The season for the reason

November 21st, 2021

Much attention has been focused on the unfolding and overlapping crises of COVID variants, systemic racism, political extremism, and the disintegration of church as we know it. Yet there is a quiet killer rarely mentioned in the church. During the “deadliest year” in our nation’s history, 3.3 million people died, of which 378,000 deaths were attributed to COVID-19. At least the same number will die from COVID in 2021.

Among those 3.3 million in 2020 were 93,000 fatalities from drug overdose. In 2019 an estimated 72,000 drug overdose deaths occurred. In 2020 overdose deaths increased by 29 percent. In 2021 more than 100,000 in the US will die from overdose. This averages to 275 overdose deaths per day, or more than 11 every hour. In the time that you read this article, someone will likely overdose.[1] During the holidays these deaths will increase exponentially.

We continue to live in what the US surgeon general dubbed “the opioid crisis.” The greatest substance abuse crisis in the history of our country, which some have called the silent epidemic. Deaths from the overproduction and overprescription of synthetic opioids continue to kill people in record numbers.[2]

Director Alex Gibney’s four-hour documentary “The Crime of the Century” (2020) exposes the magnitude of the opioid crisis. It pulls back the curtain on the underworld of Big Pharma, corrupt politicians, and government regulations that enabled this overproduction, reckless distribution, and abuse of synthetic opiates. 

The streaming TV series “Dopesick” unveils the criminal deception of the Sackler family behind Perdue Pharmaceuticals. By the early 2000s, their drug OxyContin became known as “hillbilly heroin,” and my state, Florida, was one epicenter of the crisis that struck many regions of the country. Pill mills sprang up by the hundreds all over the sunshine state. Interstate 75, which runs from south Florida to the northeastern point of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, became known as the “Oxy Highway.” People came from all over the country to take advantage of largely unregulated pharmacies and dirty doctors. Sadly, at one point in my life, I was mixed up and in the middle of opioid abuse and distribution.[3]  

The specific chemical cocktail changes—morphine, OxyContin, methadone, and today fentanyl—but the devastating result is the same.


The Season for the Reason

“Jesus is the reason for the season.” This evangelism slogan has persisted in many congregations during the holidays. It is a true and needed reminder. 

Yet, in the recovery community we call the holidays the “season for the reason.” More people relapse and overdose during this time than any other. The added financial stress, interaction with toxic family systems—and the overall sense of depression among an often-counterfeit nostalgia—contribute to this reality. While many sing “tis the season to be jolly,” people in recovery often describe a gap between what life should be and what our life is.

In early recovery, there is a process of repairing relationships and learning how to be comfortable in social settings without being in an altered state. For many of us who were long time drug abusers, we must relearn how to do basic functions with a clean and sober mind. Communication, feeling our feelings, and learning how to maintain healthy relationships are often a significant part of this journey. 

The holidays can include coming to terms with the ongoing stresses of divorce, loss of child custody, and visitation arrangements, as well as seeing family members with whom we have a complicated history. In some cases, it involves returning to the context where our addiction was formed and flourished. The pandemic, job loss, and inaccessibility of recovery meetings aggravates these realities. All this can seem overwhelming, and the “season” provides the “reason” for us to relapse into the old familiar patterns of self-destruction.

Sounding Hope 

When that person is someone in your own family, the epidemic is no longer silent for you, it becomes very loud. When my little brother McKinley recently died in my arms from overdose, the numbers had a face. 

Chances are high that someone in your own circle of family and friends is silently struggling with addiction. Many congregations are prepared to sound the alarm about covid variants, the need for equal access to medical care, and vaccination. Indeed, we need to engage in prophetic denunciation when it comes to racism or climate change and get to work on being the change we want to see in the world. But we must also acknowledge and offer pathways of healing for those caught up in the silent epidemic. 

How can we as congregations formulate a response to the worst overdose epidemic in the history of the nation? Followers of Jesus can be first responders to arrive at the scene of this ongoing crisis. Here are suggestions that every congregation can adopt to make a real difference in your community: 

  1. Provide a theological framework for recovery. We can utilize the teaching and preaching ministry to help people understand recovery. Every single person is “in recovery.” We are all healing from sin and the many “isms” that are its deadly fruit. Wesleyan theology, with our understanding of original goodness, prevenient grace, and the holistic vision of salvation as a journey of lifelong healing is particularly helpful. Additionally, the 12 steps provide a powerful framework for discipleship. 
  2. Make room for recovery fellowships in your facility. There is nothing “secular” about these programs (AA, NA, SA, Al Anon, etc.) In fact, they are some of the most sacred spaces in the world. Father Richard Rohr believes the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are America’s most significant and authentic contribution to the history of spirituality. These groups save lives and connect people to God.
  3. Create Christian recovery ministries. Starting Christ-centered recovery ministries in your church is natural place to begin. Advent is a good time to begin.  People who are spiritually open and seeking a relationship with a “higher power” may be open to exploring a Christian pathway. There are multiple existing models you could contextualize for your community, such as Christian 12 Step or Celebrate Recovery. Also, you could create a customized version for your church, Choose Recovery at Grace Church in Florida, or Fighting Chance Recovery Ministry at Mosaic Church in Ohio.   
  4. Repurpose dedicated space for recovery. Many of us have spaces in our church compound that are largely unused throughout the week. These spaces can be repurposed for recovery. At Wildwood we provide space for an inpatient Christian rehab called House of Hope. At St. Marks, we house Open Arms Village, a program for men experiencing homelessness, as well as a halfway house, and two dedicated buildings that serve as AA and NA clubhouses open around the clock. 
  5. Prepare congregants to be healers. Leaders have a responsibility to equip congregants to be in ministry with those in recovery. We can offer simple trainings on listening well, helping without enabling, and even intervention strategies. Educating folks about substance abuse, the overdose rate, and the overall magnitude of the problem can be a great starting point for healing conversations.
  6. Support groups for those who have lost loved ones. The 93,000 people who died from overdose in 2020 (and just as many who died in 2021) represent hurting families. These people lost parents, spouses, siblings, children, grandchildren, and friends. These people can find healing in a community of support with those who have experienced a similar loss. For many, these support groups will represent a first encounter with the church. This is a bare minimum responsibility for every congregation.
  7. Cultivate Fresh Expressions of Recovery. Finally, we can create new Christian communities with those in recovery. Rather than trying to funnel people back into inherited congregations that will seem intimidating and foreign, we can create contextual forms of community with people where they are. At St. Marks we created a dinner church for people attending recovery fellowships, called The Family Table. We now have as many people coming for a meal, prayer, music, and a Jesus story on Wednesday night, as we do attending worship on Sunday mornings.  

This list of suggestions is just the beginning. Every congregation has the capacity to respond to the silent epidemic in ways that literally save lives. We can also cultivate new Christian communities with people who are unlikely to attend church as we know it. 

We can sound the alarm of hope for the people who are dying just outside the walls of our congregations every day. We can create graceful ecosystems amid “the season for the reason” for people to find hope and healing. As followers of Jesus, this is not some add on, it is deeply a part of our vocation to be healers in a wounded world (Luke 4:18-19).


[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Overdose Death Rates,” NIH, January 29, 2021,

[3] In my book, Painting with Ashes, I share a front row perspective on this dark underworld.

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