Martin Luther and the Righteousness of God

It was 500 years ago this year when Martin Luther took a stand against the various aspects of corruption and misguided doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church, thus launching the Reformation. On the heels of my class on the History of Christianity at Colorado Christian University, I read an article in Christianity Today, January/February 2017, Vol. 61, No. 1, by David Zahl, titled, “Justify Yourself.” I find the Protestant Reformation to be a very engaging and fascinating topic, and, indeed, consider Martin Luther to be one of my heroes of the Medieval Church. It was an easy decision for me to do my final paper on Martin Luther.

Luther

Zahl, wondering whether the Reformation is over, writes, “Don’t we get the message already? Aren’t we all on the same page when it comes to salvation by grace through faith? The short answer appears to be no.” This has been true for me personally, which is why I have struggled for decades with my will versus God’s, and with forgetting that I am nowhere near equipped to ever be justified by my own actions. I consider myself somewhat of an amateur scholar of the Apostle Paul, especially of his Epistle to the Romans. I find chapters six, seven and eight of Romans to explain the very essence of the Gospel. I relate fully to Paul’s commentary on warring with the flesh, especially having spent forty years in active addiction.

LUTHER’S BREAKTHROUGH

Martin Luther had an overpowering sense of his own sinfulness. He spent a great deal of time in confession, and often worried that he might have “forgotten” something he did wrong, thereby not making a thorough confession. He believed this would put him in jeopardy of losing the reward of being completely forgiven. As a monk, he was remarkably astute. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices – going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. As he later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”

Though he sought by these means to love God fully, he found no consolation. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God. Not knowing what to do, he began pouring over the first chapter of Romans. The 17th verse was literally keeping him up at night: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” (KJV) Luther had been trained in the Medieval understanding of Paul’s phrase the righteousness of God as being shorthand for the awesome holiness of God, before which all of mankind must quake in fear. Basically, Luther understood the verse to mean, “The Gospel reveals that God punishes sinners,” which, of course, is no Gospel at all.

In his article, David Zahl writes, “Brother Martin, you see, possessed what might politely be called an overactive conscience. Today he’d likely be termed a neurotic or ‘a real handful.’ Whatever the root of his sensitivities, they had already driven him into a monastery, where he hoped a life of radical service might bring him the peace with God he craved.” Finally, on this particular day, as Luther meditated on Romans 1:17, he had an epiphany. Zahl said this is how Luther described it: “I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon, I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

As Zahl explained in his article, Luther came to realize the difference between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the Gospel, or that which can be earned by man (although not really!) and that which is given by God. Prior to this point in this studies, Luther regarded both God’s law and His Gospel as the same thing, and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except their degrees of perfection. Luther said, “When I realized the law was one thing, and the Gospel another, I broke through and was free.”

RADICAL DISTINCTION IN AN UNDIVIDED WORD

It’s been said many times that there’s really nothing new under the sun. What was believed hundreds of years ago is often still considered true today. I, for one, believed for many years that the Bible is divided into two halves. There is the Old Testament (the Law of God) and the New Testament (the Gospel of God). Of course, this in effect shackles the Word of God. The distinction between the Law and the Gospel is less about imposing a doctrinal straight-jacket on the Bible than about engaging a living God over the entirety of an unfolding story. If anything, reading the Bible through the eyeglasses of “law” and “Gospel” safeguards the Word from being read predominantly as an instruction manual and more as a living instrument of the Spirit that proclaims God’s work in the world on behalf of sinners in need of saving. From cover to cover, the Bible is about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

As Zahl puts it, “Indeed, the distinction between law and Gospel is a powerful explanation of how the Bible doesn’t just sit there; it reaches out and grasps us, shakes us, transforms us, frees, us – it kills us and makes us alive. Luther said, “There is no man on living Earth who knows how to distinguish rightly between the law and the Gospel. We may think  we understand it when we are listening to a sermon, but we’re far from it.” Luther believed only the Holy Spirit knows how to make this distinction.

THE LAW

Luther believed that God has spoken to human beings and continues to speak to human beings in two words: law and Gospel. He believed these words are distinct from one another but not inseparable. The basic distinction is as follows: The law tells us what we ought to do; the Gospel tells us what God has done. The law shows us that we need to be forgiven; the Gospel announces that we have been forgiven. The law paves the way for the Gospel by revealing our predicament, and the Gospel proclaims the Good News to those struck down by the law.

