Tag Archive | suffering

Third Sunday in Lent, 2017

3rd Sunday in Lent, year A, preached 3/19/17

first reading:  Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

second reading:  Romans 5:1-11

gospel reading:  John 4:5-42


Have you ever boasted in suffering?  I mean, really.

I don’t know ONE person, even Jesus himself, who when suffering, has said, “Boy am I glad to be going through this! Look at me everybody – I’m suffering and ain’t it grand!”

The Israelites in our first reading certainly weren’t boasting in their suffering.  In fact, they were a whiny bunch.  The Lord had brought them out of bondage, but that wasn’t enough.  The Lord had given them manna from heaven to eat, and THAT wasn’t enough.  You’d think after all that they would trust that God would somehow take care of their thirst, but no.  They bitterly complained, so that Moses was afraid for his life!  No boasting there.

And there was no boasting from the Samaritan woman at the well either.  It’s clear from Jesus that she has seen her share of suffering.  Whether her reputation was sullied by questionable behavior, or whether she suffered as a childless widow being passed as a possession from brother to brother, her life wasn’t easy.  She’s got no time for boasting about anything.  She’s going about her daily business, trying to survive.

Boasting about suffering?  I don’t think so.  But at first glance that’s what it seems we’re expected to do in our second reading.  And not only that, there’s the part where St. Paul seems to tell us that suffering is GOOD for us – it produces endurance, then character, then hope.

So is the line of thought, boast in your suffering because suffering is good for you, because it will make you stronger and give you hope?

One could argue that surviving suffering makes us stronger, sure – but to have that give us hope?  It seems illogical and cruel.

I’ve never really liked our second reading for today because it’s been used to glorify suffering.  Masters have used it against slaves; abusers against those they abuse; the sick asked to be glad for their sickness.  It’s one of those verses that, when taken out of context, can cause all kinds of unnecessary pain and suffering for people.

But if St. Paul isn’t telling us to just lay down in our suffering – take it and be glad for it – what IS he telling us?

Well, because St. Paul is often quite wordy, a man whose thoughts often went in circles rather than straight lines we have to read SLOWLY.  And sometimes it even helps to draw pictures!*

Through Jesus Christ we are justified and have peace and grace.  This gives us hope – the hope we have of sharing the glory of God.  THIS is our starting point for EVERYTHING.

Now… it is because of this hope, that we can even begin to boast in our suffering.

You notice these verses begin with hope and end with hope – with suffering in between.  This hope, the hope which justification and peace and grace give us, carries us through suffering.

In fact, Paul is saying something quite extraordinary to all those who think faith is the cure-all for everything – those who would argue that as Christians we should be happy all the time or something is wrong or lacking in our faith. Paul acknowledges the reality of suffering in life, EVEN for those who have faith.  It is THIS hope which allows us to boast, even in suffering.

You see, the boasting isn’t in the suffering itself, as if suffering were some wonderful thing – the boasting is in knowing that our suffering doesn’t separate us from God.  Even when we suffer, God is still close to us.  Even when we suffer, we are still able to have hope through Jesus Christ.  Now that IS something to boast about.

The hope given to us through our justification in our Lord Jesus Christ – the peace and grace we have “obtained” through him – give us hope and keep us in hope through all the trials that come our way, because hope does not disappoint us.

So the boasting isn’t some prideful “tooting my own horn” at my trials.  It isn’t some martyr complex, LOOKING for suffering.  It isn’t some formula by which we are KEPT in suffering and told to like it.

It’s being held firm in Jesus’ love for us, knowing he is with us through our suffering.  It’s that Jesus gives us the endurance and character to make it through, even when we’re not sure how we can make it another day.

This endurance and character is even the permission we have to stand against that which brings us suffering!  Those who deal in injustice COUNT ON us not getting this part of it – what a shock when we do.  When we stand up to bullies and say, “Because Jesus loves me I can say ‘no more!'”

“For while we were still weak,” St. Paul writes…  “while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…”

This is where it begins.  This is the foundation.  “While we were still weak… sinners… enemies… we were reconciled…”

THIS is our justification through Jesus.  THIS is the justification, the reconciliation that brings us peace and the “grace in which we stand.”

