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.

America’s Next Top Model

by Karl Fredrickson

Sunday before service started I told Nate Noonen that the sermon was hard for me, hard in the preparation. I told him it was harder for me than the words appeared to me on the page after I’d written it.

Usually I try to move beyond a sermon when it’s over. I know that many preachers find this difficult, even if by virtue of our work we, simply, have to go off to the next thing. I learned from Dallas Willard how important and ministry nurturing it can be to move along, to keep going, and to not get stuck in a sermon.

It can be a tempting thing to linger over what we say as preachers. Aside from our easy proclivity to esteem ourselves, we can also lose sight of the purpose of the sermon. It’s purpose is, in part, to move people to action.

Lingering and action contrast. The best sermons are worth lingering over, returning to, hearing again, and they somehow move us to act, to be in the world, and to be different in the world.

For me, moving beyond Sunday’s sermon has proven particularly difficult. I invited the church, our intentionally multiethnic church, to listen to and learn from the life of Hannah, a sister in the first testament who spent years asking God to remember her, asking God for a son. Most of us don’t embrace the real experience of waiting while asking for the same thing. I personally find it’s more efficient to keep going. Especially in terms of injustice and other topics that prove our country’s lack of growth, conception, and productivity.

As part of the sermon, I gave a few names of people that I think our church folks would be tutored by in our work of reconciliation. These people “came up before me” during my sermon preparation the weeks prior. They aren’t, by any means, an attempt at a longer treatment of the question. Of course this was in the same message that I offered my personal and hard questions about why that ministry of reconciliation is even important and how hard it is despite its biblical relevance. Hannah is answering some of my personal questions these days.

My brother, David, has offered a wonderful resource on the topic and related themes of reconciliation in the form of an annotated bibliography. You need to read it here.

At Nate’s request, here are those names of people I mentioned. I characterized them as contemporary renderings of 1 Samuel 1-2, fully realizing that these folks themselves would use other words to describe their work. Thanks for asking, Nate Noonen.

  1. The writings and work of Audre Lorde whose poem, New York City, I read as a contemporary version of our scriptural passage (1 Samuel 1:1-20)
  2. The writings and work of Peggy McIntosh
  3. The writings and work of Patricia Leary
  4. The writings and work of Tim Wise
  5. The writings and work of Ida B. Wells
  6. The writings and work of bell hooks
  7. The revolutionary suicide post on Dr. Melissa Harris Perry’s blog was to be my second contemporary version of the text but I didn’t have the time to include it; it’s here.

Monday Considerations, Pastoral Routines, & Soul Junk

Monday has been my off day for years, ever since I started working in a church, with the long exception of having to be on-call at Sweet Holy Spirit for administrative matters.  Back then, it wasn’t strange to get a minutes long call from our accountant or from a co-worker that changed the direction of the week.  Those Mondays are distant, though I hardly forget them.

Usually by Monday, since Sunday is traditionally a longer work day for pastors, I’ve lived through the equivalent of a work week with the compressed emotions of half a second one.  There has been the previous week itself.  It will bring with it conversations that stop me, meetings that unsettle me, group chats where someone is inevitably struggling with faith, offered counsel that helps or hurts people, conflicts left open for too long.  There are projections about the future of the church, potential partnerships or courses of action.  Quiet is seldom found without effort.  There is the loneliness that feels like a heavy blanket in summer.  There is the balancing of my own soul.

By Monday, my sleep has been disturbed for a few days in a row, dealing both with the expectation of Sunday and all that it brings and the throbbing exhaustion that comes afterward.  Sleep will catch up to me by the next day usually, but when Monday comes, I’m somewhere in the middle of looking at the day for the deep breath it will bring and planning for the week, even though I’m trying not to plan.  The busy tapping of my phone tells me that there is an email or a text.  I check it, only to see if it’s from someone whose text I actually read on Mondays, a tiny list of loved ones whose requests are of a slightly different order.

