Equipping the Next Generation

The Holy Bible

We are in danger of not passing on biblical principles. What might this mean for the future of the Christian church? Current research indicates we are realistically in danger of not passing the Christian doctrine to the next generation. Both an overexposure to worldly philosophy and an over-dependence on church programs has caused us to fail in our task to hand off a vibrant, kingdom-focused faith.

What Do We Want From and For Our Children?

First, we need a clear definition of what we’re looking for in our children. Do we want nice kids who don’t get in trouble, or passionate followers of Christ? Second, we must adopt a multi-generational perspective, providing opportunities for those older and more mature in the faith to impart a spiritual legacy to the next generation—essentially to be mentors. Third, following the example in Deuteronomy 6, parents must fully grasp and live their faith in order to possess and pass it on to their children. This includes making the most of teachable moments in everyday life. Fourth, fathers must take the lead, recognizing that they are the spiritual thermostat of the home—the head of the household, even as Christ is the head of the church—and are obligated to raise their children in the training and instruction of the Lord.

It’s All in How We Raise Them

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (NIV). Both the home and the church must educate in sound doctrine, equip in apologetics, and explain moral principles. Raising confident teens with a desire to serve God does not happen by accident. Nor can our children learn it by osmosis! Instead, it requires parents to recognize teachable moments, and to use those moments to pass on their faith. This is truly a matter of apologetics.

Train Up a Child

As parents, we want our children to grow up in a world where belief in God is said to be reasonable and desirable. Unfortunately, there are many who shout loudly from the rooftops—especially militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—who think belief in God is on the same level as belief in Santa Claus, fairies, leprechauns, and the like. Faith in God, however, is a reasonable faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (NKJV). We want our kids to see that Christianity is true to the way things are—that it corresponds to reality. We also want them to see Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, Who can satisfy all their needs in a way that nothing else can.

Tough But Important Questions

As our children grow older, the dialog about God becomes more complex. Suddenly, they’re coming home from science class asking how Darwinian survival of the fittest fits into the story of creation. Their teacher told them nature, not God, painted the stripes on a zebra. We ask them to consider that although evolution might account for the zebra’s stripes (and the variety of stripes among zebras), it can’t account for the evolution of one species into another, or the origin and existence of zebras, or other living organisms. In other words, where did life come from? Darwin did not postulate a theory as to the origin of life or the universe. Of course, the title of his seminal work is about the origin of species, not life. Are we being hoodwinked into believing Darwin meant to explain how the whole of existence came into being?

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When Darwinism is paired with materialism, as it often is, a more complicated picture emerges concerning the intelligibility of what J.P. Moreland calls “the Grand Story” of materialistic evolution. This issue was astutely explained by C.S. Lewis in Miracles. Lewis wrote, “Thus, a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.'” Lewis notes a deep conflict between the Grand Story of materialism and the reliability of our cognitive faculties.

The Point

We must begin where our children are and nudge them toward a deeper understanding as they learn about God, themselves, and the world in which they live. It is important to poke and prod our kids to see the world in its proper light: Everything is sacred. It’s all from God, for God. A great tactic for engaging children on questions about God is to point out the transcendence of things like the scent of vanilla reminding us of home, or tasting boardwalk fries at the county fair and being transported to the beach. Remarkably, such ruminations can lead to contemplating the first cause of the universe (the cosmological argument). Further to this, we can open a discussion with our children about how the beneficial order in the world points to a Designer (the teleological argument). And how does the reality of moral obligations and values point to a moral Lawgiver (the moral argument).

Answering Their Questions

When my son Christopher was in 4th grade, he lost one of his classmates to a tragic and freakish accident. Several of them were playing flashlight tag in the dark. Christopher’s friend was running away, looking for a place to hide, when he crashed through a huge piece of plate glass. Sadly, the friend bled out as a result of his injuries and did not survive. As parents, my wife and I were faced with explaining why bad things happen, especially to children. Why would God kill a young boy? As my son grappled with the evil that befell that young lad, I was struck by the realization that my response to his struggle would lay the foundation for how he would process the concept of suffering.

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Peter Kreeft argues in his book Making Sense of Suffering, God’s answer to the problem of evil is Christ on the cross. When our kids experience times of pain and suffering, we want to recognize these moments as opportunities. They allow us to explore God’s loving care and help us to learn to trust his goodness. We first need to listen to our children’s pain and allow them to express any feelings of disappointment before we try to correct their ideas about God. After our kids feel heard and their emotions and doubts validated, we can remind them—and ourselves—that God alone offers hope.

As Frederick Buechner explains, “It is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name.” Perseverance is a little easier when we’re reminded of the ending. That’s the promise of the cross—one day all tears will be wiped away by our Savior. The experience of angst is a classroom to teach kids how to turn to Christ and point others to Him as the only hope in the face of evil.

Cultivate the Imagination of Our Children

We must encourage our children to love stories. This can be accomplished by reading to them from an early age. Tim Keller, in his book King’s Cross, quotes theologian Robert W. Jensen, who argued that our culture is in crisis because the modern world has lost its story. How often do you hear about families camping together, sharing stories around the fire, or recounting family history? How many children do you know that choose to read instead of play endless hours of video games or watch TV shows and movies? Of course, the Gospel is the ultimate story that shows victory coming out of defeat, strength coming out of weakness, life coming out of death, rescue from abandonment. And because it’s a true story—take that Sam Harris—it gives us hope. When our children fall in love with story, their hearts are prepared to recognize the best and truest story of all, which is the Gospel.

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C.S. Lewis said this: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” Through stories, our kids expand their horizons, imagining what it’s like to walk on the moon, or visit a Mayan ruin, or climb Mt. Everest. The same is true about the many stories of faith and triumph, failure and regret, obedience and rebellion told in Scripture.

We are called upon to give personal testimony to the difference God has made in our lives. This includes telling our children. Typically, parents tend to keep their struggles a secret from their kids. Certainly, a great deal of what parents deal with on a daily basis is not necessarily suited for sharing with their kids. However, it is important that we look for teaching moments we can share with our children—situations where God brought us out of bondage and into freedom. We wrongly assume that if we simply instruct our children in Christian doctrine, shelter them from immoral behavior, and involve them in church and religious organizations then we’ve done all we can.

We must be consistent in our behavior, wise about reality, and genuinely personal about our faith. Today, most Christians rely on institutions and formal instruction to pass on the faith. It is painfully obvious that the influence of parents in teaching the faith is waning. Cultural forces—especially relativism and pluralism—are overwhelming the good intentions of mothers and fathers and challenging the efforts of our church leaders to build faith among believers. Sadly, we’re loosing ground. It is critical that we don’t panic or become disillusioned. Rather, we need to take a long-range view. We need to live our lives sharing God with our children and others.

Concluding Remarks

Taking an active role in sharing and passing on our faith is about a lot more than just “doing church” together as a family. While it is clearly important to do that—worship, pray, serve, learn, and fellowship together—what we do outside of formal worship services and Sunday school class time is where the real opportunities happen. I squandered the chance to lead by example. Embroiled in active addiction for nearly forty years, I pulled every scam, told every lie, forgot every birthday, missed important events, lost jobs, failed at budgeting, broke hearts, disappointed friends and family, and lived a truly hypocritical life. This is clearly not an appropriate legacy for a father to leave behind.

