Power greater than ourselves. It's a desperate plea, like the Israelites in Egyptian bondage who "groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God." (Ex 2:23). If we start with religion, or spiritual practice, or community--all good things, but not the BIG THING--all the stones don't fit. GOD first, everything else follows and fills in in it's appropriate place.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Better Together Than Apart

I have started reading a book on marriage by Francis Chan titled You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity that a friend leant me. I'm not very far in, but something he wrote gave me pause early on in the introduction:

"Recently we have met many singles who fear marriage. They watched friends who were passionate followers of Christ get married. The result was either an obsession with the pleasures of family or an unending string of arguments and counseling sessions. We are writing to say that it doesn't have to be this way. You can be more effective together than apart. In a truly healthy relationship, we enable each other to accomplish more than we could have done alone. This was His plan."

It was the line "you can be more effective together than apart" that spoke to me.

Although I am an introvert by nature and like my alone time, I have always struggled with loneliness, especially after I graduated college. I had a great group of friends in Philly, worked, went out, was engaged in activities. But I often dreaded going home to my apartment where I lived alone. I was not especially healthy, either physically or mentally, because when you are lonely you tend to look for salves for the discomfort.

I was always pretty resistant to the idea of marriage. The usual reasons--didn't want to be chained down or have my freedom limited, was afraid like everyone else of living a life of dreadful monotony and routine. I was also attracted to and discerning monastic life for a good ten years. But even (and especially) at the monasteries where I spent summers living, praying, and working with consecrated men 50 years my senior, the weight of aloneness was heavy. I think the superiors sensed this, and gently discouraged me from pursuing the life further. "After all," one abbot said, "most people are called to marriage as a vocation." I didn't want to be like 'most people,' but he had a wise way of seeing my nature, and saw that the shirt didn't fit.

I remember frequenting the adoration chapel at St. Mary of the Assumption in Manayunk pretty regularly and praying (as a priest in college told me I should do) for my future spouse, even if you didn't know them. Unbeknownst to me, my future wife was doing the same thing at the same time. "I know he's out there," she would later say, "and I just pray that God keep him safe and save him for me."

When I met Debbie in 2009, I was struggling with having a sense of stability in my life. I had moved out of my apartment and since I was not accepted as a postulant at the monastery, I figured I would have a go at the life of a hermit, albeit an urban hermit. I bought a school bus and converted it to live in, figuring I would read and pray all day parked on the streets of Philly in a quiet neighborhood. The endeavor didn't last long, for logistical reasons partly, but also because I simply was not happy. Not having a permanent mailing address became a kind of metaphor for my inner life--I had no where to lay roots, no sense of belonging, and was, yes, lonely.

I moved in with a friend from grad school and parked the bus behind the house while I figured out what I would do next. Wildly enough, Debbie seemed more fascinated by my bus adventure than put off, and as we began to get more serious I realized I was comfortable with her to be vulnerable enough to share my struggles with bipolar disorder, finding meaningful work, finishing school, and realizing where I fit in this world. Early on in our relationship, my dad came down and we had coffee at a bakery on Germantown Avenue. "You know you've found the one when you are more comfortable being with them than apart from them."

While Deb is beautiful and smart and has a good sense of humor, we joke that what initially attracted me to her was that she was stable (after all, opposites attract, yes?) I was waiting to hear about a job in Niagara Falls, NY in campus ministry, and she was ready to let me go if I got it. By the hand of God the funding fell through, and they could not hire me. So I stayed, and it became apparent that her and I shared common values and vision for the future, were attracted to one another, and could have a good life together.

To this day, marrying Deb has been one of the best decisions (if you want to call it that) that I have ever made. I don't even like being in the house alone or away for extended periods of time apart from her. It's like leaving a part of myself behind. Joined in a sacramental marriage, this should not be a surprise I suppose. But still, it's weird in a cosmic way that two people are not two but one. My struggles with mental stability have greatly diminished, and her support and companionship have nourished my well-being, without being co-dependent. We argue and get selfish with each other, but those are the exception rather than the norm. We recognize that it is not the job of the other person to "make me happy," but in trying to serve one another, we find the happiness that seems so elusive when you are living just for yourself. Being blessed with children has pushed us even farther out from that self-focus, has demanded a lot of sacrifice, but it's the kind of sacrifice you don't even think about much because it's just what you do, and it comes with its own rewards that there are no substitutes for.

