Tag Archives: Suicide

How Can You Think That?

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In my last post late last week – “Death with Dignity; Life with Faith” – I wrote about the recent death of Brittany Maynard by assisted suicide and the response that Kara Tippett, another young woman with the very same terminal illness, made to it.  I wrote to urge a little bit more “humility” and “modesty” in the way that we think and talk about public policy issues like euthanasia.  I was reacting to the way that I perceived some of my ministerial peers – both progressives and traditionalists – in their blogs and Facebook postings were using the story of this intensely personal tragedy to score ideological points in support of their predetermined political and social positions.  You don’t have to read very many of my blogs before you discover that this is one of my pet peeves.

I get terribly uneasy when one of my ministerial colleagues will fire off his or her “hot sports opinion” on a pressing social and/or political issue.  When my theologically and socially conservative friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a caucus of the Republican Party. And when my theologically and socially progressive friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a wing of the Democrat Party.  And I worry about how this creates premature barriers, keeping people from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is identical to the platform of the Democrats or the Republicans, in which case, please say so — add it to the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior, and that to be a Christian is to be a Republican, or a Democrat, as the case may be.

If am a politically conservative and my minister and church preaches the “Democrat Gospel,” then I am marginalized and I am left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are incompatible.  There’s no room for me at their Table.  And if I am politically progressive and my minister and church preaches the “Republican Gospel,” then I am equally marginalized and left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are just as incompatible. I am excluded from that Table as well.  We are fracturing the Body of Christ over “inferences” and the conscientious application of Biblical principles and not the gospel itself, which I thought was what the Stone/Campbell Movement came into existence to reject and avoid.   Unless voting for Greg Abbott, or Wendy Davis in the last gubernatorial election here in Texas, as your conscience and conclusion dictated, was one of the so-called “essentials” of Christianity about which we must be unified as Christians, then let it be a “non-essential” about which we are accorded freedom.

Because in our communities of faith we are going to have people of varied convictions and conclusions about the non-essentials, and I am called to be the pastor/teacher of them all, I have consciously and conscientiously taken the position of political neutrality as a pastor.  Oh, I vote, and I will encourage you to do the same.  But I will not tell you how I voted, or how to vote.  This is a matter to be decided in the sacred arena of “private interpretation” for us as Protestant Christians.  This is a Holy of Holies that we dare not barge into uninvited.  You have got to do your own believing, and your own deciding.  And I have to do mine.  My job as a pastor is not to “pass judgment on your opinions” (Romans 14:1), but rather to provide you with the tools to help you “think Christianly” on the great spiritual, moral and social issues of the day.

I get spiritually uneasy when my ministerial friends get political.  But if you insist on doing this, if you are going to tell us what to think about this candidate and that proposition on the ballot, then at least do us the courtesy of explaining why you think as you do.  Don’t just give us the “right” algebraic answer to the problem “de jour,” lay out the geometric theorems and proofs that got you to that answer!  Frankly, “how” you think about an issue is so much more useful than just a concise statement of “what” you think.  Nevertheless,  most of the socio-political conclusions I hear from my ministerial friends get stated with a “twitter-like” brevity devoid of any explanation.  They read like the “therefore let it be resolved” statement in the final paragraph of a General Assembly Resolution without the benefit of any “whereas” clauses that make the case for the recommended action

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Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis, in his book The Christian Mind (Seabury 1963) proposed this experiment –

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by “thinking Christianly.” Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the “thinking Christian” will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that doesn’t matter.  [What does matter is that] they will not “think Christianly.”   They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are almost wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average churchman to the Conservative Party or to the Labour Party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the church [and her teachings]. (13)

Of course, all of this presumes that “thinking Christianly” is a category that we actually understand and accept.  The heart of Blamires’ book was an exploration of the “marks” of a mind that in fact “thinks Christianly,” and the presupposition of the whole argument was that God is there and is not silent.  In other words, we have access to what it is that God wants for us, for both our lives and our world.  “Thinking Christianly” means thinking God’s own thoughts after Him; having what the Apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

The foundation to any theology – a faithful word (“logos”) about God (“Theos”) – is the source of our “knowing.”  Whenever anybody says anything about who God is, or about what it is that God is doing, or about what it is that God wants from us, or of us, the right thing for us to ask is, “So, how do you know that about God?”  The “Quadrilateral,” a model for thinking usually associated with the name of John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodists, is a really helpful way to get at your answer to the question – “How do you know what you say you know about God?”

