Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Fentanyl, Teenagers and our Nation's Opioid Crisis

In our local high school, I recently heard accounts of teenagers vaping fentanyl in bathrooms while on campus. Students were found unresponsive and EMS had to be contacted to revive the students.

Apparently, Fentanyl is a highly potent synthetic opioid, estimated to be 50 times more powerful than pure, pharmacy-grade heroin. Medically, it’s often used for chronic pain patients and those who are likely to experience intense pain such as cancer patients.

Now with the recent advent of vaping, fentanyl can be ingested without even creating an odor. An overdose of fentanyl is what was later revealed to kill the singer Prince. 

This is a most troubling development in our American culture. This "opioid crisis" continues to sweep across our nation and is claiming hundreds of young lives at an alarming pace. Parents and school administrators can feel helpless as this epidemic continues.

As a pastor who has served in United Methodist youth ministry for 15 years, drug use among teenagers is nothing new in my experience. I've always known students who have smoked pot, dropped acid or drank heavily. Its always been a problem, and the problem continues to grow.  The lives of our children are at risk and are under attack.

Without intervention, I have also seen where every one of these stories unfortunately end: young potential wasted, criminal records or worse, the loss of life.

Many young people, when confronted with the option to quit drug use, scoff at the reality of peer pressure as the cause. Denial is the attitude of the day. "Who are you to tell me how to live my life? I can control my own actions. Its not that big of a deal. No one is forcing me to do drugs" they may say.

What young people always fail to see is that they are ultimately seeking acceptance. 

Teenagers understandably want a place to fit in and feel welcome. They want to escape their problems. They want peace. The drug or party scene provides that immediate gratification.  They are seeking the innately good desire of acceptance in all of the wrong places. In order the quell the inner restlessness they feel, substances are consumed to fill a void that only Christ can fill.

Augustine of Hippo is a massively important figure in church history, but before he became a saint in the Catholic church, wrote his Confessions and other important theological works, he was a restless, wandering young person. He dabbled with various religions and sought out constant sexual gratification, but never found true peace in his life.

Eventually, at the age of 31, as Augustine later told it, his conversion to Christ was prompted by a childlike voice he heard telling him to "take up and read", which he took as a divine command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw.

This is what he read:

Romans 13:13-14 - New Living Translation (NLT)
13 Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.

Augustine would eventually famously write that, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Augustine's conversion testimony (and my own, in fact) were not just words: he lived it. He lived through the restless period of life, seeking acceptance from whomever would give it, but it didn't satisfy the deepest longings of his soul. 

His heart was restless until it found rest in Christ.

It wasn't until the winding path of his life led to the person of Jesus Christ that everything changed. 

The demons were driven out. The restlessness was over. True peace was discovered. God, by his grace, reached out and touched him, and he was never the same. 

If you are a young person and you are reading this, know that there is hope for your life. 

You are not defined by your failures or your pain. Whatever acceptance you are seeking, know that God stands ready to receive you and give you a new heart, a new nature and a peace that only God can give. Consuming drugs, having illicit sex or drinking is an empty well. You will not find the refreshment you seek in those places.  "For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want." (Galatians 5:17)

God isn't out to spoil your fun. Rather, he's out to show you a much, much better way, beyond anything you could imagine.

Only in Christ will you find peace for your soul and the demons of addiction can be driven out. Take up and read what God has to say. He loves you and wants you to live a clean, righteous, and virtuous life with the Spirit of God living within you.

If you are a parent of a young person with addiction reading this, my prayers are with you. 

There are resources available for support, such as PALS (Parents of Addicted Love Ones) that can help. You are not alone in this struggle.

Comment below. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Racism? Yes. The Answer is Love (a former Nazi story)

Here's a Facebook post I recently shared regarding the recent events in Charlottesville:

"White nationalism is militarized ignorance that speaks neither for the South or for Christianity (for sure). It is a gross perversion of the core tenets of the Gospel and in a cultural sense, what it means to be American. Horrible. #prayforcharlottesville#charlottesville"

While I most certainly stand by these words, its also easy to dismiss and denounce a white supremacist worldview. Or at least, one would think it should be so easy. Its easy enough for most people. The foundation of this worldview was so reprehensible and evil that thousands of brave men died in the fight against fascism in World War II.