When St. Paul writes about boasting in suffering he means that even in our suffering we still have Jesus, and Jesus will be with us through it.

So we aren’t expected to say, “Guess what?  I have cancer!  Isn’t that great!”  What we can say is, “I have cancer.  But even though I have cancer I know that God loves me and Jesus died for me and is with me to help me through this. Thank God!”

There is a HUGE difference between the two.  We could never say the first, but we are blessed to say the latter.

AMEN.


*My attempt to draw out Paul’s thinking  

Advertisements

Amanda

This post is part of my reflecting on the 20th anniversary of my ordination this year…

Part of seminary education in my denomination (ELCA) is called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Usually this is a summer spent working as a hospital chaplain.  CPE is intense.  You are being a hospital chaplain, but you are also part of a group of others doing their CPE along with you and you meet constantly to debrief your experiences.  In a hospital setting you’re confronted left and right with life and death decisions, with life-altering and devastating illnesses and accidents, and there is grief and pain mixed with joy and relief all around. It’s good to examine your own stuff while you’re confronting other’s stuff – so that you don’t confuse your stuff with theirs (or at least learn to recognize it when you do!).

Most of my day-to-day chaplaincy work was done on general medical floors.  Every once in a while we would help cover for each other if one of us had to be out, and we ALL took turns being on-call since this hospital had a chaplain available to patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  We had an on-call room to sleep in just like doctors – and we all prayed when it was our turn that it would be a quiet night.  It never was for me.  Not only that, but every single time I was on-call I was paged to be with the one “set” of patients I dreaded the most – the children.  Every single time. Without fail.  It’s never good when the chaplain (or any other care provider) is paged at 2am.  But when I would look at the number paging me and realize it was from one of pediatric units (Peds, NICU or PICU) I would just feel sick to my stomach.

The encounter that has stayed with me the most all these years is with a baby named Amanda.  Amanda was almost six months old but had never left the NICU.  She was born quite premature and had multiple problems.  Her mother and father, maybe in their mid-twenties, had just gotten the bad news that Amanda had yet another brain bleed and they wanted to talk to somebody.  The nurses explained to me that Amanda’s prognosis for survival was extremely poor, and that the parents were trying to process the information.****

I shook in my shoes.  Before I could be present with them I had some serious praying to do for myself. Obviously there was nothing I could say that would make this better.  Their little girl was dying, and they were trying to process this news.  What was there to say?

I went over to them and introduced myself.  I let them share with me what they were able to process to that point (sometimes it takes a while for news that tragic to sink in.  That’s another thing pastors do – journey with people as they unpack the realities of life and death).  I understood more than they were able to what was happening, but you can’t push people.  I met them where they were, just as God meets US where WE are.  I told them I was sorry for what they were going through, with what Amanda had gone through in her short life.  I looked at their little girl, obviously very sick, but still so beautiful, and told them that God was with them no matter what.  I told them that God had been with them all along, and that God would continue to be with them in the uncertain future.  They were not alone, even if they felt that way.  That it was okay to question, be angry, be weak, to cry, to scream – God would never leave.  My prayer with them was that they would feel God’s love embrace them and their daughter even in their pain.  We sat together for a long time, touching Amanda, touching each other, with a lot of silence.

Some people call this kind of ministry the ministry of presence.  Meaning, there isn’t anything concrete “to do.” You’re “just there.”  It’s hard to just sit with that kind of intensity.  It’s frustrating for a pastoral person who naturally wants to do something.  You feel helpless and useless, like you’re doing nothing.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  I don’t know what happened to Amanda or her parents. But I know how I have felt when on their end of grief and sorrow.  I know what it’s like to feel alone, to grieve, to doubt, to be sitting in the patient’s or family’s seat in the hospital – and I know it’s NOT nothing to have another human being sitting beside you.  It can be a huge comfort.  Having a physical pastoral presence to represent God’s presence with us is NOT nothing.

