Pastoral ponderings . . .

      Jesus is in mourning.  He's grieving the murder of his cousin, John the Baptist.  He went looking for solitude last week, but found crowds needing him.  He met them with compassion, born of his own grief. Now he sends his disciples back across the lake in their boat, and heads up a trail to be alone by himself:  to grieve, and pray.

     At the end of the day, an evening thunderstorm rolls in.  It's a big one.  Boats should be off the lake, but one still isn't. Jesus' thoughts again turn to the distress of his friends. Nothing will keep him from coming to them, and accompanying them in the storm.  He is Emanuel.  God With Us.  And the famous image of Christ walking on the sea occurs.

     "Nothing shall ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" says the apostle Paul in Romans. "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

     "Lord, save me!" says the disciple Peter, when he begins sinking beneath the waves.  His faith carries him only a little way across the water to Jesus.  Our faith (our will to believe) can only do so much; only take us so far. In the end it isn't our faith, our will-power, that saves us.  It's God's faithfulness to us, that does that.  It's God's love that brings us back into beloved community; back into the boat of community, where we belong.

We hear a lot of stories of how someone's faith, their will to believe, made them do something amazing, something like walk on water.  Facebook, and Guidepost magazine are full of them. I think it's easy for us white Americans to get seduced by those stories.  We who like to hear that it's all up to us, all up to the individual citizen, to sink or swim. "Pull yourself up by your own boot-straps." "Rugged individualism."  "Will-power."  

     The Salt Lake City DIY (Do It Yourself) festival is goes on every August.   DIY building projects of every kind are featured. DIY has been going on a very long time in Utah. Our home in Sugarhouse was built in 1943.  vThere were several owners before us.  Each seemed to be a DIY enthusiast, and judging from their work, their motto was "That's good ‘nuff."

     "Good Nuff" that is, until we had a construction crew gut the upstairs, and discover that a "good nuff" roof design was going to have to be completely replaced! DIY only takes the vast majority of us so far.  It isn't long before we're calling on the expertise of the greater community, the wider society in which we live, to come and help. "Lord, save me!" says a drowning disciple today.  His will to believe, his "DIY faith," only took him so far. Turns out he's human after all.                                                                                         

     It doesn't matter to me if the story of walking on water is real or not.  What's real to me is the underlying message: Christ Jesus is Emanuel, God With Us.  Nothing will separate us from Him.     God's love comes to all who call out in despair, and restores us from individualism to community. It brings us back where we belong, where there are no favorites, only the grace of God's love.

     The scene of water-walking is about who we are as humans, and who God is. In the water walking Christ, we see God in relationship with us. We see the promise that God is With Us, no matter what. In the drowning disciple, we see that no matter how far from the boat we may get, we're still human.  A DIY faith is only going to take us so far. We're going to need God to restore us again to community;  to shared responsibility for each other's well-being.  Because we're all in the same boat together.                                                                

    That's what the churchy word "righteousness" means to me.  It means right relationship with each other. It means shared responsibility.  To me, the water-walking story means that's not going to happen according to how much will-power we have.  We need God to restore us again to community.  We need God's help to get back in the boat again. Back to the place of shared responsibility for each other. Our will to believe isn't going to keep us from drowning.  It isn't what's going to bring us back into the boat. It's the loving gracious act of God that does that, whether we deserve it or not.  Even whether we have faith or not!

   The promise is that God's love comes to all who call out in despair. It comes through community, to make a new day, and it enfolds us in our death. That's what this story means to me.                                              

     We are drowning in an epidemic of opiod addiction. We see it downtown in the Rio Grande district.  We see it in the suburbs of Utah County.  We see it across the country. We hear the statistics: at least 142 deaths every day.   About as many Americans expected to die this year of drug overdoses as died in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined.

     Some are calling the numbers "deaths of despair."  Our fellow citizens dying of despair.   We hear that the unemployment rate is the lowest in years. What we don't hear about is the number of Americans  who have simply given up looking for work.  Despair engulfs their lives.

     What's left to live for, except the high that stops the feeling? And when the prescriptions run out, or the medical insurance is gone, heroin is the cheapest and most available it has ever been in American history. And fentanyl, a hundred times more powerful than heroin, is cheaper still.

     I heard on the radio the director of a local drug rehab center who is also a recovering addict, say that for him, "It's not about drugs, it's about behavior." I've been thinking about that ever since.  I think recovery is about both.  Recovery I believe, is a life-long process. And from what recovering addicts say, the detox phase, the coming down off the drugs, can be in itself long and painful. The despair of drowning makes a person cry out. "Lord save me!"                                                                                                                   

     But it won't be a DIY faith that saves an addict.  Rugged individualism, will-power, doesn't keep an addict from relapsing.  What we know today is that treatment for the disease of addiction requires both clinical medical support at the front end, and life-long community support from there on out to live a sober life.  And relapses are a part of the process.

    Having faith doesn't mean anyone is cured of any addiction, just as having faith doesn't mean a diabetic doesn't have diabetes anymore. Someone with diabetes needs the support of their community to keep from drowning.  The same for any disease.  And addiction is no different.

     The American opiod crisis is not something that affects only a certain segment of our population. In a way, I think it's a symptom of an even greater crisis that relates to the growing divide between the "haves" and "have nots" of our great nation:                                                                                                                            

       Those who have the opportunity of plutocracy, and those who do not.

Those who have jobs with living wages, health insurance, savings in the bank, affordable housing, reliable transportation, etc. etc., and those who have not.

     Homelessness, lack of affordable medical care, underemployment, and despair.  I believe these are all part of the American public health crisis that's coming to a head in the "deaths of despair" we see today on our streets.

     Public health is exactly that.  It's public.  It's shared.  It's about the pulse of all of us together, living in the same country. Infectious disease is part of the addiction crisis.  Disease doesn't recognize "haves" or "have nots." It knows no distinction between Jew and Greek, in the language of scripture.

     HIV and Hepatitis C are rapidly spread to the public at large through unprotected sex, and shared intravenous needles. And opiods from the street are commonly ingested using shared needles, because access to syringes is extremely limited, and expensive. So why not just get rid of all the needles?  Because needle scarcity is what is leading to the growing infection rates for HIV and Hep C in the general public.  

     This is why I come down in favor of the needle exchange program in SLC. Giving out sterile needles to users is at the very front end of the path into clinical medical treatment for opiod addiction. Users interact maybe for the very first time with public health professionals who are there ready to grab the hand of those who finally say "Lord, save me!" And pull them into the boat of community supported recovery.

     I believe that clinical medical support at the front end of recovery begins with more, not fewer, clean needles on the street. It's part of the shared responsibility we all have for public health. It's recognizing that we are all in the same boat, especially when it comes to infectious disease.

     It makes no sense to tell someone drowning in addiction to just have faith, just have will-power, and you'll be free of your addiction. Like the drowning disciple, we need both God's grace to pull us out of the water, and the beloved community of shared responsibility creating the supportive environment where everyone's well-being is everyone's responsibility. Because, after all the stunts and exhibitions by a privileged few, the reality remains that we're human beings.  Not water-walking gods.  And we're all in the same boat. The boat where there's "no distinction between Jew and Greek, but the same Lord is Lord of all."  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   .                                                                                                                 Pr. David