On Mondays I do much less.  Sometimes I fall into the mode of catching up with things at my address.  There are errands to run for myself.  Things Dawn has asked me to do.  There is laundry and dishes and remnants from the previous night’s dinner, and all the things in everyone else’s home.  There is the smell of urine that comes from the place where my son tossed his pajamas that morning, and the sneaky feeling that I’ll never stop cleaning the tile and washing the sheets, that I’ll go to work smelling of my boy’s liquids.  I remember the conversation about reintroducing pull ups for the overnight shift, and I feel that aching familiar feeling of failure that never totally leaves.  It’s one of those reminders in my life that I need grace.

For a long time I think about meaningful moments from the previous week.  And I try to think about nothing at all.  But I’m not successful.  There is the crammed calendar and the list of things.  This week there is one more sermon in the current series.  There are the big anchors of the upcoming message rolling around in my head and falling to my feet.  There is the nagging persistence that what I preach matters and doesn’t.  There is the slow, night-time work of an assignment due before the end of next week.  There is the upward and onward motion of not wanting to stop and the competing better desire to quit for a bit.

Quitting for a bit is the point of Monday.  But it is hard to do.  Leaving my moleskin at home and walking.  Picking up a book of poems and heading to the Point.  Exercising with no thought or nobody’s question or open conversation rattling for resolution.  Eating a recreative-for-me meal that someone has prepared.  Laughing with my friends or someone who for a moment is in my life for that sole purpose.

The anticipation of tomorrow is brutal on the soul.  Not just mine.  Not just a minister’s.  But everyone’s soul.  Thinking ahead into the next day, into the next post-Sabbath, into the second day of the week, is theft.  Planning ahead is robbery.  It’s sinister because we both believe it must be done and are so good at it.  Good at leaving now for later.  Good at staying nowhere for long.  Never being present.  Never reaching future.

It seems to me that it’s underneath most of the layers of our junk.  Yet it’s also over the basic simplicity of our souls this movement ahead.  But there are springs that come up through the layers.  Springs: those people who ask a simple question and wait for a response.  Springs are those messages that come from the lips of angels, the ones that stop your breath for a moment and help you appreciate the moment because it almost took you.  These are the things I need to consider on Mondays.  God, help me, especially since it’s Tuesday and the next Monday feels like a year away.

Slow But Productive Work

Have you ever thought about how long it takes to accomplish what you spend your days doing?  I met with a media PR person and an architect the other day.  He’s in a supervisory role at work and he is new to parenting.  His wife, new to parenting as well, works to promote the events of a film center in Chicago.   Both of them spend a lot of time with their son and in their jobs.

And it occurs to me that people like my meeting friends–including me–have work we’re doing that takes a while to complete.  Does that make sense?  Whether planning for an event, reviewing building plans, or mentoring a staff person, these things take more than one moment.  They take a series of moments, meetings, and interactions.  It’s slow work.

Writing, teaching, ministry, cleaning, fathering–these are all slow jobs.  And slow work takes time to complete and time to appreciate.

I read this in an email newsletter from Preaching Today, and it feels right for preachers and appropriate for people doing other slow work too:

Last week I talked to a pastor who nearly quit during his fifth year at Church ABC. He wanted to quit, the church wanted him to quit, but for some reason he hung in there. Now he’s in his 18th year at the same church and his preaching ministry has finally hit a sweet spot.

My point is not that you should always stick it out. My point is that deep, effective, Spirit-anointed preaching is slow work. It takes time to build trust. It takes time to hone your craft. It takes time to study a biblical text. It takes time to know your people and your cultural context. So, preacher, I urge you to accept this slow work of God. Don’t be in a hurry to change the world with one amazing sermon or one flashy sermon series. Learn the art of slow preaching, long-haul preaching, week after week preaching. It will bear more fruit than you could ever imagine.

I hope you get a glimpse that your work, whatever it is, is fruitful.  Not pointless but productive.  And I hope you do it as well as you can.

Leadership’s Interview With Gardner C. Taylor

Our interview with Dr. Gardner C. Taylor is in the Fall edition of Leadership Journal.  I reflected a few times on the conversation in July.  I imagine I’d like to revisit the experience again, in a bit, now that the Journal has printed a portion of the time we spent with this preaching hero.

It looks like a little less than half of our questions and his answers were able to be printed.  That means I walked away from that conversation with more gifts than I thought!  I have his melodious tone in my ears talking about things that can feel a little like secret wisdoms given to me and Marshall Shelley, the Journal’s editor.

