Sermon By Michael Usey
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Website or Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, published in 1915, is a collection of short poems, each narrated by a dead person in a cemetery. I read parts of it in high school, probably hoping it was ghost stories. Each of the 244 former citizens of the fictional town Spoon River, Illinois, tells the truth about their lives—with complete honesty and no fear of consequences. Harold Arnett is a suicide who learns that facing hardship doesn’t end with leaving the physical world. Harold pulled the trigger, killing himself. Immediately, he sees blackness, then light and feels “unspeakable regret.” He finds himself fumbling for the world again. Harold’s first reaction to having pulled the trigger was to try to un-pull it. He regrets his rash act and tries to regain his life. But his fumbling fails, and it’s too late! So he comes to the cemetery; instead of being taken to his grave, he claims he came to it, as if he simply leisurely gave up and walked into death instead of being forced into it. Harold then focuses on the physical act of breathing. When he entered death, he came with lungs for breathing, but the dreadful truth is that in the grave one cannot breathe with lungs. Harold’s concludes that suicide is futile. He ends his epitaph by saying that souls cannot escape their karma by ridding themselves of physical bodies. I’ve remembered that chilling phrase, unspeakable regret, all my life.
When I was a student chaplain in the ER at University Hospital in Louisville, I remember they brought in a young guy who had tried to kill himself by jumping off the George Rogers Clark Bridge, which isn’t high enough to do the job, as he discovered. He came to the Emergency Room with a leg badly broken in three places and a cracked hip. I remember him saying that as soon as he jumped he felt a deep regret, and an instantaneous desire to live, that he tried like a cartoon character not to fall but to grab back on. I’m pretty sure he didn’t say the phrase unspeakable regret, but it was clear in my mind as he told me his story.
God’s wild grace is for those who commit or consider suicide. It’s no surprise that suicide (or at least the topic of it) has been in many people’s thoughts this week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, where Ann worked for 6 years) collects data about deaths by suicide. In 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available), 39,518 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans—which means every 18 months we’re losing more people than died in the Vietnam War. In that year, someone in our country died by suicide every 13 minutes, or 108 per day. Every day 22 veterans commit suicide; that almost one an hour. In 2011, the highest suicide rate was people 45 to 64 years old. The second highest rate was those 85 years and older. Younger persons have had consistently lower suicide rates than middle-aged and older adults.
For many years, the suicide rate has been 4 times higher among men than among women. Of those who died by suicide in 2011, 79% were male and 21% were female. But females are more likely than males to have had suicidal thoughts. Firearms are the most common method by males (56%); poisoning is the most common among women. There is one suicide for every 25 attempts. But among young adults (15-24) there is one suicide for every 150 attempts. About 4% of adults say they have suicidal thoughts in the past year; about 1% say they’ve had plans for suicide. In 2012, 484,000 people visited a hospital for injuries due to self-harm behavior, suggesting that 12 people harm themselves (not necessarily intending to take their lives) for every reported death by suicide. I’m not trying to get all public health lecture here, but a little data is a good thing.
The first theological thing to say is what I hope is obvious to everyone here: I do not believe that suicide is an unforgivable sin. I don’t think anything is unforgivable to God, although I’ve heard of several things that I’m sure only God can forgive. I don’t think people who take their own lives are damned to hell; in fact, I don’t believe anyone is damned nor do I believe in hell either. I’m not in charge of what comes next after this life, nor am I an authority on forgiveness, God, or suicide. But I believe deeply in Paul’s words in Romans 8:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I believe that there is a God of love who loves us despite our failings, and that—as Paul reminded his friends in Rome—that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not death, not suicide: nothing. This is a passage we read at almost every funeral we hold here.
The Jesus we know here never preached some Health Prosperity Gospel, some pseudo-good news that if you just pray well, sing well, worship well, live well, and deposit all that karma into some divine ATM, then you get to take home a mind and body that are well. That’s not how the complex beauty of life unfolds. The real Jesus turns to our questions of why, why this sickness, who is to blame — and he says it like a caress to the aching, You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. (John 9:3) This happened so the power of God could be seen (John 9:5). That’s the grace of Jesus: The dark is not your fault, the dark is not the heavy night that weighs the worth of your soul, the dark is not about blame. The dark is about bravely being a canvas for light, about courageously letting your dark be a canvas for sparks of God, a backdrop for ambers of mercy in the midst of your fire.
