Spirituality and Mental Health: Renouncing Anti-Sleep Prejudice

The church of the São Pedro de Alcântara convent is decorated with azulejo panels depicting the life of the Spanish saint Pedro de Alcántara, born Juan de Garabito y Vilela de Sanabria (1499-1562). His extreme mysticism suggests a number of psychological pathologies, exacerbated by the practice of constant sleep deprivation. From Wikimedia Commons

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

(Proverbs 6:9-11)

It’s important to set the verse above in context: it follows an admonition about getting out of debt to a moneylender. It is not a condemnation of rest. Even so, there are frequent Proverbs about “laziness” being an obstacle to wealth, and there is a consistent anti-sleep prejudice in many religious works and traditions.

I think it’s important to set this kind of anti-sleep prejudice apart from the tradition of vigil-keeping and self-denial. Many observant Christians stay up all night for an Easter vigil, atoning for the way Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). Occasional fasting from sleep is a form of spiritual discipline, and some forms of mystical sleep deprivation may be part of our spiritual growth.

What we have learned over the last few decades, though, is that “laziness” is not necessarily what it seems. Even procrastination and energy-conversation are not character flaws. They are often responses to trauma or indicate a brain dealing with a complex and contradictory set of goals. In fact, poverty and the fear of poverty are part of what create sleep problems. Worry about money keeps many of us awake! But in our capitalist society we often think it’s the other way around: laziness begets poverty.

Whether we see sleep as lazy or virtuous largely depends on our cultural frame of reference. In societies where afternoon naps are the norm, people often live longer and have a higher quality of life. Western white supremacy and colonialism has often described such siesta practices as lazy, but sleep science has shown that napping can boost creativity and well-being. A famous study of a Greek island that phased out its afternoon nap time saw rates of heart disease rocket upwards.

It is also important to remember that the Biblical proverbs about laziness were written 2000 years ago, way before the invention of the electric lightbulb. People likely slept much longer in pre-industrial agrarian societies. We have artificially lengthened the day with electric lights and glowing screens. While there is considerable debate about the best way to structure sleep (in one long chunk or divided into different cycles), it is hard to deny that many modern people are chronically sleep deprived, and that this deprivation compounds other mental and physical illnesses.

I think it is important for us to renounce anti-sleep prejudice for what it is: moralistic and colonizing. Regular, regenerative sleep is part of our incarnate life. All animals sleep in some way, and denying the importance of sleep is a way to deny our creatureliness. Theologically, anti-sleep prejudice is a misguided attempt to be God, to be “all-knowing and ever-present” by rejecting sleep, and it is driven by our fear of missing out and our fear of being unproductive.

For people whose identity is rooted in capitalism and doing, sleep represents a sin against our way of valuing human activity. We should take a page from Jesus, who had no problem simply being, and even took a nap in the back of a boat during a thunderstorm.

Prayer:
Forgive us, Creator of Sleep, for trying to be God.
Sing us a divine lullaby when we lay down our heads in peace.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping Buddha, Oriental Gardens, Monte Palace Tropical Garden, Madeira, Portugal, by H. Zell, from Wikimedia Commons

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

(Psalm 127:2)

I grew up hearing that our essential needs were water, food, shelter, and clothing. Research in the last decade has shown that sleep is just as important as these, and may be second only to water. Going without sleep will kill you faster than fasting from food.

Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.

Some Christian leaders of previous generations valorized going without sleep. A properly sanctified person, they argued, would only need four or five hours of rest. They believed too much sleep was a sign of laziness or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The urgency of saving souls or working for the kingdom was more important than sleep. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by John Wesley:

“I am fully convinced, by an observation continued for more than fifty years, that whatever may be done by extraordinary persons, or in some extraordinary cases (wherein persons have subsisted with very little sleep for some weeks, or even months,) a human body can scarce continue in health and vigour, without at least, six hours’ sleep in four-and-twenty.”

The consensus of sleep scientists is that an eight-hour sleep opportunity is ideal. Six is far too little. John Wesley concedes that when some of his contemporaries advocate three or four hours, they are being a little bit extreme.

I’d like to say we know better now, but capitalism and the Protestant work ethic continue to praise those who work late into the evening and into the next day. “Pulling an all-nighter” is a sign of dedication—even though the quality of our study and work gets worse the longer we go without sleep.

