The Sacrificial Gift

 “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”  Mark 12:41-44

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The giving that Jesus observed that day in the temple was more about the heart and devotion than just the routine act of passing the offering plate and throwing something in.  There was much thought behind her act of sacrifice. Why didn’t she just drop in one copper coin? She would have been within her right to do so.   Surely no one would have expected more than that seeing as how impoverished she was. Some would even have gone so far as to have said she was unwise by giving it all. Widows’ lives were very difficult in those times as their husbands when living were the only ones with power to make a living or even to be recognized.

Jesus’ care for a widow provides the context for one of His most dramatic miracles: “Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd.  And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her.  When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people” Luke 7:11-16.

As much as Jesus showed us that we should care for the widows and the children, this chapter is not focused on the important act of our caring for widows.

This Great Prophet observed the heart of this woman who privately dropped in her two mites and knew because of her circumstances, that was all she had and called His disciples to Him to recognize and make a teaching moment out of it.  Only He can measure devotion and faith that is substantive and alive.  He was pointing out to them and us an example of what that is.  He knew about the human ego and  how important financial wealth at any level was to the average person.   He pointed out quite often in his ministry the spiritual pitfalls and dangers in wealth because He knew it would always be an issue for humans. He gave examples throughout the Gospels of how it steals away what should be our first and second love – the love of God and each other as we love ourselves.

In the small church where John and I attend, one Sunday morning, I made a request for donations for Criminal Law Handbooks for each wing in the jail.  I asked whoever was being led by the spirit to help with this project and that even the smallest amount would be appreciated.  After church, some of the members who faithfully support the work I do with the county jail inmates and people on probation each generously pressed a check or cash into my hand, but the offering that was the most sacrificial was from a person who I knew was giving all he could.  The few crumpled bills he pressed into my hand was accompanied with a story from his youth of how grateful he was that his life had gone the way it had because he had been on a wrong course at one point and got turned to the right before it was too late.   All the gifts including the small sacrificial gift were implemental in the purchase of eight handbooks.  Weeks later, my board members and volunteer drivers/mentors all attended the presentation of the books to the Texas County Jail Administrator and Sheriff with coverage from five county newspapers.  After the presentation and press interviews, I was able to walk around with Administrator Tim Garnica to deliver them to the wings.   As we visited each wing, we were well received with great appreciation.  I was also given names of eleven people who wanted Life Recovery Bibles.  At this point in time, no ministries are being allowed in the jail until a vetting process and a ministry schedule is set up.  I and another minister were allowed to visit the wings in mid-December only because it was the Christmas season.  That presentation of the books, even though it was a small effort in helping people somehow restore their lives through knowledge and self-advocacy, was an opportunity through the press release to share with the county what Sweetwater Network is about and the statistics around mass incarceration in our state and the price we are all paying in human lives and wasted tax money.  The living Spirit that came through the sacrificial gift of money that made the purchase possible was magnified time and again in the books and the information that came from the press release in all the county newspapers.  Even a picture of the book accompanied the nearly full page in color in the Houston Herald.  No one will be able to measure the impact of this gift but God will.  We know how important our sacrificial gifts are because Jesus taught us that they are.  The living Spirit that accompanies them because of the heart’s intention is like the loaves and fishes’ miracle Christ performed on the hill which started with the sacrificial gift of a child’s lunch.  

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:48-49

According to this scripture, we are accountable for what we have done with our talents and money.  Through our gifts given freely, comes embers of the fire that Christ would kindle on this earth to be a blessing to everyone – no limits. 

