Six Years. The Opioid Crisis Is Real

It’s been six years, yesterday. Six years since I wrote this piece. It’s an anniversary I’d rather not have, but those choices aren’t always ours. I can’t believe it’s been six.

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I’ll Do Anything, God

My “anything” prayer happened in a credit union lobby, viewing security tapes. The image on the tape was shady, in more ways than one. He wore a hoodie pulled low over his brow, not surprising, since having anyone see his face would have been detrimental to his purpose. The tape was grainy, at best. Still, I could identify the vehicle, and its driver.

 Explaining this all to the security woman at the credit union felt like an out-of-body experience. Surely, this was not my pretty, suburban Jesus life. Yes, I said. I do know who the young man in the tape is using my debit card. Yes, I do know he’s a drug addict and what he’ll do with the money. Yes, I know if I don’t press charges you won’t return the money. No, I still don’t want to press charges.

Her look called both my sanity and my intelligence into question. I just shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a pastor. It’s an occupational hazard. I can’t really explain.”

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I didn’t pray “anything” intentionally. It happened to me the day Casey happened to me, and I might well have told God I had other, more pressing business had I any notion of the rough road ahead. Fortunately, God does not give us those notions. He knows my heart that would probably have embraced the fear and the comfort rather than the strange boy in my back hallway.

So I never offered God everything. But by the time he asked it of me, I could do nothing else. God knows, sometimes, that’s the way we work.

No Turning Back When You Tell God “Anything”

Fortunately for Casey, that shock of overgrown cocoa-colored bangs and those huge brown eyes beneath the ever-present hoodie endeared him to people before they knew him. At least they did to me, a sucker for shy smiles and already well aware of my daughter’s penchant for collecting what we could euphemistically term “the least of these.”

 He had nowhere to go, could he maybe sleep in the basement? OK. I guessed that would be fine. For a while.

Two days later, his mom came knocking on the side door, letting us know the reason he had nowhere to go–she had a restraining order on him, because he had stolen from her, again. The same day one of our mutual friends informed us of his past in detail, containing more interactions with law enforcement than Snoop Dogg. “He’s a loser. He’ll never change. You’re out of your mind if you let him in your house. He’ll take you for everything you have.”

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And he tried. I’d never been called to a bank to review security videos, never had someone steal my debit card and use it to buy gas for ten of his closest friends. Never had police bang on my door at random hours. Never sat at the hospital bed of someone who felt so little hope for life he’d OD on heroin, again.

 He progressed to grand theft auto while we were on vacation. Not the video game. The rage I felt when the gift cards I’d saved points for to give our kids for Christmas turned up missing the week before—from my underwear drawer, which feels relentlessly violating—mixed with the sorrow and desolation of knowing that by this time, I loved this kid.

OK, he was no kid; he was 23. But only chronologically.

When Jesus told me to love the least of these, he wasn’t being rhetorical. He didn’t mean sending money to African orphans to satisfy my conscience or buying a pair of shoes so a needy child could have one, too. Yes, those are good things. I do those things. But until Casey, I didn’t understand that real love takes risks, gets personal, gets hideously, nakely messy. Real love looks a messed up kid in the eye and says, “I’m with you for the long haul. What do we have to do?”And sometimes the crapshot you take with love comes up bust. There is no guarantee.

Every time I thought I had had enough and was ready to turn this kid in and wash my hands, I asked God if I could. Well, I kind of begged him. There were some pretty bad days. And every single time, he said, “No. I am not done with Casey. So neither are you. Anything? Really?”

Holy Spirit Leverage

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 As part of our “I’m not turning you in so now I have some power over you” strategy, we “sentenced” Casey to community service at our church. He met people. They loved him, no holds barred. He came to a few services. He went forward to the altar, trying to start over and get out of the iron-bar-less prison he knew he was still in. He got better; he got worse; he got better. I felt the Spirit moving me to go back downstairs to him one night at 2am, long after I had gone to bed but not to sleep.

“Casey, what’s keeping you from turning your life over to God?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to give up the fun I’m having.”

