Sunday, November 13, 2011

Suicide: What Words Do We Use?

Suicide: What Words Do We Say?

Preached by The Reverend Sadie Pounder
Sunday, November 13, 2011

"One November morning in 1936," noted theologian and author Frederick Buechner writes in his book Telling Secrets, , “when I was 10 years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage…..” That was the last time he saw his father alive. Suicide death.

There was no funeral. Neither side of his family were church members. No funeral to mark his father’s death and put a period at the end of the sentence that had been his life, and as far as he could remember, once his father died his mother, brother, and he rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or to anybody else. It made his mother too sad to talk about him. The truth is, his father’s suicide impacted the rest of his life. His father shows up in characters in several of his novels.

Of all the topics in the world, why a sermon on suicide?
• It’s difficult. It’s sensitive.
• For many, it’s private, very, very private.

Trinity is in the midst of “unearthing,” bringing to light a new way of conversing about difficult, sensitive and often very, very private matters. A vision of Pr Mentzer, it's the Academy of Creative Endeavor to encourage public discourse to generate vision of how culture can change. Its first gathering is Dec 14th in Fondersmith. It's a call to public conversation about a difficult subject, suicide and the loss of life by suicide while in custody at Lancaster County Prison (LCP), 3 suicides in 6 months– numbers way above the norm. To put it in perspective from Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2000-2007 in about 3000 jail jurisdictions in US, 83% reported no deaths; 12% reported one death, (making 95% reporting none or one death by suicide). LCP is in the 5% reporting 2 or more deaths by suicide. Placing people on suicide watch or taking them off was one of my responsibilities as a mental health professional at Adams County Prison.

But this is not just about jail suicides. We know Trinity has not been immune from this kind of tragedy and frankly, with over 35,000 suicides in our country annually, it’s most likely no place has been immune. There is one suicide once every 16 minutes.

As I look around at this fellowship of faith today, I realize we are very aware of 3 things right now:
• where we are,
• who we are and
• why we are here.

We are aware of where we are:
A church sanctuary, not a police station, a jail, a sociology class or a lecture hall.
A church sanctuary - where the word of God is spoken, sung, prayed and proclaimed, and the sacraments administered.

We are aware of who we are:
Christians, children of God, with a story, a story to tell of God’s love for us in his Son Jesus Christ who died for us and our salvation. We are baptized as sons and daughter of God.

We are aware of why we are here:
Here to worship God. Offer our thanks, our prayers, our hymns, our offerings, ourselves in a time separated out from the normal, daily routines of our lives. We are here to hear the Word proclaimed, spoken. Words that give life in difficult times, difficult situations.

If you saw the beginning of the Penn State, Nebraska game yesterday, you saw a sight not seen before. Both teams, at the center of field, kneeling in prayer by a Nebraska coach. There was relative silence in the full stadium, fans watching. Prayer I’m suspecting for
• victims of abuse when children by a former football coach,
• most likely, prayers for healing and hope, words from the heart.
• Words spoken, out loud, in the midst of tragedy.

And that’s exactly what we are called to do. In the midst of tragedy, this time suicides, we, children of God in this sanctuary in worship are called to bring:
• Words of healing
• Words of hope
• Words of the heart

Words of Healing
The church has struggled with suicide over the centuries and how it speaks to it. Scripture tells of several suicides, perhaps the most known -
• Saul – taking his own life rather than be captured by the Philistines, the enemy;
• Samson, pulling a building down causing his own death as well as many others;
• and most remembered, Judas, consumed with guilt after his betrayal of Jesus.

During the early years of Christianity, many believers chose suicide over religious persecution and torture. Women committed suicide rather than be a mercy of invading soldiers. All believers who ended their own lives in these circumstances were considered martyrs. It was in part to stem this tide that Augustine, bishop of North Africa in the 4th century, said in his writings – City of God - “Scripture gives no passage permitting suicide to hasten entrance into immortality or to avoid evils of the day.” He made a strong declaration against it, denouncing it as a sin. Councils picked up on this and condemned those who took their lives, calling them sinners, no longer martyrs.

