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anyas

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?

This morning at church our pastor talked about Saul’s conversion to Christianity as it was described in Acts. He mentioned the relief that Saul must have felt when Christ showed himself so clearly, because now he could stop trying to live the good life and measure up. In other parts of the New Testament Paul writes himself about the extent of his piety as a Jew. In Philippians 3, Paul lists his credentials: he is circumcised, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a man thoroughly versed in the scriptures, zealous, righteous, blameless…and yet he suffers deeply because his strivings towards perfection only point to his inability to be good enough; to win God’s grace, to earn His love. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death…”

Our pastor went on to say that, “In Christ Saul received the freedom from the frustration and despair of trying to be good enough…”

As is almost inevitable these days, my thoughts took his words and wondered to the topic of my failed marriage. I could see myself in Saul. I too had labored long and hard to get the right credentials. I prayed and I forgave and I put forth tremendous effort to DO everything to make the marriage work. Time and time again, I did the right thing. My actions were praiseworthy from every point of view.. And yet, I was wretched. And no closer to causing myself to be joyful, and no closer to saving the marriage.

During all of our years together, I did not feel like I had the freedom to give up. The freedom to fail.

I remembered a conversation I had with my youth pastor many years earlier. I asked him what he thought about the idea mentioned by many non-Christians that we believers use God as our crutch. He responded merrily, “Well, they’re wrong. We don’t use God as a crutch – He’s more like a stretcher.”

The beautiful thing about salvation is this: once you realize that you can’t be good enough, that it’s not at all ABOUT being good enough, you’re free. And God offers himself as the stretcher equally to those that seem almost perfect, and to those that are FAR from good enough. I thought about that, and about weakness, mine, and strength – his. Another conversation came to mind, one with a close friend that I had a few months ago. A non-believer, he told me that I have to let weakness consume me. That my future, my hope – was in my weakness. I wondered if he intended to mean then what I now understood that phrase meant.

And I made a decision today at church: I am SO over trying to be good enough. I am not good enough. And it doesn’t even matter. I’m not going to continue limping, putting on a smile and pretending I have this under control. I’m kind of tired, actually. Where’s that stretcher?…

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.

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