The Wanna-be Drug Addict on the Second RowOct 08, 2021
I decided to become a drug addict while sitting in church.
Second pew from the front on the left. And, just like Chondra Pierce, it was “piano side.” I was in late elementary school and spent every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night on that bench. Usually just my family occupied that row. In churches, unlike concerts or theatrical productions, second rows aren’t favored seating. Perhaps churches should hire event marketing consultants to correct this deficit.
I’d ruled out becoming an alcoholic and was too young (those were the days!) to be knowledgeable about sex trafficking. Drug addiction seemed to be the best strategy for my leaving-the-faith plan.
Rebellion wasn’t the seed of this plan. It was a deep desire to be successful at “leading people to Christ.”
Economics 101 teaches the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” While this subject is generally considered the domain of Wall Street analysts, government wonks, and academic professors, it’s essentially the study of why people do what they do and how this affects markets. Policy makers with an inadequate or inaccurate understanding about human behavior can make significant miscalculations.
In 1989 Mexico City’s leaders implemented a policy banning people from driving their cars one day per week. Borrowing, perhaps, from the familiar “If your last name begins with K-P, you need to bring a side dish to the potluck,” this restriction was based on a license plate’s last digit. If your last digit was 5 or 6, for example, your off-road day was Monday. The goal was laudable: Reduce pollution. The result? According to a 2017 article in Scientific Reports, not only had pollution not decreased but may have increased. Why? People are creative.
Some simply bought another vehicle – often an older clunker producing even higher carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions than their existing car – had it licensed with a plate ending in a different digit, and “Walla!”, they could now drive every day of the week. Or people hailed taxis. Caught a lift from a friend, coworker, or family member – which sounds like it would reduce pollution, except ride-sharers didn’t always live nearby. More miles may have been driven to accommodate pick-ups than if both parties had driven separately. Other unintended consequences emerged: A license plate black market. Another bribery tool for corrupt officials.
It’s not like those who found ways around the mandate were campaigning for increased pollution. They just needed to get places, and the mass transit the government thought everyone would use on their no-driving day wasn’t what people chose. But lest we look down our noses at our southern neighbor, the goals of the 2009 U.S. program, “Cash for Clunkers” didn’t materialize but "unintended consequences" did.
How did pollution-reduction policies correlate with an elementary student sitting in church plotting to become a drug addict?
What I didn't hear created unintended consequences.
The people held up as awesome soul-winners – whether conducting week-long revivals or one-time speakers – all had incredible conversion stories. They’d been alcoholics, adulterers, gang leaders, criminals, and yes, drug addicts. This last category, especially when combined with criminal activity, seemed to garner the most admiration. Then these rebels met Christ who transformed their lives and were now proclaiming the Good News to everyone they could.
I longed to be good at sharing my faith. But I felt more embarrassed at school than energized. More intimidated than empowered. I begged God for a vision of hell, thinking that ghastly scene would dissolve my introversion and make me invincible to my classmates' rejection. God didn’t comply. So I needed a Plan B.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m incredibly grateful for the guest speakers and the church which invited them to come. I absolutely believe in the power of God to radically transform people. It’s not what I heard that left me plotting how to become a junkie. It’s what I didn’t hear.
The “ordinary” people in our congregation could share stories during “testimony time” or prayer requests. But an account of securing a new job lacked the verve of escaping gang life. Having a prodigal college student return to God was great but lacked the luster of an imprisoned-for-life-but-miraculously-released ex-con, now preaching about the freedom Christ offered. A prayer request for money to pay a utility bill felt paltry next to the offerings needed by missionaries to feed starving children.
Going to jobs every day, raising children, arguing and still loving their spouses, caring for aging parents, driving the buses bringing unchurched youth to Children's Church -- these folks were being marvelously transformed and bearing witness every day to the goodness, power, and grace of God.
But their stories weren’t heralded as being “powerful.” They were nice. Worthy of an “amen” or “hallelujah” or clapping. But not time in the pulpit. Not an ad campaign to invite “all your friends and neighbors” to come hear their life story. I didn't long for prestige, but power. An infusion of energy to launch me past my fear and win the world for Christ. So clearly, I needed a strategy to qualify as an A-list Christian witness.
I didn't want to spend my entire adult life as an addict. Just long enough to develop an authentic and powerful testimony. And I didn't want to dive so deeply into sin that I might be trapped in a cesspool when Christ returned. Since the planets were all set to align in 1982 -- my high school graduation year -- and this would trigger celestial activity eerily similar to prophecies in Revelations, I calculated with as much precision as possible how I might achieve this powerful-testimony-plan and still make the rapture. Not having the Baptist benefit of "true salvation is permanent" model of Christianity. I'd just have to be very quick about asking for forgiveness after every drug infraction.
Eventually and gratefully, I did abandon my drug-addict-just-long-enough-to-have-a-powerful-testimony plan. (Thank you, Jesus, for cognitive development!) But it still took many years before I could embrace my story as being just as meaningful as those which evoked "ooohs" and "aaahhs."
Our practices, measured both by what we do and don’t do, say and don’t say, highlight and ignore, have impact we seldom see.
A teacher compliments a student on his speaking abilities, never knowing those words later launch a powerful orator. A coach encourages the awkward youth who transfers this “someone-believes-in-me” experience to become a physician when her family scoffs, "We're not college material." A parent puts aside the remote, laptop, cell phone, and cleaning and shows up for the tea party on the front porch...the soccer kicks in the backyard...the music practice in the family room...the science experiment in the kitchen, and a child's grows strong. A spouse places boundaries around a career, shopping, or hobbies, and decades later two people live a love Hallmark movies can't replicate.
We all have “podiums.” People and actions, objects and attitudes, beliefs and approaches we proclaim “This is big! This matters! This deserves attention!” And so we should. But alongside these macro priorities, let’s remember what we don’t highlight, hand out prizes for, and promote matters too.
Ultimately, it wasn't the short-lived speakers who built my childhood church. They had purpose and impact. Yet so did the farmers and firemen. The bakery workers and business owners. The homemakers and healthcare workers. The educators and electricians.
Lives aren’t built, transformed, or assessed only at the macro level. The micros matter.
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