What most of us think of when we think of “the law” in religious terms is, of course, the capital-L Law of God, the Oughts and Ought Nots that we find spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. We automatically think of the great commandments of God: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t worship idols, love God with all your heart. This Law shows us the true outline of holiness. And in doing so, it reveals us to be selfish, obstinate, self-centered people, fundamentally flawed, turned away from what is right, away from God Himself. Of course, the Law ultimately shows us our own mortality, for it reveals the wages of sin. (Romans 6:23)

I’m impressed by Luther’s description of the law as “a constant guest” in our conscience. Zahl puts it this way: “You might say that the little-l law is the air we breath as human beings, the default setting, the quid pro quo that characterizes our internal life and much of our external one as well.” In other words, to get approval, we have to achieve something. We have to do something. Behavior precedes belovedness: Climb the ladder, or else. Zahl makes an interesting comment that we could be walking down the street, mid-week, not giving any thought to last Sunday’s lesson at church, yet our behavior is governed by subconscious commands telling us, in much the same dogmatic fashion that was once reserved for religious commands, “Thou shalt be skinny, successful, independent, self-actualized.” We have grown accustomed to the internalized voice of a demanding parent; that feeling of never being quite enough, which drives us to the point of exhaustion.

THE GOSPEL

The second word, Gospel, means good news. News is not a command. Command comes in the imperative voice – “Do this” – and news in the indicative voice – “This has been done.” Look at it this way: We typically watch the evening news to hear what has happened or has been done. For Christians, of course, the good news is Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, taking the entirety of God’s wrath upon Himself and setting us free. The Gospel announces that because of Christ’s death and resurrection we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even by who are are, but by what Christ has done and who He is. Our guilt has been atoned for, and the deepest judgment satisfied, reconciling us with the Father. While the law is conditional – a two-way street – the gift of Christ is unconditional. Like all true gifts, we have to do nothing to earn it or deserve it. His affection cannot be bought or merited. It is a free gift with no strings attached. Jesus simply gave.

Much like capital-L and little-l forms of law, there exists a corollary between the capital-G Gospel of Jesus and little-g grace in human affairs. We see this played out in our own lives  and those of others around us. When it comes to lifting the human spirit, nothing is more potent than love in the midst of deserved judgments. This is sometimes referred to as unconditional love. Grace proves, time and again, to be the force that inspires service and creativity; hope and vulnerability; new life. Biblical figures like Zachaeus and Gomer, fictional ones like Jean Valjean and Ebenezer Scrooge, and historical figures like John Newton and Martin Luther King, Jr. testify to such human qualities.

A grace-centered view of the world takes for granted that we are all severely handicapped in our ability to love one another, and that we stand a better chance of loving our neighbor when we aren’t looking to them to do or be what they cannot do or be. Christian hope, therefore, lies in not having to generate love on our own steam but in prior belovedness, expressed in sacrificial terms, and in spite of our being undeserving. This, of course, is the very definition of divine love. It is known by its tendency to seek out and care for the unlovable. The law commands that we love perfectly; the Gospel tells us that we are perfectly loved. Consider, for a moment, how “humanly” impossible it is to love in the manner described in 1 Corinthians 13 (“The Message” translation):

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

One of Luther’s earliest and most important expressions came in thesis 26 of The Heidelberg Disputation (1518). He wrote, “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” As Zahl notes, “The pressure to self-justify has been removed, and it has been replaced with freedom: the freedom to die and yet to live, to fail and yet to succeed. The freedom to love, to serve, to wait, to laugh, to cry, to sit idle, to get busy – yes, even to play.”

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Community: The Answer to the Opiate Epidemic

The following is taken directly from the Afterword of Sam Quinone’s bestselling book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” You can purchase a copy of this vital publication here.

BY THE TIME I BEGAN research for this book in 2012, we had, I believe, spent decades destroying community in America, mocking and clawing at the girdings of government that provide the public assets and infrastructure that we took for granted and that make communal public life possible. Meanwhile, we exalted the private sector. We beat Communism and thus came to believe the free market was some infallible god. Accepting this economic dogma, we allowed, encouraged, even, jobs to go overseas. We lavishly rewarded our priests of finance for pushing those jobs offshore. We demanded perfection from government and forgave the private sector its trespasses.

Part of the private sector developed a sense of welfare entitlement. Certainly, in this opiate scourge, it is the private sector that has taken the profits; the costs of dealing with the vast collateral damage have fallen to the public sector. A couple months after this book’s publication, Forbes counted the Sackler family ¹, and Raymond Sackler, the last remaining of the brothers, as the richest newcomer to the magazine’s list of “America’s Richest Families” – with an estimated net worth of $14 billion. All of that was due to sales of OxyCotin, which the magazine estimated at $35 billion since the drug’s release in 1996.²

We seemed to fear the public sphere. Parents hovered over kids. Alarmed at some menace out in public, they accompanied their kids everywhere they went. In one case, a couple was actually charged with allowing their nine-year-old daughter and her sister to go to the park alone. The term “free-range parenting” was coined to describe the daring parents who let their kids out of their sight. No wonder so many kids – boys mostly – were diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall and other drugs. (I wish someone would study the incidence of opiate addiction [in] teens and young adults of people who as kids were diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed drugs like Adderall.) They spent their lives indoors, cooped up, bouncing off the walls. I can say this because I was one: Boys are like dogs; they need to run and run and run.

