The Will to Live

Credit:  Jesse Therrien

Credit: Jesse Therrien

On my birthday last year, January 29, 2013, I saved an article from USA Today. It’s been sitting on my desk under a pile of other documents since then, awaiting my attention. The title is “Have we lost the will to live?” The subtitle: “Suicide is up. Around the world, it is way up. And it explains why mass murderers do what they do.” The author is Rebecca D. Costa.

The article briefly references a number of recent attacks on innocent civilians and concludes the perpetrators had one thing in common: “Long before they reached for a weapon, they lost their desire to live. And it is this unnatural state that enabled them to commit unimaginable acts. Once a person makes a decision to die, the most abhorrent atrocities become permissible. There are no longer any consequences to fear: no arrest, no jail, no trial, no families of the victims to face, no remorse, no mothering. Dead is dead.”

Conversely, the article proposes, would-be murderers from the past were different. After aiming his gun at President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth ran. So did Lee Harvey Oswald, accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Even disturbed killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson went to great lengths to keep their crimes hidden. Why? “Because the drive to survive – to thrive, to propagate – is the strongest instinct among all living organisms. Self-preservation is a fundamental urge in nature. But in recent times, this instinct has gone awry.”

Supporting this premise is the observation that antidepressants are now the most prescribed drugs in the USA, climbing almost 400% in the past two decades, particularly among preschoolers and adolescents. In addition, an estimated 1 million people in the U.S. report attempting to commit suicide each year. One such attempt succeeds every 14 minutes.

Suicides have also risen around the globe, having increased 60% in the past 45 years. “We have a widespread affliction on our hands that is affecting the entire human race. An affliction we understand very little about. An affliction we continue to sweep under the rug and blame on guns, the economy and every other thing. An affliction that has become a preamble for mass murder.”

In case the reader hasn’t figured it out by now, the author makes one main point of the article crystal clear: “Today, fast-firing assault weapons grab international attention, but that is not what makes people like Adam Lanza (perpetrator of Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings) so dangerous or what gives us reason to fear more such attacks; it’s the fact that Lanza had no will to live. That’s not a problem that can be solved by gun control or arming school guards.”

“If we have any hope of curbing tragedies such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, we must not allow rhetoric or short-term mitigation overshadow the opportunity to address the real culprit behind mass violence. Thriving, happy, connected human beings don’t use guns to harm others, no matter how plentiful. They don’t fashion fertilizer or airplanes into bombs. And they don’t need the government to regulate these things. Nature has designed us so that the will to live acts as a deterrent against anything that threatens our continuation – including opening fire in a public place. Fix this, and it won’t be long before gun control is superseded by self-control. And at the end of the day, isn’t this a far more lasting alternative than surrendering hard-won liberties?”

Regardless of your (or my) personal opinion regarding gun control, the question begged has to do with the real root cause(s) of the absence of a will to live. Is it biological, psychological, physiological, societal? Is it hereditary or environmental? Is it curable or a hopelessly de facto lifetime reality for those affected? Or is it simply a demonic manifestation of the power of the devil in the lives of real people?

Whatever the answer(s) might be, Christians could add to the USA Today article this biblical explanation for the problem the author identifies: “Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) And the concluding remedy: “Resist him, firm in your faith … and the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:9-11)

That explanation is not a magic wand. Nevertheless it hopefully encourages individuals, families, churches and humanitarian or governmental organizations to do everything humanly possible to protect the sanctity and safety of the life of every human being. That becomes ever more critical given the reality of living life in the midst of individuals who no longer have the will to live.

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A Better Mousetrap

Pulpit 1Although it was over 40 years ago, I remember well my seminary homiletics class. “Homiletics” comes from a Greek term signifying conversation or discourse. In the church, homiletics refers to the art of preaching, which is essentially the communication of truths, thoughts, ideas and concepts based on a specific portion of Holy Scripture delivered to a listening audience.

Properly done, the homiletical process includes clear and convincing proclamation of God’s word and its compelling application in the life of the listener. A homiletician does well to answer the questions most likely in the minds of the hearers: “What’s your point?” “So what?” “How does what you’re saying have an impact on my life?”

My now sainted homiletics professor was a stern but evangelical task master and also an excellent preacher. Young seminarians (and other students as well) often view their professors with a unique combination of admiration for their accumulated experiential knowledge and a dab of disdain for their somewhat overly academic and thus not nearly practical enough perspectives on the subject they teach. I had some of both, but more of the former than of the latter.

Over the 44 years of my ministry I’ve observed some subtle and also some radical changes in homiletical style in my own preaching and in that of other homileticians. I was taught that every sermon should have three clearly delineated points drawn directly from the scriptural text. Any deviation from that recipe was unacceptable. I no longer insist on the first part of that formula.

Today’s sermons, including my own, are more likely to have a narrative focus, which is relational and heavily emotional (often but not always in the good sense of that term) rather than a cognitive focus, which is mostly rational and academic (also in the good sense of that term). While these two emphases need not be mutually exclusive, skillfully merging both approaches is a delicate but rewarding task.