I believe sabbath rest is supposed to be a reminder of the importance of rest, not just once a week but every day. Nearly a third of our life is spent in this state of altered consciousness, when our brains store and rearrange information and regenerate their learning and feeling capacity. But like fussy infants, we refuse to sleep because we don’t understand the suffering we are inflicting on ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and sharing some reflections on the Bible and other religious texts.

Prayer:
Creator of Sleep, God of Sabbath Rest and Restorer of Life, help us to sleep well. Change our society into one that values the importance of sleep.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Critiquing Your Own Religiosity (Even if You Aren’t Religious)

Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from Wikimedia Commons

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
(Romans 12:3)

There is a tendency for religious people to get carried away with their religiosity. People have flogged themselves with whips or worn hair shirts to “mortify the flesh” (which is the way the ancient King James language renders Romans 8:13). Monks who fasted sometimes worried that if they swallowed their own saliva, God would hold it against them for breaking their fast.

Sex is one area where religious people get especially carried away. Religious people throughout history, tormented by the idea that sexual arousal or pleasure is sinful, have policed their thoughts for any hint of lust. If they let their eyes linger on a lingerie advertisement or nude painting, they feel they have violated Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). They hear these words literally and spend their lives terrified of hellfire, though presumably it was God who created us as sexual beings and, perhaps through some oversight, established sex as the way human beings would reproduce.

People who sought out life in a monastery were often trying to escape their mental torment, but they found they could not escape themselves. The monk Martin Luther would go to confession multiple times a day. He couldn’t feel confident that he was truly sorry, or that his plea for forgiveness was genuine enough. He imagined God as a bright light that illuminated all of his sins. He had a spiritual conversion, though, when he realized that the light was not God: it was the devil. Martin came to understand that Jesus’ work had made his own sinfulness irrelevant—God loved him enough to forgive those sins. Why should he doubt God’s ability to forgive him, or that forgiveness require him to gin up some “real” guilty feelings? His personal conversion transformed not only his own theological thinking, but started the Protestant Reformation.

So it was that many monastics learned to be gentle with these zealous tendencies, because religiosity often masks deep wounds or insecurities. Wise monks wrote about the dangers of “heroic faith,” the tendency for us to try to impress God or win some kind of cosmic virtue contest. Roberta Bondi, telling stories of these ancient monastics, writes,

Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They had to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed… How much easier it is to daydream about the dramatic acts of love and self-sacrifice I or the church might make to prove our love of God or neighbor!

Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 47

An abbott of a monastery prescribed an unusual therapy for one of his monks who was worried about his own sinfulness: he told him to steal small things from his fellow monks. The abbott would then return the items at night. Today, we can see that this was a form of exposure therapy. The abbott was training the young monk to worry less about his sinfulness by prescribing theft.

The human tendency toward heroic moralism is not merely a religious one. I find the same sorts of guilt, doubt, and self-incrimination in activist and social justice circles. The language is often just as harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it does rise to the level of mental health problem: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder expressed in religious terms is called scrupulosity, which Joseph Ciarrocchi explores in his book The Doubting Disease.

But even if our doubt and self-recrimination doesn’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, it’s important to recognize that even God doesn’t want us to be too religious. Our job isn’t to become moral heroes. It’s more important for us to learn to be truly human in solidarity with all the other weak and vulnerable humans on this planet.

Prayer:
Author of Life, wherever our religion works against on your desired flourishing for all of creation, help us to humbly critique our own religiosity.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

A Changing Spiritual Ecosystem

I do not think most people in the majority-white institutional church have any idea what is coming. Things are going to be radically different post-COVID, and not just because Trumpism has exposed white evangelicalism for the sham it is. Climate change is going to force a reckoning with the toxic theology of creation promoted by Christian colonizers and crusaders. The role of clergy is going to change because both economic reality and the mission of the church will make our jobs increasingly tenuous. New research into the nature of consciousness and religious experience is revealing the wisdom of non-Christian traditions that church leaders have shunned and condemned as heresy. As in the Great Reformation, people are claiming their own spiritual power and authority and the validity of their own experience outside of the church. The Southern Baptist church rejects critical race theory the way certain church leaders rejected the heliocentric model of the solar system, but the message is the same: white Christian men ain’t the center of the universe.

I felt a call to ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, and answered it with the understanding that part of my role would be to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, to provide alternatives to the dominant and dominating theology of the South, to help people meet Jesus in community and in their neighbors in new settings. In many ways, the change that is coming has been one that I have been advocating for my whole life.

