Using Science to Address the Opioid Crisis in America

FROM THE BLOG OF NORA VOLKOW, MD
September 19, 2018

NIDA Banner Science of Abuse and Addiction

The public health emergency regarding opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose affects millions of Americans and requires innovative scientific solutions. Today, during National Prescription Opioid and Heroin Awareness Week, we are sharing news of an important step towards these solutions through the HEALing Communities Study—an integrated approach to test an array of interventions for opioid misuse and addiction in communities hard hit by the opioid crisis.

Six months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, a bold multi-agency effort to catalyze scientific discoveries to stem the opioid crisis. HEAL will support research across NIH, using $500,000 of fiscal year 2018 funds, to improve prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder and enhance pain management.

Opioid Epidemic Pic of Vidodin

Through HEAL, NIH will harness the power of science to bring new hope for people, families, and communities affected by this devastating crisis. The current menu of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions has not been fully implemented nationwide. An unacceptably low fraction – about one fifth — of people with opioid use disorder receive any treatment at all. Of those who do enter treatment, only about a third receive any medications—which are universally acknowledged to be the standard of care—as part of their treatment. However, even when medications are used as a component of treatment, the duration is typically shorter than clinically indicated, contributing to unacceptably high relapse rates within the first 6 months. 

To take on this challenge, as part of the broader HEAL initiative, NIH has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to launch the HEALing Communities Study. This study will evaluate the impact of implementing an integrated set of evidence based practices for prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders in select communities with high rates of opioid overdose mortality, with a focus on significantly reducing opioid overdose fatalities by 40%. Targeted areas for intervention include decreasing the incidence of opioid use disorder, increasing the number of individuals receiving medications for opioid use disorder treatment, increasing treatment retention beyond 6 months, receiving recovery support services, and expanding the distribution of naloxone.

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Toward this goal, today NIDA issued funding opportunities for cooperative agreements for components of the HEALing Communities Study: a data coordinating center and up to three research sites to measure the impact of integrating evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions for opioid misuse, opioid use disorder, opioid-related overdose events and fatalities across multiple settings, including primary care, behavioral health, and justice. We also encourage evidence-based interventions for prevention and treatment that involve community resources such as police departments, faith-based organizations, and schools, with a focus on rural communities and strong partnerships with state and local governments.

The evidence we generate though the HEALing Communities Study, the most ambitious implementation study in the addiction field to date, will help communities nationwide address the opioid crisis at the local level.  By testing interventions where they are needed the most, in close partnership with SAMHSA and other Federal partners, we will show how researchers, providers, and communities can come together and finally bring an end to this devastating public health crisis.

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

Keeping Your “Eye” on the Story

Tess Callahan, author of the novel April & Oliver, says you can’t learn to paint by looking at a Picasso any more than you can learn the cello by listening to Yo-Yo Ma, yet writers are expected to know their craft by virtue of having read books. Reading is of course crucial—just as looking is for the painter and listening for the cellist—but what artists, musicians and even athletes know about training for their field is often lost on writers.

EMULATION

Matisse Dog Paintint

Painters often learn their craft by copying master works. Try recreating a Cézanne or a Matisse and you’ll see how humbling it is. This method teaches the apprentice artist things about composition and brushstroke that he or she could never have internalized otherwise. Once the painter does this with 20 or 30 artists, she starts to get some serious tools in her toolbox. So it can be with writing. For example, take a signature line from Ernest Hemingway or Amy Tan and, while keeping the sentence structure intact, take out all of the nouns and verbs and replace them with your own. Do this with the writers you most admire, as well as those to which you have the greatest aversion. You might learn more from styles you hate.

Do not place these emulated lines directly into your own writing project. That would be like taking a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, changing the color of her hair, and calling it your own. Rather, the plan is to practice emulating lines so that the many different styles can work their way into your brain. After all, no art form exists in a vacuum. The masters often hung out together, sipping coffee in the same cafés, sharing ideas and pushing each other forward. Dancers learn from dancers. Jazz musicians learn from jazz musicians. In fact, new music genres develop from musicians comparing notes. Oh my, a pun!

In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose helps readers pull aside the curtain to observe what the writer-magician is doing, to isolate how each one manages gesture, dialog and character development, and to learn from others’ strengths and weaknesses. As readers, the most important thing to notice is typically what we fail to notice—that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers—when we actually forget we’re reading a story—it appears seamless on the part of the writer.

FREQUENT SMALL SKETCHES

Stick Figure

Figure-drawing classes often start with timed gesture drawings of initial poses lasting as short as five seconds before the model moves. Gradually, the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. By the time you get to a minute, it feels as if you have all day to capture the pose on your sketch pad. The idea is to keep you free, dexterous and more focused on process than end product. Process is paramount at this stage of an artist’s life. The more process he or she engages in, the more they’re able to hone their craft. Such short bursts also keep you from taking yourself too seriously—otherwise, you’d quickly become frustrated. I suffer this malady! I must remind myself to focus on the art of writing rather than the art itself.

Thankfully, you don’t have to take a creative writing class to use this technique. Simply take a moment here and there throughout the day, waiting for the train or at your favorite restaurant, jot down gestures, expressions or snippets of dialog. Given that these experiences are transitory in nature, the exercises will create their own time constraints. Whether or not these little vignettes make it into your story or novel, they will aid in deepening your awareness of the myriad expressions and experiences we go through each day.

One of my favorite “how to” books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg refers to writers’ journals as “compost piles” where ideas can sink down into the subconscious, heat up, and combust at any time. Most artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. My father was extremely creative. He did numerous paintings in various media, including oils, watercolor, pastels, and acrylic. He also build furniture, shelving, and wooden toys. I remember him making several sketches and reworking the idea before committing it to canvas or cutting his first piece of wood in the shop. Writers can benefit from this practice as well.

Julia Cameron Pic

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches use of daily free-form writing in a journal. She suggests this exercise be done the moment you wake up, and refers to this as morning pages. Cameron says, “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it” (p. 9). The morning pages are three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without any concern for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or concern for mistakes. She believes it is better to use a pen and paper for this undertaking than using your laptop. Something about the tactile experience of words-to-paper.

UNDER-PAINTINGS

Traditional landscape and portrait artists often begin with a monotone under-painting using sepia or cool tones. Essentially a base layer, this has two benefits: First, it allows the artist to play with the composition rapidly in broad strokes before committing to a particular layout. Second, it forces him or her to put aside the issue of color and see the image in terms of dark and light planes. The artist “frames out the house” before putting up the walls. Once the artist begins applying color, he or she does so with a solid understanding of the image’s layers and dimensions.

Callahan says, “What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose first drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.” Consider what it means to write a novel that has morphed from a 20-page short story. In order to flush out the complete tale in this fashion, you must be able to work the entire canvas at once, relating people and places and plots and subplots across great distances. For me, this is quite a daunting task. I’m sure that’s why I’ve so far limited my writing to short stories, flash fiction and prose. After all, to get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the proverbial thread that connects it to the entirety of the story. And this needs to be done page after page, for hundreds of pages.

Brushes and Pallet

Just as painters must keep the brush moving, relating one color to another, writers must work threads back and forth so that their patterns of imagery relate and work together across the scope of many pages. Writers, keep looking at your recurring images and notice how they change each time they surface. They should never be redundant; instead, they must always move the story forward. A writer cannot achieve resonance on a minor note without constantly working the whole piece at once. Again, from my perspective, arg! I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s gonna take some practice!”

