Although the classes do not convene until June 24 at Lexington Theological Seminary, the professors have already given their students “pre-assignments” to complete before our arrival. One class I am taking with Rev. Dr. Rick Lowry, a Hebrew Testament scholar, is “Shalom: Building the Beloved Community in a Culture of Fear.” Yesterday, the congregation was asked to consider the role of fear in resisting transformation and instead choosing technical change as a poor substitute. (I have never felt the need to issue a “trigger” warning for the Pastoral Word, but today’s article deals with suicide and “deaths of despair”).
I also ponder how to build the beloved community in a time of despair. The Centers for Disease Control report that for the first time in nearly one hundred years life expectancy has lowered and mortality rates have risen. How could this happen in a time of such rapid advances in medicine? This is not because older Americans are not living as long as their predecessors, it is because middle-aged Americans are not living into old age. They were dying from what has been termed “deaths of despair.”
Researcher Angus Deaton stated in an interview with National Public Radio, “We knew the proximate causes — we know what they were dying from. We knew suicides were going up rapidly, and that overdoses mostly from prescription drugs were going up, and that alcoholic liver disease was going up. The deeper questions were why those were happening — there's obviously some underlying malaise, reasons for which we [didn't] know” (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair). I encourage you to listen to the interview or read the transcript online.
Some of the things driving despair: loss of economic opportunity and instability of the family structure (which are linked). Perhaps people feel that they are “stuck” in “go nowhere” kind of jobs. Perhaps they have been laid off with little hope of finding a suitable replacement job. Financial stresses are a leading cause of divorce or inability to even get married in the first place. We even hear news of deaths to suicide of those who seemingly “have it all,” such as highly successful celebrities.
How do we proclaim Good News in the midst of such despairing news? The easiest, laziest path is to fall into despair ourselves. The transformative, albeit most difficult choice, is to continue to shout out hope where there is despair and to shine light into the darkness. This is not without knowledge of the pain, it is in direct contact with it. The church should be a beacon of change. We should teach and demonstrate that we are not “successful” as the world measures it, while changing systems that keep people from finding livable wages and fulfilling, meaningful work. Changing systems is deeply prophetic, justice-minded work.
If you feel overwhelmed by despair, know you are not alone. I am a fan, as I know many of you are, of mental health practices. Be it going to a pastoral counselor or a licensed psychotherapist, there is no shame for getting the help you need. Your pastor keeps a list of referrals in the office if you are in need of a professionally trained listener. This person can give you tools for dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression. She or he can let you know when factors have reached a “tipping point” from normal, everyday stress to real trouble in coping with life’s demands. If you have lost your “zeal” for life, find yourself lethargic, not eating properly, and unable to sleep, it’s time to check in with your doctor. If your evening nightcap becomes three or four, or starts becoming your lunch or afternoon pattern, it’s time to have someone else weigh-in on that practice. If you have stashed away pain pills from your last surgery and have been sneaking them to “take the edge off,” it’s time to re-evaluate your strategies. We do not judge these behaviors, it is a loving act to help another question these things.
Finally, if you or someone you know is in utter despair and can no longer find any meaning in the life you live, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number 1-800-273-8255. The beloved community can be the transformative power to build God’s Shalom, in times of fear and despair. May you experience Shalom today.
I am grateful to be your pastor,