Today in our faith walk, we seem to be disconnected from the lessons in the Scriptures as many give the least they can get by with to those in need.  Maybe we think that the social programs in place are doing our job to raise each other up.  That is not the case.  At best the programs keep the people dependent and just at subsistence level.  Many of the families I worked with in Texas and Wright for 15 years as an outreach advocate who were living on the system, seemed to be resigned to have nothing to look forward to and raising their children to do the same, developing a generation of people who feel entitled and have lost their drive because of the hopeless life many have living on the system.  The sparks of hope and reimagining what otherwise would be a bleak future and what they can become, comes from the sacrificial gifts and acts of kindness we give out of love of our God and each other.  The social system we believe is taking care of our responsibilities to the less fortunate is impacting us negatively in the unhealthy  people it creates and the drain it places on our taxes that could be spent in better ways if everyone is doing their part.  That’s the System God had in mind.  Most of the people I work with are in jail and prison because of drug possession or they have violated their probation. Those are the main two reasons for incarceration in Missouri.  In the same issue of the Houston Herald as our press release was a bold list on the front page of numbers of the more extreme offenses in Texas County in 2018 such as homicides, rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies but drug possession numbers are not listed.  On page 8 there is a statement by Sheriff Lindsay: “I would be comfortable in saying that almost every crime statistic is somehow related to substance abuse. Whether it’s meth, opioids, some other drug or alcohol, 99% of the crimes we deal with involve people who have made a poor choice either because they’re feeding a habit or they’re under the influence and not thinking clearly.”  The violent crimes all have victims and with drugs involved, even the perpetrator has been victimized with drugs as the culprit.  Another alarming fact is that home labs are no longer such an issue here , drugs are being brought in from the outside, which points to the fact that we have a growing drug cartel industry going on in our communities, and that can only increase the chances that our youth will experience drugs on some level.

I just recently spoke to a woman in Texas County. Her youngest son who had a high-paying job and had been clean all his life had just been incarcerated for drug possession where his older brother was and has been several times because of drugs.  1,226 people were incarcerated in 2018 in the Texas County Jail, which the Sheriff had stated was low due to the disruption going on in the Sheriff’s dept.  321 were reported on probation in December, ’18.  Statistically 85% will return to prison in the first 3 to 5 years after release.  I feel it’s important that we understand why drugs are so destructive if we are to buy in or invest ourselves in God’s System with our sacrificial gifts of time, talent and treasure for each other.   If you’re still reading this chapter then it’s possible you are someone who God is calling to consider taking some action, even the smallest.

I discovered a book written by a father-son duo that was on the New York Times’ Best seller list titled “High: Everything You Want To Know About Drugs, Alcohol And Addiction” by David and Nic Sheff.  It was written for youth to read to prepare them for their first encounter with drugs.  I highly recommend it to parents and schools and churches to understand what many around us are going through and more importantly what our children are going to face eventually. Nic writes:  “My dad and I wrote this book so others – so you – will have the information I didn’t have when I was a teenager.  I’d heard about the dangers of drugs, but I never took them seriously.  Like almost everyone I knew, I thought I could get high sometimes and stop when I wanted.  I wish I’d known the truth. . . In this book, we go beyond the drama and the easy answers, because easy answers aren’t real – this isn’t easy.” Nic

 For now, until the general public gets educated and steps up to say “What can I do to change this?”  the drug problem is not going away. We and our loved ones will continue to share the roadways with people under the influence of drugs and alcohol who have impaired ability to drive responsibly to protect themselves and others and waste our hard-earned tax revenue to solutions that aren’t working and in fact, are making it worse.

 “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts.” Wm Shakespeare, Othello

There are four aspects of addiction I want to present from the book for your consideration. The first one is the fruit fly experiment. This experiment demonstrates the brain’s complicit role in the addiction after receiving the first dose of the drug of choice. 

