Tuesday, April 30, 2013

State Run Lotteries--Scamming a Gullible Public?

"The love of money is a root of all kinds of ignorant behavior."
              (paraphrase of  I Timothy 6:10a

Front page coverage of a Timberville woman winning a $2 million jackpot last week is sure to result in even more people buying Powerball tickets.

To add to the hype, the Daily News-Record story quotes someone from the Virginia Lottery as saying "Powerball has been hot in Virginia recently," citing examples of five $1 million wins and one $217 million jackpot.

Is this the kind of message we ought to be sending our citizens? Or is state-sponsored gambling an example of truly bad public policy that preys on childish fantasies of gaining wealth without work? And does it unfairly punish those of us who are terrible at math, especially when it come to the concept of probability?

The simple fact is that the odds are always in favor of the house. Always. And this is especially and phenomenally true in the case of state run lotteries, as is obvious from the chart above.

This means, of course, that an incredibly huge majority of those who play will engage in a lifelong habit in which they will lose (waste) far more money than they will ever gain, and that only a tiny, tiny minority will ever benefit–and that at the expense of the rest of us who are dumb enough (and greedy enough?) to believe we may just be the exceptions to this general rule. As in the case of being struck by lightning, it's something that can happen, but the odds are infinitesimal, which means near zero.

Some justify this kind of gambling as being no different that investing money in insurance, mutual funds or in a business venture. But in those examples the chances of our improving our lives by such investments are substantially in our favor.

In the case of insurance, for example, what we gain is a guarantee of protection when and if something bad were to happen. Our premiums don't go into a pool where only a handful of people benefit--purely at random and for no legitimate reason.

Disagree with me if you wish, but I figure all the money I haven't spent in this kind of gambling has left me measurably better off. And even those who have won large sums have often ended up worse off, in the end, than those who didn't "win" at this sorry game.

But that's a theme for another blog.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Las Vegas Chain Comes to the Valley Mall

"The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."
                                   - I Timothy 6:10a

The Tilted Kilt, the Valley Mall's newest restaurant, is opening on Monday, a part of a franchise founded in Las Vegas ten years ago and one someone has described as a "trashier Hooters with better food."

Like other eateries known by some as "breastaurants," it's designed to appeal to males who enjoy a little leer with their beer, and where one can pick up copies of pin-up calendars and other publications featuring "World Famous Kilt Girls."

All of this is justified by the local General Manager, who assures us that “It’s going to bring a lot of revenue to the area as far as tax revenue, and we’re creating a lot of jobs for the community.”  He goes on to insist the company is built on "a core set of values and principles.”

Those values, I assume, allow for discriminating against all male waiter applicants, along with any females considered to be past their prime or inadequately endowed.

I'm used to being seen as a prude when it comes to being against objectifying women (or men) for profit, but I would point out that prude is closely aligned with prudent. For me, that means that any enterprise I wouldn't feel comfortable having our daughter associated with or our sons patronize, I'll simply avoid. There is no lack of good locally owned eating establishments in our area to choose from.

Having said all that, obscenity comes in many forms, including our culture's inordinate pursuit of most things our malls are trying to sell us, like garments manufactured in death traps in Bangladesh by workers earning a mere $40 a month. Worship of both Mammon and Eros are at the root of so many of the evils associated with our addiction to self-gratification.

See also

Friday, April 26, 2013

Two Pillars of The Same House

Brothers Brent (left) and Brad, 1969
"How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!"
Psalm 133:1

My wife's younger brother J. Lloyd Wert recently sent us some prints he made from their late father's collection of old slides. This one, taken of our two sons at one of our visits to Alma Jean's folks, is one I especially prize.

Like most brothers, Brad and Brent experienced their full share of distresses, but we've been so blessed by the strong bond they have forged over the years. And they've also been great "big brothers" and sturdy pillars for our only daughter who came along almost eight years later.

