(Preached at Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist Church, 13 December 2014)
Turn in your Bible to the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30. 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.
A few weeks ago we had something happen here, in this space, that I’ve never seen happen before. It was during our time for prayer requests. Three people in a row stood up with stories related to suicide. The cumulative effect of those three stories stunned this church. Looks of shock were on all faces. I stood up, and gave a quick lesson in suicide intervention, then and there. And lots of you, as you left the church that day, said to me, “You must preach on this the next time you are in the pulpit.”
I almost didn’t. I wrote another sermon. And then, last night, I was following discussion on Twitter about efforts to get a military suicide prevention bill passed by the Senate. The bill had been written in honor of Clay Hunt. Clay was a Marine from Houston. After he got out, he and some buddies founded Team Rubicon, a veterans organization that responds to disasters. He appeared in a public service ad encouraging veterans to seek help if they had suicidal thoughts. He wanted to help his buddies. But he, too, had PTSD. He had survivor’s guilt from seeing friends die, while he lived. And on March 31, 2011, in his Houston apartment, he ended his life at the age of 28.
In April of this year I was asked to give the invocation at a veterans run in Memorial Park in honor of Clay. Several veterans organizations were present. Mayor Parker was present. Clay’s friends were present. It was a Sabbath morning, and the person who invited me apologized for pulling me from church. I told them, the veterans community is my church now.
So I was interested in this bill before the Senate last night. It had bi-partisan support. But one man held up the vote. One Senator—Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. A medical doctor. And he went home to bed last night without letting the Senate even discuss it.
I was angry. And I wondered, why won’t a medical doctor talk about this? And I thought, I can talk about it. I remembered that you had asked me to speak about suicide sometime, so I put aside the other sermon (I’ll post it online) and I came back to this.
It’s important that we talk about suicide. Because it is not just a military issue. Not just a veteran issue. Not just an American issue.
I recently read a report from the World Health Organization that helps to put suicide in a global perspective. Because it is a global problem. It is a global epidemic. Each year, throughout the world, 800,000 people die each year from suicide. That’s the population of Austin, and of Fort Worth.
Compare that with Ebola. Since 1976, Ebola has killed a little over 8600 people around the world. About 6500 of those have died in the current outbreak. And we treat it like a major crisis, and for several months it was on the news every day. Yet Suicide kills 800,000 people each year, every year, throughout the world. 40,000 in the United States. 22 veterans a day—8000 a year. But it doesn’t register—until someone we know dies.
But we need to talk about it. For only by talking about it will we be prepared to do something about it—if a loved one is tempted, or a friend, or a co-worker. Or if we are tempted.
The text I read a moment ago from Deuteronomy presents an invitation from God. A choice. Choose, he says, between life or death. And he pleads to Israel, “Choose life.” 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.
Part of my role as an Army chaplain is to help people make that choice. And to teach others to be helpers. You don’t have to be a professional to help someone. You don’t have to be a pastor, or a chaplain, or a psychiatrist, or a social worker. You just have to care. You just need enough knowledge to provide first aid. Specialists are good. Pastors, psychiatrists, social workers—all are good. But tell me—if you had a heart attack right now, who would be most useful to you RIGHT NOW—a heart surgeon, or someone who knows CPR? The person who knows CPR. So I’m going to teach you a little CPR to help people in crisis.
In some of the trainings I do [ASIST, from LivingWorks], we speak about suicide as a river. Imagine how a river begins up in the mountains, with little streams, little creeks, some of which go nowhere, but some join together to form a river. Those little streams represent the issues we have in life. We have all kinds of struggles—work, family, financial. Most are petty. Most get resolved. But sometimes they grow.
Now imagine that river going down through a valley until it comes to a dam. And that dam holds its waters back, and helps regulate the flow of water. That dam represents the things in our life that help us cope with stress, that give us resilience. But imagine now a storm blows in, and the rain comes down, and the water level rises. And some of it goes over that dam, and now the river is very deep, and very wide, and very dangerous. Sometimes crises come that overwhelm us. We have a lot of things that can protect us, a lot of strengths and protections in our lives, but some people find their crises too great, and they go over the dam. And now they are in that dangerous river. That’s the person who is now thinking about suicide.
