Every time I read something like this, I have a reaction which is both visceral, and yet, sad, and very pained. More painful are comments made – well-meaning – but empty. I mean – let the loonies on the left do their thing – must we come to conclusions about things which we have no true knowledge?
Wearing the weird collar for as long as I have, I confess I have seen the lowest of lows any human could experience, including “suicide” (self-murder) which is, admittedly, the worst. Except – for what many, and even the Church, for many long years have laid blame at the feet of the supposed self-murderer, I have long ago quit even using the word. Even the one I thought might be suicide? The accused self-murderer was clearly not guilty. I’ll explain in a bit.
Many folks pile upon that particular tragedy by pointing out some supposed character fault – some lack of inner strength or the like. The Church, to what I believe is a shame in many cases, automatically bans such a one from a Christian burial or use of the Church graveyard.
Personally, I had any number who came to me for pastoral counseling/Confession with thoughts of doing themselves in. Almost to a person, they were not suicidal, but hurting severely for one reason or another. Helping them work through issues, I began to understand far more fully the nature of blinding pain satan can inflict upon a body and soul. It is, in my humble estimation, beyond our understanding completely. Likewise, what is commonly called “suicide” is not nearly as irreducible as many make it out to be.
I have to speak to it anecdotally – how else can one discuss suicide? A “been there, done that” moment.
I’ve had several I count noteworthy.
The first was my year on internship – almost 34 years ago. Big Jeff – was a big guy, but he had taken much ridicule for his looks. He had a bit of Lurch-like features. although he was was not bad looking and quite intelligent. But as such things play out, he took a ton of ridicule and scorn from – idiots? – best I can say, and had apparently had his fill, and . . .
My supervising pastor was way out of state on a vacation with his wife. The whole function of the congregation was on me, and I got the “phone call.”
“Vicar, is Pastor in?”
“No Jeff, he and his wife are out of state. Can I help you?”
“I’m about to put a bullet in my brain.”
Quite calm – I used the calmness on his part. I knew he had become a beer-a-holic. So I said all I knew to say to give me time to get there.
“Jeff – get two cold ones out. Wait for me. We can have a brew and a few smokes together. Be there in 20.”
I was calm and composed in my voice only – my stomach was doing somersaults.
“Okay, Vicar, I’ll wait for you then. They’re tall-boys, is that okay?”
“That’s great, Jeff. I’m out the door now.” Still keeping calm.
Made it 1/3 the way across a large metro area in 15. When all you have is prayer – well – I did a lot of that the whole way! Knocked on his door, he greeted me with a handshake and a manly sorta shoulder bump, and pointed to a cold one right by his easy chair. He had moved to the sofa. He had his right hand under a pillow at the end of which he was sitting. Didn’t need a degree in rocket science to know why.
“So, good buddy, what’s really happening?” I asked.
He completely broke down sobbing. My own hanky was out then – it was heart-breaking as he recounted so much of the ridicule and abuse he had taken, and then to find out someone he thought was a very close friend had wooed away the one woman who had showed him real interest, and, that led to a new round of tears. I didn’t move – I let him cry himself out, and then he got the oddest look I had ever seen on his face.
“Now Jeffrey!” I told myself, but I stayed calm. It was time.
“Jeff – move the pillow and give it to me.”
That was the biggest gamble I had ever taken to that point in my life or budding vocation.
Oddly enough, he did what I asked. But he looked at it for some bit, and I started to get really worried. Then he just handed it over to me. It was a flipping .45! As he handed it to me and I set the safety and emptied the chamber into my hand, he just asked –
“Vicar – you knew all along what I was holding?”
I handed him his unarmed gun, but he told me to put it on top of the fridge in the basket, he didn’t need it anymore. I did, without a word.
“Vicar – you believed me on the phone.”
“Yes Jeff, I did. I heard your voice. That was enough.”
“I have been so lonely, and no one has ever really listened to me. You did!”
He looked straight at me. Hard eyes, concentrating. Then he suddenly smiled and said –
“I saw you nailed that one I set out for you. Need another?”
I nodded yes, with the thought –
“You don’t know how much I need another, Jeff!”
“Vicar” he began as he handed it to me, his tears still flowing – “I have been so terribly lonely for so long, I felt like God forgot about me. I can’t even describe the pain and feelings of being so useless. I haven’t sat with another adult and just had a beer or two and some smokes and talked in so long I can’t even remember . . .” (then he paused).
“I was going to use it!” (he nodded toward the fridge).
“I know. I’m happy you waited.”
“So am I, Vicar. So am I!”
I asked him if I could call and ask his younger sister, whom he adored, to come on over. He smiled, and she did, in five minutes, and when she walked in he started sobbing again, and told her why I was there and all, well, all of it.
One thing he said to her I have never forgotten:
“Sis – Vicar drove all the way from the Church to hurt with me.”
She took him home to the family. He stayed for several weeks, and – he never missed a Sunday worship after that, and gave up the beer without being asked. My prayers were interesting THAT night, to be sure!
+ + +
The second was – well . . .
She asked me to visit, which I did as a matter of course. I was sitting across from her, and she just smiled, so I started to ask her what she’d like to talk about.
Suddenly she leapt across the space between us, and I found myself staring cross-eyed at who knew what caliber with the barrel pressed firmly into my forehead, as she went off on me and God and her parents and everyone she knew, and told me not to say or speak word one.
Who was I to argue at that moment?
I knew later the Lord heard my “Our Fathers” for sure – He may have never heard that prayer uttered so many times in two minutes or so. I did glance at the prescription bottle on the table. It was empty. Having just heard of Rush’s troubles with oxycontin, I knew she had been taking some serious stuff! And it was loose on the “other” market as well.
