Monday, June 26, 2017

Sick to Death

The scriptures referred to are Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39.

I think most people were saddened when they learned that Carrie Fisher died. And since she was only 60 years old, and life expectancy for a woman that age is 83, many of us suspected that the damage done by her self-confessed drug abuse probably shortened her life. This week the coroner determined that among the factors behind her heart attack were sleep apnea, cocaine ingested within the last 72 hours and traces of heroin and ecstasy. And immediately people were making an issue of this. On Facebook I saw one rather rude defense of her privacy that was tagged by the person who posted it: “I'm glad she died high on Ecstasy. Good for her.”

First of all, she wasn't high on ecstasy. The traces in her system were so small that they couldn't determine when she had taken it, but it was long before she had taken the cocaine.

Secondly, I am not happy she died at all. I wanted to see her live to be a sassy old lady and Grande Dame of Hollywood. And I am especially saddened that she was still having trouble fighting her drug problems. I don't condemn her because she was also battling what we used to call manic depression, and quite frankly I had been wondering if she was taking Lithium, the prescription drug of choice. It can also exacerbate heart disease and might have hastened her death as it had Jeremy Brett, who also had bipolar disease. But, no, it was illegal drugs.

Let's put it this way. What if Carrie had Type 1 diabetes, had died in a diabetic coma and the coroner had found that her last meal was an entire chocolate cake with sprinkles and gumdrops? Would you applaud that? Now you are not responsible for having Type 1 diabetes, the cause of which is unknown but is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. But once you are diagnosed you are responsible when it comes to taking your insulin, watching what you eat and how much you exercise. Or you will die. It may seem unfair but you have to accept it and move ahead with taking care of your health. Mary Tyler Moore was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 33. She took care of it and lived to be 80.

We now know some people are born susceptible to addiction. It's a brain illness. It is in their DNA and the science of epigenetics tells us that the genes responsible for addiction could be inherited already turned on because your parents or grandparents drank or took drugs. It doesn't mean you are doomed to addiction, just that you are at a greater risk than the average person, in the same way someone with a family history of heart disease has a higher risk of developing that. The proper response to having that greater risk is greater care. Carrie Fisher said she took dangerous drugs as a form of self-medication for her mental illness. And as her daughter Billie Lourd said, “she died from it.”

My point is that Carrie was sick. You don't rejoice when someone dies from an illness. You sure as heck don't rejoice when one of the factors in their death was a lapse in self-care.

Why am I going on about this? Because I find illness is a good metaphor for sin, the thing that afflicts us spiritually. The Bible does imply that we inherit our propensity for sin, what theologians call “original sin.” Some people say that if we inherit it, we can't be held responsible for it by God. That entirely misses the point. It's like inheriting a disease. You may not be responsible for having it but once you get the diagnosis, you are responsible for getting help. Otherwise you are like the men I saw on my skid row ministry in college. Far from denying their problem, they would say, “I'm an alcoholic.” But by that admission, they meant that they couldn't help themselves. In their eyes, their diagnosis sealed their fate. They didn't want help; they wanted money to buy booze.

If you are born with a disease, that sucks. But unless you want to get worse and/or die, you get help. You go to the doctor, you get a treatment regimen and you follow it. That usually means giving up things you'd rather keep and doing things you'd rather not. It's no fun but dealing with a disease isn't about enjoying it. It's about getting better.

That's what Paul is getting at in our passage from Romans. He has just said that where sin increased, God's grace increased more. And Paul is anticipating, perhaps based on previous experiences, some dunderhead saying, “well, isn't more grace a good thing? Maybe we should sin more to further increase it.” Which is like saying the budget for emergency services has increased in response to more heroin overdoses. Since more emergency services are good, to get an even bigger budget we need more heroin overdoses! It's nonsensical. We are talking about a matter of life and death.

The problem I think stems from muddled thinking about good and evil. The problem is we associate being bad with fun and being good with not having fun. I think this goes back to when we were kids and being good meant not jumping on the couch, and not tormenting the cat, and taking a nap whether you want to or not, and eating fruits and vegetables instead of candy and junk food. When you're a kid all these rules seem arbitrary. It's not until you are an adult and are responsible for a small human being that you remember the times you fell and hit your head because you were jumping on the couch, and the time the harassed cat whipped around and scratched you and you bled, and all the times you got cranky and miserable because you didn't take a nap, and the time you went to a friend's birthday party and had chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and candy and got sick as a dog afterward. When you are an adult, you realize a lot of the rules parents make are for your own good. Why do we think it's different with God's rules?

God doesn't hate sin because he hates fun. We wouldn't be able to have pleasure at all if he hadn't created us with that capacity. But not all sources of fun are good for us. Some are helpful and some are harmful. God hates sin because it makes us do things that are both self-destructive and destructive to our relationships with others and with him. God hates sin because he loves us.

Sin is spiritual illness. It is only fun in the way that the manic phase of bipolar disease is. It may be exhilarating for a while but it will be followed by coming down hard into a depression. I had an aunt with the disease. I saw her come down off the high of mania twice. And while she was manic, she spent money she didn't have, went without sleep and put my poor uncle in a nursing home before his time. Drugs and alcohol can similarly make you feel good for a short period and then run you straight into the brick wall of reality and consequences. And so can sin.