Brad, left, and Brent, right (next to his wife) in Brent's new house, Christmas, 2011

Here are the words of a song Brad, our Pittsburgh-based singer/song writer son, wrote in 1991 and recorded on his first album, "Ordinary Splendor":

growing up, I thought we were so different,
I was trying to be perfect, you were trying to stay sane,
and God knows I envied all your recklessness,
you reminded me of every risk I couldn’t take,
and when I think about it now,
all the ways I tried to make you change to distract myself from me again
and we can laugh about it now,
still we might have never found this place at all, a place where…
I am I and you are you and we are here together, we are
sons of the same father, sons of the same mother,
I am I and you are you and we are close together, we are
two ways to see the world, won’t you be my teacher, brother…
growing up, I thought that I could help you,
all my feeble strength was wasted trying to be strong,
and God knows your anger used to frighten me,
I wanted you to hide it just like me, and get along, and
when I think about it now, all the times I told you who to be,
thought it’d help if you were more like me and
we can laugh about it now, still we might have never found this place at all,
a place where…
         I am I and you are you and we are here together, we are
         sons of the same father, sons of the same mother,
         I am I and you are you and we are close together, we are
         two ways to see the world, won’t you be my teacher,          brother…
now when we talk, I’m always analyzing,
sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad, most times it’s hard to say,
you laugh and say I make things complicated,
I laugh, and say you’re right, and that I’ll prob’ly stay that way, and
when I think about it now,
think of all the places that we share,
all the stories that we carry there and
we can laugh about’em now, still we might have never found this place at all,
a place where…
I am I and you are you and we are here together, we are
sides of the same coin, pillars of this same house
strong winds, east and west, strong winds, north and south,
two ways to see the world, won’t you be my teacher, brother…
All rights reserved.
Family photo by Robert Maust

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gemeinschaft Dinner Raises Friends and Support

Senator Emmett Hanger spoke on criminal justice reform
Well over a hundred supporters attended the Gemeinschaft Home's annual "Friend-raiser" event held at the Park View Mennonite Church Saturday evening.

Residents, board members and guests enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by GH graduate  Keith Ridley, who has recently opened his own restaurant and catering business in Staunton. State Senator Emmett Hanger spoke about some of his vision for changes in the criminal justice system in Virginia and staff member Chris Johnson and board member Carl Stauffer gave an update on some of the positive developments and challenges at Gemeinschaft.

Emcee John Butler, GH grad and board member
One evidence of the Home's impact, for example, is that in a random sample of names of all graduates of the program in 2011 and 2012, only five were found to be re-incarcerated, an astounding number compared to a general recidivism rate of around 30% in the Commonwealth.

The board of the Home thanks everyone who helped make this evening a success, residents, board members, members of the staff and our many friends. A much needed and appreciated $7356 was raised by their efforts. Expenses for the dinner totaled just over $2000, including the great meal provided at a bargain $10 a plate.

Note: If you ever get to Staunton and are looking for a good place to eat, check out the Untouched Grill at 105 South Coalter Street. And thank Keith Ridley for his generous support of a program that gave him a second chance.

We also thank other contributors: Integrity Audio Service, LD&B Insurance, Weavers Floor Covering, Weyers Cave Medical Center,  Evergrowin' Greenhouse, Home Depot, Krogers, Lowes, Mistimorne Plants, Riverside Plants and Mulch, Spring Garden Green House and Park View Mennonite Church.

Photos by Dr. Sam Showalter, chair of the Gemeinschaft board.

Monday, April 22, 2013

GuestSpot: "I Guess I Can Stand The Pain"

The following is from a 2001 journal entry by Alma Jean's sister Freda Zehr, used with her kind permission:

As I wandered through the 7-Eleven in search of some bread I came upon a little boy who looked like he was about 8 or 9 intently examining the earring display. He selected a simple pair of clip-ons and was trying one on.

"Buying an ear ring?" I asked. 

"Yes,"  he said. "My mom won't let me get my ears pierced and all the cool guys in my class wear an earring, so I am going to try this kind."

