The Shadow of Suicide

April 25, 2012

A friend of mine took his own life almost two weeks ago.

I was at home on a Saturday morning, getting ready to hand some furniture over to the Youth Group from our Church, who would then take it to the Atlanta Furniture Bank, with the expectation of spending the rest of the day working in the yard. My cell phone rang, and it was a colleague telling me the news.

I quickly changed clothes, drove to the home, which was now surrounded by Police vehicles, and spent the rest of the morning doing what I could to help the grieving widow and her son (the daughter was on her way from Law School.)

As our Pastoral staff continued to reach out to, and care for, the extended family, it became obvious that we needed a “point person” so we did not overwhelm them. On Sunday, I was asked–honored–by the family to be that person. On Wednesday, I led the Memorial Service, which I think ranks as one of the top three most difficult things I have done as a Minister. Remember, he was a friend–not just a face in the crowd or member of this 9,000 member church, but a friend.

In the days following his death, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of men; sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in a small group, sometimes in a large (100+) group. In essence, what I said was something along the lines of this:

“There will come times in our lives when we feel that the darkness is closing in around us, and there is simply no hope, no light, no way out. When we allow that darkness to enclose us, we get trapped in a downward spiral of thought that may lead us to think that ‘They will be better off without me.’ The theological term for that is ‘Horsefeathers.’ Men, your family would rather live in a one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town with you, than live in a mansion on the best street without you. And if you don’t believe me, then go home tonight, look them in the eye, and ask your family that. None of us will pass through this life without at one time or another carrying a burden that is simply too much for us to bear. The ‘man thought’ is that ‘this is my burden, i have to carry it alone.’ Horsefeathers. As Proverbs 27.17 says, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’ We NEED each other, and you need someone else to help you shoulder that load. Do not deny another man the honor–which is what he will accept it to be–by holding the darkness, the burden to yourself. Accept the help that comes from relationships around you.”

It was something along the lines of that, certainly not exact, but that gets it in the neighborhood.

Here is the homily I delivered at the Memorial Service, in which “names have been changed to protect the innocent.” But rest assured, if you are struggling today: there IS hope, and there IS help.

 

I think it is safe to say that all of are having a hard time walking these days. It’s not a mobility or an orthopedic issue, as much as it is the fact that we have had the rug pulled from under our feet with John’s death. So we are walking somewhat unsteadily, and carefully.

We struggle, understanding that John’s death came as the result of unnatural causes; that he made a choice that none of us would have made for him.  But the fact of the matter is that John is no longer with us.

From the perspective that many of us likely carry, he had everything going for him, and everything to look forward to. A wife who loved him, and who he loved more than any of us can describe; a family that he loved and was proud of, who he told that almost every day in one way or another. He so looked forward to Sue’s wedding—in fact, Bill, I’ll drop my guard and tell you that when John and I had a long visit very recently, and I said, as men who have daughters often say to one another, “He’s not worthy!” John very quickly said, “Oh, he’s great.”

He bragged about walking the Masters with David on Sunday. He seemed to be living his normal life, and going through his usual, predictable routines, and then . . . he was gone.

What many of us do not know is that John’s passing is inextricably connected to the accident that happened the morning of December 1, 2010. We know that he was in the attic working, and somehow the nail gun he was using discharged a nail into his heart. By the grace of God, when he instinctively tried to pull the nail out, he could not. Had he done so, he would have died on the spot.

But he could not, despite trying. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but what we need to know today is that he sustained major trauma to his heart, that emergency surgery—by someone he knew—saved his life.

But while the surgery was yet to happen, roughly three fifths of the blood in John’s system leaked into his chest cavity. That reduced flow of blood had an impact that took some time to surface. He had struggles most every day, and did a good job of hiding them.

To make it simple, John was struggling with short term memory issues. Not the “where are my car keys” kind of things, but the ability to come up with the words that he wanted to say. It took him hours to do, in his work, what would have taken him moments in the past. He would spend a good bit of time writing something, then go get a drink of water, come back, and have no memory of writing what he had just completed.

He hid this; he hid it from everyone, from Mary, from his family, from his friends. So he kept going, just plugging away.

John came to see me about two weeks ago, and we had a long visit about what all he had been dealing with since the accident. At some point we did what men often do, and slipped into a bit of Springstein-ish “Glory Days,” talking and laughing about our sports exploits in High School. For the record, John was a MUCH better athlete than I.

He was a running back in High School, and for all accounts, a pretty darn good one. He admitted that he did not have that slashing breakaway speed, but he said that he could pound it away, 2, 3 yards at a time, all night long.