And now that it is here, I greet it with fear and trembling. I’m having to rethink my own ministry and how to keep doing the things I feel God calls me to do. I do believe that what is being born will be a better version of “church” than the capitalist suburban Americana we’ve been taught to expect. But the spiritual ecosystem is changing, and what will emerge is anyone’s guess.

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 6: Whiteness and Drug Policy

Simplified visualization of the persistence homological scaffolds. left: normal state. right: under the psilocybin effect, by G. Petri, P. Expert, F. Turkheimer, R. Carhart-Harris, D. Nutt, P. J. Hellyer, F. Vaccarino. In plain language, the image on the left represents neural connection in a normal brain, and the right represents connectivity under psilocybin. From Wikimedia Commons

I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:

  1. I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
  2. I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
  3. I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
  4. It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humane and cheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
  5. I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
  6. I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.   

I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.  

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.

All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.

Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.

There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.

It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.

Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.

Prayer:
Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 5: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Children playing in a fountain in Centurion, South Africa, by Brian van der Spuy. From Wikimedia Commons

“What are you experiencing, David?” asked Bill.
“Um… I see some stained glass patterns, I think. There’s some movement and a faint light.”

I was about twenty minutes into a psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins. I was lying on a couch wearing an eyeshade and headphones. My support team sat next to me on the floor. An automatic blood pressure cuff gently squeezed my arm every thirty minutes, monitoring my body for signs of distress.

What I was thinking was, “Man, this is kind of a let-down. If I’ve gone through all this—taking time off work, telling my life story three or four times, filling out hours of screening forms and questionnaires, and this is all I get—I will be pretty disappointed.”

“And what will I do with my disappointment?” The question came floating up from deep inside me.

I looked down and realized I was holding my disappointment. I was cradling it, like a baby. And I was weeping with deep, wrenching sobs. I realized I had been carrying so much unacknowledged disappointment, hopes for ministry and for life and relationships. I had been unwilling and unable to acknowledge it. And almost as suddenly, I realized that God was also cradling me, like a mother, while I cradled my disappointment. She was telling me that it was okay to have hopes, and okay to be disappointed, and that I was loved more deeply than I could possibly imagine. And then she proceeded to show me how much I was loved.

I realized that I could not be truly grateful if I did not acknowledge my disappointment. I could not simply “put a brave face on it” and pretend to be cheery. And once I had acknowledged it, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was right and good in my life.

And that was all in the first 45 minutes.

At the end of a six-hour session, I felt as if I had been through six months of psychotherapy, as though I had lived a whole other life before coming home to my own skin and my own reality. In the days after, I felt more grounded, grateful, and stable. I felt more loving toward my friends, family, and even strangers. I was overwhelmed with appreciation of the beauty and mystery of life. Almost two years later, I still feel the lingering effects and the lessons of that first session. I know in my bones that God does not expect me to act grateful when I’m not, to feel the way I think I “should” feel. And that makes me more free to be truly grateful and to love.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is an emerging field. It is being tested as a treatment for drug addiction, PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression. It has shown promise in reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners. One friend I know kicked a 30-year heroin habit after one session with an indigenous plant medicine. He has been clean ever since.

There is a lot of hype about psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy, and I think it is important to remain cautious about “new” therapies. People who are chasing an experience may not reap the full benefit of these substances because there is psychological, internal work that needs to happen in tandem. It cannot replace talk therapy. Our capitalist, consumerist, pharmacological approach to physical and mental health is about pill-popping and miracle cures, about “superfoods” and consuming or avoiding the trendy ingredient du jour. Big Pharma, like other industries, only makes money by commodifying wellness. My fear is that psychedelic therapy will experience the same fate.

But its roots are in positive psychology, indigenous practices, and holistic understandings of mental health and human society. Not only does it have the potential to help people who are suffering from mental illness, it has the potential to help “well” people thrive.

I wanted to spend this week focusing on drug policy and the church because this is a prime example of the way racism hurts everybody. These substances have been locked away for fifty years because the Nixon White House—and subsequent leaders—wanted to disrupt Civil Rights and the antiwar movements. Instead of healing people, we’ve been locking them away for decades, creating more generational trauma instead of healing it.

But there is a better way for us to be.

