The Ghost Bike of Billthy

1280px-Ghostcycle-2005
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike

This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life lost on the road, and cyclists have this.  It’s simple. Just an old, busted bike, chained up at the scene of an incident, spray painted completely white.  They can be found worldwide, wherever cyclists die, and there’s a cycling community in mourning. People say it’s to raise awareness for drivers, to help remember to share the road with bikes, but people who don’t ride often don’t understand, or care, what the bikes are for.  For me, they stand as a bleak reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are, that a car doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly, and that friends can easily die tragic, preventable deaths.

 

19248153_862039687276381_7287884645714141693_n
Photo c/o Austin Horse, in Philly, halfway through his ride to D.C.

This is Austin Horse. He’s a New York City bike messenger, adventuring cyclist, winner of a few world bike messenger championship races, and based on all accounts given by mutual friends, a decent human being.

 

Once upon a time he had another friend that was named Bill. He was also a New York bike messenger, as wild and scrappy as his long beard, which had helped earn him the nickname Billthy. He had a serious case of bikelust, and was cherished for his presence at the back of the RAGBRAI pack that cycles across Iowa every year. He was a brother, an uncle, a father, a friend to many, and also, by all accounts, a decent human being.

One day, Bill woke up feeling ill. He dealt with it, as most grown ups do, but he didn’t feel any better. At this early point in the story, he could have gone to see a doctor, received some medicine, and been fine.  Or maybe had a yearly check up, where the doctor would’ve told him he couldn’t heal without treatment.  But he didn’t see a doctor, or have physicals because he couldn’t afford them. He took a risk, and assumed that like whatever maladies he’d experienced before, it would eventually go away.  Instead it became worse, and then unbearable.  Bill finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. What had started as an ulcer had perforated, then turned into sepsis, commonly known as blood poisoning. At 52 years of age, on February 1, 2015, Bill died.  From an ulcer.

If you met Bill you might think he was an uncommon person, but stories like his have become so common to me that it holds no surprise.  DC messengers I worked with have also died young from treatable conditions that went untreated, cancers that weren’t detected early enough, or chronic conditions that weren’t properly cared for.  These weren’t bad people. Despite whatever personal baggage they may or may not have had, they worked hard and were usually willing to drop what they were doing and run a package. Even if the whole city was under a foot of snow and even the US Postal Service was closed.  Typical of bike messengers and other working class people, Bill couldn’t afford preventative care because he was uninsured, even with medicaid expansion, and even with subsidies in the marketplace.  For many in this position, survival does not allow sick days, because hourly pay is how food finds its way onto their table. Illnesses come and go, but the need for income remains the same, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth.

Austin thought Bill’s death needed a ghost bike. He was a cyclist, and this was a tragic, preventable death, common to many messengers, and it warranted some public awareness.  But where would it be displayed? There was no crash sight, or landmark to place the blame.  So Austin decided that in honor of his friend, and to advocate for universal health care that might have saved him, to make Bill’s ghost bike mobile.  Instead of a random ghost bike, he would bring Bill’s actual bike which was already white.  He would ride it from Bill’s home in Brooklyn, in his hand, by his side, all the way to Washington D.C and up to Capitol Hill.  Austin and Bill’s bike rode the stretch all this week, while the senators were debating  behind closed doors legislation that would affect the future for millions of Americans like Bill. He took the bike and Bill’s story to the people in congress, hoping to remind them that what they’re creating is not just a bill. It’s a way to change people’s stories. It‘s a chance to give them life.

19225891_861653730648310_3499097774449606432_n
Image c/o Austin Horse, In Brooklyn, starting out toward DC

Austin is an experienced cyclist, but riding a long distance in this way is no small task. Any amount of riding with your hand on someone else’s bike is awkward.  I’ve ridden bikes that needed repairs to a shop about a mile from my house. It was unpleasant. It threw off my balance and slowed me down.  I’ve also ridden the distances Austin traveled each day. It hurts. Not just in your legs, but in your palms, your wrists, your back, and your butt. Being able to let go of the handlebars to sit up and stretch your wrists and wiggle your back is just about the best thing ever. Being able to have both hands on your own handlebars to adjust your weight or get out of the saddle is probably the only thing that might feel nicer.  You can’t do either of those things if you have one hand on someone else’s bike.  

It was a noble gift to Bill’s memory, to take a piece of him back out on the road, and to share his story with people who don’t understand what it’s like.  Often we make this debate about penalties, taxes and money spent, but we leave out the friends we’ve lost, and how they suffered. 

There are definitely problems with the system now. It costs more than a monthly house payment to insure a family like mine, even with my husband’s employer subsidizing it.  At different times my husband or I have remained uninsured because we’re healthy, and it was cheaper to pay the penalty and for the occasional doctor’s visit than it was to buy insurance.  But through that I’ve watched my husband go to work with chronic back pain for months at a time, and suffer through things like strep throat and the swine flu without antibiotics. Even when we are insured,  the polict we had was so crappy it would only pay for something if you were about to die.  Even though the bill was created to help people like us, I feel people’s frustration with the Affordable Care Act. 

I’m fine with fixing the problems, looking at the legislation again and even repealing the parts that don’t work, but not with forgetting that all people need affordble health care.  How many people have to die from small complications before we are willing to negotiate around this issue? I wish I was wise enough to speak into the future and calm everyone’s fears about the possible solutions and how they might work best for our country. I wish I could say, beyond a doubt, what measures we needed to take to ensure that greed and corruption won’t triumph at the expense of the vulnerable and less fortunate.

I know we all have our strong opinions about what should be done, and that there are no perfect answers, but the answer can’t be nothing, nor can it be looking back to the time before the ACA with fondness, when millions more were uninsured.  This is not just a bill, it’s people’s stories and so we need people like Austin out there, sharing the ones that people can no longer share for themselves.  Because it’s friends and family like Bill who are lost in ferocity of this battle.  

It has not been effective for us to yell, argue and growl at one another, while we forget that we are capable of empathy and understanding. We need more stories. So we can understand about the family who’s son was saved from addiction and mental illness because it was an ACA provision to include substance abuse treatment.  So we can hear about the family that is already swamped with insurance payments, and dreads a trip to the ER because they have no room in their budget to also pay down the deductible. Tell people this story, or your story, or the story of your own friends. We need them. That’s what the debate should center around, because nobody ever sold the child to save the farm and because we need to find a way to treat something as simple as an ulcer.

A documentary clip of Bill in action…May he rest in peace.

 

How to Create a Crisis

Edmund was such a bratty kid the first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I loved Lucy, since I was a girl her age, but his relentless effort to embarrass her only made him half villain.  What I found repulsive was his ignorance to temptation; he didn’t even try to defend himself against White Witch. How could a person so shamelessly seek after evil, trudging through snow with no coat, to sell out his siblings for candy?  I understood that he represented me as a sinner, but I couldn’t bear being lumped in with someone so oblivious to an evil plot.