When I was a boy in suburban Southern California, we spent our entire free time outside playing – football, basketball, riding bikes, or just running around. We probably ran three or four miles a day every day. My knees were in an almost permanent state of being skinned, with scabs growing and being torn off by my roughhousing. My mother had a bell from her family’s farm in Iowa that she used to ring us home at dinnertime – because we were always running around out of the house. I’ve been back to the street where I grew up eight times in the last few years and have yet to see a human being outside. The park where I used to play is always empty.

Keeping kids cooped up seems to be connected to the idea that we can avoid pain, avoid danger. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that in universities, students, raised indoors on screens, apparently lived in some crystalline terror of any kind of emotional anguish. A 2015 story in the Atlantic called “The Coddling of the American Mind” reported on the phenomenon of college students – kids who grew up in the era of hyper-protection from physical pain – demanding to be protected as well from painful ideas. They were demanding professors provide “trigger warnings” in advance of ideas that might provoke a strong emotional content – for example, a novel that describes racial violence. This new campus ethos, the authors wrote, “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some [people] uncomfortable.”

Psychology Today ran a story on “Declining Student Resilience” that [sic] noticed increased neediness in college students, that students had called campus police after seeing a mouse, blaming teachers for poor grades, and “increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life.” Professors, the authors continued, “described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of hand-holding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college!” All of this seems the predictable result of the idea that we should be protected from pain at all costs.

As a country, meanwhile, we acted as if consumption and the accumulation of stuff was the path to happiness. We leave family Thanksgivings to go stand in line to buy products – Xboxes, tablets, and the like – that keep us isolated and that poison our kids, and we go do it as if we have no choice in the matter. We have built isolation into our suburbs and called it prosperity. Added to that mix is the expansion of technology that connects us to the world but separates us from our next-door neighbor. We wound up dangerously separate from each other – whether in poverty or in affluence.

Kids no longer play in the street. Parks are underused. Dreamland lies buried beneath a strip mall. Why then do we wonder that heroin is everywhere? In our isolation, heroin thrives; that’s it’s natural habitat. And our very search for painlessness led us to it. Heroin is, I believe, the final expression of values we have fostered for thirty-five years. It turns every addict into narcissistic, self-absorbed, solitary hyper-consumers. A life that finds opiates turns away from family and community and devotes itself entirely to self-gratification by buying and consuming one product – the drug that makes being alone not just all right, but preferable. [Emphasis added.]

I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community. If you want to keep kids off heroin, make sure people in your neighborhood do things together, in public, often. Form your own Dreamland and break down those barriers that keep people isolated. Don’t have play dates; just go out and play. Bring people out of their private rooms, whatever forms those rooms take. We might consider living more simply. Pursuit of stuff doesn’t equal happiness, as any heroin addict will tell you. People in some places I’ve been may emerge from this plague more compassionate, more grounded, willing to give children experience rather than things, and show them that pain is part of life and often endurable. The antidote to heroin may well be making your kids ride bikes outside, with their friends, and let them skin their knees.

Sam Quinones

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1 The richest newcomer to Forbes 2015 list of America’s Richest Families comes in at a stunning $14 billion. The Sackler family, which owns Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma, flew under the radar when Forbes launched its initial list of wealthiest families in July 2014, but this year they crack the top-20, edging out storied families like the Busches, Mellons and Rockefellers. How did the Sacklers build the 16th-largest fortune in the country? The short answer: making the most popular and controversial opioid of the 21st century – OxyContin. Purdue, 100% owned by the Sacklers, has generated estimated sales of more than $35 billion since releasing its time-released, supposedly addiction-proof version of the painkiller oxycodone back in 1995. Its annual revenues are about $3 billion, still mostly from OxyContin. The Sacklers also own separate drug companies that sell to Asia, Latin America, Canada and Europe, together generating similar total sales as Purdue’s operation in the United States.

2 OxyContin is a dying business in America. Literally. With the nation in the grip of an opiate epidemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, the U.S. medical establishment is turning away from painkillers. Top health officials are discouraging primary care doctors from prescribing them for chronic pain, saying there is no proof they work long-term and substantial evidence they put patients at risk. Prescriptions are declining amid increased scrutiny over drug addiction, down 12% since 2012 according to data from healthcare information firm IMS Health. OxyContin saw prescriptions fall 17%.