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According to the “Quadrilateral,” the four sources of our knowledge of God are: Scripture – the record of God’s own self-disclosure in history;   Experience – the stirrings of God in us and around us; Tradition – the stirrings of God in and around other people before us; and Reason – a critical reflection on the claims of both revelation and experience.  Most Christians have very little difficulty in acknowledging how Scripture, experience, tradition and reason have each made a very real contribution to their knowledge of God. The fuss comes when these four souces compete.  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute?

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In this second diagram of the “Quadrilateral,”  Scripture is the bigger foundation on which the other three rest, and this has been the traditional perspective of Protestant Christianity.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “Sola Scriptura” – “Scripture Alone” – although more accurately it is more a matter of  “Prima Scriptura” – “Scripture First” or “Scripture Primary.”  In matters of faith and practice, we start with Scripture.  “What does the Bible say?”  is our first concern.  Clearly reason, tradition and experience all have their part to play in the process of understanding what the Bible says and means, but it all starts with Scripture.

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Francis Schaeffer called this the “watershed” – the “great divide” – in the church today.  Belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible sends theological and moral reflection in one direction just as the rejection of an inspired and authortative Bible sends theological and moral reflection off in another direction altogether.  So, coming back around to the tragic life and death of Brittany Maynard and the question of euthanasia (“the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering”), how does one “think Christianly” about it?

As a proponent of “Prima Scriptura,” “thinking Christianly” sends me to “Scripture First.”  “What does the Bible say?” is where I begin, and this is where it gets complicated.  When you turn to the Bible among the things that you discover pretty quickly is that there are any number of things in it that were at the center of the author’s concerns in the days when it was written that are no longer of much concern to us today, eating meat sacrificed to idols for instance.  Furthermore, there are things that are of great concern to us today that for whatever reason never get mentioned by the Biblical authors, euthanasia for example. The early church after the New Testament was written took a pretty public, consistent and aggressive stance on infanticide, and they were at the forefront of taking care of people who had been abandoned to death by their families in times of plague.  They did these things not because the Bible specifically told them to, but rather because doing such things were consistent with what the Bible did tell them about the sanctity of life.

The sanctity of life was well-established in their minds by what the Bible told them about all people being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), about guarding the image of God in human beings (Genesis 9:1-7), about not committing murder (Exodus 20:13) and about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).  If ever there was a case to be made for euthanasia in the Bible, a “mercy killing,” Job in his anguish and distress would seem to be it.  But when it was just hinted at by Job’s wife, it was immediately rejected out of hand as being an act entirely inconsistent with faithfulness to God’s dealings with us (Job 2:9-10).  This same perspective weaves in and out of the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-2; 7:17; 8:8).

But by far, the most compelling reflection about euthanasia from the Biblical perspective that I’ve ever come across was Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: the Witness of the New Testament (Epworth Press – 1958).

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Socrates (470/469 BC – 399 BC); Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to 30–33 AD)

A contrast between the death of Socrates as reported by Plato in “Phaedo,” and the death of Jesus, especially His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane as reported by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, becomes the frame in which Cullmann brought into focus the Biblical face of death as “the final enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14-15), and the culturally popular face of death as the liberator from the weakness and limitations of the body.  Euthanasia is a logical choice from the experience and perspective of Socrates, but not so much from the experience and perspective of Jesus Christ. The way Jesus went to the cross kicking and screaming is a powerful witness to the abnormality of death (Genesis 2:15-17) and a foundational argument in the church’s historic resistance to the culture of death in which she lives, and moves and has her being. The Bible may not ever actually use the word “euthanasia,” but the church’s message of life, eternal and abundant, has some important implications for the conversation about euthanasia, especially for people of faith who have named Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  It is neither incidental nor inconsequential that those Christian leaders who have a high sense of the speaking of God in Scripture and Tradition agree in their opposition to euthanasia. But as persuasive as the weight and logic of their arguments born of their reading of Scripture are to me, even more persuasive is the witness of a simple Christian like Kara Tippett, a woman who is dying and who chooses to embrace each moment she has left with spiritual courage and what she calls “mundane faithfulness.”  More compelling to me than an encyclical from the Pope or a position paper written by a first-rate Evangelical Scholar well-grounded in Scripture against euthanasia, is the letter that Kara wrote to Brittany before she took her life. You can find it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/.

