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From the Los Angeles Times:

Trifecta of opioids, alcohol and suicide are blamed for the drop in U.S. life expectancy

An epidemic of despair is disproportionately claiming the lives of rural white Americans in the prime of adulthood. And for a second year in a row, their deaths by drugs, drink and self-destruction have caused life expectancy in the United States to fall.

That milestone, suggests an editorial in a respected medical journal, marks a sustained reversal of close to a century of improving health for Americans. And it raises a puzzling mystery: What is causing the despair, and what will restore hope and health to these battered Americans?

The opioid epidemic, which claimed the lives of 64,000 Americans in 2015 alone, “is the tip of an iceberg,” a pair of public health scholars wrote in the journal BMJ.

In an even larger public health crisis unfolding in the United States, death rates from alcohol abuse and suicides have also seen sharp increases in recent years, wrote Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonweath University and Laudan Aron of the Washington-based Urban Institute.

Between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate rose by 24%. And mounting evidence has shown that deaths linked to alcohol abuse are rising as well among white Americans.

Nowhere are these trends more dramatic than in rural counties, where decades of social and economic changes have made the lives of white Americans less secure than their parents’, Woolf and Aron wrote.

About 15% of the nation’s population — some 46 million persons — lived in counties outside metropolitan areas in 2014. In a January 2017 analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that those living in nonmetropolitan areas were more likely to smoke cigarettes, to be physically inactive and obese and to suffer from high blood pressure than were metropolitan county-dwellers.

Fully 18.1% of rural Americans lived in poverty, compared with 15.1% of those living in and around cities. And people in rural counties reported less access to healthcare and a lower quality of healthcare than did those in metropolitan counties.

In October, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that, while premature deaths were down among all American adults between 1999 and 2015, nine of 48 subgroups studied saw increases in early mortality. The lives of non-Latino whites, largely in rural or small or medium metropolitan counties, were mostly being shortened by suicide, drug overdoses and liver disease — a condition closely linked to alcoholism.

That study’s data showed steep declines in deaths due to HIV infection, cardiovascular disease and motor vehicle crashes among African Americans and Latinos and in urban and suburban areas. But those declines were more modest or nonexistent among whites living in any setting. And they were offset by dramatic increases in drug overdoses and suicides in whites, no matter where the victims lived.

The authors of the BMJ essay note that the roughly 15-year run-up in drug deaths and suicides has not been seen in black Americans.

While the racial gap in health is narrowing, African Americans’ rates of premature death have always been starkly higher than those among whites, Woolf said. And it may be that the uptick in “deaths of despair” seen in whites will eventually be detected among blacks as well, he added.

But Woolf said it’s also possible that black Americans have some “resilience factor” that white Americans do not. Perhaps, he said, African Americans’ response to the discrimination, structural disadvantages and health inequities they’ve long endured has buffered them from following whites down their path of self-destruction.

At the same time, the despair of whites is “unclear, complex, and not explained by opioids alone,” Woolf and Aron wrote. In once-thriving communities outside the nation’s metropolitan areas, industries have collapsed. As steel mills and coal mines have closed, timber production has gone bust, and automation has left rural communities behind, their economies and their residents’ health have suffered.

The result is a national phenomenon that has been unfolding for at least three decades. Relative to life expectancy in other affluent, industrialized countries, Americans’ once-commanding lead in longevity began slipping in the early 1980s. By 1998, U.S. life expectancy had fallen below the average for industrialized countries. It is now 1.5 years behind that benchmark.

“It’s really sad that a baby born today will likely live less long than one born even a year ago. It’s not the direction you’d expect the richest country on Earth to be going,” Woolf said.

But economic collapse might be too easy an explanation for rural white communities’ epidemic of despair, said Woolf, who has studied the urban-rural health divide across the country. More important might be the fraying of communities’ social fabric that followed.

“Poverty rates don’t capture the frustration and hopelessness people experience when they can’t get ahead or can’t give their kids a better life,” Woolf said. When the social fabric of a community is frayed, its residents may be more inclined to salve their woes in self-destructive behaviors, he added.

A look at broader U.S. trends and policies may also shed light on the roots of some Americans’ despair, Woolf and Aron wrote. During the three decades during which U.S. life expectancy has slid, the nation’s educational performance weakened. Its social divides (including income inequality) widened. Its middle-class incomes stagnated. And its poverty rates exceeded those of most rich countries.

“These are all factors we know are important to health,” Woolf said.

