Sunday, 4 May 2008

Suicide and starting again

A privilege to preach at All Saints High Wycombe for Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. This national movement began in 1991 in Hull and recently in High Wycombe. I was deeply moved to be with some very brave and resourceful people, struggling with one of our last great Taboo subjects. Various people asked me to post the sermon on the blog, so here goes:

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you, and for your courage in coming. We each bring with us today a story of someone who matters to us, and always will. Each pebble taken, received and given, represents a story. Each story is deeply personal, but involves suicide and self harm. I remember as a very young vicar in Reading being really upset by Nick’s suicide — a young man with everything to live for, I thought. I went to see Father Tom, my Roman Catholic colleague. He said to me,
the hardest thing in some ways is to stop trying to renegotiate the outcome with the person we loved, and respect their decision. Only then can you leave God to sort out the big stuff.
Fr Tom’s wise words reflect another problem, tied up in being human. When somebody we love dies, there’s a powerful instinct find out why and fix responsibility. It quickly becomes a tortuous game of “if only...” This always happens. In John’s gospel, when Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died, what did they say to Jesus? “Sir, if only you had been here this would never have happened.” Perhaps there was a great temptation to a busy Messiah building a reputation to agree — “I could have sorted it for you.” In fact Jesus said the exact opposite — “I am glad I was not here.” Not very sensitive, but an encouragement to confront head on a powerful instinct to try and renegotiate the circumstances of the death of someone we love.

How much greater that instinct with suicide. There’s a destructive and untruthful demon on your shoulder saying “If only...” If only you’d phoned. If only you’d done something else that night... Well, you know what I mean. For me with my friend Nick, whom I went to see Father Tom about, it was “If only I’d asked him to stay the night instead of driving back to South London.” Father Tom helped me to see that this instinct, natural as it is, is all about us, not the person who has died. It’s something we have to let go of, in the end, or we are stuck with it.

In a way the big challenge with any sudden or unusual death is to recover the human being from the wreckage of the crash. Nick — wasn’t he the nice young man who hanged himself? Well, in a way, yes. But the last terrible half hour of his life was only half an hour out of 25 years. What about the rest? Or does he always have to be described in terms of how he died, imprisoned within the verdict of a coroner’s court? What about his generosity, his freedom of spirit, his joy in the great outdoors, his immense collection of paperbacks? Most of them they were science fiction, but one or two were self-improvement books — cure yourself of depression, read this, kind of thing. I’m particularly sad when I see those. Well they didn’t work, did they? And there I am, back round the destructive loop that imprisons the person in the way they died.

Perhaps grieving is about looping round and around, with the help of our friends, until the loop becomes more open and the hurt less raw, and the real person and all they lived for begins to stand out in our mind more vividly than the story the coroner’s officer talked us through. Of course, with suicide, there is so much we may not know, we cannot tell.

We have to build our memories out of what we do know, not what we don’t. It’s a process Studdert Kennedy, the great Woodbine Willie of the first word war, described as building the Is from the bricks of the might have been — do you remember the line? It’s God offering a way out of the hell of regrets so many found themselves stuck in during the first world war—
’Ell is for the blind,
And not for those that see.
You know that you ’ave earned it, lad,
So you must follow me.
Follow me on by the paths o' pain
Seeking what you ’ave seen,
Until at last you can build the “Is,”
Wi’ the bricks o’ the “Might 'ave been.”
Our second lesson (I Peter 1) describes undying hope, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But for us, as for the first disciples, and actually Jesus himself, that hope is not, however attractive it might seem, a simple get out of jail free card. It is a personal journey, a process of what Studdert Kennedy called “paths of pain.” Through hardship to peace — through death to undying hope.

Psalm 46 is one of the great songs of undying hope. It celebrates the strength of Jerusalem as a hill fortress. Where did the Jews get their confidence about Mount Zion? From faith. And what was their faith about? Their confidence came partly, of course, from the mountainous nature of the fort. It came partly also from a deep instinct that God was with them, however improbable this looked. Jerusalem was a holy city. What made it that? Any Jewish schoolboy could have told you. It’s holiest hill was Mount Moriah where Abraham had offered his boy Isaac, the child of promise, but God had mercifully provided a substitute at the last minute. That faith was the basis of the whole religion of the temple.

But beneath all that, however, the confidence of the people of Zion came from an underground spring, which could keep the fortress going even during a long siege. However barren, violent or hopeless life on the rock seemed, they knew that somewhere deep underneath them was a flowing spring, a resource for living. In flood it would make glad the city of God. It would be a sign of his presence among them.

Their confidence was not about trying to build a castle in the air. It was being true to what they did know, whilst taming their terror of what they did not know. And what we do know, amidst so much that we do not know, is that true love is strong as death. If the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean anything, they mean that. They are God not opting out of the most painful experiences of life, but embracing them and somehow coming through them.

Where are we going to find hope in the face of hopelessness? I know a French Monk, a teacher and educationalist by background. Ludovic told me an interesting story. Once a government inspector came round to check up on a class of French seven year olds. It was February, and the science knowledge question, key stage 1 whatever, he asked was “What do you get when snow melts?” Up shot 27/28 hands, and the answer came back, as from one, “Water.” The only hand not to go up belonged to a small boy near the back who had recently been given first communion, and was an altar server. What do you get when snow melts? Not ‘water’; but ‘spring.’

By engaging our imagination not with what we don’t know, but what we do, and by earthing it within the Jesus story, even we can find undying hope. When the snow melts, rather than water, we can find spring in our hearts.

The truth is that all of us, one day, die. But within the great reality Christians call the communion of saints, we can hold those whom we love in undying love and prayers with real confidence, engaging freely with all the good we knew of them, in spite of other people’s indifference and fear in talking ab out them. We can know that after snow comes spring, and one day all the tragic stuff will seem like no more than a bad dream. For he will come, whose coming is as sure as the dawn; in whom is our life and our salvation for ever, to whom be ascribed…


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've taken the liberty of linking to it.

Anonymous said...

thanks, Alan, I have been the priest to several suicide funerals and they really do leave their scars... I find your words profoundly helpful

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