Parker Stephenson grew up in a Christian home with Christian parents who were well-known in the community. He even went to a Christian school. Parker didn’t fit the stereotype we associate with drug addiction. How can the church move beyond the stigma and shame of addiction and minister to those who are struggling?
Eight months before he died Parker Stephenson shared this on Facebook:
“Lately, God has taught me a lot about myself and about life, how fragile life can be. It reminds me that every day is a gift to be treasured. Life itself is a gift. My grandfather’s recent cancer diagnosis has me thinking to myself, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’”
On June 5, 2018, at Parker’s funeral, an emotional Mike Lee, lead teaching pastor of Hope Community Church in Raleigh, shared that he had conducted five or six funerals in the previous six months — all victims of opioid overdose, all under the age of 32.
Parker was only 27.
So who was Parker? He was the son of a well-known family in the community. He was raised in a Christian home by parents who were also raised in Christian homes. He even went to a Christian school.
Parker also had a family of his own. He was a husband and father of one with another child on the way when he passed away suddenly.
“Being without my husband is the hardest thing I have ever experienced and it is something I will live with forever,” said Parker’s wife, Celeste. “But in Parker’s honor, I feel the need to share his story to help as many people as I can — even if I only help one family.”
Not defined by disease
Parker was handsome and winsome, described by many as “someone who lights up a room.” He played guitar, wrote poetry and loved ACC basketball, especially the Duke Blue Devils. Parker did not fit the stereotype we envision when we hear the words “drug overdose.”
His obituary read, “Parker’s disease cannot touch the pure and true part of him. It never did and never could.”
Whether death results from a freak accident or alcohol poisoning, death and the brokenness that surrounds it originated in the Garden of Eden, and all of us are affected by it. Original sin caused several types of brokenness — brokenness in our relationship with God, brokenness in our relationships with others, brokenness in creation and brokenness with ourselves.
Due to our inherited sin nature, we are born with an emptiness that can only be filled by our reconciliation to God through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are restored in our relationship with God because of what Jesus did at Calvary. That is the gospel.
Where we go wrong is when we try to fill that emptiness or desire with something other than the gospel. Drugs are one of the ways people do that.
No one is immune
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people take drugs for a variety of reasons. To feel good. To feel better. To do better. To satisfy curiosity. To experience social pleasure.
What may begin as curiosity can quickly accelerate into addiction, especially if certain other factors are present.
Most of us think this will never happen to us or someone we love, but what do we see in Scripture?
Pastor Lee reminded attendees at Parker’s funeral about how quickly life can change from the life of Job. Though Job was a “righteous man,” he lost nearly everything he had.
One day Job had it all — health, wealth and a robust family. The next day, he stood in front of 10 graves — the graves of all of his children — and asked the same questions we ask when tragedy strikes, “Why me? Why us? Why now?”
No matter how addiction begins, no one believes they will become enslaved to something beyond their control.
Shame and stigma
Much attention has been given to the opioid crisis in our country. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids every single day. Moreover, the rate of opioid overdose is increasing every year in our own state.
Yet if this many people are affected by this life-taking epidemic, why aren’t we talking about it more at church? There is often shame and stigma associated with drug addiction.
People are ashamed to admit that they are an addict or a family member is an addict. Prayer requests categorized as “unspoken” may be for a loved one addicted to drugs.
Additionally, there’s a notion associated with addiction that says, “This is a situation that could have been avoided.” Yet no matter how addiction begins, no one believes they will become enslaved to something beyond their control.
While some addictions begin through experimentation, others begin with a prescription from a doctor. That’s what happened in Parker’s case.
Parker never used or experimented with drugs in high school. But at age 19, he suffered a traumatic event that left him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was treated with a medication. Parker also began to experiment with pills and alcohol to deal with anxiety related to PTSD.
Parker fought addiction every day once it began.
Mark Sullivan remembered his friend like this: “Parker lived as a warrior and died as a warrior. He fought a battle many did not see and a fight many did not understand. Parker lost his battle but his war is won.”
Parker’s mom, Diane Stephenson, recalled how Parker became more distant with loved ones as the addiction consumed more of his life.
“The addict is suffering in silence and so is the family,” Stephenson said.
Major life blows teach us things about others, about ourselves and about God.
Pastor Lee reminded everyone at Parker’s funeral: “God is too kind to do anything cruel. He’s too wise to make a mistake. And, He’s too deep to explain Himself.”
Back to the Book of Job. Even after his great suffering and loss, Job worshipped God.
Support in the midst of struggle
When Parker’s struggle was hidden, no one was able to help or support him in his fight. But, after the truth became evident, the Stephensons were greatly supported by their pastor and small group.
How can churches help those who struggle with addiction?
- They can create and cultivate an environment of openness and acceptance.
- They can come alongside of individuals who are struggling but hiding their addictions out of fear or shame.
- They can initiate or invite faith-based support groups for addicts and their families to meet at the church.
- Ultimately, they can remind us that all of us are affected differently by the fall and we all need the gospel to heal us.
So how did Parker want to be remembered? Here’s the rest of his Facebook post:
“Life is so short. I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who got caught up chasing a paycheck working 65 hours a week who lost sight of what matters most. I want to be remembered as someone who put God and his family first, someone who worked to live, not lived to work. I have been so close to death, I could see the other side. My grandfather has shown me through his actions that death is not something to be feared but when my time comes, I want to be remembered for the right reasons. I want to live a life worth living. I have been given the opportunity of redemption and, through God, I have been redeemed.”