Archives For Suicide

The first funeral I ever attended or performed was a suicide. Still a new seminary student, I was so determined to be “helpful” and do whatever the grieving family asked of me I lied. Rather, I aided and abetted their secret and shame. Neither the truth nor, consequently, the Gospel was spoken.

Since I know preaching funerals where the deceased has died by their hand can be hard, I offer this one from this weekend as an example, not a good or perfect one just more honest than that first attempt. I owe Kenneth Tanner a big shout-out for assisting me.

Here it is, using both John 11 and John 20.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as I said at the beginning in the Call to Worship.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus says to the grief-stricken Martha right before he asks her- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

“I am the Resurrection and the Life…even though you’ll die yet will you live…do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. And Martha, her eyes salty and pink with tears and voice hoarse from rage, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

But probably- Let’s be honest, probably she wants to say “No.”

No, I do not believe. No, it’s too hard to believe. No, it’s too easy to believe- it’s foolish and silly to believe in Resurrection and Life. After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up her brother Lazarus is four days dead.

Dead. And he didn’t have to be. His was an unnecessary death.

When Lazarus first fell ill, Martha had sent word to Jesus: “Your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.”

But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored the warning. He didn’t heed the cry for help as seriously as he should have so that by the time Jesus shows up it’s too late and, by Martha’s estimation, it’s every bit unnecessary. It didn’t need to end the way it did: “Lord, if you had been here,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.

To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”

Scripture calls it the Enemy for a reason. It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death.

Especially an unnecessary death.

We don’t know the why or the how of Lazarus’ death. We just know it didn’t have to be. “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” Martha asks and, I’m willing to bet, poked Jesus in the chest or, even, slapped him across the face.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life…Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her, and her mouth says “Yes” but her heart?

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     “Do you believe this?”

Do you? Do you?

All of you- you’re all Martha today.

Some of you’d say “Yes, I believe” but really if you’re honest the answer is no.

For others of you the answer is “No.” You don’t believe. You don’t believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life, but, God, you want the answer to be yes. You don’t want Death to have the last word, especially when you were denied the opportunity to have your last words with _________.

And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!?”

The yes on Martha’s lips. The no on her grief heavy heart. The righteous anger in her throat and in her eyes. We’re all somewhere in between on days like today. We’re all Martha.

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     I’ve presided over too many services like this one- and don’t get me started on the kids I’ve buried or the forsakenness I’ve felt- I know what it’s like to feel that the answer is no.

“No, I don’t believe.”

I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death.

Take those together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ.

But you’re here for a funeral. You’re not here for me to convince you the answer is yes. Yes, he’s the Resurrection and the Life of us all.

Except-

In here, on our calendar, it’s still Eastertide, the season of Resurrection, a season that began with the scripture reading you heard this morning from the Gospel of John.

Mary Magdalene, who’s come to the garden tomb to mourn, mistakes the Risen Jesus for the gardener because Resurrection and Life are not in any way her expectation.

She mistakes him for the gardener.

Gardener is the job Adam was given by God to do in Eden, which is to say, this Risen Jesus- he is what we’re meant to be.

He is who we will become. What God does with him God will do with us all. His Resurrection is but the first fruit of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing.

When she realizes it’s really him, she grabs ahold of him. In her hands she clasps his scarred hands. Notice- his scars are still there. In his hands and his feet and his side. He still bears his scars.

     The life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated.

The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus. He is who he was.

That Mary mistakes him for the gardener, what Adam was meant to be; that he still bears his scars and his wounds, reveals what Christians mean by that word ‘Resurrection.’

Namely, this world and this life- it matters. It matters to Almighty God.

Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality, that suggests our ultimate destination is an evacuation from this world has nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with Resurrection.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener; therefore, Resurrection means that God has not abandoned the garden that he planted.

God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus back to the world to say, “Don’t worry … after you die you’ll be OK.”

No, God Resurrected Jesus.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us something about what God has planned for the world, what God has planned for us. God plans to restore THIS world.

The Risen Christ still bears the scars life gave him; therefore, Resurrection means that God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else.

If that were the case, why on earth go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? And not just him but God raised him as the first fruit of God raising us all.

God didn’t say, “It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”

No.
God raised Jesus from the dead.

Therefore, Resurrection means this world that God made matters.

Resurrection means that this world, this life— our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work, our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies—

Literally, everything, it all matters.