To write this way, quick and without restraint, means giving ourselves permission to create crap. We cannot, nor should we, predict what will come out of our first draft. Then again, the first draft is always written for the audience of one—you, the writer. Stephen King says, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In fact, in On Writing, King describes how he pens his first drafts with the door closed, no one watching over his shoulder, his internal editor shut away. Not until the second draft does he open the door to allow in criticism. Fluid first drafts, like under-paintings, hold open a space for the real story to emerge.

When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Am I being consistent with my characters? Not surprisingly, the best way to focus is to allow plenty of time—ideally two or three hours with absolutely no interruptions or distractions. Find the time, whenever that might occur in your day, and cherish it. Defend it with all your might. When we write, we delve into another world. Interference tends to quell immersion in this nether world. This practice must become routine—it needs to be established in a pattern. It is through this routine that you will be able to write more consistently.

So…

References

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Perigee.

Gardner, J. (1983). The Art of Fiction. New York, NY: Random House.

King, S. (2000). On Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Prose, Francine. (2006). Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

The Great Deceiver

Satan thinks he has everything figured out, and he plans to deceive the whole world through his unholy minions.

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Unfortunately, the world is littered with con artists and so-called snake oil salesmen who make it their life’s work to masquerade as something they are not. Today, that scourge often shows its ugly face through Internet scammers, identity thieves, and door-to-door fraudsters. None can equal the greatest con artist of all time—Satan, whom Jesus calls “a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). Satan’s biggest con is yet to come and will be unleashed on unsuspecting humanity in the person of the Antichrist.

HIS RECEPTION

After God raptures His church, not a single believer will exist anywhere on Earth. All true followers of Christ will have been transported to heaven to be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), making the entire planet fertile territory for the father of lies—at least for a while—some are able to see the truth and trust Christ as their Savior. Satan’s vehicle for achieving world domination will be the Antichrist—the “man of sin” and “son of perdition”—descriptions that characterize his embodiment of damnation, eternal punishment, and utter destruction (2 Thessalonians 2:3).  The Antichrist’s first deception will be to broker a peace treaty or initiative: “And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and after half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Daniel 9:27, RSV).Peace Middle East.jpg

He will seem like a great leader, someone who can help solve all the woes plaguing the post-Rapture world, and people will receive him with open arms. However, he could not care less about peace or humanity. He will be evil, ruthless, and utterly self-centered; and his ultimate objectives will be to rule the world and be worshiped by God. Unfortunately, he will fool billions by using “power, signs, and lying wonders.” He will operate “according to the working of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). To make matters worse, God will send people a “strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11).

Ever willing to believe a lie, however, the masses will flock to him and see him as a savior. He will con everyone. “All the world marveled and followed the beast [Antichrist]. So they worshiped the dragon [Satan] who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast” (Revelation 13:3-4). The scope and authority of the Antichrist’s reign will cover “every tribe, tongue, and nation,” including Israel (v. 7).

HIS DECEPTION

Interestingly, the Jewish people will be the most vulnerable to the Antichrist’s promises because, throughout their history, they have wanted little more than to live in peace—and peace is exactly what the Antichrist will offer them. To encourage them to trust him, he may use the outcome of the battle of Gog and Magog. The prophet Ezekiel foretold of a future attack from Gog on the land of Magog that probably will take place early in the post-Rapture era. Gog and its allies “will go up against a land of unwalled villages… to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates… against a people gathered from the nations… who dwell in the midst of the land” (Ezekiel 38:11-12). God says Israel will be “gathered” from the nations and subsequently settling in the land which God have to His servant Jacob” (Ezekiel 28:25).

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Gog will attack while the nation enjoys something it has longed for: safety, without the necessity of walls, bars, or gates. In other words, Israel will have let down its defenses. God will stem the invasion, but it seems the Antichrist will claim the credit. He will appear to bring peace and seduce the Jewish people into placing their confidence in him. However, then he will demand they worship him as God. He will oppose and exalt himself “above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

HIS PSEUDO RESURRECTION

Satan will also deceive the Gentile nations. His pseudo-messiah (in the person of the Antichrist) will somehow suffer a mortal wound, but will astonishingly be healed and resurrected from the dead. Revelation 13:3 says, “I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast” (NASB). In his obsession to be like God, Satan will construct a fake unholy “trinity.” He will play the part of the father, with the Antichrist as the son, and the False Prophet as the spirit.

Whose Deadly Wound Was Healed

Just prior to the return of Jesus Christ, the greatest political leader in the history of mankind will emerge from Europe. After taking over that region by political cunning and deceit, he will launch a military campaign that will result in his acquiring “authority over every tribe and people and nation” (Revelation 13:7). His empire will be the most extensive in all of history, encompassing the entire world, and his rule will be the most demonic the world has ever experienced. He will begin his rise to power as a dynamic, insightful, visionary leader who will astonish the world with the cleverness of his solutions to world problems. In this regard, he will seem to be the “savior” of the world. As he amasses power, however, his true nature will be revealed. He will set his sights on the elimination of Christianity and Judaism. It is actually for this reason he is identified in Scripture as the Antichrist, for he will stand against (anti) God and Jesus Christ.

HIS CAREER MOVE

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The rapture of Christian believers—a global event—will launch the career of the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul provides a detailed narrative regarding the events surrounding the rise of the Antichrist. The Antichrist cannot rise to power until the one who holds back unfettered lawlessness is “taken out of the way” (v. 7). The rapture of the church is the seminal event that will catapult the Antichrist to power. This is facilitated by worldwide chaos and pain. Of course, the Antichrist will appear to have all the answers to all the world’s problems. He is expected to take over the European Union and rule from Rome.

The Antichrist will rule for seven years—a period the Hebrew Scriptures call “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” and the New Testament calls the Tribulation (Jeremiah 30:7; Matthew 24). At the midpoint, Satan is cast to Earth “as a profane thing” (Ezekiel 28:16), and conditions on Earth deteriorate rapidly. It appears Satan will enter the body of the mortally-wounded Antichrist and indwell him, deluding a vast majority of surviving humanity into thinking their world ruler actually miraculously came back to life—an attempt to emulate Jesus’ resurrection. The seven-year period of the Great Tribulation will begin when the Antichrist negotiates a treaty that will bring true peace to the Middle East, enabling the Jews to rebuild their temple.

Temple at Jerusalem

Interestingly, one of the myths about the Antichrist that has developed in modern times is that the world will be so enamored with him that all nations will surrender their sovereignty to him. This is not biblical. Rather, Scripture indicates that the world will resist his despotic rule. Of course, this is the catalyst for the Third World War (see Revelation 6). Global conflagration will result in the initial death of one-fourth of all humanityapproximately 1.5 billion people in today’s terms. According to Revelation 8 and 9, as the Great Tribulation reaches mid-point, the war will escalate into a nuclear holocaust, resulting in the deaths of an additional one-third of those still alive—this is another 1.5 billion people. This should be considered a bitter-sweet victory because in the process one-third of the Earth will be destroyed and half of its remaining population will be killed. Seemingly as an attempt to restore law and order, the Antichrist will institute a one-world economy and a single global religion.

