What Waterfowl Taught Me About Suicide

For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. — Wisdom 11:24, NRSV

When I was eleven years old, I tried to hang myself in the bathroom of my elementary school gym before basketball practice. Luckily, it didn’t work, and as I lay there, cursing myself, jacket sleeve still tied around my neck, my Dad came in looking for me. I will never get the quiver of his voice out of my head, as he cried my name and moved like lightning to my side.

I am not sharing this for shock value or pity, though I am sure some of my readers are surprised. The reason I tell this story in detail is because suicide is a major issue that many speak of and experience, yet the loudest voices seem to come from those who have never felt that depth of darkness. I am telling my story because I want you to know, dear reader, that I have looked this monster in the eye. It left its mark on me, and if there is one person out there who sees that it doesn’t have to be the end for them, then this post will have done its work.

I mentioned in my previous post that I went for a walk in a local park this past Saturday. Besides the super happy dog and lovely dandelions that I got to see, I saw some ducks and other assorted waterfowl in the pond that the park is centered upon. Watching them churn their feet and “swim for their lives” as I approached the shore, I noticed something I had never given much thought to before.

As the ducks swam, they cut through the water, leaving behind a triangular trail that expanded as they went, leaving an enduring mark that was much larger than the duck herself. I had considered writing this post for a long time, but it had retreated to the back of my mind until I noticed this seemingly minor detail. As it turns out, nature has much to say on the topic.

You see, we all leave trails behind us. Like the duck, we cannot see the trail, as we are continuing to move on through life, but it is still there, always expanding until it becomes a part of the greater body of water. In the same way, our lives (all of them) leave a trail that moves from our immediate vicinity into the greater narrative of human history. We cannot always see it, but it is there.

I often hear that “life can’t be that bad” for the suicidal person, and I get what those people are trying to say. Keep things “sunny side up” and such. But in that place of deepest darkness, there is no sun. There is no “bright side.” We cannot see the positives of our existence.

I had no idea of my parents’ love for me at that time when I was 11 years old, and many years after. There was no seeing the friends I had made and the lives I had touched in my short time. But now that I have the chance to look back and reflect, I am so glad that my plan failed that night.

I would never have met my little brother, who I now can’t imagine life without. I would not have the amazing wife I have now, nor would my relationship with my parents have had the chance to heal so that I could enjoy the closeness and mutual love we now share. Mission trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, and all across the U.S. would not have happened for me, and that would be one less positive relationship for me and for many people. I never would have preached the Gospel and worked with an amazing group of youth for over four years, never would have had the chance to be there for my dearest friends, and never would have come to the understanding of God’s transformative grace that I have now.

I also wouldn’t be writing this message that I feel many of us need to hear.

If you are reading this and struggling with suicidal thoughts, whether they are ideational or actually being planned, please talk to someone. Say it to somebody, because right now you do not know the impact your life (and death) has had and will have on the world around you. You are not broken. You are not worthless. There is a point and a purpose for you.

I have often quoted the verse that started this post, that God loves “all things that exist,” and He detests “none of the things” He has made. But the passage continues to say that God’s “immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1). God’s immortal Spirit rests in you. It rests in all of us, and that means that none of us are here on accident. We are here because God desired us to exist. God wanted you here because He loves and believes in you and your ability to make a difference.

Now I am not promising you that everything will always be good. This is not an appeal to “keep on the sunny side of life.” I still struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. These things are a part of me. However, they are now tools with which I can empathize and love others as I feel I have been called to do. No matter what darkness you face in your life, the power of God can turn it into a blessing that will ultimately serve Him and help to heal you and others.

But that cannot happen if you are not here. If your life ends, your story ends at its darkest moment, and nothing can ever be made better. That is something worth remembering.

My prayer for you is that you remember that we all leave trails behind us. Our stories are a part of the greater “pond” that is human history, whether we know it or not. There are people who are a part of our story we have yet to meet. There are people (and a God) who love and care for us, who would notice our empty seat or cold side of the bed.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are planning to go through with it, call 911. Your story does not have to end. You matter to us all, and this world would not be the same without you.

Even if you do not struggle in this way, remember your trail. What are we leaving behind? Are we leaving examples of love, compassion, and just action in our wake, or are we leaving… something else? Let us go forward remembering that God’s purposes for us are to live life fully and for the glory of His name, and let us leave our mark on this world, following in the example of Christ, who has won the victory over death and darkness, and who passes that victory on to us.

Peace be with you!