“Really? So, this homeless, jail time, drugs gig is fun? How’s that working out for you?”

He shook his head sheepishly. “Yeah. Not so good.”

 He told us no one in twenty-three years had made him feel so loved. Like the security woman, he shook his head at us and said he could not understand why.

 But eventually, he got it. He got that love beyond all human ability comes from Jesus alone. A tiny bit of comprehension seeped in that, maybe, possibly, it wasn’t too late for someone like him. A God who would die for any sin on the books just because he loved us would love him, too. The Recovery Bible got a used look to it.

Eventually, I got it, too. I got that compassion means so much more than a thoughtful email, and mercy is the greatest inexplicable gift someone might get from me. I wrote my senior seminary thesis on grace. But I don’t think I knew it at all until I knew Casey. I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given. I’ve hugged Jesus in the form of a messed-up, love-bewildered kid. And I’ll never see Him the same.

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Not a Fairytale

You know those stories with bittersweet endings that you hate but know are really more true than the happily ever after ones? This is that kind of story. Casey didn’t make it in this life. He tried hard. He went though recovery and was on the road. But there were too many years of pain and bad choices, and one last time on heroin, after being clean for a while, was the last. I had to find out through Facebook, not the number one choice for devastating your heart.

Sitting looking at the waves of Lake Michigan roll in that week, I cried for the man he might have been and the life that could have been his. But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog. He had no pain, no past, no chains of addiction or scars of abuse. He had no tears of hopelessness or self-hatred. He was free. And I’d never been so happy for someone in my life. Or sad. 

“Anything” prayers may take you no farther than your own back hallway. But they’ll take you much farther than that, once dangerous love sets in.

 

According to our surgeon general’s remarks when I heard him speak this spring, “This is a medical addiction issue, not a moral failure. The only way we’re going to create better opportunities for those we love is by sharing our stories and eliminating the stigma. None of us can do it alone.” Amen. The heroin epidemic is real, and it’s deadly. Someone dies every 12.5 minutes of an opioid overdose. The start of it for someone could be in your own medicine cabinet right now. Please check out some facts and know what you need to know. Don’t lose someone you love.

What Does the Church Need to Bring Back the Younger Generation: Author Interview

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A few weeks ago, my friend Terri asked if she could interview me for her author interview series. Since she is a great interview-question-maker and a great friend, I said of course!

(Also, she is a very talented photographer–she took my headshot this year in San Antonio, and I am pretty certain the shot at the beginning of her post is of Oxford from our time there last spring. I know that hallway!)

Terri asked so many good questions about the church, its future, and the leadership of young people. Since I am known around these parts as an advocate of the latter (I mean, look at the tagline right up there), I loved every one of her questions.

Questions like:

Many young adults have left the church. What has driven young people away?

How does the church and its people need to change to bring young people back?

I especially love the last question–you’ll figure out why when you read it!

Just part of one of my answers–I hope it makes you want to click over to the full interview.

Jesus came to forgive our sins AND to usher in the kingdom of God with redemption of everything, starting right away. He came to set a broken creation right again. They aren’t separable. Young people find this story credible and compelling. They know the world is broken. They want to help fix it. We’re not just saved from sin—we’re saved toward wholeness.

Get yourself over to her full interview here. Thanks!

 

Is Friendly Enough?

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Welcoming isn’t the same as “you belong here.”

Everyone welcomes you when you’re the new one in the group exercise room. Are they friendly, or are they just grateful that someone in the room is going to look dorkier than they do now? Time will tell, especially when they all politely turn aside when you lose your balance doing side kicks.

Whatever the reason, people welcomed me to the three exercise classes I started attending a couple weeks ago. They smiled, pushed mats over the accommodate me, and asked about my morning. I was going to fit in with this group, despite the fact that they all have grey hair and talk about their grandkids. Who cares? We’re all nice people enjoying our morning together.

But Really . . .