If policy makers wanted to reverse the trend of shortening U.S. lifespans, “they would promote education, boost support for children and families, increase wages and economic opportunity for the working class, invest in distressed communities, and strengthen healthcare and behavioral health systems,” Woolf and Aron wrote.

At the end of the day, Woolf said, “it’s probably not a good time to make policy choices that don’t invest in helping these people. A policy agenda that’s focused on improving value for shareholders is not really going to bring relief to these families and communities.”

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Thinking Ahead!

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In the past I’ve tried to spend the last week of December in reflection as well as in anticipation of the coming calendar year. I’ve tried various forms of goal setting strategies based on resources I’ve happened upon. Since research shows that 50% of all new year’s resolutions are broken by February 1, I’ve decided to simplify my approach for 2018 and narrow things down to four basics.

While I’m not sharing the details of each category, I thought I’d at least share the framework with you. If you find it compelling, great! If not, that’s great as well.

1. I want to quit something.
Sometimes you have to let go of something to make room for something new. As John C. Maxwell said, “Breakthroughs are break-withs.”

2. I want to learn something.
I think an important part of life is the commitment to be a life long learner. So I’ve identified a couple of things in fact that I want to learn.

3. I want to create something.
Because I’ve made room for more through my first action, I can now invest the time and resources I now possess to create something new. Don’t assume the word create is limited to some endeavor in the fine arts. It could be as simple as beginning or starting something that doesn’t presently exist.

4. I want to master something.
I, at least, have the propensity to be the proverbial “jack of all trades.” While having a broad and diverse skill set is good, I want to have at least one skill where I am adept enough to be a servant of others. Mastery in this case is not for the purpose of pride. Mastery serves others because it allows one to share an expertise with another person and make their lives better.

As I said, if you find this framework compelling, by all means play with it and see what your four “goals” are for the year.

Happy New Year! 2017 has been good, and 2018 will be better!

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When Thanksgiving is Hard

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“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (Hebrews 13:15-16, NIV)

When I was in seminary, I had the chance to meet one of the professors of vocal music. As we got to know one another he suggested that I consider taking private voice lessons to strengthen my preaching voice. He pointed out the benefits of breath control, projection, and of course, overall care for my vocal chords. I was genuinely interested, until I discovered that as part of his course he would require me to sing a solo in a recital. That was the deal breaker. Looking back it probably wouldn’t have been that painful, but my initial response was stark because I don’t like the sound of my own voice. I mean I can’t stand to hear myself speak, let alone sing. (My congregation would question this claim!)

That’s why I enjoy corporate worship. We’re better together! I can sing at the top of my lungs and somehow I blend right in. Because others sing, songs of praise and thanksgiving are easy. Its also easy because I’ve been remarkably blessed.

I don’t like those sermons that are directed toward people who are presumed to be thankless. I really think people as a whole are grateful. If we stop long enough to think about it, how can we deny the manifold blessings from the generous and open hand of God?

But what about those times when thanksgiving is hard? Yes, we are blessed, but we’re also burdened from time to time with various issues including poor health, financial difficulties, wayward children, relational strife, and more. In those moments when life has dealt a hard hand, thanksgiving can be a challenge, making it hard to see all of the good through the lens of the problem.

It was my wife who pointed out to me that the Bible acknowledges that praise can be difficult at times. Hebrews 13:15 calls us to offer, “the sacrifice of praise.” The word sacrifice would have drawn the original hearers to those Old Testament sacrifices that were offered throughout the Jewish calendar year during times of feasts and festivals. For our modern purposes, we understand that a sacrifice is something that comes with a cost. Like David, we acknowledge that we “will not offer anything that costs us nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). The sacrifice of praise is conditioned by the word continual, meaning we are never exempt from the responsibility of offering praise and thanks to God.

So how do we do that? Hebrews 13:15 mentions that we offer “the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” Praise is the fruit of lips rooted in a heart that is inclined toward God. Jesus said that it is from the abundance of our hearts that our mouths speak (Luke 6:45). In other words, what’s in the heart will be revealed through the lips. If my heart is full of gratitude toward God, my lips will praise him, regardless of how difficult it may be.

I’ve never been a fan of the refrigerator magnet theology that boasts “praise God anyway” in the midst of adversity. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what that means. But I do know this. Life can be hard and filled with hurt. When it is, the praise I offer in those moments is received by God as a sacrificial gift of great value. My prayer is that I will be just as willing to praise God when its difficult as when its easy.

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THINK Before You Speak

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This is certainly not original, but I was reminded of this principle recently and wanted to share it. It’s titled, “THINK Before You Speak,” and works as an outstanding guide to help remember some important guidelines for conversations.