THE ANTICHRIST: SATAN INCARNATE

When the Antichrist becomes Satan incarnate, he will become a megalomanic; a tyrant obsessed with himself and the Jewish people. Satan has an insane, all-consuming hatred for the Jews. He hates them because they gave the world the Holy Scriptures and sent the Messiah to Earth through the House of David. Satan knows that salvation comes to all mankind through the Jewish nation. Therefore, he wants to destroy the Jews in order to stop this from happening. What Satan fails to realize, however, is that salvation has already been accomplished. This is precisely what Christ meant when, in His last minute of life, He sighed and said, “It is finished.” Some biblical scholars believe the Antichrist will become obsessed with Israel to the point that he neglects his global empire, leading to revolt within his ranks.

It is Finished Red Banner

In the prophecy given by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, the first thing he warned believers about was a counterfeit Christianity (Matthew 24:4-5). The word Antichrist is mentioned four times in John’s epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3). John clearly explains what he meant by the term—meaning “against Christ” or “enemy of Christ.” End-time prophesies show that religious people—including professing Christians deceived into accepting a counterfeit Christianity—will oppose many of the teachings of Christ.

YET ANOTHER BEAST

This con will continue as Satan installs and controls yet another beast (Revelation 13:11), the False Prophet, who will exercise great power and authority, trying to force everyone to worship the Antichrist (whose mortal wound was healed). Through Satan’s power, he will perform miracles and direct people to construct an image of their ruler (v. 14), which he will somehow animate, “that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (v. 15).

666

Then the False Prophet is directed by Satan to seal “both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name… his number is 666” (vv. 16-18). Today, people speculate the mark could involve smart-chip technology. The number seven is almost always associated with God, and the number six is traditionally associated with man. Three sixes indicate the unholy “trinity” of Satan.

THE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS

Paul indicates the “man of lawlessness” (Lucifer, the devil) will put on a big show with counterfeit miracles, and wonders. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Paul describes this man as the Antichrist who will come on the global scene at the beginning of the Day of the Lord—events that take place at the end of history (Isaiah 7:8-25). The Bible often refers to this as that day during which God personally intervenes in history, directly or indirectly. Some biblical scholars believe this is referencing a period of time (or special day) when Christ will reign throughout the world prior to when He cleanses heaven and Earth for the eternal state of all mankind. Some believe this refers to divine judgment that will take place toward the end of the age. In any event, the ultimate or final fulfillment of the prophesies concerning the Day of the Lord will come at the end of history when God, with wondrous power, will punish the wicked and fulfill all His promises.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Satan will employ all manner of trickery in hopes of realizing his greatest ambition: to be God. Lucifer has always wanted the glory that belongs solely to the Most High, and he wants to possess and rule God’s Kingdom. In reference to Lucifer, Isaiah 14:12-14 says, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of dawn! You have been cast down to earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself the Most High'” (NIV) [Emphasis added].

But he will not, hallelujah! He will be brought down “to the lowest depths of the Pit” and eventually be cast into the Lake of Fire forever (Isaiah 14:15; Revelation 20:10). And so will end the story of Satan and his evil quest to rule the world through the Antichrist and become higher than God Almighty. Satan is the great tempter. His aim is to get us to stumble and sin over and over. After all, misery loves company. Luke tells us Satan was behind Peter’s three denials. Even in this instance, however, God set the boundaries. He said to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon [Peter], that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32, NIV). Jesus essentially told Satan, “You will not destroy Peter. You will only make him stumble tonight. I find this to be extremely encouraging!

The blinding light of Satan gives way to God’s light. When we renounce the designs of the devil and trust the power and wisdom and sovereignty of God through Christ, we fulfill God’s purpose in letting Satan live (rather than destroy him at the moment of his rebellion). We glorify in the ultimate authority of Christ Jesus over all aspects of creation.

There is still time to choose where you will be. How horrible it would be to trade our eternal glorified bodies and our boundless fellowship and communion with God for the passing pleasure of sin here on Earth! Why not choose to be a part of the Bride now? Choose to be one of those who accepts God’s judgment and direction in their lives.

Saying the sinner’s prayer is simply a way of declaring to God that you are relying on Jesus Christ as your Savior. There are no “magical” words that result in salvation. It is only faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection that can save us. If you understand that you are a sinner and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, here is a sinner’s prayer you can pray to God: “God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin. However, I am trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that His death and resurrection provided for my forgiveness. I trust in Jesus and Jesus alone as my personal Lord and Savior.

Thank you Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen!”

 

“I’ll Quit Tomorrow!”

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It is mind boggling how alcoholism impacts people from all cultures, races, socioeconomic class, gender, religion, profession, and academic background. Interestingly, all alcoholics are ultimately alike. The disease itself swallows up differences and creates a universal alcoholic profile. The personality changes that go with alcoholism are predictable and virtually inevitable.  Alcohol can precipitate the onset of a disease with a predictable, inexorable course. It can ultimately destroy the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental life of the sufferer. Alcoholism is typified by a progressive mental “mismanagement” and an increasing emotional distress that can reach suicidal proportions.

Hidden costs of alcoholism are not small. Alcohol-related expenses cost federal, state and local governments $223.5 billion. Of that amount, tax payers are footing the bill for $92.4 billion.

Drinking Was Fun, Once Upon a Time

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Early drinking is a mood-swinger, typically in a positive direction. It gives the drinker a warm, good feeling, that may lead to giddiness. When the effects wear off, the drinker feels normal. It does not take long to learn how to set the amount and select the mood. As the typical social drinker gets deeper into the booze, getting drunk begins to have a very different effect. Heavy drinking creates a sort of undertow that drags the drinker back beyond normal and into pain. This might be the point where euphoria is reached at a big cost—if it’s achieved at all. Now the booze is consumed in order to feel no pain. In other words, to get back to some degree of normal. This is the beginning of harmful alcohol dependence.

In addition to dependency, this phase also involves a rising emotional cost. We we see a significant and progressive deterioration of the personality of the alcoholic, and (eventually) a visible physical deterioration. Ultimately, the alcoholic’s whole emotional environment is torn to pieces and destroyed. Of course, most active alcoholics are in complete denial of the impending bottom.

There is now a progressive emotional cost for every single drink. The carefree days are gone, but the alcoholic is dimly aware of this fact at best. The rising cost is willingly paid. This is proof that dependency has become truly harmful. Of course, the drinker fails to comprehend the increasingly clear signs of destruction by alcohol. Frankly, at this point the alcoholic is learning to depend more and more on rationalization. Intellect begins to blindly defend against reason—indeed, against intervention. Eventually, the alcoholic will be completely out of touch with emotions. Internal dialog will become the soundtrack of an increasingly impenetrable defense system.

Denial is Not Just a River in Egypt

The tragedy is that rationalization actually works! This form of defense—which I employed constantly during my active addiction—continues to operate as the disease progresses. The alcoholic’s behavior will become increasingly bizarre, and the innate and unconscious ability to rationalize will be practiced to the point of perfection. The drinker finds it increasingly difficult to accept blame. Time passes, and the alcoholic condition worsens. Over a period of months and years the alcoholic’s self-image continues to wane. Ego strength ebbs. Feelings of self-worth sink low, and excessive drinking continues, producing painful and bizarre behavior. Eventually, emotional distress becomes a chronic condition. The drinker feels distress unconsciously even when not drinking.

Unfortunately, rationalization works. The tragedy is that this form of defense will continue to operate as the illness progresses.

