Monday, November 30, 2015

Drugs or Jesus

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”  St. Luke 21:34

I’d been asked to give the prayer for the Law Day ceremony.  This was an annual event in the little town where I last served, a gathering of the County Bar Association in the chamber of our handsome Victorian Courthouse.  They’d recognize new lawyers, remember those who had died.  There was a prayer and then an address, presented this year by Judge Burns, long respected on the bench, looking the quintessence of judicial dignity in his long black robes.

I was expecting something suitably grand and rhetorical on the meaning of law, liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Constitution and Blackstone’s Commentaries.  But Judge Burns told us instead about a pending crisis.  Cheap heroin was beginning to flood into our rural community.  The police aren’t equipped to handle it, he said.  We don’t have nearly enough treatment facilities.  Petty crime is going to go through the roof.  We’re going to see overdoses among the young, a whole new class of people incapable of holding jobs and participating in civic life. 

This was about six years ago, and I was shocked, as were a few other people in the room.  The tourist brochures said that we lived in “America’s most perfect village,” a place where “serious crime” brought to mind double-parking, not trafficking in hard drugs.  But Judge Burns was mostly right, and as the drugs poured in, we were quickly overwhelmed.  The hospital developed new overdose protocols.  People started locking their doors.  The county jail filled up.  Parishioners needed to talk about what to do about their kids.  By last spring, the church was hosting NARCAN trainings and making plans to send people into the pediatric ward to rock the babies of addicted mothers, who must be hospitalized for weeks until the drugs are out of their system. 

And of course it wasn’t just rural communities like Cooperstown, New York that have been affected by this national epidemic of opioid addiction.  A story in the Washington Post this week said that almost four in ten Americans know someone who has been addicted to prescription drugs,[1] and though the rates for heroin addiction are lower, they are climbing steadily.  In 2013, the last year for which we have complete records, almost 25,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses.  Another recent study found that for the first time in recorded history, the life expectancy for working class white males has actually declined, due primarily to rising rates of drug addiction.[2] 

Public health experts are scrambling to find ways to explain all of this.  In part, of course, it’s a supply problem.  But it goes deeper than that.  As small-town factories close, mines give out and weeds grow in the crop fields there are fewer and fewer opportunities for workers with limited training and higher education.  For those who do go to college, debt loads can be crushing.  Family structures are far less stable, with marriage rates continuing to decline among the poor.  There are fewer social institutions to provide support and a sense of community in inner cities and rural areas. 

And of course, we live in a deeply anxious time.  Headlines scream of terrorist attacks and an international refugee crisis, school shootings, racial unrest, crude and divisive political rhetoric, ecological disasters.  The Archbishop of Canterbury told General Synod in London this week that World War III has begun.[3]  I don’t know if he’s right or not, but it wouldn’t shock me.  I don’t think that a downed Russian plane in Turkey convinces a teenager in Northern Virginia to shoot up for the first time.  But it’s hard to be hopeful in a world so saturated with fear and uncertainty.   You can understand why someone would seek that kind of escape, even at the price of life itself.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is describing the world turned upside down, an age of chaos and violence, the social landmarks strewn in disarray.  This is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret.  Sometimes Jesus seems to be talking about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, other times of his eventual return in glory, and sometimes of the world as we see it now—things falling apart, the center that cannot hold.

There are different ways to live in the midst of times of crisis, Jesus tells us.  We can become weighed down with drunkenness and dissipation, consumed by the worries of this life, desperate to escape at any cost.  Or we can be expectant, watching and praying for the coming of the only One who can truly deliver us.  Country singer Tim McGraw put it this way a few years ago:
Everybody just wants to get high
Sit and watch a perfect world go by
We're all looking for love and meaning in our lives
We follow the roads that lead us
To drugs or Jesus

 Drugs or Jesus.  I hadn’t noticed the way that Jesus presents the alternatives so sharply until this week.  The theme turns up again in a parable He tells elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, about the master who comes at an unexpected time and catches his servants drunk.  Not just sleeping, or unaware, but drunk.[4]  In his first Epistle Peter too, urges the faithful to be sober as they wait for Christ’s return.[5]  The recovery community has stressed for decades now that addiction is really a spiritual problem, and I think we can trace that insight back to our Lord Himself.  Addiction is not primarily about thrill-seeking or a lack of self-discipline.  We live in slavery to drugs, or drink, pornography or the crowded social calendar because we are seeking transcendence and inner strength, and we choose the means that lies closest to hand.   Addiction is ultimately a failure of hope.

And we have such a glorious hope to share with this troubled world.  As the world falls apart around us, Jesus urges us to look ahead with confidence.  In the end, Jesus will return to judge and heal the world, as our Old Testament lesson says, “to execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  There will be perfect peace, swords beaten into plowshares, the poor lifted up, sickness of body, mind and spirit abolished forever.  All will be filled with dazzling glory, and we will see Him face to face, our long-desired Savior, the world’s only true king.

And until then, Jesus promises to sustain those who trust in Him.  He has given us His Spirit, the certain presence now of what is surely to come.  Jesus feeds us with His Sacraments, filling us with the grace that gives us strength to push on in the way He has set before us.  He proclaims to us His Word, those sacred promises repeated again and again so we cannot forget His goodness and steadfastness, His complete reliability. 

We do not need to hide from the troubles of this world.  We do not need to seek a cheap escape or artificial courage.  The world is full of pain, but we do not fall into despair.  To “remain on guard,” as Jesus calls it, is to look squarely at this world’s troubles, and to commit them to God in prayer, working all the while to do His will, even when we are misunderstood and rejected.  We have a glorious hope, and there is no better time to share it.  Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

[1] Bernstein, Lenny.  “4 in 10 Know Someone Who Has Been Addicted to Painkillers.”  The Washington Post.  24 Nov. 2015
[2] Samuelson, Robert.  “The Life Expectancy Gap.” The Washington Post. 27 Sep. 2015.
[3] Welby, Justin.  “Presidential Address to the Church of England’s General Synod.”  24 Nov. 2015.
[4] Luke 12:45.
[5] I Pet. 4:7. 

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