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:

Mental Health America:

National Alliance on Mental Illness:

National Education Alliance for BPD:

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.

Teaching Men to be Emotionally Honest

by Jason Rosewell

…Yet when they are immunized against this deeper emotional honesty, the results have far-reaching, often devastating consequences.

Despite the emergence of the metrosexual and an increase in stay-at-home dads, tough-guy stereotypes die hard. As men continue to fall behind women in college, while outpacing them four to one in the suicide rate, some colleges are waking up to the fact that men may need to be taught to think beyond their own stereotypes.

…By the time many young men do reach college, a deep-seated gender stereotype has taken root that feeds into the stories they have heard about themselves as learners. Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl, all in the name of constantly having to prove an identity to yourself and others.

Read the full article here at NYT.

Thanks, Kimmy!

Father Wounds

The following post, written by Sylvia Klauser,  is a profound and elegant reminder about the impact of fathers, and I pulled it from the Mennonite Weekly Review.

I read about Whitney Houston’s death while at a conference in Washington, D.C. A friend and I had been at dinner and heard that famous I wanna dance with somebody. Today I have the time to sit and watch the tribute morning shows, listening to song after favorite song. I will always love you stands out for its message of a love that transcends racial boundaries and fears of the others. Even more tragic is that Whitney Houston died on the eve of the Grammy awards — a singer’s celebration of their greatest achievement.

Born with an incredible talent, she came to fame by way of the church. An instant, well-meaning audience provided her with a training ground for that incredible voice. It certainly helps to have the Godmother of soul as your real Godmother. However, talent is a free gift that can easily be squandered.

It is so sad to hear about Whitney’s struggle with drugs and alcohol. Is it a result of the fame, or a cause of it? While I listen to song after song, it seems that they all have a common theme. Who will love me? How will I know that you are honest? I will always love you. I’m every woman. Can I trust you, and so on. The themes are the same: Whitney felt empty without love. She, like every woman (and man) in this world, feels incomplete without the other. But what kind of love are we looking for? And what happens to us when that hole is not filled?

In his book From Wild Man to Wise Man, Richard Rohr writes about the “father hunger” that becomes a “father wound” for those of us who have never been touched and trusted by our fathers. It seems that the father wound oozes from each of Whitney’s songs. Rohr writes, “we lack self-confidence, the ability to do, to carry through, to trust ourselves, because we were never trusted and touched by him.” Whitney’s life is marked by “earned worth,” a constant striving to get more in order to fill this hole where Dad’s trust and touch is missing.

What fills the hole? Well, the story is out all over the tabloids now. It’s not only Whitney or other famous folk who died of this father wound lately. Drugs, alcohol, mind and sense numbing substances only increase feelings of worthlessness and loneliness when the high wears off. I am saddened by Whitney’s line where she names herself the devil in a 2002 Dianne Sawyer interview; but she is dead-on with her assessment. It is our own responsibility to figure out the father wound and then work on fixing it — whether we can meet with our fathers and attempt reconciliation, or whether we have to learn to live with the hole for the rest of our lives.

To heal the father wound is our most intimate, personal and spiritual work, maybe the only work of our lifetimes. No one can do it for us, not fame or drugs or even world-class therapists. We must reconcile with the fact that even our fathers have father wounds. They tried the best they knew how, but the lack of trust and touch is an evil root that stealthily hurts us until we root it out. May peace be with Whitney.

I was born in the same year as Whitney, and I too, sang in church. I was touched deeply by her songs of searching, wanting and needing. I also have to do my own father work so that the rest of my life is not a running after all the things that fall short of that primal need to be loved and trusted and touched.

Sylvia Klauser works in the education and spiritual care department of The Methodist Hospital System in Houston.