This is a wonderful example of what “thinking Christianly” sounds like, and a clear picture of what “acting Christianly” looks like. There is much that I could learn from Kara.   DBS+

 

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Death with Dignity; Life with Faith

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29 year-old Brittany Maynard died on Saturday, November 1 by swallowing lethal drugs made available to her under an Oregon law that allows terminally ill people to choose when to die.  Diagnosed with incurable Brain Cancer at the beginning of this year, Brittany was given six months to live.  As her disease progressed she “suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms. As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago” (http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/281248621.html).

This is a story of human tragedy that deserves our compassion.  Apart from any conversation about the moral and spiritual legitimacy of euthanasia, the terrible circumstances that Brittany Maynard and her loved ones found themselves in and the difficult choices that they faced should leave us “humble” and “modest” – what theologian Gabriel Fackre once described as the two “least appreciated” theological virtues that we have at our disposal as people of faith.  “Humility” acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and “modesty” is how that “humility” behaves.  It doesn’t say too much, too quickly or too loudly.

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We are told that Jesus wept when He finally got to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  There is a theology in the tears of Jesus Christ that deserves much more attention than they have traditionally gotten.  Reduced to a riddle – “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” – we have been distracted from the powerful point that the weeping of Jesus Christ makes about where God is and what God is doing about human suffering (see Hebrews 2:10-18; 4:14-16).   Where Christ’s title “Emmanuel” – “God with Us” (Matthew 1:23) gets most powerfully incarnated for me is at the tomb of Lazarus when He broke down and wept before the exercise of His sovereign power in bringing Lazarus back to life.  When Paul told the Thessalonians that Christians “grieve, but not as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13), I think that he was holding together both Jesus’ tears and His display of power at the grave of His friend. It’s in-between these “furious opposites” that my faith lives.

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After the catastrophes that befell Job, what Marilyn McCord Adams calls “the horrors,” we are told –

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (2:11-13)

If this is where they had stopped, Job’s three friends would have been hailed as spiritual giants, pastoral role models for us all.  But they didn’t.  They opened their mouths and spoke.  They said too much, too quickly and too loudly, with the result that they muddied the waters of understanding and obstructed the channels of compassion.  I have observed a fair amount of this in the blogs and Facebook pronouncements of my ministerial peers in the weeks since Brittany Maynard took her leave of this world.

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Many of my more progressive colleagues have used the death of Brittany Maynard to make their freedom of choice argument while many of my traditionally-minded colleagues have used the tragedy of her death to defend their prolife convictions.   Predictably, they have lined up on opposite sides of the field of this familiar battle to launch their volleys, and in some ways, this is exactly what Brittany Maynard wanted.   She made the conscious decision to go public with her private tragedy in order to advance the conversation about death with dignity in our society.  She chose to make her private drama a media event.  She wanted it to be the story that led the national news, and it did.  This gave her suffering a greater purpose, and I respect the courage it took for her to do this even as I admire the clarity with which she did it.  The tragic circumstances of her life provided her with a “bully pulpit” that she used quite effectively.  She strode into the public square with a statement to make.  But the nature of the public square is dialogical; other voices are going to answer back, and they have, as the blogs and Facebook postings I’ve read in recent weeks prove.  My problem with so many of those other voices has been their smug tone and their shrill arguments.  They have been so eager to score points in support of their predetermined positions that I fear that they’ve lost sight of the fact that this is about real people suffering in real ways from real threats to their existence.

