Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Dark Side of Truth

A new film was just released that tells a provocative story. Even though it is a fictional account, it could be true. Based on the experiences of my own family, while the names and faces are different, the events are very familiar.

Back Fork is thoroughly connected to my home state of West Virginia. It was filmed there. It was written, directed and produced by people with strong roots in the Mountain State. Two of the producers, Bob and Jeff Tinnell, are my friends and I'm extremely proud of the hard work they put into this project.

West Virginia is a beautiful place and the film does a wonderful job of capturing some of that gorgeous scenery. West Virginia is also a broken place and that is clear in this movie. Over the last dozen years WV has been ravaged by addiction and death directly related to substance abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse: "In 2017, there were 833 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in West Virginia - a rate of 49.6 deaths per 100,000 persons. This is double the rate in 2010 and threefold higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons." These statistics place WV at the top of the list for drug overdose deaths in our nation. For obvious reasons people have used words like "crisis" and "epidemic" to describe this issue. But sadly, the problem seems to fade into the background like so much white noise. Enter Back Fork.

This movie is raw and graphic and poignant. At times, it is disturbing. The dark side of the truth is often disturbing, which is why we like to keep it in the dark. However, I believe it is time our nation was disturbed by this issue. These hard things, these tragic things, they need to be seen for what they are and the gravity of this issue needs to be felt. Back Fork brings all of this weight and leaves very little to the imagination.

I realize that some of my readers are conservative Christians. To be honest, this movie might be offensive to you. If you are accustomed to a pleasant, "sanitized" environment, you may not appreciate this film. But, if you are willing to risk being offended (which isn't always a bad thing) you may actually see something that will help you. Help you to see the unvarnished pain that is sometimes masked by religion and is rarely talked about openly or acknowledged in the church.

It is this pain, brokenness and addiction (that we all have) that can be healed through knowing Jesus. And while that particular hope is absent from the movie, the truth is, it is also absent in much of our world. And although some Christians know about this sort of hopelessness in theory, we rarely see it graphically depicted because we have cloistered ourselves too far away from the pain of our world. Furthermore, at times Christians fail to see that they too struggle with addictions (judgment, people pleasing, food, exercise, being right), ways we seek validation or comfort to mask our pain. Maybe these are not fatal, but they can be addictions just the same. Back Fork portrays the mess and struggle that is real. Sometimes we need to stare that mess in the face to be reminded of the magnitude of God's amazing grace - the powerful light that pierced this dark world, offering genuine hope, freedom and redemption.

Back Fork was hard for me to watch for several reasons. Mainly because it hit very close to home. For those willing to press into the dark and difficult, you might want to watch this film. Its currently available on Amazon Prime Video and few other streaming platforms.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Who Gives This Woman?

Two months ago I was asked that question: "Who gives this woman into the care of this man?" Of course I responded as I was supposed to respond, "Her mother and I" (with a little lump in my throat). And with that, a peck on her cheek and the rest of the ceremony, my daughter was married. It was a blessed and joyful day of celebration!

And it all went so fast: the walk down the aisle, the ceremony...but especially the last twenty two years! How is it possible that the little girl I rocked to sleep is now a married woman, a college graduate, working fulltime, paying bills and all of that? 

I'm extremely happy for her and her husband, who is a wonderful young man! They are both special people. They are well grounded and mature. They are quite suited to one another. I am joyful and excited for what the future holds for them as they begin this journey of marriage. But, as the reality of this starts to sink in, I am experiencing other emotions too. It is very quiet at our house. Her room is dark. Her chair at the dinner table is empty. Her car isn't parked in the driveway. We don't see her very often. There is a subtle layer of sadness connected to these things.

How is it possible to be joyful and sad at the same time?

My wife and I are heading into our 25th year of marriage. I know what marriage is like. All of it. While we have enjoyed a wonderful marriage, there have been hard times too. People are people, they come with all sorts of "junk" and are not always easy to live with. I realize my daughter will deal with her fair share of struggle. Something inside of me wants to protect her from it. So, amid the joy and sadness, there is also a bit of anxiousness for the inevitable difficult times the newlyweds will encounter. However, it is her life to live...and enjoy and hurt and grow.