Carrie Fisher's problems began at age 3 when her father Eddie Fisher's adultery was discovered. He had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. That probably felt great while it lasted. But when Taylor's best friend, Fisher's wife Debbie Reynolds, divorced him, the former teen idol's career nosedived. He lost his TV show and his record label. Taylor eventually divorced Fisher for Richard Burton, which whom she was having an affair. When her dad published a salacious tell-all memoir, Carrie quipped she was going to have her DNA fumigated. And that was the hallmark of Carrie's humor: it was rueful. She knew it was humorous in the telling but she never hid the fact that it was hell in the living. She said, “If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

Eddie Fisher married 5 times. Debbie Reynolds married 3 times. Elizabeth Taylor married 7 times. That left Carrie Fisher with such a convoluted and confusing family that when her daughter started dating another Hollywood scion, they were worried that they might be related. So Carrie had to work out the family tree to assure them that they weren't.

That's just the damage adultery can do. People hardly consider that a sin anymore. Now the harm murder does is obvious as well as robbery. And if you think of people in the news, it's not hard to see how things Jesus condemned like deceit, jealousy, slander, arrogance, greed and foolishness can also wreck lives. (By the way, I know that celebrities are not more sinful than the rest of us; it's just that their follies are made public. They know firsthand what Jesus says in today's gospel: “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Thus they are ready-made and familiar examples of human frailty.)

As Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person but its end is the way that leads to death.” We know that sins like murder do so, but that's even true of the less scandalous sins. Yes, overdosing will kill you; so will overeating. Gluttony just takes more time and we humans are terrible in recognizing slow and stealthy threats. People didn't get serious about safe sex until folks started dying of AIDS. Most smokers don't get serious about quitting until they are diagnosed with cancer or a serious respiratory disease. We are not going to get serious about global warming until people start dropping dead from the heat and you have to put on wading boots to walk down the streets of Key West as the sea level rises.

Ironically while sin kills, the solution also involves dying. Paul says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Paul is using Jesus' death and resurrection as a metaphor for our transformation in Christ. We die to sin and arise to new life as a new creation.

As you may know I like to use the metaphor of a heart transplant for salvation. In the case of heart failure, the only way to avoid death is to get a new heart. Which means someone has to die and donate their heart. It also means you need to have enough faith in the doctor to let him render you unconscious, stop your heart, cut it out and implant and attach a new heart. When you're awake again, you have a new heart and a new start in life. In the same way Jesus dies to give us life, his life. We can only access this by showing faith in him. If we let him change our hearts, we will have new life in him.

If you got a life-saving heart transplant, you would follow doctor's orders and change your lifestyle. To go back to your old lifestyle—eating blooming onions and smoking and not exercising—would be morally wrong for one thing; someone died to give you that heart. It would also be stupid. Why would you want to go back to being out of breath, having chest pain, having your legs swell up, and just generally feeling bad all over again? Having been granted a new life, why would you want to court death?

Which is why Paul is aghast that people would so misinterpret the fact that we are saved by God's grace rather than works as to think that only belief matters and not behavior. Again this goes to back to thinking that all rules are arbitrary, rather like the rules of etiquette. For example, in the West folks shake hands; in the East people bow to each other. But God's rules are really like the rules of good health, designed to improve and maintain our spiritual health and our relationships with ourselves, with each other and with God.

So Paul says it is like our old sinful self died on that cross with Jesus. And with it died our enslavement to sin. Addiction is a good metaphor for enslavement. Because while people rarely get addicted overnight, with time they do find their recreational activity or use of a substance has gone from a pastime to a hobby to a habit to a cruel master. Addiction changes the brain, bypassing the normal paths to its reward centers. Eventually the brain stops naturally producing dopamine and other neurotransmitters that give us pleasure, because the substance we are ingesting is acting as a substitute. Breaking addiction, therefore, means changing your brain. The spiritual analogue is the renewal of the mind Paul urges in Romans 12:2. And the Greek word for repent literally means “think differently.” If you keep thinking and acting the same way as you were, and expect things will change, you will be disappointed. And you might end up dead.

There were warning signs for Carrie. In 1985, after being sober for months she accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills and prescription meds and was hospitalized. In 2005 a friend died in her home of a combination of cocaine and oxycodone that aggravated undiagnosed heart disease. That was a prophetic death and naturally it upset Carrie. Yet she said, “I was a nut for a year and in that year I took drugs again.” That's how enslaving addiction is.

Carrie Fisher used her fame to educate people about mental illness and drug abuse. I hope her death, like that of Robin Williams, will wake more people up to these issues and make them seek help. Because many people do get free from addiction, including people like Eric Clapton, Russell Brand, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert Downey Jr., and Daniel Ratcliffe of Harry Potter fame. A lot of folks do it by joining a 12 step program, the first 3 steps of which are admitting you cannot manage your life because of your addiction, realizing God can do it and then turning your life over to him. If it sounds familiar, it is because the 12 steps were derived from Christianity.

If we want to get free of the things that make our spiritual lives unmanageable, if we want to break free of the self-destructive habits that sabotage our lives and relationships, we have to admit we have become slaves to those things. We need to trust God and turn our life over to him. We need to let him remove our heart of stone and give us a good heart, the heart of Jesus, so that we can live a new life through him. We need to leave behind the dead and deadly things of our old life and let his Spirit change and renew our mind.

We live in a world with significance. Our choices count, even ones we don't put much thought into. Our choices affect our lives and the lives of others, including our children. We also live in a world where time only moves in one direction: forward. We cannot change the past. But neither must we let the past determine our future. Even second is a second chance. We can change course. We can turn from the things that promise pleasure but deliver destruction, disease and death. We can turn to the God of life and healing and wholeness. We can let the love of Jesus rule our hearts. We can follow in his steps, knowing that if we stumble, our companion, Jesus, will help us back up on our feet, offering forgiveness, restoration and strength to persevere. He will never leave us and he will never give up on us. 

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