Changing the Story

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” — Matthew 2:13, NRSV

We live in a world that needs a change in story. Repeating cycles of violence, physical and ideological, seem to indicate that we have made very little real progress in the ways we deal with each other. The dangers of forcefully keeping “peace,” drawing lines in the sand, and demonizing each other based on our differences have all been made known throughout history. Somehow, though, we just keep barreling toward whatever next great “fall” comes next.

Even as individual people, things seldom look better. We continue painful and self-destructive cycles believing “that’s just how I am.” We dismiss ourselves and one another based on the worst information we can obtain. Both us and the people around us suffer for our unwillingness to put down the burdens we carry.

So why is that? Why do we seem to always fall back into dangerous patters of behavior, both collectively and as individuals? Well… Change sucks.

Change is something humans resist. It scares us. If the rules, standards, and patterns are allowed to shift, there is less for us to cling to for support and stability. Unfortunately, the fear of instability and change causes us to resist, often to our hurt and that of others.

When we look at the story of Jesus, Herod violently opposes the idea of a new king, one that would, in the end, deliver the people from the oppressive reign of Rome. He seeks to destroy Jesus, and in the process, countless innocents are slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). The moral of the story? Change is not a neat process, and while it is absolutely necessary, resistance is to be expected.

I can’t prescribe much for changing the entire world, except that we as individuals need to start choosing different paths. If enough of us do that, taking a page out of Jesus’ story, perhaps things can start to look different. Rest assured, though the path of improvement is necessary, it is bound to meet resistance.

Others will try to keep us from changing. Mantras like “once a cheater, always a cheater” serve as examples of how we tend to write people off. When we start embracing the love of Christ in our lives, the resulting change will scare others. After all, if we hold ourselves accountable and begin the process of transformation, that means they can. The resistance we meet in others could come in the form of ridicule, cruelty, or rejection, and that is horrible.

But it pales in comparison to the resistance we will meet internally.

There will be tears, doubt, and a surge in the negative feelings and habits that we are trying to eradicate. Our ego will violently revolt, leading to some crappy days… weeks… months. We will want to quit and flee back to “safety.” But that is not the end of the story.

You see, as the life of Christ teaches us, the love of God cannot be stopped once it is welcomed into the world. Jesus met a horrific amount of resistance, and it ended up costing him his life. Yet the victory is ultimately his, and that promise is extended to you and I.

If we take one step at a time, we will eventually look up and see that we have traveled a great distance with the love of God lighting our way. We will meet the Herods, the Pharisees, the Pilates (not the exercise), the cross, and the grave, sometimes in others and sometimes within ourselves. However, if we keep in mind the victory God has already given us and the responsibility we have to keep walking in the Way, the story will continue, culminating in a moment when we look back and see the momentous changes God has brought to completion in us. What’s more, we may even see the many people who were positively touched by our journey all along the way.

It is my prayer that you will join me in trying to change the story. If we change ours, we also stand to change the world’s. This is going to take loads of patience, prayer, and self-love, and it will often be a painful road. Yet all of that pales in comparison to the blessing that will follow.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

The Art of Watching One’s Mouth

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. — James 3:10, NRSV

This will by no means come as a shock to anyone that knows me, but one of my biggest problems is my mouth. I am sarcastic by nature, and a childhood of being soft-spoken and easily flustered led to a seemingly necessary development of quick, cutting remarks offered up at the drop of a hat. But while my sharp humor has been the source of many laughs and good times over the years, it’s also gotten me into trouble. I’ve hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and completely disrespected the God I claim to love and worship.

I’m not saying you can’t have your quick comments here and there, and God loves a sense of humor, but there is a serious problem with the overlap between “faithful” people and those who fail to mind their words and the effects they can have. We live in a world that emphasizes shock value, and it has become fashionable to actually TRY to insult people and hurt feelings because we are technically free to do so. After all, look at how many people voted for the current president because he “tells it like it is.” What they mean is they like that he doesn’t care how his words might affect others, and that’s how they prefer to operate. Not to be outdone, even those who scream on behalf of political correctness do so in a manner that serves to demonize their fellow human beings. It’s a true testimony to the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)!

For the Christian, political correctness is no reason to guard the tongue. There may be overlap, but we can’t base our speech and actions based off of what the world finds acceptable. What has changed my approach in recent days is understanding my words as a form of worship.

I know when we think of worship, we think of set aside times and spaces, separate from the rest of our lives, but the life of faith is not that way. Living out The Way of Jesus is a ’round-the-clock effort, and our treatment of others, whether they are around us or not, is a testimony to how highly our relationship with God is ranked. This is why James issues his correction in 3:8-12 saying, “but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” All people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), whether or not we like or approve of them. As such, our treatment of one another is an act of worship… or blasphemy.