Emotions, which are gifts from God, are curious things. They are not meant to be avoided or disregarded. All of our emotions, the hard and the pleasurable, are intended from our Creator to be felt and they can "be our teachers." Part of the process of feeling those emotions is expressing them with trusted others.  Moreover, we can ask ourselves why we are feeling these things and take time to consider some deeper things behind them. I've done that privately. With this blog post I am sharing openly with you too, along with this offering: Don't run from your emotions, feel them. Be inquisitive about the reasons behind them. Allow God to use them to teach you what He is like and what is in the depths of your own heart.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Ripple Effect

On Saturday, August 25 I will participate in a conference dealing with the opioid crisis and addiction. The event, which is hosted by the KY Baptist Convention, is aimed at encouraging individuals impacted by this crisis and equipping those who want to more effectively engage this issue. We are hopeful that many will attend and leave with a better understanding of the struggle, as well as a grasp on possible solutions.

As a pastor, and proponent of the gospel, I am thoroughly convinced that there is hope for those struggling with addiction. It comes, by God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. And while the gospel is the ultimate solution for all the brokenness of our world, including that which comes with addiction, the impact of the opioid crisis is multifaceted. It is complicated and there has been a tremendous ripple effect in our communities.

Consider the following peripheral aspects of this epidemic:

* Children of those struggling with addiction are always wounded emotionally and sometimes suffer physical abuse. Not to mention the babies who are born addicted and those left to grow up without parents that have died from drug overdose. Grandparents and others often step in to assist. Schools are filled with children struggling to learn, even as they are dealing with trauma and stigma associated with drug use in their homes. Teachers and guidance counselors are on the front lines of this tragedy. It is bound to take a toll on them as well.

* Our healthcare system is stretched to the limits. The physical fallout that comes from drug abuse is significant. Hospitals and doctor's offices see the lasting effects of this crisis. Not to mention the chronic health issues that are sometimes associated with sharing needles. Plus, there are a growing number of overdose victims that enter hospitals daily. This has a tremendous impact on the first responders who are dealing with dozens of overdoses every week. All of these factors affect not only those using drugs, but those caring for them and the systems in place to provide aid and support. We must care for those who are hurting and improve these systems that are currently overwhelmed.

* There are some with legitimate health concerns that find themselves caught in the crossfire. Dozens of clinics and physicians erred in dispensing and prescribing prescription opioids. The crisis spiraled out of control. Many became addicted. Pain clinics have been shut down, often for good reason. However, there are still individuals trying to manage actual pain. Pharmacists and physicians are trying to navigate this crisis with wisdom and serve their patients.

* Some (not all) struggling with addiction turn to crime. Although some of this crime is nonviolent, the impact is felt by family members as well as complete strangers who become victims. Add to this the terrible violence that is nearly always associated with those who are selling drugs. Shootings and gang activity are prevalent especially in areas where drugs are being bought and sold. Any veteran police officer will testify to how all of these things has increased their caseload over the last ten years. It has become a cliché already, but it still holds true, "we can not arrest our way out of this crisis." Still, law enforcement officers are among those on the streets daily trying to help combat this epidemic.

* While it is difficult to quantify, the job market is certainly negatively impacted by drug abuse. Some employers will have difficulty finding workers who can pass a drug test and have the capacity to function in the workplace. Companies in this situation find it harder to compete, let alone thrive and grow. Those dealing with addiction issues have a harder time finding and keeping a job. It is a vicious cycle for both parties. Difficult economic times, poor decisions by some, many others feeling the impact.

There is no single solution to make the mess go away. When someone who has struggled with substance abuse is transformed by the gospel, that is reason to rejoice! And praise God this is happening in churches, treatment centers and recovery groups over and over again. However, there are layers of complication and tragedy that will not go away overnight. This is a big issue that will take much time, urgent prayer and risky love if we hope to see it diminished. We must not lose sight of the fact that those battling addiction are human beings, made in the image of God, valuable to him and worthy of our compassion.

Just as there is a ripple effect from destructive actions, there is a ripple effect from gracious actions. While some are "cursing the darkness" caused by this epidemic, others are lighting candles and pressing into that darkness. The skeptic may say, "I didn't cause this mess, I'm not going to clean it up." That attitude is self-centered and short-sighted. A community effort is necessary if a community is going to experience recovery.