“Why does stress lead to drug use? Drugs can calm people, of course, but it turns out there’s a far deeper connection between stress and drug use.  Dr Ulrike Heberlein, a neuroscientist at Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, uses fruit flies to study drug use and addiction in humans.  It’s weird, but as she explains, “Genetically speaking, people and fruit flies are surprisingly alike.” In one experiment, Heberlein exposes one group of flies to the odor of rotting apples, another group to the odor of vinegar.  The apple smell is accompanied by an intoxicating mist of alcohol; the vinegar smell isn’t. After three ten-minute sessions of exposure, the flies are put into a Y-shaped maze.  At the end of one branch is the odor of apple.  This time, there’s no alcohol.  At the end of the other, more vinegar.  Almost all of the flies that were trained to associate the apple odor with a burst of alcohol mist choose it.  When Dr H reverses it and spikes the vinegar, flies choose vinegar. “Whichever odor is delivered at the same time as a mist of ethanol is preferred. The implication is that they find ethanol intoxication rewarding.  They like it.”  And they want more.  How much more? A lot.  In a separate experiment, an electrified plate is placed on the path that leads to the odor associated with getting high.  This time to get to the source of the odor, flies must cross the plate.  When they do, they’re blasted with 100 to 120 volts of electricity.  It doesn’t stop them.  These flies will endure electric shock in order to get to the odor that they remember was associated with alcohol.  They’ve become addicted, or at least the fly equivalent of addicted; their drive to procure drugs is greater than the self-preservation instincts that make them avoid pain. There’s no way to know if they “like” the feeling, but they seek it even if they’re electrocuted along the way.  She conducts similar experiments using cocaine mist instead of alcohol.  The flies also go for the drug. Dr. H is also attempting to understand the connection between stress and drugs beyond the obvious – that is, when a person is high, stress can seem to melt away.  Her research is helping uncover why stress can lead to not only drug use but addiction.  For her research Dr. H has invented a device she calls an inebriometer to measure the amount of alcohol or cocaine it takes to get fruit flies wasted.  Most important she studies the relationship between fruit fly stress and their desire for, and reaction to, addictive substances.  While some fruit flies don’t seem to respond to stress, many react to stressful situations like some people do: they look for a substance that will make them feel better.  We couldn’t resist asking Dr. H how she stresses flies.  She says that she shakes them up, heats them, overcrowds them, and then isolates them. (Sounds like high school!) She can also, as she describes it, ‘suppress courtship and mating’. No wonder they get stressed!  It’s not difficult to make the connection from flies to people.  Stress creates a desire in our bodies and in our brains for relief of some kind, and drugs can appear to be the conduit for that relief.  The catch, of course, is that drug use depletes the brain, increases stress on the body, and stunts emotional development.  Dr Heberlein’s flies have no choice, but people do.”  “High” by David and Nic Sheff

For the second aspect of addiction, it’s important we understand the human brain.  Many people who become addicted start when they are youth.  The book explains the brain’s composition in young people that help us understand why youth are so susceptible to addiction.  “One of the problems with teen drug use is the natural instinct to pursue pleasure. Everyone wants to feel good, but the lag in the development of the frontal lobes – which directs judgment and impulse control in the brains of teenagers accounts for the fact that, even more than adults, they’re programmed to crave feelings of pleasure.  In kids, the subcortical region of the brain, the part that is associated with pleasure, develops first.  Particularly relevant to drug use is that the pleasure-seeking brain regions that develop first in teenagers are also associated with impulsivity, which is another of the many reasons kids use. Teenagers’ curiosity and impulsivity are, it turns out, essential traits that help them step into a new stage of life. ‘Adolescent humans are supposed to taste and to experiment,’ explains Dr. Steven Shoptaw, a psychologist and addiction specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Toddlers and teenagers have that in common.  Curiosity drives them to push boundaries in order to enter a new phase of life. Sometimes their explorations are dangerous. A toddler may touch a hot oven.  A teenager may try drugs. . . Where normal pleasure quickly peaks and then diminishes, drug-fueled euphoria can be more intense and last longer. Because the ‘crash’ when the drug wears off can make us feel terrible – depressed, anxious, and physically ill – it can lead to intense cravings for more of the substance that created the high in the first place.”

The third aspect of drug addiction is that the brain can become diseased by drug use.  “The physicist Michio Kaku says, ‘The human brain has one hundred billion neurons, each neuron connected to ten thousand other neurons.  Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.’ The complexity is such that it’s nothing short of miraculous that it works at all, let alone that it works relatively smoothly most of the time. . .  When added into that balanced system, drugs wreak havoc.  Your brain on drugs is like a highway where all the automobiles are out of control, some supercharged with jet fuel. Speed limits, one-way signs, and stoplights are ignored.  It’s thrilling but it’s dangerous.”   Drug use can bring pleasure to the brain but also chaos.  Because of the tsunami of dopamine that’s released with the pleasure the wires can short out. The brain adapts to the presence of the drug so that the same amount doesn’t get you high any longer. The flow of dopamine can be lessened. The body can become dependent on drugs to function, to survive – at least, that’s how it can feel.  The user can reuse just to ward off the feeling of depletion and depression that comes with coming down off the drug.” One alarming fact is that because the brain adapts and lessens the natural dopamine flow, the rewarding pleasure of feeling joy and elation is stolen away.