It’s hard to tame the tongue. We are surrounded by bad examples being exalted as funny or bold, and sometimes the people in our own lives just suck.. It is vitally important, however, that we learn to honor God by taking a different road in order that our worship may be complete. Perhaps it’s changing what we decide to share on social media. Maybe it’s diverting or not engaging at the dinner table when the conversation takes a turn for the worse. What if we meditated, prayed, and took time to journal, processing our feelings in a way that won’t inject more negativity into a world already choking on its own malice? I think these are options worth exploring, and I hope you will join me on this new, challenging, and transformative road.

Peace be with you!

“You’re Worth Everything to Me”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. — John 3:16, NRSV

I don’t know about you, but there are many times that I don’t feel like I am worth much. Whether I’m struggling to feel deserving of love or the inability to forgive myself, there are just times when I can’t seem to see much good in who I am. This is a common affliction for many people, especially those of us who deal with depression, and that’s why I thought this story needed to be told.

Over the past year or so, I have been more or less stuck in a constant state of low self-worth. The loss of my career, calling, and spirituality all in one fell swoop left me reeling, and while the resulting personal growth has been tremendous, it’s come at the cost of my sense of identity. About two weeks ago, things had been particularly rough in that regard… But then I went to Mass at our Episcopal Church.

Now this isn’t a story about church or prayer fixing everything. I know things aren’t typically that simple, so don’t check out just yet. But as I was sitting in prayerful reflection before service, kneeling in the pew, my crucifix in my hands, I had an experience that I’ve never had before.

In the midst of pouring my heart out, pleading for guidance and consolation, words came into my mind. I didn’t hear a voice, but they were just… there. As I knelt there agonizing over my life and whether or not I was doing or being anything worthwhile, the words, “You’re worth everything to me” came to mind. The thought was so out-of-place, and it caused me to look down at my beloved talisman with new eyes.

Paul teaches us in Romans 5 that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In that moment, I realized the truth that before I even existed, before I ever did anything considered good or bad, God, in Christ, gave His very life that I may know the extent of His love. He did this not just for me, but for you as well. Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are to serve as reminders that God’s love for all of us is powerful enough to overcome every doubt and fear.

Since that moment, I have known far more peace than I ever remember having. I still have my depression and self-doubts, but I also have this experience from which to draw strength, and I wanted to share it with you in the hopes that it might remind you how loved you really are. The symbol of faith that I have always loved, the crucifix, used to be a reminder to me that sin costs life. Now, it is a reminder that the love of God is limitless, and that God saw us as worth dying for before we ever set foot on this planet.

I’ve become painfully aware in recent days that we are more and more obsessed with measuring each other’s worth in terms of whose side we are on. What do we accomplish? Did they get the right education? Did he vote for the right candidate? Does she agree with me? All of these questions and more seem to be the new standard by which we determine whether or not someone is deserving of our love and respect. It seems to me that such harsh judgment is an indication of how hard we actually are on ourselves, projected onto others.

Your worth does not consist of what you do or don’t do. Your value is not based on how you look, what you possess, or what mistakes you do or don’t make. God decided long before we were here that we are to be called “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and that we are to bear His divine image for the benefit of the world.

It is my prayer that this brief testimony serves you in whatever way you need. I hope you come away reminded of the insurmountable love God has for you, and that you always remember that you, as you are, are more than enough.

Peace be with you!

 

“The Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.John 13:34, NRSV

There’s nothing like a quote from the famous Robert Earl Keen song to set the tone for a post, and you can’t lose when reinforcing it with the beloved New Commandment. So what do these two very different snippets have to do with one another? Follow me!

After Epiphany closed the Christmas season this past Sunday, I have been reflecting on the major Christian holy days and how celebrating them should impact us today. These days honor various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, so it would make sense for there to be some application for his disciples beyond just remembering what happened 2,000 years ago. So far, I’ve discerned one major reason for keeping these holy days (all of them) sacred in our lives.

They are all happening, all the time.

I know that sounds like some “new age” stuff, but it’s true. The Exodus, the mystery of the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are all realities here and now, in this life, in this moment. And they should be, otherwise we run the risk of denying the true power of these events for the sake of some mere, lame commemoration.

