ARE YOU WILLING TO BE BLIND FOR 15 MINUTES? (AN INTERACTIVE CHURCH EXPERIENCE) A children’s choir, in blindfolds, will sing about seeing. The adult choir will sing blind. Those in attendance will be invited to don a blindfold (or not) for part of this service. An artist has created a painting that a blind person can see that will be offered to the blind co-presenter. Being unable to see can heighten your senses. Being unwilling to see can deaden them. “Intentional & Unintentional Blindness” is Sept. 22nd at 10:00am at the Congregational Church of Patchogue (Long Island). All are welcome, regardless of religious affiliation, conviction, or neither. Peace, Dwight Lee Wolter
Is it acceptable to disproportionately incarcerate people because of the color of their skin, their national origin, or their economic class? Of course not!
Is it acceptable to disproportionately incarcerate people because they have a disease? Of course not! The prisons are not, for example, flush with diabetics who cannot consistently manage their blood levels.
Is it acceptable to disproportionately incarcerate people because they are suffering from a substance use disorder involving alcohol and other forms of drug addiction and dependency? Of course, it is!
The prisons of America are flush with all sorts of people of color; people of various ethnicities; and people born and raised under the influence of a suspicious zip code.
They have at least one thing in common: they very possibly are suffering from addiction. Some people may commit crimes under the influence of alcohol and other drugs who are not addicted in a literal sense. However, according to a New York Times article (Christopher S. Wren, Jan. 1998); illegal drugs and alcohol contributed to the imprisonment of up to 4 out of 5 inmates in the nation’s prisons and jails. And while up to 65% of incarcerated people meet diagnostic criteria for addiction ~ only 11% are receiving treatment.
Way back in 1956, the American Medical Association declared addiction to alcohol and other drugs to be a disease. Four years later, in 1960, the American Psychiatric Association did the same. But over 50 years later, we are imprisoning people whose crimes may very well be symptoms of a disease that demands to be fed by any means necessary. And yet we still often act as if addiction is a moral weakness, sin, or lack of willpower for which addicted persons should be ashamed. Why? It is an illness. Have you ever tried willpower over a case of diarrhea?
America has a mass incarceration problem. America has 5% of the world population, but we harbor 25% of the world’s prisoners. And of those massive numbers of prisoners in America ~ 60% are persons of color. A staggering number of them are young, African American, Latino, and male. They may not be saints. But they very well may be addicted and thereby, by definition, incapable of consistently making healthy choices. The road to recovery, for a variety of reasons, may be inaccessible to them.
People in prison have often done some terrible things. If you do the crime, few would argue that you should do the time. However, we can, and should, talk about color, ethnicity, poverty, mental illness and their relation to incarceration.
And it is illogical, counter-productive, unjust and downright dangerous to talk about incarceration without also talking about addiction.
We cannot arrest, judge and incarcerate our way out of an opioid epidemic and into a sense of safety. Justice and common-sense demand we do better.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of six books in the fields of addiction and recovery; including three on blame, anger and forgiveness.
Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer. Whether you live on Park Avenue or on park bench; whether you have been to Yale or to jail; addiction is right here, within or beside you.
There is no family, religion, school, hospital staff, police department, military branch, government, race, ethnicity, economic class, sovereign nation, rural community or urban metropolis that has not been or is not presently suffering under the whip of the cruel taskmaster named Addiction.
If you do not accept this, then you are under the influence of yet another disease. That one is named Denial. And Denial can be every bit as much a killer as is addiction. As a matter of fact, it is part of the syndrome of addiction.
People are already calling the overdose death of Saoirse Kennedy Hill part of “the Kennedy curse.” That helps keep addiction away from our own living room, sanctuary, child’s school and the driver of the car in front of or behind us. People prefer the cause of death to be suicide, depression, lost love, bad luck, karma, heart attack ~ anything rather than that of addiction. Just wait for all the rationalizations and explanations that come with a death by addiction. People will call it anything but what it is.