That same feeling is rampant where I live in the Appalachians. People’s resentment builds as heroin bashes away at the infrastructure of rural life. It’s not that they’re unfamiliar with addiction, or the depression that leads people to it. They’re just tired of the unrelenting pain the heroin version brings, and of lacking the resources to fight back.  People wonder, why can’t these addicts just say ‘no’? They did DARE in school like everyone else, so how could they be so helpless against such an obvious evil?  Maybe if addicts just thought about their choices, money wouldn’t be wasted on Narcan, social services and jail.  Someone in a crowd will always suggest we save our resources by just letting them overdose and die.  It’s callous and simplistic, but people are so annoyed that heroin is even an issue.

It took 30 years and raising 4 little boys for me to appreciate Edmund as a universal character.  My boys didn’t see him as a spiteful bully, but as an emotional little boy, frightened by the war and annoyed by his seemingly perfect siblings.  As a parent I was finally able to see the wounds caused by circumstance, separated from his parents and scared for their safety.  Every day I referee squabbles created by a child who’s been squashed by his place in the birth order, trying to undo the resentment that it brings.  Adding to Edmund’s plight, he’s sacrificing joys he’s been entitled to since birth- sugar, chocolate, even new shoes and socks.  He wasn’t wandering Narnia seeking fortune or dominance, they just found him cold and lonely in the woods with an unsettled heart and offered themselves as solutions.  All it took was a small choice of food, and suddenly his greed was insatiable. 

The enchanted treats perverted Edmund’s character similar to the way heroin would.  The more of the treat he ate, the less remained of his virtue.  Reality became distorted to the point he could no longer decipher the good from evil, or truth from lie. His disposition became increasingly combative, even when he was obviously wrong.  Of the Turkish Delight, Lewis says, “…anyone who had tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed to, go on eating it until they killed themselves.” His greed for it left Edmund with an empty container, making promises he couldn’t keep, to a woman he couldn’t trust, all to dominate his siblings and live in a fantasy.   We scoff at people who fall prey to addiction, the same way we do at Edmund, but truthfully we know more about this scenario than we’d care to admit.  

The creation of today’s Heroin crisis is rooted in the same oblivion as Edmund’s.  He didn’t know that the Witch’s treats were enchanted.  He’d probably eaten Turkish Delight before without feeling the urge to sell his soul, so why should he suspect danger? The Witch may have been exuding evil, but it was just candy.  The increase in heroin use today is attributed to the mass abuse of OxyContin that began about 20 years ago. The pill was first marketed as non habit-forming, and for a decade doctors were encouraged to prescribe it to anyone with chronic pain.  It didn’t matter if you were prescribed pills from your doctor or bought them on the street, the lie was pervasive and convincing: there have been studies, it’s not habit forming, it’s FDA approved for all your pain.  Maybe we should have been more wary, but doctors prescribe all kinds of drugs that heal and help, so why should this be different? Even after 1000’s of years of experience with opium and its derivatives, we never stopped to question if these claims were true.

In the time that it has taken OxyContin and its generic oxycodone to rise and level off in popularity, our culture has seen an abundance of fraudulent schemes fail. Our economy imploded as the housing market crashed.  Record breaking athletes almost all turned out to be bogus, and our olive oil was fake.  We wanted so much, we even ruined kindergarten in an attempt to have smarter kids.  Ignoring fraud and then being horrified at the consequences is just about our new national pastime.  It’s in this way we know Edmund and the addicts on the street. We know them through our blinding greed.  

The story of how we legalized drug dealing reveals that greed as the real epidemic, and our opioid abuse as a symptom of it.  It would seem, according to the arrest records, that the White Witch villain of this story are the people operating pain clinics. To an extent this is true, Jeff and Chris George were like this, They were twin brothers from Florida who were both housing contractors and felons, but from 2008 to 2010 they owned and operated the U.S.’s  largest chain of pill mills, profiting $40 million in just two and a half years.  They hired desperate doctors who were bankrupt, either literally or morally, and told them if they wrote a lot of prescriptions they could make $2 million a year.  As soon as patients realized how easy it was to obtain drugs without getting arrested, their business exploded.   People drove down by the van full from as far away as West Virginia and Kentucky.  Each patient needed an MRI (done for $50 in a trailer behind a nearby strip club) and a clean cup of urine (didn’t have to be yours), but as long as someone followed the procedure they could go home with a month’s worth of pills.

Since pain is relative and mostly invisible, you can’t prove someone is lying, which made it difficult for the DEA to build a case. It wasn’t until the brothers violently threatened people that agents were allowed to wiretap their phones and prove the clinic was a sham.  At any point before that, the George’s certainly could have walked away with a fortune, but when recounting the story they said their love for profits and power became insatiable.  By the time the clinics were shut down and everyone involved was arrested, the DEA estimated that 20 million doses of oxycodone had been prescribed, an average of about 10,000 per day.

Most doctors, however, were less villainous than the Witch and as blinded as both Edmund and addicts alike. Dr. William Hurwitz, star of the documentary “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer”, had an impressive resume compared to the George brothers.  He was educated at Columbia and Stanford, and then volunteered with the Peace Corp in Brazil. When he came back to the States, he specialized in chronic pain, became an expert in the field, and opened his own clinic in an affluent D.C. suburb.  His patients were people whose pain was so crippling they were unable to do basic things, like walk or get out of bed. They were grateful for his support, but traditional treatment involved multiple types of surgeries and therapies in addition to some meager medication.  It was a long, expensive road with lined with tiresome insurance battles, and no promise of relief.  Everyone was desperate for an easier answer to the problem of chronic pain.

In 1996, sales reps from a company called Purdue Pharma showed up in doctor offices across the country, and a ‘hallelujah’ rang out.  They promised their new pill, OxyContin,  was the first non-addictive opioid, thanks to its fancy, new time release capsule. They wooed doctors during special conferences at fancy resorts, and cited a few loosely applied studies to substantiate their claims.  At these conferences they promised even a primary care physician could prescribe it safely.  It’s so harmless, people could use it after a tooth extraction.  Purdue trained its sales team to ingrain the message that the risk of addiction was “less than one percent.” They even made up a term to describe skeptics: ‘opiophobic.’

Hurwitz was so enamored with the idea of the pill that he became blind to its power. After years of repeated appointments with little progress, his patients were finally happy, and he was overjoyed. “It’s like a miracle from heaven,” they’d tell their friends.  They can go back to work, walk without a cane, and play with their grandchildren again.  But soon they would become tolerant and ask for a higher dose, and Hurwitz became as addicted to prescribing OxyContin as they were to taking it.  He started to ignore signs that his patients were abusing the drug.  When a nurse would point an addict out, he claimed they still felt chronic pain, so who was he to deny them relief?  If a patient ran out of pills before their prescription ended, Hurwitz would assume the patient was developing a tolerance and increased their dosage.  After two of his patients overdosed and died, the DEA opened an investigation. His abundance of patients taking abnormally large doses led them to shut his practice down.  Soon after the medical board revoked his license, and eventually he went to jail.

