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.

Words to Remember From Joyce Rupp

I have needed to be compassionate toward myself when I was hurting. I have also needed to offer compassion and kindness to others. One of my best sparks for love and for forgiveness of old relationship hurts came from an image of myself at the Last Supper table, seeing my “enemies” seated next to me, all of us being loved equally by God. Another image that gave me courage and also freed me from mistakes and wounding behavior of the past was that of a beehive in my heart with golden bees making “honey of my old failures.”

Images have also reminded me how valuable a sense of humor is for healing. Mary Lou Sleevi portrays the widow Anna, in the Gospel of Luke, as the image of a woman who could laugh through the tough things of life: “Anna comes to Her Moment laughing. Those eyes have twinkled as she wrinkled…Her face the free expression of all that’s inside.” Perhaps, most of all, images have helped me to name my need to surrender and to trust God with my life. In order to be healed, I need a desire to let go, to get on with my life, rather than cling to the pain and memory of my old wounds. Some see surrender as negative because, for them, it implies a patriarchal approach to God, a giving in to a “higher power.” I do not envision it this way. I see surrender as a natural part of the cycle of life and, thus, it includes the spiritual path as well. I have learned much about having to let go of control by observing seasonal surrendering such as the plowed fields of spring accepting heavy rainfalls, summer’s fruitful days giving way to autumn harvesting, and winter’s wind whirling snowflakes into banks of beauty. My surrender does not seem passive to me. Rather, it feels like a strong trust in a loving One whose wisdom stretches far beyond mine. God can empower me, work through me, and weave patterns that I do not dream possible. I experience this as a great gift of love.

Dear Heart, Come Home (p. 127-128)

Soul Stuff: Entrusting Yourself

I shared this quote as part of a presentation I led last week with physician-fellows in palliative care. They are finishing up a year with their fellowship; they’ve come to palliative care from a variety of disciplines. For three years I’ve been shadowed by different fellows, working side to side to care, to listen, and to participate in the sacred sendings of patients.

Palliative care doctors are a good group of people, and our work as chaplains borders a neighboring region if I can put it that way. Unfortunately palliative docs are often thought of as last resorts and though that view is changing, their import is only beginning to emerge for addressing pain, discomfort, and the large matter of the unanswered. The affinity between their work and ours in spiritual care makes me think of the word integration.

My talk was on cultivating patience in the medical intensive care unit. The MICU is my primary pastoral context these days outside of my supervision of ministry students, and I pulled materials together for a similar group last year. Toward the end of our discussion, I was reflecting upon the wonderful work of Rachel Naomi Remen, whom I’ve quoted before on the blog.

Dr. Remen is among a small circle of life sustainers for me, especially from this last calendar year. She works with caregivers, teaches physicians of the body and physicians of the soul. And she helps me see better some of the portions of what’s ahead in my own future. That said, this quote was toward the end of my presentation with the staff from My Grandfather’s Blessings:

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on. Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering…Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

I hope these words and anybody’s words which sit in your ears give you an anchor in the oceans of your life. Being an oyster, being a giver of hope, being a caregiver can irritate you until you release your own soft nature. Remen doesn’t likely mean by soft nature anything but a positive description of the best part of you and me.

When my training supervisor wrote my evaluation from February to September, he remarked upon my growth that he’d seen from two years, though he’s only supervised six months of that time. He gave a high compliment when he said that he’d seen me soften over these months, over these years. I had read these words but forgot about them until the other week. In working on this presentation, I reread that the oyster softened, too.

May your nature only soften. May it never harden. May you be as soft as you need to be to produce the pearls that await the context of your own soul. May every sand grain get used to your softness rather than your softness falling into hard, gritty sharpness. Don’t clamp your shell. Don’t give up. Don’t harden.

Spirit Island

Making decisions when you’re under assault is a bad idea, especially if the decisions have anything to do with what’s assaulting you. To decide, you need the wind and wisdom of all your feelings, not just the ones pressing into you when you’re hurt or in trouble or when your personhood is called into question.

Decisions aren’t what you need. You need safety. You need repose. You need a harbor that you can attach yourself to in order to remain attached to the self that is you.

What you need to visit your spirit island. I learned this name when I was in Minneapolis for a conference. I was walking across a long, wide bridge, occasionally reading the descriptions of what I was seeing. I was struck by a brief description of a Lakota island, “Spirit Island,” and I knew that this place would be with me for a while.

Spirit Island was made of rock, was a nesting location for birds and a spiritually significant place for native people. One description I read said that it had no soil. It was removed in the 1960s when St. Anthony Lock and Dam were built.

I’m twirling around the notion of spirit island and how we all have one. It is the place where you sense your roots deepening. The spirit island is the place where you are at home, even when nothing around you brings peace or helps your heart reside. That spirit island is the home of your soul when your surroundings are chaotic, untrustworthy, or dangerous.

It’s, at least, in the inner chambers of your soul, where God speaks in definitive ways. Go in and find that island. Sit there. Wait there. Listen there.

My Blog: Pep Talk

I think you are amazing. Already. Before you get it done. Before it succeeds. Just prior to the grand opening of your tomorrows.

You are already an exemplar. You’re faithful and caring. You’ve achieved a clarity in your soul that most people overlook.

You’ve prayed and centered on the things that matter, things that aren’t things at all.

Stay centered. Stay connected. Stay certain.