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.

The First Christmas Parade

 
 
If I had the funds and the electrical ingenuity, mine would be one of those houses that can be seen from outer space at Christmastime. I love the lights the most. The bigger and crazier the display, the more I want to drive by it. Light displays are my guilty Christmas pleasure.
 
But maybe it shouldn’t be so guilty. God doesn’t seem to find unsparing celebration problematic at all, when the celebration is about Him.
 
 
In 2 Samuel, David celebrates the return of the ark of the covenant. He celebrates jubilantly, making sacrifices and dancing in the streets before God’s ark. It’s a vibrant parade, and David is the grand marshall. His wife doesn’t appreciate the dance, and the Bible says she despises him in her heart for his undignified display. It’s a drama-filled story, but what does it have to do with Christmas? (Here is the story, if you would like to read it.)
 
The ark represented God’s presence with His people. It held His covenant to be their God and guide them. When Exodus says a mercy seat covers the ark, it literally means “atonement seat.” Here, God met his people to broker reconciliation. For the Israelites, being without the ark meant being without an approachable God. Now, they felt they were bringing God’s presence back. David had reason to celebrate.
 
Christmas celebrates the place where God met with His people to reconcile finally, completely, with full atonement. 
 
In His birth, Jesus provided a new and eternal mercy seat—Himself. Instead of an ark, a stable cradled a new covenant.

We have good reason to celebrate, and to celebrate wildly. David’s rapturous dance before the Ark poured from his adoration of God. It sprung out of his gratitude that God allowed his presence to be with His people.
 
Certainly our Christmas celebrations should be equally full of crazy, abundant gratitude. Our celebrations should “Make your faithfulness known through all generations” and “declare that your love stands firm forever” (Psalm 891-2). Letting something be known, making a declaration, dancing in the streets—these are all unabashed actions. It’s OK—it’s good—to make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus declared his presence among people with a cry in a manger.
 
There is no room in the season for a Michal who shakes her head at the joy and mutters, “Why so much?”
 
So how do we know when the big deal is about us and when is it about Jesus? We know the same way David did. When we are decorating trees or baking cookies out of the gratitude in our hearts that God is with us—we are celebrating like David. When we do it because we’re supposed to or we want to impress someone, we’re just having a holiday.
 
When we’re staring at the twinkling lights and reminding God (and ourselves) that we want to be all in in this new covenant, we’re celebrating like David. When we’re thinking instead about all the blacked-out spaces on our calendar, we’re enduring a season.
 
When we’re giving gladly to those we love, and to strangers who need it most, we’re celebrating like David. When we spend money we don’t have on people who don’t need it, we’re following customs rather than Jesus.
 
And when we’re judging other peoples’ celebrations— we’re being Michal. We’re pretending to enjoy the holiday, but we’re not celebrating Emmanuel. God with us.
 

 

Bright lights aren’t the point of Christmas; they’re a nice byproduct. When I can watch their colors arc across the darkness of a December night, I think of the Light of the World who arced across our darkness to bring His presence and mercy. I may even dance a little.

 

 

Five Hopes I Wish for You and Me

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I learned about mercy and hope this morning while watching my daughter prep for oral surgery.

I had not known, until the technician informed me, that the Pope had declared this next year, since December 8, a special jubilee of mercy. I’m not Catholic; I didn’t know what a special jubilee was, no did I know the pope could call one. But he has, and he has opened up the special bricked up door in St. Peter’s to symbolize it.

I saw that door when we visited St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember it. I didn’t realize it’s significance.

All I could say to her was, “I dearly hope he’s right.”

The Friday Five linkup at Mrs. Disciple is on Hope. Five things we hope. This morning, I can’t think of anything I hope for more than exactly this.

I hope and pray mercy on you. On me. On all of us.

I pray more than anything we learn to extend it beyond what we believe is possible in 2016.

“I am convinced that the whole Church — which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

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Is there anything more important, in this world of fear and confusion, than to hope for these words? So here are my five hopes for all of us in the Year of Jubilee (An unfulfilled celebration in the Old Testament that I find particularly beautiful and hopeful.) They are all hopes of mercy.

I hope for us the wisdom to listen and learn from those who are different.

Let’s learn the particular mercy of hearing others. We can give no greater gift, I’m convinced, than to see and hear another person. Would it be a beautiful mercy to go out of our way to hear those we may not normally listen to this year? Wouldn’t it mirror Jesus’ willingness to hear the people around him, really hear them, not assume he knew all about them? (Even though he did.)

I hope for us the patience to give second chances.

It’s the popular thing to give up on people as soon as they disappoint us. It’s easy to delete a friend. Easy to move on to the next honeymoon relationship, until the next crack appears. But what if we chose not to? Does it sound hopeful to think we could do the hard work of inviting the cracks, repairing them together, offering second, third, and fourth chances? We might need a few, too.

I hope for us the freedom of feeling forgiven.

The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
    nor remain angry forever.
 He does not punish us for all our sins;
    he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
 He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west.  Psalm 103

Completely, absolutely, unwaveringly forgiven. By God. And by ourselves. Nothing offers more hope than to know you are forgiven. Nothing prepares us more for the next hope.

IMG_4468I hope for us the release of forgiving others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Offer it in this year of mercy. Be liberal in your offering of forgiveness. You are the one who will feel the free release of hope fill your lungs.

I hope for us the joy of offering mercy to anyone, anywhere.

The one who does not deserve it. The one who cannot hope for it. The one who doesn’t look like you. The one who looks disturbingly too much like you. The one who speaks another language. The one who lives and sleeps next to you. Everywhere. Without consideration of who is keeping score.

This — this is peace on earth. This is the only hope we have. This is the hope of Christmas.