Even after losing everything, including his marriage and career, he still thought OxyContin was the answer for chronic pain.  When they interviewed his ex-patients, ones who were lucky enough to have recovered from their habit, they all regretted their addiction and understood how needing the pills had made them suffer more.  Hurwitz showed remorse for the people who had died, but was unwilling to assume any blame. He was sad that people had taken the drug incorrectly, mostly because it ruined the chance for others to use it for relief.  In his post jail interviews, he still did not feel that large doses, extended use, or increasing tolerance had anything to do with creating epidemic addiction. He shows we can be greedy with excellent motives, and what’s scary is that will blind us all the same.

Closer to the White Witch in this story is Purdue Pharma.  In the early 90’s they were still a small company, whose primary product was a painkiller called MS Contin given mainly to dying cancer patients. It was profitable, but the patent was about to expire, and with it’s limited market it wouldn’t be able to compete with its generic versions. The company needed something new to keep them afloat, preferably something with a bigger market so they wouldn’t be in the same position ten years later. OxyContin, was their answer and chronic pain patients would be their market.  Soon enough, its popularity turned them into superstars, and opioids became a billion dollar a year industry in just a few years.  Today their reach is global, and the Sackler family who owns the brand, is the 16th richest in the nation according to Forbes.

It’s unclear what their original intention was other than trying to stay in business. Did they create their product to help people or did they know they had found a way to legalize heroin? Probably the truth is somewhere in between.  By 2000, people began to realize that OxyContin actually was addictive, and started filing lawsuits.  In 2007 The U.S. Attorney General’s office took up the case, and Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal   ‘misbranding’, for mislabeling theb drug, fraudulently promoting it, and marketing for an unapproved use.  They paid $635 million dollars in fines to stay out of jail, which was the biggest pemalty at the time, but has lost its meaning compared to the $35 billion in revenue that ; earned from OxyContin to date.  Several other affected places have successfully filed for damages since, including Kentucky, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Canada.  Most recently the town of Everett, Washington has filed a new lawsuit, this time claiming the company purposely fueled the black market in order to increase profits.  

Why did it take almost a decade for Purdue to admit their guilt or do anything about it? Could they really not see that their product was destructive? Their actions have created a state of unending winter without Christmas for large chunks of our country, just like in Narnia. As satisfying as it would be to see every CEO responsible in jail, it’s difficult to judge where the distinction between evil intention and ignorance lies.  The CEO’s themselves were so caught up in the success of their product, it’s possible they didn’t understand the long term consequences of their actions.  Even once the effects became undeniable, they were still too blinded by profits to admit the pill was causing problems.  29 claims for damages were fought off before a single case was settled.  With bank accounts growing into the billions, their morals became more polluted than those addicted to the drug they were selling.

When Peter confesses that he was partially to blame for Edmund’s actions, Aslan doesn’t deny it.  The contributing sin is in my soul as much as it is that of addicts, over-prescribing doctors and Purdue Pharma’s.  Living with four little boys helps me see how deeply embedded in our human nature greed is.  Every day begins a new challenge to shepherd them through their desires, trying to teach them to see others needs before their own, and to be content with what they already have.  Everything else, from their friends to our junk mail, teaches them they need more: more activities, brains, ambition, muscles, toys, fun, food, gifts and then also more money, to pay for it all.

In the aftermath of OxyContin we find ourselves like Edmund, standing alone in a frigid castle, desperate for hope and lamenting the greed of our actions.  Heroin addicts may receive the worst of our scorn, but those that can find recovery are the most blessed, for they’ll have seen their sin clearly enough to be freed from it.  Unfortunately, the epidemic of greed pushes us to behave like headstrong teenagers.  We suffer the consequences for a while, but when they’ve run their course, we’ve learned nothing.  If freedom is to be found, we must see our problem as clearly as an addict at rock-bottom, with an awareness of the disasters we’re causing, humility to admit our imperfection, and acceptance of contentment with our reality.

After Purdue Pharma was convicted, their profits and the rates of pill abuse continued to increase for 3 more years.  Even with the landmark court case, opioids were not a top news story in 2007, or listed in the top 10 headlines for any year before or after.  Most headlines were about elections and their related issues, the war on terrorism, sports or celebrity gossip.  The housing crisis and the ensuing recession have been a top story almost every year since 2008 because of the mayhem it caused, but opioids have devastated almost as many.  It’s estimated that 7 million have struggled with dependency since the release of OxyContin, many cases resulting in death.  On the surface this seems about equal to recession unemployment or foreclosures, but the statistic grows exponentially when we realize that addiction is a family problem.  For every dependent person counted, there are several more suffering the consequences, like kids in foster care, babies in withdrawal, and/or relatives spending a fortune on their loved ones in rehab.

After such a traumatic experience, you would think we would make an elaborate effort to keep history from repeating.  Some progress has been made; OxyContin now has a tamper resistant coating, and databases have been formed to track prescriptions and prevent abuse.  Doctors now have strict guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Rates of abuse have leveled off, but at the same time so have profits.  Instead of being satisfied with the money that’s been made, there is now a global campaign for OxyContin, using the same misleading and aggressive marketing techniques that proved so successful in the U.S. In a terrifying quote from a promotional video, the company claims, “We’re only just getting started.” 

After we finished our trip to Narnia, the boys and I read The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco.  It tells the true story of a poor Russian Jewish family that had been gifted a beautiful  tea set for their wedding.  The set came with a note saying, “Anyone who drinks from this will have blessings from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy and they will never be poor.” The mom pours the family tea in it every week, while reciting the blessing, and pointing out all the ways it has come true. Though they are meager peasants, fleeing persecution, fighting off pneumonia and living as refugees, they believe her.  The persecution has given life flavor in the form of crazy stories and new friends who help them along the way.  They may not have always had enough to eat, but they were never hungry for love.  They may not have had sufficient money to provide for their needs and yet they were still rich in family, even in through the three generations the tradition continued after the first blessing was recited.  

May we, as individuals and a culture, have that blessing too, that we can preserve one another for generations. Let us be so full of contentment and thanksgiving that we could clearly see the temptation set before us.  The heroin epidemic probably won’t be a catalyst for lasting change. History would indicate that it won’t, since our policies created this same exact problem when heroin was released by Bayer Pharmaceutical in the early 1900’s.  But it might, and we should pray that it will.  For now, our power against the greed is in choice as individuals to be satisfied, and our ability to teach our kids, friends, and neighbors to do the same.  May these values be the heritage we cherish above all, not ease, fortune, power or fame.

“Dreamland”: Parenting Lessons From a Drug Epidemic

I have found that being a stay at home mom enables tunnel vision.  Are the kids learning and are they healthy? Am I still sane?  These are the questions that dominate domestic conversations.  The lifestyle is wholesome and protected for the kids, but the danger is that you too become sheltered.  It’s tempting to forget about the tragedy in the world, since it’s depressing and out of control, so instead we focus on problems that could possibly have solutions. Hence the abundance of articles about, “10 things to do in a healthy marriage” or, “Cleaning Your House in 5 Simple Steps.”