"Those clip-on kind are very uncomfortable, you know, they pinch your ears and hurt," I told him.
He stood for a bit,  pondering my words, then hesitantly responded, "I guess I can stand the pain." 

I looked at him, and noted how scrawny and underweight he was. I could imagine him being the brunt of bigger bullies.

I could almost read his mind as he envisioned the earring as the status symbol which would bring him acceptance. He pulled a crumpled pile of one dollar bills from his pocket, counting them.

"I saved my allowance for a long time," he told me. "I hope its enough."

He was ahead of me later as I checked out. He was still fumbling with the ear ring, trying to get it be more comfortable on his ear.

In his other fist he clenched a package of Pokemon cards and the money. He tossed them and the rumpled pile of dollar bills on the counter.

"You don't have quite enough money here", the clerk said, counting. The boy hesitated. I saw the conflict in his demeanor---would it be the  pack of Pokemon cards or the earring?

The earring won, of course, the cards went back on the shelf as I resisted the impulse to shell out the extra dollar to help him out. He then walked out, head held high, his silver earring proudly dangling, as he jumped on his dilapidated bike and peddled happily away.  

Leaving  the store, I pondered. "Why do we go to uncomfortable lengths to conform? Am I any different from this little boy who's trying to fit in? Why do I at times feel reluctant to invite friends of greater means and grander homes to my modestly furnished, small but adequate home? Why does it pinch to go to someone else's house that is elaborately large and expensively furnished with the latest of everything? 

Sudden knowledge hit me--The pinches in our lives are most often brought on ourselves, by our own need for conformity to whatever we deem necessary to fit in, to be accepted.
I wanted to run after that rickety bicycle and thank my new little friend for the lesson he taught me this morning.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Is This The Best We Can Do For Our Ethiopian Partners?

At a gathering at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church Thursday evening members of our local churches met to welcome and support two prominent leaders of the Ethiopian Meserete Kristos Church and the MK College.  An estimated 100 people attended, a fourth of whom were a part of various singing groups providing special music for our guests. The event raised a total of around $3500.

I wasn't an official part of this fund raising effort, and have no idea what Kiros Teka Haddis, the president of the fledgling Meserete Kristos College,  or Kelbessa Muleta Demena, the Associate Secretary of the MKChurch and chair of the board of the school, were expecting. But I can't help wondering how they felt about the reception they received at their first US stop in Virginia's Mennonite Mecca.

Let's review some astounding numbers:

We locals represented the well-to-do sending church, Mennonite Church USA, that helped launch the mission effort in Ethiopia some 60 years ago. MCUSA now has a static or declining baptized membership of around 98,000, whereas the Meserete Kristos ("Christ the Foundation") Church has over 225,000 members, an active attendance of twice that number, and is growing rapidly.

The average per capita income in the US is over $48,000. In Ethiopia it is estimated to be just over $400.

MCUSA has five colleges and two seminaries with a total enrollment of over 5000. MKC has one college with an enrollment of 180 men and women to help train its church leaders.

Our five American colleges have well-financed development departments working year round to raise budgets of millions, plus having expanding (and expensive) Admissions Departments competing with each other in recruiting students. MKC has no problem attracting enough students, but struggles to meet its annual operating budget of $325,000, less than the total our US colleges spend for lawn care.

Tuition and room and board for a school like EMU is over $37,000 a year, with considerable financial assistance available, of course. At MKC it only totals $2500, and students also rely heavily on financial aid.

EMU recently launched a $7 million fund raising effort to renovate its Science Center alone. MKC is trying to raise money to complete a $500,000 women's dormitory.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

I think so. And if you agree, I urge you to mail a check to MK College Link, PO Box 1701, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. And here are some other changes you might want to help promote:

1. Appoint representative believers from the Global South to serve as members of the decision-making boards of each of our church institutions (via skype?).

2. Consider a moratorium on new construction or expansion of our existing institutions until our world neighbors have more of their needs met.