Individual and/or collective denial contributes to the death of someone every single day.
Addiction has many guises, masks and partnerships: depression, suicide, mental illness, compulsivity, risky behavior, creativity, obsessive thought and behavior, isolation, religious zealotry and garden variety neurosis. It will even attach itself to your most noble dreams, goals and ambitions. And then it will take you down. Never up. Always down.
Addiction will even convince you that it is saving your life while it is killing you.
Opioids are the number one killer of people under the age of 50 in America. Not handguns. Not car crashes. Not cancer. We are and have been in the midst of an opioid epidemic for a few years now and you would probably not know it if you go to church, for that matter. Church is often (have you noticed) a hotbed of Denial.
Many pastors, pontificators, philosophers and pundits have stopped reading this brief blog long ago. For those of you left ~ thank you! Mold grows in shadows and darkness. Thank you for helping to bring this issue into the light. We need more of it.
Blue Point Brewing, a Long Island brewery owned by Anheuser-Busch as a flagship, test market targeting younger customers, including hipsters and millennials, is now selling bubble gum flavored beer. Bad idea.
This is akin to cotton candy flavored vaping. What next? Candy cigarettes? Oh, I forgot; they have been doing that since I was a kid 50 years ago. But candy cigarettes are not drugs. Alcohol and nicotine are.
In December, 2018, the Surgeon General declared e cigarette use among youth to be “an epidemic.” The Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration also declared it an epidemic. Is kiddy flavoring of beer a route to a similar fate? Is this really what Amheuser-Busch wants? The Clydesdale horses are impressive! And now comes the bubble gum.
Overall beer sales were down in 2018, but craft brew sales were up. Craft breweries will get creative to attract younger drinkers, just as nicotine sales executives think outside of the (cigarette) box to boost sales and end-up with cotton candy and other flavored vaping products.
Adults want to drink? Your choice. Adults want to smoke. Okay, if you insist. But flashbacks to childhood candy is a rather transparent attempt to lure younger and younger persons to imbibe in their products.
Maybe Blue Point Brewing needs a crossing guard to get them to the playground of younger users. But the crossing guard should disarm them of messaging about how cute, silly and fun bubble gum beer can be.
Otherwise, children might get hurt.
On Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts; Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, did a live television broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and Moon seen from Apollo 8. Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis, including the words, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light… and God saw that it was good.” Borman then added, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.’”
And ~ almost exactly 50 years later, on July 20, 1969, on the Apollo 11 moon mission, Buzz Aldrin received communion in the spacecraft that had landed on the lunar surface, and shortly before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The elements had been consecrated by Aldrin’s pastor at Webster Presbyterian church in Houston, Texas.
Aldrin spoke to the ground crew and his words were broadcast to the world, “I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”
Without it being broadcast to the world, much of which he knew was not Christian, Aldrin took the wine and bread he had brought with him to space with the knowledge of NASA. He recited scripture from John 15:5. Thus, the first foods ever eaten or poured on the moon was the Christian sacrament of communion.
Aldrin later recounted in his memoir, “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” he later wrote.
Lunar Communion Sunday is still celebrated annually at Webster Presbyterian in Houston. However, in his 2010 memoir, he wrote that he’d come to wonder if he’d done the right thing by celebrating a Christian ritual in space. “We had come to space in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists,” he wrote. “But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing is far more than a phantasmagoric orgy of lights, music and film footage. It is also, for many, a deeply spiritual manifestation of ancient scripture. For others, it is a fulfillment of the utterances from children and adults the world over who gaze into a clear night sky and say, “Oh, my God! Look at that!”
WHEN THE WORD “HATE” IS NEWLY INTRODUCED to the fingerprint-wiped, anonymous, verbally obscene, multiple letters with photos of young, black men engaged in sex acts with each other (racism always adds spice to homophobia)… letters with sentences carefully phrased to avoid criminality are sent to my church, the Chamber of Commerce, select leaders of the Alive After Five Committee and others here in Patchogue, Long Island, New York ~ I decided to not “just ignore it” as advised by some today as I once did when my community had the same response to hate directed at Latinos. The result was my presiding at the funeral of a Latino hate crime murder victim; and the taunts, bad press and hate mail I received for two years after that.