Amanda was my first serious experience as a future pastor with the ministry of presence.  It’s still not easy even all these years later.  It’s not supposed to be.  But it’s important to remember that it’s NOT nothing.  Thank you Amanda.  You helped this person be a better pastor.

it's not nothing

it’s not nothing


****This is where ministry takes place.  This is when you want people to realize that sending their money to some televangelist so he can buy a new jet is just GARBAGE.  This is when you want people to realize that buying the best-seller of a preacher living in a mansion is just GARBAGE.  Amanda and her parents are ministry.  THIS is what regular everyday pastors are called to do day in and day out.  We brave the 300 pound gorilla in the room, which is death.  We sit with people as they mourn and doubt, as they question their own worth, struggle with addictions, sickness, anger, depression.  We hold hands with those who bury their children and lose their homes and can’t put food on the table.  Next time you think about sending a check to a “mega-ministry” half across the country, think of the church down the street whose pastor probably makes pennies, but whose doors are always open when you need a hand to hold.  Just my two cents…

 

2nd Sunday in Lent, 2015

2nd Sunday in Lent, 2015, year B (preached 3/1/15)

first reading:  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm  22:23-31

second reading:  Romans 4:13-25

gospel reading:  Mark 8:31-38


There’s a false belief spreading like wildfire in Christian circles today and it is deeply troubling to me, and many others.  It’s the belief that if we follow Jesus that we will be blessed with earthly success and “blessings.”

To the folks who preach this message, “blessings” are all good things, like rewards for good behavior.  Like my children who get to choose from their classroom’s prize box if they’ve behaved all week, if we just follow God’s rules and walk the right path, we’ll get to choose from the heavenly prize box of job promotions, good health, loving relationships or winning the lottery!

Unfortunately proponents of this kind of bad theology have a lot of followers, because it’s playing to the crowd – it’s telling people what they want to hear.

We all want to think that if we play by the rules we will be rewarded.  We all want to think if we’re fair people, then others, and systems, will be fair to us.  Problem is, wishful thinking doesn’t make something so.  Problem is, many times reality smacks that wishful thinking right in the face.

Problem is that try as we may to follow the rules, both society’s rules and God’s rules, many times there is NO reward.  The reality is that those who play by the rules experience just as much suffering in life as those who don’t, sometimes even more.

Not only is this “blessings equal good things” thinking not realistic – IT’S NOT BIBLICAL EITHER.  Our gospel reading makes this extremely clear.

Peter was infected with this “blessings equal good things” thinking.  It was repulsive for him to hear from Jesus that blessing comes “in” and “through” trials and suffering.

Jesus says he will undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed.  Only after that will he rise again.  So Peter rebukes Jesus.  No way Lord!  But Jesus came right back at him.  Rebuke follows rebuke and Jesus puts Peter in his place.  Not only that, Jesus says that his disciples must FOLLOW.  Follow a path of suffering?  Take up MY cross?

If the word “gospel” means good news, then what in the world kind of good news is this?  Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus?

NO ONE – if all we are looking for is earthly success.  NO ONE – if we want a quick fix.  NO ONE  – if we expect an easy life.  NO ONE – if we want to think we’re masters of our destinies.

So why follow Jesus?  Why commit to a life of denying ourself and taking up our cross?  Why, when there’s no earthly payoff?  Ah, but here’s where we would be wrong.

There IS a payoff, both in heaven AND on earth – it’s just not the payoff we expect.  What we have to decide is if we want an easy road that leads nowhere, or a more difficult path that leads to forever.

It may be harder to follow in the way of Jesus – indeed Jesus tells us it WILL be, but does “harder equal worse?”  Or is “harder” BETTER in the long run?

When Jesus rebuked Peter he didn’t only say, “Get behind me…” he also said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  He also said, “For what will it profit [us] to gain the whole world and forfeit [our] life?”  Peter is looking only at immediate gratification, not at long term benefit.

Human/earthly things drive us to what feels good now, having a good time, what will puff us up – winning, succeeding, doing whatever it takes to be number one, not caring about the little guy.

Divine things draw us to what gives ultimate peace – LOVE – which is sometimes HARD work, what builds us up – winning even when we lose, no one being left behind, everybody getting picked for the team – no little guy to step on because everyone is BIG, everyone is priceless because we were all bought by Jesus’ sacrifice.