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Of all the responses that have been made to Brittany Maynard’s circumstances and choices, the most compelling one that I have personally come across was made by another terminally ill young woman, Kara Tippett.  On both her web page – http://mundanefaithfulnrss.com – and in her recently published book The Hardest Place: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard (David C. Cook – October 2014) – Kara Tippett has staked out the exact opposite position that Brittany Maynard took while suffering the same exact set of circumstances, what Kara has described as “a road that feels simply impossible to walk.”  Kara Tippett wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard.  You can read it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/  Rather than the rhetorical broadsides, “in principle” arguments and political salvos that I have read elsewhere, this “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread” approach has such power for me.  How I wish that Brittany and Kara could have sat together, talked together and cried together.  And how I wish we could have all been there to eavesdrop on that imagined moment.   I suspect that in the solidarity of their suffering, there would have been much for us to learn about how to face our own dying, and the dying of those we love the most, with dignity and in faith.  As Dr. Candi K. Cann, a Professor of Comparative Religion down at Baylor University, has written –

This is a complex issue that requires an equally complex response. I would agree that there is beauty to be found in both suffering and in death: a kind of beauty and embracing of life that one only finds when faced with the last breaths and days of someone we love who does not want to die. I believe that we learn lessons in sickness, in suffering, in dying, and in walking that journey with someone who is dying, but I also believe that it is easy for one person to judge another’s capacity for suffering based on their own experiences and prejudices. …Both Brittany and Kara write beautiful justifications for their positions on life (and death), and I admire both women — Brittany for taking ownership of her life and the way she wants it to end, and Kara for fighting to be present with her family and to find ultimate meaning in her suffering. The world is indeed a brighter place with both of these brave women shining light on these important issues and our need to bring death into the conversation of our daily lives. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-candi-k-cann/two-perspectives-assisted_b_5960716.html

 

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Robin Williams, Depression and the Church

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My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

 

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We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+

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I highly recommend –

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http://calvarychapel.com/resources/article/view/robin-williams-and-secret-suffering/

 

 

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When a Christian Commits Suicide

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 Vitriol infests Rick Warren family’s Grief                                                                                     

Cathy Lynn Grossman USA Today | April 8, 2013

In the days since, uncounted strangers have joined the 20,000 congregants who worship at the mega church network “Pastor Rick” built in Southern California, Warren’s nearly 1 million Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers in flooding social media with consolation and prayer. “Kay and I are overwhelmed by your love, prayers, and kind words,” Warren tweeted on Sunday. “You are all encouraging our broken hearts.”

But a shocking number are taking the moment of media attention to lash out at Warren on their digital tom-toms. The attacks are aimed both at him personally and at his Christian message. Some unbelievers want to assure Rick and Kay Warren, his wife and Matthew’s bereaved mother, that there’s no heaven where they’ll meet their son again. “Either there is no God, or God doesn’t listen to Rick Warren, despite all the money Rick has made off of selling false hope to desperate people,” one poster from Cincinnati wrote in to USA Today. In another comment, the same poster counsels Warren to “abandon primitive superstitions and accept the universe for what it is — a place that is utterly indifferent to us.” …Others have appointed themselves 140-character theologians in a debate over whether someone once saved can lose his or her salvation if suicide is against God’s law. These posters, rather than waiting for Judgment Day, have ruled for hell…

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 A dozen times in my 40 years of pastoral ministry I have been called upon to preside at the funeral of someone who has taken his or her own life.  And then I have been left to work with the grief of those who survive the death of the one who has committed suicide.   As you can well imagine, it is among the more heart-wrenching tasks of ministry.  As I have picked my way through the wreckage that is created when someone takes their own life, I have, as a “V.D.M.” (“Verbi Divini Minister” – ‘Servant of the Word of God” – see my April 2 blog), turned to Scripture for wisdom and guidance.  And frankly, when I did I was rather surprised by what I found, or more accurately, by what I didn’t find.

The Bible tells us about seven people who took their own lives, six in the Hebrew Scriptures: Both Saul and his armor bearer (I Samuel 31:1-7), Ahitophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (I Kings 16:11-20), Abimelech (Judges 9:50-57) and Samson (Judges 16:23-30); and Judas Iscariot in the Christian Scriptures (Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:16-20).  In all seven cases, the stories of these people taking their own lives were told without making any moral judgments or drawing any spiritual conclusions.  The silence of Scripture here is striking since it is so widely assumed that suicide is clearly and consistently condemned by the Bible.  It is not.  It is tragic, it is aberrational, and it is agonizing, but no enduring truths emerge out of the stories of the seven suicides that the Bible narrates.

