On the Opioid Crisis and the Church: A National Emergency for Us All*

* Full article published in More to Life Magazine.

Tracy* sat on the bed in front of me, her eyes wild and darting around the room. She looked a mess, her long dark hair in dingy kinks and knots. Sunken brown eyes and a pock-marked face made her look more like forty than the twenty-something she was.

Most disturbing of all was the way she twisted and squirmed in the bed, as if fighting invisible cords threatening to tie her down.

Indeed, she was fighting something.

Before she was admitted to the hospital unit where I work, Tracy had been using over $1,000 a week of heroin, and ways she told us she’d been paying for it were unspeakable. As nurses, physicians and therapists, we were helpless in the fight to keep her pain manageable, not to mention treat the raging infection that caused her admission in the first place.

One might assume Tracy’s condition extreme, but hospitals are overflowing with opioid addicts like her whose hearts—literally and figuratively—are being destroyed.

Occasionally, we hear about stories like hers in the news. We catch a headline about a dozen people overdosing outside a local shelter. The evening news reports yet another city adopting a needle exchange program because if communities can’t control the drug use, maybe they can at least save an addict from contracting Hepatitis C or HIV or both.

What we don’t hear about so much is where the church is in the midst of the opioid crisis...click here to read the full story in More to Life Magazine.

Dear New York Times, I don’t get religion either.

In an NPR interview last week with Terry Gross, executive editor of the New York Times Dean Baquet said this:

“I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.”


Well, that explains a lot.

Or does it?

Religion is a hot-button word these days. Quite honestly, I’m not sure I “get religion” either, based on how the media and even some churches define it.

Religion is liturgy and ritual, tradition and philosophy, exegesis, hermeneutics, rules and roles, which can be well and good in moderation but none of it goes very far. Folks can walk around all day long, all year long, all their lives long and say they have and do religion. They can go through the motions of ceremonies and holidays and quote great thinkers and claim to be great thinkers themselves. They can get married in and bring their kids to and attend funerals at religious places. At it’s worst, some claim religion and say G-d is why wars and sickness and natural disasters happen. Others claim religion and go on and abuse children and burn crosses and hate Jews and LGBTQ’s and say that G-d hates them, too.

But religion like that is not what Mr. Baquet and his fellow New York Times editors are missing.

If Mr. Baquet and editors at the New York Times want to understand “religion,” what they really need to understand is faith.

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the way He saved me from abominations I survived early in life, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have faith in G-d and Jesus Christ. I always believed all the stories about G-d saving people from lions and fire, floods and Pharoahs. I believed Jesus died and rose again. I believe G-d spoke to Saul on a dusty road near Damascus, used him as Paul, and that he still does that to men today.

Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing to have always had faith, to have always been aware of the fact that 1) I need saving and 2) I need a Savior. In many ways, I think it would be easier to go about life oblivious to the Cimmerian ache not only in the sunken eyes of hurting people all around us, but especially in myself. Believing social reform and government, economic policy and academia can fix this broken world would be more sagacious, after all, than believing in something that can’t be seen or explained.

Regardless, I realized faith–or at the very least, hope that can lead to faith–showed up in what Baquet said in a rather interesting way. I almost missed it myself.

We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone,” he said.

Now, I don’t know anything about who the religion writer is for the New York Times. As such, I can’t and won’t comment on whether or not she is a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever. What I can comment on is the fact that Baquet says she is alone, and alone is a pretty significant place to be in lieu of the upside-down, unlikely, impossible things G-d did at Christmas.

See, one person alone and with faith has always been the way G-d works to free people from oppression and deliver them from slavery.

NoahAbraham. Moses. Joshua (Numbers 13, 14, and the Book of Joshua). Jacob (Genesis 28-32). Jochebed (Exodus 1-2; Exodus 6:20; Numbers 26:59). Rahab (Joshua 2). Queen Esther (The Book of Esther). King David (I-2 Samuel). Hannah (I Samuel 1).

The people G-d used weren’t perfect, either. (They still aren’t.) Far from it. Moses murdered a man. Rahab was a prostitute. King David was an adulterer and sent a man to his death. There were faults in all of them, just like there are faults in each of us.

And then there was Christmas.

One teenage virgin.

One baby.

One star.

One man.

One cross.

One sacrifice abrogating all others.

One Savior who came to redeem one person at a time.

One G-d who claims us.

Who restores us.

Who loves us.

And who frees us.

I don’t get religion either, Mr. Baquet.

What I do get is that we here in America are oppressed by much–obviously not things like Aleppo, but I’m not talking about that right now. Americans are oppressed by things like division and hopelessness, government overreach and unemployment, drug epidemics  and sometimes by hardships of our own doing.

