Keep on Living — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Friends, I’m going to talk about suicide. If that causes you distress, then please stop reading and be good to yourself. If you want to continue, please know that I have what I hope are some encouraging words here. Because of the topic, I would not preach this sermon at a worship service, since people present would not have the freedom to stop listening if they needed to do so. Thus, this is one of those sermons that can be written but perhaps not spoken.

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I have always opposed the death penalty. Except for myself.

I have sometimes viewed failure as a capital offense — for me. When I look back at the first time I seriously considered ending my life, it was at a moment of big personal failure. I had clearly demonstrated — at least to myself — that I was a useless, worthless, piece of refuse. The reasonable response, my befuddled brain told me, was to put an end to the stupidity and spare the world the burden of dealing with me.

I can smile now at the melodrama and grandiosity, the self-absorption and self-pity, that I know was part of such a moment. But I cannot discount the life and death reality of that moment, clouded as it is in the mists of memory. Whether I was being “realistic” or not was hardly the point. I came far closer to ending my existence than is safe for anyone to consider.

This comes to mind for several reasons. I am finishing my tenth annual “death march” from the anniversary of my first spouse’s untimely death on November 20th to my own birthday on December 19th. I have become accustomed to morbid reflections on my mortality and am not nearly as put off by them as I once was. But I am also reminded that convicting and sentencing myself for the capital crimes of personal failure was not a one-off event.

I didn’t realize until I went through it just how common are thoughts of suicide in the community of those who lose a close loved one. I did indeed feel the pull to join Anne in moving to the New Life. I did wonder what precisely might be left for me now that life as I knew it was over. I did long for a way out of the pain and suffering of bereavement. Once someone that close to me had died, death was less of a stranger and more of a companion, a sort of friend of a friend.

Most of all, I was sure I had failed her — all consoling counter-assertions notwithstanding. I couldn’t reconcile my continued life with her sudden death. I had not kept her alive, so why should I keep me alive? My failure was fatal to her, why not to me as well?

I didn’t live with those thoughts every waking moment. The fantasies of self-annihilation were usually fleeting. But there were enough episodes of concrete plans and opportunities, of near misses and false starts, that I knew I had to be very careful for a while. And I had to refocus on another path back to life.

While my situations hardly mirrored those of Mary at the Annunciation, I am in awe of her response. I think that I might not have been so willing and able to choose to live in the new reality that faced her. Yes, there was all that happy talk about a son who would be the Savior. But there was going to be one hell of a shitstorm, to adopt the current vernacular, for Mary along the way. Whether she had failed or not, that’s how she would be viewed. I might have thought that sufficient grounds to carry out my self-execution.

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But not Mary — “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary did not merely choose life. Mary chose to keep living in the new reality not of her own choosing. Her response to “failure” (and let me be clear, she did not “fail” but would have been treated as if she did) was to keep on living — for her child, for her people, and for the world.

I just listened to the latest episode of the On Being podcast. Krista Tippett talked with Jennifer Michael Hecht under the title, “We Believe Each Other into Being.” I remember Hecht and her work on doubt from nearly two decades ago. You can listen to that conversation here: https://onbeing.org/programs/jennifer-michael-hecht-we-believe-each-other-into-being-on-being/. Be sure to listen to the end as she reads two beautiful and poignant poems that deal with suicide.

“Your staying alive means so much more than you really know or that anyone is aware of at this moment,” Hecht says during the conversation. “But we’re in it together in this profound way, and you can take some strength from that.” She argues that people can be reminded in healthy ways of the communitarian impact of taking one’s own life and that this can be a curb to reduce such self-fatal responses.

In addition, she pleads with the self in pain to consider and respect the future self who will never have a chance to live if one ends it all. The conversation caused me to reverse that thought. I want to express my gratitude to my earlier selves (and all who supported them) who chose to keep on living in those dark hours of despair. I am especially grateful to that troubled young man who stepped back from the precipice and stumbled through the disasters he had created. I don’t want to punish him now. I want to thank him for letting me live.

That’s true for all those other men (who were me, and the people who supported them) who have made similar choices for me in the last forty-odd years. Of course, I differ with Jennifer Michael Hecht in how those choices came about. I was rescued repeatedly by the interventions of a compassionate God who either spoke to me directly or sent people with the message.

“No, don’t do it! You are not a failure. You are not a useless, worthless piece of refuse.” Hearing a voice like that in the dark can peculiarly focus one’s attention. “You are beloved in the midst of the pain, sorrow, failure and fear. So keep on living, and we’ll see what we can make of this mess.” I am certain that I would not have made such a choice on my own. But I could follow instructions.