The tradition of viewing suicide as a sin is largely the result of an interpretation of the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  If it is a sin to commit murder, as this commandment so clearly says that it is, then if a person murders himself, then it just follows that it must be a sin too.  And because suicide is an act that cannot be repented of and confessed after it has been committed – the presupposition here is that there are no second chances given to us after we die – then suicide is not just a sin, it is an unforgivable sin – a final unconfessed sin that excludes us from the joys of heaven.  Beyond the fact that this is not how our Jewish mothers and fathers understand or have ever understood this commandment and its application to the question of suicide – and since it was theirs as Jews before it was ours as Christians, how they have historically understood it should have some bearing on how we understand it now – there is the larger problem of the spiritually precarious position that you will wind up in if you think that unconfessed sin in a believer’s life excludes us from salvation.  I could be killed instantly in an accident or drop dead suddenly from a medical condition and not have time to formally repent of and confess my sins.  Will this exclude me from God’s nearer presence?  This mechanical and technical understanding of the dynamics of forgiveness misses the whole point of what the New Testament is saying about justification by faith through grace.  And so I’m not convinced that the sixth commandment brings any more clarity to the question of suicide than the seven Biblical narratives of those who committed suicide do.

As I have sought wisdom and guidance from the Bible on the question of suicide, I have found that it is Matthew’s application of what the Prophet Isaiah said about the Suffering Servant (42:3) to Jesus Christ that has helped me the most – “A bruised reed He will not break off, a dimply burning wick He will not extinguish” (Matthew 12:20).  In the history of Christian interpretation, these images of a broken reed and a sputtering wick have been taken as references to people with crushed souls and despairing hearts.   The “bruised reed” describes a person bowed under the burdens of life, a person just about to collapse under their weight, a person whose strength is faltering and fading fast.  The ”smoldering wick” has been taken to mean a person of faint promise and vanishing hope, one whose life if flickering and fading  out.  “Bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” are of little value.  They are both hopeless cases.  Ordinarily they would be broken off and put out.  But Jesus Christ came not to discourage and condemn, but rather to comfort and redeem.  And so Matthew tells us that Jesus Christ does not cast such people away from His presence, but rather He gathers them up and He gathers them in.  He deals with them kindly and gently.  They become the special objects of His concern and care.

In 1990 the award winning author William Styron published his memoir Darkness Visible.  This was his gut-wrenching account of his struggle with depression that nearly drove him to take his own life.  He concluded that people kill themselves, not because they are cowards, or weaklings, or spiritually confused, or morally depraved, but rather “because they are afflicted with a depression that is so devastating that they can no longer endure the pain of it.”   He explained that the pain of depression kills because “its anguish can no longer be borne” by those it victimizes, and that no more reproof should be attached to those who take their own lives than is attached to someone who dies of cancer or heart disease.

And it is connecting these three dots – the surprising silence of the Bible on suicide, what Matthew 12:20 says about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what William Styron said about the destructive power of depression’s pain – that has informed my pastoral response when the phone rings and I learn that a member of my flock, someone I have known and loved, has taken his or her own life.  The last time this happened, a little over a year ago, the message that I preached at the funeral of my friend is the distillation of the wisdom and guidance that I have gotten from Scripture and experience, and that I had to offer to those who were left behind wondering –  “Why did this happen?” – and, perhaps even more urgently for us as people of Christian faith  – “Where was God?”  I offer it here as a resource for any who might be struggling with these questions in the aftermath of the Warren family tragedy, or in the aftermath of your own tragedies — DBS+

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 The Lord Looks on the Heart ~ I Samuel 16:7