Every pitch, every batting practice thrown, every conversation breaking down your swing.

It all matters.

Every game coached. Every reluctant walk along the beach. Every date night in Old Town.

All of it matters.

Every piece of unsolicited volleyball advice. Every vegan chicken sandwich shared. Every trip to Philly or Boston or New Orleans. Every GPS-induced “shit show.” Every ‘I love you’ left unsaid or said in deeds if not words.

All of it. Every bit of it.

All of ________ and every bit of your life with him and what you do with your life now without him.

It all matters.

It all matters to God.

     When we gather on days like today, people often will refer to it as a ‘celebration of life.’

     I hate that language.

I hate it because it doesn’t lift the luggage.

For one, it compels us to be dishonest. It temps us to lie and ignore our feelings of grief and confusion. It forces us to ignore the fact that not every part of our lives is a cause for joy, neither was every part of ________’s life nor the way ended he it. It forces us to pretend that if _____ were here with us he wouldn’t apologize and say he wished that none of you had to be here today.

For another, I hate that ‘celebration of life’ language because it doesn’t go far enough in the celebration.

We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our ability to remember it. No, the Christian hope is different than the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 

We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our memory of it. We’re celebrating a life that God is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener. He still bears the holes in his hands. Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. God doesn’t throw things out.

     Resurrection means that even if we forsake our life, God does not forsake us.

Resurrection means God will reclaim everything, redeem everything, renew everything, heal everyone.

Belinda Carlisle was right; she just got the tense of her verbs wrong. Heaven will be a place on Earth, a New Earth- a New Creation- and nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken, everything broken will be mended.

Every wound will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, are gift.

    Resurrection means that in the end God gets what God wants.

     And what God wants is each of every creature that God has made and God has loved and God has called very good- very good, even when we couldn’t always say that about ourselves.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks.

I realize occasions like today draw all sorts of people from all kinds of places. I can’t make assumptions about you or what you believe.

But Christians are those people trust the ‘Yes’ even when we feel the answer’s ‘No.’

Christians are the people who dare to live beautiful and complicated lives, lives of forgiveness and mercy and inconvenient love, lives that make no sense if the answer to Jesus’ question is not ‘Yes.’

Christians are the people who live as though we will live on—as Jesus lives on—as the unique and unrepeatable persons we have been since the moment of our conception.

Live on—body and soul glorified—as it was with Jesus in the Garden—the first fruits of the Resurrection—able to be touched and held, seen and heard. Again.

Christians are those who believe we are not ghosts in machines that go back to being ghosts, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation.

Christianity is not spirituality.

The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.

We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers—laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones—will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids.

All made alive again forever—somehow—redeemed by the humble power of God’s love.

Christians believe that God keeps all the information of us and all the mystery about us, and that the God who created everything from nothing knows how to raise us from Death.

That’s our hope.

That’s what we mean by Jesus being “the Resurrection and the Life.”

     Do you believe this?

     Funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe it or not, whether you have faith in it or not, whether ______ believed it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us.

Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.

 

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What do you say to someone who’s been sexually abused? To someone addicted to porn? To someone thinking of committing suicide?

“Don’t be a dumbass Christian.”

– Steve (Not Stone Cold) Austin

Teer snagged this interview with Steve Austin. I hadn’t heard of Steve Austin or his book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward. I was tired, had plenty of checks left to mark on my To Do List plus a sermon to write. I felt like begging off and letting Teer take the interview by himself. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Six months into our podcast, this conversation with Steve Austin, for which I had no expectations, turned out to be our best one, I think. It’s definitely the episode that has struck me the deepest as both a pastor and as a human being. It’s also the episode where Teer and I have done the best job yet of listening to one another and anticipating each other’s questions.

In his book and in this conversation, Steve bravely shares about being sexually abused as a child, suffering the consequent shame and panic attacks later, and attempting suicide while he served as a pastor. His authenticity is what people crave from Christians and it’s what many churches sorely lack.

Give him a listen. You’ll be as surprised and grateful as I was to have heard from him.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve already got in the can: interviews with Fred Schmidt, Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Kenneth Tanner, Fleming Rutledge, William Cavanaugh, Bishop Andy Doyle, and Poet/Undertake Thomas Lynch.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link to listen: http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-39-dont-be-a-christian-dumbass

 

 

Chagall-1I’d been a candidate in the United Methodist ordination process for a year and a half. I’d been a seminary student for two semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for three months when a member of my tiny little congregation at Linvale United Methodist Church outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.

