Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Parishioner Committed Suicide

My mind has been reeling from it. Yet, the reality is that it happens. It happens in the news; it happens in our cities; it happens in small towns; it happens in churches.

I went again to see what the Scriptures say, because as a Christian, the Bible is my starting point. Always. This is what I found: It happens in the Bible. In Scripture, we find six instances in which someone takes his own life (it’s always a man) and one instance in which a man has his servant kill him:
  • Abimelech - Judges 9:52-54 – Has his servant kill him to save his reputation.
  • Samson - Judges 16:25-30 – Kills himself to take out a bunch of enemies with him.
  • Saul - 1 Samuel 31:4 – Falls on his sword at the end of a losing battle. 
  • Saul's armor-bearer - 1 Samuel 31:5 – Common practice for the slave to die with his master.
  • Ahithophel - 2 Samuel 17:23 – Hanged himself in shame.
  • Zimri - 1 Kings 16:15-20 – Burned his house down around him—his days were already numbered.
  • Judas - Matthew 27:3-5 – Maybe he hanged himself; maybe he didn’t--Acts 1:18,19 says that he fell and “burst open.” So, he either killed himself by hanging…or he tripped and fell…and made a mess of things.

So, let’s do a recount: five sure instances of suicide, one instance of a man demanding to be killed by his servant, and one instance—Judas—whose manner of death is up for debate.

To find suicide in the Bible is not terribly surprising. The act of taking one’s life in order to preserve reputation, to avoid a ‘worse’ kind of death…or an even worse life—this has been a part of cultures for thousands of years. The very surprising thing, perhaps, is that the Scriptures records the suicides but makes no moral judgment whatsoever. In none of these passages does the writer add, “…and he was a horrible, evil man for taking his own life.” No moral judgments anywhere. Interesting....

So, why do so many people think that suicide somehow indicates that a person has committed some unpardonable, unforgivable sin?

The idea comes from the indirect teachings of Scripture, from the connotations we find there regarding life. The Bible is very clear that we are created; we don’t exist by chance. We are created with a purpose; our lives are not meaningless. Most importantly, we are loved by God; to take our lives is to ignore the love of God who created us and gave us purpose. Also, life is a gift from God. If God gives us life, who are we to quit ourselves of life?

The very clear value that the Bible places on human life and the demonization of Judas have contributed to the notion that suicide is somehow unforgivable. I feel sorry for Judas—he was just a guy…and he made some bad choices. He recognized his errors—tried to give the money back, was truly remorseful…and then went out and either fell and died, or hung himself and died. Then, the stories started and the traditions grew up…and Judas has been painted as an evil, rotting-in-hell sort of fellow. I think many will be surprised to find Judas waiting for us in heaven—I think he repented and I believe God’s grace envelops even him.

A parishioner committed suicide.

Psychiatry and psychology seem to suggest that people who take their own lives 1) are not in their right mind at the time of doing so or 2) are physically ill/chemically imbalanced. If someone is mentally unstable or chemically unbalanced, can they really and truly be held accountable for their actions? Would our loving and gracious God really and truly hold them accountable for something that they would never do if they were in their right mind, if they were physically well? I’m leaning towards ‘no’ on that one.

A parishioner committed suicide.

What now? I believe that our God is graciously forgiving. I believe God understands the complexity of the situation far, far better than any of us. I know that God is there, in the person’s mind, seeing the person’s heart…and even if the person did not sense God’s presence, God is there with open arms, hurting and grieving with the person…and in a cry of anguish, sweeps up the soul as it leaves the body, hugging it tightly, weeping once again as He did at Lazarus’ tomb.

The Scriptures suggest that we leave judgment to God. Our task is to learn from the situations around us. Our task is to love the family that is left behind. Our task is to do all we can to keep anyone else from seeking such a permanent solution to a short-term problem, to be listening and loving all along the way.

In the end, “For God so loved the world”…you, me, and the parishioner who committed suicide.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Resurrection – the Defining Moment of the Christian Faith

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8, NIV)

What gives the Christian faith its raison d’ĂȘtre? What made the Christian faith what it is? Where does the Church—the gathered people of God—get its reason for existence?

Imagine with me for a moment what would have happened if the two Marys and Salome had gone early that morning to anoint the body…and the body was still there. What would have happened then? They would have dutifully applied the spices to the body, honoring in death the one who had so affected their lives. They would have gone home, experienced a time of mourning, and lived out their lives. The disciples…well, we know what Peter, James and John would have done—they would have gone fishing…and stayed fishing. Oh, they would have talked about the Nazarene who had so changed their lives, perhaps remembering some of the teaching and the more amazing moments.

“Hey, Peter, remember when he went in the temple with that whip of chords he made?! Man, people were flying every which way! Fur, money and people were jumping and bouncing everywhere! Ha,ha….”

They may have even tried to share with others what Jesus had said…but it would sound a bit hollow now. Because not only had they heard the good wisdom and the call to good works, but they had also heard promises of ‘resurrection’ and ‘return.’ In the end, they’d go back to the nets, days or nights on the Sea of Galilee…and they would have died old men and women, happy for the days they had with the Master, but somehow disappointed it had all be so short lived….

Paul would have continued his studies, risen through the ranks of the Pharisees, sat on the Sanhedrin. He might even have made ‘high priest’ at some point of his life. His life may have stayed very centered in Judea. No journeys to Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Rome, Spain….

Nothing would have been written. No Gospels, no letters to churches, no letters to community leaders. Just imagine, we would never have read or heard words such as….

Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest….

Cast all your cares on God for he cares for you….

Love is patience, kind, long-suffering….

If you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive you….

Our Father, who art in heaven….

For God so loved the world….

These three remain—faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love….