Prayer:
God of Salvation, you salve our wounds and heal all our diseases. Help us to be agents of healing in our selves, our culture, and our planet. Amen.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 4: Harm Reduction

Needle Exchange, by Danielteolijr. From Wikimedia Commons

How should we treat people who use drugs? There are two general schools of thought. The first is that users “should” experience all the negative consequences of their drug use: poverty, homelessness, illness, pain and suffering—in order to coerce them into better behavior. Actions or policies that are not geared toward total abstinence are considered “enabling.” We often call this “tough love.” This is an individualistic approach, and it is what we as a society have been trying for centuries. It doesn’t work.

The second school of thought accepts that drug use happens and is part of human society. While drug abuse does harm to people and society, this approach is about harm reduction: helping people avoid some of the worst consequences of drug use, empowering them to make their own choices about what will ultimately make them happy and productive, and giving drug users a voice in designing policies that will help them. It looks at addiction as a systemic problem exacerbated by poverty, hunger, poor relationships, and homelessness—and not just as the cause of those things. Harm reduction might be providing clean needles to heroin users to reduce the spread of HIV, or giving community organizers training in the use of naloxone to prevent deaths by opioid overdose. It might even mean giving people a safe place to use drugs so that they are not robbed or sexually abused by others, where they can be prevented from harming themselves or others.

I need to distinguish between harm reduction and enabling. Parents of adults, for example, are not obliged to provide their sons or daughters with a safe space to get high, especially if that drug use impacts their ability to earn a living or pay for their own upkeep. In such cases, firm boundaries may be most appropriate. Enabling is making excuses or being dishonest about the harm caused by drug abuse. Harm reduction acknowledges harm and reduces it.

It’s worth asking, though, why a society that has plenty of homes sitting empty (often due to foreclosure) and more than enough food cannot provide food and shelter for all of its citizens. When people who abuse drugs have secure housing and enough food, they are better able to curb their addictive behaviors. Homeless persons who use drugs are better able to get clean and sober if they have a safe place to live. This shouldn’t be surprising! Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Food, clothing, and shelter are prerequisites to long-term decision making. Making these needs contingent on socially-acceptable behavior—as our current policy does—is a set up for failure.

As I said Tuesday, I tend to believe that people will thrive under the right conditions. Sure, there is a nature and nurture argument to be made about whether our environment determines our destiny, or whether our will and character do. But living things have a built-in drive toward living—not self-destruction, and when we see large numbers of people failing to thrive, it is an indicator that something is wrong in the environment. We do not blame plants for failing to grow without sunlight, or babies for failing to grow without love!

I believe there is more than enough suffering in the world that occurs naturally, but that we—as individuals and a society—manufacture more than necessary. This is a somewhat Buddhist way of describing what Charles Wesley called “our bent to sinning.” It is not so much a moral or judgmental statement as a practical one: we do harm to ourselves. We do not participate in the abundant life God designed us to live.

For followers of Jesus Christ, our primary task is figuring out what embodied love looks like in our world. The Wesleys came up with three general rules for the people they called Methodists: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. While I think there are situations where “tough love” and boundary setting are necessary and appropriate, I think Christians have to be the public voice of “do no harm” in policy discussions. For too long, we have chosen “tough love” over genuine love, and this attitude has lent influence to both white supremacy and greed.

Prayer:
God of Abundant Life, help us live according to your present abundance instead of imagined scarcity. Teach us to do no harm.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 3: Plant Medicine in Religion

Peyote Cactus, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From Wikimedia Commons. Over-harvesting by recreational users has put this life form at risk, jeopardizing indigenous practices that are thousands of years old.

On Good Friday in 1962, 20 divinity students gathered in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University to hear a sermon delivered by Howard Thurman. Ten of them received a dose of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms.” The other ten received a placebo. Of the ten who received psilocybin, most reported having one of the most profound spiritual experiences of their lives. Nine of them became clergy and were still clergy several years later. In the control group, only four did.

Some psychedelics have been called “entheogens,” because they generate an experience of God (theo). In addition to perceptual changes, people often feel a presence or closeness to the divine, or a sense that they perceive ultimate reality. It would be easy to say that this is “all in their head,” except that we can apply the same brain science to people praying or meditating and see similarities. All spiritual experiences are brain experiences.