The world is out there, whether we’re ready to be aware or not, and ignoring it will leave us and our kids unable to handle it.  When we moved to the Shenandoah, I heard people complaining about heroin, and how they were finding needles around the playground, and seeing drug deals in parking lots.  I vaguely knew that people were using more heroin again, but I greatly underestimated the extent of the epidemic, especially in the Appalachians.  It’s not just me though, many people don’t see this problem until they’re living with it.  

The book Dreamland:The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones helps the oblivious public understand how the overflow pain pills collided with a well run heroin distribution system to create the epidemic that’s growing today.  I’ve read a lot on this topic, but I recommend this book because in addition to the facts and stories that led up to the epidemic, he also addresses the cultural trends that made our country susceptible.  Among these trends are several things for parents to consider, definite lessons, possible influences, and some just philosophical questions we should consider.  

Definite Lessons

Be aware of what’s in a pill bottle.   Do your research on what a doctor prescribes your child,  especially if something is possibly habit forming. Even if big pharma or your doctor tells you an opioid, benzo or amphetamine is not addictive, that it has a special time release formula or some other mechanism to keep people from abusing it, assume that it is still is addictive, because that’s the nature of these drugs.  

Shame intensifies the problem. In Portsmouth Ohio, the city that Quinones identifies as ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic, parents didn’t speak out about what was happening because they were embarrassed. They were trying to navigate things they knew nothing about: rehabs, prison systems, probation, but silently, without help.  They were too ashamed to ask for it, which was silly, because their friends and neighbors were going through the exact same things, but also silently and no one knew.  It took 10 years before a parent in town was able to speak up about it, and form a support group.  If one good thing comes from the opiate epidemic, it’s that there’s a light shining into the hidden worlds of middle and upper class addiction. Because it’s heroin, you can’t just send a kid to rehab silently and expect when they return, life will go back to normal.  Heroin is not just bad behavior at parties and DUI’s, it’s cops, multiple stints in jail, and ambulances in front of your house. You have to have help to support a person through recovery; knowledge and honesty from a community are essential. And since addicts are overdosing more often than people are dying in car crashes, there is no longer time for any parent to shame or be ashamed.

Possible Influences

Kids had their own rooms. Because of our increased affluence and the real estate boom, many kids had their own rooms, which was less common in previous generations.  Kids said that their room was the perfect sanctuary to get high in, away from the cops, nosy neighbors, tattling siblings and any other person who could tell their parents what they were doing.  

And their own cars.  Having a car gave suburban teens easy access to drugs.  You call a number, like you’re ordering pizza, you drive somewhere and meet another driver, and exchange money for drugs. Quinones mentions that the cars also had the added benefit of becoming a place to live when the parents wised up, and kicked their kids out of the house.  

Sports.  I hate to mess with something that has become sacred to so many people. I’m not denying that athletics can be beneficial for children, but that it can be overdone. Quinones noticed that in the middle and upper class communities he was studying youth athletics had been elevated to the point where the problems began outweighing the benefits.  After interviewing an addict in one upper-middle class town he said,  

“It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices for life, much less a love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. So sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, ‘you need good grades so you can play…’”(291)

Quinones saw that sports were becoming a gateway to opiate abuse because of the pressure and the injuries.  Because of how important sports had become, kids were playing year round starting in early elementary school, and were then more likely to have chronic injuries by the time they reached high school.  And because of the pressure to succeed, they were encouraged to play through their injuries and ignore their pain. They were often prescribed painkillers just so they could finish a season and Quinones noticed that the local football star was quietly becoming the face of teenage opioid abuse. Medicating injuries has always been done, but with oxycodone being prescribed for chronic pain, many sports teams, (and football especially since the players are prone to injury) were developing their own addictions.

Philosophical Questions

What are the consequences  of isolation?  The book is named for the community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, where generations of kids would hang out all day every day over the summer, surrounded by their neighbors and elders.  It closed in the early 90’s because people began installing their own pools, tucked away neatly in their backyards. People stopped meeting their neighbors and letting their kids roam the streets until dinnertime.  The lack of neighborhood made it easier to hide a drug addiction, away from the watchful eyes and accountability of the community.  Quinones sees this as a metaphor, because it wasn’t just Dreamland that closed, people everywhere started staying in their homes and becoming more isolated. Closed doors made it easier for people to pretend they were perfect, which fueled secrecy and shame about all of their hidden defects.

What happens when we have too much stuff? Maybe not so coincidentally, the peak business years of pill mills coincided with the boom and bust of the housing market.  Quinones theorized that our increasing consumerism created a culture that was fertile for an opiate epidemic.  Unfortunately, parenting has not been immune to this, and the increase in teenage heroin addiction shows the consequence. In an interview with a man running a rehab clinic, the man explained,

“‘Spoiled rich kid syndrome’ seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments-all as they had less time for their kids….’You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. And you put an opiate addiction in the middle of that?’” (p.293)

Is it possible that minimalism could be an antidote to rampant drug use?  If we wanted less and were satisfied more would we still crave chemicals to fill the gap? While we all know that spoiling children is detrimental to their behavior, maybe we don’t understand the gravity of that consequence.  I tend to think of the consequences as behavioral.

What do we lose when we stop accepting pain as part of life? Our culture has also become less tolerant of pain, not just chronic pain, but any pain.  People started getting oxy prescriptions for things that Tylenol would normally take care of.  Quinones said,

“In heroin addicts I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.” (p.37)

This idea has also trickled into parenting, because we can’t even handle watching our children feel pain, physical or emotional. The man Quinones interviewed from the rehab clinic thought that parents today are making recovery even more difficult than usual.  He believed there was a simultaneous epidemic of parents addicted to rescuing their children, and that their kids maturity was stunted because of it.  He had seen too many parents enable addictions by rushing to their kids aid with money, food and shelter when they should’ve been capable of providing it for themselves. People do this because its been their habit since birth, every time a child cries from a scraped knee or because someone was mean to them, we jump to their aid.  He warned, “I tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.” (p.293)

I think most people have heard this before, but have not thought about it in this context.  Whose pain are we really medicating when we come to our children’s rescue, and could the consequences not only lead to irresponsibility, but also to their demise? Is it possible to walk the line of being compassionate toward our children without enabling them, starting when they’re still young?

I wish I could offer you a parenting guide, and not just a book review. My kids are still in elementary school still and not addicted to heroin, so I’m no authority, but I do know there’s no foolproof way to keep your kids from trying drugs.  I also know enough about addiction, to know that it’s usually not a parents fault, and as the book shows, the epidemic has many influences that are beyond parental control.  I’m sure there are many kids who had their own rooms, drove their own cars, played sports year round, had lots of stuff, and still grew up to be healthy adults. Just as I know there are kids who grew up with none of these privileges that are still battling addiction.  The influences above are just observations that the book brings to light, with the hope that history won’t repeat itself, and I share them here in case there’s any possibility that our behavior can help curb this trend.