Human things tell us that Donald Trump is worth more than me.  Barack Obama is worth more than you.  Bill Gates is worth more than Donald Trump AND Barack Obama!

But God says, “Nope.”  You and I are worth exactly as much as Donald, Barack and Bill.  God shows no partiality.  Jesus loves each and every one of us, and died for each and every one of us – all the same.

And because God suffered for us, because Jesus went through torture – he is able to carry us through torture – he is able to carry us through the times when reality smacks OUR wishful thinking in the face.

Because God suffered, our suffering does not mean we are somehow “less than.”  Because God suffered, it means our suffering isn’t a sign of God’s displeasure.  Because Jesus was rejected, we are not alone when WE are rejected.  Because he died and rose again, our deaths will not be the end.  Jesus may not always tell us or give us what we want, but he gives us what we NEED.

There are places in this world where people live in abject poverty.  Where political and religious persecution are REAL and life threatening.  Yet in many of these places the Church is thriving!  In these places people are willing to die if necessary to follow Jesus.

Because they KNOW what we need to re-learn.  They know what we need to share with those in our lives who struggle…

That the blessing is Jesus himself.  We are blessed because he loves us.  We are blessed because we are never alone.  We are blessed because he rejoices with us when we rejoice and holds us up when we’re desperately depressed.  We are blessed because God can see for us beyond what feels good, to what is REALLY good.

We are blessed because no matter what happens, he is with us in THIS life, and after this life is done, he has saved our lives FOREVER.

blessed 2

AMEN.

The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2015

The Transfiguration of our Lord, year B, 2015 (preached 2/15/15)

first reading:  2 Kings 2:1-12

Psalm  50:1-6

second reading:  2 Corinthians 4:3-6

gospel reading:  Mark 9:2-9


The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration

Each time I read the story of the Transfiguration, I am tempted to go straight for Peter.  Poor Peter.  James and John stay quiet, but Peter blurts out, “let’s build a monument to the occasion!”

Blurting out isn’t the only response we see here – so is wanting to build something to remember it by.  We live in a world filled with monuments to events and important people in history.  And if there was ever a moment for a monument, this was it.

Jesus doesn’t answer Peter’s request, but the answer was obviously “no,” because they are soon heading back down the mountain with orders of secrecy.

Why the secrecy?  Peter, James and John heard the voice from heaven, they saw Moses and Elijah and a transformed Jesus.  Who could keep quiet?

But again, Jesus says no – don’t share the event with anyone until “after the fact.”  Because the “glory” only comes after the fact – the fact of the crucifixion and death.

FIRST Jesus must go through suffering.  Only then, in the resurrection, will God’s glory be revealed.  No cross, no crown.  No pain, no gain.

It seems flippant to say, but its reality is disturbing, shocking, and yet ultimately just what we need.  It’s shocking and disturbing because it flies in the face of all the measures of glory that this world holds dear.  When we think of glory do we think of a beaten bloody man hanging from a cross, or the dazzling man on the mountain?

The Transfiguration was a gift that allows us to see Jesus within the great salvation story of God’s people, indeed Jesus as the END of the line – but it was not the gift – THAT gift was the cross.  The disciples wouldn’t understand this until after the resurrection.  You and I have the benefit of their experience and their witness.

We have the gift of a god who could’ve chosen to be like an earthly king, who could’ve shown us glory through a miraculous military campaign, showing power by curing the diseased, manifesting strength killing those who were weaker, or tyrants who persecuted the people.

But NO.  Our God doesn’t work that way.  Our God chose a different path than the path we expect from the powerful and the glorious.

Our God chose to turn the meaning of strength and power and glory upside down.

A god who operates through human standards of success and failure, of joy and pain, is not a god I can relate to when my life is awful.  A god whose definition of glory equals that of ours, where winning is everything, can’t possibly understand me in my failure.  A god who defines strength and weakness by who can overpower and who is crushed, cannot possibly be present for me when I’m overcome and lost in pain.

God looked at all that and said, “No.  I choose a better way.”