And there’s good evidence that such substances have had a role in the development of religions for thousands of years. Some indigenous people in the Amazon use ayahuasca, and in North America use peyote, and in Australia use pituri. (It’s important to note that only by seeking institutionalization as a “church” did indigenous people in North America gain protection for their spiritual practices, and religious use of peyote only received federal protection in 1996.)

Recent archeological evidence even suggests that Jews in ancient Israel burned cannabis on the sacrificial altar. For thousands of years, in temples and cathedrals, burning incense even provided a mild psychoactive effect, boosting mood and making humans more open to spiritual experiences. If these substances can aid or create a sense of transcendence, why would we be surprised that they had religious significance? When we open the Bible to Ezekiel and read of visions of wheels full of eyes, it is easy to imagine that some kind of naturally-occurring psychedelic played a role in his visions.

And why shouldn’t they? If, as I said on Monday, the Tacana people of the Amazon are right, and God did indeed provide a cure for every human ailment in the plants among us, why wouldn’t God include a substance that would make us more open to visions and inspiration? Drug policy reformers often point out that “drug” is a pharmacological term, a modern word that implies industrial production (from the words “dry goods”), whereas a more appropriate term that respects indigenous and historical origins is “plant medicine.” These naturally-occurring substances are living beings, part of a sacred web of life which includes human beings.

Two years ago, I was a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins study of entheogens and religious leaders. The study was an exploration of how faith leaders would interpret psilocybin-induced mystical experiences. I had two sessions in a safe, supervised setting, and I was asked to compare these experiences with other spiritual experiences. I have no hesitation saying these were as “genuine” as my encounters with God in my conversion or call to ministry. Moreover, I would say these experiences left me permanently changed, with a deeper appreciation of being fully present and in the moment. I have less anxiety and more confidence that there is life beyond this one. I feel more connected to other human beings, and—I think—I am more loving towards them.

There is a natural tendency for those of us raised in American Christianity to view this kind of spiritual experience as somehow “cheating.” Shouldn’t mystical visions require days of fasting prayer, long pilgrimages, and long dark nights of the soul? But this attitude is what we call “achievement spirituality.” It has its roots in the notion that we have to earn God’s favor, and that mystical fellowship with God simply couldn’t be as simple as opening your hand to receive it. Moreover, plant medicine is not a substitute for those other disciplines and experiences; but it could enhance or supplement them.

We also know that there are certain regions of the brain that relax during intense prayer and meditation, regions responsible for maintaining a distinction between self and the world, what’s “in here” and what is “out there.” This sense of separateness can be overwhelmed in an entheogenic experience. Distinctions between self and universe, or self and God, can fall away. One comes to know in a powerful way that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

If the church is to have a mature and justice-seeking approach to drug policy, we need to recognize that a) certain plant medicines have sacramental importance to many people, b) even our own Christian traditions in the West may owe more than we suspect to the sacramental use of plant medicines in our ancient history, and c) plant medicine will likely affect religious practice in the future .

Prayer:
Holy Mystery, we see you hidden and revealed in sacraments like baptism and eucharist. Open our eyes to the sacramental around us every day—in food, in neighbors, in plants, in work and play, and in our very breath. Amen.


Housekeeping:
On Monday, I shared the origins of the War on Drugs, which was weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism, to attack the “antiwar left” and black communities. Yesterday I shared how the church’s individualistic perspective on drug use and addiction distracts us from looking at systemic solutions. Today, my goal is to describe the importance of plant medicine to religious practice. Tomorrow, I will talk about harm reduction as an important goal for the drug policy of the future.

The Sermon on the Plain: Happy are YOU

poverty-04_1

From Mother Jones: “How We Won—and Lost—the War on Poverty, in 6 Charts” from 2014. Click image for article.

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:

“Happy are you who are poor,
    because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now,
    because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now,
    because you will laugh.

Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets. (Luke 6:20-23, CEB)

There is so much here.