After two minutes, she sat back down abruptly, and told me she was going to kill me. I just nodded. Then, she started crying, and I began to speak soothingly to her, and she yelled:
“Stop!” and held the gun to her own temple. She then started to laugh, and by then, well . . . I figured I’d be first, then she’d do herself. Made my peace best I could with the Lord under the circumstances.
And then she began – ten years back – her battles with her mother, her dad refusing to help her, her moving out, and finding friends who really knew how to party and great legal drugs and she didn’t need God or Church or anybody – it was as tense as any moment I have ever known, and then she really broke down crying, and handed me the gun (a .22) in the middle of it all and asked me to call her Dad, who was mercifully there in a few minutes. He mouthed a “thank you” to me, and I handed him the gun, sans bullets.
My collection of bullets was beginning to concern me.
+ + +
The next one, I lost before I knew anything was amiss. Jean, an intellectual of the highest order, and with whom I had many delightful political and theological discussions, called me at the office in near hysterics. She had been upstairs in the the kitchen, heard a loud “pop” from the basement, and she went down to find her youngest son, senior at college and never a problem to her, bleeding his life out from a .22 to his temple. She was, understandably, completely devastated.
I offered to come over immediately, but she said she had just called the police and they were going to be “right there.” Knowing how that works, I told her, get downstairs, and grab any prescription bottle you can find – I’ll be here on the line, as she made her way down, and told me how he never did drugs. She found an oxycontin bottle – scripted for 14 days before seeing the physician again. It was only two days old, and empty. Shyte!
I told her to leave it, the cops did their usual, didn’t even take the bottle, and the coroner just listed it as suicide – fatal gunshot. She came to me in tears after they left, asking me what she should do. She was lost.
I helped her call the coroner’s office for a death certificate, and also made arrangements for her two days later to meet with the funeral home. Then I asked her if she could bring her older son, and his wife, and come to my office the next day. She said she would. I led her to the sanctuary and had a very short service and gave her the Eucharist. She told me she would be okay until tomorrow, and she would make her older son and his wife be there.
Her youngest, now deceased, had come to Worship with her every 3-4 weeks or so – so that much I knew was okay. Her oldest? Oy vey! He had begun playing the market on his own coming out of high school, and by 32, his age at his brother’s death, was worth several million or more. He swore off God and religion, which broke his mother’s heart, spent little or no time with her or his brother. He spent the coldest months of the year cruising the Caribbean in his yacht with his wife and two children, who had a private tutor. He was 7 years my junior and unapproachable. I simply decided to ignore him pretty much and talk to Jean when they came in.
I asked her if she had searched around after the police left – she had, which I knew she would.
“I went through everything of his, and checked under or over or in everything in his room and in the family room downstairs. Nothing! But that’s no help, really, is it Pastor? He committed suicide. Before I became a Lutheran, I was Catholic – I know you cannot give him a funeral or bury him.”
I looked at her son for a hard minute till he broke his stare at me, and still looking at him, I said to Jean –
“Call the funeral home as soon as you get home – tell them the coroner has the body and the certificate of death, and tell them I have Friday reserved for his Funeral Service.”
I had placed a few calls myself. Her older son’s demeanor never changed. Classic stoicism.
She almost barged into my office two hours later.
“He committed suicide! Won’t you be challenged by your superiors?” I don’t want for you . . .”
“Jean – sit. Chill. Listen to me. I’ve already spoken with Pastor E (the Senior Pastor), and told him everything, He, as do I, know those pills did the deed, not your son. When I was ordained, the text where Jesus told the Apostles, His first pastors – that whatever they bound on earth (in sin) was bound in Heaven, and whatever was loosed (forgiven) on earth was loosed in Heaven was part of the readings. I take my pastoral vows as seriously as any pastor ever could. Neither Pastor E nor I can find a single reason for any ‘binding’ to occur.”
She started crying softly, and I asked her to go to her older son, that he wouldn’t say so, but he was hurting badly, too. Tell him of the arrangements, and all I said.
On Friday, while it was supposed to be private, there was a pretty sizable number there. A lot of students and friends of her youngest, but in the front row with Jean, was her older son and whole family. He listened to everything in the sermon, which was forgiveness and the Resurrection and eternity – the only theme there can be at a Christian Funeral. Did the same at the grave – including the water and Trinitarian blessing on the casket, the handfuls of dirt after it was lowered into the grave – everything as should be done.
+ + +
A bit over a month late, I accepted a call as Senior Pastor on the other side of the state. About six weeks later, I got a surprise call from Jean, how my doing the funeral had just turned everything around in her family. He older son and wife had taken the pastor’s class, become members, and they sat as a family every Sunday, with the kiddies enrolled in the day school She was effusive, and I told her on the phone:
“Jean – I promised/vowed in my call there 4 years ago, that I would do what the Lord would want, not what I thought best Seems he had a plan in place, eh?”
+ + +
And so, as St, Paul would say in his summations, I have been there, done that, and even given the one instance, lived to tell about it. I was once threatened with a shotgun, but that is not applicable here and might be a future post.
I have just found it presumptuous of those who, without any investigation of any kind, use some imagined character fault or notes (often written under the greatest duress), or without knowing exactly that from which a given soul might already be suffering, to “judge” in the worst sense – κρίνω/κataκρίνω – which in context of Jesus’ words of prohibition to us to do, indicate everlasting judgment, seems way beyond our capabilities.
Way above our pay grade, Sports Fans! We must, in all things and all circumstances, properly apply Law and Gospel. On supposed “suicides” – I believe it is time for many, and the Church, to go back to that approach as a default position.
Not surprisingly, it’s almost humorous how that can change everything. I cannot speak to Mr. Owens situation, but somehow, I more than suspect there is more to it than meets the eye.
And in any case, when in doubt, let the Gospel rule, for God’s sake!