Centuries later, the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, a leading theologian and Dominican priest, declared suicide as an act against God, a sin from which you could not repent. The civil law picked up on it. There were various punishments for those who took their own lives..
• They could no longer be buried in church cemeteries and horrible things were done to their bodies.
• Their property was forfeited to the state.
• Families were left grieving, isolated and poor.
• If one attempted suicide and failed, he would be arrested, shamed and put to death.

The word, coroner came from 11th century England, and actually means “crown’s plea” because the coroner would seek out those deaths from suicide so the crown could possess the property of the family. For hundreds of years, the families of those committing suicide were devastated.

Over the centuries church doctrine regarding suicide was questioned. In the 1930s theologians such as Barth, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and other German theologians began to concern themselves with suicide. With a single voice they said that while suicide was certainly wrong, if forgiveness for anything, it surely included suicide. They said, “We must begin to care for the survivors.”

With over 8,000,000 persons considering suicide each year, most of us have most likely
• known someone who has committed suicide or
• others whose depression or other factors have caused suicidal thinking,
• or even had those thoughts ourselves.
• I believe most people have had at the minimum a fleeting thought about suicide or may some day.

We just celebrated Veterans Day. Reports of increasing suicides with active duty as well as veterans are a huge concern for military these days as post traumatic stress disorder is just one of many reasons for what some call an epidemic, one of every 5 suicides being a veteran.

My family and I knew one. Herman was a Viet Nam veteran. He was the youth minister in the church we attended in Northern VA in the 80s. Our oldest son, a teenager, had been in his youth group and very fond of Herman who would attend our son’s baseball games and go to sporting events together.

Herman was gone about a year, moving to New York. Members of our church were still in touch with him and were aware of his depression. Two men flew to NY to bring him back to VA. Their cab pulled up to Herman’s home. It was too late. His suicide was shocking beyond belief. My son was a pall bearer. At the grave site, after the ceremony with military honors, no one moved. The teens stood still. The need for healing of emotional pain was enormous. For Herman’s family and hundreds affected, many teenagers - what words do you say?

Yes, gone are the days of being alienated by the church: no church service, no cemetery burial, and teachings of suicide as the unforgivable sin are over. But not gone are the stigma still, the search for “why” – feelings of guilt, shame, puzzlement. Not gone are the “if only’s.” No matter how many times family members try to put together pieces of the puzzle, there are always gaps.

When the three men took their lives this past year at LCP, their families now experience not only the shame of being in prison and the many unknowns surrounding their deaths but also the shame and stigma of taking their own lives.

Some in the world say:
• It’s one less case to prosecute.
• Close the books on this one.
• See, it shows how guilty they are.

What are we willing to say?
• They, too, were human beings? God’s story is for them, too?
• They are people Jesus died for? Is that what we are willing to say?
• Can we use words Paul speaks in I Thess today? “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through Jesus.” “Therefore, encourage one another. Build each other up.”

We’ve been given this incredibly generous treasure from God - eternal life, salvation, forgiveness, grace. Is it buried within us, kept safe, or can we unearth it, perhaps buried too long, and share it with a world so distracted from the things, the words of God?

Words of Hope
We not only bring words of healing to families of those who committed suicide, we bring words of hope. Albert Schweitzer said, “The tragedy is not that a man (person) dies, the tragedy of life is what dies inside a man (person) while he (or she) lives.” Hope would be one of those things.
An authority on suicide (Edwin Schneidman), says the common emotions of suicide are hopelessness and helplessness. The common symptom is pain – physical, emotional or both. There's no question persons thinking of suicide are experiencing pain – emotional and/or physical. On a scale of zero to ten, their pain is 10+.
You may have seen Montel Williams, talk host, diagnosed with MS 10 years ago, speaking out about how his constant, excruciating pain led him to a suicide attempt. He simply could not see a future without debilitating pain and could not see living with it 24/7 the rest of his life. He could not see the road ahead. What does that feel like? We cannot experience exactly what another is going through but we can experience the emotion. What does it feel like to not see road ahead?