Passing on our faith to the next generation isn’t just about making sure our children can name all the books in the Bible. Instead, it involves living a life that exudes the love and character of Jesus in such a way that those watching will imitate us. Every Christian has a baton, a spiritual inheritance in Christ, which is worth passing on. Our baton is the sum of all the lessons, insights, wisdom, counsel, character, and spiritual anointing we have gained. Our baton is the spiritual legacy God wants us to impart to others. Indeed, to the next generation.

Our children are watching.

 

The Opioid Issue: Part 5

Part Five: Troubling Vital Signs

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The opioid epidemic is straining America’s health care and treatment resources, while opening the door for unscrupulous fraudsters to make money off those struggling to overcome addiction. How much more can emergency rooms handle? The most recent numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spanning 45 states, show nearly 143,000 ER visits for opioid overdoses over a 15-month period. That period ended in the third quarter of 2017 and represented a 30-percent jump from the same time span a year earlier.

“The staff isn’t sure what to do with [opioid overdose patients],” says Karl Benzio, M.D., a Christian psychiatrist and member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC). “You don’t feel comfortable just discharging the person. The staff doesn’t know how dangerous the person is when they leave the doors, whether they will overdose—or worse—when they leave, how to find a responsible party to transfer the care and responsibility to.” Fellow PRC member W. David, Hager, M.D., agrees. “We’re seeing a lot of frustration among our providers with ‘frequent fliers,” says Hager, a practicing physician with Baptist Health Medical Group in Lexington, Kentucky. Both physicians point to different problems connected to the opioid crisis.

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Benzio notes that many overdose cases are complicated because ER staffs aren’t generally equipped to deal with mental or behavioral health. Many of those patients  should ideally be in a residential rehabilitation program, but are unable to secure health care insurance coverage. This leaves the medical personnel on the front lines of care facing a dilemma for which there are no simple answers. Between the rapid rise in overdose cases and the moral gray area of providing narcotics to so-called “frequent fliers,” America’s emergency rooms are in a precarious position when it comes to the opioid issue. The crisis threatens to break the backs of overworked ER staffs, whose efforts to help those in pain with long-term prescriptions may only be fueling the crisis.

FAKE TREATMENT CENTERS

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The overwhelming strain the opioid epidemic has placed on legitimate health care providers has also opened the doors for unscrupulous con artists looking for easy money. These fraudsters—and it’s not clear just how many there are across the country—run fake treatment centers preying on those seeking a way out of their opioid struggles.

“Several factors came together—so many people in need of addiction treatment and managed care to reduce their length of stay in the hospital—that there became a huge need for more addiction rehabs,” Benzio explains. “Certain states that had a high level of drug use made it very easy to open a rehab; not many restrictions, licensing issues or hoops to go through. Also, insurance plans needed a place to put someone who was in danger of overdosing but needed one-on-one monitoring, so entities put together minimally-trained people with a schedule and sold it to the insurance as a rehab.” With the potential to make big money and only vague criteria for what a “quality” treatment facility includes, many unqualified providers jumped into the rehab industry.

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“A lot of people going through addiction thought, ‘Wow, I could put together a better program than that,’ so they developed their own after getting clean for 20 minutes,” says Benzio. Though he believes some who entered the rehab industry in this way truly wanted to help, others are outright shams and just billing insurance large sums. Some bill for services they don’t even provide. Some will encourage their patients to use drugs or supply them so they can continue to bill insurance. Many cannot get doctors or licensed therapists [on staff], which would make them accountable to higher state and national licensing standards.

UNSCRUPULOUS REHAB CENTER OPERATORS

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Somehow, even with all our laws pertaining to drug possession and use, we still find ourselves in a largely unregulated addiction treatment field. And even worse, the biggest driving force seems to be well-meaning legislation—like the Affordable Care and Parity Acts—which made treatment more accessible for more people, but unfortunately also opened the door for predators and frauds to get in on the action. They are unconscionably attempting to make a profit off our nation’s current drug epidemic with unethical and shocking practices like patient brokering, identity theft, kickbacks, and insurance fraud.

A behavioral healthcare survey on ethical concerns in the drug rehab industry identified patient brokering tactics in the form of money and gifts that some treatment centers are using to entice patients. Need sober living but can’t afford it? Some programs address this by offering free room and board and other amenities, then bill insurance excessively for unnecessary drug testing and other services to make up the cost. Sadly, many unregulated sober living homes have become unsafe and overcrowded “flophouses” where crimes like theft, human trafficking, prostitution, and illegal drug use are commonplace.

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We’re also seeing patients-turned-recruiters, people just out of treatment with very little time in recovery who can suddenly start making big money selling people they know to rehab centers, checking themselves into competitor programs to lure clients away, and collecting “finder’s fees” of $500 to $1,000 per patient or more. And if that doesn’t work, people are getting paid to relapse so that treatment centers can collect more insurance money. Shockingly, some of these practices are not per se illegal. And in situations where they are, states do not have the resources to regulate.

A Palm Beach Post investigation of the county’s $1 billion drug treatment industry found that testing the urine of recovering addicts is so lucrative that treatment centers are paying sober living homes for patients. Urine drug screen costs may be $6 once a week, but centers test every 48 hours and bill insurance companies $1,200 each time. You may have heard about treatment center owner Kenneth Chatman. A federal investigation targeted sober living homes and rehab centers founded by Chatman and others. Chatman appeared before a U.S. magistrate in West Palm Beach, Florida. The recovery businesses founded by Chatman provided illegal kickbacks, coerced residents into prostitution, threatened violence against patients, and submitted urine and saliva for screening even when no medical need existed.

It’s an exploitation of some of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals and it needs to stop!

FINDING REAL HELP

Amid a sea of get-rich-quick frauds, how can those struggling to overcome opioid addiction find genuine help? How can they—and their families—be sure they’re not scammed by fraudsters? Benzio says quality facilities have several standout features. He advises looking for those that are Christian-owned, apply the Bible to daily living, and emphasize the importance of growing in a relationship with God. Some of the other key elements include:

  • One of the owners is an accomplished clinician, such as a psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist. Clinicians with ownership stakes usually have professional reputations to maintain, an understanding of what great care looks like, and a desire to make clinical excellence a primary focus.
  • A psychiatrist sees the patient early in the admission process for detox purposes and to help diagnose underlying issues that contribute to the patient’s opioid use.
  • The treatment and residential facilities are located on the same campus, allowing for a higher level of accreditation and insurance approval.
  • Individual therapy is provided by masters-level and/or licensed therapists. Each patient receives several individual sessions per week.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Between the overloaded hospitals, risky prescribing practices and minefield of rehab programs, the opioid epidemic is stretching and straining America’s health care resources like nothing we’ve ever seen. Tackling those (and many other) massive opioid-related issues will require innovative solutions.

Cece and Bobby Brown of Charleston, WV had a son who died four years ago at age 27. His parents describe him as being “just like the kid next door,” stating he was a trouble-free child who loved sports, music, skateboarding, and God. His mother said, “I sent him to college to get a degree, and he came home with an addiction.” Ryan struggled with opioids for seven years, surviving three overdoses along the way. But in April 2014, he had another—at the local mall. The Browns believe their son ran into an acquaintance there who gave him the heroin that snuffed out his life.

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The couple spent thousands on detox and rehabilitation programs for Ryan. What he really needed, they say, was a long-term facility where he could get clean for good. Instead, a typical cycle for Ryan would consist of seven days of detox and regular participation in outpatient programs, therapy groups and Narcotics Anonymous. That combination would keep him clean for about six weeks.

But he needed more.

