Church as Suicide Prevention

Every suicide is a tragedy. Particularly and uniquely, they are tragic as individual ends to individually beautiful images. Outside the death of an infant or child, I cannot think of a more tangled web of sorrows and regret. But that’s one of the reasons I’m thankful that God gave us the Church. The Church has a tremendous opportunity to function as suicide prevention at a time when “deaths of despair” are reaching epidemic rates in my generation alone. 

The Philippian Jailer in America

In my state, the average suicide rate is one person every eight hours. Three people a day is a horrific prospect. That said, 77% of adults in Missouri profess to be Christians. I’m approaching this as a confessional Protestant. In my state, 77% of the population claims to be Christian and yet three people a day commit suicide. I wonder if one could help the other.

I know that not everyone who says they are a Christian know what Christians believe or attend a church with any regularity. But what if churches could function as suicide prevention? Christians are prone to depression and dark thoughts (myself among them), but what if the communities of faith were vigilant in the detection and the prevention of suicide in their own spheres of influence?

In the book of Acts, chapter 16, the apostle Paul and Silas are imprisoned in jail in the Roman colony of Philippi because they were proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Around midnight, the other prisoners are listening as Paul and Silas are singing hymns when a massive earthquake hits. But there’s a miraculous element to the quake in that the doors are opened and everyone’s bonds are loosed. The jailer wakes up (because who can sleep through an earthquake?) and sees that the prison doors are open. And what does he do? He prepares to commit suicide. 

Knowing that shame, unemployment, and probably death would be waiting for him with the sunrise, the Philippian jailer draws his sword and is prepared to fall upon it. In a single moment, he is utterly devoid of hope. He has no chances of making it out of this situation on top. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was on his last strike. We’re not told. But his immediate response to a hopeless situation is to end himself. But then what happens?

Acts 16:28- ” But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer is converted and baptized. Now, I know that, in context, “we are all here” referred to Paul and Silas and the other prisoners. But it strikes me that this is the perfect word for the Church towards those who struggle with the darkness and contemplate snuffing out their own lights. 

What if the Church were to call out, with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we all here”? In my time as a youth pastor, I’ve seen teenagers wrestle with depression. Some have fought daily and triumphed. Some have rolled the stone away, only to be crushed under its weight in a weak moment. Some have cut themselves to feel something, even if it’s pain and shame. Many have starved themselves to feel valuable. I’ve seen death claim the image of God. And who knows how many countless others totter on the edge, doing the dark math of a cold cost-benefit analysis? 

Do not harm yourself, for we all are here. We are all here. The scared and scarred, the addicts and the recovering, the self-righteous and the prodigals. We are all here and we are here for you, to support you and hold you and shield you from the night. So do not harm yourself. If the Church is the Church, you are never alone. Never without hope. The dawn will always break upon you in the arms of Christ.

Do Not Harm Yourself

If you are considering ending your life, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and just start talking.And then find a church. There are multiple ways to find a local church that will love you and take the time to be there with you:

The Church can be priceless shelters of prevention and you need only reach out.

We Are All Here

Reach out. If you feel that someone is fighting against the darkness, reach out. Even if are utterly untrained, just say something. Trained professionals can always (and should) be contacted later. But the first step is to keep your eyes open and be the Church enough to see how someone’s really doing.Depression often wears a smile. Don’t be fooled by the masks. Make sure that your church is a safe place where people can admit that they are not doing well and that they sometimes consider removing themselves from the equation. We are all here- those who cry without knowing why and those with shoulders to cry on. Christ died for all.

Do not harm yourself, for we are all here. And we are all here for you.

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The Marginal Church

If American Christianity returns to the margins, it might help the American Church. Jesus was born in the margins, as was his Church. And the Church has usually flourished (or at least improved her health) in the margins of society. This is not a call to embrace victim status, but a reminder of the hope and resilience of Christ’s Bride.

Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, caused a stir last week by stating, without hesitation, that congregations and religious institutions that “oppose same-sex marriage” should lose their tax exempt status. Smarter folks than me have already piled on the think pieces and I have no intention of adding to the noise. If the polls are to be believed (and when have they ever been wrong?), O’Rourke won’t be sitting in the Oval Office in 2020. However, it got me thinking. Election years tend to make me ponder the apocalyptic. What if we were to lose tax-exempt status? Aside from how devastating that would be to our churches and colleges (not to mention to traditional mosques and synagogues and charities), I wonder if some good would come of it? Might it not return Christianity to the margins, where it has always done well?