The Blind Shall See

The following is an excerpt from “As Easy as Drinking Water: A Muslim Forgiven,” by Afshin Javid. Afshin, an extremely devout Muslim boy, had sought to please God in every way by following the words of the Qur’an. Having committed himself to live and die for Islam, at the age of 12 he joined Hezbollah. Later, in obedience to his grandfather’s commission to preach Islam to North Americans, Afshin attempted illegal immigration to the West. Plans went awry when he was arrested and imprisoned in Malaysia’s infamous Pudu Jail.

“As Easy as Drinking Water” is the life story of Afshin Javid, who, in an hour of darkness, had an encounter with Jesus that would change his life forever. As you will see from reading Afshin’s memoir, he cried out to God in desperation in his cell one night. He felt a hand on his shoulder and asked who it was. A voice said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Not sure what this meant, or who the presence was, Afshin again asked, “What is your name?” The voice said, “I am Jesus Christ.” Afshin said he fell immediately to his face on the floor of his cell. From that point on, he was commissioned to tell the world of God’s marvelous love and His desire to forgive. This excerpt is from the chapter titled “The Blind Shall See.”

***

DURING ONE OF OUR Friday evening services, a young blind Bengali man in his late twenties or early thirties tapped his way through the entrance of the church with a cane. He sat and listened to the service, and at the end he came forward during the prayer time. One of our members greeted him at the front.

“How can we pray for you?”

“I was born blind, but I would like to see. Can you pray for me to be able to see?”

“Of course we can pray for this,” someone said.

“Yes,” I said, “there is no reason why you cannot be healed today. There are plenty of stories in the Bible where Jesus healed incurable diseases, including blindness. There is no reason why He can’t do it today.”

There happened to be a doctor in attendance who was visiting our church. Having overheard the story, he felt he needed to protect us from embarrassing ourselves and making God look bad in the process.

“Everyone should know that if this man was born blind, it probably means he had an infection in the womb that destroyed his retina, or maybe he has some other inherited problem. Whatever the cause, the nerves from his eyes cannot carry any signal to his brain. The connections are broken. I don’t think that praying is going to work here.”

“I really don’t understand what you are trying to explain to us, and further, I don’t want your thoughts to stand in the way of us trying to pray for healing,” I said.

“It’s like the plug for a lamp,” he said. “If you cut the cord, you can’t get any power to the lamp. Praying for this man is going to put us all in an awkward position. When nothing happens, we will have to explain why. It would be better to not pray at all.”

I didn’t understand anything about how eyes work, how nerves work, or how the brain works – and I still don’t. What he was saying was all mumbo jumbo. I only knew one thing. James 5:14-15 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” (NASB)

It does not say, “Pray only for people with certain diseases.” It says, “Pray for the sick.” For me, praying for the sick was as simple as that: “Pray for the sick.” It did not seem all that complicated. It was not my responsibility to be certain that God was going to do what I asked for. It was my responsibility to be obedient to His command, which was to pray.

Sometimes God does not heal but says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), and other times He says, “Yes, I will heal.” Why He says what He says, and how He answers prayers, are His business. These are management decisions. I am a soldier. I don’t get to make management decisions. I just have to do what I am told.

So I turned and said, “Doctor, I don’t care what you say. I am not deterred by the specifics of this man’s medical problems. I am approaching the One who created this man, and I am asking Him for healing. I can assure you I have no power of my own to do anything. I just take orders.” I felt a little bad for the doctor. I understand that as a medical professional and an intellectual, he was trying to help us out. But sometimes, too much knowledge has a negative effect on our ability to take God at His word.

We all gathered around the man and prayed a very simple prayer, short, to the point, in faith, and in obedience. “Lord, would you stretch out your hand and heal this man in the Name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Please give him back his eyesight, Lord.”

The next thing we knew the man said, “I can see something! It’s kind of blurry, but I can see!” We all immediately burst into praise and shouts to the Lord. We were so excited to see such a miracle happen right in front of us.

“Hallelujah!” people were shouting.

“Praise God!” echoed around the room. It sounded like the home team had won a football game. The doctor tried to calm us all down and assure us that we were completely deluded.

“Hey, everyone, just settle down. There is no way this man can see anything,” he assured us. “Look, I will show you.” The doctor raised four fingers in front of the man’s face. “How many fingers am I holding up, sir?” he said. Without waiting for a response, he looked over to us smugly. He was certain that the man would not be able to answer. “Four,” the man said.