Now, “mood swings” or personality changes are evidenced while drinking. The kind person becomes angry or hostile; the happy person becomes sad or morose; the gentle person becomes violent. Alcohol causes one’s guard to drop, and chronic unconscious negative feelings are laid bare. The drinker becomes truly self-destructive. All this drinking and emotional distress may lead to a vague but poignant feeling, I just might have a drinking problem. There is a general malaise so strong felt that desperate measures to escape are actually attempted. Geographical cure, a new job, divorce.

The Pathology of Alcohol Dependence

The final stages of alcoholism are close at hand. Continued excessive drinking and accompanying behavior bring on chronic suicidal feelings. I remember thinking many times, I should just go jump in the Susquehanna River! If the course of the disease is not interrupted, the end of all this is suicide—either slowly by continued drinking or in a direct manner. This is because as emotional distress mounts, and deterioration of the personality accelerates, these negative feelings are not clearly discernible. Quite the opposite is true: They are more effectively hidden.

A pathological use of alcohol can be measured by how the individual answers the following questions:

  • Have you ever drank early or first thing in the morning?
  • Have you ever drank alone?
  • Have you ever drank an entire fifth of alcohol in a day?
  • Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
  • Is there a growing anticipation of the welcome effects of alcohol?
  • Has the anticipation moved into the realm of preoccupation?
  • Do you hide your booze in unusual places?
  • Are you unable to be honest about how much alcohol you consume?
  • Do you suffer blackouts or experience an inability to remember chunks of time?
  • Are you having difficulty with personal relationships, work, or the law due to drinking?

Counselors gather a history of the behavior patterns by questioning those who spend meaningful or extended time around the alcoholic. Here, the basic goal is to discover whether there has been a changing lifestyle secondary to the use of alcohol, which would indicate a growing dependence.

Drug and alcohol counselors often explore this changing lifestyle by asking probing questions. Has there been a growing tolerance to alcohol? Does it take more booze for the drinker to get the desired effect? Does the alcoholic start drinking in the kitchen before bringing drinks for guests into the living room? (I often drank secretly before drinking in front of guests or family.) To what lengths is the alcoholic willing to go to get the amount of alcohol needed? The degree of ingenuity used to get more booze becomes the scale for determining how far dependency has progressed. All instances of harmful dependency that show up in alcoholic behavior patterns indicate a maladaptation of the lifestyle to (a) growing anticipation of the welcome effects of drinking, (b) an increasingly rigid expected time of use, and (c) a progressive cunning in obtaining larger amounts of alcohol.

Rational defenses and projection take hold. Why is it that the alcoholic cannot see what is happening? Simple. They have lost the ability to see it at all. The reason alcoholics are unable to perceive what is happening to them is actually understandable. As the condition develops, self-image continues to deteriorate. Ego strength grows increasingly weaker. For many reasons, they are progressively unable to keep track of their own behavior and begin to lose contact with their emotions. Their defense systems continue to grow, so that they can survive in the face of their mounting problems. The greater the pain, the higher and more rigid the defenses become—and this whole process is unconscious. Alcoholics do not comprehend what is happening. Quite literally, they are victims of their own stinkin’ thinkin’.

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As the emotional turmoil grows in chemically-dependent people, rational defense activity turns into real mental mismanagement. The drinker erects a wall around him or her. The end result is that the alcoholic is cut off from increasingly negative feelings about themselves. They are unaware of the presence of such destructive emotions.

Not only is the drinker unaware of the powerful, highly developed defense systems, they are also unaware of the intense feelings of self-hate buried inside them. Moreover, the problem is being compounded by the fact that these defenses have now created a mass of free-floating anxiety, guilt, shame and remorse, which becomes chronic. In other words, the alcoholic no longer drinks from a “normal” point, experiencing an upswing in mood to feeling great or euphoric; rather, they must start from where they feel depressed or pained and drink to feel normal again.

Drink Takes a Man

Alcoholics drink because they drink. A Chinese proverb says, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” The drinking pattern becomes thoroughly unpredictable or compulsive. The alcoholic quits, then resumes, and does not know why he or she is drinking again. And whenever they do start again, the resumption is at the level of chronic emotional deterioration. Conditions worsen with each new episode, trapping the drinker in a deadly downward spiral.

Depression and low self-esteem become so great, the alcoholic begins to employ projection—a defense mechanism in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world rather than from within. The alcoholic does not know this is happening. The more hateful alcoholics see themselves, the more they will come to find themselves surrounded by hateful people. Depending on the personality of the drinker, such projection can present itself in ways ranging from gentle complaining to outright aggression. It is obvious the easier targets are those people typically spending time with the alcoholic, including the most meaningful. Although alcoholics tend to hate themselves, their projection works so well that they actually believe they are attacking hateful people.

People who live and exist around the active alcoholic have predictable experiences that are also psychologically damaging. As they meet failure after failure, their feelings of fear, shame, frustration, inadequacy, guilt, resentment, self-pity and anger mount. So also do their defense mechanisms. They too use rationalization as a defense against these feelings. The chemically-dependent—and those around them—all have impaired judgment; they differ only in the degree of impairment.

People who are chemically-dependent on alcohol have such a highly-developed defense system that they become seriously self-deluded. The rigid defenses that have risen spontaneously around their negative feelings about themselves, and therefore around their behaviors that caused these feelings, would be quite enough, were they the only deluding factors, to draw these people progressively and thoroughly out of touch with reality. Not only do these defense mechanisms become more rigid, but such individuals develop a growing rigidity in their very lifestyle. They are less able to adapt to unexpected change. They eventually reach a point where even schedules are burdensome. This is primarily because, paradoxically, they are less likely to plan ahead. Or, when they do plan something, they tend to feel trapped as the moment closes in.

To Make Matters Worse

Chemically-dependent people have two factors progressively working together to draw them out of touch with reality: Their defense mechanisms and distortions of memory. Consider euphoric recall, which is the tendency for an alcoholic to remember their drinking escapades euphorically or happily—in only the best light—with gross distortion of the truth. They believe they remember everything in vivid and accurate detail, thinking that all was “just fine.” Of course, this will only serve to bury the drinker’s antisocial or destructive behavior. There is a destructive distortion of perception itself. There is a lack of ability to see and appreciate reality. No recognition or acceptance that they are on a downward spiral, fast approaching rock bottom.

Rock Bottom Became the Foundation

Either of these defense mechanisms seriously impair judgment. The time inevitably comes when it is plain that alcoholics cannot see they are sick. Yet they are acutely ill with a condition that will ultimately lead to death and destruction, and which will seriously impair their constitution emotionally, mentally, and spiritually during the final months of year of their active addiction. Accordingly, treatment for acute alcoholism cannot concern itself merely with putting the drink down. It also has to do with restoration of adequate ego strength to enable the alcoholic once again to cope with life.

The Best Approach

Therapy for acute alcoholics must address the whole person. The alcoholic suffers emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Treatment often involves physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists, pathologists, and clergy. If the whole person is not treated simultaneously, relapse is simply… inevitable. If, for example, the emotional disorder alone is addressed, the alcoholic may believe he or she feels “so good” now that they can handle the drink. When treatment is short-sighted or limited, friends and family of the alcoholic may be heard commenting, “He was easier to live with when he was drinking!” This is akin to being a dry drunk. As this “dry” condition worsens, mental gains erode away and the alcoholic inevitably reverts to drinking to feel normal.

