A well-known pastor, evangelist and motivational speaker in my denomination died this week. I’ve been thinking a lot about the circumstances surrounding his death, and what they suggest about the way we as church and community members relate to our leaders and to each other. I had to write this blog post to clear up some of what’s swirling around in my head.
I’m not going to use the name of the man who died for the simple reason that I don’t want this post to pop up when people google his name looking for information about his death. I don’t have any particular knowledge or insight about the man himself and others who knew him are better qualified to speak about that. Rather, I want to talk about how we respond when we learn that someone we may have respected and admired had died in a way that casts doubt on the very things we admired about him — in this case, when a person has committed suicide. I’m confident that every Seventh-day Adventist reading this will know about whom I’m writing, and anybody who’s not SDA won’t have a clue. That’s good, because it means you can fill in the blanks with the name of someone you admire, someone you’ve always believed has it all together in his or her personal life, whether in the church or in the wider community.
I’ve been pleased to see, in the online response to this man’s suicide, less judgement and condemnation than I think would have been present a generation ago. I think we have all come further in our understanding of the tragedy of suicide and of mental illness (after his death, the preacher’s family revealed that he had suffered from a serious but unspecified mental illness). But there’s still been an element of shock layered on top of the natural shock of sudden death — a kind of shock and horror that would not be present if death had been due to a sudden heart attack or brain aneurysm. There’s still a struggle to accept that mental illness is as real and can be as deadly as physical illness, that people can’t just snap out of it with enough faith or a positive enough attitude.
I didn’t really know this man. I had regular encounters with him over a six-week period back in 1997, when he and his wife came to St. John’s to hold a series of evangelistic meetings at our church. At the time I was trying really hard to have a good attitude about public evangelism and my husband and I pitched in and volunteered throughout the whole series. While I can’t say we got to know the preacher well, we certainly had a few conversations with him. He was famous for his mile-a-minute rapid-fire preaching style and his astounding level of energy. I admired his enthusiasm, his sense of humour, and the fact that I once heard him quote Garth Brooks in a sermon. There were other aspects of his preaching style that I wasn’t as comfortable with, and the independent ministry that he started after he left off being a church evangelist was the kind of motivational-speaker, borderline-prosperity-gospel that I’m instinctively suspicious of. I have a problem with versions of Christianity that seem to emphasize victory and success at the expense of ignoring struggle, suffering, and pain. At this juncture it’s hard not to reflect on the fact that at least in this one case, the public message of success and victory through the God’s power was being promoted by someone who was all too familiar with struggle and pain in his private life. But I have no desire to pass judgement on his life or his work. He was deeply committed to his faith and a lot of people were led to a closer relationship with God through his ministry. And many of those same people are now devastated by how his life ended.
The wisest words I’ve ever read about suicide come from two apparently secular sources. One is a novel called Girls Forever Brave and True by Caryl Rivers in which a Roman Catholic priest has to preach at the funeral of a recovering alcoholic who relapsed and committed suicide. In that sermon he says, “The measure of a life lived is not its ending, but its battles fought. Bill fought as hard as he was able. Let us honour him for that.” I suspect this is also true of the preacher I knew who died this week — he had obviously been fighting a long, hard battle, and should be judged by the life he lived, not by how that life ended.
The other wise words come from Ron Hynes’s beautiful song “Godspeed,” written in honour of songwriter Gene MacLellan, who committed suicide in 1995. The song in its entirety (go on, click the link and listen to it) has comforted me everytime I’ve heard of someone taking their own life. Maclellan wrote, among other things, the gospel song “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and one verse of Hynes’ tribute song goes:
You put your hand in the hand of the Man
You must have believed He would understand
And forgive a sweet soul a desperate deed … God speed.
Faith in God’s merciful forgiveness is what we all cling to when anyone’s life comes to such a tragic end. But for those of us who are left behind, especially those who are part of religious communities and other communities where we have the tendency to make heroes out of our leaders, I think there are also lessons to be learned. One of those lessons is well outlined by my friend and fellow Adventist writer Jennifer Jill Schwirzer on her blog this week, where she wrote about the importance of being honest with each other about our struggles, making the gap between our public personas and our real selves as small as possible.
>Another lesson, I think, is one we all need to remember when we look at each other. We need to remember that honesty comes hard for some people. Often, because of the positions people hold, there are strong incentives not to be honest. Some may feel that to hold onto a job or a position or their reputation, they have to cover up the dark side, the shadow-side, the 95% of the iceberg that’s underwater. Call it what you will, it’s the part of all us that struggles and cries out in anguish — but those cries are often silent, the anguish hidden behind a smiling face.
I wish that I would never judge anyone easily or glibly again. That I would never assume anyone is all right because he or she looks and acts all right. That I would never discount the struggles or heartaches another person may be going through. It’s easy for me when I look at, say, my students, young people whose lives I know to be hard and full of struggle. I can find compassion easily there, and they are so honest and have so little left to lose that the pain is all out on the surface. But what about the people with the shiny, polished surfaces? The pastor, the evangelist, the inspiring speaker or writer? The pastor’s wife (or husband) who is relied up on to show an untroubled surface? That leader in the community who inspires others?
Let me never forget that a well-polished facade, a smiling Christian face, can hide pain and struggles I can only dream of. Teach me, Lord, to have compassion, and never to assume anyone is “Okay.”