The second truth thing to say is that almost everyone over 20 has considered suicide (and homicide) at one time in his or her life. If you’re one of the rare persons who has never considered it, count yourself most fortunate. But if you are currently considering yourself harming yourself or find yourself thinking about it sometime in the future, remember there are people here you could talk to. Lin, Rydell, David, Cindy, Susan and I all of us can be there for you when you might need us. Beyond that, there are legions of people here at this church that would be glad to listen to you without judgment. It is always safe for the suffering here. One of our taglines here is every member a minister, and it’s true. Will you do this for me, in all seriousness? If you’d be willing to listen to and talk with someone considering suicide would you please raise your hand? Take a quick look around; it’s almost everyone. Therapists, teachers, professors, firefighters, police, nurses; all people who know how to listen, how to help and know what their doing. You’re not alone. Besides there’s never any hurry for suicide, is there? It’s something that can always be done later—but can never be undone, as you well know.
A third insight: everyone is affected by suicide. The first suicide I knew personally was in 1969 when Art Lacy, a couple of years younger than I, found his father dead by his hand in the family camper, with a shotgun by his side. I still know Art, I had lunch with him last time I was in San Diego. He’s gotten beyond it years ago, but he’s still not over it, if that makes sense. I was morose when one of my heroes, Junior Seau, the San Diego Charger middle linebacker, killed himself. My brother, Tony, sent me the coverage by the SD Union, and I remember one bad headline read: NFL player commits suicide by shooting himself dead. I remember thinking, good thing they put the word dead at the end because when they mentioned suicide I wasn’t sure what they meant.
Out of the many suicides I’ve known personally, the one that still haunts is Brad, an incredibly bright and beautiful young man in the James Gang, the name of the youth group at 7th & James. He became a successful lawyer, the DA of Crawford, Texas, knew George W. personally, discovered his sexual orientation, and kept it a secret—and ended his life on the front porch of his small ranch a couple of years ago. I knew him well, as did Dorisanne; we were friends. I feel such remorse over his death.
And let’s be honest: most forms of addiction are in reality just slow suicide, intentional or not. To drink yourself to death, to smoke until your lungs collapse, to do more dangerous drugs: these are all forms of addiction to be sure, and they are ways in which we kill ourselves slowly and daily. I watched my dad kill himself slowly over 40 years; it’s difficult to be around. Again, there’s help for this illness and behavior, but you have to want it.
Suicide is explicitly mentioned only 7 times in the bible. The blind giant, Samson, pulls down the columns of the Temple and killing with his own death more people than he had killed throughout his lifetime. The most famous suicide in the OT is King Saul’s. He was doing battle with the Philistines. The Philistines won the day. They killed his three sons, and Saul was wounded by archers. Fearing that he would be captured by the enemy and made a mockery of if he survived, he asked his armor-bearer to put him out of his misery. When the armor-bearer refused, he fell on his own sword (1 Sam 31.4).
Judas Iscariot’s is of course the most famous one in the NT. When Jesus was led off to Pilate and condemned to death, Judas took his 30 pieces of silver and tried to return them to the religious authorities on the grounds that Jesus was innocent and he had betrayed him. The authorities refused to take them. They said that was his problem, and Judas, throwing the silver to the ground, went off and hanged himself (Matt 27.3-5).
Taking your own life is not mentioned as a sin in the Bible. There’s no suggestion that it was considered either shameful or cowardly. When, as in the case of Saul and Judas, pain, horror, and despair reach a certain point, suicide is perhaps less a voluntary act than a reflex action. As Frederick Buechner has said, If you’re being burned alive with a loaded pistol in your hand, it’s hard to see how anyone can seriously hold it against you for pulling the trigger.
Yet, in the early years of the church, suicide was looked upon as a sin. However, some exceptions were granted. Josephus, one of the authors of early stories about Christian martyrs, tells about a mother and her two daughters who were captured by evil men. Rather than submit to gang rape, the three women hurled themselves into the rivers. To them, avoiding torture was more precious than life itself.
