Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Gamble

"Now evr'y gambler knows / that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
cause evr'y hand's a winner / and evr'y hands a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep." - Don Schlitz "The Gambler"

One of the interesting parts of my job is the number of people I come into contact with on a regular basis. I have mentioned it before, but I often come into contact with the "Great Unwashed" - a vast collection of those people in our society who have minor problems that need resolution. When you have been doing this as long as I have, you get to know the both the people, that is, the regulars, and the type, that is the regular types of people that come in.

There's the soccer mom, who rarely has problems and is clearly embarrassed by her presence. There's the business man, whose visit is a waste of his valuable time and hates being near the other unwashed - people who are clearly beneath him. There's the high school and college student, kids (yes, kids) whose life experiences lack an appreciation of the repercussions of their actions - both short term and long term. There's the unprivileged, those for whom violence, arguments, fights, drinking and drugs are an every day way of life - and have been their entire lives - and their problems are not their fault but others. And there's the privileged, those whose money and wealth can't buy them happiness, but can certainly stave off their own loneliness - if only temporarily.

Of late, two particular people stand out. I will call them Audrey and Michael (not their real names).

Audrey's story is really not unique. Audrey is a middle aged woman with teenage children. A single mother, Audrey traded on her looks long past the time she should, but still believes her gregarious nature and the wiles can make others overlook a multitude of problems. About 8 months ago, Audrey joined the ranks of the few and the proud i.e., the crowd that I work with a few times a month. Audrey's problem was alcohol. Nothing in her record would indicate that she has an ongoing problem with alcohol, and so a standard course of treatment was prescribed. Six or seven months of working with her, monitoring her and making sure she was following the prescribed plan was all that she needed. And so for six months she did everything according to plan. She was a shining example of complete rehabilitation and the success of the therapy.

And so her final visit was scheduled and it was anticipated that it would be routine. When she called to say that she would be a little late because she was caught in traffic, no one really thought much of it. Her traffic delay was a little longer than she anticipated. She finally made it a little after lunch time but because her appointment was in the morning she stood in front of me demanding to complete her appointment before the afternoon crowd.

Big mistake, as my patience tends to have some limits.

While she was standing there demanding of me, I noticed she wobbled just a bit. Now I've been doing this long enough to know what that means, and you have probably already guessed it - she was drunk.

I don't just mean drunk, I mean tanked. Wasted. Knee-walking. Hammered. Way over the top.

Based on her test given at the time, this woman, who drove herself to the appointment, was two and one half times the legal limit. (For the math challenged like me, that is .20, the legal limit being .o8). This woman had put countless people in danger to come to her appointment, late, to convince us that her alcohol therapy had worked. And that tends to make me angry.

She gambled that we wouldn't discover the extent of her problem. She lost.

Because of our own liability, our protocol said we could not allow her to leave. (Imagine how little faith we have in people to come to their appointments sober that we have an established protocol for a someone who doesn't. Let that sink in.) So we had to sit her down until such time as she was sober enough to leave, but we would not allow her to drive under any circumstances. So we reset her final appointment for two weeks later, and sent her to sober up.

Then this middle aged mother of teenagers had to do something unthinkable - once she had sobered up enough to leave, she had to call her 16 year old son to come and pick her up. How humiliating that must have been for her. How life-changing that event must have been not only for her, but for her child as well. I cannot even begin to imagine the emotions of that moment fo her but more importantly for him.

This woman had no hint of problems. Not one. No inkling of a problem. Nothing in her history to even suggest it. So when she showed up two weeks later for her final visit I knew we would have to discuss the events of the last one.

Unfortunately, that was not possible, for on her next "final visit", just last week, she showed up smelling of alcohol. This time, though, her test only showed .09, but still over the legal limit. And yes, she drove herself again. Once again, we had to invoke our protocol. And once again, she had to call her son to come get her.