Ryan was on waiting lists for two long-term treatment centers when he died. Having aged out of his parents’ insurance plan at 26, he had just received Medicaid benefits three days before his death. Most heartbreaking, his parents learned after his passing that a treatment facility that could have accepted Ryan was only three miles away. Now his parents can’t help but wonder, What if the wait times had been shorter, the coverage had come a bit earlier, and we had known about the facility nearby?

“That would’ve given opportunity. I can’t say that would have changed things, but opportunity is everything,” Cece says. Over the last four years, the Browns have made it their mission to make sure others with similar struggles in West Virginia have the opportunities Ryan didn’t.

INNOVATE FOR THE STATE

After a two-year effort led by Bobby and Cece, last year West Virginia lawmakers passed legislation creating the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund. The Fund aims to expand the state’s capacity to help those struggling with opioids but lacking private insurance, Medicaid or Medicare coverage by blending public grants and private dollars. People who want to support it are able to contribute charitable gifts.

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So far, the model has yielded promising results: The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $20.8 million through the Fund to nine long-term treatment facilities statewide. That’s already translated to 300 more West Virginians getting treatment than would’ve been the case otherwise. The Browns explain it’s just reality that many struggling with opioids have low-wage jobs that don’t offer insurance. Some, they say, have felonies that prevent them from securing jobs with better wages and benefits. But that doesn’t mean they should be left behind. Bobby said, “If they don’t want help, there’s nothing we can do. But if they do want help, we need to get them help.”

The Browns are also grateful West Virginia has addressed another problem: In September 2015, the state launched a resource hotline to help those combating opioid addiction.  “We didn’t have a number to call to talk to anyone; didn’t know where to get help,” Bobby recalls. “Now that number has come out.” Those needing help can simply call 1-800-HELP-4WV—and thousands have.

Bobby and Cece say they feel honored to play a role in easing the burden the opioid epidemic has placed on the health care system, and to help families struggling with the weight of it all find solid answers. They’ve been part of several White House events aimed at finding solutions, and say they’ll continue to engage the Trump administration in the hopes of keeping the heat on. As a reminder of the epidemic’s devastating toll, Cece displayed a picture of Ryan at a round table discussion with First Lady Melania Trump earlier this year.

This needs to be about people, not politics.

The Opioid Issue: Part 4

Part Four: Taking It to the Streets

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The opioid epidemic doesn’t stay behind closed doors. It’s spilling into public life, spurring crime and homelessness.

The opioid crisis has hit hard in Macomb County, Michigan. Composed of 27 Detroit suburbs, the county has the state’s second-highest opioid-related overdose death rate, more than double the national average. District Court Judge Linda Davis has been on the bench 17 years. She sees the consequences pretty much every day. “When I look at the docket I handle, I’d say 70 percent is addiction-related,” she says, not counting low-level traffic offenses like driving on a suspended license. “We’ve definitely seen a rise in thefts with this opioid surge.”

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Although opioid addiction often starts out legally, recent years have seen a shift toward illegal opioids. It’s an all-to-familiar story: People get hooked on prescription painkillers, often moving on to heroin, which can be cheaper on the street. Since 2011, as prescription opioid overdose deaths leveled off, heroin overdoses started rising. Starting in 2014, illicit fentanyl deaths began spiking upward. Whatever the substance, the cost mounts up fast. So many users resort to theft. They’ll steal from family, friends, acquaintances or strangers. They’ll shoplift, commit fraud, rob pharmacies, break into homes or cars. Even commit armed robbery. And whether or not they’re committing those crimes themselves, their desperate dependency can feed some even worse ones.

Lethal Combination

In 2015, the nation’s homicide rate rose sharply (11 percent) after decades of decline. The uptrend continued in 2016, climbing another 8 percent. Some observers looked for racial reasons for it. There could be one, says Richard Rosenfeld, an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But he thinks there’s more to the story. When Rosenfeld looked into the data, he quickly saw homicides had jumped among several ethnicities—and it was very pronounced among whites.

“The increase is quite abrupt, quite recent and quite large, at levels we hadn’t seen since the early 1990s outside of 9/11,” Rosenfeld says. “The ‘Ferguson Effect’ doesn’t explain that. So what might explain it? The opioid epidemic, for one thing—which crosses racial lines, but is most concentrated among whites. Drug-related homicides rose more than 21 percent in 2015, a rate far higher than other common categories of homicide, which rose between 3 and 5 percent. Rosenfeld said it stands to reason that there’d be a connection between the spikes in opioid use and lethal violence.

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“It’s not opioid use per se that sparks violence, but the markets,” Rosenfeld says. “When disputes arise between sellers or buyers, they can’t be settled by police or courts or the Better Business Bureau. As the number of buyers expands, so does the number of disputes that turn deadly will also go up.”

Just how big a role do opioids play in driving the rise in homicides? That calls for more research, Rosenfeld says. But he sees ample evidence to sound the warning and to call for addressing the root causes. “Policymakers and law enforcement are framing this as a public-health crisis more than as a criminal-justice crisis, and I’m very much in favor of that,” he says. “The bottom line is: If we reduce demand, we reduce crime.”

“We Don’t Want Those People Here!”

Reducing demand for opioids would likely reduce other social pathologies too. Like homelessness. “For those of us who’ve been providing health care to people who are homeless, this is not a new problem,” says Barbara DiPietro, senior policy director for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “We’ve been seeing opioid addiction and overdoses for decades.

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“When people are in a spiral and aren’t getting the help they need, oftentimes they lose their jobs and their ability to pay rent. Before you know it, you cycle through family and friends, and you’re in a shelter or on the street.” Of course, not all people who are homeless have addiction issues, but those that do have a harder time getting into treatment once the stability of housing is gone. Living on the street could easily drive anyone to substance abuse. Maybe you started with alcohol, but once you were on the street, you found other things. It’s very hard to get well when you’re homeless.

Federally-qualified health centers provide care to 1.2 million people a year, and the Council provides technical assistance to help improve quality and access. DiPietro says homeless service providers often see clients who never expected to be in this situation. “We see a lot of clients who come from construction work or other hard-physical-labor jobs, who got hurt and got prescriptions for legitimate reasons,” she says. “We see a lot of people who’ve experienced trauma in their lives—child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault. So they self-medicate to deal with the pain.” And on the street, their problems are much more visible than those of people who engage in their addictive behavior behind closed doors.

“They’re living their private lives in a public space,” DiPietro says. “They’re subject to public scrutiny, arrest and incarceration at a much higher rate. And once you have an incarceration history, it’s hard to get housing assistance or a job again.”

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While more medical facilities and first responders are being equipped with opioid-overdose medications like naloxone (Narcan), that’s just an emergency measure, not a solution. DiPietro says what people struggling with addiction and homelessness need most is stable housing where they can get effective treatment. Health care providers the Council works with can help, but not enough to meet the scale of the problem.

Right now, communities don’t have the capacity desperately needed to get people into treatment. Another big obstacle is the attitude known as NIMBY—Not in My Back Yard. “Everyone believes treatment is important, but no one wants the services near them,” DiPietro says. “When that’s proposed, they rise up in community meetings and say, “We don’t want those people here.”

We’ve simply got to get beyond that attitude.