It may not always feel like God chose the better way – like when we want to be rescued from a bad situation, or when we or those we love suffer – but it is ultimately the way that saves us.

God transfigures Jesus on that mountain, but God transfigures the whole structure of human valuing and judging, and in the process transfigures you and me.

This is why we can’t have Christmas without Easter, or Easter without Good Friday.

The crown without the cross, the gain without the pain, might do a thing or two to help us “feel” better in the here and now, but they do nothing to help us in the real struggles, the real pain, the real suffering in life – they would only give us a fairytale, where the only acceptable endings are happy ones.  But what happens to us then when our endings aren’t happy?

If God chose the crown without the cross, the gain without the pain, then God would have NOTHING to offer us, NOTHING to give us that the world can’t give.

For me, that god would be a waste of time.  Everyone loves a winner, but you find out who your true friends are when you lose, when you’re in pain, when you’re weak.  And THIS is where God chooses to be with you and me.

This is the whole point of the secrecy of the Transfiguration.  Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,” because the cross HAD to come first.

Before we could worship Christ we had to put him to death, so that God could bring him back to life and show us that our pitiful human demonstration of power stands NO chance against the TRUE glory of God.

Jesus tells them that all these “great” events – the healings, the teachings, the miracles, and the Transfiguration – need to be seen through the lens of the cross.  Anything less would lead us to worship a god just like ourselves.  We need more.  And Jesus gives us more.

Jesus gives us God who KNOWS our pain, who is WITH US in suffering, who HOLDS us in our struggles and LIFTS us when we fall.  Jesus is the shoulder to cry on, the strength against which we can scream in our desperate hours.  To what other god could we ever direct our anger and hate?  Any other god would crush dissent and doubt, but Jesus doesn’t – he loves us even IN them.

Any other god would want only the best and the brightest as followers, but Jesus calls the weak and sinful and sick and make us bright through HIS work.

Our weakness, our suffering, our doubts, our sinfulness – all those things are transfigured through Jesus’ sacrifice and love.

It doesn’t mean they go away, what it does mean is that even in the midst of them we have value to God, we are precious to God – and loved by God for all eternity.

Not always what we want, not always what we expect – but always what we ultimately need.  Thanks be to God.

AMEN.

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, ABC, 2014 (preached December 28, 2014)

first reading:  Jeremiah 31:15-17

Psalm:  124

second reading:  1 Peter 4:12-19

gospel reading:  Matthew 2:13-18

***Note:  I was substitute preaching for a colleague at a neighboring congregation, so I was not preaching to my regular folks.  Also, the commemoration of the Holy Innocents is December 28th, and when Dec. 28th falls on a Sunday its appointed readings take precedence over the regular ones for the first Sunday of Christmas.


What a depressing day.  Right after we welcome the baby in the manger, right after we can finally sing all our favorite Christmas carols, we are confronted with the slaughter of innocent children.

This commemoration of the Church brings up all kinds of questions that are ultimately unanswerable – and way too much to deal with in one sermon.  And those questions bring up others that are equally unanswerable.  How could God allow those little children to be senselessly murdered?  How come God didn’t stop Herod?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why are innocent people sometimes punished while the guilty go free?

We can answer these questions in part, but not completely.  I have often said that I have a long list of questions I want to ask God when I get to heaven, and those are some of them.  There are parts that can be answered though, and it’s important that we talk about that.

Each of us has been given incredible freedom as human beings made in God’s likeness.  We are not puppets to be manipulated, we are God’s children, individuals with limited, but still amazing will and power.

The freedom that God gives us at birth is a wonderful thing.  It empowers us to shape our own future, and we have tremendous abilities and opportunities to help others.  There are countless examples of our human capacity to be kind, generous, and giving to one another.

But this freedom can also be abused.  We are given the freedom to do good, but along with that comes the freedom to act and make choices that may hurt or devastate others.

We may have countless examples of human kindness but we also unfortunately have countless examples of human cruelty.

It’s not lost on me that even as we remember the slaughter of all those innocent children by Herod, there are hundreds of parents in Pakistan who will never stop grieving their children who were murdered by religious extremists just a few weeks ago.

