catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 15 :: 2006.07.28 — 2006.09.08



This text is a sermon originally presented on January 20, 2005 at Extended Grace, a ministry in Grand Haven, Michigan.


Matthew 4:18-25 

It seems only appropriate to introduce a message on marijuana and other things by pointing out the fact that I am wearing the appropriate attire, intend to be much more talkative than I have the past few weeks, and have my notes in case my short term memory fails me. And I promise to try to get through the whole thing without stopping to get a snack.

Jesus says, “Follow Me” and the disciples do. He preaches and he heals and the crowds that follow him grow. They have grown for more than 2000 years. But what does it mean to be a follower of this Christ?

According to philosopher Ken Wilber, any religion serves two purposes. One is to translate the world we see into something that we can understand and respond to. It gives us a new way to think about things. It creates meaning for us that brings consolation and hope. The crowds that followed Jesus then, as well as those who follow today, come to understand the world in another way.

But some people, much fewer people, have also been able to embrace the second purpose of religion—and that is to bring about radical transformation. As opposed to strengthening, guiding and comforting the self, this transformation is about losing the self entirely.

Most people who come to church expect nothing to happen. They can listen with their mind to the words being sung, spoken and read, and never feel the pull to change. In fact, a great many will only seek out the message that they want to hear, the message that protects and keeps their self just as it is. This is the luxury of a rich people.

But if we want more, if we truly want to experience transformation, we have to be willing to open ourselves up to a message that jars us, to a translation that shakes us to our souls. Reading the words of the Bible and other spiritual texts, meditation and yoga can begin to open us up to deeper truths and realities—and that can be very frightening. For the only conclusion we can finally reach is the need to surrender the self. Our topic tonight is the legalization of marijuana and other substances. Throughout history psychotropics have been used for both medical and sacred purposes. Such drugs have been allowed a place of honor. They were believed to induce or enhance mystical experiences, to open oneself up to the divine, to expand ones consciousness. Well, trying selling that reasoning to the local drug enforcement officer!

Clearly our current culture has not embraced the psychoactive properties of plants and herbs. In fact, we have gone to war with them. We have declared them evil and sinful. And lately I’ve been wondering why.

Here’s my own experience with drug use:  I was a good girl and good girls don’t do drugs. I was offered marijuana for the first time during lunch break in 9th grade. There was no question that I would say no, but it was very upsetting for me. In my senior year I was working in radio and started dating another radio jock—Dave. Because of Dave I was introduced to the radio party scene. It was quite a scene. DJs, programmers, and groupies all engaging in things I had never seen before. Marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and the like. I wasn’t interested in any of it and I didn’t want Dave doing it and he respected my wishes. We would always pick up a bottle of Reunite Lambrusco on the way and share it during our mandatory showing face time then go on our way. All that is to say that I graduated from High School without every personally using drugs.

When I met my ex-husband, he was growing hydroponic marijuana in his basement. I had a problem with this but given all of the other problems I was contending with decided it was something I could live with. He would occasionally get high—I never did. Then I developed a paranoia about his having a part of his life that I wasn’t involved in. So I accepted his offer to get high with him. As I recall it was a pleasant experience. But afterward I felt horrible. I was disgusted with myself as if I were something bad and dirty.  When we moved into a new house, he closed down the basement and I conveniently lost his dried weed and his pipe. I never smoked again. 

Before last week Sig was the only person who had ever heard that story. But this past week I shared it with Ryan during worship planning. I had never talked about it before because I was too ashamed. The question that has been stirring in my mind all week long is why? Where did that shame come from? 

I was taught that drugs were evil and that those who use them are bad and evil, too. I was raised in a culture that demonizes drugs even when they grow without human intervention in nature. But why?

I’ve come up with a few possibilities. Here’s one from the play “Jekyl and Hyde.” A good hearted scientist wants to release his own father from the grips of madness, but can’t find support for his experiments. Here we see what happens when he becomes his own guinea pig.

Perhaps we are afraid that we too harbor a Hyde inside – that our “true” self will explode with the instinctual urges we keep under control only for the sake of society. Perhaps we fear that humankind is essentially evil at heart and so, then, are we.  There is an aspect of the unknown and a tremor at the edge of the point of no return. Is that why I was taught that drugs were evil and bad? Is that why they have been so demonized? Of course, this is only speculation. I have other theories.

How much of our aversion comes from puritanical roots and that old desire to separate body from soul, to label things of the earth as bad and things of the spirit as good, to deny pleasure in this life for the sake of some greater reward in a life to come?

How much of our current drug policy comes from blatant racism and classism with the result that our prisons swell with young people of color found in the possession of small quantities of marijuana and other substances?

On a more compassionate note, how much of our policy comes from a genuine concern regarding the harsh reality of addiction? The truth is that any drug has the potential of being abused. But people who become addicts are not sinners and they are not evil. They struggle with a disease that attacks the mind the body and the spirit. Drugs can be used as an unhealthy escape from the pains and problems of this life only to worsen and deepen them in the end. But if this is what drives us, then why have we insisted on approaching drugs as a legal and moral issue and failed to treat them as the health issue they are?