Although you could never place the blame all on one influence, I do think the epidemic shows that it’s important to have conversations about the long term consequences of parenting trends. What do you think of his warnings? Have you seen these things enable addiction in our culture? Will you debate the consequences with your friends? I know it’s even less comfortable to talk about than marital problems, but we owe it to the parents who have suffered already, to respect the education they earned, and the pain they have endured.

To Fight a Scourge

I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger.  I didn’t anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but I the lifestyle and the conmunity was fascinating.  They were all so radically different from each other, but were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard and exciting job.  There was a haunting among them though, that I was too innocent to understand.

In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction.  In my suburban middle class life, few people suffered from it publicly.  Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house.  Being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, to abused by the world to care about my opinion of them.

Working as a messenger was different. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as id does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, many would flaunt it.

What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed.  Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for.  But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident.  The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later.  Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety bittersweet.

Losing friends makes me angry.  While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Mist sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…”  People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion. 

0905-2017-08067014994580798Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars (That’s just drugs and alcohol.  I won’t even go there about smoking.)  But of course the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the damage done to children.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction.  It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to the survivors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,

“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”

So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.

Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak. 

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 4.52.46 PM copy (1)

 These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story.  Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people per year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.

imrs

The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.  When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why.  It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders.  In my experience, many addicts don’t fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.  

It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it,  because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.

Pray.  “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12)  This is addiction.  It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.

Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it.  As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters.  There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they don’t need to be ashamed.  Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.  

Educate.  I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today.  Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription.  And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence.  The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it.   If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it.  Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.

Speak.  Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer.  There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse.  But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand and help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.

In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice to people who need help.  One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. You can help to end that, by coming forward with your iwn recovery story or not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too.  In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group.  Don’t let that be your town.  If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story.  Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.

20170509_155946

Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too.  To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/  to learn more about joining their movement.

Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic. People are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under its pressure. How can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community.  This is your problem, even if it doesn’t seem like it.  Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.

Supporting Foster Care

Substance abuse is an important issue to me personally, because of my own experiences and those of friends and family, but in my opinion, it should be for everyone.  Because as we’ve seen with heroin and crack, a drug problem has the ability to devastate a community rapidly. Also because 1 in 10 Americans struggle with it, which means it’s probably a personal issue for you too.

May is National Foster Care Month and if you don’t care about the problem of substance abuse for any other reason, care about it because of this.  Because while not all children are placed in foster care cases are due to an addicted parent, it is often the precipitating factor.  The number of children in foster care has been rising over the past 5 years, mainly because of an increase in drug use. (Addiction Epidemic Creates Crisis in Foster Care).

According to a government survey, in 32% of foster cases, drug abuse was the listed reason for removal from the home. Neglect was the number one reason, and caretaker inability to cope and physical abuse were numbers 3 and 4 respectively, (AFCRS report, 2015) but that statistics is misleading because neglect, inability to cope, and physical abuse are often a result of a parent’s addiction. Some statistics estimate closer to 61% for infants (Parental Substance Abuse, p2).

Last winter the Wall Street Journal wrote a horrible but informative article, “The children of the Opioid Crisis.”  We can imagine that people who are high won’t be able to properly care for their children, but knowing there are kids living in houses with buckets of vomit everywhere and feces smeared on the wall is unacceptable. It’s also important to remember that substance abuse is a much bigger problem than the current epidemic.  This 2014 article, “Substance abuse a top reason children are removed from homes” focused on the influence of Meth on the Kansas foster care system.  Before that there were the same horrible stories about crack, and before that it was heroin again.  Through all the epidemics, alcohol has always been the substance most commonly abused, and though it is legal, it is equally capable of destroying a family as any hard drug. The fact is, if more people were sober, there wouldn’t be so many kids in foster care.  We wouldn’t be worried about a shortage of foster parents, or a generation being raised by their grandparents, or the psychological fallout that these children are suffering from due to abuse and neglect.

If you think you’re community is immune to these problems, you’re wrong. Statistically, Virginia is one of the states that has been least affected by the increase in drug abuse, but even in the beauty of the Shenandoah things have become worse.  According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition the amount of children in Foster care due to parental substance abuse in the  Winchester area soared from 5 cases in 2012 to 42 in 2015.  (Northern Shenandoah Substance Abuse Statistics). One local foster care agency told me that parents who have been recently trained all have children placed with them already. That it only took a few weeks for her to be desperate for more parents to be trained.

During the month of May, please commit to praying for these children. Focus on the Family has compiled a prayer guide to help people understand the needs and problems of foster care and how to you can pray for them here: Foster Care Prayer Vigil  

NFCI_PrayerGuide_FOTF_HighRes_Pages_Page_01

Pray for the children to feel love and to find homes that will accept them unconditionally.  Also for the caregivers who are under stress, and for the birth parents sobriety. But also we can pray for the many people behind the scenes working with and helping these families: those providing respite care, the caseworkers, people recruiting and training foster parents, police officers responding to calls, churches who support these families, counselors, teachers, and the communities leaders and government officials overseeing it all.

But don’t just pray for the people already involved, pray for your part too.  It could be as big as opening your home up to a child, or as thoughtful as helping with the cost of clothing, school supplies, or Christmas presents. Many Grandparents that have kinship care are overwhelmed, now trying to raise their grand kids when they were ready for retirement. Offer them help, bring them dinner or babysit for free. Foster children often struggle in school because of the trauma and instability, so if you can tutor, offer your services. Or if you have weekends free, volunteer with the state to provide respite care. 

Speak up for this issue in your church and with your friends, because together we can do more to support the families that take kids in.  Pray for it as a community, and for how you can support their parents recovery, so that the family can have hope of being reunited. Fight for these children, because these kids need it, and our communities need them.

Good Friday for Parents

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV

 

The biggest struggle for me as a mom has been learning to handle my anger, which is hard to admit, but I know that many, many other moms have this struggle too.  Most of the anger is unrighteous, my own impatience with their immaturity and behvaior, and for that I beg forgiveness.

But occasionally, when a child is rebelling knowingly and without remorse, the anger is closer to righteous, making it harder to deal with and understand.  The root of it is heartbreak, angry that they’re rejecting the rules that I set for them in love.  I’m angry that they don’t they’re not rebelling against me, but against God.  That they’re hurting themselves- compromising their honesty, friendships, or some other essential part of their character.  

The weird thing for me to realize this lent is how natural these feelings are. Really this is the story of the entire Old Testament, with God as the Father and the Israelites the child that learned every lesson the hard way.

Their story starts blissfully in the garden, His creation abounding with the joy of newborn innocence.  In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin.  Their bond with God as close as a baby resting on a mother’s chest. Peaceful, harmonious, perfect.  I bet they even had that delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.

The bond suffered as they bit into the apple.  With knowledge comes pride; He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but still they thought they knew better.  Suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier. He had warned them that sin meant death, but He could have chosen to smite them on the spot, to start over, but He loved them. And what loving parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child knowingly rebels?  He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it. That someday He would reconcile it all and all that was lost would be restored.