There are families torn apart by domestic violence, kids being bullied and degraded in schools, racism, sexism, classism, and all the other “isms” that just never seem to fade away.

All this violence and hatred I believe can be traced back to the sin of covetousness.  Envy.  Greed.  The desire for power over others – to want the power that someone else has.  Whether it’s power manifested through owning land, money, possessions, or influence over people – it’s intoxicating, it’s addictive, and it’s dangerous.

There’s a good reason that we have one or two commandments (depending on how you number them) that speak directly to coveting – wanting what someone else has.  And this was Herod’s problem.  Herod’s sin.  He had power and he didn’t want to give it up or share it.  He was even willing to slaughter children to keep it.

He saw Jesus as a threat, and since he didn’t know who or where Jesus was he just killed all the children in Jesus’ age bracket.  Nice guy.

And we read the quote from Jeremiah in Matthew that there was wailing and loud lamentation – Rachel weeping for her children, because they were no more.

If there is any value to be found in the death of the children, both then and now, we find it in the phrase, “she refused to be consoled/comforted.”  Rachel, a symbol of motherhood, a symbol of Israel, refused to accept the evil.  Too many times when we see evil, we are too content to let it happen, too content to let it win.  Either we think we have no power, or we’re too tired from fighting it.

But grief and anger are powerful.  The human spirit is powerful, and the Holy Spirit working within and through us is unstoppable.  It is part of our baptismal calling as workers in the kingdom in the name of the holy child, Jesus Christ, to stand against the Herods of the world, to refuse to be consoled, or lulled into complacency.

This commemoration of the Church also reminds us that life and death are intimately connected.  That joy and suffering exist side by side.  That Christmas and Good Friday are bound together.

It may not be a happy thing to remember.  It may not give us all those nice warm fuzzy feelings we like to have at Christmas.  But thankfully our faith goes beyond warm and fuzzy – our faith is down and dirty.  Our faith is REAL.

Our faith does not deny pain, it does not deny suffering, it does not deny evil.  Our faith denies none of those things – it CONFRONTS them.  It meets them head-on, and ultimately defeats them on the cross.

The cross itself was pain, suffering and evil – Jesus all wrapped up in and nailed to the ugly sin that is the worst of our human nature.  But the light shines in the darkness.

We look at the events of 2,000 years ago, and know that evil and death did not have the last word.  It won the battle but it did NOT win the war.  And the same is true in our day and age.

Pain, suffering, evil and death impact our lives regularly.  But it is GOD who ultimately triumphs – NOT pain, or suffering or evil or death.  They do NOT have the last word for us either.

They impact us, but they do not define us.  WE are defined by the God who journeys with us through the dark valleys.  WE are defined by the Savior who claims us in baptism and makes us his children forever.  WE are defined by a cross whose intention was cruelty and death, but whose final outcome was love and life.

THAT brothers and sisters – the life and love of Jesus for you and me, has the ABSOLUTE last word – both now and forever.

AMEN.

 

Suicide: Sin and the problem of Enough

Ok, so everyone and their brother seems to have written a post about the suicide of Robin Williams. Many of them are eloquent and raw, and beautiful – and I am grateful and richer for reading them.

1)  Some, however, have been written that Williams was a selfish coward, and his act a sin.

2)  There are also those who firmly believe that if a Christian prays hard enough, or believes strongly enough in the power of Jesus, that their depression can be healed.  These statements and beliefs need to be addressed, because the ramifications of such statements/beliefs can be dangerous to those who are suffering, as well as their families and friends.

PART ONE –

In and of itself, suicide CAN be viewed as sin, in that it is the taking of a life – in the same way that murder is sin.  But the catch is that we CANNOT look at suicide in and of itself.  Except in the cases of those who plan to lose their lives in the process of murdering others (ex. suicide bombers), suicide is the end result of serious and dangerous diseases – depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia to name a few.  I won’t go through the many diagnoses that can lead to the black hole of suicidal ideation and action, but suicide does NOT happen all by itself.