Here’s another speculation. I can’t help but wonder how much of our attitude was sown by corporations in the name of simple capitalistic greed? Ryan lent me this movie from 1936 titled “Reefer Madness.” The interesting thing is that throughout the movie high school youth are permitted–even encouraged–to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. What hand did the tobacco and alcohol industry play in squashing a competitor that could be grown in one’s own backyard–one in fact that is found naturally in virtually every state of the union? And what is the role of the pharmaceutical companies in all of this?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not an advocate for free and random drug use while walking the neighboring streets. Nor am I in favor of the use of drugs as an attempt to solve or escape the challenges of this life. But I wonder if we have missed something by creating an evil where God created something good. For we are told that everything God created was good.

I could also argue that all spiritual experiences involve, by definition, some form of altered state of mind. Of course that’s also why we mainline Western denominations are so often suspicious of meditation, yoga and charismatic churches. And in fact, these experiences can also become addicting when one must get their individual spiritual “fix” in order to maintain any spiritual enthusiasm. An addiction to temporary altered states is asking for disaster, no matter what induces them.

But if such altered states are part of a holistic endeavor toward spiritual growth, they can be a catalyst that moves us beyond translating the world for the sake of the self to the beginning of a transformation in which we are shaken loose from the self and find that we are so much more. Ultimately we lose our life in order to find it.   

The Chinese were using cannabis 28 centuries before the birth of Christ as a medicine. It has also been used by some sects of Hindu Tantrism as an amplifier of visualization and meditation. Other drugs too have served similar purposes. Indians of North, Central and South America regarded tobacco as a sacred power plant. Andean Indians treated the coca plant a divinity. Coffee was used by the Islamic Sufis as a stimulant for long nights of meditation and prayer.

But I also recognize that most drug users today are not interested in a spiritual quest but only in a quick feel-good fix. When used this way drugs are no more than another symptom of our age of instant stimulation. Such use lends itself to the destruction of the both the body and the soul.

We can see the difference by looking at the Native American use of sacramental peyote. Ceremonies such as the healing circle, the sweat lodge and the spirit dance that do not include peyote have always been simultaneously religious, medical and psychotherapeutic. When peyote was added to their sacred experiences, the new ceremony expressed and reinforced an already existing integration of body, mind and spirit.

The implicit assumption is that everyone has the capacity to tune themselves into higher spiritual sources of knowledge and healing. The purpose of ceremony, with or without mind-altering substances, is to facilitate that connection. The plant used with a sacred intent becomes a tool for receiving holistic healing, achieving visionary states and discovering hidden forms of knowledge.

But in the West, the religious, medical, and psychological professions are separate and they all seem to be frightened by unpredictable transformations of people’s perceptions of the world—perceptions that psychedelic drugs seem to offer. And that fear was met by prohibition, even against further research.

Marijuana has no sacred meaning in our culture, but it is regaining a place as a medicinal aid. When my grandmother was suffering from chemotherapy treatments that left her too nauseous to eat and with a mouth, tongue and throat covered in open, painful sores that would have made eating agony anyway, I learned that she could get tremendous relief from both by taking a bolus made from honey and marijuana. But she never would have done that. For one thing it was illegal. For another it was not something a good person did. It was evil and those that use drugs are sinners.

In 1989 Steve was dying of AIDS in Texas. He has won the legal right to use medical marijuana, but his shipment was delayed for weeks and he ended up back in the hospital. In the end it was discovered that DEA Administrator John Lawn had taken it upon himself to reject the judge’s recommendation saying that “ending the medical prohibition would unleash sin upon the land.” Thank God medical marijuana is now legal in 27 of our states. That seems to me to be a start, that in some places we can actually use plants that grow naturally on this earth as the medicine I can only presume they were meant to be.

Thirty years ago, Walter Pahnke, a theology research student at Boston University with the help of Timothy Leary, gathered in the basement below the chapel for an alternative Good Friday Service that began by swallowing Psilocybin (hallucinogenic mushrooms). The experiment was never duplicated. Psilocybin was outlawed. Leary was expelled. And studies of psychedelic drugs became a thing of the past. Pahnke had believed that the drugs would induce mystical experiences that might exert long-term effects. 18 of the 20 participants were recently tracked down. Ten of them had become ministers. Most of the others called the experiment a high point in their spiritual life.

So is marijuana God-forbidden or God-sent? Is it sin or grace? What about mushrooms? Caffeine? Other substances found in creation?

And how might those answers affect what it means to be a follower of Christ? Is it more important to demonize what we don’t understand or to allow for the use of spiritual practices that might actually open us up to mystery?

Religion serves two purposes. One is to translate the world we see into something that we can understand and respond to. The crowds that follow Jesus see the world through different eyes. They have found their self comforted, guided and strengthened.

And a few people have also embraced the second purpose of religion—to bring about radical transformation—to be opened to deeper truths and realities where the only conclusion to be found is that of giving up the self entirely. 

Most people come to church expecting nothing to happen…

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