Halfway through the class, we walked out onto the track, and I noticed right away that my celebration had been premature. People paired up. They walked together in twos or threes, talking about whatever concerns life had brought them that day. I’m sure they knew one another’s concerns. I’m certain they walked with the people they were accustomed to pairing with—people who had spent time with them and knew them enough to be used to one another.

No one hung back to walk with me. No one chatted with me about silly nothings or major somethings, either one. I walked alone, while the other twelve enjoyed one another’s company.

Is Our Church “Friendly?”

That’s when i realized the difference that many churches never recognize. There is friendly, and there is welcoming someone into belonging. You can welcome someone to church, but are you welcoming them into the life of the church?

It’s so easy to smile and welcome a person but then turn to those we are used to, the ones who know us, and spend our actual interaction time there. A new person is genuinely greeted with friendliness. We sincerely want him or her there. But then we turn to our accustomed habits. We talk to our comfortable friends. We leave the welcomed person to feel on the outside, finding a friendly people but not finding access to their circle of friendship. 

Being Access Givers

A lot of churches need to work on being access-givers. Often we’ve put a lot of emphasis on ensuring that new people find the process of coming to church seamless and simple, but how much work have we put into making sure they feel like they’ve been to a community rather than an IKEA? How often do we open our small circles and invite someone in who’s standing on the outside?

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Photo courtesy of Emptyplatefullheart

I’ve been that person on the outside more times than I like to remember. I can tell you—that person is dying for more than a smile and directions to children’s ministry. Here are five ways to make someone feel like she belongs, not like she’s just welcomed.

  • Open the circle. Literally. Look away from your group of friends and find someone who needs to be pulled in. Go to her. She won’t come to you.
  • Ask questions. She isn’t likely to offer a lot of information. She’s nervous. So make her feel you care by asking about her life. What brought you here? What’s your family look like? How long have you lived here?
  • Find a common denominator. Do you have the same age kids, the same work field, equally annoying relatives? Hobbies/ TV shows? You’ll have to talk a while to find out. There is likely to be something you share that forms a bond.
  • Introduce her to someone. Does she crochet? Introduce her to someone else who does. Is she a mechanical engineer? You might know someone with whom she can talk about those things (I would not be that person. Introduce me to the person who can quote Shakespeare or Dr. Who. Doesn’t matter which.)
  • If it seems right and not pushy, invite her to something else. Lunch after church would be marvelous. A MOPS group. Your Bible study or your planned night out for Margaritas. Whatever. 
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Going for coffee is always good.

Being friendly is something you can get from a Walmart greeter. Making someone feel they belong is the art and the work of Christian community. Let’s do it to his glory.

“May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.” — Romans 15.5-7

Level One

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I look just like this in class. Exactly this.

The class is called Strictly Strength. The title and description intimidated me right off. I am not strong, strictly or otherwise.I imagined kettle bells and giant weights and me, collapsed on the floor, begging for the water bottle I inevitably forgot to bring.  Being sick a couple years back took all the muscle I had away, and strength has been a bit elusive since that point.

So while the sound of it was terrifying, the promise was worth the risk. I jumped in as the class newbie.

Level Up?

Surprise—there are levels to being strong. For just about any move the instructor taught us, she explained that there was a level one and a level two—or even three. There are options! There are large weights, and there are small ones. There are heavier bars and lighter bars. (And now I know I have to get there earlier if I want a lighter bar.) There are moves that test your further than other, easier possibilities. I did not have to walk in the room and lift a kettle bell above my head on the first day. Thank you, sweet eight-pound baby Jesus. That would have been ugly.

The most important thing I learned right away though—

There is no shame in staying at Level One.

Oh, I want to be at Level Two. I want to do the harder twists, the longer planks, the tighter crunches. But the part of me that is tired of injury remembers that is why I am doing this—to avoid hurting those parts of me that have gotten bruised, pulled, and pained by doing too much.

So I keep it slow. And steady.

Other people can do the full planks. I stick to the hands and knees ones. Someone else may be able to do double leg lifts. I will happily do them one at a time. Maybe one day I will do those harder things, but right now, I’m at Level One. And that’s an OK place to be.