And so I will not ignore it, and will let you in on the sickening and hateful backlash against the LGBTQ+ communities, their allies & advocates. I remain proud of the United Church of Christ that ordained its first openly gay pastor 47 years ago and are still, apparently, hated for it. May God bless the LGBTQ+ communities and what we have in the past & sometimes still put them through. Thanks to the writer of this letter who informed me that I am gay. I didn’t know that until I read the letter this morning. I guess the writer cannot imagine a heterosexual pastor being disgusted at homophobia. Well, my sweet, live and learn! And now, an excerpt of just one of the letters I am talking about:
“To open the paper, and immediately get an in-your-face about “Open and Affirming”, featuring two gay “pastors”, is an outrage…not only in the positioning, but the content being about two homosexual men, who are no more “pastors” than the man in the moon. Homosexuality is unnatural, an affront to nature and history, and is clearly forbidden and/or frowned upon by most cultures, and church teachings…and is stated as such in the bible. These two gay men are shams… hypocrites… phony believers in God and his word. They should be run out of town. Yet, the Advance puts them front and center as though they are credible exhibits of “open and affirming”…translation: push the gay agenda as much as possible. “We’re a faith-based community who believe that God is love and love is God.” They interpret God’s love to support their own needs and to rationalize their sickness and perversion. We wonder if they think about God while having oral and anal sex with other men. And to have an expose about Jacqueline Routh, Alive After Five etc., and her sexual “struggles”, is pathetic. Like all homosexuals, she should seek emotional and psychological help… The constant in-your-face theatrics cause much disgust and hate in the straight community… Most normal, heterosexual people find homosexuality disgusting and offensive…an affront to nature…and blasphemous to God if one believes.”
Reading the above letter once again, I am mindful that many people are somewhat conflicted about LGBTQ+ matters. I do not believe prejudice is the exclusive domain of any one political party, religious affiliation, philosophical beliefs, economic statue, ethnic identity, or geographical region. The Congregational Church of Patchogue includes many people with a rich variety of thoughts and beliefs. But we manage to remain civil in our discourse, and as open minded and open hearted as we are able. I do not believe that trying to silence people who try to silence you is a good tactic to promote communication.
I want to thank the Long Island Advance newspaper for their willingness to discuss this in their paper. I wish to thank the 5th Precinct of the Suffolk County, NY, Police Department who are investigating this matter.
I wish I could speak, individually or in a small group, with the person who wrote these letters. I really do. In the meantime, I pray for the restoration of our individual spirits and the soul of our community. And I pray that a safe and joyous time is had by all at the Pride Theme Alive After Five summer event to be held tomorrow, June 27, 2019.
Dwight Lee Wolter
“Care for a mocktail?” “A what?” I asked. “A cocktail with no alcohol. The one I like is made of Jamaican allspice, grapefruit juice, lemon peel, cardamom (from the ginger family), a bit of cascarilla (used for cleansing, protection and banishing of negative energies) and a splash of seltzer.”
There is a rapidly growing, national trend in people who prefer to meet, drink, dance and have fun in places that do not serve alcohol. These people are not necessarily alcoholics. They are people who want more than an evening that begins with a designated driver and ends with a hangover. They are curious about the positive effects and benefits of reducing or eliminating alcohol from their diet and social life. They want drug-free sleep; more energy for a morning meeting or caring for early-riser children. They seek better judgement; lower blood pressure and weight; better organ function; more conscious, mindful living; more genuine social interactions; and clearer and stronger connections to their creativity and potential.
They want more than listening to someone at the bar or club who keeps repeating themselves and slurring their words. They are tired of waiting with beer drinkers for a vacancy in the bathroom. They are very cautious about alcohol and other drugs since we are in a national opioid epidemic. They don’t want to be netted by police at sobriety checkpoints or to witness public altercations between intoxicants.