A Parting Thought

I spent forty years in active addiction. It started simple enough: A case of beer and an ounce of Colombian Gold. Eighteen months later I was serving 3 to 10 in state prison. Drug and alcohol abuse continued throughout parole and into my thirties, forties and early fifties. My drug use ran the gamut, from weed to cocaine to crack to opiates. When I couldn’t get enough oxycodone through doctors, I began stealing it from friends and family. My addiction cost me plenty, yes, but it also cost my children, my two ex wives, my brothers, my sister, and my parents. I lost jobs, cars, apartments, friends and family. I blew every penny I made, bounced checks, embezzeled, fenced stolen goods. I was enslaved to addiction. Not only did my family disown me for nearly two years, my youngest son didn’t talk to me for five years.

It’s not only the family of addicts that can become fed up and turn their backs on their loved ones struggling with addiction; society has become rather fed up and impatient. One of our local television stations airs a nightly feature called “Talkback 16,” where viewers call to voice their grievances, pet peeves, and, yes, an occasional compliment. Several days after a news story aired about plans to build a drug and alcohol treatment center in the Pocono Mountains (Pennsylvania), a viewer called to complain about the plan, adding, “Not in my neighborhood. [Addicts and alcoholics] can’t be trusted. Besides, they did it to themselves.”

Truly, this attitude must change.

 

The Opioid Issue: Part 3

Part Three: A System on the Brink

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Already under tremendous strain from a lack of qualified homes and social support, the American foster care system is staring down its toughest opponent yet: the opioid epidemic. Typically, when a mother or father in active addiction has young dependent children, agencies such as Children and Youth or Child and Family Services will remove the children from their parents. Of course, family court judges nearly always focus on possibly reuniting the children and their parents after they become clean and sober.

Consider the mother of a child who was born addicted to opiates. The court removed the infant from the mother’s care and placed him in foster care. After the mother was able to stay clean for one year and put her life back together, the child was returned to her. Sadly, the mother ultimately relapsed, and the child’s health and welfare were put in jeopardy. He would need to reenter the foster care system, this time with the goal of being adopted permanently. Foster Care CollageAccording to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly half a million children nationwide were living in foster care arrangements in 2016—and that number has been rising for the last four years. One could say the very heart of the nation’s foster system is aching for any sort of relief.

A Century-Old Practice

Since creating a Children’s Bureau in 1912, the U.S. government has played a critical role when parents can no longer care for their minor children due to illness, death, criminal activity and/or substance abuse. That care—provided mainly by individual foster families or relatives, but also through group homes and institutions—has at times extended to other nations, such as the more than 8,000 European refugee children who were fostered in American homes during World War II.

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Though it has successfully kept millions of children fed, clothed, educated, sheltered and safe over the last 106 years, the American foster system hasn’t been foolproof. In 1972, when President Richard Nixon declared a “National Action for Foster Children Week” to recruit more foster families, the system has been highlighted mostly for its deficits: Too few willing foster parents, too many kids, too little funding and support, too hard on the heart for everyone involved.

Margie Nielsen deals with those shortcomings daily. As the director of Foster Care & Adoption Ministries at Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home (LBCH)—a nonprofit ministry founded in 1899, more than a decade before official government foster care was created—Nielsen’s organization is an official partner of the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services. Certified foster parents run residential “cottages” that each accommodate up to six children between the ages of 5 and 17. LBCH exists to educate, inform, encourage, support, and strengthen current and prospective foster parents.

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While there are many families who clearly are not called to foster, everyone can and should be involved in supporting the families who are. In James 1:27, God’s Word teaches, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV). It is our duty as the Body of Christ to help foster families to understand the call God has placed on their lives and to help equip them to answer that call. A joy, yes—but the last few years have greatly expanded the need for people to answer that call.

With opioid addiction soaring to crisis level, it certainly calls for more information to be disseminated. And while drug addiction of any kind affects everyone, the nation’s opioid crisis has upped the ante. The necessity of developing preventive strategies is felt more than before.

Little Victims

While the connection between drug abuse and children needing foster care is nothing new—think heroin in the 1970s, cocaine in the 1980s, and meth in the 1990s—what has changed the game for today’s foster care system has been the sheer percentage of Americans struggling with opioid addiction across all demographics. The cold hard truth: That number staggers at more than two million, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a 60-year-old professional society for treatment providers based in Maryland.

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According to the National Institute of Health, 21 to 29 percent of patients suffering from chronic pain misuse their prescription opioids, and that often puts them on the path to harder drugs; about 80 percent of people who use heroin first abused prescription opioids, Tragically, around 116 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every day—that’s one death every seven minutestranslating into tens of thousands of dead Americans annually. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 200,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016.

It stands to reason that a significant portion of those people who died, as well as the millions living with addiction, were or are parents of minor children. Indeed, HHS reports 30,000 more children were living in foster homes nationwide in 2015 than in 2012, and substance abuse (including, but not limited to, opioids) was cited as a reason in about one-third of those placements. Drug addiction does not discriminate; sadly, it can hit any family at any time. And often, when it does, children of those struggling with addiction enter the already-pressed foster system.

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Simply put, there are not enough foster homes in the United States to accommodate the burgeoning number of kids needing short- and long-term care. In California, for example, the Los Angeles Times reports the number of available beds in qualified foster homes fell from 22,000 in 2000 to just 9,000 in 2016. Massachusetts had more than 6,100 foster children in 2016, but less than 4,800 foster homes, according to The Boston Globe. Such shortages have led to reports of foster children sleeping in government offices and even hotels around the nation while their social workers scramble to find willing families.

But it’s not just the dearth of available foster parents that concerns child welfare advocates. Though government reports show about one-quarter of all formal foster care placements are with relatives (sometimes called kinship care), the vast majority of foster families are strangers to foster children. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 88 percent of the 25,000 children who reported ran away from home in 2017 were in foster care at the time. Many of those runaways become the victims of sex traffickers.

We need to pray that as each day passes these foster children (who have had their tiny world shattered by drug abuse) survive—indeed, thrive—and that they live with hearts full of love and hope. Sadly, the future is yet unclear regarding America’s opiate epidemic. Moreover, we don’t know the full scope of opioid crisis’ on the foster system still has yet to be revealed. These little victims never had the choice to be exposed to the drugs. They can’t Just Say No.

Thousands upon thousands of little Americans are waiting to be seen, helped and healed.

The Opioid Issue: Part 2

Part Two: Collateral Damage

As the nation grapples with opioid’s hold over millions, its smallest victims cry out to be heard, held, and healed. No Child Left Behind is a familiar battle cry. But to foster parents helping to care for children of parents addicted to drugs, those words have nothing to do with a political agenda or advertising campaign. One foster mom reported quietly watching another baby detox from opiates, its high-pitched wails unique with the sound of drug-induced anguish, and whispering, “A whole generation is being lost from the opioid epidemic. A whole generation.”

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That generation—with hundreds of thousands of America’s youngest feeling its physical, mental, and emotional impact, sometimes from the moment of conception—is staring down what doctors call Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). The condition is not something that can be cured with a pill. There are so many children growing up without their parents that the long-term ramifications are still unforeseen. The United States has certainly faced its share of social and public health problems over the years, but when it comes to the opioid crisis, child advocates around the country warn, it’s a strange and scary new world.

Agony in the Womb

According to a study released by the University of Minnesota this spring, one baby struggling with NAS is born in America every 15 minutes. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of pregnancies among women struggling with opioid addiction are unintentional. When a woman takes opioids while pregnant—even exactly as a doctor might instruct, according to the March of Dimes—she runs the substantial risk of harming her unborn child.