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Church Has Levels, Too

Some of us show up to church at Level One. We don’t know the songs. We aren’t comfortable singing in public, anyway. We get part of what the pastor’s talking about, but some of the things are fuzzy, and we’re not sure how they apply to our situation. We don’t want to volunteer, because we’ve been burned out, and we’ve been called out by the person who felt we just couldn’t get it right. We don’t understand the unspoken cadence of the service that informs everyone else to stand up, sit down, or dip the bread in that cup rather than drink the juice.

Everyone else seems to be at Level Three, at least.

We want to be. We want to pretend we know the lingo, act like we’ve got our life together. But then we remember why we’re there—because we want to stop the hurt that happens when we are fake. We hate the bruises, pains, and sprains in our hearts over trying to be what we’re not.

Maybe church is a place where it’s OK to be at Level One. At least, we hope so. We long for grace for those who aren’t quite ready for the heavier lifting. We pray there is kindness for the ones who need the lighter weights, and we wish for others who can bear more to offer us their shoulders and their lighter burdens. We hope that, if anyone notices we can’t do what the seasoned attenders can do, they will not point that out but treat us as if there were no differences at all.

There is no shame in staying at Level One.

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Searching for Sunday

Church should always welcome the Level One folks. Partly, because Jesus told us to. Partly, because we were all Level One at some point. Party, because they have something to teach us.

If you’re trying church for the first time, or if you’re back for the first time since something there hurt you immeasurably, don’t push it. Don’t expect to be lifting the 25-pounders your second day. Don’t think you have to know all the moves in order to fit in. Embrace awkward. Know that you don’t know and that it’s OK. Know that sometimes you can’t manage whatever task it seems everyone else is taking on, and that’s OK, too.

Level Two will come.

It doesn’t really matter how long it takes. I makes not one bit of difference how long you have to keep doing one leg lifts. You’ll get there. You’ll grow stronger. Maybe one day you’ll see that person who doesn’t seem to know the steps and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh—I remember that. I’m stronger than I thought. I think I can be a shoulder for her.” That day, you’ll be the grace someone else needs to poke her head in the door and say, “Maybe I’ll try this. It’s scary, but maybe it’s just what I need.”

Dance Like We Just Don’t Care

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I went to three exercise classes last week. You might think that is normal. You are just not me. Three exercise classes is more than I have gone to in approximately three hundred years. I don’t do group classes. I don’t like them. I am not peppy or muscle-y, and I am barely scraping the edge of social. I went anyway, because a body that works when I want it to is becoming more important to me than my preference for private exercise. (By which I mean, no exercise at all more often than not.)

And wouldn’t you know, it occurred to me during the course of the hour, that exercise class is a lot like church. How, you ask? Well, let me tell you. 

Observations on a morning of exercise class:

Observation One: I love exercise classes where I am the youngest member.

Because I work at home, I am able to go to classes in the morning, after the overflow of committed enthusiasts who go before they get behind the wheel for their commute. Those people are scary. I have been at the gym at 6:00 am and seen their classes with accompanying blaring rock music. How can anyone endure that eardrum assault so early? I have watched them race onto the track and actually run, putting feet together in a coordinated, fast motion at that hour.

This is not possible for normal people. They are clearly the spawn of aliens.

But the 10:00 am classes? Filled with retired folk. Do you know what is glorious about an exercise class filled with people over 65?

They Do. Not. Care.

They don’t care how they look. They don’t care if they get every move right. They don’t care if they can’t stretch as far as that girl next to them in the designer purple yoga pants. They do not care the tiniest bit. They dance like they don’t care.

I love it.

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Church people care.

They care if your kids are crazier than theirs. They care if you volunteer as often as they do. They care if your opinions line up with theirs. They care if your clothes are nicer/not nicer/less modest/less expensive/more expensive/more outlandish/more casual than theirs. They. Care.

Not everywhere. Definitely not at our church. But at many.

So the lesson from exercise class? Find a place that doesn’t care or, better still, make a place that doesn’t care. Go to church and pretend you’re a 70-year-old woman doing yoga.