Running through my mind were the words of Proverbs 26:11 - "Like a dog to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." Working in this environment one can certainly see the truth of the total depravity of man. And it would be very easy, and at times is very easy for me, to fall into the despair. Our lives are set and we can only change ourselves so much, and no more.

Then there is the story of Michael.

I wish I could say that Michael's story is better, and in some ways I guess it is. Michael is 20 years old, lives in an adjoining state, about a three hour drive, works at a Burger King, and is the type of kid that has probably been picked on regularly since middle school, and bullied all through his life. A bit socially awkward, perhaps caused by a slight stutter, but still always made his appointments pleasant and was nice to talk to. Michael and I talked for about 10 minutes about his problem, and he seemed like he was happy to talk with someone about the problem. No sense of anger, or lack of personal responsibility, Michael approached his appointment and our discussion with a sense of relief and joy.

Like Audrey, Michael's problem was also alcohol, though no where near the extent of Audrey's problem. Just simply being 20 years old and drinking alcohol is a problem. And of course, my goal is to see that his problem never gets to the extent of Audrey's. And again, we have our protocols, and our treatments, and Michael's treatment was fairly simple and could be accomplished long distance in the state where he currently lives, with treatment compliance being monitored and concluded without the need for him to return.

As a part of our protocol, we set Michael for a final visit really just to check to make sure we had received everything, but not expecting Michael to show up. But at the appointed time, Michael showed up for his appointment without any evidence of compliance with the treatment plan. Again, we talked for about 10 minutes. He explained that his work and schedule had precluded him from completing his program in the alotted time, and promised that if given another chance he would get it done and send us everything.

Hoping against hope, we set his final appointment again with enough time for him to complete it, and with the hope that he would not have to make the journey again. But, as you guessed, the appointed day arrived and there was Michael, sitting patiently in the crowd, having made the 3 hour trek just to make his appointment. And again, you guessed it, he had done nothing. Again we talked for about 10 minutes about the issues, but coming up with an alternate plan for completing his program, as it was clear that he could not do it from where he was living. He looked a little sad as he left, though. And then it hit me.

As he walked away I realized something about him that he had in common with Audrey, and perhaps most of the other people I see in that place - he was lonely. I always try to treat people decently, even when they screw up completely. And one place he felt safe and respected and treated with some modicum of dignity was at those appointments. Audrey sought solace from her loneliness in a bottle, having found no comfort in her relationships, even with her own children. Many of the people I see in that place truly live what I, in my exalted view of myself, think of as sad lives, seeking solace from sources and places from which they can never find true relationship and peace. Lulled to sleep by things that provide only a temporary feelings of being alive, only to be realize the isolation it actually brings.

We are taught, at least in modern philosophy, that our lives are dealt to us and certain things we cannot change. Our lives are what we make of them. "Every hand's a winner, and every hand's a loser" and you have to know what parts of our lives to throw away and what to keep. But ultimately all we can hope for is to die with little or no pain in our sleep, as if we had never lived. And Audrey's story, repeated far too often, convince me that there is some truth to that. We just need someone to show us the way.

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, made an interesting observation, often repeated: "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." I see, on a constant basis, restless people - lonely people. People who long for something they know not what and asleep to the truths of the gospel. People, whose only hope is to die in their sleep, numbed to the pain that the loneliness of isolation from Christ brings.

Now I am not naive enough to think that the pat answer of "they need Jesus" is in any way sufficient. Rather, I know that even though I am just like them, I have a hope that there is something better than the hand I have been dealt. And a hope that I pray is displayed in the graciousness and respect of others, and a confidence of contentment with myself.

Peter said, "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..." I Peter 3:15.

The verse is often used as a pretext for "apologetics", i.e, arguing people into the Kingdom of God. But a true understanding of the depravity of man, the loneliness of man, the restlessness of depravity, helps us understand that we can not argue anyone into the Kingdom of God. Rather, I think verse teaches us to live life in such a way, that hope, the very power of Christ to bring life, is evident from who we are, our very being. And it anticipates that when people see that hope in us, they will ask the reason why we have such hope.

