Friends

Tonight I am reflecting gratefully upon the presence of friends, friends with whom we share different things in different circumstances.

For me, today . . .

I went to my home church for the Pentecost service, and spent some time before the service  talking politics with two guys with whom I have served in various capacities.  These days, we are all part of a group making occasional visits to our U.S. Senators and Representatives, trying to be present and advocate for justice where we can.

At lunchtime, my husband and I went to a bridal shower of a young couple at whose wedding I will co-officiate in three weeks.  We have known the bride-to-be and her parents since she and our daughter were first graders together, and as families we have weathered some long nights in tandem over the years.  What a joy to see this young woman and her fiancé, whom we are just getting to know, delighting in one another and in their anticipated future.

I spent some time online with a friend trying to help her as she tried to help yet another friend ~ unknown to me, in a distant state, and talking suicide.  By the time we finished talking, the distant friend was headed for a hospital with another friend.  There was nothing joyful about any of that, but there was a sense of knowing what steps to advise someone to take that was oddly satisfying, and the hope that a life may be saved.  If it is, we won’t know, but that’s a good thing.

After dinner my husband I joined friends on a porch to relax and talk for a couple of hours ~ a summer event that has been going on for . . . well, a long time.  Many of us have known one another for nearly thirty years.    We know each other to laugh over the fact that some were itching to get home to the basketball game and others asked, “What game?”

Church friends, Montessori friends, suicide prevention friends, neighborhood friends.  It’s a rich life that we have here.

Suicide Prevention Advocacy ~ Why? (Part 3)

In late 2011 or early 2012, beginning my first call as a pastor with a congregation brand new to me, and in the midst of breast cancer treatment, I was also starting to recognize that suicide was a matter which might be addressed as breast cancer was: with research, education, prevention, treatment.  I looked around for some ways in which I might participate and found a local organization and a national organization, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  AFSP’s mission is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide.  It provides funding for suicide prevention research as well as educational materials and strategies, and sponsors advocacy events in Washington, D.C, and all over the country.

Thanks to AFSP, I’ve had the opportunity to testify in support of Ohio legislation mandating suicide prevention education for public school educators and administrators, meet with legislators in Ohio and Washington, and make my voice heard on the need for mental health reform and funding.

joyce

I’m just back from our State Capitol Day in Columbus, on which 25 advocates met with more than 60 state representatives and senators.  Last year in Washington, we heard from legislators on both sides of the aisle that, despite their differences, the need for mental health legislation and funding was something on which they all agreed.  The unfolding debate over the ACA over the past several weeks has made it clear that that coalition of support is not guaranteed.  In Ohio, the Medicaid expansion ensures that many if our most vulnerable citizens receive treatment for the drug addictions and mental illnesses that threaten their lives, but that funding is not guaranteed either.  It is imperative that we continue to bring our stories to our legislators at both the federal and state levels and to press for mental health insurance coverage and funding for research and education.

I’m one small voice in a movement of many.  If you would like to add your voice as well, please check out the AFSP website.  We have chapters across the country and you can volunteer in many ways and at many levels of commitment.

Image: With Ohio United States Representative David Joyce and another Ohio advocate.

 

Suicide Prevention Advocacy ~ Why? (Part 2)

Seattle

We didn’t know, not really, why our son had died and, despite being consumed by guilt,  I generally dismissed the idea that it night have been preventable.   I had begun to learn not to discuss either his life or death outside of our home and my blog.  It was clear that the good memories made others uncomfortable, and that the bad ones reminded them that we were living their worst nightmare.

Three years after our son’s death, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It took about five seconds for me to discover that, whereas with a mention of suicide I could clear a room, my admission that I was being treated for breast cancer would be followed by offers of support, advice, and resources.  Women I barely knew would pull me into their offices to pull up their shirts and show me the results of their surgeries.

Huh.

I began to remember my childhood and teen years, forty years earlier.  Breast cancer was discussed only in hushed tones behind closed doors.  Women died because they were too embarrassed and frightened to share their discoveries, even with their partners and doctors.  And I realized that in the decades since that time, strong and determined advocates had unlocked the doors to legislation and money, and had destroyed the stigma of a disease which attacks intimate parts of our anatomy and affects the most personal parts of our lives.  Today, breast cancer treatment has been revolutionized, people speak freely about breast cancer, and football players wear pink jerseys to raise awareness and assist in the efforts to further research, prevention, and treatment!

Could the same things be accomplished where suicide was concerned?  Might it indeed be possible to prevent suicide?

(To be continued)

Image: Post-cancer in Seattle.

 

Suicide Prevention Advocacy ~ Why? (Part I)

Josh out west

It was as if a train had run him down ~ that’s how my husband and I described our son’s death to one another.  We had just spent a week-end with him.  He had been despondent over his work situation and recent romantic break-up, but he and I had talked a lot, as we had for weeks, about these setbacks in life, not unusual in young adulthood.  Over the preceding month, I had suggested several times that he see a therapist, and had even found some names for him, but he had alternated between a willingness to seek help and a cheerful insistence that he was fine.    And then he was gone.  As if a train had run him down.

