Shining Light on Suicide

March 26, 2017

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
The 4th Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41; Psalm 23

When I was growing up my twin sister and I often had slumber parties to celebrate our birthday. One of these in particular stands out in my memory – the summer we turned 13.

After playing games and eating dinner and cake, it came time for lights-out, though that never meant eyes-closed. When the room got dark, the real stuff began, you know, ghost stories, séances, and in my day, the ever popular “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” This is when the whole group gathered around one willing party-goer who laid in the center, as we called upon spirits from beyond to assist us to lift her using only two fingers.

That year, in the wee hours of the morning, amid these mystical endeavors, the phone rang. One of our friends had a premonition that it was probably bad news… not really a stretch in hindsight, but at the time we gave her full creds as the enlightened one.

Sure enough, the next morning my parents called me and my siblings into their room. Their somber expressions caused me to wonder if my Grandma Caldwell had died. She was elderly and had already had several heart attacks. So, you can imagine my surprise when they shared that our cousin Carl was the one who had died. He was in training with the Air Force. His roommate had found him, seemingly asleep on the sofa, in their base-camp apartment. Carl was one day shy of his 19th birthday, and in two weeks he was supposed to get married.

The initial details of his death were sketchy, at best. So, in the weeks that followed, I probed further, asking my mom if they knew how Carl died. At some point, she shared that they thought it could have been suicide. I’m not sure she used the actual word – suicide.  It isn’t easily said in western culture – or any culture, for that matter.

When speculating about why Carl might have taken his own life, I learned that it was probably because he realized he was gay. The burden of that self-discovery, amid his impending marriage and his career choice, was insurmountable. While issues of sexual orientation can still be difficult for teens to navigate, it was surely even more so in 1976.

The memory of Carl’s death is particularly present with me this week because on Tuesday I attended a Suicide Prevention class for clergy. At the outset, we learned that over 44,000 people each year die by suicide. Imagine this: if two planes flew into the Twin Towers each month for a full year, we still wouldn’t reach the number of people that die from suicide. On average, there are 121 suicides each day. What’s more, for every death by suicide, there are 25 attempts. These statistics are staggering.

What’s more staggering is that this is new information to most of us. Suicide is an unseen, un-talked-about killer. If we dared to see it, we’d be addressing it as the Public Health issue that it is. Like when the H1N1 virus broke out, we taught people to wash their hands and cough or sneeze into their elbow, and the virus disappeared. So, we can learn! We’ve added CPR training in schools, businesses, and everywhere. We have signs in restaurants showing how to do the Heimlich maneuver when someone is choking. By contrast, we are not taking seriously this very serious threat of suicide in our midst. Most of us can’t even say the word in a sentence without considerable effort.

Admittedly, I was one who was worried that if I asked someone who was in distress if they have been thinking about suicide, I thought I would somehow be planting a seed. But, in truth, I now realize that the seed is already there in many, many among us. So, by asking that question in a caring and compassionate way, “have you been thinking about suicide?” we actually invite trust, and create an opportunity for intervention. We become the first responder, like the one offering CPR or using the Heimlich maneuver.

Many are under the impression that suicide is highest among youth. While these do account for almost 25% of suicides each year, most are by adults between the age of 45 and 64. The next highest is adults over 85, and third is the 65 to 84 age group. 7 out of 10 suicides are by men – mostly white men, yet women actually attempt suicide at higher rates than men.

So, what’s behind all this?

There are two primary causes of suicide –

  • Loss of hope and
  • Loss of social connection.

collageWhen we consider that, it begins to make sense that women in their 50s are at higher risk. This is often when they experience the empty nest and menopause. Their identity and sense of purpose gets lost, and their social network disappears.

When we consider that rates are higher for men in their mid-60s, this is when retirement often begins. Their social network is gone, as is the role that’s defined them for decades, and their financial picture becomes less clear.

And while teens have always faced challenges navigating adolescence, including grasping their sexuality and gender identity, now with social media, cyber-bullying creates a 24/7 risk that preys on the vulnerable.

  • Loss of hope and
  • Loss of social connection.

So, when I think about our context in church, isn’t hope and social connection what we are all about? Aren’t these OUR THINGS? Are we not people of hope?! Aren’t we a place of connection and community? If so, doesn’t this make us ideal first responders?

When we turn to theology around suicide, we tend to gravitate toward the story of Judas as the quintessential suicide image in the Bible. Yet, he did repent and tried to make restitution before his anguish and guilt led him to take his own life. And while this is the familiar image for many Christians, the Bible has many incidents of death by suicide, done for various reasons. It also contains many images of suicidal desperation – that is, conditions that make suicidal thinking and risk of suicide higher.

Job has moments of suicidal thoughts – which considering his hardships and feeling of abandonment by God, make sense. Jonah says he’d rather die than see the people of Nineveh saved by God.

And in today’s Old Testament reading, Saul is mentioned. Just before this passage, we learned that he had not fully obeyed God when dealing with the Amalekites, and was going to be replaced as the king of the Israelites. Today’s passage shows the process of Samuel finding David as the new king. So, Saul has lost his role, his place and purpose. And immediately following today’s reading, after David is anointed, it says –

Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you… command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’ (1 Sam 16:14-16)

This passage provides a view of what someone who is in suicidal desperation might look like. And, surprisingly, it says the tormenting spirit is from God, not an evil one. So, if we can embrace that, we are better able to remove the judgement and shame that often keeps those in distress from sharing that they are having suicidal thoughts.

The passage also shows what a compassionate and faithful response might look like. His servants don’t look the other way, but acknowledge that Saul is struggling. They then partner with him to find relief. It’s David, the newly anointed shepherd-king, who is called to play the lyre that provides relief. It says –

And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him. (1 Sam 16:21b, 23)

Restored hope. Restored social connection.

In the spirit of full disclosure, at the end of the first book of Samuel, after losing his three sons in battle, and losing the fight against the Philistines, Saul, having been badly wounded himself, fell on his own sword, dying by suicide. And even so, what was the response when the Israelites learned of his death? We are told –

“all the valiant men set out, travelled all night long, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons… They came to Jabesh and burned them there. Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted for seven days. (1 Sam 31:12-13)

They paid tribute to Saul, adhering to their Hebrew tradition. They buried his ashes under a tamarisk tree, which represents Abraham’s faithfulness to God. And they fasted for seven days – they sat Shiva – the Hebrew tradition after the death of a loved one.

In the end, regardless of how Saul died, even death by suicide, God’s grace was not withheld from him.

Psalm 23 reminds us that –

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;  A PROMISE OF HOPE.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. A PROMISE OF CONNECTION.

The message from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we are –

to live as children of light… everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

By allowing the shadow of suicide to be replaced by the light of awareness, compassion and careful assistance, we allow Christ’s light to shine on those in need.

I pray we can be God’s children of light.


I invite your thoughts and insights.

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