  • If you remember Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, you may remember Jesus saying, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the Kingdom of [the heavens] is theirs.” Luke says, “Happy are you poor… because God’s kingdom is yours.” Luke’s Jesus is not talking hypotheticals or in third person. Jesus addresses his listeners directly. There is a world of contextual difference between “theirs is the kin-dom” and “yours is the kin-dom.”  
  • Matthew’s Jesus (Sermon on the Mount) first talks about the “poor in spirit,” which the CEB translates as “hopeless.” But Luke’s Jesus (Sermon on the Plain) isn’t talking about “poor in spirit,” just “poor.” As in, cash poor.  
  • Matthew’s Jesus talks about “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s Jesus talks about “hunger.” As in, empty belly, weak knees, and lightheaded. This is not metaphorical hunger, but poverty-related hunger.  
  • All of this makes Jesus’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed much more concrete. Luke’s Jesus is about liberation and good news for the poor. We Americans cannot spiritualize it or talk about metaphorical poverty. We cannot preach to comfortable middle- and upper-class people about how wealth is morally neutral, and that Jesus was just concerned about the state of people’s hearts. Jesus is talking about class and oppression here.  
  • Later on, when Luke writes Acts, he will talk about how the early church sold and gave away much of their material possessions in order to share things in common and meet collective needs. Luke’s Jesus and Luke’s church is concerned about the material conditions of human pain and prosperity.
     
  • Luke’s Jesus says “Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.” I love this active, concrete verb, laugh. By contrast, Matthew’s Jesus says of mourners, “they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Hear the difference?  
  • Luke’s Jesus also adds the word now. “You who hunger now, you who weep now.” The added emphasis indicates Jesus thinks this is a temporary state. A Great Reversal is coming.  
  • As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concludes his “happy” section with “Happy are y’all when you are harassed and vilified.” And as there, the implication is that the people he is talking to, his students and followers, are like one of the ancient prophetic guilds. We are a community of prophets.  
  • I love the way the Common English Bible translates “The Human One.” The traditional way of rendering the phrase is “Son of Man,” but that sounds too patriarchal to modern ears and it misses the power of the term. “The Human One” is the one who is coming into the world who manifests what God intended human beings to be. Jesus is the next step in our evolution, the one who demonstrates the fulfillment of being made “in the image of God.”  
  • Christians are used to referring to Jesus as the Son of God, but “Son of God” was a term used mostly for pagan emperors. Jesus’s own preferred term for himself is Son of Man or “The Human One.” I wonder how much of our theology would change if we followed Jesus as The Human One. Adam and Eve—and most religious folks—try very hard to be more like God. Jesus invites us to be more Human.  
  • In comparing Luke and Matthew’s version of the sermon, I honestly do not have a preference for one over the other. They both have nuance and power. My favorite one is whichever I am reading at the moment.

Prayer:
Lord of Love and Life, how do suffering and happiness coexist? Teach me solidarity with my siblings so that I may be truly happy. 

The Sermon on the Plain: The Setting

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Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said…
(Luke 6:12-20a, CEB)

What time of day is it? Probably mid-morning. Jesus has spent all night praying, and made his important choice of apostles at dawn. Then he comes down the mountain to a “large area of level ground,” and a huge crowd of disciples and people seeking healing gather around.

This monologue is often called “The Sermon on the Plain,” in contrast with Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” but I suspect these are both true descriptions. People in Jesus’s day did not have microphones and loudspeakers, but they understood acoustics and the practice of speaking to large crowds. The Greeks had built amphitheaters all over their empire three hundred years earlier, so everyone knew that the optimal arrangement for public speaking is a bowl-shaped hollow.

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Me, at a 2nd century amphitheater in Jerash, Jordan

If Jesus is on top of a mountain, speaking down to a crowd, his words will be lost in the wind. But you can find bowl-shaped places today around Galilee that are perfect for speaking to large groups. One famous Bible story has Jesus preaching from a boat to a crowd on the shore. I’ve seen the traditional place with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. It makes perfect sense if you are familiar with how sound can carry over the water, especially if there is a wall or natural amphitheater behind you to reflect the sound. In both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, I suspect Jesus found an optimal natural amphitheater, where he could speak up to the gathered crowds—not down to them.

This is why it says he “raised his eyes to his disciples.” He was literally looking up at them.

I think this visual image is important, because it is a sharp contrast to the way modern public speaking happens. Our pulpits and stages are usually above the gathered audience, and the speaker is literally speaking down to us. This is only practical in modern buildings with electronic amplification. In old churches and cathedrals, they used domes or vaults of stone to create an artificial amphitheater over the heads of the congregation.

So in the great outdoors? I picture Jesus speaking up to his disciples and the gathered crowds. He looks tiny down there, one person among our many. He looks so… human. Like anyone else. Like one of us. So when he opens his mouth and the first words are “Happy are you who are poor,” I get chill bumps.

Prayer:
Incarnate One, thank you for coming down to our level and being one of us.