But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost.  As with all toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme in their collective conscience. I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that spankings or timeouts are enough to discipline an act of rebellion.  In their sin His anger may have raged, but far above it all his love remained.  A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And promises were made. Promises that were bigger than the number of stars in the sky.

Finally the day came, in the elementary age of their existence, when His chosen people were ready for law.  Many knew it already in the depths of their heart, that obeying Him was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone. Ready for the independence of knowing the rules all at one time, without the constant explanation of why they needed to be followed.  Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won.  A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart,  led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience.  A temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty.  Wisdom was not only given, but also received.  People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.

If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for anyone who raises elementary children knows they will only be ruled for so long before they assert their own will back.  It doesn’t matter that your knowledge exponentially exceeds their years, or that their disobedience causes destruction mostly to themselves.  You love them so much, you can’t help but feel angry.  As they grow, the crimes become more bigger, the consequences more serious.  The lectures begin to last longer and the punishments grow more severe.   But their hearts are increasingly their own, and they aren’t so easily swayed.  You dole out the consequences and they cry.  They listen and reconcile to your love, but it’s almost the very next day when they make the same mistakes again.  

So it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and to other idols.  It worked for everyone else, why would it not work for them? They didn’t want to be set apart, to be special anymore. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy.  They just wanted to be normal. To eat, drink and be merry like the other, ordinary nations of the world.  

After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to follow through with the consequences.  No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled.  Like grounding a teenager, He emptied their city of its treasure and took away their privilege.  God was furious, as any parent would be.  How could they be so ungrateful? After everything He had done for them, how could they be so careless with the grandeur of His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Because surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.

It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time.  He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but he assumed they would be faithful.  The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry.  At first, things were glorious.  They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not an innocent, penitential child anymore.  They were different now, self-righteous, overly confident in their ability to follow the rules, unaware that it was no longer God, but themselves that they worshipped. They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise.  He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices.  They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, He knew part of them always would be.  The only hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love- by making good on the promise of redemption. He would crush their enslavement to sin to truly be reunited.

But the time was not yet right.  He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could.  Though they continued to misrepresent and ignore Him, He loved them so.  

He had loved them silently for 400 years when the time had finally come.  He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand.  But he also knew every bit of the Israelite’s character.  He knew all the hairs on its head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan.  He would need one crazy guy to announce it. Someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. It would take one humble virgin, betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 faithful disciples.  Sadly, one of those disciples would have to be corrupted, but that was how the prophecy was written.  He would need others to support the servants in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore be able to receive the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. These would be the most lowly of people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town.  But God knew, through these people- this tiny, faithful remnant of his chosen nation- he could fulfill his promise to Abraham, to bless all the people of the earth.

Our good, good father foresaw every detail, and it went exactly to His plan.  But the plan was brutal.   In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word.  The one that was there in the beginning.  ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)

* * *

It is hard to fathom as a parent.  The story is so relatable up to this point.  The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth.  Parenting is a heart-breaking endeavor, and that’s terrifying.  To think that the fruit of your womb, that you would sacrifice your own life for without a second thought, could possibly grow up and reject you. That they could embrace the normality of the world over the eternal joy you are trying to impart to them.  We try not to live in this fear, but it always looms in the future, waiting for us.  The time will come when they’re young adults too, and your feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make their own decision to follow God or the world.  There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. For if God can’t control the Israelites, then what hope do we have?

Before I had children, surrender was easy.  Take my money, for I really didn’t have that much. Take my house, because there are other places to live.  Take my stuff, it doesn’t make me that happy.  But I’m eternally grateful that I’m not Sarah and Abraham, because ‘sacrifice your child’ is not a commandment I would be willing to follow. But God asks all of us to trust him with our children, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places.

How could God ask that of parents? 

As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away. But of course His mother was still there.  A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the world.  I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions to.  This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family and yours, they were supposed to have happy endings.

As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.

Woman. Behold your son.

He knew. It’s a weird thing for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold? Behold. I know your pain exactly. See me as I suffer through it with you.

If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues through all of humanity.  Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and still continue to walk away.  It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less.  It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray.  Because after that much painful heartbreak who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son.   

Parents, God knows your anger, and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still.  Because every ounce of frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me. 

Maundy Thursday: In the Face of Hatred

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:19

It’s not in our nature to endure hatred. Every particle of our soul burns for acceptance, for love.  It was the very thing that led us to Jesus in the first place, the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8:38-39) The world offered us many things, and they were good, though sometimes fickle gifts: admiration, acceptance, respect, belonging, even family, but not that.  Not the , unshakable love of a savior. DSC_1341But it’s in His nature to be hated.

“This happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law,” He says. “‘They hated Me without a cause.’”  John 15:25 

And when we realize that, everything in our being tries to flee.  We’ll break the promises we just made, three times over. We’ll keep silent because we love the praise of man more than the praise of God. We’ll testify falsely because we can’t handle the fear. 

It’s not always that we don’t believe or that we don’t love him that keeps us from following.  It’s sometimes that we can’t bare to be hated. We’re terrified of what the mob will do to us, so we hang back in the safe spaces. We whisper about the injustice to other friends, but only to those who we know will agree.  We hide our testimony, because we’re terrified they will make space for our cross too.  When He catches our eye from a distance we’re suddenly humiliated by our weakness. We hang our heads and sob, but still, we don’t dare step out of the shadows.  

He kept warning us, waking us to pray. He knew we would not be able to endure the condescending looks and snide comments. Or the scorn slammed in our face daily. He knew we couldn’t bare their anger, or the burning of our humiliation, all if we merely mention His name.

DSC_0789But he promised that night not to leave us orphaned in our pain.

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.  John 14:16‭-‬17 NKJV

Something that would save us from this shame. That would push us out from our hiding places and out of our sanctuaries, able to fight their hatred with the truth.

The Spirit of truth…

His word in our hearts like a burning fire

Shut up in our bones.

We would weary of holding it back,

And we would not. (Jeremiah 20:9 NKJV)

But for now, as the hour of temptation is at hand, we break the bread and drink the cup, remembering our weakness in the light of his sacrificial love.  We huddle, sleepily in the garden, and realize how weak we are without Him, without the Holy Spirit he promises will help us.

DSC_1343

For tonight, our only protection is the prayers he says on our behalf.

“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world,

But that You should keep them from the evil one.

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.

As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.

And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.”

John 17:15-19

 

Holy week part 3: Fighting Denial

There’s a story in this picture that only I can see. It’s evident in the calmness of the sea and the clarity of the sky.  It’s in the peace shown in the child’s steady gaze.  This was a story that almost wasn’t, and one of which the child is almost wholly unaware.  Many deny the power the power of how this story came to be, but I’ll never deny its truth. 

The ocean in this picture could have been choppy.  The home the boy lives in began in turbulence.  Crashing waves of alcohol and drugs relentlessly churned up mud and silt, so that most often the atmosphere felt murky and brown.

The sky could have been full of storm clouds, for the boy’s parent’s sins were generational. Growing up in a home with such turbulence would have put him at high risk for the same behaviors: anger, depression, and a wealth of poor judgement.  Even if he could somehow make it out of the house free from addiction, he would still always be followed by the cloud of emotional pain.