And it is that verse, that understanding that through Christ loneliness is vanquished, that keeps me going back. I see people who have been rejected in so many places, and so many ways. But I know there is hope, even for them. The hope that if Christ can change me, make me a person who in some way shows that there is hope, and a reason to be alive, to make others feel accepted even when they disappoint, that just maybe I can give them a glimpse of this Christ I know.

Springing up within us is the Hope of the World - hope for the soccer moms, the businessmen, the kids who can't see the future, the unprivileged and the privileged, the Audreys and the Michaels. I have come to realize that God has given to each of us a ministry, a place of service, if for no other reason than to proclaim His hope.

At least, that's the real gamble, the risk I am called to take. That God has put me in this position to display His grace in Christ and that my "ministry" is perhaps exactly the ministry God calls us all to- to show His hope to the world in which we live in.

And that these people, the "unwashed" need the hope of Christ as much as any other person in my part of the world.

And that each of us travel different paths in a world filled with people whose only hope is that they die in their sleep. Indeed. How sad.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Riding The Bus

“Falseness often lurks beneath fair hair.” - Danish Proverb

Almost 53 years ago, on December 1, 1955, a young woman's bus ride began that would land the first black man on the steps of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave, not as a servant, but as President of the United States. Though not the first person, Rosa Parks refused the command of a Montgomery bus driver to give up her seat for a white person, and thus was born the civil rights movement in this country.

Black churches around the country soon galvanized and began to launch staging points for protests, and rallies, and voter turn out, generating both support, but more likely hatred, from the white community. None of us should forget the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the water hoses and police dogs, Bull Conner and the beating of the Freedom Riders right here in our fair city.

Nonetheless, the black church now had a mission: To point out and rectify the social, economic, and legal injustice that plagued the country from its founding: slavery and inequality was wrong for all but blacks. Black pastors decried the unjust system from their pulpits, organized marches, and thought through strategies on ways to change the system, sometimes through legal means, and other times through violence.

These pastors adopted many of the thoughts, theology, and actions of Liberation Theology, a movement originating in the Roman Catholic Church in South America in the 60's and 70's. This movement, a hybrid of Christian Theology and Marxism, held to the tenet that Jesus came to "free the prisoners and release the oppressed." It is the job of the people, and the church, they say, to force its government to recognize and deliver rights to the oppressed, and bring about the equality that Jesus came to give. From MLK's nonviolent marches to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground's violent protests and acts, change was going to be forced on the American people. The revolution was here.

Thus was born the liberal social movement, or revolution, in our country.

This Christian "revolution" would shortly transform the American political landscape, giving us the Rainbow/Push Coalition, the NAACP, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al. Sharpton and most recently Rev. Jeremiah Wright and host of other less well known preachers. Race and equality would be subsumed in the larger context of ever broadening "rights" together with correspondingly decreased personal responsibility. The movement ultimately left even its loose theological roots to become nothing more than community organizing for every cause that could bring them to power.

But never fear, for while all this was going on, real Christian Americans, a/k/a white, middle class Christian Americans, moved by the spirit, organized and would not be outdone politically. Strangely silent during the equal rights marches of the 50s and 60s, they were content to maintain the most segregated hour in America, 11:00 AM on Sunday morning. But this liberal social agenda was more than they could bear.

In the late 70s and early 80s, such stalwart and fundamentally godly men like the late Rev Jerry Falwell, TV evangelist Pat Robertson, and men like W.A. Criswell, Adrien Rogers, and others within the Southern Baptist Convention formulated the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. The marches of the 50s and 60s, and the riot at the '68 Democratic Convention weren't enough to dislodge them from their complacency, but the loss of political power and the rise of threats to the conservative white church made them realize they had to be organized as well.