By the 4th century, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote that the commandment “Do not murder” applies as much to oneself as it does to one’s enemies. Even so, Augustine allowed for times when a person could be convinced in conscience that taking one’s own life was God’s will. But much later, Thomas Aquinas wrote that there could be no exceptions to justify suicide. It was in his opinion an unforgivable sin because it precluded any opportunity for repentance. Dante continued this theme in the Inferno. He put people who take their own lives at the 7 th level of hell, even beneath murderers. For centuries the Roman Church refused to allow the bodies of suicides to be buried in cemeteries consecrated by the church.
In the 17th century a famous Anglican preacher named John Donne argued that under certain circumstances suicide could even be a noble and gracious act. He quoted the NT “No one has greater love than the one who lays down her life for friends.”
So the church’s historical position has varied from a hard-line insistence that suicide is unforgivable, without exception, to a position of arguing for suicide under certain circumstances—especially when offered as a sacrifice on behalf of other persons. We’re still struggling in the wider Christian community with the complex, agonizing issue of what exactly it means to take one’s own life.
All this history points out that suicide has a wide variety of meanings to those who kill themselves. Not single understanding of suicide is comprehensive. For some, like the men I cared for in Wellspring house who lived with schizophrenia, it was an escape from the voices that told them to kill themselves every minute of every day. For others it could be an act of courage, as when a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his fellow fighters. After all, NYC firefighters went up the stairs on 9/11, when every one was climbing down. For others it an act of passive aggression, designed to inflict maximum pain on those who love that person. For still others, it is a way out of the soul-crushing depression that haunts them daily or an act of utter despair that the world and their lives have no meaning. For others it is an accident, a cry for help that went too far to come too or unintentional, as with auto-erotica asphyxia.
For some, it is an act of irresponsible idiocy, as those who play Russian roulette. For some of the ancients it was an act designed to restore honor, as in the defeated samurai’s seppuku. For another group, it is an act of protest, as in the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks protesting an immoral war. For some older adults, it is a way to bypass the indignity of a long and painful illness. Some kill themselves to avoid torture, a decision I think I totally understand. And, for still others, it is a way to thumb one’s nose at God and life, as in the final scene of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. So let’s have a little humility, shall we, when we speak about another person’s self-slaughter. We never know the full story. Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick.” Jesus came for the sick, not for the smug.
What I love about Psalm 13 is that it is the cry of a soul at the end of its rope. The author—maybe written by David, maybe written for him—is candid with God: Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? He demands an answer, and perhaps thinks of suicide: Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death. Yet, at the end of his rope, he gives God his faith: But I trusted in your steadfast love;my heart shall rejoice in your salvation . He saying, Look, I’ve trusted you before, and I’ll be happy when you come through again, my God. He was angry with God, which is perfectly acceptable thing to say to God, and despairing. But, in the pit of his being, he felt God would see him through. This is an excellent psalm to keep on your bathroom mirror. I wish we could all remember that God is on our side, especially in those times when it seems like everything else is against us. Shame is a bully, but God’s grace is our shield and our strength.
The poem on the front cover is one I keep on my desk always. I keep it as my prayer to become this kind of person, by God’s grace, for divine grace is the miracle that no darkness can consume.
Let me be the man who
walking among tall trees
is struck by lightning,
but is not killed;
who somersaults in a cloud
fizzing with burnt hair
and lands on his feet, shoes smoking,
and shakes his head saying,
“Jesus, that smarts!”
Let me be the man
hit by the last ash
of a dissolving meteorite.
Let it light on my head
like a benediction.
Let me be the man who walks
away from shipwrecks.
In a leveled city,
let me be the man found
17 days later under a former
insurance building sucking
air through the plumbing saying
“I never really thought of giving up.”
From all disasters let me rise
wholly. On my face,
let me have beautiful dueling scars.
The seven suicides in our Bible are:
1. [Abimelech] called hastily unto the young man his armour-bearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died (Judges 9:54).
2. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed with all his might; and the house fell…upon all the people that were therein (Judges 16:30).
3. Saul took a sword and fell on it (1 Sam. 31:4).
4. When [Saul’s] armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died (1 Sam 31:5).
5. When Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he…got him home to his house, to his city, and put his house in order, and hanged himself, and died (2 Sam. 17:23).
6. It came to pass, when Zimri saw that the city was taken, that he went into the palace of the king’s house, and burnt the king’s house over him with fire, and died (1 Kings 16:18).
7. [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:5).