Let it be to me according to your word.” One of the few places I dare to connect with Mary is here. She responds with courage and hope. But that courage and hope have been poured into her along with the life of her child. She is pregnant not only with a baby but with expectation that the darkness cannot overcome the light. She responds to these gifts with brave faith, and I’m not at all in her league in that regard. But she knows the source of her hope and accepts the life she’s given.

Hecht and Tippett both refer to Camus’ opening line in The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote, “and that is suicide.” I read those words as a college sophomore, but as a typical sophomore, I didn’t finish the book. So I never got to Camus’ conclusion. He paints a picture of Sisyphean courage and even good humor in the face of life’s absurdity. Every time the boulder rolled back over the protagonist, Camus argued, he got himself up, dusted himself off, and began again.

For Camus, that was the source of meaning in life. Sisyphus was made of sterner stuff than I by far, and so was Camus. I could not find personal or communal meaning in simply asserting that life was meaningful. That seemed like trying to erect a building with no foundation. I am grateful that my younger self was not allowed to surrender at that point. I am grateful that God demanded that I would seek a foundation that works.

“Let it be to me according to your word.” That’s the foundation. Choose to keep on living another day. Do it for your future self — who will undoubtedly thank you. Do it for the community of those who find you far more valuable than you find yourself sometimes. Do it for the cosmos that needs all hands on deck in order to make sense of things. Do it, if you’re like me, because the Creator and Giver of life finds you to be of infinite worth and has plans to use you for remarkable good.

Keep on living. Thanks!

Knowing Love

Krista Tippett had a conversation with Bryan Stevenson on the latest “On Being” podcast. You might find that on a local public radio station this weekend. But the podcast can be accessed at https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/.

Tippett is the founder and long-time host of the programs and the beating heart of a much larger enterprise devoted to, for lack of a better phrase, faith, hope and love in a changing world. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, another enterprise, as he notes in the interview, that has grown into a much larger and multi-faceted effort than he originally envisioned.

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Stevenson is committed the need for “proximity” in the work he does. “I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world,” he said, “the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”

This is a very Advent-y sentiment, for us Christians who are into such things. We are in the season of remembering and celebrating the God who chooses proximity to humanity as the path to redeeming Creation. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that we, who are made in the image of that God, do best when we choose proximity as well.

Stevenson knows that getting close to people is one thing. How we see people is an additional thing. In his writing, he talks repeatedly about seeing ourselves and loved and seeing those around us as beloved. “Beloved in the Lord,” one of my seminary professors would regularly announce, “God knows you better than you know yourself — and loves you anyway!” No matter how many times I heard Jim Qualben say that to a class, a congregation, or a meeting of conflicted parishioners, it made my spine tingle.

In my atheist years, I was drawn back to the church in part by way of Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.

At first I found these words offensive. I didn’t want anyone that far up in my business. And I certainly didn’t want some purported deity there. But I came to treasure these words as a source of great comfort and peace. The gift of being fully known — deeply searched out and understood (and loved anyway!) — was a source of calm and joy like no other. That hasn’t changed.

N. T. Wright talks about the “epistemology of love.” He often quotes the line from Wittgenstein, who wrote, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” He writes of this way of knowing in a recent article in First Things.

Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them.

Bryan Stevenson practices the epistemology of love. He knows by coming close, by engaging, by becoming involved. He doesn’t maintain the distance of cool objectivity. He doesn’t have good boundaries when it comes to connection with his clients and causes. He is perhaps obsessed and is certainly consumed by his work. A certain perspective would describe this as unhealthy behavior. Stevenson would describe it as his life, his work, his love and his passion.

Objectivity is an Enlightenment conceit. It can never be achieved, even though it can be approximated. Objectivity may be useful in theoretical physics or higher mathematics or similar disciplines, although the best scientists are always the most passionate about their work. But objectivity leads so easily to privileging one position or perspective above all others. In the West this leads to privileging whiteness and making it the norm and standard by which all others are measured.

Engagement — the epistemology of love — is part of the Christian account of the good news of Jesus Christ. God comes close to you and me — closer than our very breath. God is a slob just like one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

The deepest element of an epistemology of love is enacting that love. Stevenson calls it “stone catching.” In his conversation with Krista Tippett, he remembers the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He says, “it’s a powerful story about mercy and redemption and grace, and what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down. I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.”

That assessment could leave us hopeless and despondent (dare I say “acedic”?). But not Stevenson. If people are going to throw the stones anyway, then some of us must dare to become “stone catchers.” He describes it this way: “just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”

Seeking proximity, looking with love, and then catching the stones — who says that Advent waiting is passive!