It is time for clubs and bars to become Sober Curious for, say, one night a month. People are willing to pay good money for interesting, non-alcoholic drinks in an atmosphere that is more about mindfulness than bottomlessness. If the thought of this makes you angry or cynical; or if you believe your ability to create, procreate, dine, whine, dance, communicate or sleep soundly would be hampered by being alcohol-free for a night or more… well, that is something to be mindful about also. Another great thing about the sober curious movement is that the people, the practitioners, are not trying to convert other people into also being sober curious. The most aggressive pitch I have heard is, “give it a try.”
WHAT A MISTAKE it would be to hang-out only with people my age or younger. I visit Evelyn a couple of times a month. I always leave refreshed, inspired, educated, humored and challenged. Evelyn is special, but not unique in my life. She is well-cared for by her family, but I have sat in the presence of many elders who are warehoused in facilities, languishing in loneliness; their wisdom & experience sitting like dusty books on shelves, waiting to be opened. What a missed opportunity.
Perhaps we are afraid of our shared fate of aging. Perhaps a symptom of our naivete is the shallow assumption that we will all get old some day and we don’t want to face it in a youth-obsessed culture. With all the disease and war and health crises in the world; just how does someone manage to live so long? What do they have to teach that we are willing (or unwilling) to learn? When (if ever) did they learn to relax into life and let things go a bit better? What, if anything, would they do again, and what, if anything, would they avoid at all costs? Is the world truly different today that it was in the past?
Go find an elder. I you don’t have one of your own kin who fits the category, borrow one. There are plenty of them to go around.
Peace, Dwight Lee Wolter
I was stuck on the Long Island Expressway in hideous traffic. I was lonely, angry, hungry, tired and late. Someone wanted to merge into “my” lane in front of me and I would rather have died than let him succeed. But succeed he did, by wedging his car directly in I was stuck on the Long Island Expressway in hideous traffic. I was lonely, angry, hungry, tired and late. Someone wanted to merge into “my” lane in front of me and I would rather have died than let him succeed. But succeed he did, by wedging his car directly in front of my massive ego. Pissed, hurt and seeking solace, I turned on the radio.
Within five measures of the song, fond memories of my former girlfriend were so intense they could hardly be called “memories” as her sweet, sweet spirit was so present in my car that she became my soulful companion on my rush hour pilgrimage home. A tear slid down my cheek and into my smile. I gestured to allow yet another driver to take a spot in the lane in front of me. Why not? The driver was in just as much a hurry as I was. My sultry disposition had been transformed in an instant. What happened? Music happened.
It occurred to me, instantly and deeply, that it is often a song ~ more than a sermon, tweet, pet, prayer, family photo or favorite food ~ that touches people’s lives in a spiritual way. And it occurred to me that bars, clubs, libraries, living rooms and coffee houses are frequented by people who just may be the poets, punks, priests and prophets I need to pay close attention to, especially if their craft can transform and transport my spirit as profoundly as did the song I was listening to in my car ~ the song that was still not yet half over.
Spirituality is a river that flows both ways. Houses of faith, ashrams, holistic health centers, metaphysical communities and other businesses, organizations and fellowships often position themselves as repositories of belief, ethics, goodness and morality that they can offer.
But while people may walk into a church or elsewhere hoping to receive spirituality; they just might be ~ sometimes without even knowing it ~ walking into a church not to receive it, but to offer it, if we are receptive to listening to it.
All music is inherently spiritual, from the “sacred” music of Bach to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to Kanye West’s, “Jesus Walks.” George Harrison was a Hare Krishna. Paul Simon and Bob Dylan are Jewish. Johnny Cash was decidedly Christian. Leonard Cohen was born and raised as a Jew, but later became a Buddhist monk and lived in a monastery for five years. They all wrote profoundly spiritual music.