I think God knew what I needed, and also knew what Debbie needed, and thankfully needing each other became the key that unlocked a small part of the cosmos. Happiness is the byproduct, not the end goal, and there is great joy in serving and focusing on Christ together, preparing one another for eternity, and holding hands in the process. Celebrating six years next month, I have no doubt we have hard times ahead. But I am also certain that we are, like the author said, better off together than apart.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Children of Men

I'm not real into sci-fi, but I came across a film tonight--Children of Men--that I had seen ten years ago when it opened. The film is well done, the premise thought provoking, and the themes of faith, hope, and redemption, while not overt, seemed to stretch beyond the immediate setting and were apparent enough for anyone looking for meaning in the work.

Set in London in 2027, a world-wide infertility epidemic has prevented any new births from occurring for 18 years as humankind faces extinction. Refugees stream into Britain (the last stable government), which is in a police state, and pro-immigrant underground resistance movements work to advance their agenda. In the midst of all this, the protagonist, Theo, a jaded civil servant, is kidnapped by the resistance and forced to protect a young refugee named Kee, who is pregnant (the only woman in the world with child). The future of the human race depends on her giving birth, and Theo is sworn to protect her so that she is not co opted by the government and stripped of her baby for political purposes.

It is a neat modern-day spin on the nativity narrative in Matthew and Luke's gospels: A young refugee finds herself miraculously with child; her husband is sworn to protect her and her baby from government co-option. They travel in secret. Wise men come from afar  to behold the sight. The child born will be a savior to the world, to redeem mankind from death and destruction, all of which was foretold by the prophets.

We seem to almost be living in a science fiction novel today. 59 million lives have been lost to abortion since Roe vs Wade in 1973, and 1.5 billion worldwide since 1980. We manufacture human life in test tubes and freeze or destroy embryos, bank sperm, take a morning after pill to terminate a pregnancy after contraception fails. Governments enact policies to limit children to 1 per household and force sterilization and abortions when citizens don't comply, while black market surrogacy is thriving. Human life is commodified and exploited by merciless systems of production, and traditional nuclear families are in the minority. Meanwhile, Europe faces a population disaster due to plummeting birth rates, the economic implications of which are starting to be realized.

In short, we have taken human life for granted, and there will be a price to be paid.

A quote from the film that stayed with me was when Kee's midwife reflects on the beginning of the infertility crisis in 2009, when people stopped getting pregnant and giving birth. "As the sound of the playgrounds faded," she said, "the despair set in. Very odd what happens in a world without children's voices."

2027 is only a decade away. Let's pray such a world does not come to pass.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Day That Became Like Night

I recently read a testimony from a man who was redeemed by Christ.

"It was 1999, I had spent the last decade as a very sexually promiscuous gay man and would-be porn star. At that point, my life had really spiraled out of control. For, on that very night, I willingly took part in an extremely sick pornographic scene which included everything from extreme physical cruelties to desecration. Then, I don’t think I could have fallen any lower. Everything I touched was filled with darkness; the day was like a perpetual night. In my eyes, the sun was always in total eclipse. I had been falling down this pit for years, and now – it seemed as if I were reaching the bottom."

He would later go on to recount a near-death experience in the hospital in which he had an out of body experience:

"Oddly, I could make out little beings jumping about all over the room. They defied any outline of shape or form, but were more like a ripple of movement upon the air. I didn’t know why, but they startled me and I could somehow make-out that they were there to harm me. At first, I noticed them looking into every curtained cubicle around the entire emergency room. They would peer in at each patient and then move on. When I rampaged against God, they immediately noticed me and took a keen interest. On each side of the bed, they huddled about. I hated them, as they were taking some horrible glee in my sudden anguish and discomfort. At the same time, my being was continuing its slide out from my body. Now, about mid-chest and up was flittering above everyone; at the near center of the bed. For, I was high enough to see the top of each nurse’s head."