One Baby Every Half Hour

Prescription painkillers like codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone (as well as the street drug heroin) are all classified as opioids and all negatively affect children in the womb. Common risks of opioid use during pregnancy, the March of Dimes says, include miscarriage, preterm labor, premature birth, birth defects, low birth weight (defined as weighing less than five pounds, eight ounces), and NAS. NAS is its own beast. The completely preventable condition can grip babies with tremors, fever, chills, weight loss, seizures, and even death. Dr. W. David Hager, member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC), believes 55-94% of newborns delivered to women who used opioids in pregnancy suffer from NAS.

Clearly, it is nearly impossible for an unborn child to skate past the consequences of his or her mother’s opioid use, no matter how slight. Yet damage isn’t usually intentional. Instead, Hager says, addiction to opioids reaches far beyond the initial physical pleasure to something much deeper.

It All Adds Up

That’s a familiar story for J. Scott Moody and Wendy Warcholik, a married pair of economists. As the directors of Family Prosperity Institute (FPI), a New Hampshire-based think tank focused on measuring the health of the American family, Moody and Warcholik frequently hear about opioid-related crises—and have watched their own loved ones succumb to substance abuse along the way. Warcholik, for example, grew up in a family fragmented by her parents’ collective five divorces. Of all her siblings, she was the only one to have fully escaped the negative consequences. The others have experienced unemployment, substance abuse, government dependency, low educational attainment, unwed childbirth, and divorce.

FPI has created a family prosperity index—a formula-driven rankings list that measures the strength and prosperity of families and the nation by combining the most important economic and social data into a single number and then ranking those states based on which create the best environment for families to thrive. The index fills in the gaps around other measures like the gross domestic product, assembling all the pieces of the prosperity puzzle into a complete picture of the economy. No other measure takes into consideration both the economic and social choices of people in a state to create a holistic measure of human behavior in the States.

The latest FPI index ranked Utah first and New Mexico last. FPI’s formula calculates things like average welfare utilization, children in married households, religious attendance and infant mortality rate. That last category is most disconcerting because as opioid use has risen, so has infant mortality rate. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines that as the death of an infant before his or her first birthday), while the infant mortality rate is the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.

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Between 2010 and 2015 twenty-one states saw an increase in their infant mortality rate. So many states, in fact, that while the national average dropped 16 percent between 2000 and 2015, the last five years only saw a decrease of 1.6 percent. Clearly, if trends continue, the country could see an increase in the infant mortality rate in the near future. Keep in mind that a rising infant mortality rate is typically only found in Third World countries. Besides the physical, emotional and mental cost to America’s children, opioid addiction doesn’t come fiscally cheap, either. For example, in 2015 Ohio paid more than $133 million to care for approximately 2,000 NAS babies born that year.

The True Cost

Interestingly, FPI’s research shows that devout beliefs and behaviors (consistent church attendance, daily prayer, Bible reading, etc.) reduce illicit drug use. The converse holds true as well. Moody says, “It is clear that people in despair who don’t turn to God for help will try to numb their pain some other way, whether it be with drugs or sex. Unfortunately, at least for the last decade, we’ve been seeing more and more people turning to drugs and sex than God. We have to reverse this trend.”

Ultimately, America truly has no idea what the long-term consequences of opioid addiction on our most innocent citizens will be. “We read horrifying stories in New England about parents shooting up their own children just to keep them quiet, or left in a freezing car with their parents passed out in the front seat,” Warcholik says. How far are we, as a society, willing to go in elevating adult desires over the health and well being of our children?

That is a question far beyond the scope of any research team—but one the Church must rise up to help answer.

 

 

The Opioid Issue: Part 1

Part One: Dangerous Prescriptions

The opioid crisis seems to hit everyone, everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic class, geography, age, profession, or religious affiliation. Overdosing on drugs, especially opiates and heroin, is now the most common cause of death for Americans under fifty years of age. I spent forty years embroiled in active addiction. It started innocently with a case of beer, but quickly led to marijuana, cocaine, and inhalants. The longer I struggled, the more hopeless I became. Friends stopped calling me or inviting me to parties. Family felt they could no longer trust me given the hundreds of broken promises and countless runs on their medicine cabinets for opiates. Although I was able to stop drinking and taking street drugs in 2008, I battled with benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan) and oxycodone for another eight years. I am blessed presently with nearly two years without taking narcotics.

Opiates in Pill Bottles

This epidemic has reached every corner of the United States. This is the first in a series of blog posts regarding opiate addiction in America. This series will address dangers of opiate prescriptions, collateral damage, impact on the nation’s foster care system, homelessness and addiction, troubling developments in drug rehabilitation, addiction and crime, and a Christian response to the crisis.

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Current medical opinion indicates the reason the U.S. is experiencing a disastrous epidemic of opioid abuse can be summed up in two words: pain avoidance. In the 1990s there was a proliferation of health care professionals trying to address the symptom [of pain] and not so much the underlying causes of the pain a person has. In 2015, opioid-related deaths stole the lives of over 33,000 Americans. To put this number into perspective, this outnumbers fatal car crashes and gun deaths during the same year. According to the federal government, in 2016 the nation mourned close to 64,000 deaths from drug overdoses. Two-thirds of those involved the misuse of opioids. Karl Benzio, M.D., a Christian psychiatrist and member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC), fears the toll could reach 80,000 deaths in 2018.

We wouldn’t be here if opioids weren’t so effective. Americans want something for their pain—regardless of whether that pain is physical, mental, or emotional. We live in a psychologically compromised society that is impatient and entitled, whose citizens feel there should be no pain in life. Accordingly, greater demands have been made on providers to eliminate all pain with medication. The problem is—and I know this all too well firsthand—once a patient gets a taste of the relief, some develop a dependence that leads them down a dark path. Ironically, that path leads only to deeper struggles. For some, the exit will only come in the form of fatal overdoses as opioids shut down the body’s ability to breath.

It is time we start helping patients deal with life’s pain and its root causes head-on, rather than masking it through medication.

How it All Began

Chronic Pain The Silent Condition

The current crisis can be traced back nearly forty years. Medical researcher Hershel Jick and graduate student Jane Porter of Boston University Medical Center analyzed data from patients who had been hospitalized there. Close to 12,000 had received at least one dose of a narcotic pain medication during their stay. Of those, Jick and Porter’s analysis found only four had developed a well-documented addiction. Jick sent the findings to the New England Journal of Medicine, who published his analysis as a letter to the editor in 1980. “Despite widespread use of narcotics [sic] drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction,” Jick wrote. Unfortunately, this quote was given far more merit than it deserved. Moreover, the conclusion had not been subjected to peer review.

In 1990, Scientific American called the Jick/Porter research “an extensive study.” About a decade later, Time proclaimed it “a landmark study.” Most significantly, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, maker of the popular narcotic OxyContin, began a promotion asserting less than one percent of patients treated with their time-released opiate medication OxyContin would become addicted. In the 1990s, pain was correlated with a greater probability of a patient having ongoing health issues. So the medical community elevated it to the position of the fifth vital sign along with heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiratory rate. The medical community, thinking that reducing pain would help long-term patient satisfaction, health and outcomes, started to prescribe more pain meds.

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The ’90s also saw the development of stronger and more effective opioid painkillers. As the decade drew to a close, the opioid epidemic was ignited. It took some time for most of the country to realize the metaphorical fuse had been lit, but the numbers back up this concern. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), between 2000 and 2017 opioid prescriptions increased 400 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, misuse involving noncompliance with prescription instructions or using medications prescribed for another person doubled. Now, the results are playing out in heartbreaking fashion nationwide, which are impossible to ignore. Overdose deaths—116 per day, according to federal statistics—are shaking Americans of all incomes, ages, and ethnicity. From the rural back roads of Appalachia (Kentucky, West Virginia) to the urban sprawl of New York and Los Angeles, the epidemic is cutting a path that threatens to leave no family unscathed.

