When Suicide Happens

by FreestocksI’ve read of the suicides of many people in the past, and no such story is a good story. Whether it’s a person who’s in the public eye or a person who was hardly noticed, we lose a person. A mother devastated by her toddler’s death. An actor who suffered in bruising isolation. A seminarian whose struggle was largely unseen. A doctor who couldn’t continue under mental anguish. A pastor who was overwhelmed by everything.

The loss is aggravated by the circumstances surrounding the death. Those left to respond  rotate a series of questions, all of them in big-deal categories. We question life, ours and theirs. We wonder about God and faith. We query our social relationships and relatives. We turn to the tragic circumstances that form around an individual and try to see them.

Here are a few things I think are worth doing–commitments worth making–when someone commits suicide, in no particular order. They sound too general because I’ve written them about “a person” and I fully intend for that be come across as a person who comes to mind, a particular person, a designated individual or individuals who you love:

  1. We commit to being and not only doing, to tunneling into the beautiful wonder that is the self and to emerging from that wonder with a stubbornness for searching for the same in others.
  2. We commit to grieving, feeling as fully as possible, the deep fissures in us when someone kills herself or himself.
  3. We commit to becoming more human by relating to individuals differently and based upon their uniqueness all the time.
  4. We commit to the hard work of paying attention to what turns a person, lifts up a person, spoils a person, hurts a person.
  5. We commit to loving as much as possible in the present moment.
  6. We commit to getting mental and emotional support for ourselves and our communities in the forms of clergy who are permanently slanted in the direction of full liberation; therapists who are helpful in pursing with us our own deep change in the face of psychologically rough worlds; spiritual directors who can listen us into freedom as we journey into the company of God together; family members who embrace us unconditionally and love us lavishly; and friends who are just like family and who stay in place when family diminishes, drops, or dies.
  7. We commit to asking better questions, even when the question is “How are you?” and staying around for the response.
  8. We commit to telling another person how they impacted us, how we felt because of something they did or said, and how we are changed specifically because they matter.
  9. We commit to standing close when a person feels abandoned, reminding them by our physical presence when our unheard words ring hollow that we are with them.
  10. We commit to responding after any death with a voracious invitation to our own special life, to cultivating healthier relationships, to dealing with the destructive dynamics in our own lives, to being different and better people, and to advocating for everybody’s healthcare and self-care.

Also, if you’re in Chicago, consider attending the National Day of Solidarity to Prevent Physician Suicide.

Rohr on Resurrection, Transformation, & Humanity

by Felix Russell-SawI might quibble over a point in this, but today’s meditation was a gift to me, given recent challenges to my soul, recent deaths I’m dying. Here’s part of it:

Resurrection is not a miracle as much as it is an enduring relationship. The best way to speak about the Resurrection is not to say, “Jesus rose from the dead”–as if it was a self-generated miracle–but to say, “Jesus was raised from the dead” (as many early texts state). The Eternal Christ is thus revealed as the map, the blueprint, the promise, the pledge, the guarantee of what is happening everywhere, all summed up in one person so we can see it in personified form.

If you can understand Jesus as the human archetype, a stand-in for everybody and everything, you will get much closer to the Gospel message. I think this is exactly why Jesus usually called himself “The Son of Man.” His resurrection is not so much a miracle that we can argue about, believe, or disbelieve, but an invitation to look deeper at what is always happening in the life process itself. Jesus, or any member of “the Body of Christ,” cannot really die because we are participating in something eternal–the Cosmic Christ that came forth from God.

Death is not just physical dying, but going to the full depth of things, hitting the bottom, beyond where you are in control. And in that sense, we all probably go through many deaths in our lifetime. These deaths to the small self are tipping points, opportunities to choose transformation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people turn bitter and look for someone to blame. So their death is indeed death for them, because they close down to growth and new life.

But if you do choose to walk through the depths–even the depths of your own sin and mistakes–you will come out the other side, knowing you’ve been taken there by a Source larger than yourself. Surely this is what it means to be saved. Being saved doesn’t mean that you are any better than anyone else. It means you’ve allowed and accepted the mystery of transformation, which is always pure gift.

If we are to speak of miracles, the most miraculous thing of all is that God uses the very thing that would normally destroy you–the tragic, the sorrowful, the painful, the unjust–to transform and enlighten you. Now you are indestructible and there are no absolute dead ends. This is what we mean when we say we are “saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.” This is not a cosmic transaction, but a human transformation to a much higher level of love and consciousness. You have been plucked from the flames of any would-be death to the soul, and you have become a very different kind of human being in this world. Jesus is indeed saving the world.