To those who have gone before us, it was an easy to decision to fight such evil. And for many of us today, the decision is also an easy one.

As a nation, we are divided and have been for some time, but what is occurring is an extrapolation of the ever-growing divide in American society. Blame, anger, anxiety are dominating the day. Our nation is at a tipping point.  What is present in our hearts is what we will speak. In a very literal sense, we are the times in which we live.

If you don't like it, change it. But how to do that? Stewing in anger on Facebook is certainly not the solution, but neither is ignorance or acquiescence. 

Instead of joining in that fray, this reminds me of a story.

It was the summer of 1999, and I served with a home repair ministry called Carolina Cross Connection. Groups of teenagers and adult leaders go out into the community and help build wheelchair ramps, paint houses, perform yard work, etc. As a staff person, I would help create and oversee work projects, among many other responsibilities.

One such home (at an undisclosed town in North Carolina) was the home of Mr. Chuck.

This story is relevant to you today because Mr. Chuck was a former Grand Dragon (supreme leader) of the KKK. Our task was to rip out his carpet and put down new laminate flooring.

The difficult part would be actually finding the carpet.

Upon entering his home, its difficult to describe the squalor.  His wife had left him in 1987 and Mr. Chuck had not cleaned his home since then.  Thick layers of dust covered everything. Soda cans, cereal boxes and magazines from 1987 were left in their same positions. Its as if time stood still after his wife left him. He seemed to die that day and became a shell of a person.

His home was also covered in cigarette butts, empty beer cans, animal waste, rotten food and trash, and at least two dogs and three cats that never went outside.  For 12 years he lived in the darkness of covered windows and absolute filth. TWELVE YEARS in his own self-imposed prison. Nazi paraphernalia was scattered about as well.  He was to this day the most depressed and destitute person I have ever encountered.

God had brought our group to this man. He was about as unloveable of a person as you can imagine and he lived in the most unloveable of places. His immediate environment bore the fruit of his worldview and he was reaping the rewards. It would have been easy to walk away, a task about as easy as denouncing his false worldview.

However, grace is the great equalizer. God's forgiveness nullifies our past and empowers us to show others that same grace. God's grace is the hope of the world. 

A group of brave teenagers put on work gloves and masks and began the grievous work of cleaning his home. As the work continued, you began to see a lightness return to Mr. Chuck. He began to speak and share with us. He was thankful for our help. Light shone into his home for the first time in 12 years, and it took a group of teenagers to help make that happen.

Did Mr. Chuck hit his knees and repent for his evil worldview and past sins? Not that I'm aware of, but his response or lack thereof wasn't why we were there. Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies seventy time seven and to not only give to those who ask, but give beyond what they ask. Be faithful in the giving and trust God for the results.

You cannot argue anyone into believing anything, but you can love them. We can debate ideas, but we don't have to debate people. God's love can circumvent the defenses of the human heart and bring down walls that seemed to be impenetrable.

We don't get to pick and choose our enemies, and we also don't get to pick and choose who we're commanded to love.  

I like to think that after that day, Mr. Chuck was a changed person. Through our actions, we showed him real, unconditional love, maybe for the first time in his whole life.  When light shines, it will show the darkness for what it is.

As Christians, we are saved by a man who died loving his enemies. 

Let's not forget that.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Church and Reaching Millennials - 5 Methods for Young Adult Ministry

Starting this fall, I will begin a young adult ministry at my church. We're calling it C3 - coffee conversation and community. There is a big push to reach young adults because for one, they are a large missing demographic in most churches. Secondly because their voice matters. Thirdly because without young adults, the church will continue to decline numerically. Lastly, because God loves them and wants all people to know a living relationship with Jesus Christ. I'll post more in the fall to let you know how C3 turns out!