Recovery is possible. There is hope. What will you do to engage this issue and cause a ripple effect of God's love and grace?

Friday, July 6, 2018

Memories and Friendship

Me and a few old friends - June 2018 - SAHS Class of '83 reunion
Time is an odd thing. At various stages of life we view time differently. As a small child 35 years seems like an eternity, while someone in their early 50s might consider it a blur that has quickly passed. Also, after many years, just the mere mention of an event or a song from the past can almost transport us back in time. What an awesome gift from God is our capacity to store up memories!

This past weekend I attended the 35th reunion of my high school graduating class. It was two days filled with many laughs and lots of memories. I reconnected with old friends, some I had not seen in decades. We exchanged stories about life and relived experiences from years ago. We looked through a dusty yearbook and remembered the time before careers, kids, and the need for hair color. There were fond inquiries about the ones who were absent. They were part of our stories, but sadly, they will not be included in these new memories.

It was a good time and I'm thankful for the opportunity to be present with old friends. I'm aware that at times life gets in the way of such things, unfortunately. I'm also grateful for modern technology that allows me to easily capture such moments. I want to take more pictures!

While in my hometown for the weekend I walked down Main Street with my grandson. He's eight years old and such a neat little guy. When I was his age that place seemed so big and much more exciting. I realize that I have grown up and have a new perspective. The events of life have colored that perspective. And all of it, the joyful and the hard are part of the story. Strolling past old store fronts, some now vacant, I couldn't help remember some events from my childhood. And now I'm wondering what sort of memories my little guy will have as he grows up. What will shape him? In an interesting twist, he's attending the same elementary school that I attended (Go Central Buffalos!) and lives on the same road I did for the first 21 years of my life!

Some of the friends I met at Central Elementary were gathered with me over the weekend. I hope my grandson is developing good and lasting friendships too. It is these sorts of people that have had an enduring impact on who I am today. I don't want to forget them or take them for granted. They are more than just part of my memories, they are part of my story.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Awful Love of God

"When Scripture, prayer, worship, ministry become routine, they are dead. When I conclude that I can now cope with the awful love of God, I have headed for the shallows to avoid the deeps. I could more easily contain Niagara Falls in a teacup than I can comprehend the wild, uncontainable love of God." Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

["Awful" = amazing, impressive, awe-inspiring]

This song comes to mind. Listen and ponder the implications of God's love for you!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Stop Complaing. Do Something.

I see and hear so much complaining. There are a myriad of problems and no community is immune. It is depressing and disturbing. Some people believe things can't change or that only government agencies are able to bring about change. Others are proactive, looking for ways to do something about the issues facing their communities. What about you - how can you make an impact, become part of the solution?

One person can make a difference in their community! Things won't change, there will not be a shift in the status quo, if everyone stays inside watching TV or surfing social media. It will take action, effort, creativity and intentionality.

Here are 16 simple ideas. Find a couple of them that excite you and go make a difference:

* Volunteer weekly at a local ministry or non-profit - every community has a senior center, library, soup kitchen, boys/girls club or another place where you can serve others. One or two hours of free labor a week can make a big difference for an organization on a small budget.

* Join a local organization that is already actively working to improve the community - Rotary Club, Lions Club, youth sports league, women's club. The structure is already in place, all they need are more people to execute their plans.
* Identify neighbors who need assistance and offer to help - cut grass, do car repairs, offer rides to the grocery or appointments, provide a meal. Yes, I'm suggesting you actually engage with others on your street. Find out how they are getting along and offer to assist where there are needs.

* Organize a group to pick up litter, plant flowers, cut grass or trim weeds in neglected areas - trash and overgrown areas make a neighborhood look...bad. With a bit of effort you could be part of adding beauty and community pride to a neglected corner.

* Plan a neighborhood cookout or block party - get to know your neighbors. Its about building relationships, risking and inviting human connection. It's not complicated.

* Support local artists and musicians - attend concerts, gallery openings, craft fairs. Art and music bring joy. Be part of promoting those who have talents to share and take time to enjoy these wonderful blessings.