“You see? He can’t see anything.” The doctor looked down at his own hand and realized he was holding up four fingers. I must confess that the fact that the doctor could not remember how many fingers he had held up added to the moment in a most gratifying way. I am not sure who was more shocked – the man who had been healed or the doctor. Jesus performed this miracle for the Father’s glory in the same manner as when He was living among us: “As He went along, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.'” (John 9:1-3)

Sometimes, as Christians, we try too hard to protect the reputation of the God we serve. Because we are afraid He might not answer our prayer, we avoid praying altogether. We don’t want anyone to say, “Your god does not exist!” or “Your god never answers!” That day I learned we should never assume the role of God’s protector and defender because it may lead us to misguided inaction, preventing Him from doing a miracle. On the flip side, many have tried to defend God with misguided action, and in so doing have wrongly shed blood in His name. It’s best to let God defend His own reputation, and do only what He commands.

This experience built my faith tremendously. After that day, I fully believed that whenever I had the opportunity to pray for the lame, the blind, or the sick of any sort, they would be healed instantly and restored to health. I thought of these words from Scripture: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18)

Afshin Javid

Of Modern Poetry

Ask ten different educated, well-read people to define modernism, or the “modern” era [you know, the one right before our total disillusionment and our adoption of post-modern thinking] and you’ll likely get ten different definitions; or at least ten different sentiments about that period in our history as a nation, as a people. Certainly, going in to the modern era, we thought (or were at least were hopeful) that science would solve all our problems. There would be vast improvements in industrialization, medicine, peacetime, reduction in world hunger, and the advancement of the rights of man, woman and child. Then came World War I, the stock market crash, and World War II. We dropped a nuclear warhead on a Japanese city, instantly killing 80,000 people. The shock wave was felt for over 18 kilometers.

Novelists, poets, painters, and many other artists put their angst on display through the medium of their choice. I found the following poem by Wallace Stevens. Try reading it as if you were living in the early 1900s. Feel his emotion, his worry, his outrage, quiet as it may be in this piece. He comments that the poem of the mind had not always had to try so hard to find its scene. Its place. Things usually didn’t change so fast, so drastically. Stevens wrote this poem three years before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Many more horrific and inexplicable changes were yet to come…

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
©1942 Wallace Stevens

The Worst Man-Made Epidemic in History

The following is comprised of excerpts from Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. I want to praise Quinones for this seminal work. Personally, it has defined for me the very nightmare I, and countless others, have lived, each to his or her own level, after discovering the morphine molecule through seemingly acceptable pain medications like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin. You can purchase a copy of Dreamland here: Dreamland

AS HEROIN AND OXYCONTIN addiction consumed the children of America’s white middle class, parents hid the truth and fought alone. Quietly. Friends and neighbors who knew shunned them. “When your kid’s dying from a brain tumor or leukemia, the whole community shows up,” said a mother of two addicts. “They bring casseroles. They pray for you. They send you cards. When your kid’s on heroin, you don’t hear from anybody, until  they die. Then everybody comes and they don’t know what to say.”

These parents made avoidable mistakes, and when a son died or entered rehab for the fourth time, they again hid the truth, believing themselves alone, which they were as long as they kept silent. This pervasive lie was easily swallowed. It often lay buried beneath lush lawns, shiny SUVs, and the bedrooms of kids who lacked for nothing. It was easier to swallow, too, because some of these new addicts were high school athletes – the charismatic golden youth of these towns. Athletes opened the door for other students who figured that if cool jocks were using pills, how bad could it be?

One addict was Carter, from one of of California’s wealthiest communities, the son of a banker. Carter had been a high school star in football and baseball. With no break from sports during the year, he battled injuries that never healed. A doctor prescribed Vicodin for him, with no warning on what Vicodin contained, or suggestions for how it should be used. Sports were king in Carter’s town. It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices in life, much less for the love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. Sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, “You need grades so you can play. That was the vibe we got,” said Carter.

Many new athlete-addicts were not from poor towns where sports might be a ticket out for a lucky few. The places where opiate addiction settled hard were often middle- and upper-class. Parents were surgeons and developers and lawyers who provided their kids with everything. Yet sports were as much a narcotic for these communities as they were to any ghetto. Love of learning seemed absent, while their school weight rooms were palatial things, and in many of them pain pills were quietly commonplace. Just as opiates provided doctors with a solution to chronic-pain patients, Vicodin and Percocet provided coaches with the ultimate tool to get kids playing again.

Carter’s coach told him stories of players years before who were gulping down Vicodin before practices and games. “In my town, the stands were always filled. You wanted to be the hero. So you think, ‘I can’t look weak. I gotta push myself.’ I would get these small injuries. The coaches wouldn’t pay any attention. I taught myself to not pay attention to any injuries.” Most athletes on every team on which Carter played used pills, for injury or recreation. Soon Carter grew addicted to Vicodin, and then to OxyContin. From there, as a student athlete at a Division I university, he began using heroin.

