Suspenders

suspendersSometime in my early teen years, I just had to have a pair of rainbow colored suspenders. I begged my parents for this article of clothing until someone finally broke down and got them.

Did I need them because I didn’t like to wear belts? No. Did I need them to keep my pants up? Not really…I usually wore a belt anyway. Why did I need them, then?

Because Mork from Ork wore them.

For those who are not old enough to remember or for the select few who didn’t watch television in the late seventies, Mork and Mindy was a television show about an alien from the planet Ork who somehow ended up living in the suburbs of Denver. And unless Mork had on clothing from his native planet, he almost always wore rainbow colored suspenders. And just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Mork was played by Robin Williams, an actor who recently lost a battle with depression and ended his life. (As a side note, I try to avoid using the word suicide. I don’t like it for many reasons but you can read more about that on my blog if you really want to do so.)

Robin Williams was one of my earliest role models and heroes. He made people laugh and I found that making people laugh was not only fun to do, it gave an otherwise short and awkward teenager a way to be noticed amongst his peers and even by some adults. For several years I had the very unrealistic dream of becoming a stand-up comic.

That dream led me to do both community and school theater. That dream gave me the drive to actually be employed professionally as an actor – ONCE. That dream of standing in front of people, telling stories and jokes and hearing them respond with laughter is one that kept me going through much of my high school years. Even after I retired the suspenders (but didn’t throw them away, mind you) and had quit idolizing Robin Williams for some other comic I can’t even remember now, I still held on to the dream of making a livelihood out of comedy.

But a lot of life happened between that early dream and where I am today. I consider myself fortunate, very fortunate indeed that at some point in time I realized that there was a different plan for my life. Although I cannot paint a picture of the long road I took to get there in this article, I can at least say with a great deal of certainty that I ended up where I was supposed to be headed all along – in pastoral ministry.

In some ways, I still get to live part of that early dream – I stand up in front up people on a regular basis and I get to tell stories. However, they often are not funny ones and even when they are funny I hope that they point to something else. I hope they point to the God who loves us all enough to send his Son to die for us.

I get a little sad each and every time I hear of someone losing a battle with depression that ends in death. As far as I am concerned, the disease rids people of their ability to make good and rational choices. Instead, they just want the hopelessness to end and can really only see one way out of that hopelessness – to be present with God.

We worship an incredible and awesome Savior. Jesus was, is and always will be part of the Trinity known as God. When Jesus walked among us, he was fully human and fully divine. His death would not have been a sacrifice on his part if he did not have the power to prevent it. Yet even with the power to prevent his own life from being taken, Jesus chose to give it up. Why? So that we could have life that is ever-lasting – both now and after our own deaths.

Sometimes, I am afraid, we concentrate so much on the gift of “life after death” that is a promise of the sacrifice of Jesus that we forget about ever-lasting life that is available to us now. Please don’t jump to conclusions here…I am not talking about people with mental illness forgetting that promise, I am talking about perfectly normal and mentally healthy people forgetting it.

That, to me, is why it is so tragic when someone loses their life to a battle with mental illness. There are so many of us around who have life to spare, who drink from wells that never run dry, who walk on paths made smooth by the grace of God, who have hope beyond measure that we should be able to at least talk about mental illness in such a way that it would offer life and hope to others around us.

I am not offering any grand solution here. Now am I asking you to find some way to be in ministry with those who are mentally ill.

I am asking that we all take a moment and thank God for the life and hope that we have because of Jesus. And maybe in that thankfulness, we will be just a bit more cognizant of those around us who are struggling and we can show them a new way to hope…a different way to be close to God. One sacrificed his own life so that we could all have life abundant! In being thankful, we are in the position to help those who can’t be thankful because of mental illness.

I can’t say that this will work every time, but I won’t stop hoping that it does.

Nanu…Nanu.

An End to Suicide

The game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna loose it anyway
The loosing card I’ll sometime lay
so this is all I have to say:

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

“Theme to M.A.S.H. (Suicide is Painless)” by Robert Altman

     The television show M.A.S.H. was one of my favorite shows to watch from childhood into my young adult years. I still like to catch a re-run every now and then, truth be told.