  • That other mom’s kid can’t seem to stop running through the hallway? High five her and tell her she’s doing great at a tough job. I mean, motherhood is kind of like trying to stretch your foot behind your ear while breathing properly (or breathing at all). Those kids’ souls are what matters—not any mess or noise they make. Old ladies doing yoga just don’t care about what doesn’t matter.

 

  • Go talk to that teenager wearing pajama pants to church. Welcome her. Ask her about her day, year, life. High five her for surviving being sixteen. That’s like me managing an hour of swing dancing when I’ve barely got the endurance level of a three-toed sloth. I bet she’s got a lot to share.

 

  • Find the single guy who only shows up every month or so. Ask him what his dreams are. Find out what he’s good at. High five him for wanting something deeper in his life enough to get there when he does. Kind of like showing up for strength training class when currently you’ve got the muscle mass of a hummingbird.

There are dreams and wishes and hurts and yearnings we know nothing about swirling in the hearts of the people right next to us.

It’s freeing to be among a bunch of people doing aerobic foxtrotting with glee and no shame at all. It makes it OK to make mistakes. It allows for someone to not know what comes next. It forgives. It offers a chance to dance with glee yourself.

It makes me want to come back.

What if we were the people who offered those things to the ones who walk through the doors of our church?

It’s OK to make mistakes.

It’s fine not to know what comes next.

It’s beautiful that you have doubts.

It’s great to see you whatever you look like.

I want you to dance here, with joy.

“So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free. Use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5.1, 13)

Make your space a just don’t care zone. And I guarantee, from my experience, people will want to come back.

Mutts, pigs, turtles, and the meaning of life

Quizzes. The world is into them, it seems. I have to admit, I’ve always loved them. I’m the one who ordered the book filled with quizzes to find out more about yourself from the junior high book fair. I don’t remember what I found out. Probably that I could not wait to get out of junior high.

So for a little fun, the results, and some thoughts on, the quiz craze.

My Life According to Buzzfeed:

I am personality-wise a wise mix of Obi Wan Kenobi, Remus Lupin, Elrond, Queen Elsa, and Cinderella. (?? That last one so does not fit.) I should be friends with Stitch and live in either Portland, Oregon, Romania, or Rivendell. (Definitely leaning toward the latter.)


Yes, it’s Washington, not Oregon. But it’s close enough
for me.
I should write for a living (how convenient) and for inspiration when writer’s block hits, turn to Langston Hughes or Joyce Carol Oates. I must be sure to write in Times New Roman font. (Which this is not.) But, I should have majored in environmental science at either Duke or Harvard, and I did not. So that might make all this career stuff moot anyway.

In my future home, I should own a pig, although I’m not sure of Rivendell homeowner association rules on that one. It would probably be quite acceptable in Portland. Especially if I fed the pig organic vegetables and composted the results.

write about environmental science?
If I were a dog I’d be a mutt, and if I were an inanimate object, I would be a bunch of dead AA batteries. Apparently, as an inanimate object, I am a huge fire hazard.

I am a Revolutionary (I do love Les Mis) and a logical thinker (which, I am guessing, most revolutionaries are not).

And my favorite thus far—my inner animal is . . . a tiny turtle on a skateboard. This is not a normal thing for anyone to even have thought about.

We love to see how we’re like other people, or unlike anyone else. It’s entertaining to see where you fit. It’s also a drive from within we can’t seem to quench.

Everyone needs to figure out where he or she fits. We find it in fun ways in Buzzfeed. We find it in serious ways in jobs or possessions. Sadly, we sometimes find it in destructive ways. We find it in ultimate ways in beliefs and relationships. But we need it. We seek it.

Where do I belong?

Why am I here?

What am I here to do?

While I definitely do belong in Portland or Rivendell, here’s where I know, after all the looking around.

“This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’” (Isaiah 44.5).

That’s where I belong. That’s to whom I belong. Simple. No quiz required. But it answers everything.

Where do you find, or seek, belonging? I’d love to hear.