The efficacy of preaching is directly proportionate to the homiletician’s success, by the grace of God, in accomplishing the homiletical task. An effective sermon is one that touches not only the head but also the heart. The preacher must convict the listener of human frailty and failure and also convince the listener of God’s complete forgiveness in Christ, transitioning that conviction and convincing into calling and commitment.

Why does one church shrivel on the vine while another church grows like wildfire? While there may be many reasons, including demographic, geographic, social and economic, I submit that the real reason mostly revolves around the difference in the efficacy and effectiveness of its preaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is credited with saying, “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his doorstep!” I believe that’s true still today!

Human Trafficking

Credit:  Time Magazine

Credit: Time Magazine

“At first, the students thought the men who arrived that night had come to save them. This is what the soldiers insisted they were doing when they ordered the girls out of their dormitories in the dark of April 14.” (Belinda Luscombe, Time Magazine-May 26, 2014)

In fact, the 276 girls were abducted from a Nigerian school by members of the African jihadist terrorist group Boko Haram.Almost two months later, the girls have not been freed. They are believed to be held somewhere in a 20,000-square-mile forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The Time article moves from this one incident to a fairly extensive coverage of human trafficking, estimating from 21 to 30 million people around the world are currently in some sort of involuntary servitude. Victims from 136 different countries have been found in 118 other countries, having been taken there either against their will or through deceit. Countries with the most slaves are China, India, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The sex-trafficking industry is hugely profitable, especially exploiting child brides and prostitutes. Tragically and unimaginably, some girls are sold by their parents into brothels. Sex traffickers in South Asia are paid $300 to $800 per girl. In Mumbai, each sexual service a girl renders could earn her exploiters $10. Women are expected to perform 10 to 20 sex acts a night.

The Time article says, “Sometimes victims are kidnapped, and sometimes they’re simply hoodwinked by false offers of a better life through training, education or a low-level but legal job in a wealthy, faraway land. Some girls are wooed by boyfriends who turn out to be captors. What they thought was a ticket to paradise takes them instead to hell on earth.”

In the case of the abducted Nigerian girls, the U.S. has sent military, law enforcement and technical advisers to Nigeria and has provided commercial satellite imagery and flying manned reconnaissance missions to help find and rescue the missing girls. That’s easier said than done.

“The fate of the missing girls is, in the view of some, a race against the clock. Observers fear that they will be sold into prostitution or given as ‘wives’ to soldiers. Girls who have returned from previous kidnappings by Boko Haram have all arrived pregnant or with young babies.”

Rescuing the students is only the first step in a long journey back for them. So far very few of their names have been released, in part to avoid any of the perverse stigma of rape, which can often fall on the victim.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who runs a center in Nigeria for girls who were captured, said: “If the girls have been abused they’ll need their education more than ever, partly because traditional marriage may be closed to them and partly because they’ll need to be taught that their circumstances do not mean they no longer have value.”

This Nigerian incident, along with other atrocities victimizing young people a whole lot closer to home, touch my heart and arouse my righteous anger. Violent incidents across the spectrum from human trafficking to suicide bombings, whether instigated by Boko Haram or Al Qaeda or any other demonic individuals with or without connection to any organized terrorist group, are repugnant and repulsive to those who value every human life as a gift of God!

Lord, have mercy!

Why Men Have Stopped Singing in Church

Credit:  Tolga Kostak

Credit: Tolga Kostak

Before getting to this topic, here’s a brief update on my great-grand-nieces Emma and Anna, surviving triplets born four months prematurely on Christmas Day 2013:

  • Emma is still in the hospital. She was due to come home about ten days ago, but was delayed in doing so. Her chest X-Ray looked better last week, but she has a urinary infection. They’re supplementing her formula with rice cereal, but are having trouble getting it through the feeding tube. The latest prognosis is that she will need to spend about one more month in NICU.
  • Anna underwent successful surgery last week for pyloric stenosis, which is a narrowing or restriction of the pylorus, the opening at the lower part of the stomach through which food and other stomach contents must pass to enter the small intestine. She’s back home, looks healthy, is eating well and does not seem to be worse for wear from the surgery.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers for these two precious little babies!

Now let’s get to the topic for today. This past week I posted on my Facebook page an article I discovered that gets to the heart of the growing and disappointing phenomenon of why men have stopped singing in church. To read the entire article, go to: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/churchformen/2013/05/why-men-have-stopped-singing-in-church/

Responders to the article were mostly in agreement with its basic premise that men (and some women also, for that matter) don’t sing nearly as much as they used to because the songs and/or hymns selected for the worship service are unknown and/or difficult to sing. I strongly agree!

A primary focus of the article is the difficulty experienced when worship leaders do not select familiar songs or hymns that lend themselves readily to group singing. In addition, individuals experience difficulty in trying to sing something clearly intended for performance by a soloist or small vocal group and quickly feel no motivation for trying to do so. While this is particularly true with contemporary songs, praise bands and song leaders, traditional but unfamiliar or hard to sing hymns produce the same result.

For the most part, music and singing in worship are intended to be participatory, not simply observatory. Exceptions include solos, duets, choirs or other choral group presentations, as well as instrumental offerings. When such participation becomes difficult, worshipers quickly move from sincere desire to participate to frustration in not being able to do so.

What’s the bottom line? “Praise the Lord! It is good to sing praises to our God!” (Psalm 147:1)