3. Have our colleges and seminaries become one "multi-versity" (on separate campuses) to avoid competing with each other for needed dollars and desired student enrollment.

Perhaps our goal should be not so much to have our Ethiopian partners become more like us, but for us to become more like them.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"A Pretty Shameful Day in Washington"

"Pray for rulers and for all who have authority so that we can live quiet and peaceful lives full of worship and respect for God.
I Timothy 2:2 (New Century Bible)

In spite of it being a modest and admittedly imperfect amendment, the provision to Senate bill S-649 requiring universal background checks for purchases of most firearms--and which was supported by 90% of the American people--was defeated yesterday by a 54-46 vote. 

Actually, in the strange world of the US Senate, it was passed by this narrow majority, but still fell short of the 60% needed to avoid a filibuster.

Only in the political atmosphere inside the beltway could a bi-partisan led effort like this fail, one aimed at preventing felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing firearms, and that prohibited the illegal trafficking of guns by criminals, among other things.

In the spirit of the good apostle Paul I urge that we pray for all of our lawmakers, including the following key senators who voted against this legislation:

Sen. Ayotte: 202-224-3324
Sen. Baucus: 202-224-2651
Sen. Begich: 202-224-3004
Sen. Heitkamp: 202-224-2043
Sen. Heller: 202-224-6244
Sen. Pryor: 202-224-2353 

Sen. Murkowski: (202) 224-6665
Sen. Flake: (202) 224-4521
Sen. Chambliss: (202) 224-3521
Sen. Coats: (202) 224-5623
Sen. Grassley: (202) 224-3744
Sen. Burr: (202) 224-3154
Sen. Heitkamp : (202) 224-2043
Sen. Portman: (202) 224-3353

Most of these folks profess to be Christians, which adds to the importance of our exercising the good work of prayer and persuasion on their behalf.

"We use God's mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments." 
(II Corinthians 10:4, New Living Bible)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Follow the Money: A Tale of Two Colleges

EMU Campus Center, Harrisonburg, USA
MKC Academic Building, Ethiopia
Last week I got a postcard from Carl Hansen, veteran missionary to Ethiopia, inviting us to a 7 p.m. event at the Harrisonburg Mennonite Church April 18. His special guests are two representatives of the Meserete Kristos College in Addis Ababa, President Kiros Teka Haddis and Board Chair Kelbessa Muleta Demena. Brother Demena is also the Associate General Secretary of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia, now the largest Mennonite denomination in the world.

While I am not directly associated with MKC, I have long been interested in the church and its new college, with a current enrollment of 180 men and women, most of them training to be pastors and church leaders in this rapidly growing church. The sponsoring church, named Meserete Kristos, or "Christ is the Foundation", has over 225,000 baptized members in more than 700 congregations, and with an attendance of twice that number. This means that it now has well over twice the members as its mother church, the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), with 899 congregations and 97,439 members..   

As a reflection of the huge disparity in wealth among worldwide Mennonites, US Mennonites have a total of five colleges and two seminaries, each with budgets far, far surpassing that of this one fledgling Anabaptist-related college in Ethiopia, with an annual operating budget of around $375,000.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture. If we really believe that God shows no favoritism, that our Creator loves and cares for everyone on the planet equally, how can we justify this monstrous gap in distribution of resources?

For example, as a loyal alumni of EMU, I can understand its perceived need for a $7 million fund drive to renovate its Science Center, but I also have to ask how can we justify investments in such projects when the MCUSA constituency, while awash in wealth, is actually shrinking in numbers, while MKC supporters, though desperately poor by our standards, are growing rapidly? 

There may be no seemingly easy answers to such questions, but at a most basic, simple level, is this really that complicated? Shouldn't it be obvious that, as we pray "Thy will be done on earth (everywhere) as it is in heaven" that God's will would be something approaching equality among God's people? At least I find it hard to read the Bible any other way.