Sign up here for meditations from Fr. Rohr, if you appreciate this kind of material.

 

 

An Unfinished Act of God’s Love

Photo Thanks to Greg Rakozy

Photo Thanks to Greg Rakozy

I finished James Loder’s The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective, a book I’ve owned since seminary, a book I’ve returned to a few times, a book I couldn’t read through until the last couple months, 10-11 years after buying it.

I’m not even ready to attempt a review. That’ll take me a few years, but he weaves and integrates physics, science, philosophy, cognitive and psychoanalytic theory, and theology into what is a strong presentation of how we are created as a product of the Creator Spirit, for creative purposes, which despite the losses, changes, and injuries in life, find ultimate repair in the face of God, the person of Jesus. Trust me: there is so much to the book. I’d loan it out but I don’t trust you’d return it to me, evidence, for sure, of my continued need to rebuild torn portions of my self in the face of God.

Nonetheless, I think this quote, his last words in the book, capture the broad, grand work Professor Loder accomplished in this fascinating work. It may not take you ten years to return and read through this material, but if you’re at all inclined for the disciplined reflection hinted at in the words below, be courageous:

In actuality, human development is never experienced as a cycle or a sequence; it often feels more like a few decades of searching, finding, and losing an uncertain fulfillment. But in each person the search is a longing for the eternal intimacy of a love that may be grasped only unclearly and proleptically, but nevertheless profoundly, in the face of a beloved caretaker. At three months of age, before the sense of abandonment begins to dawn upon consciousness, the prototype of the face, the configuration of a gracious presence, is set down. Even in the absence of the face, the longing appears and persists. This anticipation cannot be fulfilled in human terms; indeed, every human effort to solve the dilemma posed by the abyss underlying development only intensifies the difficulty. When the longing for that intimacy is satisfied by the Spiritual Presence of Christ, the Face of God, then the answers to our basic questions may dawn on us. A lifetime is an unfinished act of God’s love; it is intended that we complete that act by returning ourselves to God, directly and through others, in love. In this recognition, we discover that the fundamental data about us are not merely that we are alive and developing, incredible products of a vast expanding universe. Rather, as each life unfolds, gets torn open, stripped of its survival techniques and its passing pleasures, and discovers itself as spirit, then it appears from under the surface that we have been created for nothing less than the pure love of God, whose universe is our home.

Photo Thanks to Michal Kulesza

Photo Thanks to Michal Kulesza

“Uncomplicated Conditioning and Deep-Down Knowing”

Perhaps I am a cynic, but my uncomplicated conditioning and my deep-down knowing about the ubiquity of racism remind me that the invisibility of a symbol is not the same as the absence of racist hate.  I have had numerous interactions with white folk in nice suits, who would turn their nose up at a “redneck” racist, who share the same views but don’t literally wear it like an ornament around their neck.  It’s 2015, it is not okay to wear your racism on your sleeve (or your t-shirt), but that doesn’t mean it is not still carried around.  And that is what worries me.  Deep-seated, hidden, structural, institutionalized racism is just as (if not more) dangerous as out in the open racism because we don’t always recognize it or see it coming.

…In a moment when some faith seems to dictate that some black folk need to forgive (and forget) while some white folk stubbornly hold on to a flag and revisionist version of history that condones their racism and insistence for white supremacy, we have a lot more to worry about than whether or not the rebel flag will live on.  What we know for sure is that nine churchgoers who went to study the bible last week won’t.

Racial oppression doesn’t occur in a vacuum so it cannot be neatly or conveniently taken down (or away) without the residue, implications, consequences and permanent scars of its existence, and neither can the confederate flag.

Go read the rest here.

Thank you, my sister, scholar, teacher, proclaimer of truth, Dr. Robin Boylorn.

A Spiritual Hero

Michael and Gardner C. TaylorYesterday afternoon, the afternoon of Easter, Dr. Gardner C. Taylor died. I will reflect more on his passing, particularly as I said to Dawn on the poetic nature of him dying on Easter. It was fitting in many ways. But here is a quote from our interview with him in 2011, when his voice was as strong as a few months ago when he and Mrs. Taylor wished us a Happy New Year.

I’m literally numbering my days. I’m approaching what in my childhood we would have called my “commencement day.” My stage of life means to be aware that we all are just strangers and pilgrims. We can make this place home sometimes. Our danger is the false notion that it is 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.