Each of us knows the difficulty of changing our lives for the better, of growing in relationship with God and moving from sin to life (Exodus). We know what it is to marvel at, question, or even deny the idea of a God that would take on flesh for us (Incarnation), even if it it shows indirectly as a questioning of our own value. All people know the reality of suffering and death (Crucifixion), and the importance of hope and restoration in the midst of it, ultimately leading to victory (Resurrection and Ascension). We know what it is to be inspired, and to be filled with the drive to use our gifts for the betterment of the world (Pentecost).

The problem comes when we fail to see the life of Christ in our own and vice versa. We get too caught up in the “Crucifixion” moments to remember what hope feels like. We are too consumed with our victories and comfort to remember that suffering is still a reality for many that we have a responsibility to ease.

We lose compassion for one another when we forget that all of us are sinners on the road to the promised land. Perhaps most tragically, when we lose sight of the Incarnation, we fail to recognize all others as brothers and sisters for whom God took on human flesh and died. When we limit these realities to seasons and days, we lose sight of the fact that they indeed are realities.

Christ lived with eternity in mind. He loved with eternity in mind. In eternity, everything echoes at once, without regard for day, year, or time. If we are to love as he does, we also must keep eternity in mind, letting these holy realities shape our daily lives.

It is my prayer that you will join me in living this new year in light of the reality of Christ’s life. May we all remember who we are, who God is, and what responsibilities come with that identity. Above all, whatever situation rings true for you right now, I pray that you will know how loved and valued you really are.

Peace be with you!

What is This “Grace” of Which You Speak?

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. — John 1:16-17, NRSV

If you’ve read much of my work, you’ve noticed my tendency to mention God’s grace and the fact that we are supposed to reflect that grace in how we live. I have been out of the writing game for a bit, and so I thought the best way I could come back would be a post that clarifies this idea of “grace.” I have good friends who aren’t steeped in the Christian tradition who have asked me about it, and even many of my brothers and sisters in Christ seem to misunderstand the concept (including me)!

In today’s world, the concept of “grace” is a foreign one. In one sense, we do not live in a time of forgiveness and the full embrace of one another, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t know what to do with a God for whom this is standard practice. Another common issue is actually a cheapened understanding of forgiveness and embrace that leaves us with the impression that we are free to do and be whatever we wish without any repercussions.

So what are we talking about, then? What is the grace of God, and what does it mean for us in our lives today? Grace is defined as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” according to this rather formal source. In short, grace is the unearned favor of God. It’s an expression of love that transforms our lives while not depending on us at all.

Paul sums up the idea of grace quite nicely in Romans 5, saying “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In Christ, we see the fullness of God revealed in a human being, and this God decides to take on the cross so that we may know the extent of God’s love, as well as the cost of our indifference to it (sin). But God doesn’t wait until we have achieved a sufficient amount of perfection before making His love known and offering us the way to a transformed life. Instead, God meets us where we are, as we are. We didn’t earn it, but it is given anyway, and that is grace.

With that said, just because grace is unmerited doesn’t mean we aren’t expected to honor it with how we treat each other. It’s not that there are strings attached, but for this grace to mean anything, it should have an impact on us! So what impact does God expect?

In Matthew 18, Jesus presents us with a powerful parable that makes grace practical. A slave owes his master lots of money, but cannot pay (verses 24-25). He begs his master for mercy, and the master obliges, forgiving the debt (verse 27). This slave, having just experienced mercy, meets another slave that owes him money, and has said slave thrown into prison when he could not pay him (verses 28-30). Now, does that sound right to you?

Of course not. Logically, one would assume that because the first slave knew what it was like to owe a debt, face punishment, and receive grace for no reason other than compassion, he would understand and extend that same grace to his fellow slave. Instead, the master gets word of his slave’s irresponsibility and now both slaves are trapped in prison (verse 34). Jesus ends with a warning that God will certainly be keeping an eye on whether or not those who receive his grace embrace the responsibility to share it (verse 35).

There are two big points to take away, here. First, grace comes with the responsibility to share it with everybody else. Just as the second slave owed the first money, so we will have people in our lives we feel don’t deserve our love. We will have enemies. It is important to note, then, that we don’t deserve the love of God. Sin is a part of being human, and we all have it. As the First Epistle of John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). God loves and forgives us anyway, however, and so our response should be the same. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 5, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We know what it is to be a pain in the heart of others. We also know what it is to be forgiven by God. Therefore, our lives should reflect compassion, even in the face of those that we don’t feel deserve it. That’s grace.