What I also get is that faith, once tried, is real.

Faith doesn’t keep bad things from happening like abuse and incest, cancer and catastrophe, wars and drunk drivers and infertility, hunger, murder, or funerals at Christmastime. But faith makes it possible to survive.

Faith frees us to heal.

And faith makes it possible to fully, wholly live.

Faith doesn’t make the greatest fodder for front page news, because faith shows up in tender mercies, in hospital waiting rooms, and with a hymn and softly falling snow at a funeral. Faith shows up in the farmer who plants his crops after a year of hard drought. Faith shows up in a mother waiting in line at a food bank and in the child who leaves his change in an offering plate.

No, the New York Times probably won’t soon figure out the role that faith plays in people’s lives.

Because faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and faith is the conviction of things not seen.

Faith isn’t a beat, Mr. Baquet.

Faith is a Savior.

And faith is what holds everything together for believers.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us…
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
    and to remember his holy covenant…
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ~Luke 1:68-69; 72; 78-79

Maybe they’re right. Skip church this Christmas.


You read that right.

Go ahead and skip church this Christmas.

But not for the reasons you might think, and certainly not for the reasons the American Atheists group are pushing in their new billboard campaign.

Here’s the thing: if you’re looking for a Savior exalted by trees and tradition and carols and stage lights and ground fog and Silent Night with candle wax dripping onto your hand, you might miss Him.

Oh, I know what some are thinking.

How could I, a Christian (and more than that, a Jesus-follower) propose people skip church on Christmas? Why, people might be there the first time in their lives! They might be saved then and there! Am I a heretic or a blasphemer? Am I a fraud? A troublemaker? Am I just plain nuts?

Maybe (and I welcome the accusations).

But I’ve been troubled for a while now by what mankind has made of religion.

I know from firsthand experience if a person goes to church, they may be mesmerized, captivated, and swept off their emotional feet by all the shine and shimmer, but eventually the church will disappoint them.

Because the church is not what saves us.

Of course the church and clergy and the ministry have been (and yes, I believe continue to be) wonderful messengers of The Gospel, and well-oiled machines in many cases. Heck, I consider my writing to be a ministry, and I pray through every word as I write my novels. But men and machines (and writers), they break. And if we put our trust and expectations in them, we will break too.

So yeah, skip church this Christmas if you’re looking for Jesus.

After all, the folks who were looking for the Messiah 2,000 years ago expected a warrior…a sword-wielding, emotionally captivating, shiny and larger-than-life solution to their problems. They never considered the G-d of the universe would show up insignificant and wailing in a filthy stable to an outcast and out-of-wedlock teenager, and from the Tribe of Judah to boot–not the expected, revered, proper Tribe of Levi. All the priests and the powerful and respected and legitimate came from the Tribe of Levi, after all. The Tribe of Judah, well, it was a *little* lackluster, by comparison. 

Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that if one is really looking for the Savior today, He might not be apparent in the worldly ways we’re attracted to?

I don’t begrudge the church. I don’t. I absolutely adore the particular brick-and-mortar one that we attend. I believe the church is where Christians must go to learn to be disciples and to be accountable and to be encouraged and strengthened–as well as to encourage and strengthen. I believe church is a place where the lost can go to find Him, through the love of other believers. 

It’s just that if Jesus were here today, I’m quite sure He would not be at a pulpit or on a stage. He would be among out-of-wedlock teenagers and doubters and homeless and aged and forgotten. He would be in the hospital rooms of patients who never have visitors, and the alleyways where prostitutes weep while shivering and waiting for another john. He would be sitting at the table with the man who smells abominable at the soup kitchen. He would be with the shopper out buying *one more thing* to attempt to make a *perfect* Christmas and with the atheists busying themselves with blasphemous billboards, because He loves them, too, and maybe even more because He is the Hound of Heaven after those who are most lost.

If we believe Jesus is unchanging as He says, then we have to recognize He still appears to us in the tsa’arצָעִיר , the Hebrew word used in Micah’s prophecy to describe the small, the ignoble, the unlikely and the overlooked.

So where should we go?

And where should we look for Him?

Try the old man with the walker you push past while reaching for a can of cranberry sauce at the grocery. Consider the lonely girl at the coffee shop trying to hide her tears behind a cup of latte. Maybe the handicapped young man who talks too much while he’s bagging your groceries. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters, women’s shelters, jails. Look for Him in the single mom and the neighbor who lost her spouse and the man with the sunken eyes working at the gas station on Christmas Eve.

Look for Him where no one else is looking.

We might just be surprised by what we find.


“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.” ~Micah 5:2 (ESV)