Because I’m Lutheran I look to my tradition first.  The Lutheran Confessions and catechisms say nothing of suicide.  In the treatment of the commandment “thou shall not kill” they say A LOT about how we are to treat our neighbors, but make no mention of self-harm.  Some writers who have condemned Williams have mentioned the Roman Catholic Church’s view.  But even that is NOT so simple.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church DOES say, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us.  It is not ours to dispose of.” (paragraph 2280)  HOWEVER there is more:  “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.  We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.  By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.  The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” (paragraph 2282-2283)

Nowhere have I been able to find a decent definition of “salutary repentance” but from the context I understand that the Roman Church recognizes that while suicide IS the taking of a life, psychiatric diseases sufficiently impact responsibility so that a) we shouldn’t despair over the victim’s salvation, and b) God can do whatever God wants, and if God wants that person in heaven, then that’s where they’ll be.  I’m glad for these clarifications, and I wish those claiming to share Catholic dogma would check their facts.

One who has never been sucked into the dark isolating black hole of suicidal ideation may view it as selfish and cowardly – but the one who has been fighting against the vacuum that is sucking them in, against the thoughts in their brain that tell them their family would be better off, that they’re worthless nothings, may see the act as brave and sacrificial.  That’s the twisted thinking that diminishes responsibility.  I have also known people in such tremendous psychological PAIN – REAL pain, pain that can manifest itself physically all over the body – that suicide “seems” to be the only way to find relief from constant suffering.  I put “seems” in quotations because again, when we’re thinking in a healthy rational manner, we might find there are other ways to cope or wait out our period of desperation if we receive treatment.  Again, this is the disease of mental illness creating “diminished responsibility.”

Is it a sin?  Some say “yes,” many others say no.  But even if it is a sin, it is sin that is covered by God’s GRACE and MERCY and the power of Holy Baptism.  I have never doubted for a moment the salvation of a person who has died from suicide, just as I have never doubted the salvation of a person who has died from cancer or any other illness.

PART TWO –

As for those who think if a person only prays enough or believes strongly enough mental illness will go away I can only ask that they get over it in the same way they expect those with mental illness to get over it.  The last time I checked, the only group that doesn’t believe in medical treatment for illnesses were Christian Scientists.  Of course it’s perfectly fine to pray for someone with mental illness.  It’s perfectly fine for someone with mental illness to pray.  But to suggest that prayer not be accompanied by medical treatment (therapy and/or medication) is the same as suggesting that someone with cancer should just “pray it away” without seeing a doctor.  It’s the same as telling someone with high blood pressure not to take their medication because Jesus will cure them.  It’s the same as telling someone who is blind that if they just believe hard enough they’ll be able to see.  And this is all ridiculous (to put it nicely).

GOD WORKS THROUGH MEDICAL SCIENCE AND MEDICATION.  God has given us the curiosity and wisdom to learn many things about how our bodies work.  As a result we know much about diseases that attack us and the ways we can fight back and find healing through that God-given learning.  Talk therapy is a real treatment for many types of mental illness.  Medication is a real treatment for many types of mental illness.  Talk therapy and medication together are a real treatment for many types of mental illness.  God works through them, because God is the source of ALL healing and life.

The idea of believing enough is damaging because it puts blame on the victim if a miraculous healing doesn’t occur.  So your spinal chord was severed.  Pray hard enough and you’ll walk.  Believe enough and you’ll dance.  What?  You’re still in the wheelchair?  Too bad for you.  This belief in enough is hurtful and downright unbiblical.  Sure, Jesus healed folks and said things like “great is your faith” but Jesus never taught that life would be easy or without suffering.  Even Lazarus who he raised from the dead eventually died.

This unbiblical belief in enough can also be dangerous because a person suffering from mental illness may be praying their hearts out, but if they’re still despondent they can feel GUILT on top of it all because obviously their faith ISN’T enough, or they’d feel better.  So now in addition to mental illness they feel guilt and perhaps even that God doesn’t LOVE them or they’d be healed.  THAT my friends, is a recipe for real disaster for the mentally ill, and for their families, because that leads to HOPELESSNESS.  If I felt God didn’t love me, it would rob me of my hope in a second.  And if I believe God doesn’t love me, then what does my suicide matter in the heavenly scheme of things if I’m unloved anyway…  you see how this thinking can create a dangerous slippery slope?