 “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, and “neither are my ways your ways” (55:8).  Consider the way that God looks at us. Samuel, the prophet, was sent by God to the little Judean town of Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, with a horn full of oil and an eye for royalty.  Saul had forfeited his throne, and it was time for God’s choice of the next ruler for His people to be revealed.  And so, one by one Jesse’s sons were paraded before the prophet.  Young, strong, brave and handsome, any one of them would have appeared to have fit the bill.  “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before me,” Samuel thought to himself as he looked over the seven candidates.  But Samuel felt nothing stir in his heart as he looked them over.  The Lord designated none of them king to Samuel by inner witness.  And so Samuel asked Jesse, “Is this it… is this all there is?”  And Jesse replied, “Well, there is one more, the baby of the family, but he’s out watching sheep.”   “Send for him,” Samuel said, and when David was ushered into Samuel’s presence the Lord showed him that this was the one who was to be king.  “Do not  look on a man’s appearance or on the height of his stature,”  God told Samuel, “for the Lord does not see as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).  We form our judgments of people by how they look, by the way they dress, by the accent of their speech, by the work they do, by the things they own, and by the things they do.  We have to look on the externals.  But God told Samuel that he looks on the internals, on those places we never get to see. 

 In the Biblical languages the heart is the central organ of the body, and by way of analogy, the center of a person’s being.  In Hebrew the word for heart means “the midst,” what is in the middle.  And the Scriptures consistently teach that one’s true identity will be found in our depths and not by what’s on the surface.  From the Biblical perspective, life is always lived from the inside out.  And so, when God looks on our hearts, what does God see?

 Well, someone has written that before we have finished with this life, the world will have done one of three things to us: “it will make our hearts very hard; it will make our hearts very soft; or else it will break our hearts altogether.  No one escapes.” 

 Some hearts God sees are very hard. Throughout the Bible this is the assessment of the spiritually dead – their hearts are hardened.  Like stones, some people’s hearts grow callous and hard before the verities of life.  This is what happens to some people’s hearts; but I don’t think it’s what happened to Jeff’s. 

 Some hearts God sees are very soft.  In Scripture the hard heart is often contrasted with the heart of flesh.  The prophet Ezekiel said that the work of God in us is the spiritual equivalent of a heart transplant.  “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:27).  This heart of flesh is warm, soft and pliable. It can be shaped and moved.  This is what happens to the hearts God touches; and I have reason to believe that Jeff’s heart had been.  In fact, I was there when it happened. De Colores!

 And some hearts God sees are very broken.  In fact, I suspect that this is what God saw when He looked at Jeff’s heart in recent days.  God is drawn to these kinds of hearts.  In one of his wonderful songs Wayne Watson describes Christ as “the friend of the wounded heart,” and I think that’s right.  To describe the ministry of Jesus Christ, Matthew in his Gospel quoted this line from one of the Suffering Servant Songs from the book of the prophet Isaiah –  “He will not break the bruised reed, or quench the smoldering wick” (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20).  In the history of interpretation these images of the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick have been taken as references to broken people with crushed souls; to those who are in great despair and with little hope.  And here’s the Gospel’s promise: our God does not ignore these people; our God does not forget these people; and our God will not abandon these people because Christ is the friend of the wounded heart.

 Shortly before he was ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, one of Brennan Manning’s professors at DuquesneUniversity in Pittsburgh told him this story.  One of 13 children, one day Brennan’s professor got thirsty while playing outside.  And so he quietly entered the pantry off the kitchen to get a cool glass of water.  While doing so, he overheard his father visiting with a neighbor at the kitchen table.  “Joe,” the neighbor said, “there’s always been something I’ve wanted to know; with 13 children surely you have a favorite.  Which one of your kids do you love the most?”  Well, Brennan’s professor put down his glass and pressed his ear more closely to the door, hoping against hope to hear his own name spoken.  And his father said, “Do I have a favorite? Is there one I love more than the others? Of course I do, that would be Mary – she’s just 12 years old, has braces on her teeth, and feels so ugly that she hardly ever leaves her room these days.  I sure love my Mary – but you asked me about my favorite didn’t you?  That would be Peter – he’s 23 years old and his fiancée just broke off their engagement. He’s desolate.  I love him so.  But you asked about my favorite didn’t you?  That would have to be little Michael, he’s small for his age and totally uncoordinated.  He never gets picked to play ball, and all the other boys make fun of him.  My heart belongs to little Michael.  But the child I love the most would have to be Ann – she’s 24 and off living by herself in the city now, and she’s developing something of a drinking problem I fear.  I weep for my Ann.  But you asked which of my children I love the most – that would have to be….”  And so it went.  That father sitting at his table telling his neighbor the names and needs of each of his 13 kids, one by one in answer to the question, “Which one do you love the most?”  And Brennan’s professor ended that story by saying, “What I learned that day standing in the pantry was that my father loved the most the one who needed him the most at the time.  And that’s how the father of Jesus Christ is too – He loves the most those who need Him the most.”