I wish more musicians would take their gifts and their power seriously and write songs that bear fruit ~ not only the fruit of entertainment ~ but fruit to feed their followers with the nectar of spiritual transformation that, I believe, we all crave.
A singer in a bar on a Saturday night with a tip cup may reach far more people than a preacher on a Sunday morning with an offering basket. In an era when fewer and fewer people go to church, a popular song may be the only message, mantra, soundbite or sermon many people will ever hear.
My anger and panic about being late to pick up my kid from school that day, as I was stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway turned out to be a blessing. I did somehow make it to the school on time. And, I decided to start a narrative and musical concert series that would explore the relationship between various artists and genres, and the animating “spirituality” that infuses the music, while gathering guests and garnering funds to support the free feeding, clothing, medical screening and hair salon initiatives offered at the church I serve as pastor ~The Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York.
The musical series I envisioned would explore the spirituality of music that may or may not mention religion. I would choose the songs, create the groupings of songs according to themes or eras that illustrated the spirituality of the artists; I would write the libretto, (the narrative between sets of songs of the featured artist, band or genre of the evening performance). The music would be performed live. The featured artists would be chosen from a broad swath of music. Just as no religion has a monopoly on spirituality, no one artist or genre of music does either.
Many of our favorite songs are spiritual anthems that flow from one generation to another. And while many songs seem to be written to one person in particular ~ others are more like pastoral prayers for “peace, love and understanding” for everyone, as Elvis Costello once sang about. Rolling Stone Magazine even alluded to the songs on an album by Paul Simon as “hymns” proving that you don’t need to be religious to be spiritual; just as you don’t need to be spiritual to be religious.
“The Spirituality of Popular Music” has, in the past seven years, brought many thousands of people, and tens of thousands of dollars that purchased goods and services for people in deep housing, health and food insecurity. It has proved to be a great attraction to people of various faith and non-faith traditions and organizations; as well those who are decidedly and happily not affiliated with any groups. Many people who attend “The Spirituality of Popular Music” never attend church services; and many people who attend church services never attend “The Spirituality of Popular Music.” Some people, however, have indeed become members. Many hundreds more have developed a relationship as friends of the church and of God, however they understand and define God; than would never have happened if there had not been “The Spirituality of Popular Music.”
People are spiritually hungry, but fearful that the food of faith has been tainted by the church. People who attend this series, held in a church, seem to feel truly safe and welcome. No matter where they are on life’s journey ~ whether they follow Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, booze, sports, shopping, L. Ron Hubbard, Sigmund Freud, the Big Bang, their Higher Power, G.O.D. (Good Orderly Direction), or if they prefer to follow themselves ~ they can rest assured and know that they are truly welcome.
It is my belief that at the core of a spiritual experience, religious discipline or musical encounter… is transformation: a dramatic change in the shape and nature of our attitudes and relationships. Through spirituality, we see hell transformed into help; loneliness transformed into companionship; self-destruction transformed into self-respect; and even addiction transformed into recovery. Through spirituality, we see hope rise like a weightless angel from the crypt of hopelessness. The spirituality triggered in us by music may deliver us to the threshold of change that words, thoughts, attitudes, actions, dogma and doctrines alone may not accomplish.
So far in this ongoing series, we have presented, among others: The Spirituality of Bob Dylan, U2, Prince, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, the Beatles, the Beatles’ White Album with Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, and many others. The genres have included “The Spirituality of the Blues; Bluegrass; and Broadway Musicals. The themes we have presented have included The Spirituality of Heaven and The Spirituality of Addiction & Recovery. Next up is The Spirituality of Tom Petty. The artists must be authors as well. Therefore, we do not do the Spirituality of such as Elvis Presley or Judy Collins. We receive suggestions all the time. Do you have one?
As a conclusion, for now at least, I want to suggest you listen to Kanye West’s song Jesus Walks. It is a bit rough, which is one reason I suggest it here. You may bristle at the language and the anger; but that is the way I feel about some of the Old Testament prophets. But that’s another story.