When I say, “the margins”, I mean the segments of society that are powerless, voiceless, and despised. In first century Roman Palestine, the margins included:

  • the poor
  • the needy
  • the widow
  • the orphan (and children, generally speaking)
  • the sojourner
  • the refugee
  • the outcast (lepers, disabled, demon-afflicted)
  • those in prison
  • the persecuted

If the American Church were suddenly pushed back into to the margins, would she be alright? Well, yes. She would. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. But I think she would also do well (even as she suffered) because her Lord was born in the margins, she was born in the margins, and she has grown well in the margins.

The Holy Family in the Margins

Just as the Israelites “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.22:21), Jesus spent time as a refugee fleeing to Egypt with his parents. Jesus was a displaced person (Matthew 2:13-15). John Chrysostom observed that Jesus was homeless “even when he came in swaddling clothes. Thus you see even at his birth a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing, and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. Similarly, you yourself need not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is not inconsistent with the hidden ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of travail Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. All of them were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive” (Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 8.3).

While we shouldn’t seek or pray for persecution, when if comes, we are in good company. “When you flee in Egypt, you come to these steep ascents of faith and action. You face a tower, a sea and waves. The way of life is not pursued without the waves of temptation” (Origen, Homilies on Exodus 5.3). And it was because Jesus’ family fled as refugees from King Herod’s infanticide that Jesus could one day, voluntarily, seek out the cross and not flee death, but taste it for all of us.

If we are to be of the margins, we are not going anywhere Christ has not been. And neither, for that matter, would it be new ground for us.

Born in the Margins

Most Christians in the world live in or near the margins of the world. But a particular comfort for the American church is look back at the early church. According to the historian Rodney Stark, by the year 350 there were an estimated 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire. That’s 56.5% of the Empire that claimed Christ as Lord. By the end of the first century, Christians made up 0.01%. By the end of the second century, they made up 0.36%. Emperor Constantine skewed the numbers for us after this, but the Church was certainly a marginal people early on. Some historians even put the percentages lower than Stark does before Constantine.

Nevertheless, as Alan Kreider points out in his excellent research:

  • “Christian numbers were growing impressively in the first three centuries.
  • This growth varied tremendously from place to place. In certain areas (parts of Asia Minor and North Africa) there were considerable numbers of Christians. But in other areas there were few believers. And some cities, such as Harran in Mesopotamia, were known to be virtual ‘Christian-free’ zones.
  • By the time of Constantine’s accessions, the churches not only had substantial numbers of members; they extended across huge geographical distances and demanded the attention of the imperial authorities.”

A cynic might suggest that Constantine hitched his chariot to a winning horse as he saw Christian populations exploding. At any rate, before it was made legal, Christianity was flourishing (though not everywhere) even though it was despised as atheistic, incestuous, and secretive (see Justin Martyr’s First and Second Apologies). But that’s alright. We’ve done well in such environments.

Thriving in the Margins

Like a flower growing up out of a sidewalk crack, Christianity seems to increase through confines. From the modern example of the Chinese church growing even as the government destroys their buildings to the distant past, she has grown with an almost reckless exuberance.

After the death of Stephen in Acts 7, a massive persecution breaks out against the Christians in Jerusalem. But what happens? What happens when you blow on a dandelion and the seeds scatter all over your yard. Acts 8 begins by telling us that as the persecution spread, so did the church.

In Tertullian’s Apologeticus, he says that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” “We not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (Heb.12:4), but we have no had cause yet. If anything, we have cozied up to power in a manner reminiscent of those religious leaders who feared to lose their position and their place (John 11:48). But Christianity thrives in the margins, not in bed with the state.

Conclusion

Will the church in America lose her tax-exempt status? Will we lose our religious liberty as the country continues to bow to Venus in worship? Will our sense of conviction and character crumble as we seek to clutch at our fading influence? I don’t know. But if the track record of Christ’s Bride is any indication, she will be fine. And it’s not because she is inherently bulletproof. It is because her Lord conquered death. And though I do not welcome it, I think we will be alright in the margins. That’s where this all started, after all.

Rood Dreams

The killing tree.

Roman crucifixion was a brutal and barbaric punishment reserved for slaves and thugs. And it is that cross, that holy instrument of torture that was set aside for Christ, for my salvation.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet.2:24).

Around 750 A.D., an anonymous poet wrote a piece called The Dream of the Rood. “Rood” is the Old English word for “cross.” It’s a remarkable telling of the crucifixion from the point of view of the rood.

The author highlights the shame and the glory of that killing tree. Jewels and blood adorn it. It was tragedy and triumph all together. Today is what the Lutherans and Anglican call “Holy Cross Day.”

It is the tree of glory on which almighty God suffered for the many sins of mankind and for the old deeds of Adam. There he tasted death, but still the Lord rose again with his might power, to the benefit of men” (lines 68-70, para.10).