On the precipice of the abyss, however, he makes a desperate, last ditch plea:

"I fought against it; only, I knew I was losing. Out of the gloominess and desperation, a strange thought overcame me: Jesus! Could I call out to Jesus? I abandoned Him long ago; He will not help me now. Anyway, I really don’t think He exists. It all happened in a matter of ticking moments, and I called out to Him: Jesus, Please help me! In a flash, the darkness left, the demons disappeared, and I dropped back into my body. I looked around, and I knew that I was alive. But, I didn’t know who I was, or where I had been, or what had just happened. Everything seemed new and strange. I couldn’t move a finger, but my eyes endlessly darted from side to side, trying to take it all in."

What struck me about this man's account was not that he was a would-be gay porn star. Nor was it that he encountered the reality of the spiritual realm (both dark and light) on the verge of death. What really stayed with me was the power of calling on the Name of Jesus.

"I called on your Name, O Lord, out of the lowest pit"(Lam 3:55). 

As this man admits, "I had been falling down this pit for years" until finally he was on Hell's doorstep. When you are in the bottom of a well, you reach a point where you cannot get out yourself. You can't claw, can't get a foot hold, can't dig. And yet, the power of the Name--even when one self-admittedly had "abandoned God long ago" called upon in brokenness of spirit, has all power to banish the darkness and evil. God steps into the picture and takes dominion over what was thought to be lost, ransoms an redeems it.

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" (Ps 130:1). 

You literally have no recourse but to call out in desperation. This is not a polished, well-crafted invitation for help, but a powerlessness, a terror-stricken plea, to be saved from inevitable destruction. If no one comes, you will assuredly die.

"He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire" (Ps 40:2). 

I don't think we really realize what we are being ransomed from, what vies for our soul, what will stop at nothing to claim us. The pleasures of the world are like an inoculant, til we find ourselves faced with the fate of the rich man in Hell begging Abraham to allow Lazarus to warn our family members, "lest they come to this place of torment." We stay ignorant of the spiritual realm to our own peril.

I was having a conversation with a guy my age who served in our armed forces. He told me of a military base where he was stationed in Alaska, that served as a defensive point against Soviet invasion. The men and women stationed there, he said, were basically a bulwark should we be invaded to "slow the bleeding" (the offensive attack). They were there to die should this happen. "There were times when I was there, not too long ago, when we were at red alert and we were literally holding our breath because the Russians had planes over head and we had deployed planes to meet them. And if it would have gone south that would have been it. And people, all these people--on the streets, shopping, walking around--had no idea. No idea how close we were as a country to being attacked. Just oblivious."

Scripture says there is more rejoicing in Heaven over one lost sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. If only we knew the gravity of our sin, the deceptive nature of evil, and what awaits us on the other side of the curtain. This young man, stained and degraded, broken and abused--a modern day Mary Magdalene--had turned his heart to God on death's door, demons literally pulling his soul out of his body, uttering--and maybe not even believing!--the Name of Jesus, calling on Him, and was brought into the Light. "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow" (Is 1:18). So great is the Power of God that the simple utterance of the Name banishes darkness and casts demons out. S

And what is left is grace--amazing grace, how sweet the sound...that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

You Do Not Have Many Fathers

Ever seen a computer generated rendering? Architects love them. It's kind of like a graphic simulation of a projected proposal for say, a new shopping mall, or an eco village. Single people jogging, or having coffee, moms pushing strollers. They simulate the vision, how something could be, and have an underlying utopia theme. There's a place for them, I suppose. I personally can't stand them. Kind of like a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Why do I bring this up? I suppose because it's Father's Day, and I've been reflecting on what it means to be a man and a father. Marriage and family has a way of stripping away the theoretical. How does it work? How do I put it into practice? What does it look like in REAL LIFE? These are the questions I am more concerned with nowadays.

In 1 Corinthians 4:15-16, the Apostle Paul writes:

"Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. There, I urge you, be imitators of me."

We can read all the articles and essays we want about how to be Christian men, or good fathers, or husbands. But I have found there is no substitute for real flesh and blood. I am blessed to have a solid fellowship of men who model what it means to be a Christian in the everyday. Some are single, most are married with children, working in various professions. I look to them to see how they act, how they respond to situations, and how they carry themselves because I know they are living in the real world. They are men of prayer, men of integrity.