Football players were seen as symbols of this American epidemic. Their elevated status on campus left some of them unaffected by consequences. Carter was caught selling pills and was told not to do it again. Above all, though, players were in constant pain and were expected to play with it. If opiates were now for chronic pain, well, football players endured more chronic pain than most. Necks, thighs, and ankles ached all season. Medicating injuries to get athletes playing through the pain was nothing new. But as oxycodone and hydrocodone became the go-to treatment for chronic pain, organized sports – and football in particular – opened as a virtual gateway to opiate addiction in many schools. Thus, with the epidemic emerged the figure of the heroin-addicted football player. Though, of course, few wanted to talk too much about that.

By 2008, when Jo Anna Krohn’s son died, these kinds of delusions had been accepted for almost a decade in places like Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and other cities that had for that same decade been the drivers and beneficiaries of the greatest boom in the history of U.S. consumer spending. But it was in beat-down Portsmouth, Ohio, where one mother had the gumption to own the truth and say something about it.

***

ACROSS PORTSMOUTH, AT THE Counseling Center, Ed Hughes thought silence was a huge part of the story. Opiates had exploded all those plans Hughes had in the mid-1990s to consolidate the Counseling Center’s operations and focus on improving its internal workings. The center opened years before in a small house. By 1992 it began residential treatment with 16 beds. This quickly increased to 150 beds, with a huge waiting list, and a staff of close to 200. It moved its outpatient center into an abandoned three-story school due entirely to the swarms of new opiate addicts.

“We’ve never seen anything move this fast,” said Hughes. A decade and a half in, Ed Hughes was still waiting for the arc of addicted clients to plateau and curve downward. Kids were coming to the center from across Ohio. Many, said Hughes, grew up coddled, bored, and unprepared for life’s hazards and difficulties. They’d grown up amid the consumerist boom that began in the mid 1990s. Hughes believed parenting was changing as well. “Spoiled rich kid” syndrome seeped into America’s middle class. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments – all as they had less time for their kids.

“You only develop self-esteem one way, and that’s through accomplishment,” Hughes said. “You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. You see twenty-somethings: They have a nice car, money in their pocket, and they got a cell phone… a big-screen TV. I ask them, ‘Where the hell did all that stuff come from? You’re a student.’ ‘My mom and dad gave it to me.’ And you put opiate addiction in the middle of that?” Hughes added, “Then the third leg of the stool is the fifteen-year-old brain.”

Hughes saw this all the time: Adult drug users incapable of making mature choices. This happened because opiates stunted the part of their brain controlling rational action. ¹ “We’ve got twenty-five- to thirty-year-old, opiate-addicted people who are going on fifteen. Their behavior, the way their brain works, is like an adolescent,” said Hughes. “It’s like the drug came in there and overwhelmed that brain chemistry, and the front of the brain did not develop.” He added, “The front of the brain has to develop through mistakes. But the first reaction to the addicted person is to head back to the family: ‘Will you rescue me?’ Whatever the person’s rescued from, there’s no learning. There’s no experiences, no frontal brain development. They’re doing well and then some idea comes into their head and they’re off a cliff. It may not be a decision to use [drugs]. Most relapse comes not from the craving for the drug. It comes from this whole other level of unmanageability, putting myself in compromising situations, or being dishonest, being lazy – being a fifteen-year-old.”

***

FIVE YEARS AFTER PORTSMOUTH found itself swept up in a national epidemic, the victims of America’s opiate scourge had emerged from the shadows and the silence. They were everywhere now. Heroin had traveled a long way from the back alleys of New York City and William Burrough’s Junky. The town of Simi Valley agonized over a spate of opiate overdose deaths – eleven in a single year. Simi Valley, conservative and religious, has long been an enclave for cops. Many LAPD officers live in the town. Simi’s vice mayor at the time was a Los Angeles police officer. So for years Simi was one of America’s safest towns. According to the crime statistics, it still is. But with pills everywhere and heroin sold in high schools, its kids were now also dying of dope. Simi youths clogged the methadone clinic. Nearby, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, and Santa Clarita told similar stories. Low crime and high fatal overdoses was the new American paradigm.