 With heroin users, they continue to use so the extreme withdrawal symptoms that can keep them sick for months don’t begin.  With teenagers, drugs change the brain – literally change the brain’s structure – at a time when the brain is most vulnerable.  Suicide among adolescents/teens is increasing in the U.S. because it’s a period of time when they are most vulnerable to stress in their family and in their school.  Many don’t have what we consider is a normal life for kids.  With the ex-offenders and inmates I work with, they remember best, the day they  started using drugs, it was that monumental.  Drugs can keep you numb so you don’t feel the stress and issues of growing up. At some point, it may not be a choice as the brain craves the high and euphoria.   “When you can stop you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t.” Luke Davis

“No one who tries drugs expects to become addicted, but about one in ten or so people will. Using is a symptom of the disease of addiction. Not long ago, many people believed that the addicted were weak and selfish.  They wanted to get high no matter how much they hurt others and themselves. If they wanted to stop, they would; that they didn’t stop was a sign of their weak character and lack of willpower. Research over the past three decades has proved that addiction is a disorder of the brain – a form of mental illness.  Just as no one chooses cancer, no one chooses to be addicted.  Substance abusers suffer physically and feel enormous guilt and shame.  They would stop if they could but most can’t without help.” High by David and Nic Sheff

The fourth aspect is recovery. This is where God’s System with our sacrificial gifts of time, talent and treasure for each other comes in. Our understanding of drug abuse as a disease of the brain like a cancer in the body will help bridge the gap that stands between us and people in our community who are lost in addiction.  Add the fact that we have criminalized the possession of certain drugs and put people in prison who are ill and need help in their community to get well, the problem never gets solved and people’s lives are destroyed as the destruction ripples out into the family and then the community.  We spend over $21,000 per year to house someone in prison who is there because of possession of drugs, the highest percentage of criminal charges.  A prison reform task force created in Missouri in 2017 reported that the prison drug rehab programs are ineffective and a high percentage of people who go through them and are released return to prison in the first 3-5 years for the same reason. Missouri has an 85% recidivism rate for returning to prison compared to the national level of 76%.

“High” the book I’m quoting  from, has much more than what I have presented here especially about helping someone recover.  Because of drug addiction we lose the talents of that individual as they further descend into a kind of hell where there is no way to escape except through the intervention of others who understand and care.  Death from drug overdose is growing in rural counties where there are limited resources, especially mental health facilities for rehabilitation. Missouri is second from the top for drug usage rate. From 2015 to 2016 there was a 35% rate of increase in opioid overdose deaths in Missouri.  Drugs are the #1 killer of people under 50.  175 people a day died in 2016. For many families these are not just numbers but real and painfully impacting.  “And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her.  When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people”Luke 7:11-16.

 

 I believe that my purpose through Sweetwater Journey is to shine a light on the hard issues that uselessly destroy lives such as poverty, mental illness, domestic abuse in the family, drug addiction, mass incarceration and the compelling need to create community for all. “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men (and women) to do nothing.” Simon Wiesenthal  

I hope you agree that if we can do something, Jesus Christ is calling us to take action through love as He demonstrated throughout his life. The Missouri Department of Health and Human Services has a good report that opioid deaths are decreasing in MO possibly due to actions the legislature has taken to control their use. Becoming informed is the best deterrent we have in helping on the community level.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:48-49

Today God will place someone in your path who you can help give a hand up not a hand out as you recognize that everything you have is from God. Your gift of whatever kindness you perform done in love will carry with it the sparks of the fire that Christ wanted to light on this earth, a spiritual wildfire in our communities!

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