Like a Broken Vessel: A commentary on Faith and Suicide
Hey friends - you can probably tell by the title of the blog today that this might be triggering for some of you who have experienced the trauma of suicide in your life whether by attempt or by completion. I would gently encourage you to click away if this is too much for you; however, I also want you know that this blog will be affirming. Before you click away or go forward I would just like to make a personal note to say that I am praying for you, that you are loved, that you do not need to carry the weight of that trauma alone, and that I'm proud of you for looking for the hope, even if it is on a day to day basis. If you or someone you know could use resources on suicide I've included hotlines at the bottom.
So why chat about this? I'm someone who is drawn to the difficult aspects of faith; topics that make us ask "where is God in this?, "What is the faithful response to this?", "How can my theology respond to this?" etc. Suicide is a topic that is really taboo to talk about when we're suffering and its a topic that often avoided when the person is in grief. We don't want to sound insensitive so we don't want to bring it up. When we suffer with suicidal thoughts we don't want to sound like a burden or weak so we suffer in silence. I think within the church this topic is even more murky because of the eschatological nature of church (study of the end times.) If you complete suicide and are made in the image of God will God reject you for "rejecting" God? (I'm NOT implying this - just posing this as a theoretical question.) If God is the one in charge of life and death is the person punished for trying to be "god" like? What happens to the soul of a person who completes suicide? Is it a selfish thing? If so, how does the worlds faithful of selfless respond to that? (AGAIN - THESE ARE NOT MY ASSERTIONS BUT THEORETICAL QUESTIONS.) Because of the difficulty of these topics we might do our best to ignore the elephant in the room....even if that 'elephant' is suffering and in need of loving arms of grace and mercy.
When Joyce and I first selected our current worship series for Lent, Drink from the Fountain of Grace, and I saw the title of the first Sunday's message as "The Broken Cup" I was immediately reminded of one of the best sermons I've heard on a tough topic from Adam Hamilton. "Like a Broken Vessel" which covers a faithful response to suicide. If you have time, or this is a topic that weights heavy on you, I highly encourage you to listen to the full message. Otherwise this will be a "Too long; didn't watch" version.
Joyce did a wonderful job in her message on Sunday of relating what it means to feel like a broken vessel and how God loves us not in spite of our cracks and bruises but God loves us because we are cracked and bruised and we need love. If you haven't listened to her message I encourage you to check it out here. However, I want to go further into what happens when we feel like the cracks and bruises are too much. For that, we'll to the heart wrenching words of Psalm 31:
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. 11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror[c] to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.13 For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. 14 But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love."
Before we dive into the 'deep' stuff a quick story: Growing up I had a favorite bowl that I used for everything. Cereal, ravioli, popcorn, you name it. It's ceramic and looks to be made handmade (though I don't know it's history.) Anyways, when I went to college I packed up a few of my parents kitchenware items such as pots, silverware, plates, bowls, and cups that I used most often. Obviously, I took "my" bowl with me too. My freshman year our house would throw parties every weekend and I wasn't interested in partying in college (many members of my extended families have a history of alcohol and I'm deathly afraid of following my family history.) so I would often go home on the weekends to visit family and my girlfriend at the time. I came back one weekend and couldn't find my bowl (or my cup for that matter) and asked my roommates about it. They mentioned that the bowl had fallen when someone was trying to get something from the cupboard and they had to throw it out. I dug through the trash and found as many parts of it as I could find. I spent the afternoon trying to superglue the bowl back together but I was missing some key pieces that prevented it from every being 'perfect' again. I was really bummed and pretty mad at everyone for not being more careful. However, I still realized that I loved that bowl. I couldn't use it for cereal or anything sauced based anymore but it did still make a wicked popcorn bowl, candy bowl, chip holder, and I could still munch on dry cereal to my hearts content. When I was feeling really stubborn I would still eat pasta out of it and just place a plate under it to catch the leaking sauce. The cracks changed the bowl permentantly, but in the end nothing really changed for me. I still loved it and nothing was going to stop that. (I'm using past tense as the bowl did eventually break for good during one of many moves. But I can still picture it so clearly.)
Part of what I want you to hear today is that there is always hope, and that whatever you are going through today is not permanent, while suicide is permanent. I want you to hear that there is help…. We’ve all been broken at times in our lives by the words and actions of others, or the neglect of others, or by life’s difficulties. Our hearts have been broken, our dreams shattered….but hope is never extinguished and the forces of death, shame, and pain never have the last word. I deeply believe this and want the same to be true for you.
Life is difficult at times for all of us. People can be cruel, situations can be terribly hard, we can find ourselves sinking in despair like quicksand. Nearly all of the heroes of the Bible experienced this. I think of Job whose life was so horrible his own wife told him to “Curse God and die!” I think of Moses who became so depressed he prayed to God to kill him. I think of various Psalms, like Psalm 6:6: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” And of course the words of Psalm 31 that we have before us today: “My eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery…I have become like a broken vessel.”
But I want you to hear verse 31, where, despite his pain and adversity and feeling like a broken vessel he prays: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”
There are two words I’d want to share with you that I think represent God’s word to you who survived. While suicide is a sin (in that it is not God’s will), yet this is not an unpardonable sin. Consistently the scriptures teach us that Jesus came for the broken vessels, those who are bullied, rejected, or whose hearts are just overwhelmed with pain. He had compassion on these people in particular as he walked on this earth. But Jesus also cares for the survivors who can be plagued by the trauma and the "what ifs" for years to come. Many survivors struggle with guilt. If I’d only picked up the signs, if I’d only been there, if only… You have to forgive yourself, to let go, and to know that it wasn’t your fault. If they were determined, even if you stopped them once, they would have found a way. Give yourself grace and let go of the burden that might carry.
Don’t choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Don’t do something that, the moment you’ve done it, you regret. Ask for help. Ask God. Ask others. There is always hope. God specializes in healing and making beautiful things out of our brokenness and pain. With God, there is always hope. Join me in this prayer from Psalm 39: “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. Amen.”
Here are a couple of statistics that might be of interest as you think about who you might invite to be in worship: In a study done at 70 colleges several years ago...
55% of college undergrads reported having suicidal thoughts at some point during their college years.
In any given year 4% of all Americans have suicidal thoughts.
While suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults, the highest proportion of suicides are of white men aged 45 to 64.
Among the risk factors for suicide commonly noted are a family history of suicide, clinical depression, alcohol and drug abuse, bullying and other forms of social rejection and harassment, feelings of hopelessness. Gay and lesbian young adults attempt suicide at a rate 4 to 6 times greater than straight kids.
Suicide Hotline and Resources:
Praying the Hymns
I don't know why but I think of the song "Jesus Remember Me" when I think of this topic. Perhaps because I long for people to be remembered for more than just that one action. Perhaps I long for survivors to know they are remembered for more than when the what ifs put a pause on their life. Jesus, remember us the way you want to remember us when you enter your kingdom. Join me in song as we close out this blog.