Archives For Mercy

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.

Theological Training

October 31, 2012 — 20 Comments

I’m proud I graduated from a well-respected seminary. And I’m proud of following that Master of Divinity degree with an advanced Master of Theology degree in Patristics. And that’s precisely the problem . . . I’m proud.

As a Christian, I recognize that pride is one of the most destructive and insidious sins. As a pastor and chaplain, I have seen all too frequently how pride expressly targets members of the clergy. Our vulnerability to the temptation to be proud is one of the common chinks in the armor of the ordained.

C.S. Lewis recognized this fact. In A Severe Mercy, he wrote:

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man. St. Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I shd. have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation; and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap. . . .

In fact, the change [to a Christian ministry] might do good or harm. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by. On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making. The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology wd. do. Mind, I’m not certain: but that is the view I incline to.

Lewis understood that “advancement” in ecclesiastical contexts can mask the inner heart and be mistaken as a form of holiness when it is in actuality vanity. I was reminded of this weakness in clerical armor recently, when I read a tribute to a Chinese Christian whose name is little known beyond his homeland. Dr. Sun Yi-yin, known in America as “Freddie Sun,” died in August at the age of 76. A professor of Geology, he lost his faculty position for failing to deny Christ.

Like thousands of other Christians living under the atheist regime, he was imprisoned for his work in establishing churches and Bible schools. He raised the funds to start no fewer than 154 of these training centers, and was key to the equipping of approximately 60,000 underground pastors and teachers. The “underground” Church in China is distinguished from the government-controlled “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

For his labors, Sun endured a decade in a Chinese labor camp. (His wife, Dorothy Chang, was also imprisoned. Rather than reducing his faith, during his sojourn in the harshest of conditions, Sun experienced a personal revival and his zeal increased.

His story is amazing, but here is the aspect that hit the mark in the center of my conscience. In his autobiography, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.”

Now, I am grateful that God has preserved me from the “fiery furnace,” but I do long to experience the fruit of the spirit that Sun so richly harvested in prison. While not dismissing the importance of the classical subjects of homiletics and hermeneutics, as the Apostle says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV).

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis’ treatise on suffering, he addresses how God can redeem terrible things such as unjust punishments. For those desiring to understand how an omnipotent God can allow evil to occur, Lewis’ presentation is quite helpful. And, the life example of Dr. Sun provides a superb example of its validity.

I advance six propositions necessary to complete our account of human suffering which do not arise out of one another and must therefore be given in an arbitrary order. 1. There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity. Blessed are the poor, but by ‘judgement’ (i.e., social justice) and alms we are to remove poverty wherever possible. Blessed are we when persecuted, but we may avoid persecution by flying from city to city, and may pray to be spared it, as Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane.

But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided? I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.

Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse—though by mercy it may save—those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

I thank God for the life and testimony of Sun. I pray God will reap an abundance of believers in China, and elsewhere, due to his faithfulness. And I thank God for using Sun’s words to cause me to stop in the midst of my busy activities and take the time to examine my own heart and motives.

On Death’s Specter

May 14, 2012 — 8 Comments

Death is an unpleasant subject. And the knowledge that each of us is destined to face our own, has the potential to overshadow the countless joys this life offers.

Virtually everyone reading this has lost a loved one to death . . . and some reading this may have been informed by doctors that their own days may be limited. If you find yourself counting down in years, months, or weeks, may God strengthen you and pour upon you an overflowing portion of his divine peace. The Scriptures refer to God’s peace in circumstances of great personal trial as a “peace which passes understanding.” And that is precisely what I pray he provides for you.

Those of us who are Christians find ourselves in a bit of a tension. We believe in Jesus’ resurrection, and his promise to raise us to new life as well. So, in that sense death is a defeated “enemy.” It no longer has the final word. In fact, passing through the portal of death actually allows us to enter into the presence of the Lord! Nevertheless, we dread the prospect of dying. Too seldom do people pass peacefully in their sleep.

C.S. Lewis experienced an illness which brought him near to death. Yet he recovered . . . with mixed feelings. Five weeks before his death he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves:

Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

The reason we should no longer fear death is because it has no power over those whose sins have been borne by the Messiah. Those who have not experienced this grace may rightfully fear the day of accounting that awaits humanity. Jesus invites all people—even the most sinful and vile people we can imagine—to yield to him and trade their inheritance of death for his righteousness and the gift of eternal life.

