Dealing with Death and Suicide on Gaudete Sunday

Sudden death gut punches us with the dreaded reality that life will never be the same. This Sunday is going to be especially difficult for one church and several families this year. I just received a report that a wonderful elderly couple was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. They were both great people, and people of faith. I don’t know all of the details, as if anyone can, but the report thus far suggests that declining health may have led to this drastic decision. I hurt for their families and desperately hurt for these precious people.

How can anyone who believes in Christmas joy and Easter resurrection see these terrible acts as a viable option in the face of life’s difficulties? Death at one’s own hand flies in the face of the joy and hope that we Christians profess. I personally know life is difficult, but there is no easy way out for anyone in these situations. The survivors of such actions are scarred for life, including the generations that follow. There are palliative methods to ease life’s burdens through the comfort of family, friends, the church, and hospice, without the necessity of such desperate action.

Certainly I don’t think that suicide is an unpardonable sin. I have known situations where people simply could not see beyond their hands, so to speak. The darkness so fully enveloped them that poor decisions were made. They were momentarily out of their best minds or thinking to a degree, and if human courts let people off due to temporary insanity, how much more will the courts of heaven? God is a God of grace and mercy and that is my firm hope in this situation, and there is little else to go on in this bewildering time. A decision was made, whether with rational culpability or irrational nonsense, and lives and families have been shattered. Who in their right mind would want people to remember the circumstances of their death instead of all the years of faith, good deeds, and positive character traits? It just doesn’t make sense, and I guess that’s the point. We will never know the whole story so we’re left wondering and crying.

I just wish that I and others might have picked up on the warning signs, and somehow my mind keeps debating if Christianity as a whole has let such people down. Instead of encouraging an endurance that comes from hope and a joy that is not dependent on circumstances, we have often taught people to count on themselves for supposed solutions. The essence of the Christian faith is to count on God, but we are either too distracted by the world or prosperity-Gospel advocates to know that band-aids and panaceas only mask pain, not defeat it.

Although specifically difficult for grieving families, this coming Sunday is still Gaudete Sunday, otherwise known as “Joy Sunday” with its pink candle on the Advent Wreath.  “Gaudete” comes from the Latin gaudium which means “joy,” and it’s the source of our contemporary word “gaudy.” When I think of something that’s gaudy, I think “tacky” more than joyful. In the face of any tragic news I have to wonder whether we are joyful enough as Christians to be called tacky. Do we dare proclaim faith, hope, and even joy as an affront to the dour and horrible machinations of the forces that would cause pain and suffering? We are fighting a war between joy and despondency, and lights and tinsel aren’t weapons enough.

Jesus, the conqueror of death and despair, is the King who has come and is coming again, yet I’m afraid that we have domesticated his incarnation with decorations and pleasantries so much that we miss the audacious joy, the tacky but unconquerable hope that flows from the amazing news of a Savior who left the safety of eternity and immersed himself in time to be with us in our every trial. As a result we have gotten so caught up in the peripheral trappings of Christmas that we have been less than Incarnational with those hurting around us. We keep silent and dare not be tacky enough to intrude and enter their pain. It’s high time to be tacky once again. This is Gaudete Sunday’s solemn reminder to me in the face of this tragedy.

Someone anonymously said, “The cross leads to joy and not just happiness. There is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a checkbook that has money, a car that works, a good date for Saturday night. Happiness is the absence of major hassles, or terrorism or crime; happiness is kids getting good report cards and spouses getting a raise. Happiness is something we know as enhancement or protection of our own lives. Joy comes in connection with another or with Jesus. Joy can happen without money or a working car. Joy happens when we get to the core of life and realize that love is at the center. Joy befriends us; love accompanies us. Jesus is God-with-us and will never leave or forsake us. Joy is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of God.”

May God grant peace to all those who are suffering that they may know the audacity of Christ’s presence, the essence of joy. Happiness is fleeting while joy endures forever. Perhaps more than ever, we need Gaudete Sunday this year.

Mystery of Suicide

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I woke up this morning to hear the news that Kenny McKinley, former University of South Carolina, star football receiver had apparently taken his own life. Friends, former teammates, coaches, and fans are shocked. He was here at the USC-Georgia game two weeks ago. According to everyone, he seemed fine. Of course, he has been injury-plagued over the last two years with the Denver Broncos. There was no suicide note, no explanation. Other than his injury there was no thought that something like this would happen.

I have never experienced suicide in my own family, but as a pastor I have dealt with quite a few. Every time I was shocked. One was especially difficult. It was an older man who was beloved in the community. His wife had some very tough health issues and had to be moved to an assisted living community. Apparently, he couldn’t take it and took his own life. I have preached the funeral of a murder suicide, too, and there have been other tragic events in the churches that I served where someone took thier own life.

It is always hard for me as a pastor to know what to say in this situation. And I have often wondered why I didn’t pick up on some kind of signal that this might happen. I have felt the sting of the prophet Jeremiah’s words when he warns that we should not say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Yet, the presence of the Incarnate Christ who came to know our pain as the Man of Sorrows gives us hope, whether we can say the right words or not.

I try to think of God’s mercy like this: If human courts will acquit someone of murder because of insanity, then God’s mercy surely must prove more complete than that. I have known people so full of despair that they couldn’t see past their own hand much less their problems. In that moment of sheer pain and darkness they have done the unthinkable. I pray in God’s mercy that they are just as acquitted as we humans would absolve the temporarily insane.

It’s a mystery, and no easy answer is forthcoming. I’m reminded of Deuteronomy 29:29 again and again, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” What this means to me is that there are some things we can’t know or perceive and we must leave those unfathomable mysteries to God. Let’s stick to what we can know and about which we can do something.

I’m certainly not advocating suicide as an option to life’s dilemmas. Its pain and unresolved issues for families last generations. There is NOTHING beneficial that can come from doing such a thing, but I think God’s word to me this morning is to cut people who have committed suicide some slack, and open my eyes to the unseen hurts around me. A simple “Hey, How are you?” isn’t enough to delve into the human heart. If there’s anything at all to take from this it is to live more intentionally in community where we rub shoulders and look into one another’s faces and hearts. Facebook is a good thing but it cannot replace real community, face-to-face.

The Church is the best place for us to have deep relationships with one another. Small groups, Sunday School classes, mission projects, and other significant church activities put us side by side in an intimate setting where we can get to know the unseen pain of others. In our economically dark and terror-filled world, we need Jesus and He is most easily seen in one another. I hurt for the McKinley family and for any family that has faced such a tragedy. May they find peace among us, and help through us.