     I did not learn or even know of words to the theme song for this show till my late teens and at the time I first heard them I didn’t think much about them. The lyrics were haunting, but I wasn’t one to get caught up in overly deep thought in those days. However, many things have happened since the mid 80’s to make me really question the whole idea of whether someone could “take or leave it if I please.”

     (Granted, the theme song is for a movie and tv show that deal with war – an arena that I have zero experience in. Yet I still wonder if the rules of life and death change that much in the face of war. I learned recently that the civilian rate of “taking one’s life” plummeted during WWI and WWII quite possibly because  many people saw things that helped them  that place a high value on living and dying. I don’t know for sure.)

     I do know that a close friend from high school lost her mother through this so-called “choice.” I saw the the profound difference it made in her life, especially in those moments when people huddled together to hush their talk about the method and means of her mother’s death.

     As a pastor, I have sat beside too many grieving family members who were trying to understand how someone could choose to end their life at their own hand. “Why?”  – which is always a big question – doesn’t even come close in those holy moments.

     As a son, I also watched what happened to a household as the cloud of depression settled into a home. It was dark, heavy and totally uncontrollable. No amount of joking, hilarity or humor could lift it. No success on the part of any child could get it to budge. It was as present as the bed I lay down on each night and prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” And I must admit that there was more than one night I changed the end of the prayer to say, “If any should die before I wake, I pray the Lord their soul to take.”

     Although no one in my immediate family has succumbed to the final throes of this hideous disease of depression – it has been close.

     And now, this morning, after I’ve read of the “suicide” of Robin Williams – another television favorite – and have read countless tributes, prayers and poems about the brevity of life and the difference we make in living it, I have one small request.

     Can we please, please stop using that damned word “suicide?” Can we please bring an end to its use to describe the end of life for those who suffer from a sometimes fatal illness known as depression? God has given us incredible imagination and I truly believe that with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do better than to stigmatize the death of someone who was ill.

Hope     The word itself – suicide – seems to bring with it that idea that people have a choice about what happens to them in that moment of their death. I can say, after seeing so many people struggle with the very real disease that depression is, I no longer believe that they can “take or leave it” if they please. There is something more going on that we don’t understand, but we certainly don’t have to stigmatize with a word that brings hushed whispers about “how” and “what method.” People who have hope can surely do better than this.

     We would not say that a parachutist who died during a jump died of stupidity for failing to properly check their equipment. We might think – but in most cases would not say – that someone drank themselves to death or smoked themselves shut in a coffin because of cirrhosis or cancer. If we do, we need to check another filter! Death is sometimes an accident. Death is sometimes the “final card played in the game of life.” Death is often the result of some disease of body or yes, we can even say it – disease of the mind!

     I am tired of the word and I do everything I can to avoid it.

     It makes someone seem weak.

     It makes someone seem less than intelligent.

     It makes someone seem faithless.

     It makes someone appear to be healthy enough to make informed decisions.

     Those who are without hope, one of the main symptoms of depression, are not weak, dumb,  or really capable of making clear choices. They are often very faith filled people. They are fighting the battle of their lives. They are wrestling with death.

     Sometimes they win.

     Sometimes the bastard of depression wins.

     But all the time, those of us who know hope in this world, need to be vigilant to the battles being fought by those that we know and love. We need to fight against this disease as well.

     And can we please, please consider ending the use of that stigmatic word?

     It does nothing for the memory of a fellow human being who got struck down with a disease none of us would want.

If you really want to enter into the battle, can I point you to a great organization? They work on preventing this outcome of this disease and they are great at the battle. Check them out at afsp.org or watch for a local Out of the Darkness “walk” in your community. (Yes, I know they use THE word in their organizational title, but they do great work and I count us a fortunate to have them.)

Peace!

On Capital Punishment

During the “Pray-As-You-Go” exercise for Good Friday, I was challenged to imagine myself as one of the people in Jesus’ group o041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpgf family and friends who were witness to the execution of Jesus on the cross. I found this very difficult. It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine the scene – I have seen so many depictions of it in art and movie that my imagination didn’t have to work very hard – it was that I found that I could not remain among the group of people who were there with Jesus. My mind kept slipping over to view this scene from the perspective of the family members of the others who were being executed by Jesus. (If you want to read what became of this imaginative exercise, you can click here.)