That means there is nothing that you have done that is so evil God cannot forgive it. Simply ask him to.

One way this experience of salvation is described in the Bible is as a resurrection. Jesus said to one of his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life ‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’” (John 11:25). Jesus is distinguishing between the two deaths. Physical, where this finite body fails . . . and spiritual death, where those who have ignored God’s mercy spend eternity separated from it.

Another aspect of this transformation is found in the fact that through conversion we die to the power of sin over us, and participate (even in this physical life) in Christ’s resurrected life. (Baptism is a “sign” of this, as the immersion is “burial” and rising from the waters is rebirth.) As Paul of Tarsus assures believers: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8).

C.S. Lewis bluntly put it this way: “Die before you die. There is no chance after that.” (Till We Have Faces).

Which brings us to the peculiar image above. It comes from some classical text and whenever I’ve encountered it over the years, I’ve always considered it rather odd that the illustrator decided to portray this skeleton in the posture of prayer. It’s actually a bit disconcerting, since death and decay have nothing to do with our Lord who is the way, the truth and the life.

If we haven’t said our prayers in this mortal life, as Lewis reminds us, we will lack the voice and opportunity to do so in the next.

Besides, knowing Christ is not something with benefits only in the next life. Walking through life in his light makes our days here all the more pleasant and joyful. As I look back on my own life I recognize numerous ways in which his hand directed my path. Had I lived for my own selfish appetites the person I would be today would little resemble the Christian me. Thank God that he delivered me from becoming that man.

How Precious You Are

March 23, 2012 — 7 Comments

God loves you.

It doesn’t matter how loveable, or unloveable you are, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether you praise his Name or deny his existence, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you love him. You can even hate him . . . but he still loves you.

Doesn’t make sense to our fallen human reason, but it’s true. One of the amazing revelations of the Christian Scriptures is that God loves each and every one of the people he has created.

Every human being is unique, and each is precious to God. Whether you feel like it or not . . . whether you feel undeserving or (far more dangerously) you think you are a pretty “good” person . . . you are precious to him.

I find it intriguing how some manmade religions and philosophies consciously downplay the uniqueness of each person. What is clearly evidence of God’s infinite creativity—the glorious diversity of men and women the world over—is seen as something odd. A cosmic fluke to be remedied when all essence returns to the amorphous and undifferentiated “whole.”

The elimination of what makes you and me precisely who we are, seems to be the goal of some of these worldviews. But deep within each of our souls we know that this pursuit is wrong. It’s alien to the core of our existence. Loss of identity is, in a phrase, not that for which we were created. You and I were made for a different purpose. And our distinctive personalities (and even our quirks) in this one-time-in-all-creation combination, are no accident.

In his treatise on why suffering exists, C.S. Lewis offers a powerful glimpse into the singularity of our souls. He argues that Christ’s sacrifice was no generic or blanket wonder. Rather, it was a divinely individualized miracle. Listen to Lewis:

The signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why, He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.

For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction. The Brocken spectre ‘looked to every man like his first love’, because she was a cheat. But God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.)

I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism. And I think I just may address that distinction in my next post.

Christians may cease reading here.

A personal and sincere note to any unbelievers reading this column. I’m not writing this to offend you, or to push any of the buttons that may be holdovers from your days in restrictive or destructive religious settings.

If you’ve never believed, I encourage you to tune out the voices (on both sides of the issue). Go directly to the primary account(s) of Jesus’ life and read them. (There are four “Gospel” accounts of his ministry, but I encourage you to first read the Gospel according to Saint John.) Any of your Christian friends would be eager to offer you a copy of the Bible for no cost, but it’s also available for free download at various sites. For example, here you can download an entire Bible in English Standard Version (ESV) for free.

If you once believed, but have laid your faith aside, I don’t want to offer guilt. Instead, listen to this promise of grace. Just as the father of the Prodigal Son was always awaiting the return of his child, the same joyous welcome home awaits you. If ever you desire to return home, know with certainty that he’ll welcome you again, not as a servant or second class citizen, but as his son or daughter. And you’ll hear the words from that parable proclaimed over you: “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother [or sister] was dead, and is alive; they were lost, and are found.” (Luke 15:32).