Susan Klimuski, whose son Austin died from a heroin overdose, formed a coalition to fight back. It was called Not One More. It received support from city council and the town’s retail core. Yet these were times when heroin was still invisible, conveniently hidden away, at least to anyone who wasn’t a junkie, or a parent of one. Then, on Super Bowl Sunday 2014, America awoke to the news that one of its finest actors was dead. Philip Seymour Hoffman, forty-six, was found that morning in his Greenwich Village apartment, a syringe in his arm and powder heroin in packets branded with the Ace of Spades near his corpse. Blood tests showed he had heroin in his system, combined with cocaine, amphetamine, and benzodiazepine. The Oscar-winning actor – a father of three- had checked into rehab the previous May for ten days, and then, pronouncing himself sober again, left to resume a hectic film schedule. This death hit me right between the eyes. I was a die-hard fan of Hoffman’s acting. He had a heroin habit in college (twenty years ago), but managed to get clean. At least for two decades. Hoffman’s death awoke America to the opiate epidemic.

Within days of covering the story of Hoffman’s death, media outlets from coast to coast discovered that thousands of people were dying. Heroin abuse, the news reports insisted, was surging. Almost all the new heroin addicts were hooked first on prescription painkillers. It was not just the pain, however. This scourge was connected to the conflation of bigger forces: of economics, of aggressive prescription drug marketing, of poverty and prosperity. But this was tough to articulate in four-minute interviews, and a lot of it got lost in the media’s rush to discover and report the new plague. Attorney General Eric Holder described an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” and called on police and paramedics to carry naloxone, an effective antidote to opiate overdose. The problem also prompted Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. to issue a report in November 2016 on alcohol, drugs and health. This is the most comprehensive health crisis report issued by a surgeon general since cigarette smoking. You can read a PDF of the entire report here.

Two decades since the evolving pain revolution,² a consensus emerged that opiates are not helpful for some varieties of chronic pain, including back pain, migraines, and fibromyalgia. In fact, it was finally decided that opiate use is risky. Many clinics and physicians developed policies against using opiates for chronic non-cancer pain. One 2007 survey of studies of back pain and opiates found that “use disorders” were common among patients, and “aberrant” use behavior occurred in up to 24 percent of the cases. It was unclear whether opiates had a positive effect on back pain in the long term. Personally, I have found that opiates do nothing more than create a euphoria that tends to distract me from the pain for a few hours, only to ebb, thus requiring more opiates. By the end of the 2000s, it was already common for people to go from abusing opiate painkillers to a heroin habit. Purdue Pharma, the inventor of OxyContin (who paid a $635.5 million fine for falsely claiming their formulation of the drug oxycodone in time-released pills was far less addictive) recognized this, and in 2010 they reformulated OxyContin with an abuse deterrent, supposedly making the drug even harder to deconstruct and inject.

Unfortunately, by this time, heroin had spread to most corners of the country because the rising sea level of opiates flowed there first. “What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont as now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” said Governor Shumlin. What made New York City the dominant heroin market for much of the twentieth century – its vast number of addicts, and its immigrants from poppy-rich regions of the globe – was now true of most of America. Most of the country’s heroin was coming from Mexico, through the Southwest, trucked into New York. The entrepreneurial Xalisco brothers from Nayarit, Mexico, devised a system for selling heroin across the United States that resembles pizza delivery. An addict calls and places an order, and an operator directs him to an intersection or parking lot. The dealer carries balloons of heroin in his mouth. He simply spits out what the addict ordered. If the cops move on the dealer, he washes the balloons down his throat with a swig from a nearby bottle of water. No evidence, no arrest. The dealers have also been known to deliver to the door for “clients” that are home-bound due to illness or disability.

What started as a concern among physicians for a solution to chronic pain was hijacked by greedy Big Pharma, eventually morphing into nationwide heroin use and addiction resulting from the medical community and the government tightened the reins on prescriptions. Of course, whenever drugs are involved, there is always someone at the ready to provide a system of delivery to dope-sick addicts and chronic pain sufferers hankering for release.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

¹ Adolescence and young adulthood is a period of continued brain growth and change. The frontal lobes, key to executive functioning, such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature. Age is a risk factor that is associated with the onset of drug use in adolescence and young adulthood. Adolescence is a developmental period associated with the highest risk for developing a substance use disorder.

² During the 1990s changes in attitudes and techniques in pain treatment were coming quickly. In 1996, the president of the American Pain Society, Dr. James Campbell, proposed that pain should be assessed in the same manner as other vital signs. They trademarked the slogan, “Pain: The Fifth Vital Sign.” This led to the 0-10 pain intensity scale now prevalent in every ER and doctor’s office in America. Essentially, doctors were finally given more power in prescribing opiates to patients suffering from chronic pain who were not cancer patients.

References

Quinones, Sam. (2015). Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press

Winters, K. and Arria, K. (2011). “Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs.” The Prevention Researcher, 18(2), 21–24.