 

Public Process Note

I spend time with people who are dying, actively dying, and I spend time with the people who love them. It does and doesn’t get easier to listen to the rises of hope and the slips into sadness as some son imagines the soon-coming death of his mother or to the patient who looks ahead and thinks about not existing anymore.

I know how to stand and sit with a nurse whose patient just died or expired or passed away. I know how to acknowledge the connection between myself and a doctor I met only around the grim and delightful experience of a patient who died late that night a few months back, the recognition between us like a secret we keep to ourselves.

The medical intensive care unit, the on-call experience, the jacket that identifies me in the hospital all lend themselves to wearing the experience of somebody’s grief. Of course, I have my own because I learn something of these good people, I am known in little bits, and I know them in little bits. And then, I carry and hold the grief of others. And it does and doesn’t get easier.

This post isn’t about the skills necessary to carry the grief of others, and it’s not about the ways in which I support people up to the edge and just before the dark unknown that is death. Of course, for the Christian, the reality is that death is a step or slip or movement. Like the shift of one’s body in a gracious dance, death is supposed to be a movement into another life, another part of life. In the words of a young woman who said something I’ll never forget: Whether we live or die, we win. That is a Christian view of death.

The lived experience is murkier. Living with the stories and words and prayers of another as she approaches that existential doorstep into eternity is grounding.

When I woke up this morning, I heard myself say of one of my patients, “He’s not going to die over the weekend” and, shaking my head at the unbidden thought, “He’s not dying today”. Of course, when I arrived for our morning report where we discuss the issues of the previous day, where we talk about who needs to be followed or continually given care, that patient was on the lips of my colleague. She dropped her head and her tone and said she had sad news. It was brutal for that to be saved until the last relay.

I had been right up until that moment. He had not died. In my mind, he was still with us. In truth, his spirit or his intention was waiting on the perimeter of my unconscious, even before I woke, telling me in his own way–or in God’s own way–that he was, in fact, gone.

I was glad, made glad really, that my chaplain colleague was with him when he died. Knowing of his faith and seeing the notes that had been charted, she sat with him and played gospel music for him. She sang to him, held his hand. She was there when he breathed his last breath.

This morning became for me another moment to grieve, another patient I had cared for, another person I had gotten to know. He was another person whose story, in such a compressed time, I learned to appreciate.

I spent the day doing the same things I always do in the hospital. And if you weren’t a colleague of mine or a nurse from my unit, you wouldn’t know that this gentleman was now added to my mental picture of deceased patients. I would remember that he had been in that room. I would associate the number with the first meeting and then the second until I captured what my last prayers for him had been. Had I prayed a prayer of benediction? I generally tried to.

He joined a different cloud of witnesses and not just the one the scriptures speak of. His face became associated with his room so that when I walked by, I said another goodbye, and it was like that on the unit. He was still a teacher to me, a teacher in how to acknowledge what was happening in me, a teacher of remarking on a man’s grace-filled transformation, and how to continually respect the boundary that we give all that we have when we’re there and that when we’re not there, somebody else is.

He became an occasion for me to remember the other patients who I thought of in similar ways, even if there was one or two profound ways that distinguished him forever in my memory. He will be one of the people I look for when I slip through the split in the veil myself one day. I will anticipate him as a host quite like he was when he welcomed me at the hospital, and I believe he’ll be smiling widely and probably calling me by a title and a last name.

Last Breaths

I came to the hospital with televised notions of death. I came thinking of scenes from crime shows and legal shows, where death had already happened or where death came swiftly. I’ve probably read of deaths in fiction where the event stretched a bit. Fanciful notions that never prepared me for being in the room, in the area where that angel hovers. There is nothing like seeing death enter a space, move from one corner to another, and linger.

It seems to me that most deaths come slowly. People die in all kinds of ways. Death is dramatic and traumatic in many cases. Murders and long-term illness. Crimes of passion and crimes of technology. Decisions made by people who care too much and people who don’t care enough. Each can be an agent of death.

I’m learning that life is precious, fragile. The air we have in our lungs is phenomenal in what it does. Lungs make things in our bodies. But that breath leaves. It’s departure sober and quiet. Sometimes it takes a long time for a person to take her last breath. Other times breathing vanished before we really knew it, before the help arrived, before saving interventions began. We had already died, already surrendered to something else, some place else.

Contemplating last breaths makes the next one different. Seeing last breaths daily or almost daily both unhinges me for the silly ways I hear myself wasting air and anchors me in the coming reality of whatever is next. It is certainly a part of my practice that we live toward something and someone and some place beyond these. It makes me italicize last in my mind. Hopefully it’s a spark that ignites better living.