None of these words would have been penned, none of them heard by the world. Jesus in the end would have been another good man, wise teacher, even miracle worker…just one of the many littered throughout history.

But something tipped the balance, something changed everything….

“You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!

This changed everything! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, because he came back to life, because the tomb did not contain him, history was forever changed.

His disciples courageously scattered throughout the known world to tell the story of the One who had changed their lives…and every generation since, disciples have done the same. His words and his actions were remembered and carefully recorded. His life engaged and inspired generation after generation to carry his message of God’s Good News to all corners of the earth. His faith…his trust, his confidence, his belief in God as a loving Father changed everything for the 1st Century…and for every century after. The hope now in a life beyond death moved and moves men and women, young people and old, to embrace the faith of Jesus. The love that he taught us—a new, self-sacrificing, honoring love for God, neighbor and self—changed the world and changed us. Because of the resurrection, the life of Jesus was preserved, recorded, proclaimed…because of the resurrection, the people of this Jesus—the Church—gathered and found support in their unity…and they preserved and lived out the faith, the hope, the love they encountered in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Church today, the Christian today, finds her raison d’ĂȘtre in the moment, the event, the act of resurrection. As a 'resurrection people,' we now gather every Sunday (“…early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise….”) to remember and celebrate the faith, the hope, the love that we find in Jesus...the One who died on our behalf, who conquered death, who rose from the grave to offer ALL the Good News of God, relationship with God, the gift of eternal life with God, a place in the amazing, purpose-filled family of God. The resurrection…changes everything.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Friendly Church

Ask anyone in almost any church, and they’ll confirm it—“yes, we’re a friendly church!” Ask almost anyone who has visited those same churches, and they’ll deny it—“nice enough, but not very friendly….”  What is going on here? How can the church members themselves think they’re friendly while visitors think otherwise?

On the church members’ side of things, well, many of them have history together a plenty.  In fact, it’s quite likely—especially in smaller congregations—for those members to have been together the night before or sometime during the week before arriving on Sunday morning. In other words, besides attending the same church, they are friends outside of church. A simple wave, a smile, or a knowing look shared across the sanctuary carries a lot of meaning, a lot of history, a lot of feelings. Ask these folks if they are part of a friendly congregation, and they’ll respond with a resounding “YES” because they are friends and their greetings on Sunday morning convey a lot more than a mere “Hi, how are you?”

This is where the visitors are left out.  They don’t have the history with everyone there. They don’t have the connection. They don’t have all those ties that link them in and together with everyone else.

Shortly after our first child, Jesse, was born, we were living in the North Georgia mountains. We were also looking for a home church (this is before we went into ministry.) One Sunday morning we visited a church we had passed a number of times—they seemed from the outside to be a ‘happenin’ sort of place, so we decided to visit. The sign out front even proclaimed that they were “the Friendly Church.” When we walked in, folks at first turned and stared a bit. Then, a few came over and greeted us. During the announcements, they mentioned an upcoming softball game, and the fellow giving the announcement informed everyone that “if you want to play on one of the teams, see Daddy after church.” Who is ‘Daddy’? We were left out cold—no connection, so we didn't know who was talking or who his father was. Then, baby Jesse got fussy, so my wife saw another young mother and asked her, “Where can I go nurse my baby?” The response was, “Oh, we don’t have a place like that at this church….”  What? What does that mean? My wife went out to the car to nurse Jesse…crawled into the back seat where there would be more room, forgot the ‘child locks’ were activated on the back doors…and got trapped.  When I went to check on her 10 min. later, she was in tears…and we drove away and never went back.

SO many things went wrong during that church visit, but the biggest thing is that the congregation was not friendly.

Here’s a big part of the problem, a big part of the disconnect that leads a congregation to think they’re friendly when they’re not: 

Folks have confused ‘good manners’ with ‘being friendly.’

Good manners call us to say “hi,” to shake hands, even to exchange pleasantries. When I’m in a meeting and someone is there who I don’t particularly like or get along with, my good Southern upbringing requires me to greet that person, acknowledge their existence and presence—it’s just good manners.  Good manners on a Sunday morning is about the same—we recognize the presence of the person who is visiting, we shake hands, we offer a bulletin, we smile, we nod our heads, we greet them during the ‘greeting time.’  This is good manners, perhaps even kindness…but this is not really being ‘friendly.’

Juan Manuel, a lay person in his congregation, embodied both good manners and friendliness. When we visited his church that first Sunday morning, we found the majority of the folks to have very good manners (if churches could at least do this, it would a step in the right direction…and so you know, turning and staring is NOT good manners.) A number of folks smiled at us, came and shook our hands. But it just took ONE person to be friendly in order for our whole perception of the morning to be shaped forever. After the service, Juan Manuel pursued the conversation that began before service—he continued to ask us about ourselves, our work, our history, our lives…and introduced us to his family, his wife and children.  Then, as we were leaving, he said, “Do you like coffee?” I responded that I did, and then he said, “I’ll call you this week and invite you over for some good Honduran coffee.”

Well, I've heard those casual promises plenty before—folks being ‘friendly.’ I expected nothing of it, so I was surprised when Juan Manuel called me Tuesday evening and invited us to his house for coffee. Here’s the difference—Juan Manuel wanted to befriend us, he wanted us to become his actual friends, and all of his actions were, therefore, ‘friendly.’ He moved beyond the safe world of ‘good manners’ with the intention of actually becoming our friends. We went for coffee…and Juan Manuel and his wife, Claudia, have been our friends for the last four years.

What an idea—attempting to truly befriend the folks who visit our churches?! If we want to have ‘friendly churches,’ we will have to determine to seek friendship, to strive to invite others not only into the sanctuary but into our lives. Can you imagine the difference if we would see every visitor who walks through our doors as a potential friend with whom we may share our lives in the days to come?