A description of despair by Søren Kierkegaard found in his book The Sickness Unto Death. Human despair is found at three distinct levels. First is the despair that expresses itself in sentences such as, “Oh what a miserable wretch I am! Oh, how unbearable it is to be me!” Second is the despair  that expresses itself by crying out, “Oh, if only I were not what I am. If only I could be like that person!” This is deeper despair because it considers self to be so worthless as to want to abandon it completely. But the third, deepest, despair of all is despair that does not believe one is a self at all. In other words, “I used to be… but not I am not.”

Physical complications, mental mismanagement, and emotional disorder are accompanied by a similarly progressive spiritual deterioration. Guilt, shame, and remorse exact their inevitable and immobilizing toll as time goes on. Feelings of self-worth begin to decline. As meaningful relationships wither on the vine, the growing estrangements lead to spiritual collapse. At the end, these feelings produce suicidal moods, ideation, and, unfortunately, suicidal attempt and/or death. If asked, “Can’t you see you’re drinking yourself to death?” the alcoholic replies, “So what? Who cares?”

Concluding Remarks

When asked how alcoholism is treated, people commonly think of either the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation. There are, however, a variety of treatment modalities currently available. Today’s treatment for alcoholism naturally rests upon decades of research. AA was founded by Bill Wilson (“Bill W.”) and Bob Smith (“Dr. Bob”) in Akron, Ohio in 1935. AA’s program of spiritual and character development is based on the premise that turning one’s life and will over to a “personally meaningful higher power” is the key to recovery. It is, in fact, referred to as the key of willingness. Another central idea is that sobriety or recovery depends on the admission of powerlessness with respect to alcohol or other substances.

Treatment for alcoholism has made significant advances in the last 20 years. Researchers are constantly seeking novel approaches for improving the effectiveness, accessibility, quality, and cost-effectiveness of treatment. Alcoholism is a treatable disease. Regardless of how someone is diagnosed as alcohol-dependent, or how they came to realize they have a drinking problem, the first step to treatment is a sincere desire to get help. Overcoming an alcohol problem is an ongoing process that sadly might involve relapse. Granted, relapse is not a “requirement” for recovery—you don’t have to change your sobriety anniversary!—but it is merely a setback and not an indication that you will fail in your attempt to get sober.

 

An Autumn Prayer

Trees make a tunnel,
red and orange foliage,
branches arched over roads.

Headlights cut haze,
that crawls across streets
leaves give themselves to wind,

dance and tumble in decay.
This warmth reminds me
of mid-May, when crocuses

reach up like tiny fingers.
I study the sky, the widening
blue canvas pushing out gray.

I want to raise my hands, reach
towards sunlight. Foolish, maybe,
to whisper a prayer to prolong

the warmth, and stretch these days
before winter’s howls and gusts,
when I will wake and clench bed sheets,

the way I squeeze the steering wheel now,
driving through mid-morning fog.

©2018 Brian Fanelli

The Jesus Way (Part One)

Jesus With Open Arms

Jesus taught an alternative to the dominant ways of the world, not a supplement to them. It is sad how often we see the world—in fact, even fellow believers—unquestionably embrace the habits of high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, conglomerates, universities, nations, and causes; people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate behavior, and instruct our young. We take absolutely no time to contemplate how many of these “ways” violate the way of Jesus. What is the Jesus way?

The Heart of Jesus

The heart of Jesus was pure, but what is a “pure-hearted” person? Dictionary.com says to have a pure heart is to be without malice, treachery, or evil intent. This person would be honest, sincere, without guile. Jesus, of course, was without guile. He had no evil thoughts or intent and was without sin. Peter, who traveled with Jesus for over three years, described Him as a “lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet. 1:19). Jesus was purposeful, tenacious, and dedicated to serving the will of the Father. He was so focused on His task that He knew when to say, “My time has not yet come” (John 2:4) and when to say, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

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Jesus saw the good in everyone and everything. His very thoughts were pleasant. Children flocked to Him. He could find beauty in the butterflies and the lilies of the valley, joy in worship, and possibilities in the midst of even the worst of circumstances. He would spend days surrounded by multitudes of sick people and yet remain compassionate in every instance. It is phenomenal that He spent more than three decades wading through the muck and mire—the horrible consequences of man’s sin and fall from grace—yet still saw enough beauty in us to die for our mistakes.

His Teachings and Miracles

During the three years between His baptism and His death and resurrection, Jesus traveled throughout the land of the Hebrews ministering to the people. His ministry can be divided into two key aspects. First were His teachings. Looking to Scripture, we see that Christ taught from a position of authority (Matt. 7:29) and wisdom (Matt. 13:54). The crowds were astonished and amazed by His lessons. Even those who doubted Jesus was the Messiah were stirred by His words.

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The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry revolved around His miracles. The Bible records 35 such incidents during His three years of public ministry. These amazing events range from walking on water (Matt. 14:25) to raising people from the dead (Matt. 11:38-44). It’s worth noting that these are only the miracles that were written in Scripture. In fact, if every one of them were written down even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).

THIS WEEK’S TOPIC:

Gender Dysphoria

Gender has become a matter of uncertainty. Rather than male or female, many see gender as a “relative” matter—on a continuum. They consider gender or sexual identity to be less a reality given at conception than a matter of personal discovery. Transgender questions today carry an urgency unimaginable five years ago. The debate has become all-encompassing. Issues such as civil rights, protection from persecution and discrimination, culture, education, acceptance, spiritual ramifications, and counseling are complex. One main question is whether it is appropriate for parents of so-called transgendered children to allow their kids – who have not yet reached the end of puberty – to define their own gender and establish their goals and life values relative to gender identity and sexuality.

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Most churches and Christians find themselves exposed due their lack of knowledge and understanding—about gender issues and grace. What does the Bible have to say about living life in a gender-nonconforming way? What can faithfulness to Christ look like for a person who desires—who might even say needs—to live such a life?

A biblical perspective on what makes us human emphasizes the role of community. Individuals are “active agents” rather than merely passive objects impacted by genetic and environmental factors. Balswick and Balswick (2014) believe the search for authentic sexuality appropriately starts with an attempt to understand how we are to behave as sexual persons. Achieving authentic sexuality, however, depends more on understanding who God created us to be as a sexual person. Sexuality includes such factors as biology, gender, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and values.

According to Scripture, when God created human beings He created them male and female and blessed their marital union (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:20-25). Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul are united in their approach to the moral norms that govern male-female sexual behavior. The God-ordained roles assigned to men and women are clearly laid out in Scripture. How does this help understand gender identity confusion? If the Bible succinctly describes our sexuality as an intended component of God’s intelligent design, perhaps gender dysphoria, along with homosexuality, is an adulteration of that design, which is clearly predicated on our “fallen nature.” Because of Original Sin, nothing is as God intended it to be. The entire universe has been adversely impacted by the Fall. 

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It could be said that dismissing the legitimacy of a person’s experiences is to dismiss the person. Certainly, we shouldn’t dismiss, but feel compassion for, anyone experiencing mental distress regarding conflict between their gender identity and their body. It is important for Christians to realize that people who experience distress, anguish, and conflict over their perceived gender identity really do exist. They’re not freaks. They’re not merely “cross-dressers” or people desiring to “gender-bend.” Their experience cannot be reduced to simply “living a lie” since most don’t feel they are lying to themselves. Actually, the opposite is true. People with genuine cases of gender dysphoria believe they’re being lied to by their body. Such an individual typically becomes convinced he or she is actually a member of the opposite sex.