And so it would be theirs to let America know, through the ballot box, what Christians are against.

Credited with Ronald Reagan's big victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, the sheer numbers of God's people on the right made a formidable political ally, and opponent, for some twenty five years, culminating with the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. The work of God through the evangelical right (as opposed to the evangelical left, which is primarily black churches) is to paint the opposing party (ie Democratic) candidate, position, initiative or plan as un-Christian, Marxist, and or satanic. The woes of America, they would proclaim, exist because of godless morality, none more godless than the current political opponent (ie Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Kerry, and Obama). Christians had to stand up and tell godlessness to go away, or this sacred country would fall.

They stirred white Christians with the promise that "if my people will humble themselves and pray, then God will hear from heaven and heal their land." Obviously, the United States of America is God's gift to the world, and as Christians it is the Church's job to protect God's gifts. Wrap God in the American flag, and the true American candidate in God, and you have a winning formula. Who would dare vote against God?

Politically savvy, this "Moral Majority" would energize their own base to go vote with a host of initiatives that Christians are against. Christians gave little thought to why ballot initiatives such as gay marriage amendments and readily accessible abortions initiatives appeared on the ballot in swing states at the same time as a presidential election. All they know is they needed to be there to make sure they voted God's way. Oh, and while there, they should also pull the lever for God's man to be in office.

Apparently, God needed a little help to get His man elected, because the power of the heathen left is too much for God to handle by His lonesome.

And in the midst of all this, Satan laughed. The fog of god-talk on both sides left the church in the lurch. So caught up in the politics of the moment the two groups forgot that they each proclaim a common tie: an abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Their political agendas of social liberalism and conservative Christianity had overwhelmed their doctrine.

The right called into question the faith of the left by asking, "how can any Christian be for equality and social justice for people like that?" and the left responds, appropriately, "how could any Christian be against equality and social justice for anyone, regardless of who they are and what they have done?"

The right wanted to turn the church into the country, and the left wanted to turn the country into the church.

But if Christ died to give the world the United States of America, then for over 1700 years, He failed. But perhaps democracy was not what he had in mind after all, but rather a church rooted in Him and built up. Perhaps it was the church He died for that was to be the the place the world should look when oppression and injustice become too much to bear?

Paul said in Colossians 3:11-17, in speak of our duty as Christians:

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The church has flourished in times of governmental adversity, and decayed in times of governmental consent. One need only look at the church during the reign of the wrathful Roman emperors and in modern day China and compare it to the Church during the inquisition, the reformation, and World War II. We have reached the day where being a good American and a good Christian are synonymous.

The church, whether on the right or the left, should remember that a resort to politics to bring about the Kingdom of God is a damning statement that the church has failed. It is a damnable statement to say that there is no hope in Christ, only in governments led by failed and corrupt people.

In the violence of the world, the hurricanes of injustice and inequality will ebb and flow. But among God's people, the church, there is to be haven and safety, acceptance and peace. Not to change the world, but rather because of changed hearts that provide shelter.

While the government is important to all of our lives, it is the church, not the United States of America, where one should look to find equality, hope, love, support and wisdom. Our hope is in Christ, and not the constitution.

Regardless of the government, the church should be the one place where something is done because it is the right thing to do.

On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, we have the government-created right to elect a leader of this country, and one which we as God's people should exercise. No matter who it is you vote for, that choice will be a selfish one in which you will decide who will make you most comfortable with the future unknowns.

But in the end, Christ's kingdom is not on the line, and we wield no power over God's sovereign plan for His people. A vote for Obama is not a vote against God, nor is a vote for McCain a vote for God. Our witness to the truths of Christ is not found in our political record, but how we love one another.

Its His bus, and like Rosa Parks, we are just along for the ride.

Perhaps Rosa would have done more for our country by sitting on the front pew of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery.

But then again, perhaps it is easier to find justice and equality in courts and governments than in the church.