The look on his face could have been one of uncertainty and anger.  He could have woke every day wondering, what kind of mom would meet in the morning? The one who makes pancakes, with exaggerated cheer, like everything was better than normal? Or the one who’s still a bit drunk, but mostly hungover? The one with a pillow over her head, letting him know he needs to pour his own cereal and peel his own banana. On those days he would fume and wonder, why was this his lot? What did he do to be born to such broken parents?

DSC_1072

This was how the boys story was almost written.  In the years before his existence, his mom was in the worst kind of denial.  The kind that had given up on dreams, joy, and the possibility of God.  His dad was covered in a cloud of depression, and would do anything he could to escape its existence, only it followed too closely to ever be free for long.  Somehow, in their pain they found each other, and made their own home, a shelter from those who had hurt and disappointed them.  Their own safe place, just the two of them, together.  But a shelter is not secure when there’s a door open to drugs.  One day meth walked in and quickly chipped away at the little hope they had left.

In a last attempt at peace, they went to her aunt’s house for Christmas.  The mom missed her relatives, but more than that she missed the hope and joy their house was always full of.  She wanted to be near those things, but she was worried they would see through her charade. There might be lectures about behavior and the choices she had made. They would maybe break out gospel tracts and embarrass her with the offer of salvation, but they did no such thing.  In fact, nothing happened at all and if she hadn’t been seeking peace, it may have even seemed boring.

When they came home, the dad said it was the happiest he had ever been. She was shocked. Which part made him happy? The sitting around for hours playing board games? Or the women chatting endlessly about their kids and other people he didn’t know? It was so typical to her, the fact that it amazed him was probably the most depressing thing she ever heard.

That was the happiest you’ve ever been?” she asked aloud, filled with doubt.  After all the epic parties and surreal, all-night adventures, that was it?

“Yes.” He said. “That. And also that time I was young and went to church.”

Suddenly she was felt dismay.  She knew what he was aksing, and was also desperate for joy, but didn’t he know that church was what she had been running from all along? Despite the rage, and the fighting and the drama, she loved him still. If that was what it would take to make them happy again, she would do it.  It was the only one of the 12 sober steps she actually knew, and she knew that’s what they needed. She knew church well and for their sake, she could fake it. At the very least, she thought it might be better than the awfulness that they’d been stuck in lately.  She even kind of missed having friends weren’t all slowly dying. She agreed, and they googled ‘church,’ and went to the first one on the list.

As they rode their bikes up the hill that first Sunday, she expected stability, a new community, some new hope, maybe.  But she didn’t expect Jesus.  She didn’t expect that she’d be sitting there, crying in the pew, letting go of pain.  She didn’t to expect to meet any misfits like her, or people who loved Jesus more than anything, or anyone who would pray for her in the hallways or be willing to talk about God even after the sermon was over.  Sitting there in a pew, paging through the bible, she was disappointed to realize that she had read it for years without ever really listening to what was said.  Truth came blasting through.  Every page she flipped to spoke directly to her soul.  She could feel something entirely new being formed in her. She expected stability, but she didn’t expect Jesus.

The people sang about new mornings, life and mercy, but she had no idea that it would be literal. Suddenly everything was new.  New friends, jobs, passions and tastes. There were baptisms, a wedding, a baby, a new home and then more 3 more babies.  Before she could stop and fully marvel, they were a family of 6 living miles away on a literal rock atop a quiet mountain. 

DSC_0742In His last week on earth,  surrounded by people, Jesus yelled up at the sky. “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then the voice came from heaven saying, “I have both glorified it and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)

Her trouble is that someday she’ll have to explain this story to the boy.  It would be nicer to tell him that she was always as responsible as she is trying to train him to be. He adores and respects her now, but like all children, someday he will have to understand and forgive her weakness and imperfections.  What will she say? That it would have been better to been spared seeing the bottom in all of its ugliness? But then she would not be able to talk about all the things she’d seen.  The evil things working together for good.  The tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword being powerless against the bond His love.

What scares me is that even after people heard the voice, and testified that it sounded like thunder, or that maybe an angel has spoken to him…Even after that they still denied.  “… although he had done so many signs before them, they did not believe Him.” (John 12:37)

It’s the most disturbing part of Holy Week.  That even after everything that’s happened- after all the the signs, all the miracles, and even a voice from heaven, they still can walk away.  How could He be the Son of Man? He doesn’t fit the expectation, so they make excuses. He’s just a prophet. He’s a man possessed. Even after hearing her testimony, and knowing God’s hand in their story, will her children do the same? Will they think it was by her own might strength? That rock bottom will push people up regardless of the power pulling from above?

Some people may, but I will not deny.  I witnessed a man lifted from the abyss of crystal meth to become a loving husband and dad.  I witnessed a woman bound by alcohol walk away from her endless party without a second thought.  For one purpose we survived, to testify. I will not look at this picture and deny the voice that came from heaven, and the authority with which it spoke.   

After a decade of constant growth and change, the people who meet me no longer sense that booze once flowed freely through my veins, or that my husband would stay awake for weeks at a time.  Now we look like ordinary people, with stable, ordinary stories. Raiding a child looking out at a calm ocean, ignorant of the fact that it used to be choppy. Standing under a blue sky, unaware of the storm that has been calmed. With peace, and a hope, and a future radiating from his face.  The power of our testimony demands that His name be glorified.  We cry out for Him to do so, and He shouts back to us that it has been, and that it will be again.

 

wp-1476385283663.jpg

Holy Week Part 2: Citizenship

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20

My boys are 2, 5, 7 and 9, which means the days here are filled with a lot of whining and bickering. Even when they’re playing well together, because of their ages and maturity, it’s a fact that at some point people will end up in time out.  It’s one of the most difficult things for me to tolerate as a mother, I used to think Jesus was incredibly harsh when he said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”(Matthew 17:17), but when all four of them are fighting over something as common as a single Lego piece, I totally get it.

It’s weird how the concept of time as a child is both fleeting and eternal. If I ask them to share a toy for 5 minutes they’ll pout and cry because it’s too long. It’s as if in 5 minutes, the whole world will have ended and their chance to play with it will be gone forever. But they also feel like they’ll be kids forever; they can’t imagine a day when they’ll be grown and fully responsible for themselves.  When the squabbling gets to the the point of parental intervention I try to explain to them how their perspective is too narrow; that in 10 years that Lego will be in the trash but their brother will still be here, so share…value the lasting relationship over the trash. They hear what I’m saying, and I think they even recognize it as truth, but their understanding of time won’t allow them to fully believe this wisdom.

20170411_144858

When I look at the kids, I see that they’re actually lucky to be fighting over something as unimportant as toys; I wish my conflicts were as petty as pee on the toilet seat or laundry on the floor.  As an adult,  I’m more capable to fulfill my desires, and far more severe to people who would stand in my way.  I can even make it look admirable, like if I’m fighting for something for my kids, or more time to pursue my dreams, or a fun vacation I worked hard for.  Armed with a good argument, I dare you to get in my way.

