When Hope Fades

by Bonner Davis

The email was an unusual prayer request from the beginning, lacking the typical details seen on the prayer chain; not unlike those vague posts one sees on Facebook from friends, #prayforme. This one was different though. It had enough info to raise questions. 

The email read, “Pray for the Burnham’s[1]who just lost their son, Josh.” We all knew Josh, a 50-something electrician who liked to restore antique lamps. His house was full of them and he spent countless weekends perusing garage sales and flea markets looking for buried treasures. He was a typical white, middle-aged American male. After a few days of mystery surrounding the incident someone finally whispered it, “Drug overdose.”

A study posted this past summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that suicide rates in the United State are increasing across geographic areas and with both genders. However,within those numbers, a startling 83.6 percentare white and 76.8 percentare male.[2]The data was brought to light in a series of three papers authored by economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton (two in 2015 and a third in 2017).[3]The cumulative numbers that have crept up over the decades are grim (500,000 by some estimates[4]), showing a steep increase recently in deaths for white males, ages 45-64. 

You may ask, “How did we miss this epidemic?” In short, the problem had to do with how the government labeled the causes of death. For example, a drug overdose may not be categorized as a suicide by the CDC, but as a “poisoning.” Just as someone who drinks themselves to death may have “liver disease” as a final category. Once researchers understood what was happening with the labeling, the overarching cause came into sharp focus: suicide. 

The data from the CDC have led many to ask the obvious question, “Why are middle-aged, white males killing themselves in such large numbers?” For answers, researchers have turned to a variety of theories. Some blame the economy, the lack of wage growth or under-employment. Others point to drugs, alcohol or the opioid crisis. Still others blame the access to guns due to the high percentage (51 percent) who take their life with a weapon. Yet, when these theories are tested the findings are inconclusive and show a weak connection at best. 

Nevertheless, Anne Case herself has put forward a theory called, “cumulative disadvantage,” and could be the most credible of any. Cumulative disadvantage is not a single event or condition in one’s life. Rather, it’s the aggregate of a lifetime of small slights and failures. It’s the snowball effect of disappointments and disqualifications. 

For Josh, his suicide was a death by 1,000 cuts. After high school, he went on to college because that was the ticket to the middle-class life, or so he was told. However, he found after he graduated that the degree in human services got him nowhere but in debt without any job prospects. He fell in love, got married, and struggled to eke out a living working low-pay handyman jobs and apprenticing under a master electrician. He took a big risk going back to trade school for training and getting his journeyman’s license to open his own business. Things seemed to go well for a time, but his wife miscarried their first child and the marriage soon ended with a custody battle over their second born. The economy tanked and Josh lost his business, his home and most importantly his faith in God. Josh was bitter and angry; indifferent to the God of his childhood. Sunday school stories seemed like a faded memory now, and his hope for this life seemed to fade with them.

Hiding in Plain Sight

What’s extraordinary about Josh is how ordinary he was. He checked no special boxes on a job application. He didn’t qualify for preference points on government forms. He was simply plain- ‘o-Josh with no distinguishing attributes. In a world of identity politics, he had no banner or flag to wave, no distinctive ancestry to explore. He was but one common data point, which made him easy to overlook. Like Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19), Josh had been sitting in plain sight. However, just as Jesus did, we need to minister to those who are simple and ordinary. 

Think about the encounter Christ has with Zacchaeus and how he responded. First, Jesus notices him. By all accounts, there weren’t any distinguishing features about Zacchaeus. The only exception was his short height and the ease with which others overlooked him. Zacchaeus tried to stand out by climbing a tree, but even that didn’t help. It wasn’t until he was noticed by the Master that suddenly he took on significance.  The Apostle Luke records,“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5).

So, the second extraordinary step for an ordinary Zacchaeus was a personal, one-on-one, invitation. Jesus didn’t just notice him, but wanted to go beyond the superficial pleasantries of daily living. He wanted to “show up” in Zacchaeus’ life and be in true fellowship with him. He went so far as to say, I want to stay with you. 

Deaths of Despair

This epidemic that’s sweeping the country has been appropriately labeled “deaths of despair,” which include suicide, alcohol and drug abuse. They are happening in plain sight, with ordinary white, middle-aged, males. These men have lost hope, from a life that has snowballed into a crisis. 

We need to take notice, to move beyond the assumptions that all-is-well with our brothers. As a church, we can share the Hope that we have within. Just as Jesus did, we need to reach out to those who are overlooked and invite them into our lives.  

Bonner is community impact pastor at Speedwell Heights Brethren in Christ Church.

[1]Names, details and any specifics have been changed to protect confidentiality. 

[2]“Vital Signs: Trends in State Suicide Rates — United States, 1999–2016 and Circumstances Contributing to Suicide — 27 States, 2015.” Weekly / June 8, 2018 / 67(22);617–624

[3]For all three studies, see: https://www.nber.org/papers/w21279,https://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15078.full,https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/

[4]Anne Case on mortality and morbidity in the 21st Century, https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2017/04/21/2187739/podcast-anne-case-on-mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/

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