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Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?

Anyone?

Dear God,

It’s been a while since I wrote.

Thing is, I felt like I couldn’t reach you. Maybe it was the Church that did it. With its zealous campaign to remind us that we are flawed human beings, it overshot its target and made us believe that we were completely hopeless. Some of us, who already had a good sense of our depravity, became convinced that as fallen beings we had no access to you, no place by your side and really, no place even on this Earth. Instead of being empowered we were weakened. At some point we forgot that we were created in your image, and that you created us good.

We began spending many hours of each day in ritual self-flagellation. We beat ourselves up over not being good enough parents, bad church goers, non-tithers, immoral, apathetic, un-praying and uninvolved. Not only could be not talk to you, because, after all, we hadn’t read the Bible in so many days, weeks, months, but we weren’t good enough to go to church either. We had to take action in order to at least somehow justify our existence. So we wrote to-do lists, pushed ourselves to the limit, put ourselves down and promised to do better. This all must have looked ridiculous to you.

Or maybe it was our society. Goodness, what a bunch of health-conscious, environmentally aware confused individuals we are. The world told us to eat better, to drive less, to care for the minorities among us, and instead of joyfully taking it on, we were consumed with guilt – for eating sweets, throwing away plastic cans, driving instead of biking to work, using non-biodegradable materials. There was no joy in anything we did. We were only desperately, without any real hope, trying to make this world a little bit less of a horrible place to live. And us – just a rung higher up on the unending ladder of guilt and social responsibility.

This was your enemy’s work. He took all of the good that might have been intended, and deranged it. The father of lies had prevailed, if only temporarily, at his best craft. We came to believe, I believed, that we had to earn our place; that we had to deserve it. This was impossible, and we floundered around helplessly. This is why I hadn’t written.

But lately I noticed that this idea doesn’t quite jive with what you teach. In fact, it renders the death and resurrection of your Son completely absurd.

So I just wanted to drop you a line, let you know things are getting better. I am allowing myself the joy of not thinking about guilt. You thought of that already. Funny that it took me only 20 years of faith in you to realize this. But that’s OK too. You’re probably smiling right now, maybe even rolling your eyes a bit. But hey, better late than never, and in the grand scheme of things – it’s not late at all.

It’s the perfect time to be finding the child you love.

Poem by Vladimir Strochkov

(Translation: Anya Ezhevskaya)

I say that I’m tired, I’m tired, can’t do it, can’t
I’m tired, I tell him, let go me, let go
He doesn’t let go, won’t listen, again in his palm
He lifts me, he laughs, but you haven’t yet flown.
He says, as he laughs and he lifts me up over his head
Opens his fingers, tosses me into the sky
Fly! He says, I’m flying, I say, spitting grass
Let me go now, you saw – I was flying, I know how to fly.
I am tired, I say, let me go, but he just goes on
Picks me up again, tosses over his head
He laughs, you just fly to the bushes, he says.
And throws me, I’m tired, but he can’t understand
But I’m tired, I’m flapping as hard as I can
Tear up my face, but I reach the branch closest to me
okay, fine, but just this last time, I say, and he –
You’re crazy, you flew just there, I know, I say, let it be.
So how ’bout one more time? No, he says, that’s enough
I’m tired, get lost, he laughs, you’re annoying me too
But just once, I say, can’t, he says, go fly yourself
Well screw you oh Lord, my goodness, I’m tired of you.
And I laugh, he stares at me, I can’t help it, – it’s fun
Alright, he says, let’s do it – running start, and I run.

Original text:

Я говорю, устал, устал, отпусти,
не могу, говорю, устал, отпусти, устал,
не отпускает, не слушает, снова сжал в горсти,
поднимает, смеется, да ты еще не летал,
говорит, смеется, снова над головой
разжимает пальцы, подкидывает, лети,
так я же, вроде, лечу, говорю, плюясь травой,
я же, вроде, летел, говорю, летел, отпусти,
устал, говорю, отпусти, я устал, а он опять
поднимает над головой, а я устал,
подкидывает, я устал, а он понять
не может, смеется, лети, говорит, к кустам,
а я устал, машу из последних сил,
ободрал всю морду, уцепился за крайний куст,
ладно, говорю, но в последний раз, а он говорит, псих,
ты же летал сейчас, ладно, говорю, пусть,
давай еще разок, нет, говорит, прости,
я устал, отпусти, смеется, не могу, ты меня достал,
разок, говорю, не могу, говорит, теперь сам лети,
ну и черт с тобой, говорю, Господи, как я с тобой устал,
и смеюсь, он глядит на меня, а я смеюсь, не могу,
ладно, говорит, давай, с разбега, и я бегу.

