Archives For Life

The Anguish of Suicide

September 2, 2013 — 21 Comments

suicideI was present at the scene of a suicide last night.

In my capacity as a volunteer chaplain with a local law enforcement agency, I was riding with a police officer. We were the initial first responders to arrive.

At the end of a rather uneventful shift, we received an urgent call to respond to a shooting. Naturally, I can’t reveal any details about the event beyond mentioning it involved a firearm. It was probably terribly similar to how you would imagine it to be.

To see a life so sadly cast aside is too sad for words. Contemplating the days ahead for those who loved the deceased is sobering. Their lives will never be the same, and that is the universal legacy bequeathed to family and friends by those who end their own lives. God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis understood how despair could drive a person to contemplate this irreversible choice. In a letter to a deeply grieving husband who had lost his wife, Lewis relates how suicide would never provide a genuine resolution to the pain caused by the loss.

One way or another the thing [romantic love] had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died though both the parties went on living.

You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from us you have been led back to us and God; it remains to go on to God and us.

She was further on than you [in Christian faith], and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth.*

You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things. (A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken)

Vanauken, the recipient of the letter, had this response to Lewis’ challenging words: “After this severe and splendid letter, I loved Lewis like a brother. A brother and father combined.”

He continued by explaining how the letter had dispelled any consideration of suicide. “If I had been tempted at all to break my promise to Davy [his wife] about following her by [his] own act, the temptation vanished after one horrified look at Lewis’s ‘eternally unbridgeable chasm.’”

It will take some time for me to “process” my experience last evening. But, having seen death in the past, I found it less traumatic than many others would have.

And, of course, I never knew the person who chose to no longer breathe . . . or smile . . . or dream. I only became “acquainted” with them as I spoke to their spouse in the hours that followed. Sadly, because of a tragic choice, in this world they are merely a memory now.

Naturally, to those who knew and loved them, the vacuum created by their passing cannot be completely filled. Moreover, the wounds caused by the grim nature of their death by choice, will leave permanent scars.

The fact is that during the course of their lives, many people—quite possibly the majority of human beings—consider the possibility that suicide could end the pain they feel. But we must tirelessly remind them, and ourselves, that suicide is a permanent “solution” to temporary circumstances.**

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* Lewis is referring to the concept that the saints (i.e. all believers) currently in the presence of the Lord may have the ability to intercede on behalf of those of us who are still “living.” The best way for Protestants to understand this may be by considering this line of thought: (1) we don’t hesitate to ask our sisters and brothers in Christ to pray for us, (2) we believe that God has already given eternal life to his disciples (meaning that even the departed remain alive), thus (3) it is not illogical that children of God now in his presence would be able to intercede for us in heaven.

Traditional Protestant reticence with this understanding is based in the concept most clearly espoused in I Timothy 2:5. Lewis, of course, was a Protestant himself, but Anglicans are among the minority of Protestants who affirm this practice.

** This is not to belittle the intense agony caused by chronic emotional suffering, but I believe there is a path that leads not to death, but to healing and life. If you have suicidal feelings, I strongly encourage you to seek out a skilled Christian counselor. (Not all clergy possess the necessary training, or the faith itself, to provide an adequate lifeline in these situations.)

If you’re unable to find a pastor in your local area, you can contact me at chaplainstroud at mereinkling dot com and I will attempt to get you in touch with a compassionate minister in your local community.

csl and kingAuthor Stephen King surprised quite a few fans during a recent PBS interview when he expressed his belief in the universe’s intelligent design. In nature and the cosmos, like theist C.S. Lewis before him, he views a creation so complex and wondrous that he thinks it makes more sense to believe in a divine power than to dismiss faith.

During the interview, King said,

I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that . . . there’s no downside to that, and the downside—if you say, well, OK, I don’t believe in God, there’s no evidence of God—then you’re missing the stars in the sky, and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets, and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.

In an essay, “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis alludes to the “Theist” phase of his own life. He points out how limiting a faith that recognizes God only abstractly, in his handiwork, can be.

There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence.

To return to Pantheistic errors about the nature of this something would, for a Christian, be very bad. But once again, for “the man coming up from below” the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted.