Psychology Doesn’t Change Ontology

So what is the best approach to this issue?

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First, Christians welcome all into the grace of the Gospel because the Gospel is applicable and available to all (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Accordingly, our priority must be to offer genuine love to those struggling with gender or sexual identity. We are, however, required to confront such issues with biblical truth. Fact: God made men and women different (Gen. 1:27). Sexual differences are not graded on a continuum where some men are more like women or vice versa. Men and women are different at the deepest levels of their being. Our chromosomes are different. Our brains are different. Our voices are different. Our body shapes and sizes are different. Our reproductive systems are different. Our body strengths are different. Because men and women are different, it’s philosophical impossible for a man to become a woman, or a woman to become a man.

If God made man and woman fundamentally and comprehensively different, then the idea that a man could ever become a woman is simply impossible. The differences between men and women can’t be overcome simply because one person believes they are a member of the opposite sex. Your psychology—your cognition and emotions—cannot change your ontology.

“Truth is not first produced by a method but inhabits experience itself prior to any cognitive labor.” – Andrew Feenberg

Scripture does not specifically address a contemporary understanding of gender as a socially constructed concept different different from biological sex. A Christian response to gender dysphoria is better established through a biblical theology of the body rather than by combing the Scriptures for proof texts in light of specific behaviors.

At the crux of the transgender experience is gender incongruence, an internal sense of a gender identity that is at odds with one’s birth gender. Lately, a common way to deal with that incongruence is to show a preference for one’s internal “sense” of gender as representing one’s true self in opposition to physical identity. A biblical theology of the body, however, argues that it is essential to reference the physical body when determining gender identity. The biblical definition of man and woman remains regardless of the cultural understanding of gender.

Christianity Today on Transgender Christians

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On June 22, 2018, Christianity Today published an article called “Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms.” The article referenced a book written by Austen Hartke titled Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians. Hartke’s identity is as important to the book as the subject matter he covers. Hartke was born female. He experienced gender dysphoria in his youth. His decision to transition from female to male was not made lightly. Naturally, he wondered if there was a place in mainline Christianity for someone like him who didn’t agree with every iota of Christian doctrine, who was gender-nonconforming, and who considered himself bisexual. Certainly, not all believers are on the same page on this sensitive issue.

Hartke decided there was a place for him in Christianity. He was baptized in 2008, and went on to graduate from Luther Seminary’s master’s program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies. He hosts a YouTube series called “Transgender and Christian” and is increasingly sought after at conferences and events. Hartke says his ministry is “to help other trans and gender-nonconforming people to see themselves in Scripture.” His main tenet is that transgender people must be embraced by the church on their own terms. He believes that if transgender feelings are real, they are therefore good and blessed by God.

In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Mark Yarhouse sets forth three main frameworks for understanding the origins and morality of transgender phenomena and then offers an integrated framework he supports. His position is popular among conservatives who sympathize with transgender individuals while at the same time affirming the goodness of sex and gender as God designed them. He argues that gender dysphoria is a result of the Fall—a view I personally maintain—and thus an example of brokenness that deserves deep compassion rather than moral blame. Hartke’s answer to this position is that gender dysphoria “is not original sin manifesting within us. It’s the effects of the Fall showing up in the way human being treat each other.” To me, suggesting that this abuse and persecution is the true fallen condition of mankind, rather than such abuse and gender incongruence being distinct results of the Fall, seems to miss the point. I believe the Fall tends to warp and twist our world.

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In order to counter this argument, Hartke agrees that the incongruence between internalized gender and biological gender “might possibly” be a result of the Fall, but quickly asserts that “this does not mean that the person’s movement away from suffering toward affirmation of their perceived gender identity is sinful.” He compares “gender affirmation” to getting eyeglasses. To me, the glasses metaphor doesn’t hold: No one contends that there is a moral component to correcting poor vision. Obviously, choosing to express one’s gender in a way that obfuscates one’s God-given sex invariably makes a moral statement—that we are free to reject God’s design when our own desires point elsewhere. How can one hold this position without systematically rejecting Genesis 1?

Christian theology has consistently sought to distinguish desires and feelings from behavior. Greed, rage, jealousy, resentment, arrogance, depression, and the many shapes that lust can take are but a few examples of feelings or desires that every human experiences to various degrees and at various times. I believe such desires are part of fallen human nature itself (Gal. 5:17 or 1 John 2:16). Regardless, this is no excuse. Such desire is to be opposed and curbed, rather than to be given free reign (Rom. 13:14). The
Christian theological tradition has therefore sought always to distinguish between desires and acting out on desires, and between specific behavioral sins and the sinner. It recognizes that in our fallen humanity, behavior can be disciplined to some degree, while inner feelings are far less subject to human control.

Christianity understands homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgendered identity and desire within such an overall moral framework. It seeks to follow natural law (the objective truth of our bodies) and the revealed truth of Scripture, even if the truth conflicts with societal or professional opinions, such as that of psychology or psychiatry. One response to such reflection is that, while there is biblical direction which clearly forbids homosexual activity, there is no explicit scriptural reference to transgendered individuals. There are only references that hint at implications for the individual who feels discomfort with his or her identity as male or female.

THE JESUS WAY

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Jesus was the most forceful, demanding teacher who ever lived. He taught that even one’s closest family members must give way to loyalty to Him (Luke 14:26). Several words in the Greek New Testament reveal insight into the amazing compassion of the Lord, even in the face of sinful behavior. He wished that no one would suffer. That none would perish for all of eternity. Consider Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (NIV). Bromiley (1985) notes that the term tempted (as noted in the above Scripture) is touched in the Greek, stating the word “does not signify a sympathetic understanding that is ready to condone [behavior], but a fellow feeling that derives from full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation as a result of successfully withstanding the temptation” [Emphasis mine].

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We are told in John 14:6 that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We simply cannot proclaim the Jesus truth then act any way we want. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth. Those two positions are diametrically opposed. But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. We can’t skip the way of Jesus in a hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as He is worshiped and proclaimed. Frankly, I don’t see how we can even hope to get to the truth of Jesus without deciding to follow the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces.

We know that Jesus associated with the outcasts of His day. Please note I am not suggesting transgender or gay individuals should be considered “outcasts.” However, the example Jesus showed during His lifetime for those who were outcasts demonstrated compassion and concern while they were yet sinners. Granted, countless numbers of transgendered or gay individuals do not necessarily buy into the “sin” concept regarding their choices. Jesus reserved His condemnation for religious zealots who lived a hypocritical and highly judgmental lifestyle. So it is worth asking if Jesus came today, would He associate with transgendered and gay people? Would He visit them in their homes or go to their parties? Or would He only associate with “good” churchgoers?

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The Jesus way is a way of sacrifice. A way of freedom. A way of holiness. But it is also a way of compassion and unconditional love. Do we emulate Him in our churches today? Do we make transgendered and gay individuals feel welcome? Do we treat them as our equals? Can they see the love of Christ in us? Would we invite a gay couple to our home for dinner? If we find ourselves answering No to these questions, how can we expect such individuals to trust God enough to consider surrendering their sexuality to Him? How can we expect them to see God as loving and compassionate if we make Him appear to be unloving and judgmental? They already know the “abomination” texts in the Bible.We should not throw Scripture at these individuals.