***Plus, our salvation isn’t about US having enough anyway, it’s about GOD HAVING ENOUGH – because in the end we never have enough (indeed, we have NOTHING), that’s why we need Jesus!***

I am grieved whenever I hear of someone taking their own life.  But my grief isn’t over their salvation, or any unforgiven sin.  My grief is sadness over the pain that must have driven them to such a desperate act.  My grief is over them not getting the treatment they needed (whether it was a total lack of treatment, or not finding the right kind of treatment in time).  My grief is for their families who I know from experience will deal with obvious deep sorrow, but also anger at their loved one (that’s ok) and guilt over what they feel the “could’ve” done to save them.

Nowhere, I repeat nowhere, does judgment enter into the picture.  Amen.

 

***addendum:  Just when I think no one reads these ramblings of mine I hear from my BISHOP!! (cue fear and trembling!)  She reminded me that the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) DID put out a statement on suicide back in 1999, but that my words were “enough” (I’m not sure if she intended the play on that word!).  I was relieved.  But for those interested, here is my denomination’s statement on suicide prevention (16 pages worth).

“God doesn’t give us…”

*originally written January 8, 2014

When people find out you have some kind of visible “sad thing” in your life, they often search for something encouraging or comforting to say.  They are well-meaning and sincere, but sometimes what they say isn’t helpful at all.  For me, my “visible thing” is my daughter’s autism.  Autism is a huge stressor on me and my family.

And one of the statements I’ve heard, that is meant to be comforting, but is actually the OPPOSITE is this:

“God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”

I want to scream when I hear this.  But since I know it comes from a loving, perhaps even desperate, attempt to “do” or “say” something to make me feel better, I usually just accept the sentiment, but dismiss the words.  Now, if you have ever said that, I forgive you.  But let me put it out there for the world why that statement is so UNhelpful.  I’m speaking now as a pastor and as an autism parent – but also as a person who has been through a number of things in her life, and as the mother of a teenage girl (this last descriptor is a joke, well, kind of).

1)  When we say, “God DOESN’T give us” that also means that “God DOES give us.”  So, God didn’t give my daughter autism, but what about the family across the street who has a child with Down’s Syndrome?  Did God give them that?  If we say that God doesn’t give us certain things,  it means that God does give us other things.  Does God only give good things?  If God only gives us good things, then where do the bad things come from?  Satan?  So, using this logic, if a person has cancer, either God gave them cancer or the devil did.  What a choice.  It either assumes that I’ve been taken over by evil or that God thinks cancer is cool.

2)  “anything we can’t handle.”  This part of the statement assumes that God did indeed GIVE us the situation.  God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.  This means that God gave it to us knowing that we’d be able to persevere.  There are two things REALLY wrong with this:

a.  God becomes an agent of pain and suffering, not grace.  And that is not a God I can believe in.  The God I know in Jesus promises to help us withstand pain and suffering, NOT cause it.  God gave my daughter autism because God knew I could handle it?  No thank you.

b.  This statement also assumes we can “handle” it.  This statement doesn’t give us any room to break down and need help.  This statement does not encourage us when we feel like we’re floundering.  Usually I find people say this when they see a person is already struggling – so saying “you can handle it” is probably the LEAST helpful thing to say.

Sometimes life just plain sucks.  Things happen to people.  Sickness, broken relationships, accidents, rape and other forms of violence, oppression and abuse.  God does NOT give us those things – sometimes it’s the sin of those who perpetrate crime, sometimes it’s just plain LIFE.

Personally, when I’m treading water in the autism pool, or the depression pool, or any of the other pools I fall into,  I’d much rather hear a person say, “I’m so sorry, that just sucks,” than, “God doesn’t give us…” OR, if you’re a person of faith and want to bring faith into it then say something like this, “You’re not alone.  God is with you.”  THAT statement is completely true.  Jesus lived and suffered, died and rose, so that we don’t have to be alone, EVER, no matter what happens to us.

And then, if you really want to know what would be helpful to ME (or any other person you see struggling), ask for something concrete to DO for us, which quite honestly, might be something as simple as a hug.