King is, of course, far from what one would properly call a “person of faith.”** Still, it may be that he is presently moving in a positive direction. The following words reveal his yearning for hope, criticism of institutional religion, and his as yet unanswered questions about why God allows suffering in our world.

It’s certainly a subject that’s interested me, and I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we’d all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there’s going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don’t want to think that you just go to darkness. . . .

But as far as God and church and religion and . . . that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they’re saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you’re going to live forever, you’re going to go to some other plain where you’re going to be so happy, you’ll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me. . . .

Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy’s personality, the big guy’s personality. . . . What I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.

For many intelligent people, like C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, coming to faith cannot be severed from their reason. They desire to make sense of the world. Some, sadly, determine that human beings perish forever with their final breath. With that worldview, using King’s words, “you just go to darkness.”

Fortunately many others—brilliant and simple people alike, for God shows no partiality—possess true wisdom and heed the words of Jesus, that he is the way, the truth and the life. Both of these writers experienced an ineffective exposure to the church when they were young. Unfortunately, it served as more of an inoculation than a foundation.

Eventually C.S. Lewis followed that path from theism to Christianity. It’s not impossible that Stephen King may, as well.

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* A full transcript of the PBS interview is available here.

** In the interview, King “commends” the entertainment value of enthusiastic, emotionally-charged preaching, while disparaging his own mainline upbringing.

I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours. There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.

Not to be Missed

May 13, 2013 — 6 Comments

csl doodlesA recent post at the wonderful C.S. Lewis Minute blog introduced me to an amazing new way to experience the brilliance of the great author. I want to pass on the information so that you too can enjoy it.

The site is called “C.S. Lewis Doodles,” and it is the creation of a Kiwi (New Zealander) named Kalman Kingsley.

Kingsley uses a skillful artistic presentation of the clearly read original essays, to give Lewis’ words a particularly engaging and comprehensible air. It is, in a sense, C.S. Lewis “updated” to contemporary media.

Lewis himself alluded to the value of different types of media in communicating. In “Studies in Words” he says, “Language exists to communicate . . . Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available.” Of course, in this case Lewis’ words are profound—in and of themselves. However, the addition of the illustrations serves to highlight and amplify his message.

Lewis, after all, passed away nearly sixty years ago, when most homes still owned black and white televisions. Technology has advanced light years since then, and transposing Lewis’ timeless wisdom to new formats such as this is an important work worthy of the talents of innovative men and women.

C.S. Lewis Doodles is available here, but don’t head there until you finish reading this Mere Inkling post.

The YouTube “Channel” offers three essays:

“The Grand Miracle” (from a sermon about the Incarnation preached in 1945)

“The Laws of Nature” (a 1945 consideration of the interplay between Nature and prayer)

“On ‘Sexual’ Morality” (a 1963 essay entitled “We have No ‘Right to Happiness’”)

All three of these essays are found in the collection published as God in the Dock. (For Americans the last word in that title refers not to a marina, but to a courtroom.)

Because each presentation covers an entire essay, they range in length from eight to ten minutes. Nevertheless, they are so well presented that they will certainly hold your interest.

I believe Lewis would have enjoyed this presentation of his work. Had he been an artist and had access to this technology, he may have experimented with it himself. As he wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1933, his book Pilgrim’s Regress is “going to be decorated by a map on the end leaf which I had great fun in drawing the sketch for.”

You can hear (and view) Lewis’ thoughts on “the Laws of Nature,” by clicking on the image below.

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C.S. Lewis Minute is a website every true Lewis fan should be following. You can read the column I referred to—and subscribe to the blog—here.

Why War?

May 6, 2013 — 16 Comments

bulletsI recently read a profound statement penned by G.K. Chesterton. Although he was not a military veteran himself, he was absolutely on target when he wrote: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

Terrible things are happening today in Syria. Yesterday, over lunch, I “debated” one of my sons regarding the merits (and drawbacks) of American intervention in that Levantine cauldron.