Granted, the fact that Jesus was killed between two thieves has been something that has captured my theological imagination for quite some time. What does it mean that “a completely innocent man” was killed in the name of the state between two people who were also “convicted” of capital crimes?

Part of me imagines that Jesus would have chosen to be killed in exactly this way. He spent his life hanging around those who had reputations that were less than stellar. I think that it is only fitting that the man who gave up heaven to walk the earth spent his last few breathes on public display with exactly the type of people he loved the most – those who were always on the outside of any faith based on legalism. What were the crimes of these convicted felons? I know we have certain standards in our world today for executions, but what are those standards really based upon? And this says nothing of the “figurative” way that people are killed in the name of a group of people in power. I think of all the people who are ostracized by “the Church” in the name of legal interpretations of our Book as well. What about these people? Is Jesus still handing on a cross beside them and waiting for us to notice? It even happens in our communities. Not very long ago, a man in our community took his own life after being investigated for child pornography issues. Yesterday a man in South Korea took his own life rather than face the relatives of the children killed in a tragic ferry accident. What do these things say about us as a people? I know that this is not “capital punishment” but what does it say about our ability to stand with those who commit crimes or even those facing the tragic circumstances of which they played some part? Those who follow Jesus should be able to offer some hope, some joy, for even the worst among us. Jesus managed to do it on the cross.

Another part of me wonders about the justice issues that we as Christians cannot deny exist when we look at the cross. An innocent man was killed “by the state” for crimes he was convicted of by the judicial system of that day. Even an attempt at some sort of pardon by the state failed. It stands to reason, at least for me, that those who were hanging on the left and right of Jesus of Nazareth could have just as easily been every bit as innocent as Jesus. (Granted, one of those two confesses his crimes on the cross, but still, I have to wonder about any system that finds justified killing in the name of the people of a state somewhat suspect.) I know the stance of my church on this issue:

The Death Penalty

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

Is it possible that even one innocent person is killed today? I can’t imagine that we are that much better than those who led in Jesus’ day. Things do happen. People do let their eyes be blinded by certain preconceived notions of what is happening. I know I do.

And yet, at the same time, I hear so little about it…especially as it relates to the way we sometimes “kill the spirit” of those who are convicted of other crimes in the Church. Both are serious problems that our society and church face today.

Sunrise over Princeton, WV

Sunrise!

I know…pretty serious thought for the Saturday before we celebrate the Joy of Easter. However, I had to get this off my mind. As I go through this day and even tomorrow, I hope I find myself praying for all those who are on “death row” these days, in our prisons, in our communities, and in our churches. I know that Jesus is with them still. I know Jesus would offer hope. I know that since “joy is the serious business of heaven” (C. S. Lewis) then that same joy should be our serious business as well – “on earth as it is in heaven” and all.

May the Joy and Hope of Easter be with us all!

“Something Different” Prevention Week

Hopelessness or Depression

I realize that right up front that I am walking on some very tricky ground here.  I know that this week is known as National Suicide Prevention Week – and believe me, I want to do all that I can to help bring awareness and change to this tragic form of death in our society.

However, because of my association with some great people who introduced me to AFSP (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) in Parkersburg, WV, I have a very difficult time using the word “suicide” at all.

Taking one’s own life is a very desperate act, usually coming at the end of a battle with depression or hopelessness.  I have sometimes said that taking one’s own life in the midst of depression or hopelessness is a final prayer to God to end the suffering.

Sometimes the deaths are very intentional…sometimes very accidental.  No matter what the circumstance, when we place the label “suicide” upon these tragic losses of battles with very real diseases and spiritual conditions, we are placing a stigma on both the person who lost their battle and to those who are left behind.

We do not do this with victims of cancer, heart disease, diabetes or any other illness and yet with depression and hopelessness, we do.

I would like to see us change the name of this week, just so we can call it what it truly is.  Let’s call it “Preventing Death by Depression and Hopelessness Week” or something else that is more catching.  I don’t care.  I am just sick of the “S” word and all the baggage and tags it carries with it.

Just some thoughts… would love to read yours as well.

photo credit: Helga Weber via photo pin cc