The Blame Game

It’s become quite popular (if not convenient) to lay the blame for the epidemic squarely at the feet of the big pharmaceutical companies. For example, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times in May of this year, more than 350 cities, counties, and states had filed lawsuits against makers and distributors of opioid painkillers. The LA civil action accuses drugmakers and distributors of deceptive marketing aimed at boosting sales, claiming the companies borrowed from the “tobacco industry playbook.” One of the companies most frequently put under scrutiny has been Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin.

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In May The New York Times called Purdue “the company that planted the seeds of the opioid epidemic through its aggressive marketing of OxyContin.” The Times article uncovered a disturbing report on OxyContin compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Purdue Pharma knew about and concealed significant incidents of abuse of OxyContin in the first years after the drug hit the market in 1996. The article further noted that Purdue Pharma admitted in open court in 2007 that it misrepresented the data regarding OxyContin’s potential for abuse.

Overdose Deaths Not Just Related to Opiate Prescriptions

Government reports have recently stated that today’s increase of fatal opioid-related overdoses is being driven by abuse of heroin and illicit fentanyl. A study prepared by the National Institute on Drug Abuse last September found that overdose deaths from heroin and other drugs laced with fentanyl increased 600 percent between 2002 and 2015. Street dealers have increasingly been cutting their drugs with fentanyl—a particularly dangerous and relatively inexpensive substance 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine—to boost their profit margins. In most cases, the users don’t even realize they’re buying fentanyl-laced products.

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It is important to note that although many people believe Big Pharma is complicit in fueling the epidemic and should shoulder the loin’s share of the blame, Dr. Benzio sees it differently. “Pharmaceutical companies only make the meds,” Benzio says. “Only about 6 to 8 percent of people who take an opioid will misuse or overuse it in a destructive way. It is the doctors who over-prescribe and a society that is looking for a quick fix and can’t tolerate any discomfort [that’s to blame].”

The Road Ahead

The opiate epidemic may have grown somewhat quietly, but the nation’s attention is riveted to it now and policymakers aren’t sitting still. In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state to limit the duration for painkiller prescriptions at seven days. Since then, more than two dozen other states have also established limits. In my home state of Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf initiated a statewide prescription drug monitoring system to help prevent prescription drug abuse. Of concern is the practice of “doctor shopping,” which involves a patient visiting multiple doctors and emergency departments in search of opioids. Unfortunately, this is something I did quite often while in active addiction. This practice often necessitates filling prescriptions at multiple pharmacies. The governor’s new policy includes the monitoring program, a standing order for naloxone (Narcan, used to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose), a patient non-opioid directive (which allows patients to opt out of opioid pain medicine in advance) a “warm hand-off” where ER attending physicians and other providers can set up a face-to-face introduction between a patient and a substance abuse specialist, and revised prescribing guidelines relative to opiates.

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At the federal level, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017, and formed a commission to fight it. Meanwhile, HHS now has a multi-pronged strategy to get the crisis under control, including getting better data through research and improving prevention, treatment, pain management, and recovery services. The federal crackdown is estimated to cost $13 billion to $18 billion over the next two years. Dr. Benzio believes this is “a good start,” but said providers must resist the urge to automatically jump to the quick fix of narcotics for those in pain. “There are many ways to combat pain through physical therapy and fitness, relaxation, better sleep and nutrition,” says Benzio. It seems likely that we will not get a significant handle on opioid abuse until the core issues that lead people to the drugs are addressed.

The Christian Perspective

W. David Hager, M.D., a member of the PRC, notes three principle root issues in addiction: rejection, abandonment and abuse. Hager has been a facilitator for the Christian program Celebrate Recovery. He said, “Unless we enable [people] to identify their root issue and deal with it first, the rates of relapse are high. When they are able to deal with their root issues by offering forgiveness, making amends, and seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we find that large numbers are able to enter and maintain sobriety.” That is why the Church has the unique ability to make a difference in combating the opioid crisis.

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“We have to convince faith-based communities to get their hands dirty, to get involved and realize that this is an issue,” Benzio says. He suggests inviting laypeople to develop a working knowledge of dopamine, the brain chemical that provides the pleasure-inducing sensation many who use drugs are seeking. “There is only one [higher] power that can sever synapses in the brain that have been stimulated by a substance to achieve [a certain] dopamine level,” he adds, “and that’s the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Exactly how Christians appropriate the Spirit’s power to take on the opioid crisis will vary from case to case. The point, Benzio and Hager say, is that this needs to become a top-of-mind concern for the Church. But are North American churches up to the mission of addressing opioid use among their members? Pastors are in a unique position to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel to individuals struggling with addiction. Many are too ashamed to confess an addiction to pain medication. As the opioid crisis deepens, so must the response of the local church. If the Christian church has anything to offer those hurting from drug addiction, it is hope and community. I was only able to break the bondage of addiction over my life through the Power in the Name of Jesus.

Power in the Name of Jesus

Programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery have been extremely effective in changing lives, but it’s not always enough. Addressing the root of addiction is one of the most effective long-term solutions, which for Christians is about the heart. The church must be willing and capable of seeing those struggling with addiction as not merely a program of the church’s community outreach; these individuals are children of a God who loves them no matter their current condition. I believe America’s recovery can find its roots in the local church.

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That’s what love looks like. -St. Augustine

 

 

Partnering With Dentists and Oral Surgeons to Fight Opiate Addiction

From the blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA, posted July 25, 2018

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Reducing the reliance of doctors on potentially addictive opioid pain relievers has been one of the pillars of federal efforts to reverse the opioid crisis. Because many dental procedures such as extractions and other types of oral surgery often produce severe acute pain, dentists are among the largest prescribers of opioids. Thankfully, the dental profession has made significant progress in reducing opioid prescriptions. Two decades ago, when the opioid crisis was just starting, dentists accounted for 15.5 percent of all immediate-release opioid prescriptions; by 2012, they only wrote 6.4 percent of such prescriptions. Still, those in the oral health professions can play a key role in further improving the treatment of acute pain and making it safer.

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In March of this year, the American Dental Association (ADA) released a new policy on opiods, supporting limits on dosage and duration of opioid prescriptions and mandatory continuing education on their use, as well as recommending that dentists make use of their regional prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). This policy is an important step toward protecting patients and their families from the potential harms of opioids. Following a meeting between representatives of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), and the ADA, NIDCR director Martha Somerman and Dr. Volkow wrote an editorial in this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association about how a partnership between NIH and oral health practitioners can continue to alleviate the opioid overdose epidemic.

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Increased knowledge of opioid prescribing practices among dentists, as well as among emergency department physicians when managing acute dental pain, is an important research priority. While dentists have reduced their opioid prescriptions, recent studies suggest the same is not true of emergency department providers when patients have dental pain. A study of Medicaid recipients showed that physicians in the ER prescribed opioids for dental pain five times more often than dentists in their own practices, and nurse practitioners in the ER prescribed opioids three times as often. Understanding the ways opioids are prescribed and the decisions underlying opioid prescribing can inform new clinical guidelines and policies to reduce the risks of opioid misuse. 