I can remember driving from Lancaster one evening to go to Harrisburg. Had a passenger with me. It was raining when we left but not significantly. It wasn’t long before we were in the midst of a torrential downpour. Blinding rain. I remember saying, “I can’t see.” No road lines were visible. How will I know I am still on the road? All I could see was blinding rainstorm. I experienced fear! You may have been on the road during a dense fog. Same thing.
Edwin Schneidman says there’s a common cognitive state for people who are suicidal, called “constriction” (tunnel vision). A narrowing of the range of options that leads to the person thinking: I have “one” and only one option. Herman, I am convinced, at the moment he took his life, he could not see the road ahead. Not his wife. Not his 8 year old daughter. He saw nothing but the storm, the endless blinding storm.
Words of the Heart
Besides words of healing and hope, we are called on to speak words of the heart most of all. Authors Arterburn and Felton, in their book, Toxic Faith, talk about false ideas that can poison a believer’s life.

One of the toxic beliefs of Christians is: “When tragedy strikes, true believers should have a real peace about it.” It is the belief that no matter the tragedy, suicide, sudden death in an accident, or other, a Christian, if he/she really is a believer, should have peace, a “wonderful” God-given peace very soon.

The truth is our natural reaction to sudden death is shock, disbelief, denial,and anger. Death, the loss of a loved one, breaks our hearts, especially suicides and the mystery that often surrounds them and the complexity of factors (mental state, multiple stress, physical pain, guilt, shame, just plain tiredness of the struggle). God can, of course, work supernatural healing in survivors, family members and friends but by far, for most, healing is a long, hard process.

A heart that is broken needs words that will speak to the heart. Our heartfelt response is to allow people to go to their places of woundedness and pain, not with “corrections” or “advice” but with unconditional love, as Jesus does for us.

God has given to each of us incredible treasure in His Word. Words like:
• “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
• Nothing can separate you from the love of God.
• Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

These words are not to be kept safe and buried within us or kept safely in this sanctuary.
When we go out doors today, they are to go with us -to feed not only our hearts and our own struggles but for those outside the doors in need.

Where are we? In the sanctuary - a safe haven.
Who are we? Children of God.
Why we are here? To worship. Be refueled, nourished so when we do go out those doors, we go as people with something so good, we want to share it!

All in all, there is so much we do not know about why a person takes one’s own life. But this we do know. God assures us through the words of Paul, “Now we see through a glass dimly, but then face to face.” We are people of the promises of God. People of faith. That’s our healing, our hope and our heart. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Several years ago I had a young man in my church to take his life. Having grown up in the south eastern United States I like many evangelicals had been taught that suicide was an act of murder against oneself. After working with this man for almost a year and seeing his struggle with drugs while at the same time seeing his heart's struggle to want to please God, I had to seriously question my beliefs and what I had been taught as a child in church and even in Bible College. I new the pain that suicide had caused his family stemming from his struggle with drugs; but I also personally knew his desire to serve God and want to do what was right. When he died I was there at the hospital while they were taking him out of the abulance and was with the famiy through the night and days to come. I struggled with how I was going to find God in this delima and offer peace to this family. I must have written 8 or 9 different sermons for his funeral. But when I stood behind the pulpit what came from my lips was this. "We all want to ask the question why today. Why did Eddie take his own life? Why did God allow this to happen? But I think the more important question to ask is God how did you love Eddie through all his struggle with drugs and addiction." I really can't remember what I said from that point without listening to the recording of the funeral service, but at the end I asked a packed and over flowing church of people if any of them would like to make thing right with God and give their lives to Christ. 28 people stood and 28 people accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. I am not saying it took Eddie dying for them to accept Christ, but 28 live were changed. As for my thoughts on suicide and the soul of the individual all I can do is leave it in God's hands. As a father I do know there is nothing that my daughter could do to make me stop being her father or keep me from doing everything I could to protect her. And if I could receive her into my precense for eternity I would most certainly do that.