Judith M. Dinsmore
When Patience walked into Neon Reformed OPC in Neon, Kentucky, she was two years and four months clean of drugs and alcohol. Her addiction had begun at age thirteen, when a close relative started smoking pot with her. They lived in a small coal town in West Virginia, right across the Big Sandy River from Kentucky. At around eighteen, Patience was given her first line of heroin, again from her relative, who wanted a using buddy. Next, Patience tried thirty-milligram oxycodone tablets, or “thirties.”
“I would use just anything and everything to alter my state of mind and the way that I felt, both emotionally and physically,” Patience said.
After a few years, Patience needed something stronger, so her boyfriend taught her how to intravenously inject heroin, a cheaper and more potent choice than the thirties. She would shoot up in hospital parking lots because, as she figured, overdosing was a matter of when not if.
When she was twenty-three, Patience’s boyfriend took her for a drive and spun into a parking lot that she didn’t recognize. “He said that he wanted to quit using drugs and that if I didn’t go to this meeting with him, he’d leave me,” she remembered. Severely co-dependent, Patience agreed.
It was more of an intervention than a meeting. The CEO of the faith-based Addiction Recovery Centers (ARC) told the two his testimony. Both Patience and her boyfriend accepted the offer for treatment, and through the preaching of a Reformed Baptist chaplain at her rehab facility, Patience came to Christ in December 2015. “It was one of those moments you just never forget,” she said.
Patience’s story is no longer unusual. In the past twenty-five years, opioid use has spread rapidly into states inexperienced with drug addiction but often ripe for trouble from economic downturns. Some of these states include OP congregations: West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Neon, Kentucky, in particular, is next door to some of the worst opioid use in the country. When the local hospital responded to the epidemic in 2017 by forbidding doctors to prescribe painkillers, one practitioner came out of retirement to open a clinic nearby. To this day, when the clinic is open, the parking lot is packed, said M. Jay Bennett, pastor of Neon Reformed. The practitioner writes the prescription for opioids, and “patients” can walk to a mom-and-pop pharmacy to fill it.
Although Patience’s background was not uncommon, as a recovering addict she found little help from area churches. She has some guesses why. “Churches who stigmatize addiction tend to brush you off. They engage, but it’s not genuine.” Patience now works at one of ARC’s in-patient facilities in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. Her clients recently told a story that lined up with her own experience: They attended a nondenominational church one morning and were informed afterward that they came at the wrong time. If you’d like to come again, the ushers said, you must come to the third Sunday morning service, not the second one.
Heavy addiction rates can cause local churches to be less open to recovering addicts. Members may have been stabbed in the back by loved ones who are addicted, Patience explained, making them unwilling to trust a recovering addict. Or, the church might feel awkward. “Addicts’ social constructs are sometimes backwards,” Patience laughed. “We have a different way of socializing.”
Neon Reformed, however, welcomed her. “They’ve been wonderful to me,” Patience said. “People actually take the time to talk to me as an individual.” She is currently in the new members’ class.
Learning that the pastor himself had a history with drugs also gave Patience a “sense of comfort.” Recovering addicts like her are easily overwhelmed, she explained. Many are convinced that no one understands or cares. Time and time again, what breaks through the barrier is when those who have experience with addiction—who can understand—demonstrate that they do care. “Neon gives me hope that church fellowship and community is real,” Patience concluded.
But perhaps more challenging than welcoming the recovering addict is loving well the addict already inside the church.
Travis Lamb was a PCA deacon in Nashville, Tennessee. Addicted to alcohol, he’d show up to church in a suit and come to all the committee meetings in what he now calls a 24/7 obsession with deception. “I would be teaching Sunday school and absolutely hammered at nine o’clock in the morning,” Lamb remembered.
By this point, he had already gone through treatment once. “I was living just to drink and to use. I was all day, every day, keeping up appearances while everything was just rotten on the inside,” he said. “It was the end of the road.”
The church didn’t respond well, Lamb said. Although warning signs were all over the place, the leadership didn’t know what to do. “It wasn’t any kind of willful blindness, but simply an issue that was pushed into a corner,” he explained. “There was no sense of urgency.” Lamb himself didn’t help. Like many in addiction, he was accomplished not only at deceiving others but also himself, thinking that he could “feed off of some living faith without repentance.”
In time, however, Lamb walked into an intervention with a guy who understood the urgency: Patrick Padgett, a recovering alcoholic and the son of Great Commissions Publications’ executive director, Marvin Padgett. Patrick Padgett runs several halfway houses in the Nashville area for men coming either out of treatment or off the street. Lamb spent six months in one of Padgett’s houses in 2016. Today, he is two and a half years clean.
Churches need to treat addiction like any other ingrained sinful behavior or habit, Lamb said, and look for actions, not promises. No one expects a church member to shake off greed or lust in thirty days, or even six months. The disconnect may be that Reformed Christians seem to categorize drug addiction as “different,” Padgett observed. When Christians think of addiction as an “other” sin or a “worse” sin, they may be too quick to believe an addict’s promises because they assume the addict would want to shake off the embarrassing problem as quickly as possible.
For the addict, however, the substance is not a problem. “I tell this to families all the time,” Padgett said. “You’re not asking your husband or your wife or your child to stop drinking or to stop doing drugs. You’re asking them to give up—by far—the most important thing in their lives. You’re asking them to give up what they worship, what they idolize, what their lives are based on. You’re not asking them to give up a problem. You’re asking them to give up a solution.”
As Lamb put it, the solution is destructive, but it does work, for a few hours. “Everything that I’m promised in Christ—I can get that instantly in alcohol. Forget the joys of heaven, I can have it right now. And it’s not that expensive.”
“People ask me why I drank too much, and my answer is that I was seeking release,” Padgett explained. “And if you’ve ever been a little buzzed on alcohol, you cannot possibly comprehend how powerful opiates are.” Anything we set up as an idol can destroy our lives, Padgett said. How much more so when you’re taking something that’s physiologically addictive!
Both Lamb and Padgett grew up in the church. Both knew better. But both found Christ-replacements, nonetheless. Isn’t that the temptation for us all?
“Given our Reformed view of mankind, of total depravity, it shouldn’t surprise us in the church that our children, and we ourselves, are falling prey to bondage by addiction,” Padgett concluded. “The Reformed church should be better suited than anyone to deal with addiction because we understand the real seat of bondage. At the end of the day, if my solution is myself or anything outside of Christ, I’m lost.”
These truths played out dramatically in Patience’s life when she relapsed after her conversion. “I wasn’t happy with anything in life,” she remembers. “The only relief I found was when I would go off by myself and contemplate the Lord. It was that desire for more of him that caused me to flee my sin and run to him. It was his goodness and grace.”
“It’s a gift to get to the point of realizing that I, left to my own devices, can do nothing,” Lamb reflected. “The solution that works is to put my faith in Christ and follow him and down the road we go.”
He phrases his recovery in age-old terms: learning to battle idolatry, sloth, bearing false witness. “There’s no sitting still when you’re fighting addiction—just like any other sin,” he said. Day by day, Lamb never stops asking himself this sobering question: “What am I grabbing onto too tightly that has no eternal consequence whatsoever?”
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, October 2019.