Occasionally we would hear about suicide prevention work, but we could not imagine its relevance.  How can you prevent something you have no idea looms ahead?  Even as we began to piece the puzzle together over the next couple of years, as we found journals and notes, talked to his girlfriend, and came to understand that he had suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression, perhaps for years, we still did not think in terms of suicide as something preventable.

We may have even bought into that oft-repeated and erroneous statement, made several times to us (and frequently by people who should have known better) that if someone wants to end his life, you cannot stop him.  It was a shocking and sorrow-inducing statement, intended to be supportive but, in fact, conveying the horrific possibility that someone you loved more than seemed possible had reached a point of such interior torture that he had moved beyond recovery.  Not exactly comforting news, is it?

And so we plodded through our guilt-racked lives, knowing that we had failed our beloved child and yet also believing that he had sunk into a downward spiral from which there could have been no return.

(To be continued)

Image: Josh, out west on a trip with college friends.

What Is Healing, Exactly?

ankle-2

This past Tuesday, for National Suicide Prevention Week, I had a piece in the Presbyterians Today online blog.  It garnered some attention, and I discovered, after one friend and colleague had shared it, that another had posted that I demonstrated “how much healing I had been given.”

I protested the idea that I had somehow been healed, telling him that, while people long for others to be healed, that is probably not a concept that applies to the death of a child.  Not usually, anyway.  And that increased power and strength do not equate to healing.

Now I find myself wondering: What is healing,  exactly?  Does it happen?  Or is it one of those words like closure, which people insist upon so that they can believe that life is not as scary as it is?

It feels like a word of assessment, of judgment.  Have you made it?  Are you healed?  If so, then you may move forward.  If not, then you are stuck, incapable, incompetent.

I have a variety of physical scars on my body, the remains of various surgeries.  Certainly at this point my body has recovered from each of them.  My body works as well as one might expect.  I think that I would call it healed, despite the ugly, jagged and, in one case, uncomfortable, lines engraved into my skin, and the hardware and saline left behind.

I have experienced a fairly significant amount of mental and emotional trauma and loss in my life ~ several sudden and unexpected losses of very young people in my family being the cause.

Has there been healing?

I go on.  I have found success and joy , even as I have not since age seven felt the universe or its God to be particularly trustworthy.  I have pushed my children into the world, even as my anxiety about their safety has skyrocketed with every trip, every endeavor, every relationship.  I have become an outspoken advocate for suicide prevention, even as I hide my anguish when I hear about the achievements, weddings, and children of my children’s peers.

I don’t consider myself healed.  I think that there are some people who, despite severe loss, do in fact experience profound healing.  But I am a pretty ordinary person, and I don’t think it’s coming my way.

That’s ok.  I just wish that we could all be spared the judgment of others, whose words insinuate that “healed” is a state that, unless achieved, leaves us damaged and “less than.”

We “wounded healers,” as Henri Nouwen called us, are rather powerful people, if I say so myself.

 

If I Had a Hammer

A sermon for August 14, 2016:

 

So . . .  I come back from vacation, and God says that God’s word is like fire, and like a hammer, and Jesus is talking about bringing fire, and division . . .  Couldn’t we have a nice sermon week, with peaceful sheep beside still waters and admonitions to love one another, and reminders that blessed are the peacemakers?  But wait – maybe we do have these things, in disguise? Maybe not the sheep.  But let’s not dismiss these hard texts too quickly.

Let’s start with the prophet Jeremiah, who tells us that God’s word is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.  That God’s word is challenging and dangerous.

I have a special place in my heart for Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, we remember, is the prophet who was “forbidden by God to marry or to father children,” whose life which included “imprisonment, death threats, violent beatings, abandonment in a cistern, confinement in stocks, internment in a dungeon, persecution by family members, and confrontation by a false prophet.”[1]  That’s not how we imagine that a life lived faithfully should turn out, is it?  And yet many, many people find that, no sooner have they turned their lives over to God that things start to fall apart, at least from a  human point of view.

But this message of fire and rock?  Fire means many things in the Bible.[2]  Fire is a symbol of God’s presence and leadership – think about the Israelites in the desert being led by a pillar of fire.  Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit – think of the flames appearing above the heads of the people on Pentecost.  And fire is a cleansing agent – think of the words of the prophet Malachi, which most of us know from Handel’s Messiah: “But who may abideth the day of his coming? And who shall standeth when he appears? Because he is like a refiner’s fire . . .” – cleansing, purifying, leaving nothing of sin in his wake?