* Shop local and encourage entrepreneurs - nearly everyone has a sense of nostalgia about the corner grocery, local hardware or small town diner. A few still exist and there are people who want to bring them back. Find them and give them your business. These places often serve as neighborhood gathering spots that cultivate a greater sense of community.

* Give financially to local non-profits and ministries -  support those who are helping the hurting and struggling. Soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, health clinics, addiction recovery centers, homeless shelters, all usually run on very tight budgets. Be generous. Bless and enable others who are doing the hard work that you are not necessarily equipped or able to do.

* Get moving - Go outside more. Picnic in the park, sit on your front porch, take a walk, attend a local sporting event (even if you have no kids playing). This is an opportunity to meet others, enjoy the various aspects of your community and get some exercise. Our society has become very sedentary.

* Deliver a meal or dessert to the fire house or police station – a simple expression of love and gratitude for those who respond to emergencies, protect and serve in your community.

* Attend city council meetings - get involved in ad hoc committees that relate to your areas of expertise and passion. This is a great way to stay informed on local issues and become an active participant in finding solutions for concerns in the community.

* Visit a local nursing home or retirement community – take flowers, visit, play music, participate in games or activities. These residents are often overlooked, isolated and sometimes without any family. Your presence will be a blessing to them and your perspective will likely be changed.

* Participate in a Neighborhood Watch program - one concern in many communities is crime. Vigilant and watchful neighbors who communicate with one another and law enforcement can be a helpful deterrent to criminals. It also promotes connection, unity and support within the community.

* Mentor a younger person - share your talents and expertise. Invest in the next generation. You can pass on valuable knowledge and experience. Connect with a local guidance counselor, youth pastor or scout master to identify young people who might benefit from learning a skill in which you excel - music, auto mechanics, carpentry, sewing, knitting etc.

Rock your town – painting rocks, hiding and finding them is a real thing. It is a way to express creativity and spread kindness and positivity. It is a unique activity for kids and adults. Social media provides an outlet to share photos and connect with others who are already involved. Many communities have "Rocking" social media pages set up to share photos and ideas.

* Look for the lonely - we all need friends. Pay attention to those around you, or make a special effort to seek out others, especially those who live alone. Friendship, the presence of others who care, is a powerful tool to increase joy and meaning in our lives.

As Matthew West said, "Its time for us to Do Something."

Friday, May 25, 2018

Hope for My Hometown

St. Albans, WV is situated at the confluence of the Kanawha and Coal Rivers.
(awesome photo by Joey Puterbaugh)
Several years ago I started a Facebook group page for my hometown, St. Albans, WV. I did it on a whim and invited all my high school friends to join. Within a couple of weeks the group had 200 members. I was shocked. Today there are over 9,500 members and counting. That's nearly as large as the current population of the town. The group page is a place to share memories and catch up on local events. A significant portion of the membership no longer live there. Like me, they want to remain connected to the place that still has a piece of their heart.

The group page is often a source of angst for me, and I suspect it is for many of the group members as well. The fond and pleasant memories are occasionally interrupted by present day turmoil. Tempers flare, divergent opinions are expressed, harsh words are used...all from behind an electronic device and little good is accomplished.

You see, drugs and crime have become part of everyday life in my hometown (like many in our country). At times these things seem to overshadow everything else. Its bad and people are dying. The drug epidemic has impacted me personally. However, I'm certain the solution is not ranting on a social media page.

Many who are caught in the terrible cycle of addiction don't believe there is another way to live. They are physically enslaved by the toxins and emotionally overwhelmed by a series of bad choices. Add to that the stigma and shame heaped upon them by others, who scratch their heads in dismay at so much tragic mess. On a practical level there is no quick fix or simple solution. Government and law enforcement can assist, but they do not hold the ultimate remedy. Treatment facilities, community support groups and early intervention can also play a helpful role. But, it is a messy and complicated situation that brings pain and leaves many suffering.

Hope, healing and freedom are possible. Ultimately these are found in God's love, that was demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, if and when the people who claim to know Jesus will risk graciously extending that love, to those who are struggling, perhaps a visible impact will be made. One life at a time. In one small hometown at a time.

P.S. There are good things happening in My Hometown like this, this and this, as well as more I don't have time to mention.