He believes we can’t “stand by” while the world watches as a civil war rages around another of the world’s mad dictators. I argued the United States isn’t morally responsible to serve as the world’s guardian of peace. And, even if we as a single, fallible, divided people were accountable . . . what about the violence and injustice in so very many other places. Sudan, Myanmar (Burma), the Congo, and scores of other lands cry out for intervention on behalf of the oppressed.

There is an almost unlimited amount of injustice around the globe today. And, looking in the mirror, it’s evident we have problems to resolve right here.

Sending American troops to intervene in foreign civil wars is ugly business. Taking sides against dictators does not always provide a safer and more just world—we need look no further than the so-called Arab Spring to reveal that.

I was proud to serve my nation—and causes I believed in—during the liberation of Kuwait and the retaliation for the September 11 attacks on the United States a decade later.

I am now retired from active duty, and I’ve lived long enough to witness how little positive fruit seems to follow war.

Like C.S. Lewis, I remain persuaded that some evils are so malevolent (Hitler, for example, comes to mind) . . . that they must be confronted. As he wrote in “The Conditions for a Just War,”

If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful.

At the same time, however, war is something into which we should never rush. It demands our conscious consideration of the cost and an accurate determination that the blood spilled—include that of noncombatants inevitably caught up in the horror—is a price worth paying.

It is that question which moral men and women must debate and ponder.

“Learning in War-Time” is a brilliant essay included in the collection which goes by the name of Lewis’ speech, “The Weight of Glory.” In the essay, Lewis discusses the seriousness of war. As a combat casualty during the First World War, he vividly understood its nature.

However, as a Christian, Lewis recognized that warfare is not the worst thing that can befall a human being.

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.

Does it increase our chances of painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all.

Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it.

True. To die at enmity with God is a fearful thing. Still, even better than coming to faith during war (Lewis would surely agree), is recognizing God’s love and living a life of peace.

Searching for Water

September 27, 2012 — 5 Comments

Have you ever been truly, deeply thirsty? Parched all the way from your lips to your loins . . . scorched like a desiccated crustacean who didn’t quite scurry back to the retreating tides quickly enough.

If you have, you know how savory—how gloriously life giving—a simple drink of water can be. In fact, when you experience thirst like this and take that first quenching swallow, there is nothing else like it in the world.

In those rare moments of dire yearning and satisfaction, we understand how water is utterly vital to life. All the treasures and honors of this world would be meaningless, if they were intended to substitute for that most basic human necessity.

I was pondering the importance of water as I examined the photograph above. The Mars rover Curiosity took it. NASA considers the outcrop here to be the edge “of an ancient streambed.” Rounded rocks, which would presumably have been shaped as they tumbled along “vigorous” creeks or rivers, support that notion. The quest transpiring across our solar system this very hour is nothing less than a search for evidence of life on that arid planet

Water, of course, is necessary to life “as we know it.” Thus the vast significance of the discovery.

Jesus of Nazareth was talking one day with a woman of Samaria. He brashly said of the water she was drawing from a well that dated back to the days of the Patriarch Jacob: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Because we are inescapably bound to water, it carries tremendous power as a simile or metaphor. C.S. Lewis used it quite effectively in the following passage. In it, he is discussing the true value of performing religious exercises, even when they do not bring us joy or a conscious sense of renewal. As usual, Lewis uses vivid imagery to communicate profound truth.

When we carry out our “religious duties” we are like
people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready. . . . There are happy moments, even now, when a trickle creeps along the dry beds; and happy souls to whom this happens often. (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms).

I’m saddened by the number of people (especially those with a family legacy of faith) who succumb to the secular philosophies of our materialistic world. They surrender to the world’s hedonistic proclamation that personal happiness is the greatest good! They are ultimately destined to find their souls withered and wasted by the waterless doctrines they embrace.

The worst part of it all is that the water is right in front of us all, offered freely to each of us. We don’t need to commission any expensive interplanetary projects to seek it out. We don’t need to try to be “good enough” to deserve it. All we need do is accept the gift, priceless though it is.

After the seriousness of my last couple of posts, I hoped to come up with an “uplifting” theme for my latest reflection. And, lo and behold, God provided a perfect picture.