And a hammer – a hammer that smashes rock into pieces – a hammer which breaks apart the institutions, the political and social structures which oppress and destroy,  a hammer which sends the bits and pieces of our priorities flying — until what is left is God alone – is this perhaps the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks?

Perhaps Jeremiah had been meditating upon today’s Psalm, Psalm 82.  The setting is an ancient one, with its Hebrew idea of God sitting in God’s council of lesser gods, but the searing judgment God proclaims applies to the people of Jerusalem during the time of Jeremiah 400 years later and to the people of the world in our own time.  Listen to these verbs and to their objects:

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

How are we doing with all of this?  Are we spending our days giving justice and maintaining the right and rescuing and delivering?  Are we?  Are we looking to the weak and the orphan and the lowly and the destitute and the needy? Are we even imagining the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to inaugurate – the kingdom, the new creation, when, as another prophet tells us —  when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” [Amos]?  There might need to be a lot of purification and breaking apart before that can happen.

Can we imagine clearing – purifying – the world of the practices of big agriculture, trade deals gone wrong, markets structured to make the wealthier wealthier – so that the abundance of food produced on this planet can reach all the people who need to eat?

Can we break apart the school funding laws in Ohio, deemed unconstitutional three times by our state’s highest court, so that all of our children, those in the most affluent suburbs and those in our inner cities and those in our Appalachian foothills – all of our children will know what excellence in education means?

Can we even clear our homes of stuff that we don’t use but other people could, and can we even free our own families from the sins of the fathers and mothers, the arguments and grudges so longstanding that we don’t even know what they are about anymore?

No wonder Jesus says that he comes to bring fire and division to the earth.  No wonder!  We cannot have those gentle sheep wandering around in peaceful green pastures and we cannot experience genuine love for one another and we cannot known the blessedness of the peacemakers until the things which divide us are brought to the surface and addressed and until the fire of the Spirit’s presence takes hold and brings justice to the earth.

You know about fire in nature, right?  Years ago, our family took a trip out to Yellowstone, a couple of years after the big fires out there.  We were dismayed, of course, to see huge strands of burnt skeletons of trees where two years earlier we might have viewed vast green forests.  But so many of the exhibits we saw and the books we picked up taught us about the refining power of fire – about the need for forests to be cleared so that soil and grasses and meadows could be regenerated, so that new life could be born.  If Jesus came to bring fire, it could only be the fire of resurrection, because resurrection is what Jesus is all about.  And if Jesus came to bring division – well, we know that only too well, don’t we?  But we are assured that even in our divisiveness – so painfully experienced right now in our own election cycle, in Israel and Palestine, in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, on the borders of Russisa – God is working to create a new thing.  And Jesus came to expose it — so that God can be at work to resolve it.

So what do we do?  Paul tells us to turn to the cloud of witnesses – to turn to our foremothers and forefathers in faith, and to take them as our models of courage, of obedience, of steadfastness, of loyalty, of perseverance – in the face of refining fires and rock foundations breaking apart. We all have those people in our lives – not only the figures of the Bible, but the great figures of our own lives.  The aunt of one of my friends, a Catholic nun, died a few days ago, and my friend said that “so much of the woman I am today is because of her.”  Isn’t it interesting that this passage, about “running with perseverance the race set before us” should come up today, in the middle of the Rio Olympics?  We are reminded every day of what it takes to run – and to dive, and to tumble, and to swim – with perseverance, whether we are talking about literal Olympic competitions or about the races of our own lives.  The Olympians themselves, witneses in the diversity of their power and strength and dignity, show us what happens when barriers are broken down and the best of humanity emerges.

We have been presented with a cascade of images today: fire, both destructive and purifying; a hammer splitting rock into pieces; a court of judgment and justice, fire scorching the earth and households divided, a cloud of witnesses, and a race to be run.  It’s a lot to take in.  And in today’s world, as in the worlds of the Bible, some of those images would be dangerous in the hands of people who would hear in them justification for physical violence and destruction. But in the end, all of these metaphors are about the same thing: the love of God, which demands from us clarity, and justice, and engagement, and, ultimately, love for another.

The title of today’s sermon comes from a song which most of you probably know well.  The folksinger  Pete Seeger was a prophet for our time, and we might recognize his song, “If I Had a Hammer,” as a recapitulation of today’s readings.  It popped into my mind as soon as I read Jeremiah –

[First verse]

And God’s justice, God’s love, is a dangerous hammer, isn’t it?  God’s love splinters and burns and breaks apart our complacency, our institutions, our attitudes that further racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, violence.  We are all complicit, says Jeremiah, we are all attached to the rocks that we hold sacred – and Jesus tells us that he will destroy them, and that where the old festers, he will create anew, in the name of justice and love and peace.

By the end of his song, Pete Seeger is proclaiming that he’s got the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, and a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

And so, my friends, do we.  So do we.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

[1] Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher. August 14, 2016.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2949.

[2] David Lose, Working Preacher. August 15, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=733.

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