Here is something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I have not resolved it, nor have I made peace with it being unresolved.

It’s the question of faith, and of sacrifice.

This is my issue: no matter which church I go to, pastors often talk about the need for us to have faith: “the faith of a mustard seed”, faith moving mountains, being faithful and trusting God for his providence, etc. They sometimes also talk about living a life of sacrifice, about picking up our respective crosses and following Jesus, about presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, as Paul so vividly describes in Romans. And if they’re feeling particularly brave or optimistic about their congregation’s ability to stomach less palatable truths, they’ll even tie the two concepts together, like this: if faith, then sacrifice. Faith. Therefore, sacrifice.

And I know, I know. Maybe these sermons occur more often towards the end of the financial year, where faith equates to more money in the offering, which in turn means the church meets its annual budget, or maybe the pastoral staff is reaching out to the many of us who would consider it a big sacrifice to spend one Friday afternoon a month volunteering at a homeless shelter. But pastors, if you’re going to talk about such serious topics, you have to realize that by virtue of the topics themselves, there may be some real, serious consequences.

It baffles my mind.

It’s like we can all be talking about faith and providence and studying our Bibles together, and then you come outside and start taking off your coat to give it to some homeless person so they don’t freeze and those same people start looking funny at you, “Hey, what are you doing? You’re gonna be cold like that…” And you think to yourself, “Didn’t we just all agree that we need to make Sacrifices and live in Faith…why not start with living without a coat?!” Or everyone reads about forgiveness together, heck, the whole Christian faith is based on the forgiveness of sins, and then when you’re forgiving someone who hurts you time and time again, you know, actually taking Christ’s command seriously and doing what He said, people get concerned about you being too “soft” for letting the other person “get away with it”.

I am not so much angry because some people don’t take this message seriously, but because the poor fools of us that do, can seriously get hurt . Ours is not a faith for the faint hearted.

Imagine this scenario: One day a mother of three small children receives a calling to go serve as a missionary in Afghanistan. She is certain of her call: it has all of the elements of the real thing – it will serve the Kingdom, it requires of her tremendous faith (especially when everyone in her family, her congregation, her work, and her entourage tries desperately to dissuade this woman, who they feel has lost her mind), and also, a great sacrifice. (As a side note, I don’t think there are “small” sacrifices. Those are called inconveniences. A sacrifice has to hurt, by definition.) So while everyone, religious and not, is trying to stop her, from the pulpit every Sunday she hears, “Have more faith, change the world, living sacrifice, walk like Jesus did…” Compelled by her personal experience and fueled on by the weekly preaching, she goes to Afghanistan, and is killed.

How do you begin to make sense of such a situation? Who was at fault? The woman, for not listening to the sober voices around her? The Church, for not considering the real impact powerful preaching (and even more powerful content) can have? God, for allowing her to act on her delusion and go through with it? Or no one at all, because she was not deluded and now, thanks to her, there’s a convert in Afghanistan who will go on to lead the nation in a process of peaceful reconciliation which will end warfare in the region as we know it and bring about a greater reconciliation of the Muslim and Christian worlds?

In mainstream Christian teaching, Abraham plays a vital role. His near-sacrifice of Isaac is said to foreshadow and parallel God’s sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is the father of our faith, the father of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he is the epitome of righteousness. We are supposed to model our faith on his, because he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3). But look at how he expressed his faith.

He was going to sacrifice Isaac. In other words, he was going to go up Mount Moriah and kill his son. Because God told him so.

Do pastors realize this when they tell their congregation about Abraham? Do they think of the possible consequences?

Yes, the traditional response is that this is to be taken metaphorically: we’re not to go out trying to sacrifice our children because God couldn’t possibly actually mean that. He didn’t even mean it back then. He was just testing Abraham’s faith, and Abraham wasn’t actually going to kill his own son, he knew that God would provide.

But THIS IS THE KIND OF FAITH that God wants! Not the faith that is safe, small, inconsequential. And when Paul talks about sacrifice, writing as an ailing man from prison, this is what Sacrifice means. Not giving up Sunday night football in order to go visit the elderly.

Imagine another, more frightening scenario: A middle-class, religious American Dad feels he receives a similar calling from God as Abraham did, to go sacrifice his son (the son that he’s been waiting for all of his life; his pride and joy…) to demonstrate his faith in God. So he goes through all of the chilling details of the preparation, and in the end there is a miracle and the child is left unharmed. “God has provided” the father believes.

Now this father’s only hope of getting anything less than life in prison is a plea of insanity. When he makes references to Father Abraham, people just shake their heads, bewildered.

Thinking about the potential of Abraham’s faith, I am both mesmerized and terrified. I do not know what to make of it.

