Considering a Sermon on Suicide

I am not a preacher these days. In fact, I’m pretty rusty at it because I haven’t preached consistently in a while.

Indeed, I spend most of my days as a clinical pastoral educator suggesting to students that the point of spiritual care is to say less and listen more. I try to suggest that the most important person speaking is not the chaplain or the minister or the caregiver.

The most important person is the one in the crisis, the one who is sick and trying to tell you about it, the person who is known as the care-recipient, not the caregiver.

Still, I humbly offer these as considerations for friends who preach, speak, or communicate to publics that hear you. If you’re thinking about responding to the latest loss of a person dying by suicide (Stephen Boss’s death is among the most publicized), here are some thoughts to consider, in no particular order.

Write your words this time. If you’re an extemporaneous speaker, be who you are, but prepare by writing what you want to say, scribing what you want to relay, and penning what you want to verbalize. The written text can be a friend and reminder. It can be there to return to if things wobble or stray as you speak.

Start with you. Say something about you and your health. Tell your listeners about the first time you felt depressed or off or confused. Maybe you won’t talk about a mental illness or about your own emotional health, but you can tell your audience about how hard it was to prepare your sermon and why you think that was. Tell them that you were afraid or annoyed or moved to tears. Before getting to them, get to you.

Start and end with vulnerability. Say something that is inherently risky because it’s engaging. Being vulnerable opens you to the possibility that you will say something so clearly that you will be heard completely. Read over your preparations with a view toward vulnerability. “Have I been vulnerable?” is a good question as you pray and prepare. If you’re not used to vulnerability, you won’t have to worry about whether you’re oversharing. If your habit is to say a lot about yourself, take it down a notch and say more with less. Perhaps you can consider a story that you’ve never been able to share.

Say nothing about God’s will. Unless you’re saying something about God being in the same posture as your listener, in the same confusion as your listener, in the same pain as your listener. You may do this regularly but, when you’re finished preparing in your study, ask God how well you’ve presented the Holy or how reflective you’ve been of the divine nature. Listen for an answer. And, humbly, revise.

List your personal issues and questions and unresolved pains. Let those be part of your preparation and place them somewhere so that they don’t hijack what news or message you share. If you engage your questions in your delivery, do so with the best wisdom available to you.

Access the wisdom available. Call a spiritual director, a pastoral care professor, or a therapist and consult with them. Contract with them and see if they can sit through your sermon. Invite them or, better, pay them to offer you feedback once they’ve heard your message. Take in their wisdom as if God were speaking to you.

Leave your doctrines if needed. Some of your official teachings will help you and nourish your people. Some will not. In those cases, your doctrines will leak through but your intentions may get lost if you try to promote teaching. Make a decision to be guided by your faith community’s values, especially if you’re not used to discussing topics related to health. Be guided by hope or love or safety rather than official teachings on this or that. Teaching is seldom helpful when souls are torn. Patience lands better. Silence is more skilled.

Query gently. Ask your people about their views of the Divine. Offer questions that probe how their experiences and non-experiences of God help them understand what’s occurred. Invite them to question, even if a little, about the possibility of grace or goodness in the face of mental, emotional, and existential hardship.

Answer first. If you ask your audience a question that assumes honesty, consider answering first. If you ask a question about the last time they couldn’t pray because of their intense anger or disorientation or fright, tell them how you lived when you couldn’t pray. If you challenge them to a step to improve the emotional awareness within your community, tell them what it was like for you to take the step yourself.

Don’t ask and don’t tell. This is a different approach, one where you don’t ask questions. And where you don’t offer answers. Maybe answering anything will lead you into telling people how to think and how to act. Maybe that’s not helpful for you–or them. If that’s true, go beyond questions. Go beyond saying what the answer is, and unroll the thick, bruising questions plaguing us. Preach about the questions and not the answers. Resist the urge and need to know everything when what exists is large unknowing.

Practice individuality and community. Health is more than an individual experience. Like life, we need communities to fill our days the way we need air to fill our lungs. Lean into the power of others, into the complexities of being alone and with, isolated and accompanied. Lead your people into an exercise or ritual that requires others.

Involve your people in the listening. When I took preaching in seminary, I learned about congregational exegesis and it framed how I think about preaching, development, and growth. We talked about listening to sacred texts and preparing to preach but doing so as a congregation or community and not as an individual interpreter. What if you weren’t the only preacher preaching? What if everyone in the room read the texts together, all week, and studied or listened? What if you were one of the people with the microphone but not the only one?

Other resources exist and they lead to even more:

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: https://dbsalliance.org

Mental Health America: https://mhanational.org

National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://nami.org

National Education Alliance for BPD: https://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.org

Psychological Support at Naseeha

Finally, grace, peace, and strength in your work. We need you. We need you whole. We need you broken. We need you healing. We need you.

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