And in his Senior Year, he got hurt, he hurt his back, I think in the last game, but he stayed in the game. That’s who he was, that’s what he did. Two, three yards at a time, playing hurt, and he finished with over 100 yards.

That injury kept him from landing the scholarship to the Division 1 schools that he wanted.

Typically male, like the Black Knight in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie, he played hurt, acting like there was nothing wrong.

In 2 Cor 12, the Apostle Paul says this:

2CO 12:7 “. . .  there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I don’t share that to suggest in any way that God sent that back injury to John, or that the Lord gave him the lingering effects of the accident. But to help us all remember that Paul asked God to take away something that was causing him to struggle, to suffer, and the Lord did not. Why, we will not know this side of glory.

And those struggles that John had—the mental fatigue, the mental exhaustion, that wore him down—to the point that he was getting lost driving home from places he has known well for decades—he hid them. He hid them from his family, he hid them from his physician, and he hid them from his Pastor. Until he decided to share them, and even then, he struggled, playing hurt, not wanting to accept the fact that something was wrong, and feeling that as a “man,” he should be able to overcome this.

So he kept these secrets for so long; and secrets love to thrive in darkness, and the longer the secrets are held, the greater the darkness grows.

Yet alongside the darkness that he hid, John also hid an amazing, hope-filled conviction.

He was a very private person, as many who knew him will attest. All of these things that he held inside, some bad, some good, he just kept private. John was a part of IRONMEN here at Peachtree, which has nothing to do with triathlons, but draws its name from PR 27.17:

“As iron sharpens iron,

    so one man sharpens another.”

One of our core values is to go deep in transparency and relationship with one another, to keep one another sharp. John did not talk about these things there; he kept it from friends, and some of his family. As much as he delighted in helping to sharpen others, there was something that held him back from accepting the help that comes from being sharpened by others.

John told me that the day of the accident, he had no idea how he got out of the attic. He remembered the accident; he recalled the details of trying to get the nail out. He had listened to the tape of the 911 call. But he had no idea how he got out of the attic, downstairs, to the front door.

Now, you can make of that what you will. You can choose to believe that he crawled out and down, and in the trauma that he experienced, he just did not remember it.

Or you can choose to believe, as he and I wondered together, if maybe, just maybe, these was someone there who carried him down. As he was telling me the story, I reached over to my Bible, turned the pages, and read HB 1.14: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”

But the other part of that story, which he did remember, is in that fuzzy state, he said that he was there, but he was also somewhere else. John said that he remembered being there in the foyer, while at the same time, seeing something else, and moving toward it.

He said that it was kind of like a tunnel; he struggled to find words to describe what he had seen. He said that it was grey and rather fuzzy, and at the end there was a figure, it looked like a person, but he could not really tell, and he could not make it out, but there was a definite presence there. Then he heard the presence say, “Holy guacamole, it’s not time.” And with those words, he was back in the foyer, being treated by emergency personnel.

Some time later, sharing that experience with his mother, she burst into tears. John did not know this, but “holy guacamole” was a common phrase that his grandfather used to use.

So from the attic, to the Sanctuary, we have this juxtaposition of this thorn in the flesh—the problems he struggled with and tried to hide; and theology—his deep conviction that he was and is a child of God, claimed in the waters of baptism for eternity.

Let me be clear at this point about one thing; our salvation is not determined by the means of our death. Our salvation is determined solely by our relationship with the Risen Christ. That is a covenant relationship, which God never breaks. If I tell Jesus that I want to be his friend, I want to follow Him, I want Him to come into my life, Scripture teaches that He will do that FOREVER. Six months later, ten years later, I may decide I don’t like Him anymore, but Jesus’ response is that He will not feel any differently towards me.  We call it “once saved, always saved.”

John knew Jesus; and Jesus knew and loved John. And today, they are together, where one day we shall see them both. I believe that last Saturday, John heard two voices; one said, “Holy guacamole, now it’s time.” But the other said, “Enter into the joy of your Master, my good and faithful servant.”

So in this afterglow of Easter, with the grand and glorious celebrations of the resurrection just ten days ago, what do we need to hear? I think two things.

One is GL 6.2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Frankly, while we all need to hear that, I think men here today need to hear that most. We have this idea that we are supposed to play hurt and not let anyone know.

Friends, none of us will pass through this life without having to carry a burden at some point that is too much for us to bear. We need to let others help us shoulder that load. In fact, most of us, if not all of us, would consider it an honor to help someone else carry a load. Let us not deny them the privilege of helping.

And secondly, remember those words which Marnie read earlier from Romans 8:

38 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The presence of the Lord is with us always, as it was with John, in even his darkest hour.

NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ.

May that truth, may that promise, bring us all, but especially you, the hope and comfort that only He can bring.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.