 There is so much that we will never understand about what happened to bring us to this moment here this morning.  There are so many questions that we cannot ask right now, and so many answers that we want so desperately to hear.  I can only imagine the anguish of that silence.  But here’s one thing about which we can be absolutely certain – in the painful circumstances of Jeff’s life in recent years, and a week ago Thursday, God loved Jeff the most because that’s when Jeff needed God the most.  And in these agonizing days that have followed, God has been loving you who are Jeff’s family and friends the most because this has been when you have needed Him the most.  And in closing I would suggest that because this is who God is in Jesus Christ, the friend of the wounded heart, that we can trust Jeff with Him, and ourselves.  That’s where the healing begins.

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Depression and the Christian ~ A Personal Testimony

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aThe youngest son of Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” has committed suicide, the evangelical pastor said in a letter to members of his church on Saturday. Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Warren and his wife Kay, died after a long struggle with mental illness, according to the statement from Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The church asked for “everyone to join us in praying for the entire Warren family” on Saturday. “At 27 years of age, Matthew was an incredibly kind, gentle and compassionate young man whose sweet spirit was encouragement and comfort to many,” Saddleback Church said in the statement. “Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness resulting in deep depression and suicidal thoughts.”

…Warren wrote about his son’s death in an emotional letter to his church, calling his son “an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man.” “No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now,” Warren wrote in the letter. “He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them.” “In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided,” Warren wrote to church members. “Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                               http://usnews.nbcnews.com

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 We all get depressed.  A beloved companion dies.  A friend moves.  A job changes.  A relationship falters. There’s a sudden and unexpected crisis in our health or our finances.  Depression is a normal response to all such difficult circumstances in life.  We’re all familiar with the experience. Something bad happens, we’re staggered and sad for a spell, and then we pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off and carry on.  It’s a normal part of life.  We all get depressed from time to time, but for some of us who are depressed; it’s our “set” point.

The printer that’s connected to my computer has some default settings.  The print quality is “normal.”  The orientation is “portrait.” The paper size is “letter.” And the paper type is “plain.”  I don’t have to do anything to my computer or the printer for it to print normally on ordinary letter-sized paper; that’s just how it’s set.  But if I want to print something on legal-sized paper with the quality of a professional document, then I have to fiddle with the “properties” of my printer, making some deliberate adjustments to get those results. And for some of us, depression is our default setting; it’s our “normal.”

More than ten years ago I was diagnosed to be suffering from depression.  A patient, loving wife, a good doctor, a daily pill and a perspective of faith have all helped me navigate the darkness quite effectively, but the experience has been defining.  Like the key to a map, that little box down in the corner that tells you what all the different colored lines and markings on the page mean, so my diagnosis of depression has been something of a key to understanding who I am and why I am like that.  You see, my depression may have been diagnosed only ten years ago, but I now understand that I have suffered from depression for the full 59 years of my life.  It’s my “set” point. 

I remember the first time I got glasses.  I kept stumbling over the fine print in my teaching Bible at a study that I was leading in Amarillo.  One of the class members, an optometrist, told me to come and see him in his office.  And that’s how I went from wearing no glasses to wearing bifocals in just one doctor’s visit.  And I remember how amazed I was at how clear everything suddenly became the minute I put those glasses on.   And the same thing happened to me with my diagnosis of depression.  It just explains so much. 

I can now step back into moments in my life from childhood on and understand why I felt what I felt and reacted as I did.  I was depressed.  It turns out I have been my whole life long.  Now, I don’t offer this as an excuse for anything that I’ve ever said or done.  It’s not a ploy for sympathy, or an attempt to squeeze some strange kind of admiration out of you.  Believe me, there’s nothing romantic or heroic about being depressed.  It just is.  And it is for more of us than you know.