The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of God’s character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them. (Ellen G. White)

Concluding Remarks

Not only does the male/female relationship reflect the image of God, but their coming together in marriage to bring forth new life reflects the deepest and most intimate analogy of God’s relationship with His people. Throughout Scripture, God and His people are portrayed as husband and wife or as a groom and bride. The creation account found in Genesis lays out this gender-based, matrimonial picture and sets the stage for the eternal union of God and His people—of Christ and His bride—described in Revelation.

Gender matters. In recent years, a revisionist transgender theology has been put forth in some theological circles that violates God’s clearly articulated and intentional design for the sexes—thereby distorting His image and His plan for sexuality, marriage, family and the just and proper ordering of society. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding this issue often becomes convoluted, incoherent, or angry, degenerating into a shouting match. Regardless, we must come to grips with the fact that God isn’t silent about human sexuality. The key to this issue must be grounded in Scripture; however, we simply cannot dismiss transgendered or gay people out of hand.

In his presentation on Christians and homosexuality, Joe Dallas (2014) says, “The voice that must go out from the Christian community is one that is absolutely unsparing in truth and will not compromise under the worst conditions, yet also equally unsparing in love, saying ‘Hate us and we will love you. We will be to you what you need us to be.’ For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, just as Paul said, and we’ll be asked what we did in this life. Surely, that interrogation will include how we responded to the responsibilities and issues of our time. May God help us on that day when we are asked to give an account of how we responded to the difficult issue [of gender fluidity and homosexuality] so that we might hear Him say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Please join me next week for The Jesus Way (Part Two): Marriage and Divorce.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

Bromiley, G. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Balswick, J. and Balswick, J. (2014). The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home, 4th Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press.

Dallas, J. (2014). How Should We Respond? An Exortation to the Church on Loving the Homosexual. Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family.

Gilson, R. (June 22, 2018). Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/june-web-only/austen-hartke-transforming-transgender-neighbors.html

Facing Late Autumn

In light of the winding down of Summer—oh, the sad, sweet departure of blue skies and dazzling colors and wistful stray clouds dancing along the horizon and lazy afternoons at the swimming hole—and the coming of, dare I say it, Fall and, ultimately (arg!) Winter, I am re-posting this seasonal poem by the incomparable Brian Fanelli.

The leaves lay like a wound,
red and deep across the lawn, while what remains
is frightened away by bursts of November wind.
I look at concrete-gray clouds and sigh,
knowing it is time to cover flower beds,
yank out roots of annuals,
their petals shriveled and frail, as fine as dust
released to the air.
Soon I will cut back roots of perennials,
until everything in the yard is brown,
until birds no longer chirp,
but vacate their nests,
more visible now as branches of trees
shake against the wind
and scrape against windows like angry fingers,
while the house creaks at its joints.

©2016 Brian Fanelli

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Oscar Wilde (1894-1900) wrote the following poem while in prison. He is most noted for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, but he also published numerous poems. Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for criminal libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial brought to light certain evidence that convinced Wilde to forego his complaint in court and led to his own arrest and trial for “gross indecency” with men. After several retrials, he was convicted and sentenced to 2 years hard labor. He died destitute at the age of 46.

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I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners call the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.

 

The Billy Graham of Generation Z?

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Jordan Whitmer’s zeal for evangelism and vision for a movement have some comparing his ministry to that of Billy Graham. And he’s only 19.

Hannah Stephens was 17 and in trouble with her parents. She had gotten caught stealing their tablet computer in order to chat with strangers online and subsequently grounded. “The only places I was allowed to go were home, school, and church,” Hannah said. To this brooding teenager in the small Ozark town of Mountain Home, Ark., life seemed painfully limited. Yet she was about to discover a whole new world.

In January 2016, Hannah’s partner in chemistry class at Mountain Home High School Career Academies invited her to join the planning team for an upcoming event for teenagers called HowToLife. The planning process would require her to attend several meetings leading up to a night of worship, testimonies, and prayer. Hannah knew little about the event—only that it had something to do with Christianity. “This counted as a church activity that could get me out of the house and away from my parents,” she said. That was all the incentive she needed. She was in.

“The second I entered that meeting at the First Baptist Church of Mountain Home youth room, my life was completely changed,” Hannah says, recalling that the students she met seemed to be genuinely in love with God and weren’t merely serving Him out of habit. “I went home that night in tears, telling my mom I wanted what they had, the hope they had.” That may sound unusual considering Hannah is the daughter of an itinerant church planter, raised in the church and reared in a Christian home. She could recite Bible stories and prayed to accept Christ as the Messiah as a little girl. “I did it because I knew that’s what I was supposed to do,” Hannah remembers. But that was as deep as her relationship with God had gone. She had grown up in a Christian culture but wasn’t yet a follower of Christ.

Christ Carrying His Cross

We might “inherit” our faith from our parents, but we cannot inherit their salvation. In fact, we are told to work out our individual salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). The faith of my parents is my faith. My mother and father brought the family to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night Bible study, and Thursday night prayer and worship. Although I tried numerous times in my adolescence and young adulthood to rebel against it, as we all have, it is clear to me that my faith is truly grounded in the example shown by my parents. I don’t necessarily agree with everything my parents have believed over the years relative to Christian doctrine, but my faith is what it is in part because of their influence.

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For a month leading up to the HowToLife event, however, Hannah felt the Lord working on her heart. She was beginning to really see who was at the heart of the hope she noticed in her peers. Because her family never settled down in one place, she hadn’t ever connected deeply with Christian young people. Now she felt a dynamic closeness with her new friends. She could see the joy of intimately knowing Christ coloring virtually everything about them. Though deep down inside she still felt spiritually unprepared, she served as a counselor on the night of the event. “I saw so many hearts changed that night, including my own,” Hannah says. “I had friends who started crying and confessing their sins to God, opening up for the first time since I’d known them. It reaffirmed that my generation is utterly heartbroken and needs Jesus.”

A BROKEN GENERATION

Demographers, social scientists and journalists commonly refer to Hannah’s generation, starting approximately with people born in the mid- to late-1990s, as Generation Z. Though there seems to be no clear agreement on hard and fast boundary lines, it’s safe to say that anyone who’s a teenager today is part of Generation Z. This generation has grown up in the digital age, giving it some advantages over prior generations. News outlets have broadly described members of Generation Z as more inherently comfortable with technology and better skilled at multi-tasking than their predecessors.

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But there’s a dark side too. The numbers show Generation Z socializes (at least in person) far less than Generation X or the Baby Boomers. Today’s teens spend large chunks of time checking social media. A sense of isolation often sets in for Gen Zers, psychologist Jean Twenge wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic, because of factors like cyberbullying and the nagging sense of missing out on the fun everyone else seems to be having. As a result, Gen Zers’ rates of suicide and depression are so high, Twenge fears today’s teens are “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

That fact hasn’t been lost on Jordan Whitmer. ‘[Generation Z is] more ready than any generation to date to experience Jesus, to have that hope,” says Whitmer. “So who better than teenagers who do have that hope—who do have Jesus—to be able to step up, to share the Gospel and to reach Generation Z for Jesus?” Whitmer is the founder and CEO of the HowToLife Movement, the organization responsible for the event that changed Hannah Stephens’ life. It began as an idea in Whitmer’s dining room in December 2014. Back then, Whitmer was in his junior year at Harrison High School in Harrison, Ark., just across the border from Branson, Mo. He felt a burden for his classmates, so many of whom were spiritually lost. How could he reach them with the Gospel?