Enjoy.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Hobgoblins in Winter

There’s a certain value in tears. Life in the vale is sweet, but so often salty. There are times when the sun is full and the air is warm and even the nights are full of honey and moonlight.

But we cannot always live in those perpetual springtimes. Especially after great tragedies or relentless circumstances, we find ourselves in “the winter of our discontent,” even while our hair is more pepper than salt.

I’ve heard believers in Jesus say that depression is simply an issue or evidence of unrepentant sin in your life. Just read more Psalms and double down in your prayers, and the melancholy will lift. I can’t decide if such an understanding is cruel or only naive.

But going on four years now, I’ve found it’s more like a grey hobgoblin, a mixture of neurochemistry and one sorrow treading upon the heel of the first. Eventually, he slides off your shoulders, but it’s only to slink away to find a cozy shadow. It’s not to beat a panicked retreat to the abyss, never to return again. I have developed multifaceted strategies for prevention, but the best real time treatment, I’ve found, is to not leave the house and just go to bed.

We don’t talk about it in the Church. Evangelicals, in particular, get nervous around it. Depression is one of those sadnesses that Christ will undo someday. But until then, we must learn keep each other warm in the winter.

Turning the Wheel

I am a Protestant through and through. This is why I love church history. To go back into church history is to become more and more Protestant. The Reformers were so helpful in their calling the Church to repent from her wanderings. But as an honest Protestant, I need to admit that there were some overcorrections that happened in the 16th century and we are still feeling their effects.

In a pre-Reformation church, the altar was the central focus and the “pulpit”, such as it was, was off to the side. Protestants flipped the architecture on its head. The pulpit became the magnet to which all eyes were drawn because of the centrality of the Scripture and that preached faithfully. There’s much to commend in rearranging the furniture in that way.

But I fear it may have simply caused an equal and opposite problem. This is why ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the Church must always be reformed). Not that we are constantly changing ourselves out of restlessness or chasing fads, but that we are constantly reforming ourselves to be more like Christ’s Bride.

The sermon is not the focus of a church service. The gospel is.

I say that as someone who, until quite recently, preached for the last six years as a minister of the gospel one to two times a week. I love preaching. I love creating sermons that are helpful and clear. It’s wonderful and humbling to see the Holy Spirit take a sermon and run with it. It’s like watching your little paper boat get blown across the lake at top speed.

But I would invite you to think of the liturgy as a wheel.

(Brief aside: liturgy means “work of the people.” Some traditions call it the order of service. It can be “high church” with incense and bells or “low church” with acoustic guitars and blue jeans. Even if your church service is simply announcements, a few songs, and a sermon, that is a liturgy. That’s how I’m using this word.)

So, think of the liturgy as a wheel. The hub at the center is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out from that central hub are the spokes. Each spoke is a means of grace: prayer, Scripture reading, singing, giving, the Lord’s Supper, the sermon, baptism, confession, etc. That all lead to and draw from the cross of Christ at the center. And the rim around the hub, the tire, is fellowship. It is the communion of saints. The means of grace spin the wheel of fellowship around the hub of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We move forward only when centered around the cross. Otherwise, the wheel doesn’t spin. Otherwise, we’re stuck in neutral, learning perhaps or praying mightily, but not really going anywhere as a church. The liturgy needs to be orbited around the good news of what Jesus has done for sinful people to bring them back to a holy God. And the sermon does that.

But so too does the Eucharist. That’s why I’m an advocate of weekly communion. Richard Barcellos has written a wonderful book from a Reformed Baptist perspective on how the Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace. I recommend it. It’s a conduit to strengthen our faith in the gospel which is of first importance. But regardless of how often it is celebrated, my point is that it matters as a strengthening exercise for our faith in what Christ has done for us.

Confession, also, brings us back to the gospel. As do responsive readings of Scripture. Reciting the Creed strengthens our faith in Christ alone. These are all spokes on the wheel that make fellowship go forward, but only if that’s a centering around the gospel.

This understanding does not devalue the sermon or the word of God. On the contrary, it properly utilized them as channels of sanctifying grace from the Father that push us deeper into the Scriptures to find the truth of his gospel there. Likewise, this does not unequally elevate Communion or prayer above the other means of grace. The spokes on the wheel are the same length and of the same importance in making the wheel turn. The Church needs all the gifts that her Lord has bestowed upon her.

However a church orders its liturgy, whatever percentage of time is allocated to whichever means of grace, my point is this: that the gospel is centralized and focused in everything that happens, that it all be done “in the name of the Lord.” That’s how we ought to live anyway, right? It seems prudent that we ought to worship that way as well.