The studies all indicate that depression affects approximately 19 million Americans, or 9.5% of the population age 18 and older at any given time.  At some point in their lives, 10%-25% of women and 5%-12% of men will become clinically depressed.   In fact, it affects so many people that it is often referred to as the “common cold” of mental illness.  According to an Australian Government study, a country whose depression statistics are comparable to ours here in the United States, everyone, will at some time in their life be affected by depression – either their own or someone else’s.  One study I’ve read suggested that in any random gathering of people, as many as 15% of them will be struggling with depression.  If you are one of them, it’s important that you know that you are not alone.  If you are not one of them, it’s important that you know that we’re here.  And whether you are one of us or not, it’s important to know that being depressed is not a failure of faith.

My greatest struggle in being transparent about my own personal experience with depression has been my concern about what might happen to your confidence in me as your pastor when you learn that I am one of those people who deals daily with depression.  When I was a kid, I remember unexpectedly seeing my minister on the high dive at the Verdugo Plunge, the city pool in my hometown of Glendale, California.  It was horrible.  I mean, there was my priest, my spiritual father, the man who ministered to me the life-giving sacraments of the church, nearly naked and screaming like a little girl as he hurtled feet first into the deep end of the pool.  Any illusion that I might have had about his special sanctity was gone in the flash of that moment that has been forever burned into my memory. It was one of the best things that could have possibly happened to me and the development of my own soul and call.

You see, ministers are real people too.  Ordination does not bring with it some kind of special immunity from life’s struggles.  I was not made a minister because I had achieved a higher level of spiritual living than you, or showed the promise that someday I would.  The imagined pedestal of ministerial superiority crumbled away a long time ago.  Every pastor from my generation on has learned about “the wounded healer” from Henri Nouwen.  He told us that it was not only useless, but foolish for us as ministers to think that we would be able to conceal our woundedness from our flocks. “Open wounds stink” he wrote.  But paradoxically, he argued that those same wounds can become an important source of healing when they lead to mutual understanding and grace, the recognition that we are on this journey together as equals.

Listen to what he said –

A Christian community is a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision… Community arises where the sharing of pain takes place, not as a stifling form of self-complaint, but as a recognition of God’s saving (presence and) promises. (94)

Lewis Smedes suffered terribly from depression.  A professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, America’s premier evangelical school,  Lewis Smedes, a Godly man whose books I’ve read with deep appreciation for their spiritual wisdom and depth, nevertheless fell into a deep, dark place where just like Elijah in I Kings 19:1-12, he felt all alone.  And just like Elijah, at what he described as “the ground zero of my hopelessness” (My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir 132), God showed up.  In the pit of his depression, Lewis Smedes said that he discovered what “the old Hebrew verse-maker” told us – “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there” (Psalm 139).   In the wilderness his life had unexpectedly entered, God finally came to Lewis Smedes, breaking through his terror, and told him, “I will never let you fall; I will always hold you up,” so that Lewis could eventually say, “You can lie down in hell and find yourself in the hand of God,” and know that it was true in his own experience.

Believe me when I tell you that I wish that there were no wildernesses for us to have to pass through as Christians.  If all it took for depression to vanish was faith, then believe me, there are a bunch of us who would have been free from its terrible hold on us a long, long time ago.  Instead, in this wilderness of ours, we are learning, however slowly, however painfully, that “no matter how deep the pit is into which we descend, we keep finding God there.  He is not aloof from our suffering, but draws near to us when we are suffering.  He is vulnerable to pain, quick to shed tears and acquainted with grief,” We are never forsaken or forgotten; when we have to make our beds in hell, God is there.  And my prayer for Rick Warren and his family in the coming days is that this is what they will discover.  I believe that his son Matthew already knows just how true it is.  DBS+

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bIf you are struggling with depression, or love someone who is, and are trying to sort out what it all means, especially as a Christian, let me highly recommend Steve and Robyn Bloem’s 2005 book Broken Minds (Kregel Publications).  More than just a personal narrative, although it is the story of Steve’s own struggles with depression as a minister that holds it all together; this book is the best single volume on the subject of depression that I have come across.  Broken Minds brings together important clinical and Biblical and practical information on depression in a way that is specifically and helpfully addressed to Christians. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

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