Christian Teens

The vision that began to take shape in Whitmer’s mind was a student-led youth rally for his whole community. He invited three friends over to brainstorm. There, around the dining room table, they hashed out the details. It would be a night of drama, testimonies, prayer, and worship music, all led by students. Though security guards and a few adult chaperones would be in attendance, Whitmer and his fellow organizers decided no one older than 18 would be allowed to take the stage.

The four friends also came up with the unusual name “HowToLife.” Whitmer notes, “We were thinking along the lines of how to live your life or talking about how to do life, and the ultimate answer to that is Jesus… so that’s kind of how the name emerged.” Students and adult leaders at schools and churches across Harrison got involved in spreading the word. When the rally became reality, in March 2015 at a local junior college, 750 students attended—and 75 of them reported placing their trust in Christ for eternal life. Whitmer was blown away by what God did that night, and he sensed it couldn’t just end there.

A MOVEMENT IS BORN

Word of what happened in Harrison rippled across the Ozarks. Students in other communities wanted to know how they could invite similar work from God where they lived. Whitmer’s instincts were right: HowToLife had become more than just a one-night event in his hometown. It was an emerging movement. During Whitmer’s senior year, he helped organize HowToLife rallies in Missouri and other parts of Arkansas. HowToLife became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in August 2016. Then, during the 2016-17 school year, communities in Illinois, Tennessee, and Texas hosted events. All told, Whitmer says, there have been 19 HowToLife events in seven states so far. That number is on pace to expand to 15 states by summer vacation, and 20 by the end of 2018. About 600 teens have become Christians at HowToLife rallies so far and gotten connected to local churches.

A FAMILIAR MODEL

For the moment, Whitmer is HowToLife’s only paid employee, working out of his parents’ home in Harrison. The ministry has 5,000 followers on Instagram, and over the past six months, Whitmer says, hundreds of students have messaged him on social media platforms asking how they can hold HowToLife events in their communities. He responds by assuring them there’s a tried-and-true template to follow. “It’s in essence like a mini-Billy Graham Crusade event that is done by local high school students to reach their friends and their community for Jesus,” says Whitmer.

Billy Graham Pic

Indeed, HowToLife’s event planning model bears many similarities to that to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. A regional team of students must provide each event’s core leadership. Weeks of detailed preparation (including meetings for prayer worshiping, and reciting testimonies) follow. All the while, publicity is spread as students wear #HowToLife t-shirts to school (the social media-friendly hashtag is ever-present in HowToLife’s marketing efforts) and church youth pastors are invited to get involved. The prayerful preparation pays off the night of each event. To date, more than 6,000 teenagers have attended HowToLife rallies.

Whitmer readily admits the Graham crusades of the latter half of the 1900s have served as his model. That makes sense given that his grandfather, radio broadcaster and teacher Ron Hutchcraft, has a long history with Billy Graham, who passed away on February 21, 2018 at the age of 99: Hutchcraft chaired a crusade in New Jersey in the 1990s and has spoken extensively for the organization over the last 30 years. “I would so love to see a generation of teenagers around the U.S. and around the world that emerge,” Whitmer says. “People that step up, that have a passion for evangelism, a passion for the Great Commission.”

Great Commission Banner

Does all of this potentially make Whitmer his generation’s Billy Graham? Yes and no, he says. Unlike Graham, he doesn’t feel evangelistic preaching is his gift (though he did speak at several HowToLife rallies before he “aged out”). In his desire to build an organization that has global impact, however, Whitmer definitely senses a kinship with the 20th century’s most famous preacher. “My dream is that ultimately there may be some aspects of true global awakening to Jesus that could come through something like this,” he says.

THE NEXT PHASE

From his earliest days, Whitmer has had a sense of where he’s going, and seen no reason to wait in getting there. He led Bible clubs in elementary, middle, and high school. After graduating from Harrison High School in 2016 (he was valedictorian), Whitmer sprinted on and completed his bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies online through Liberty University just a year and a half later. Now Whitmer is taking on his most exciting, and perhaps daunting, task: Moving HowToLife to the next level. “I would love to see that we have significantly more paid staff and a headquarters in the next two years, by 2019 or 2020,” Whitmer explains. Getting there, he estimates, will take $500,000. That’s why, in addition to helping regional student leaders organize rallies, he spends much of his time crisscrossing the country on a fundraising blitz.

christianworldview

A survey from the Barna Group released last October revealed that only 4 percent of Generation Z holds a biblical worldview. About 35 percent claim to be atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated with a religion, a figure 5 percent higher than for Generation X, and 9 percent more than that of Baby Boomers. Such findings led Barna Group to consider Gen Zers as the first “post-Christian” generation. Post-Christianity is characterized by loss of the primacy of the Christian worldview in political affairs, especially in the Northern Hemisphere where Christianity flourished, in favor of alternative worldviews such as secularism or animism.  It includes personal worldviews, ideologies, religious movements, or societies that are no longer rooted in the language and assumptions of Christianity. A post-Christian world is one in which Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but has gradually assumed values, cultures, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian.

Whitmer notes, “People are excited to come out to events that are completely led by their friends because teenagers listen to teenagers more than anyone else,” adding that the teen-to-teen dynamic is “the biggest strength of this movement.” HowToLife board member Ralf Stores, 63, agrees. “That idea of youth leading youth to Christ has a very powerful component to it,” he says. “I have found over the years there’s almost a universal culture among youth—clothes and talk and music and those sorts of things. It transcends languages and it transcends the different countries and cultures around the world.” That’s why, going forward, Whitmer says HowToLife will keep the teenagers-reaching-teenagers, no-one-over-18-on-stage component. He believes that inspired idea conceived at his dining room table is timeless.

But he also wants to continue impacting Generation Z as its members enter their 20s and 30s. He’s open to HowToLife becoming a multi-generational, international ministry. “I believe that God can and will continue to do incredible things through this movement on a teenager level, on an adult level and [through] more and more elements as things continue to grow,” he says.

CLOSING REMARKS

Whitmer expects to continue leading the HowToLife Movement for the long haul. Under his leadership, he says not to expect the Movement to get sidetracked by political debates or to delve deeply into secondary (though still important) moral issues. His plan is to borrow another page from Billy Graham’s playbook and keep the primary focus on the Gospel. “My firm belief is that the lack of understanding of the Gospel is the root [of Generation Z’s problems]. Everything else stems from that,” he says. “Focusing on Jesus and the Gospel at the center of everything is what I continue to commit to doing.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION To learn more information about the HowToLife Movement visit: http://howtolifemovement.com

 

I Wrote a Poem Once While Sleeping

I wrote a poem once while sleeping,
Each line flowing into the next, flawlessly fitting,
As easy as knitting (remembering Grandma).
It was as if I could not stop, I could not fail.
Although the words were like building blocks,
As if I were erecting the world’s greatest skyscraper,
It was not about architecture.
It was not even about substance.
It was, dare I say it?
Poetic.
Truly rhythmical, imaginative and melodious.
Not epic. Not really. But not the least bit commonplace.
I was soaring. Becoming one with the atmosphere.
Unstoppable. Insatiably gluttonous for words.
Dining on the abstract. Gobbling up the abstruse.
It seemed as though I could write forever.
And then the alarm clock went off.

©2015 Steven Barto