I have also been fortunate to have had a great dad growing up who was a model of unconditional love. When I think about the problems in our culture today, so much of it seems to go back to an absence of fathers--fathers who love and stay married to their wives, who teach their sons and daughters life lessons, who protect and discipline, and who are there when they need them. The loss of a father--either through abandonment or divorce or death--leaves a deep wound in a child that sometimes never heals, and which they attempt to compensate for through different means. When a child is secure in his or her father's love, it's amazing what it does for human flourishing.

As a father, I need to model Christ to my children--in how I love their mother, in educating them, disciplining them, healthy behavior, and being rooted in prayer, reading the Bible, and worship. They look to me as a model, just like I look to my those men in my life who are models. It builds on itself, for generations to come.

Happy Father's Day!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Put Them To Death. Every Last One.

We have a good number of trees in our yard. Now that they are in season, I often find the driveway and lawn littered with black walnut, maple seed helicopters and tulip poplar seedlings sprouting up all over the place. Most of the little saplings are small enough that they come out easily, but there is one tulip seedling that took root near the garage what must have been a couple years ago, hidden in a tall patch of grass, that I never noticed. It is now over six feet high, and I cannot pull it out from the ground no matter how hard I try. I will have to, at some point, cut it down, and work hard to dig out the roots that have so stubbornly worked their way deep into the ground. Neglect has a way of catching up to us, and little things have a tendency to accumulate into big problems later on.

In 1 Samuel 15 the Lord gives the command to Saul "Go, now, attack the Amelekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them." (1 Sam 15:3) The Amelekites were a pernicious enemy of Israel. Saul carries out the command, but not in its entirety. He keeps king Agag alive, along with the best of the sheep and cattle..."everything that was good," reasoning that they could be sacrificed to the Lord as a holocaust.

What is the problem here? As Samuel confronts Saul later when he hears "the bleating of sheep and the lowing of oxen" that Saul had spared, he makes clear "The Lord anointed you king of Israel and sent you on a mission, saying, "Go and put the sinful Amalekites under a ban of destruction. Fight against them until you have exterminated them. Why then have you disobeyed the Lord?" (v18-19). Saul, in turn, maintains that he has obeyed the Lord, but Samuel calls him out:

"Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission better than the fat of rams." (v22)

The Lord, in turn, rejects Saul as ruler of Israel, the kingdom stripped from him, and Samuel is forced to finish what Saul failed to do by killing Agag himself before the Lord in Gilgal.

What is the takeaway here? I think this is a lesson for how God wants us to deal with things in our life that oppose His plans, i.e., sin. "Good enough" is not, in fact, good enough. Partial obedience is, in fact, no obedience at all. God doesn't want 99% of our hearts--he wants our hearts in their entirety. He is not satisfied with someone who puts a hand the plow and looks back, for such a person is not fit for the kingdom of God (Lk 9:62).

Saul was using worldly reasoning in his dealings with the Amelekites, keeping what he thought seemed good with the even more erroneous belief that it can be sacrificed to the Lord. A "better way" than what the Lord had proposed.

There is a danger here too--when sin is viewed as the cancer that it is, leaving 1% of cancerous cells is an invitation for them to multiply anew. The Old Testament is replete with commands against intermingling with pagans, "lest they make you sin against me by ensnaring you into worshipping their gods." (Ex 23:33).

This is a lesson for me, for there is more than "one thing that I lack," in my obedience to the Lord of Hosts. We should not 'consider' what the Lord commands, and then make our own judgements. We should obey! Like the bleating of the sheep that Saul left behind, so too do my sins bleat in the crevices I have hid them. When you surround yourself with godly people, they know the sound, so we have a tendency in sin to surround ourselves with people who can't hear, or don't make a big deal of it. We hide in the darkness, because darkness blankets and muffles the sound.

Light is not "99% light" or "sort-of" light, but LIGHT. That which is not light is darkness, and there is no in between. There is Heaven, and there is Hell. So too with the commands of the Lord, and so too with sin. It takes discernment and prayer to be attentive to what the Holy Spirit is calling us to, and it is so easy to turn a deaf ear or simply by filling our ears with the sound of the world. When we are given clear commands to do what is right and avoid what is evil, we would do well to listen lest we find ourselves stripped of the kingdom inheritance.