The constant debate throughout the whole country proves that no one is immune.  Between the political battles and the incessant media coverage, even the most peaceful people let somebody else piss them off last year.  Many people had excellent points, and were fighting for good things- high moral standards, peace, prosperity, justice, etc. Don’t we all desire these things? What sane person wouldn’t fight to make that happen? But through all the angry carnage, only stronger division was accomplished.

 

Today in the gospel reading (John 12:20-26) Jesus makes one of his harshest statements of all, but apparently of the greatest importance since he repeats it several times and all four gospel authors made note of it.  “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25) It’s verses like this that made a lot of people throughout history think Jesus was crazy.  It’s no wonder that by the time He got to the cross He was all alone.

DSC_1053

It has become so ingrained in our culture to love life, to seek the pleasure that it offers, that it’s become cliche- “live life to the fullest,” “seize the day,” “stop and smell the roses,” “live for the moment!”  It’s not that we should stop doing these things necessarily, I still believe time on earth shouldn’t be wasted. But maybe if we really understood how this world is not our citizenship, if we understood that we have an obligation to servant-hood and a life eternal, maybe we could rise above the petty conflict.

Like my kids, I know heaven is what the future promises, but I don’t understand it, nor can I fully imagine the promise that it brings.  When I deal with conflicts, I see them here and now, and if they don’t get solved I feel like I will surely die a miserable and unhappy death. Maybe even in the next 5 minutes.  And yet, at the same time, I also feel like I will be here on this earth forever and therefore ensuring my place in it must be a top priority.

People tell you all the time how fast parenting goes, and it’s true. When I look back to the beginning, I’m stunned that I’ve been at this for almost a whole decade. But the actual day in and day out feels like an eternity. Like they’re never going to grow up and be responsible and move out. Even though I’ve moved a lot, I still always have the feeling like these friends, these relatives, and this place will always be my home.  It’s this very human perspective of time that makes us cling so hard to the bits of joy when we find them and make us so ferocious toward anyone and anything that would try to rob us of it.  It’s hard to remember that there is joy eternal when your neighbor’s dog is barking outside your bedroom window all night long. Or that someday the dog will die, and there will just be you, not getting along with the person you were commanded to love.

DSC_2822

On this second day of Holy Week, remember your citizenship is in heaven, because too many people have lost their way to the cross by being caught in a petty argument over their citizenship here.   We’re following something eternal, and in ten years, or twenty, or once you’ve truly died and are hanging out with Jesus, will you still be glad that you fought so hard to get  your way? Maybe, in the light of what’s coming, it will be more important to be loving than to be right.  Maybe today it will be okay to lose out on the piece of this earth you’ve been clinging to, because He promised, whoever hates these things gets to keep following.

Holy Week part 1: Learning to Follow

Eight years ago my family left DC. Not because we wanted to necessarily, but because we’d outgrown it. I moved into the city as a girl, but now that I was woman, wife and  mom I needed what the city couldn’t offer anymore. We had space in our apartment and it was quite affordable, but it was in a basement. And even though it was a decent part of town, there were rats. There were playgrounds we could walk to, but there was no yard to dig holes in, or safe places nearby to ride bikes.  No porch or patio to sit out and enjoy long summer nights.

We wanted a home, and with our income, that meant moving about an hour out of town. When we found a house we felt pure elation to have a space all our own. No more waking up to the sound of stomping of boots overhead. No one else’s shouting wafting through the cracks in the walls.  It didn’t matter that it was tiny, or on a busy road, or that the view was of a taco truck and a run down shopping center.  It was ours, and it was home.

DSC_1398

But four months after we had signed the lease, my husband lost his job.  The contract that brought in the money to pay for his position ended without a new one to take its place. Suddenly everything was in jeopardy- our lease, our newly established credit, our untarnished rental history. Then there would be no more dreams of barbeques in the backyard, or flower gardens, or watching Fourth of July fireworks from the back porch.

I also happened to be about four months pregnant at the time, but I wasn’t too worried about the baby, or how we would buy food, or gas, or our general survival.  I knew God would be faithful to help us find ways to provide for those things.  I was worried about the house, and that if we lost the house and our good rental history, it would be too long of a time before we would be able to move our new family into its own place again.

I prayed endlessly about it, “Please God, don’t take our house. Don’t make us leave.” The bible study I was in at the time was reading through the book of Matthew, and through that  study God led me to this answer. “ Then a certain scribe came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:19-20) I didn’t like this answer, why did the scribe have to give up the idea of home to follow Jesus? I was tired of the gypsy life. By that time I had already had 15 different addresses in 8 different cities, and that’s not even including the four years of college where everyone moves every year anyways. I was tired of packing up; I wanted to stay.

DSC_0612

I’m completely jealous of Jesus’ ability to speak so directly to the point.  When I correct my kids, or try to use a parable, I am so wordy. Usually when I finish and ask them what they’ve learned, they look at me like they didn’t even realize I was speaking.  Jesus is so precise with His words that He can pinpoint the problem and minister to the depths of the heart in a single sentence.  In the exact moment I read that, I knew beyond doubt that no dream, no vision of perfection or happiness could ever compare to following Him.  Even if it may seem impossible, how could I have the knowledge of his excellence and choose any other thing? It was hard to accept it, but that one single verse set me free from a huge amount of worry.

In the end we didn’t have to break our lease. Friends, family and strangers chipped in to help us cover the rent when we were short, and Adam was able to find a new job soon after.  I was relieved the lesson turned out not to be literal, but I was also glad to have faced the possibility and become resolved to it. I can sing, “I surrender all” on Sunday morning, but it only has meaning if I can see the things that bring my dreams security and then know that I don’t need them.

It’s a lesson that has come back around for a second time this lent, as home ownership becomes closer than ever.  As I think over the decision, I begin to imagine the barbeques, the gardens, and the memories to be made with the kids again. Or maybe even buying the dream place, an old farmhouse, with a few acres for chickens and goats, or whatever else we fancy. A place that we will never outgrow or have to leave again.  Since that first house we have moved three more times, and I’m so tired of packing. The thought of owning our own place is more attractive than ever.

DSC_0354

But over all of that I hear God whispering this verse again.  And expanding on it through Paul, “ But what things were gain to me (my security, a home, my visions of perfection), these I have counted loss for Christ… indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection… forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:7-14)

Holy week is a journey to the cross, that starts out with big crowds and parades, but by the end even the most devout followers are denying association.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t try to warn them, he said repeatedly the cost of following would be great.  Nobody wants to give up the things that seem important, the house, the job, the vacation, the position of power and respect. There may be literal sacrifices as we journey toward the cross this week, and there may not. But if you’re willing to follow, be willing to consider what it might be like, and how life would go on without them. That if He asked you to sacrifice these things it would be for good purpose. Because along the way we will see that there is excellence, power, and a magnificent prize far beyond our understanding or imagination. And when you see it from that perspective, the nest or the den is really the last place you’ll want to be stuck.

DSC_0419