Looking for the Leading Causes of Life

Gary Gunderson with Larry Pray present a new way
to frame the search for meaning and hope in The Leading Causes of Life published
recently. Gunderson and Pray write that life is breaking out even in the midst
of death-dealing events and the challenge we must accept is to look for the soft
whisper of life when the loud crash of death is easier to hear.


I have chased death around the world. The killing fields of Kampuchea (Cambodia), famine in the Horn of Africa, civil war in Central America. Tsunami, hurricane, earthquake. You name it, and for many years I was there.

I wasn’t searching for death. I was looking for life and writing about how life prevails in the midst of death-dealing circumstances. And if you look for it, you will find life but, as Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray state in a new book, The Leading Causus of Life, you won’t find life by staring at death, or that which kills.

Often life is quiet, courageous and heroic; a colorful, tenacious little flower that pushes up through the cracks of a granite boulder. Death is sometimes–but not always–explosive, crushing and cataclysmic. It comes crashing in when a shell explodes in a village in Somalia or Iraq. It comes with the thunderous winds of hurricanes, the roar of rushing floodwaters or the rumble of earthquakes. We’ve seen and heard far too much of death lately, and we’ve talked about life less than we should.

Despite our neglect, life goes on doing what must be done to preserve life. And if you ask those engaged in courageous, heroic acts of life it’s quite likely they’ll say they’re just doing what needs to be done, what comes naturally. Most people do everything they can to restore life when it’s broken and to prevent death when it threatens. Life seeks life.

This can be as simple as a whispered word of encouragement or as physical as one hand grasping another to lift someone from the rubble.

Often we who write about such events frame our stories by how many people have died, or what those who suffer lack, because this is how we try to grasp the scope of circumstances. However, this framing takes a toll. It can desensitize us to deep suffering and leave us emotionally bereft. It can make problems seem too big to resolve. And it’s just plain depressing. Death does not lead to life.

I reflected on these thoughts as I read Gunderson and Pray. They write that changing the way we approach the all-to-common pathologies and deficits that exist in every life can result in finding sources of life that will make our journey on this earth more meaningful.

The roots of life, they write, are to be found in coherence, connection, agency (action), blessing and hope. These five create the environment in which we can flourish regardless of the diseases, pathologies or deficits we experience. And they empower us in ways that strengthen whole communities even as they empower individuals.

This has very practical value for me. I find myself involved these days in discussions about why I believe we should end malaria and whether this is too visionary to be accomplished. These conversations are with people who are genuinely concerned about others and are mature in their religious faith.

“If we emphasize ending malaria I’m afraid we will de-emphasize HIV/AIDS,” writes one. “If we start saving all these lives, as horrible as it is to think about, won’t we contribute to the over-population problem?” asks another.

When we isolate problems and focus on deficits, we put causes into competition with each other, write Gunderson and Pray. Our vision is constricted by the limits that we believe bind us.

They don’t recommend simple positive thinking, however. They say we must look deeply at causes and effects. We must confront death-dealing conditions realistically. When we do this, we find that malaria and HIV/AIDS, for example, need not compete for money and attention. They are interrelated and affect the whole human family. We are connected, as are the circumstances of the these deadly diseases. They flourish where poverty exists.

Rather than focus on death, we need strategies for life–empowering individuals and communities by encouraging discussion and solving problems, creating economic opportunities so that all have opportunity to thrive, creating health systems that are accessible and affordable for everyone, providing information about basic sanitation, contagion, clean water and disease prevention. These strategies integrate disparate causes and unify us around holistic solutions that give us life. They foster coherence, not competition.

It occurs to me that the prevailing narrative of fear and death since 9/11 has led us down a path that has not made us more secure nor unified the people of the world. We are more divided and death is more present. War is a strategy for death. Death leads to death.

Framing also affects how we heal brokenness, injustice and disease. Gunderson and Pray remind us that repeating a litany of despair does not result in hope for better life. The long-term framing of mainline denominations in the United States has been about decline. This litany is self-fulfilling. But it neglects the life that courses through these communities of faith. It ignores the coherence of their traditions that gave them life and spurred them to move forward. It leads to competitive behavior not connection. And it calls up a distinctly unfaithful and hopeless attitude about their resources and their future existence.

I often hear what can’t be done, and how limited resources are. This is what happens when we focus on what we lack and pull inward because of fear. In a world of great abundance and equally great creativity and skill, to believe that people of faith cannot change the death-dealing circumstances that crush vulnerable people, and to repeat that we don’t have resources to carry out compassionate ministries and to do justice is merely repeating a litany of death.

Gunderson and Pray remind us the more we speak of death, the more we forget about life. “You quite literally lose your life: you misplace it and forget where it came from.” (p. 181)

And they ask, “Why not look for the causes of life…?”

Indeed, why not?

To look for the leading causes of life is more realistic than talking about our limits and, in effect, negotiating with death, as Gunderson and Pray write.

Life is present in every community, and the challenge life presents to us is to find it, grab hold, and run with it because life is moving on. We have a choice, of course. Life or death. Gunderson and Pray tell us the language of death is easy to speak, but they call us to make a different choice and find a new language. And they believe the disciplines of life create the deep discourse that integrates, unifies and ultimately heals. It’s better to look for the leading causes of life than to chase death.


The Leading Causes of Life, Gary Gunderson with Larry Pray, published by The Center of Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, Memphis, TN, 2006.Available at lulu.com


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