At the very least, shouldn't we begin appointing believers from the Global South to serve as decision-making board members of each of our church institutions (via skype)? And meanwhile, should we consider a moratorium on new construction or expansion of our existing institutions until our world neighbors have more of their needs met? And could/should MCUSA have its colleges and seminaries become one "multiversity" (on separate campuses) to avoid competing with each other for needed dollars and adequate student enrollment?

Believe me, the Meserete Christos College has no problem recruiting students. But it does face huge challenges in raising funds in one of the most impoverished countries of the world.

I look forward to meeting with these good folks from Meserete Kristos, and meanwhile urge all my friends to do so as well, and to bring their check books.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Patient in Room 102B

My beloved, a most patient patient
Alma Jean's beautiful smile doesn't mean all the pain from her knee replacement surgery is over, but we've just learned that she'll get to come home Tuesday, April 16.

For those who don't know, she had her surgery at Augusta Health Friday, March 22. On the following Monday I brought her to the Virginia Retirement Community's Shenandoah Unit at  Oak Lea for extensive physical therapy, where she has been working out ever since.

She's still not ready to commit whether she'd be ready for the same procedure on the other knee, should that become necessary, but we're both grateful for some light at the end of this proverbial tunnel.

Meanwhile, we're so grateful to the Great Physician for all the grace she's experienced to help her through this. Also to her surgeon Dr. Pereles (aptly pronounced "peerless"), the good care providers at Augusta Health, the great physical therapists, nurses and other caring folks at VMRC, and to all the wonderful friends, family and church family folks for their cards, prayers and visits.

And likewise for all the food and other kindnesses shown me personally during Alma Jean's absence. I feel blessed indeed.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Where There's Smoke, There's Denial?

ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer. A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years.” 

- Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Strategy & Policy

Kristina Chew, in a post on the April 9, 2013, Care2 blog site, cites some well documented trends in global climate change associated with unprecedented increases in carbon emissions in the atmosphere. For example:

* 1,600 years of ice in the Andes has melted in the past 25 years.

* The earth is the hottest it's been in 11,000 years.

* Canada’s Arctic Archipelago glaciers are shrinking as a result of rising temperatures, and sea levels are rising proportionately, which is already beginning to effect the future of large populations of people.

Not everyone agrees on just how much effect we humans have had in bringing about these changes, but with our ever increasing use of motor vehicles and of energy produced by coal and other fossil fuels, the evidence for such an effect is mounting. More extreme weather patterns associated with a warmer and moister atmosphere are becoming the norm, and areas of drought as well as flooding are on the increase.

As caretakers of an earth that is both fragile and wonderful, it's urgent that we do all we can to preserve the good planet God has provided for us. This will mean adopting a frugal and counter-cultural way of life that is more like that of our grandparents and less like the lifestyle associated with three-car garages and six-bedroom estates.

We'll all be the richer for it, and future generations will thank us.

Check this link for additional posts on this subject.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"They Adored Each Other"--A Love Story

Alma Jean's oldest brother, Harold William Wert, 87, died April 4, a resident at Landis Homes, Lititz, Pennsylvania, where he lived his last years with his loving wife Mary F. ­Hepner Wert. They had been married for over 66 wonderful, wedded years. Regrettably, my good wife was unable to attend because of her being in rehab from her recent knee surgery, but she very much wanted me to be there.

Harold and MaryWert: photos courtesy of J. Lloyd Wert
In his meditation at the funeral service, Harold's youngest son, John Stahl-Wert, described his father as having been in love with Mary well before she was aware of it. In elementary school, as the story goes, Mary once gave her classmate Harold a Valentine card that read, "Let-tuce be sweethearts." Of course she had sent similar inexpensive cards to all of her classmates, but he especially prized that one, hoping she might one day truly mean what the card said.

And later she did, from the heart and with unwavering loyalty.