Concluding Remarks

Dentists can play a role in minimizing opioid abuse through patient education, careful patient assessment and referral for substance abuse treatment when indicated, and using tools such as prescription monitoring programs. Research is needed to determine the optimal number of doses needed to treat dental-related pain. Besides reducing their prescribing of opioids, these practitioners can learn to screen for opioid misuse and opioid use disorders, ultimately referring patients to treatment when indicated. To this end, NIDCR plans to fund research studies of interventions in rural communities.

These practitioners cannot assume that their prescribing of opioids does not affect the opioid abuse problem in the United States. Dentists, along with other prescribers, take steps to identify problems and minimize prescription opioid abuse through greater prescriber and patient education; use of peer-reviewed recommendations for analgesia; and, when indicated, the tailoring of the appropriate and legitimate prescribing of opioids to adequately treat pain.

Ghost Story

In a field near the lake
stands the ghost of a dead oak.
The ghost is black and very tall.
It never speaks or moves.
The sky wants to take it.
The earth wants to eat it.
But the ghost is strong, it does not want to move.
So it argues half its tongues into the dirt,
and grips hard against the sky’s glutton lung.
It whispers the other half into air,
and weathers the white earth’s thirst.
Like a frayed black suture it binds earth and sky together.
In this way the ghost stills its universe:
the sky can never rise nor the earth fall
out of their coupling’s grave jurisdiction.
The lake will breathe its atoms to the clouds,
the constellations will pageant
the lucky patterns of their composition
until they break and fade,
but the ghost will stand
contented with the silence,
with the snowfall,
with the stalemate of its own device.

-Art Zilleruelo

It’s a Thing Most Wonderful

Jesus Crucifixion

Newsweek Special Issues recently published “100 People Who Shaped Our World,” featuring individuals who changed our world, for better or worse, through their actions, inventions, and (at times) their mistakes. With insight from historians in the fields of science, religion and pop culture, the 100-page issue explores the impact of the world’s most iconic leaders—from Jesus Christ to Mark Zuckerberg, Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln to Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, the article did not show Jesus Christ in a good light. Interestingly, we are expected to be respectful in what we say about any other religion or revered religious leader—except Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, people feel free to malign, disfigure, and re-imagine Him as they choose.

The impact of Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher whose teachings became the basis of one of the world’s most practiced religions, is irrefutable. Today there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world—this is nearly 31% of the total population. The nature of Christ has been debated time and time again as we view Him through the lenses of scholars. From a Christian perspective, the central contention set forth is that the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. The Christian faith goes beyond simply declaring God exists—it claims that God became man in Christ Jesus, lived among us, and ultimately sacrificed His life in order to atone for our sins. Three days after His death, He would rise again, proving that He was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and the Savior of the world.

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Christianity is the only religion that places the entire weight of its credibility on a singular event, the resurrection. If Christ had not been raised, then Christianity would be completely discredited and unworthy of even a moment’s consideration. As the apostle Paul stated, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17, NIV). Conviction about the reality of the resurrection is the only foundation that can withstand the onslaught of skepticism and unbelief. It is this fact that points to other critical truths, such as the authority of Scripture and the unique role of Jesus as Messiah and Savior.

No one’s life or death in the history of the world has been studied, analyzed, debated, and heralded to the world as much as Jesus. It’s definitely a daunting task to respond to all the theories and claims made by critics. During my research and writing, I felt a great sense of drama and significance regarding what’s at stake when studying whether the story of Jesus is true—or, as skeptics assert, merely a collection of tales attempting to propagate the Christian faith.

Answering the Great Question

The collective task of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ has been called the Great Commission, a term coined by Christian theologians to describe the charge that Jesus gave His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). In addition, the Great Commandment describes the premier commandment Jesus gave us to love one another (John 13:35). Jesus asked His disciples the Great Question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)—without a doubt, history’s greatest question, the answer to which affects everything. If we focus so heavily on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, shouldn’t we be giving equal attention to the Great Question?

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Preparing believers to give the reasons for their faith—this is the very essence of apologetics—should be the highest priority of all the efforts of those engaged in Christian ministry (1 Peter 3:15). If the truth of the message is in doubt, the whole doctrine of Christianity is in jeopardy. Of all the human rights we should be fighting for, foremost should be the right of every living person to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to know Jesus. While there is amazing work being done around the world by people of faith to help the needy and heal the hurting, we are falling dramatically short in preparing people to have faith that thrives in the media-saturated, anti-faith twenty-first century. People are flooded with messages suggesting faith in God is at best irrelevant.

The end result is a large number of Christians being dazed and confused about how crazy the world has become, and how their values and beliefs are not just out of touch with mainstream society but to some are framed as bigoted and ignorant. This helps explain why only 3 percent of churches in America are growing through evangelism.

Faith or History?

When it comes to Jesus Christ, there has definitely been a higher standard, unreasonably high at times, for establishing the facts surrounding His life, works, and words. The specific criteria used by many of today’s leading scholars to verify the authenticity of Jesus have been so demanding that if applied to ancient history most of what is currently accepted would dissolve into oblivion. Imagine asserting, as skeptics do for the biblical records, that we could only know about ancient Rome from what we learn from non-Roman sources. In contrast, scholars who use trusted approaches fairly and consistently recognize that Christian beliefs about Jesus are solidly grounded in historical fact.

Historians use reliable criteria to establish the probability that an event happened in the past. For instance, claims are more likely true if they are reported by multiple, independent sources. By this standard, our knowledge about Jesus is superior to that of virtually every other ancient historical figure. Scholars have discovered more literary sources for the historical Jesus within the first hundred years after His life than all of the primary literary sources for Socrates, which, incidentally, are in far less agreement with each other than the Gospels.

When the historical process is arbitrary and inconsistent, the past becomes something people with a hidden agenda or bias can manipulate. This type of mindset leads to disregarding the miraculous accounts given by Jesus’ followers in the Gospels. Those accounts are replaced with historical profiles of what someone living at the time of Jesus would have probably been like. Others go so far as claiming that the followers of Jesus merely borrowed from the mythology of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians. As for the miracles? Scoffers simply say they didn’t happen because everyone knows there’s no such thing as miracles.

The roots of this culture of skepticism can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This period—known as the “Enlightenment”—could better be described as the age of skepticism. The mindset of this era is best summed up by René Descartes. He said, “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” For Descartes, the foundation of reality is our own thoughts (albeit doubts) about the fact of our existence. The seeds that Descartes planted grew over the next century into the Enlightenment era, which promoted the concept that “reason replaced revelation” in terms of the source of the culture’s epistemology.

The Resurrection Changes Everything

The claim that Jesus was resurrected three days after His death is not just an article of faith, but a statement that can be examined historically. Of course, if Jesus was not really raised from the dead, then the resurrection of Jesus has no meaning. Christianity is based on this central claim and is thus open to critical historical inquiry. In the same way that Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection sought to establish the past history of living things through what he called inference to the best explanation, we can look at this event using the same process. In fact, the apostle Paul wrote that if Christ was not raised from the dead then the Christian faith would be false (1 Corinthians 15:14). Critics have long maintained that religious claims are simply statements of faith that have no basis in fact. Claims of science, they say, are more credible because they can be proven false. Yet this is exactly what Christianity declares. No other religion bases the entire weight of its credibility on a single event or miracle.

It was the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead that prompted the dedication and sacrifice of His followers. At the top of the list was Jesus’ command to love our enemies. It is highly unlikely that His followers would have remained faithful had Jesus’ life ended permanently at the cross with no resurrection. In fact, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out that none of the many self-proclaimed messiahs of the ancient world continued to have a following or influence once they died. It begs the question, What happened to make Jesus’ followers, from the very start, articulate such a claim and work out its implications? For us today, the desperate need is to recover the same conviction of the truth of the resurrection that the early disciples possessed.

