Choose Life

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses addresses the children of Israel as their wilderness wanderings come to a close.

Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 19

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

I set before you life and death—choose life.

I thought of this passage a couple of weeks ago when I saw a “tweet” from Annual Council mentioning a devotion Peter Landless gave. He drew attention to a report from the World Health Organization about the global problem of suicide. And he suggested we see suicide prevention as an important part of a comprehensive approach to healthful living.

For God is the author of life. He wants us to have life, and to have it more abundantly. He wants us to enjoy life. When faced with a choice between life and death, God wants us to choose life.

I am grateful to Peter for highlighting the issue of suicide, because it is something we don’t like to talk about. And by “we” I mean all of us—it’s a human thing, this aversion. And yet the problem is global in scope, with over 800,000 people dying each year from suicide.

Compare that with Ebola. Since 1976, Ebola has killed a little over 6500 people around the world. About 5000 of those have died in the current outbreak. And we treat it like a major crisis, and it is on the news every day. Yet Suicide kills 800,000 people each year, every year, and it doesn’t register—until someone we know dies.

We know it is out there, but it is one of those things like whooping cough that you don’t think of until it affects you. Like it affected my church a few weeks ago. We have a time for prayer requests in our worship service. An elder walks around with a microphone, and the worshippers have a chance to ask for specific prayers. On this Sabbath someone stood up and asked for prayer for their family. A family member had died by suicide.

The next person stood up, and asked for prayer for their family. One of their family members had attempted suicide, but lived.

A third person stood up to ask for prayer for a family member who was considering suicide, and crying out for help.

The cumulative effect of those three stories stunned the church. Looks of shock were on all faces.

I stood up, and gave a quick lesson in suicide intervention, then and there. It’s one of the things I do as an Army chaplain, and I’ve done it so many times now it’s in what we call muscle memory.

The simplest form of our suicide intervention training goes by the acronym, ACE. Ask, Care, Escort.

If you see something wrong, if someone speaks of ending it all, or giving away their possessions, or they are looking or acting differently, not taking care of themselves as they normally do, ASK plainly and simply, Are you thinking about suicide? Asking directly gives them permission to talk about suicide.

Next, show them you CARE. Show them you are willing to talk about suicide. You aren’t going to lecture them, you are going to listen. You’re going to listen to their story of what brought them to this point–why they are thinking about it. And you’re going to listen for those things that have kept them from doing it up to this point. They are torn between life and death, and you are there to hear both, and to support that part of them that wants to live, to help keep them safe for now.

And you keep them safe by ESCORTing them to help, whether a pastor, a counselor, an emergency room. You don’t leave them alone. Once again, it is ACE: Ask, Care, Escort.

That’s the simplest version—I also teach a two day suicide intervention workshop. I have been doing a lot of teaching in recent years—and my teaching becomes more real, and the topic more urgent, each time I do an intervention. And each time I lose a friend.

The World Health Organization report that Peter introduced highlights the increasing number of young people in their late teens and 20s who suicide. That’s the age range of the college students and the soldiers and veterans who have been the focus of my ministry for over 25 years.

But only recently did suicide become a major part of my ministry. 2012 stands out. In that year I did 12 suicide interventions. I did two casualty notifications that year, and both were suicides. I accompanied another officer who had the responsibility to inform the next of kin that their son, their daughter, had died. And also in 2012 two soldiers I knew died by suicide.

In the midst of this, Deena Wagner asked me to write an article for our magazine, God and Country, about suicide, and I started by asking my fellow chaplains about their experiences. Those still serving had similar stories to mine. But one chaplain, Darold Bigger, who retired in 2002 as a one star admiral, after a long career culminating as deputy chief of Navy Chaplains, never encountered a single suicide and did no suicide interventions in his entire career.

So something’s changing. It isn’t just our military deployments, though we have all been worn down by those. It’s something broader, and it affects all of our society, and societies around the world. Something is changing, and people have less resilience. And many are losing hope.

And that’s where we have a role. We have been called by God to be a people of hope. We have this hope that burns within our hearts. Hope in the coming of the Lord.

And we have a health message that says God doesn’t merely point us to the future, but offers hope now for a life full of purpose. Health reform isn’t about merely avoiding some foods or some habits, it is about choosing life, and the author of life.

And above all we have a Gospel message that says to the man or woman weighed down by sin, and overcome with guilt and regret–you are forgiven, and you are set free through the blood of Jesus Christ. You are not alone, but have an intercessor, and your name is written on his hands.

My role as a chaplain is to be a minister of hope. And that’s your role, too.

And if we do as I suggest—if we ask about people’s hurts, if we care for them, if we refuse to let go of them–we’ll not only help address the problem of suicide, we’ll also be addressing a lot of other needs and hurts. We’ll hear the cries of our neighbors. We will hear the cries of our veterans, and our service members. We will hear the cries of our young people. We will talk openly about mental illness, especially depression—and we will care for our pastors who suffer from it.

We get distracted by so many things. So many debates and issues and problems and concerns and fears. We aren’t that different from the children of Israel who stood before Moses.

Which way will we look—to the past, and the times we tripped and fell? To the present, with its uncertainties and questions? Or to the future, and the hope our Lord holds out for us?

Recall these words penned by Annie Smith:

I saw one weary, sad, and torn,
With eager steps press on the way,
Who long the hallowed cross had borne,
Still looking for the promised day;
While many a line of grief and care,
Upon his brow, was furrowed there;
I asked what buoyed his spirits up,
“O this!” said he—“the blessèd hope.”

Let us pray:

Lord of life, and God of hope,
Lift our drooping steps, and brighten our darkened sight. Revive us and console us with the hope that set our pioneers upon the path we still journey along. May we be agents of hope, and messengers of peace, we pray, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.