My photograph (through a glass door) doesn’t do justice to his living portrait of peace. Still, I thought some of you who recalled my initial post on the brand new fawns that pranced past my office months ago would enjoy seeing how they have grown.

Mom has them munching on the overgrown grass and clover in our back yard. (My wife says we can alternate mowing the yard, one-half each week. I argue that the deer may want to bring along friends and we wouldn’t want them disappointed by a mower-stunted banquet.)

When I see such peaceful creatures, I long for the new heaven and earth when the lion shall like down with the lamb. To see the harmony God originally designed—to touch and to taste it—is one of the reasons that Narnia resonates to strongly with many of our souls.

C.S. Lewis was a lover of nature. Nature walks were a fundamental part of his life’s regimen. And, Lewis recognized there is a danger in looking to Nature herself for life’s meaning. In The Four Loves he wrote “Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us.”

In the same essay he elaborates on how the bliss communicated by Nature is only fully experienced by those who look beyond it, to its divine Source.

Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten nothing will happen to you. (The Four Loves).

I looked out the window today, grateful to God for the majesty of the mountains that grace the horizon. With that prayerful, thankful and receptive heart, I found my expectations in that moment far exceeded . . . swept aside as a trifle in a maelstrom . . . as I gazed upon the purity and peace of our three precious visitors.

The Brevity of Life

August 22, 2012 — 12 Comments

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow! (Psalm 39:4-6, ESV).

I was reminded this week of that terrible cloud that hangs over all humanity . . . the brevity of our lives.

The Psalmist David lived a long life. Yet, during it he experienced great trials, some of which he failed. In this Psalm, he describes the vast gap between God and his creation.

Even human beings, created in the Lord’s very image so that we might worship him and live in fellowship with him for all time . . . even we human beings, because of sin, are destined to perish. We all die.* It is one of very few certainties that exist; as Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The Bible can sound almost depressing when touching on the theme of life’s swift passage. But if we begin to despair, we have entirely missed the purpose of these verses. They are simply there to remind us of our utter dependence on God.

We must not trust in the pagan wishful thinking of the “immortality of the soul,” apart from its Creator. Nor should we deny God’s presence and surrender to the belief that there is no existence beyond this life. The latter is a particularly sad “religion,” or worldview. And like all beliefs, it requires “faith” (trust) to believe there is no afterlife. C.S. Lewis described that fact in a 1956 epistle included in Letters to Children.

People do find it hard to keep on feeling as if you believed in the next life: but then it is just as hard to keep on feeling as if you believed you were going to be nothing after death. I know this because in the old days before I was a Christian, I used to try.

The message of the Scriptures is not for us to bemoan the fact that we will die, and that our days in this world are brief. On the contrary, God’s word paints this picture vividly, with the sharp colors of reality (rather than numbing pastels of euphemisms) because it is vital that we understand how this life is merely a prelude to the life that follows.

I began this post by saying I’d recently been reminded of death’s immanence. Last year I had written a brief letter to Calvin Miller, the anointed author I quoted in my previous meditation. He graciously responded. Well, it dawned on me that he might enjoy reading my comments about The Philippian Fragment, so I wrote him again four days ago. I had not heard back, and eagerly awaited his reaction . . . only to learn yesterday that Dr. Miller had passed away two days after I wrote to him.

While I was saddened (on behalf of his family and fans) to hear of his death, I recognize that he is already experiencing a more abundant and true life this very moment, than any he could ever know here. Still, I wish I’d written to him just a few days earlier, since I’m curious what he might have thought about my modest words on the subject of compassionate ministry.

Since we began with a Psalm of David despairing about the brevity of human life, it is fitting to end with another song penned by the same royal composer. Once again he acknowledged the shortness of our lives. But here, he makes it very clear that due to God’s immeasurable love for his children, we have an “everlasting” destiny, which will never end. His children by faith, who have trusted in his only begotten Son, already possess the gift of eternal life. And we will experience it fully after the resurrection, when we have discarded this fallen shell and been clothed in our new body.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:15-19, ESV).

* For theological clarification, it is possible for God to raise someone to heaven without dying (e.g. Elijah), and those who are still living when Christ returns in the Parousia, will not have to experience physical death.