Son John, the ordained minister in the family, spoke eloquently and with appreciation, "We never had to question our parents' undying love for each other, nor their unconditional love for each of us. They lived it every day." This, he added, was their greatest gift to their six children, contributing to each of them having sturdy marriages and strong families--resulting in a total of fourteen grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

One of the sons-in-law, Ernest Miller, described a recent conversation he had with Harold in which he noted that he and Janice, Harold and Mary's second oldest, had then been married 35 years. Father, obviously pleased, nevertheless asked, "Do you still love her?" When Ernest responded with a strong yes, Harold was even more pleased. Next to loving God, that was the most important thing.

Harold was a gifted craftsman, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, and a faithful member and song leader in his congregation. But the greatest of his gifts was love--for Mary, for his children and grandchildren, and toward the God he came to bless as the source of all lasting and lavish loving.

The following from Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV) was part of the benediction offered at the service:  

"The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." 

To that we all say, Amen. So be it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

In Praise of Pure, Unadulterated Lovemaking (the bonding, life-creating, heart-throbbing, lifelong kind)

photo by wordpress

Donna Freitas, author of "The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy," believes increasingly promiscuous behavior among youth and young adults is causing untold harm.

In a March 31, 2013, Washington Post article, "Time to Stop Hooking Up?" she writes, "Traditions such as dates and get-to-know-you conversations before physical intimacy are deemed unnecessary or even forbidden. The guiding commandment of hookup culture: Thou shalt not become attached to your partner."


I couldn't help thinking of this approach to relationships being like a completely inverted food pyramid, one in which sugar-packed desserts become the first course, the main course and the only course. Needless to say, hookups lack even the most basic ingredients to build and sustain a healthy relationship and a happy life.

Freitas has spent the past eight years talking with students, faculty members and college administrators about hookup culture, and finds, not surprisingly, that 41% of respondents in her research used words like "regretful," "empty," "miserable," "disgusted," "ashamed," "duped," and even "abused" to describe their experience.

"Hookup sex is fast, uncaring, unthinking, perfunctory," she writes. "It has less to do with excitement or attraction than with checking a box on a list of tasks, like homework or laundry. Yet it has become the defining aspect of social life on many campuses..."

Here's the "pyramid" of factors necessary for deeply satisfying, lifelong unions I created for my 1997 book, "Lasting Marriage: The Owners' Manual":

"Happily ever after" is far too important to risk getting it wrong. Lasting success in the relationship department calls for starting with a strong foundation, building with enduring commitments, and then, and in that order, celebrating with lifelong, heart-throbbing delight.

It's a God-inspired plan with a lifetime warranty.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Invitation to Gemeinschaft Dinner Saturday, April 20, 6 pm (with Senator Emmett Hanger)

Park View Mennonite, 1600 College Ave

Here's your invitation to Gemeinschaft Home's annual "Friend-raising Dinner" to be held at the Park View Mennonite Church 6 pm Saturday, April 20. This year's special guest is 24th District Senator Emmett Hanger, who will be speaking on "Trends in Criminal Justice Reform in Virginia."
State Senator Emmett Hanger

Mr. Hanger has been a long time supporter of reentry programs like Gemeinschaft, which is a 30-bed home in Harrisonburg that offers 90 days of supervised rehabilitation and training for ex-offenders. As evidence of its success, out of randomly selected 87 GH graduates from 2010 and 2011, only five were found to be incarcerated. This is extraordinary in that, according to the latest data available, about 29 percent of inmates in Virginia are reincarcerated within 36 months of being released from prison.

As a long-time member of the Gemeinschaft Board, I have become especially aware of the challenges ex-offender's face in reintegrating as responsible members of their communities. We need your help to give our men the best help possible to make this happen.

The meal for this annual fund raising event is being prepared by Keith Ridley, a graduate of the program who operates a food service business in Staunton. Another graduate and a loyal board member, John Butler, will be the master of ceremonies.

Please RSVP at 434-1690 by April 15, or email your reply to

If you can't come but can still make a donation to help us keep Gemeinschaft's program strong, please do so on our website or send a check to Gemeinschaft Home, 1423 Mt Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.

God will bless you and our residents, staff and board will thank you.