It had been seven years since I’d given my life to Christ. I had ten ‘Master of Divinity’ courses notched on my transcript. I’d been a minister for a dozen or so Sundays. And, suddenly, one of my first tasks in that role was to minister to the family of a church member who had taken his own life.

The man was elderly, and he was terminally ill with cancer, painfully so. This was my second direct experience with suicide.

The first came had come at the church at which I’d interned just a few months previous.

A friend recently lost a good friend the same way and asked me the question that always comes up in those situations:

What does the Church believe about suicide?

 Is suicide really an unforgivable sin?

Before anyone goes about answering such a question to distinguish suicide as a rational choice and suicide as the result of mental or emotional illness.15-Javert-commits-suicide-because-he-has-lost-his-hat

There is a deep difference between, say, Inspector Javert and Rick Warren’s who tragically suffered mental illness and recently sucumbed to it.

With the former example in mind, the Christian tradition has historically held suicide to be morally wrong because the act of suicide represents a refusal to live moment-by-moment. In this sense, in suicide, the creature seeks to exercise the autonomy of the creator. Thus suicide marks a rejection of our status as finite creatures made by God. Because it’s not solely “my” life that I’m taking, suicide can, theologically speaking, be understood as an assault or affront to God, the One to whom “my” life belongs. For Christians, this kind of suicide is an attack on someone else’s property.

Suicide is an issue around which many painful myths cohere so it’s important to point out that, from a Christian viewpoint, suicide does not necessarily condemn one to irretrievable punishment.

God no more judges a person on the single sinful act of suicide than God judges any one else solely on a single sinful act.

Rather the Christian understanding that even with those commit suicide God takes the measure of a whole life and judges based on the sum of that life.

When it comes to the first sort of suicide, the sort I encountered in my first parish difficult though it was, what is important for a Christian ethical perspective is that Christians refuse to speak the culturally dominant language of independence. This is hard.

The language of individual autonomy, though common, is deceptive. It may sound true that my life is my life, yet a family’s experience of suicide proves just how false a claim that really is. The language of individual autonomy is limiting because the fact is our lives are bound together with family and friends in a number of ways.

My life is not just my own because it’s a life that exists in relationship with scores of others: many who love me, many who depend upon me, many who understand their life in relationship to my own.

I learned this fact firsthand while ministering to the church member’s family I mentioned above. His suicide was hardly a solitary act with limited consequences. On the contrary it caused pain to all those others to whom his life belonged.

Christian tradition, then, defines suicide as a moral wrong first because it’s a rejection of our created-ness and hence an assault on God and, secondly, Christian tradition defines it as a moral wrong because, whether it’s intended or not, it’s an assault on others too.

Having said all that, it’s critical to stress that most of us have more experience with examples like the heartache Rick Warren and his family are presently enduring.

To listen to a very good and pastoral conversation about this topic, I’d encourage you to take a listen to the recent podcast at Homebrewed Christianity.

logoTo take a step back, I think what’s critical to remember in all cases is that suicide isn’t so much a question what a person will suffer in God’s eternity rather suicide is but one example of how God’s creation continues to suffer- groan, Paul says- under the power of Sin and Death.

The saving power of the cross is both perfect and yet mysteriously it’s still most definitely NOT YET.

karl_barth_1167312313122810As in most things, I think Karl Barth puts it well.

This is from Church Dogmatics 3.4:

“Sickness, like death itself, is unnatural and disorderly. It is an element in the rebellion of chaos against God’s creation. It is an act and declaration of the devil and demons. To be sure, it is no less bound to God and dependent on Him than the creature which He created. Indeed, it is impotent in a double way. For like sin and death, it is neither good nor is it willed and created by God at all, but is real, effective, powerful and menacing only in its nullity, as part of that which God has negated, as part of His kingdom on the left hand.…

“The realm of death which afflicts man in the form of sickness … is opposed to His good will as Creator and has existence and power only under His mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what humans ought to will in face of this whole realm on the left hand, and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.… Those who take up this struggle obediently are already healthy in the fact that they do so, and theirs is no empty desire when they will to maintain or regain their health.”

“When one person is ill, the whole of society is really ill in all its members. In the battle against sickness the final human word cannot be isolation but only fellowship.”