Jesus Calling

EXCERPT FROM JESUS CALLING
©2014 Sarah Young
July 19

Bring Me all your feelings, even the ones you wish you didn’t have. Fear and anxiety still plague you. Feelings per se are not sinful, but they can be temptations to sin. Blazing missiles of fear fly at you day and night; these attacks from the evil one come at you relentlessly. Use your shield of faith to extinguish those flaming arrows. Affirm your trust in Me, regardless of how you feel. If you persist, your feelings will eventually fall in line with your faith.

Do not hide from your fear or pretend it isn’t there. Anxiety that you hide in the recesses of your heart will give birth to the fear of fear: a monstrous mutation. Bring your anxieties out into the Light of My Presence, where we can deal with them together. Concentrate on trusting Me, and fearfulness will gradually lose it foothold within you.

EPHESIANS 6:16; 1 JOHN 1:5-7; ISAIAH 12:2

The Roof (Reprise)

Up here
on the roof,
I am tall,
taller than all,
at the apex:
not of height,
nor of stature;

just here
at the edge
where anything
is possible:
creativity,
destruction,
enlightenment,
apostasy;
whatever I choose
begins up here
at the edge
of heaven and hell

where God waits,
and angels watch;
where birds soar
without awareness
of my struggle,
or my questions,
or my potential,
good or bad;

below, a community
ekes out its
existence,
parading
up and down
the streets
and avenues,
with no inkling
of what comes
next;

life in
pieces, its
very blood spilled
on the macadam
of tomorrow.

©2017 Steven Barto

The above is a revised version of my initial poem The Roof. Something was missing. Then it hit me: This is a commentary on the increased gun violence in America. It is not an anti-gun poem. It is not an anti-Second Amendment poem. It is an annotation on an extremely prevalent and entirely serious problem. American citizens are killing each other at a rate higher than in any other industrialized nation. We’re using every imaginable weapon and method, from bludgeoning to strangulation; from stabbing to poisoning. We just happen to be using GUNS at an alarming rate. The closing stanza uses the phrase “its very blood spilled on the macadam of tomorrow.” THIS reference is about gun violence.

Jesus Calling

EXCERPT FROM JESUS CALLING
©2004 Sarah Young

July 14

Keep walking with Me along the path I have chosen for you. Your desire to live close to Me is a delight to My heart. I could instantly grant you the spiritual riches you desire, but that is not My way for you. Together we will forge a pathway up the high mountain. The journey is arduous at times, and you are weak. Someday you will dance light-footed on the high peaks; but for now your walk is often plodding and heavy. All I require of you is to take the next step, clinging to My hand for strength and direction. Though the path is difficult and the scenery dull at the moment, there are sparkling surprises just around the bend. Stay on the path I have selected for you. It is truly the path of life.

ISAIAH 40:31; PSALM 37:23-24; PSALM 16:11

Where Is This God of Yours?

Whenever I am feeling lost or frustrated, or think God is not there, I remember the trials and tribulations of David, which prompts me to open my Bible to the Psalms. Today I opened my copy of “The Message//Remix” translation by Eugene H. Peterson and remarkably the ribbon bookmark was at Psalm 42. I decided to share it with you.

A white-tailed deer drinks
from the creek;
I want to drink God,
deep drafts of God.
I’m thirsty for God-alive.
I wonder, “Will I ever make it –
arrive and drink in God’s presence?”
I’m on a diet of tears –
tears for breakfast, tears for supper.
All day long
people knock at my door,
Pestering,
“Where is this God of yours?

These are the things I go over and over
emptying out the pockets of my life.
I was always at the head of the worshiping crowd,
right out front,
Leading them all,
eager to arrive and worship,
Shouting praises, singing thanksgiving –
celebrating, all of us, God’s feast.

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God –
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.

When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse
everything I know of you,
From Jordan depths to Hermon heights,
including Mount Mizar,
Chaos calls to chaos,
to the tune of whitewater rapids.
Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers
crash and crush me.
Then God promises to love me all day,
sing songs all through the night.
My life is God’s prayer.

Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God,
“Why did you let me down?
Why am I walking around in tears,
harassed by my enemies?”
They’re out for the kill, these
tormentors with their obscenities,
Taunting day after day,
“Where is this God of yours?”

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Fix my eyes on God –
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.

©2006 Eugene H. Peterson. The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language

Fatigue Performance

Tonight the wind is in your voice.
And the gods are nervous
about the drinking water.
Someone hijacks the background
with three simple dance moves.
Or maybe the clouds
paused on the television
set during a ball game.
The silence inside
the photograph
of you eating alone
in an old yearbook.
This is going to be over
before you know it.
But not before your hands
become small birds
in celebration
of the present snow.
An expressed panic
attack of harmonics.
It’s like listening to your heartbeat
in a club, all the lights off,
all by yourself.

©2017 Noah Falck