Gemeinschaft Home, 1423 Mt Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802 540-434-1690

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Suicide [L. sui, of ones self + cida, to cut or kill]

While recently grieving the loss of a highly respected professional friend and colleague who committed suicide, I recalled something I had written for our denomination's paper, the Gospel Herald, in 1991, after the self-inflicted death of another friend. It was also in response to a highly controversial book that had just published on the subject.

Here it is, from the archives:

FINAL EXIT, FINAL ANGER                             

"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?"
(Habakkuk 1:2 NRSV)

Runaway sales of Derek Humphry's FINAL EXIT, a "user's guide to suicide," have more than a few people worried.  My own concerns about the issues of suicide and euthanasia led me to check on the availability of the book at a local bookstore.  "Completely sold out," I was told, but I could be on a waiting list for my very own copy of this little $16.95 "nuts and bolts book about how to end your life." I decided to pass.

While the book is described as covering "various forms of self-deliverance and assisted suicide for the dying," many fear it will become a handbook for emotionally disturbed but otherwise healthy people seeking the ultimate escape. 

National statistics on suicide and euthanasia are sobering.  The line between the two may sometimes be hard to draw, although most of us see a useful distinction between the use of heroic measures to prolong life as over against simply prolonging death.  As James Wall writes in a Christian Century editorial (August 21-28, 1991), "It is important to distinguish between the comatose patient being kept alive by mechanical means and the person still able to make decisions.  When consciousness disappears permanently, a decision to die becomes the responsibility of others, who may reach the judgment that for  all practical purposes life for an individual has concluded and that therefore artificial supports need not be maintained."

But the use of medical or other means to induce a premature death is another matter.  The decision to take ones own life, Wall points out, is the ultimate result of modern individualism.   "If...  the individual is supreme, then our responsibility is only to ourselves, since there is no God who gave us life or who awaits us in death."

By far the majority of cases of suicide, even among the elderly, where suicide rates are now the highest of any age group, result from feelings of simply not being able to cope.  According to a recent study by David C.  Clark, psychologist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, 65% of elderly victims whose cases he studied suffered from serious depression, a mental illness, not a financial  or medical crisis or the recent loss of a loved one, and 19% were alcoholic.  Few had received professional help.  Unfortunately, the instructions in FINAL EXIT  are as effective and final for someone who is simply depressed as for the person facing incurable cancer.
Or as ineffective.

One of the myths perpetuated by a book like Humphry's is that suicide can be easy, painless or even noble--a swift, sure solution.  Popular films like "Dead Poet's Society" tend to romanticize suicide or portray it as inevitable when things get too bad.  As the lyrics of the theme to M*A*S*H* suggest, "Suicide is painless..."

Fortunately most suicides are "successful" only as desperate cries for help, but they are never painless.  And whether successful or not, the emotional suffering experienced by concerned friends and family in the aftermath is incalculable.

The pain which suicide (or an attempted suicide) inflicts on others may be intentional. Since a desperately depressed person has borne enormous emotional suffering, it can seem like a form of justice to have some of that hurt passed on to others.  In that sense, suicide is often an act of anger, even an alternative to murder (Since I cannot destroy those who have hurt me, I will destroy myself).  In any case, suicide is an act of violence, as much as homicide or genocide.

Lionel Tiger, author of OPTIMISM: THE BIOLOGY OF HOPE, writes, "Suicide is a violent challenge to our general complacency about the extraordinary value of life.  To be sure, suicide is not only violent against the community but also against the survivors." Even Humphry is concerned about proper etiquette in this regard, suggesting that those who feel compelled to use a hotel room should leave a note "apologizing for the shock and inconvenience"--along with a big tip.

The physical risks and consequences for individuals who attempt suicide are also seldom given the attention they deserve. Gayle Rosellina and Mark Worden in their book on depression, HERE COMES THE SUN, graphically describe suicide as leaving "a legacy of a broken, battered, blood-and excrement-soaked body drowning in vomit, clinging to life in spite of all the good intentions about a sensitized and uncomplicated self-deliverance."