Leadership hasn’t put the interview online yet.  I won’t attempt to reprint it either.  You should subscribe if you’re interested because, well, you can’t have my copy.

I will offer you two glances here from the interview.

Have you faced different struggles during different phases of your life?  I think they’re mostly the same struggles.  They just get recycled.  At root they are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.  Everyone experiences them, though some people seem not to.  I think though, that people who do not have these struggles miss something.  They may be “innocent,” but they miss something.  Like that old hymn says:

Sure I must fight if I world reign;

Increase my courage, Lord.

I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,

Supported by Thy Word.

I sang those things in my childhood.  I didn’t know what the song was talking about then, but I think I know now.

Sometimes I envy people who are free of that struggle.  But to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would want to be one of them.

And another, after Rev. Taylor had said something about being aware that we are strangers and pilgrims, not exactly home.  Re-reading this took me back to the deep stare in his eyes as he looked beyond us.  I wondered what he saw.

Tell us what you mean by “home.”  All in all, life’s a great experience.  But by faith we believe there’s a better one.  It’s hard to imagine what it can be like.  At the point I have reached, one ponders more and more what it’s like.  It does not yet appear.  But this we know, the Bible says, that “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Those are tremendous things to wrestle with.  Not too much for the human mind to ponder, but too much for it to have.  I cannot picture this.  The best I can do is try and understand the crude symbolism that we’re given.  Our home will be far richer, far finer than anything we can think of.  The maker of that home is God.

bell hooks on Writing and Gardner Taylor on Preaching

I’m pulling quotes from two of my favorite people, bell hooks and Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor.  I consider preaching (or pastoring) and writing to be my two main works.  So, as I reflect on my labor, I offer you their thoughts.  First, bell hooks.

bell hooks is a writer, teacher, and lecturer, and her areas of strength and interest are the politics of race, class, and gender, sexuality and human relationships, and writing.  I suppose there are many others.  I’m drawing this quote from her book about writing, Remembered Rapture, a book every writer should have.  In this quote, professor hooks is talking about writing inside and despite the structures and strictures of the academy in the chapter, “dancing with words.”  You can see several synopses of her books at South End Press.

Writing to fulfill professional career expectations is not the same as writing that emerges as the fulfillment of a yearning to work with words when there is no clear benefit or reward, when it is the experience of writing that matters.  When writing is a desired and accepted calling, the writer is devoted, constant, and committed in a manner that is akin to monastic spiritual practice.  I am driven to write, compelled by a constant longing to choreograph, to bring words together in patterns and configurations that move the spirit.  As a writer, I seek that moment of ecstasy when I am dancing with words, moving in a circle of love so complete that like the mystical dervish who dances to be one with the Divine, I move toward the infinite.  That fulfillment can be realized whether I write poetry, a play, fiction, or critical essays.

Dr. Taylor served as Pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, NY for 42 years before retiring twenty years ago.  His exemplary preaching style and content is instructive, but his words about the role and task for preachers is what I’m pulling from in this post.  The quote is from the Yale University Lyman Beecher Lecture Series in 1976.  The particular lecture is “Preaching the Whole Counsel of God.”  Dr. Taylor is speaking from a passage in the book of Ezekiel where the watchman’s role is discussed.

It is the watchman’s job to watch.  Such a person is expected to scan the hills and to peer toward the valleys with the eye straining to see the rim of the horizon.  On who is chosen to watch is freed from the regular occupational responsibilities of those who select him or her to be watchman…It is the watchman’s job to see, since for this cause came he or she to the appointed lookout tower.  The watchman has been given the vantage point of an elevated position in order to see.  The watchman has, likewise, no right to claim indifference or indolence or sleepiness, for he or she is spared many of the irksome annoyances of the workaday world.  The sentry has no right to claim poor vision, since the capacity to see, to see clearly and accurately, is one of the principal requirements of a watchman…There is little place for ranting by the preacher, but there is a very large place indeed for urgency and for an earnest, honest passion.  The stakes are high!

These are two people, among too many others, who anchor me in my work.  If you like, tell us who anchors you in yours?