From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Suicide. Is there anything in the human experience more difficult to discuss than when a loved one completes suicide? If there is, I sure couldn’t think of it this week, which makes what Keith Kraft offer us all the more courageous. Rev. Keith Kraft is pastor of Mobridge UCC and a friend of mine. Four years ago, his youngest son, Ben, (who was headed to seminary) completed suicide. No obvious warning signs, just a knock on their door in the early morning one horrific day. Four years later, as I read through Keith’s poignant reflections of his darkest journey in life (made known to us in Pain Seeking Understanding), I feel deep sadness, but also gratitude for the nuanced way Keith offers a look at hope beyond this particularly difficult kind of grief.
The only indication of Ben’s depression arose in his high school years, one time explaining it to his parents as “dark places.” Clearly those dark places continued to plague him as a young adult, but if he spoke of his depression to others, no one close to the family knows about it. So in trying to wrap his head around the devastating news, Keith came back to this phrase Ben used several years prior: “dark places.” Keith references Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the earth was a formless void and a darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” He says, “It is an image of deep darkness, filled with chaos and uncertainty. It’s a frightening place, I imagine no one would ever choose to go. It sounds a lot like what Ben may have been experiencing in his “darkest places.”
The thing about creation, even in its darkest moments, it possesses the signature of God’s love. When God sweeps over the face of the uncertain waters, we come to understand that God is present, always, even when life does not seem to make sense to us. We hear again in 2 Corinthians that God is continuing this good work of creating order out of chaos: this time, through Jesus Christ. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation!” And this order out of chaos takes the form of relationships. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
What a God! Caring more about loving us than what we’ve done to not deserve that love. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Nothing will ever separate God’s love from creation again.
Keith puts it this way: “I believe and I trust that God was present with Ben when he was experiencing those “dark places.” I believe and I trust that there is not a place that we can go, physically or mentally, that God is not present with us.” After wrestling with his new identity as a father of a child who completed suicide, Keith makes one thing clear: He has no interest in entertaining the world’s ideas that suicide is shameful. Why? Because he believes in a Christ of unbounded love AND because he’s become more educated about mental illness.
First, Keith had to let go of the temptation to feel personally guilty for his son’s death. But often that process shifts focus on the person who “chose” to complete suicide; two years following Ben’s death, Keith writes of his wrestling with the notion of choice: “Is suicide really a choice, or has something inside the brain taken away that choice from the person?” Keith’s son was bright, he knew his family loved him, and in moments of rational clarity, Keith knows Ben would not have chosen death. But that’s the thing about mental illness. Last week I mentioned that depression and anxiety steal both hope and a sense of self-determination. It just so happened that Ben’s mental illness dragged him into a depth of darkness where no rational light could shine. Keith says, “I truly believe that Ben wanted to live, but there was something in his mind that took him to a place where he was robbed of that choice.”
I’m so grateful to know that Keith has been able to release shame from the already difficult emotional dynamics of losing his youngest child. I don’t know that every family is able to do this quite yet- release the shame of suicide in favor of the belief that God reconciles the whole world to himself through Christ’s extravagant love. Reconciliation is the act of bringing together. Re-uniting people with the truth of their belovedness as God’s creation. If ours is a ministry of reconciliation in the name of Christ’s love, what is our role in responding to news of suicide? Also, how do we interact with someone who’s expressed suicidal thoughts or attempts?
I’ll give you a hint. It’s the opposite of shame. The best response to someone who is experiencing such dark places is to say: “Your life matters. You make the world better simply by your place in it. We delight in your existence.” Of course we grieve that like Ben, many people do not reach out to loved ones before completing suicide. Often, however, they will. And when they do, the last thing they need is more shame dumped upon the deep shame that already exists.
The truth is, we can never fully understand suicide, but we can challenge our assumptions that suicide is selfish by taking a closer look at the untreated mental illness living in the shadows of our friends and family members. And we can tell them exactly how loved they are. And we can hold out hope that one day, those experiencing deepest darkness might begin to see the light of God’s mercy and extravagant love.
In our gospel today, the father of the prodigal son reveals this kind of love that reaches our inner core and reminds us that we belong to God no matter what.
(A poem by Raymond Carver) “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”