Before you speak, ask these five questions:

Is it True?

Is it Helpful?

Is it Important?

Is it Necessary?

Is it Kind?

The apostle Paul would say it this way. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

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Pray for Houston

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Father in heaven,

Be present in Houston today:

For those who suffer,
For those who are displaced, and
For those whose lives will never be the same.

We pray that family and friends who are separated will be safely reunited.

We pray for the leaders of the communities that are impacted, for the leaders of the state of Texas, and for those who guide and direct federal assistance.

We pray especially for those who are first to respond and the last to leave.

May your mercy and grace abound.


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As many of us are reeling from the events that have unfolded in Charlottesville, VA – with stories, images, and reports whirling about and yet developing – words can be tough to come by. When there is so much that can be said, indeed, that must be said in the light of tragic events such … Continued

Source: A Congregational Prayer for Churches After Charlottesville – Missio Alliance

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Helpful Quote

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My sister shared the following quote as an introduction to a prayer she offered during worship yesterday. I liked it enough to share it with you today.

“I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to make a difference that you lived at all.” — Leo Rosten

I hope it will inspire you today as it has me.

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When to Say “No”

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Last week I was presented with two requests within two hours. Within two minutes of each one, I said the word, “no.” Let me explain.

The first request came from a man who came to my office requesting permission to rent our facility for a four day conference that would welcome between 600-800 people. “Six to eight hundred?,” I said. “Yes,” he replied. I then responded by saying, “Our sanctuary only seats 500. I’m sorry, but we cannot do that. You’ll need to find another venue.” “But your building is so tall!, he pressed. I smiled and said, “Unless you plan to stack them, you’ll need to find another venue.” We shook hands and he left. This no came from a place of inability. We could not accommodate the request, so the answer was easy. “No.”

The second request came from a missionary who was looking for financial partners for his family’s call to serve overseas. He had left a voice mail stating his desire to present his ministry to our congregation. So before I returned his call I did a bit of research. I had looked at his statement of faith on his website, and within 30 seconds realized his personal theological values were significantly inconsistent with our church’s theological values. I returned his call and quickly expressed that we were not interested in partnering with him, wishing him the best as he solicited supporters. This no came from a place of inconsistency. His ministry’s mission and values were inconsistent with our ministry’s mission and values, so again, the answer was easy. “No.”

The point is that when you know what you can and cannot do, you can easily say no. And when you know what you believe and value, you can also easily say no. But if you’re not sure of your personal ability, or what you believe and value, you’ll continue to struggle with saying the word “no.”

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For almost a decade I served a denominational youth camp as the leader of a group of students who were either going to be seniors or who had just graduated from high school. Those experiences were always the highlight of the summer! The worship was outstanding, and the speakers that presented each evening dynamic beyond belief. Students developed new relationships with others. They also strengthened their relationship with God. For each of us it felt like one of those “mountaintop experiences.”

Though the curriculum was strong throughout the week, the most important lesson I taught was the last one, scheduled immediately before students would depart for home. The lesson was brief, only 30 minutes or so, and was simply titled, “Re-Entry.”

The point of this most important lesson was to remind the students that though they had just completed a transformational experience of meaningful growth, complete with emotional and spiritual high points, they were going to return to families, friends, class mates, and churches who had not been to camp. In other words, just because they had been away at camp did not mean those at home had experienced similar things. They needed to be prepared for that truth. Just because those at home had not enjoyed the same journey in no way invalidated the journey. They just needed to know that they were responsible to feed and fuel the next 51 weeks of their journey.

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Welcoming 2017!

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Today is New Year’s, so I imagine many of you have either set goals or made some form of resolution for 2017. One of the problems we encounter with setting resolutions is that each resolution is accompanied by some kind of statement like, “I’m off to a fresh start,” or “I’m going to turn over a new leaf,” or “I’m going to begin a new chapter.”

The problem with these statements is that they are not real. There are no new chapters in life. Only next chapters. Edwin Friedman rightfully said it this way in his book Failure of Nerve: “Just because a page is torn off the calendar doesn’t mean that unit of time no longer exists.”

We can’t behave as though life hasn’t happened. But we can learn from each experience and move forward. The success we achieved cannot become our ceiling, and the failures we encountered cannot become our identity. So we’re faced with the choice to either move on as though things didn’t happen or matter, or to move forward with a growth mindset that is willing to learn, adapt and apply. I choose to move forward. I hope you do as well.

Happy New Year! Here’s to the next chapter of our lives!

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