Secondly, when we refuse to show that compassion, and when we turn our back on others, we spit on the grace God has shown to us, and things actually get worse. Look at the parable. Had the slave forgiven his fellow slave, neither would owe a debt and neither would be in prison. Instead, both end up trapped and in debt. The same holds true for you and I when we irresponsibly handle the gift of God’s love. We grieve God with our lack of compassion and forgiveness, and we also contribute to the world’s suffering.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life,” and “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:24, 26). Jesus brings God’s grace into the world that we may experience life in the way God always intended, but the story doesn’t stop there.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Those who receive the grace of God are expected and empowered to reflect it. By doing so, we truly become disciples of Jesus who follow his example and are known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35). This love sets us and others free to follow a new path that heals the wounds of the world.

I know this was a longer and more involved post, but grace is such a huge theme for Christians that anything less would feel… over-simplified. I hope that my explanation of God’s grace connects with, empowers, and inspires you to understand and accept how loved you truly are. I also hope that such love motivates you to reflect the same compassion toward others that you would want for yourself.

Accepting and reflecting the grace of God are not easy tasks, but they are vital means by which we experience the fullness of life. The life of a disciple is one of constant refinement, a lifelong endeavor to grow into the love we have received. We won’t always get it right, but the transformation that results from the effort is truly spectacular, and I pray that you will join me on this journey.

Peace be with you!

Righteousness ≠ Perfection

The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. — Proverbs 13:9, NRSV

Reading Proverbs is both a delight and a challenge. Wonderful wisdom abounds in this small, fast-paced book of sayings, but the challenge comes from historical and cultural values that differ from our own, plus one other thing: vocabulary. The word “righteous” is used quite a bit in the Bible (around 567 times, give or take, depending on the translation), and I’d wager a hefty portion of that usage comes from Proverbs.

The reason I bring this up is that in my own life, the word “righteous” has been largely misunderstood, making Scripture study rather unpleasant. If you’re anything like me, you tend to beat yourself up. Your mind plays your failures over and over again, and reading a collection of texts geared toward making us more righteous certainly doesn’t help. I have found, though, that this is because I have come to confuse righteousness with perfection.

Righteousness is a life defined by virtue and justification, but even the most righteous person in the Bible would by no means be considered perfect. In fact, God seems to go out of His way to choose wildly imperfect people for the purposes of establishing His covenant. Noah, Abram (later Abraham), Sarai (later Sarah), Isaac, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Jonah, Peter, Judas, the Twelve, Saul (later Paul), and the list goes on and on. All of them are in some sense chosen and involved in the continuation of God’s covenant and story, yet none of them are even close to being perfect.

My point? The Bible has a distinction between perfection (a quality of God) and righteousness (something God imparts to humans). For us to understand the Book of Proverbs, or any other Biblical literature, we must first understand that for the writers of Scripture, sin is a fact of life. It is an ever-present part of being human. Therefore, when we read about righteousness, we cannot assume that we are supposed to be free of sin always and forever. As John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Rather, all this talk of righteousness and sinfulness is about the trend of our lives. You and I will inevitably mess up. Sin is a part of who we are. However, it doesn’t have to be our defining characteristic, and it won’t be if we are honest about our faults, do our best to positively affect our surroundings, and rely on the grace of God to fill in the gaps. While sinners, we can still lead a humble life that tends toward the kingdom of God rather than our own selfish pursuits. We only become truly wicked when we decide that we are our gods, having no sin because we can do whatever we wish. In short, we become defined by our sin when we give up.

We must remember the central Christian teaching that salvation and righteousness are gifts of God granted by His sacrifice in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The love of God is given freely, and relationship with God is opened to us free of charge. This does not mean that we do not have a response to make, but it does mean that our response should come from gratitude, and not the desire to earn our way to heaven.

God’s grace is not intended to inspire guilt or a brow-beating approach to our lives. If we spend every day trying to check off items on “The Chart of Perfection,” we will soon grow resentful of that which is meant to give us everlasting joy. Instead, we are charged with living lives of gratitude, humility, and mercy, with the love of God and neighbor at the front of our minds. We will still have sin, but instead of crippling guilt and regret, we can humbly approach the God who will remind us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So when we hear the words of the Gospel, extolling the value of righteous living, we shouldn’t engage in self-punishment because we lack perfection. God has plenty of perfection already. What the Lord seeks is that our perfectly imperfect hearts would seek after Him and trust Him to take care of the rest. If we remember our faults (and that God has forgiven them out of His limitless love), we are able to look graciously and lovingly upon the faults of others, and in doing so we fulfill the Commandment. But that is a subject for the next post. 😉

Peace be with you!