This morning on NPR there was a brief interview with Richard Dawkins about the publication of his latest book on evolution (apparently he’s already written nine on the subject), called “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Unfortunately I cannot find that interview now, so I may have been experiencing an early morning hallucinogenic spell, induced by high levels of post-telecon adrenaline and low levels of sleep. Anyway, this man, who reportedly is part of the so-called “new atheist” movement, felt the need to return to writing about evolution “as fact” (his words, not mine) after coming out with a blockbuster hit – “The God Delusion”*.

(As a side note, I am quite disappointed with some atheists because they seem to have missed the target of their hatred/frustration/mocking sarcasm, and focus on being against religion rather than against God. According to the trusty http://www.m-w.com, atheism is just what you’d expect it to be: a disbelief in deity. But instead of talking about how God doesn’t exist, they seem to target religion. Which is kind of absurd, because even Jesus was against religion (enter: Pharisees). So guys, if you’re gonna waste all that energy and creative/intellectual potential on hating and just being against something, at least pick the right target. Goodness.)

But that’s another post.

Here I want to say a few words about why the Evolution vs. Creation issue is actually a non-issue. Well, it’s simple: because whether the world came to be in six days or five billion years just doesn’t matter in the sense that people think it does.

Fundamentalist creationists argue that the Judeo-Christian God created the universe(s), our Earth, and everything else up through Adam and Eve in six literal, 24-hour periods (some of the later ones being day/night). Evolutionists argue that first there was nothing, then, nothing exploded, and then, via random processes and natural selection, everything came to be. Personally, I think both of these views are equally brilliant. Which is why I am glossing over this and making criminal generalizations. Because, like I said, it doesn’t really matter.

Why is the Christian religious right so adamant about having Creation taught in schools, and just fighting for its “rightful” place in society? Because they, mistakenly, feel, that as evolution becomes the more and more widely accepted theory of how things came to be, there will be less and less place for God. Evolution will oust Him from His throne. People won’t need God as an explanation for why we are, why the universe is, and why, mysteriously, everything in nature is so darn fine-tuned to supporting life on Earth (as if someone planned it). Atheists fight for evolution for the same exact, faulty reason, thinking that once macro evolution is proven as fact (note: this will never happen because it is an epistemological impossibility), God will be dis-proven, by default.

I propose that the two theories in discussion are not at all set against each other, and that neither has the power/authority to debunk the other. We’re basically trying to compare apples and oranges.

While evolution may attempt to explain the mechanics of how change in nature occurs, it cannot answer some EPIC questions: what was there at the beginning, and what came before that? How can life come from non-life? (It’s not a matter of complex vs. simple, but of a qualitatively different matter). And finally: what about the human soul? At what point between chimpanzee ancestor and homo sapien sapien did we evolve souls, and why?

I know, I know: prove it that we have souls. I don’t think there’s a need to. Here’s why. Imagine you have a gerbil name Fluffball. Everything goes well for a while, then Fluffball dies. Your kid comes home from school and asks, “Where’s Fluffball?” You tell him, “Fluffball died. I left him in his cage, though…”. Now imagine you have a great aunt Ruth. She dies. You’re devastated. You drive to her home, and are met by her grieving husband. You tell him, “I would like to see her body…”. Later, there may be a public viewing of her body, before her body is cremated. If people are looking at her body, then where is she ? Where is her self? The language itself reveals that humans see themselves as bodies with a separate entity living inside. Roughly speaking, that would be the soul. Animals are not seen that way. It would be strange to say that “Fluffball’s body is buried beneath the tree…”

Anyway, I digress.

Just as evolution would do well by not trying to answer these questions, creationism would do likewise by leaving the science to the scientists. By insisting that everything happened in six 24-hour periods, religious folk do more harm than good by discrediting themselves. If God is who they say He is (ie. omnipotent), then why couldn’t He use evolution as a tool to bring His creation about? Makes sense to me….

Another thing to keep in mind about the roots of evolutionary theory: Darwin himself was never an atheist. He never intended his hypothesis to debunk Christianity or diminish the significance of creation.

Imagine your grandpa gives you a remote-controlled car for your birthday that he himself made. You are amazed and intrigued by it. At first it seems like magic – you maneuver toggle switches ten feet away from the car, and the car moves. Then you start taking it apart. You learn about remote-control signals, you begin to understand how your grandpa put it together. Now you think your pops is even cooler, because you see how brilliant he really is!

I imagine this, expanded drastically, is the wonder and joy that Darwin and other scientists before him felt at studying and learning more and more about the world they lived in, the world that they believed God created.

So to me, everyone’s just arguing about the mechanics of how He went about creating it. Granted, I believe in God.

*Feel free to read this
instead.

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