Tom Petty was born in 1950 and died 66 years later in 2017; having earned three Grammy Awards and having been recognized as a generous and compassionate person eager to help others less fortunate than himself.
But, unfortunately, Tom Petty passed away from a fatal overdose of fentanyl, oxycodone, generic Xanax, antidepressant medication, and a sleep aid in his system that resulted in multiple organ failure. And so, in addition to his legacy of spirituality, artistry, compassion, generosity and love ~ part of what people will remember about Tom Petty is his fatal drug overdose at 66 years old; his “last dance with Mary Jane” and his “one more chance to kill the pain.”
“Despite this painful injury,” his wife, Dana, and daughter, Adria, wrote in a statement, “he insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans and he toured for 53 dates with a fractured hip and, as he did, it worsened to a more serious injury.” Tom Petty had recently completed a 40th anniversary tour with his band, the Heartbreakers. It was intended to be his “last trip around the country.” He told Rolling Stone, however, that he wasn’t going to stop playing, “I need something to do, or I tend to be a nuisance around the house.”
His family said they hope the musician’s death leads to a broader understanding of the opioid crisis. “As a family, we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives,” they wrote. “Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.”
I understand Tom Petty’s family response about his recent hip injury and the pain that resulted from it. But Tom Petty had been a heroin addict in his 40’s ~ 20 years after he became a superstar and over 20 years before the onslaught of his hip injury. I can certainly respect and accept his family’s take on his from an overdose of opioids. Addiction was not new to him.
But I also wonder how a man in his 60’s can schedule a 53-date tour, knowing he has a fractured hip, unless he knew that the tour was made possible, in part, by being torqued on powerful drugs. And that, in turn, gives me pause to wonder about another great musician, Prince, who also had a hip injury that, according to some people, also caused him to die of a drug overdose, slumped in the corner of an elevator in his home. Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness who reputedly was in adherence with his religion’s prohibition against drinking, smoking, swearing and drug use. Petty had hip pain and a history of addiction. And both are dead from overdoses.
This sad, sad situation reminds me that relapse is part of addiction. Those living with substance use disorder who never experience relapse are quite uncommon. Unfortunately, social stigma and stifling shame are also a common part of addiction. Part of that is because, many decades after being classified as a disease; people still think of addiction as a sin, a choice, and a weakness of willpower. But, think about it, no one shames or stigmatizes someone who experiences a relapse of breast cancer. No one has to make up stories and rationalizations to help people know that the breast cancer fatality is not because the victim was a bad person.
And so, loved ones are left not only to grieve; but also to explain circumstances and causes and to try to fend-off the stigma, pain and shame of an overdose death by stressing that the victim did not understand the power of medications, etc., etc. That may be true, but another, life-threatening part of the problem is people not understanding the power of addiction that continues, even after the person has achieved abstinence. One decision, one vulnerable moment, one desperate attempt to avoid physical or emotional pain and you can be found dead and slumped in the corner of an elevator; or someone, like Mrs. Petty, dialing 911 and saying, “My husband is not breathing.”
Yes, fatal overdose can begin with a legitimate injury to the hips of Prince and Tom Petty and many others. And the death of a beloved celebrity can indeed trigger further discussion of the opioid epidemic, as Mrs. Petty generously requested. But, to the hip injuries, let’s also add the moral injuries of denial, relapse, stigma and shame to the list of reasons for overdose deaths. Perhaps that will help to save lives lost to addiction. Perhaps that will help surviving loved ones from suffering for years from the aftershocks of what has become the number one killer of Americans under the age of 50.
And now we have come to this: What Tom Petty once wished for others in a song titled, “Wildflowers” ~ we can now wish for him. Allow me to adapt some words from his song, so that it reflects also back unto him: Thomas Earl Petty, you belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Far away from your trouble and worries; you belong somewhere you feel free. May Tom Petty rest in peace. He certainly deserves it.