Over the past 5 years at least, there has been much discussion in the United Methodist Church about reaching young adults/millennials and even more blog posts by "millennials" with such titles as "Dear Church, its not me its you" or "Farewell church. You lost me. We're done." and so on. Many young adults in our society have had difficult experiences with the Church and we need to listen to their voices.

Considering that nearly 2 out of every 3 young adults (for our purposes, 18-25 year olds) identify themselves as "none", meaning no religious affiliation at all, the church's voice in response to this generation has unfortunately been one of acquiescence. The denominational church at large has been motivated by fear of offending this growing demographic.

But is fear of offense an evangelistic strategy? Is that even compelling?  Is it something Jesus did?

If you or I are a "5" or a "7" on a 10 point scale of being "Christian", then most unchurched young adults today are at a "1".  And that's ok! But we must acknowledge the audience in order to know the approach. Many young adults are not ready to worship Jesus or read a call to worship. Let's not get the cart before the horse here: much like any other unchurched adult, millennials must be introduced to Jesus and see him for the compelling, life-altering Messiah that He is. They must be taught. They must be shown. And it must be within he context of loving, gracious community.

Considering this, if a large segment of our population has little to no religious or biblical knowledge, is perpetuating ignorance helpful?  Many young adults do not come to church because:

  • The church is seen as intolerant, Pharisaical or homophobic. 
  • Some young adults don't know what they don't know. (They must be taught the basics of Christianity)
  • The church is too obsessed with money or sex.
  • The church has no relevant place or voice within their community. 
  • The church addresses issues that are (perceived to be) irrelevant to their daily lives. 
  • There is no particular "space" carved out for them. We have children's ministry. We have youth ministry. Is there a space for young adults?
What if instead of acquiescence, we spoke with a bold, compassionate and prophetic voice?

What if we focused more on teaching and relationships and less on programs or apologizing for Christianity?

Here are 5 methods for reaching young adults, and is by no means exhaustive. (comment below with more ideas)

  1. What you highlight, you will reap: put young adults up front in your worship services. Invite them to read Scripture, do the announcements, lead a song, etc. Intentionally put young adults on your leadership board or committees. Take their feedback. Give them responsibility. This will help any young adult in attendance connect with a peer.
  2. Graphics, graphics, graphics - Go to Netflix and look at the menu. People make choices of what to watch based on an image, word of mouth and maybe three words.  Young adults today hear with their eyes. If its text heavy, it will get glossed over. If its an image, you've got a chance. 
  3. Teach and preach within relational context - As a stated above, most young adults identify as "nones" this new generation must be taught within the context of community. Relationships are the main conduit that love is communicated. This is nothing new, especially for a Wesleyan or United Methodist. We championed small group ministry in the 18th century. Postmodern research has always shown a need for community in this generation. This is nothing new. They are people after all. We must supply community and relationship to young adults. Churches that are reaching huge numbers of young adults preach the Gospel without apology and offer weekly community opportunities for young adults, and its working.
  4. An 8 second filter - Young people today have a shrinking "attention span", and its actually not a detriment. If an item or idea catches their attention within 8 seconds, they will actually engage with it on a deep level. Think video games, Youtube videos or social media. There is plenty of engagement going on, it just has to catch the eye, heart or brain within 8 seconds. Its more of a filter and less of an "attention span". You've got 8 seconds. How will you use it?
  5. Service Matters - young people today have strong feelings about what is just and unjust. They are the first generation on the face of the planet that has always known the Internet and always had endless information at their fingertips. They want to be used to help others in tangible ways. This is good news, because many churches are already organized (or at least they should be) for mission. Young people today (mostly) think with their emotions. Again, this is not a detriment. Lets tap into this generation's innate desire and emotion for justice and help them live that out.
As I said, this list isn't exhaustive. Reply below with other ideas you've used within your context that others might find helpful, and thanks for stopping by.