The authors go on to give examples of how ineffective and potentially devastating most of the commonly tried methods of suicide are.  As an example, they cite a pharmacologist who describes aspirin as "one of the messiest, most complicated overdoses you ever hope to see." Other studies show that people who jump from high buildings or bridges may fall a hundred feet or more and still manage to survive, while of course suffering terrible injury and/or paralysis in the process.

Suicide needs to be de-mythologized.  Like any form of death, it is hard to look in the eye; we prefer to cloak tragedy in euphemisms.  However, if we want to fully describe the reality of suicide, we must recognize it as an expression of rage as well as despair, an expression of violence as well as a cry of hopelessness.  Facing the issue honestly may help prevent what someone has called "a permanent solution to what is often a temporary problem."

Thus as a church committed to peace, we must condemn suicide in the same way we do other forms of violence.  But even more importantly, we need to show  compassion for those who experience the despair that leads to it.  This means placing a high value on human life, but making the message of grace an equally high priority.  We recognize that at the point of carrying out the suicidal act, individuals may no longer have any rational control over their actions,  as David Halley writes in a recent article in The Journal of Religious Ethics, "A theist might judge almost all cases of self-inflicted death to be wrong and yet think that emotional distress, ignorance or other mitigating factors make blame very rarely appropriate." But Halley adds, "To think of life as a gift is to be predisposed to look for its good qualities and ways of gratefully using it.  When we conceive of something as a gift, we do not typically think of how we can be rid of it."

Followers of Jesus clearly affirm life.  We are called to enhance the quality of life for everyone, and to work in whatever ways possible to prevent the needless tragedy of self-inflicted homicide.  Individuals who are seriously depressed need professional and congregational help.  Dying and suffering people need the same kind of intense support and care.  It is the feeling of being isolated in pain, of being in denial of ones pain, of going it alone, that makes the depressed person's continued existence seem unbearable.

All of us can help.  According, to the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, the more acute and severe the suicidal crisis is, the less one needs to be trained professionally to help manage it effectively.  Among the steps we can take are:

1) Encourage the suicidal person to continue talking as long as necessary while giving as much emotional support as possible.
 2) Insist on taking suicide threats (or attempts) seriously, not allowing them to be minimized or kept  secret.
 3) Stay with the person until a clear commitment is made not carry out the threat and to get needed help. 
4) Follow up to make sure the distressed person makes contact with others who are able to give further help--friends, family members, pastors, counselors, etc.  If they refuse, make such contacts yourself.

Suicide doesn't have to be accepted.  It doesn't have to  happen.  Together we can help individuals in distress begin making changes in their lives rather than destroying them.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
...on you I was cast from my birth...

To (God), indeed, shall those who sleep in the earth bow down;
and I shall live for him."
(Psalm 22:1, 10,  29 NRSV)

Monday, April 1, 2013

"There is but one (day), and that one ever"

photos by Margie Vlasits
Our Family of Hope House Church celebrated its annual Easter sunrise service yesterday at the securely locked entrance of the once public Massanutten Caverns.

This was followed by celebrative singing together and an Easter brunch in the former Caverns Lodge, with the meal prepared by hosts Guy and Margie Vlasits, members of our church who operate the Old Massanutten Lodge Bed and Breakfast there. 

George Herbert, one of my favorite English poets, wrote this in 1633:


Rise heart; your Lord is risen. Sing his praise
                                        Without delays,
Who takes you by the hand, that you likewise
                                        With him may rise:
That, as his death fire burnt you to dust,
His life may make you gold, and much more, just.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for they part
                                        With all your art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
                                        Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
                                        Pleasant and long:
Or, since all music is but three parts vied
                                        And multiplied,
O let your blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
I got me flowers to strew your way; 
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But you were up by break of day,
And brought your sweets along with thee.
The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th' East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With your arising, they presume.
Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavor?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

For locations of our house church meetings and other information about Family of Hope, see