By His Track Marks We Might Be Healed: Jesus, Pain, and Opioids

Jesus and pain; those aren’t words we readily associate with each other.  Joy, hope, peace, love, grace, and salvation are the kinds of terms one expects to hear from clergy and laity.  Unless you’re a member of the Spanish Inquisition, Jesus and pain are like oil and water.  I’m not so certain.  I think it’s impossible to talk honestly about Jesus without addressing how Jesus’ life intersects with spiritual and physical pain.  Why is this important?

Our congregations are in pain. This isn’t because they’re overwrought by the coming dissolution of United Methodism.  It’s because their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives are struggling with opioid addiction.  Some wait on phone calls they know will one day come.  Some weep from behind hymnals.  Some hope no one asks them any questions about their loved ones so they won’t have to lie.

I’m witnessing the impact of opioids in our church and community.  The stories are not complex nor are they unique.  Medicines are too easily prescribed.  People get hurt on the job.  Surgeries go wrong.  Sometimes genetics work against the better angels of our nature.  The pain of an injury, leading to an addiction, which leads to job loss, which leads to a divorce, arrests, or even death.

Are prayers alone enough?  In 2018, everyone loves to talk about cancer, brain tumors, Alzheimer’s, even HIV/AIDS during prayer concerns.  Opioid addiction, a silent killer that knows no socio-economic boundaries, walking door to door, no wants to lift up.   Why?  It’s painful.   It’s sad that we’ve made people feel too uncomfortable or unwilling to bring their pain to church.  That’s on us.

What does the church do?  Go back to the beginning.  We have a starting point to talk pain.  Jesus was intimate with spiritual and physical pain.  We like to talk about Jesus “sharing our sufferings”.  That’s not only a Lenten/Easter reality but an existential constant.

Some early Christian writers quoted the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases and we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”   (Isaiah 53:4-5 NRSV)

Those are words about pain and healing.  We might read them in worship once every three years.  It would do us good to spend more time working through the ideas of bruises as needle tracks, infirmity as addiction, disease as disease, and affliction as something other than garden variety sin.  The benefits of moving from the metaphorical to the literal have the potential of holding out hope to those who’ve already given up on the idea of healing.  The church alone cannot solve this problem.  However, I do believe the United Methodist Church has the potential to be part of a lasting solution.  This won’t happen unless we engage with reality instead of living in a future we’re still debating.

These are conversations worth having.  Our prayers cannot be censored out of fear, guilt, or judgment.  Whether in prayer, study, or support; we must name what we face.  The greatest threat to the Christian community isn’t LGBT Methodists, illegal immigrants, or devout Muslims.  It’s the people dying to survive.  You know; the person that went to high school with your kids, the guy two houses down, the man sitting next to you on the pew-his daughter.

Out of anguish, says Isaiah, we find light.  Are we ready to do something with this Epiphany light that’s more than decorative?

Richard Lowell Bryant

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