Crouching at Every Doorstep

One of my older sisters lives in Vermont, so over the past 20 years or so I’ve traveled there several times. On every trip, I found myself very much enjoying the “rustic beauty” that informs both the countryside and the friendly small towns strewn along its two-lane highways. As a tourist dropping in and out every few years, I suppose it was easier than usual to overlook the now-obvious signs of a growing heroin trade, as well as its ravaging effect on local communities.

Stephanie Predel is off heroin. But the Bennington, Vt.,
area, where she lives, is in the throes of an epidemic.
Photo: Cheryl Senter for The New York Times;
used by permission.

Heroin addiction ravaging Vermont? Really? (Apparently so.) Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just go on living in denial?

Well, no…of course that’s not an option. Christians are called to work for the good of the city in which they live (Jeremiah 29:4-7) and denial is definitely not a part of that equation. But as the head of a family here in Columbia, I’ll admit that there is a large part of my soul that would desperately like to hang onto the mid-1970’s caricature I have with regard to “what heroin users look like.”

For a guy in his early 50’s, the phrase “heroin addict” tends to conjure up images of poorly-lit New York City alleyways, rundown tenement housing, late-night drug deals in subways or the back seats of garish, customized muscle cars and filthy, emaciated junkies wearing tattered clothing. Those outdated stereotypes get a much-needed smackdown from the bright, fresh faces that just showed up on the front page of the Columbia Missourian last week, and in articles like “Heroin Scourge Overtakes a ‘Quaint’ Vermont Town” by Katharine Q. Seelye for the New York Times. (Note: Accessing both Missourian and New York Times articles will require a subscriber account.)

Hailey Clark, 20, with a heroin conviction, has lost
custody of her son. Photo: Cheryl Senter for The
New York Times; used by permission.

Maybe the headlines here in mid-Missouri are trying to tell us something about the toll of our voluntary, collective loss of meaning as well. On Thursday of last week, the Missourian featured the images of two cheerful-looking young people, both of whom had died of an overdose of heroin (“Bringing Purpose to Personal Tragedy“). According to the article by Taylor Fox, “Missouri has the seventh-highest mortality rate from drug overdose in the U.S., and heroin is a major contributor to these deaths.”

And it gets worse if you do even a little bit of digging. Another related article, dated Nov. 22, 2013, (“Meth and Heroin Abuse Have Surged in Boone County“) tells us that:

In Boone County, methamphetamine abuse increased more than 30 percent and heroin nearly 45 percent from 2011 to 2012. The report also revealed a nearly 50 percent increase in overall stimulant abuse in Boone County during the period. Stimulants include methamphetamine and other amphetamines. The number of meth labs detected in Boone County also increased according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Just a few years ago, I attended a national conference held by the good folks at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. One evening after dinner – and an interesting session discussing pharmacology and faith – Ed Welch was sitting quietly at a table signing copies of his books for any and all who might enjoy that sort of thing. So I too stood in line, the lone attendee without a Welch book visible in my hands. When my turn came to meet Ed, I simply shook his hand and thanked him for helping to save my life. (If I ever meet Rick Warren in person, I plan to tell him the exact same thing.)

Bringing Purpose to Personal Tragedy
Columbia Missourian, March 20, 2014

My own story as just one case among many, I am convinced that the loss of Christ as an anchor point for our culture is directly linked to the steep increases we see in alcoholism and drug abuse. Beneath these outward signs of disaffection, though, there lies a more pernicious issue, one that is deeply resistant to Antabuse, 12-Step programs, methadone clinics and just about anything else you might use to convince an addict to change his or her deathward ways. I am convinced that just about every addict would agree with this statement, which was also the cry of my own heart from approximately 1975 to 1997:

“My life is just too small and too insignificant to care about.”

Absent Christ and His story, this dreadful statement is all too true…for all of us. Relapse is a near-certainty for the addict in the absence of a much larger, more glorified narrative to hang onto. Addict or not, though, this absence of purpose forces us all to consider: “If my life story and legacy is all that I am living for, and if all of it will be a distant memory a hundred years hence, then who cares?” Paul absolutely nailed it in 1 Corinthians 15:32: What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Underneath all our bluster, social skills, career achievements and wealth, we all share the dreaded certainty that one day the wind will blow over us and we will be no more (Psalm 103:15-16). No? Don’t agree? Next time you are in a room full of people, ask the crowd for a show of hands: “How many of you know the first name of your great grandfather?” If even one hand goes up, you can follow up by asking that person what his great grandfather did for a living. My experience to date has been that most addicts – heroin, alcohol, meth, whatever – have a heightened sense of their own mortality; “What does it really matter if I live 40 more years vs. overdosing tonight?” This lie is potent precisely because there is much truth in it.

In his book, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Welch offered me some serious help in putting together a recovery story that was “big enough” to satisfy the hole in my heart. Just prior to reading the Welch book, Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life challenged me, at a level that I could readily access, to see my own life in the much-grander story of love, sin, mercy and judgment, all of which converge at the cross of Jesus Christ. These were my own starting points; there are others, certainly.

The key, as far as I can tell, is to simultaneously address the hard realities of the individual story while placing the value of that individual inside a narrative that offers them hope beyond this life and the certainty of the grave.

We don’t help our addicted loved ones by focusing exclusively on keeping them sober. We help them by loving them into an awareness of a God Who loves them more than they can imagine.

Matthew 25:31-40 (ESV)
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'”

Without the absolute of a transcendent, there is ultimately no moral law, no point of reference, no meaning in life, and no hope beyond the grave.
Ravi Zacharias at Texas A&M University
March 19, 2014

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