Concluding Remarks

When it comes to the central issues of the Christian faith, the biggest dispute is not with the facts of history but with the presuppositions and worldviews of those who interpret those facts. As you hear and weigh the evidence, you will be able to know with confidence that He is the Son of God. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus was truly a man of history, who was crucified, died, and was buried, and then rose from the dead. The Gospels are reliable historical accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching.

Up until the last few years, the verdict of historians has been virtually unanimous that Jesus was a person of history. The rise of atheism in the last decade has seen the upsurge of prominent skeptics who simply assert their “doubts” that Jesus really existed without providing any credible evidence. For example, Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and author of The God Delusion, is noted for saying, “Jesus, if He even existed…” It’s important to note that these men are not historians and simply assert this contention in apparent hopes that no one will challenge them because they are scientists. Dawkins, for example, is an evolutionary biologist. Incidentally, Dawkins has recanted and admits Jesus existed.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives authenticity to the Christian faith. Jesus remains the only figure in history who died and rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a revolutionary event in human history. It is what sets humanity free from sin; it is what gives humanity daily victory over Satan to live above struggles of life and achieve their destinies and goals; it is what will finally usher humanity into heaven to live forever with Jesus in that glorious kingdom awaiting those who believe, despite “critics” of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also in vain. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain, ye are yet in your sins. If in this life only, we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” 1 Cor. 15:13-19.

 

 

Atheism: The End of Reason

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There’s a new atheism taking root in America, a movement more powerful and subversive than the atheism of Madalyn Murray O’Hare in the 1950s and 1960s. This militant atheism is led by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Harris’ bestselling Letter to a Christian Nation absolutely and unflinchingly attacks all religions—but is particularly hard on the Christian faith. Harris writes, “It is time for us as Americans to outgrow our religious beliefs.” His unwavering hatred for religion is laced with strong, condemning language and illustrations designed to convince the world that Christians are stupid for believing in God.

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Commenting on Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, which takes a militant approach similar to that of Sam Harris, fellow atheist Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State University, says, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” And in response to Sam Harris, atheist and professor of psychology Scott Atran used almost identical words: “I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers… there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence-based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist.”

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The Big Bang theory, along with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, implies that there is indeed an “in the beginning.” All the data indicates a universe that is exploding outward from a point of infinite density. We know quite well that this singularity is not really a point in the universe; it is the whole of three-dimensional space compressed to zero size. This, in fact, actually represents a boundary at which space ceases to exist. Even the terms plead for explanation. At the point of the universe’s origin, there is something rather than nothing—a mystery that leaves science totally silent.

Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing

Not only is there something, the laws of science actually break down right at the beginning. The very starting point for an atheistic universe is based on something that cannot explain its own existence. The scientific laws by which atheists want all certainty established do not even exist as a category at the beginning of the universe because, according to those laws of science by which atheists want to measure all things, matter cannot simply “pop into existence” on its own.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and atheist, said that the university is “just there.” But that clearly is not a scientific explanation by any stretch of the imagination. According to science, nothing that exists (or that is) can explain its own existence. Yet, according to their cosmology, we just happen to be here. This means that any purpose for our existence for our being is as random as any cause for our being. Atheist Stephen Jay Gould makes this observation:

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures… because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available… because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age… because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a “higher” answer—but none exists… We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves—from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

The Odds of So-Called Random Life

Francis Crick (1916-2004), a British molecular biologist and co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, regarding how life began, made the absurd comment, “Probably because a spaceship from another planet brought spores to seed the earth.” Carl Sagan believed the whole universe is “nothing more than molecules in motion.” He believed that some extraterrestrial entity would be able to explain us to ourselves and thereby justified the billions of dollars spend on listening in on outer space, watching and waiting for contact.

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Donald Page of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Science has calculated the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000¹²³—a number that exceeds all imagination. Astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe found that the odds of the random formation of a single enzyme from amino acids anywhere on our planet’s surface are one in 10²°. They note that there are about two thousand enzymes, saying the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in (10²°) ²°°°° = 10 to the 40,000th power, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup. And this is just one step in the formation of life.

What about DNA and its origin, or of the transcription of DNA to RNA, which scientists admit cannot even be numerically computed. Moreover, no one has explained the process of mitosis or meiosis. The chance of the random ordering of organic molecules is not essentially different from a big fat zero. Remember, that’s the zero to which Sam Harris gives credit for everything; that’s his explanation for why we are here. And if we accept this explanation, the resulting pointlessness of existence is devastating to our desire to feel significant. Thankfully, this rhetoric does not faze billions of people who still seek a relationship with God.

Man’s Search for Meaning

If life is random, then the inescapable consequence is that there can be no ultimate meaning and purpose to existence. This consequence is the existential  Achilles’ heel of atheistic belief. As individuals—and collectively in cultures around the globe—man has been searching for meaning for centuries. But if life is random, we have climbed the evolutionary ladder only to find nothing at the top.

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The greatest disappointment you can feel is when you have experienced what you thought would bring ultimate in pleasure—and it has let you down. Pleasure without boundaries produces a life without purpose. That is real pain. No death, no tragedy, no atrocity—nothing really matters. Life is sheer hollowness. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and philosopher, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, sometimes asked his patients who suffered from a multitude of mental torments, “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers he could find the proper guideline or approach for his psychotherapy. He called this approach logotherapy.

Frankl, along with Voltaire, Sartre, and Nietzsche, were honest and consistent in their views. They admitted the ridiculousness of life—the pointlessness of everything in an atheistic world. In contrast, contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are so blind to the conceit of their own minds that they try to present this view of life as some sort of triumphal liberation. Sartre, as atheistic intellectual elites know but are embarrassed to acknowledge, denounced atheism on his deathbed as philosophically unlivable. Hear what Sartre said: ” I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”

Morality and the Atheist

There is no way for militant atheists like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to argue for moral preferences except by their own subjective means—that is, their personal preference or environment. What is the objective moral framework these men adopt on which they build their objection to God? Harris said, “I can see no moral framework operating in the world, but what I do see is morally condemnable.” In philosophical terms, this is called a mutually-exclusive assumption. Therefore, the moral framework he is forced to adopt is, in reality, one he built himself.

Bertrand Russell admitted he couldn’t live as though ethical values were simply a matter of personal taste. He said, “I do not know the solution.” Russell tried to get around the existence of objective morality. When asked how he differentiated between good and bad, Russell answered, “I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow… I can see they are different.” Consider this: You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, but you distinguish good and bad by what faculty? Russell’s response was, “By my feelings.” To simply say you do not see a moral order to the universe is to ignore the real issue. Rather than proof of the absence of moral order, this amounts to insistence on determining for oneself what is good and what is evil in spite of what we intuitively know to be true.

Concluding Remarks

Routinely, three tests for truth are applied: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experiential relevance. We come to a real situation of determining how many levels of cause-and-effect it takes to explain all of existence. We cannot have an infinite series of causes in time, starting from the present of any completed state and moving backward in search of an ultimate cause, because if the sequence were infinite, we would never arrive at the present. A can of alphabet soup dumped onto a table implies that somebody made that soup. You would absolutely deny that those shapes just happened to be in the soup. And if the letters fell out of the can in sequence every time you would never even consider the possibility that it was accidental.

Something does not come from nothing.