But that’s not the worst part. There’s a waterfall up ahead. And if you are in the water, you risk getting swept over the waterfall, and dashed on the rocks below. In this analogy, that represents making a suicide attempt, resulting in harm, or death.
What can you do if you are standing on the river bank, and you see someone in the river? If you come across someone who is thinking of suicide? We call that intervention. Or suicide first aid.
The simplest form of our Army suicide intervention training goes by the acronym, ACE. Ask, Care, Escort.
The first word is ASK. If you see something wrong, if you see some warning signs, you need to ask the person, plain and simply, Are you thinking about suicide?
What might be a warning sign? Someone could speak of ending it all. They might give away their possessions. They might be depressed—and this could cause them to look or act differently, not taking care of themselves as they normally do, not take pleasure in things they once enjoyed. If you see things like that, ASK plainly and simply, Are you thinking about suicide? You can’t beat around the bush. You need to ask directly, “Are you thinking about suicide.” Because that’s what they need to talk about. It’s OK to ask. It can be a relief to the person at risk. It 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.
What kinds of things might make someone think about suicide? Most are depressed. Now, not every depressed person will think about suicide. But most people who think about suicide are depressed. Why? Usually they’ve experienced a loss of some kind. Loss of a relationship. Loss of a job. Loss of hopes and dreams. Loss of the will to live. Whatever it is, they have a story to tell. You need to listen to them. Give them the chance to let out all the stuff they’ve been holding in.
And along they way, they might mention what has kept them from doing it up to this point. Maybe their belief in God. Maybe their concern for a loved one. Maybe just the hope that things might get better. They are torn between life and death, and you need to listen to both the things troubling them, and the things that have helped keep them alive. And you care for them by listening for and supporting that part of them that wants to live. You don’t need to solve their problems. You just need to help them keep safe for now.
And how to do you that? First word was ASK. Second was CARE. Third and final one is ESCORT. 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 we teach in the Army—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.
It was only recently that 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.
I asked my fellow chaplains about their experiences. Those still serving had similar stories to mine. But one Adventist chaplain who retired in 2002 after 30 years 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. People have less resilience. And many are losing hope. Return to our Scripture reading from Matthew 24:3-13. What will things be like in the last days? Fear. Confusion. Deception. Despair. War and rumors of war. Conflict. Betrayal. “And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.” What a world to live in. We could point to lots of signs of the times—signs in the heavens and the earth, signs in the nations. Those are the usual things we mention when we speak of prophecy. But I think the greatest problem today is that we live in a world of confusion and fear, where people cannot find love—and without love, they have no hope.
That’s where we have a role.
We have been called by God to be a people of hope. We sing, “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 want to get the soul to heaven; he doesn’t merely point us to future happiness, but he 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.
But none of this matters, none of it will be heard, if we are not a people that love. A people that care.
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 those who suffer from it.
Before I finish, there’s one more question I need to address. It’s the issue that every Christian ponders. And that is, what of the person who dies by suicide? What is their fate?
You know, the Bible never addresses it directly. The Bible knows people who died by suicide, including Judas, and King Saul. It presents them as having despaired. The Bible also talks about Samson, who pulled down a temple onto the enemy and lost his own life in the process. But the Bible never says, “This is their fate.”
I reflect, though, on the story of Lazarus. What did Jesus do when a friend of his died? He wept. And then he called him forth. Lazarus didn’t die by suicide of course—but it shows Jesus as one who grieves with us—but unlike us, in his grief he has the power to do what we cannot.
I gave a sermon at a memorial service for a soldier who died by suicide. He had many struggles. He had chronic pain, from too many parachute jumps and ruck marches. He was diagnosed with multiple slerosis, and was deteriorating. He had a thyroid tumor, as well. And when his kids were at their grandparents and his wife was at a retreat, he ended his life.
I preached on a text from Hebrews 4:14-16:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
That’s the heart of the message of this Christmas season. God did not address the problem of sin by sitting on his throne and unleasing thunderbolts like the pagan god, Zeus. He sent his only-begotten Son, who took on human flesh, became fully man, sharing all our weakness, all our temptations. So that he could not only save us, but so that he could understand us, and empathize with us, and judge us with compassion. And so I will not judge. I do not know the struggles. I do not know the mental health issues or the physical issues that may have affected their reason or their feelings. I will weep, and I will trust them to the loving Jesus.
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, Your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. 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.