Trigger warning: this post contains mention of suicide.
Recently, an old friend from high school contacted me. We hadn’t been in touch for a number of years. I’m still shuddering in disbelief and shock at the news she delivered: 3 suicides in the past 7 months – all people we went to school with.
I wasn’t particularly close to these people, but I have specific memories of two of them. The first, I will refer to as T.
He was popular, and athletic; I was quiet, and book-smart. We never spoke unless it was out of necessity. Except that one time, at his graduation. He was drunk. (Which probably explains why he approached me.) We were talking about his girlfriend.
“You’ve been together a long time,” I said. “Do you think you’ll get married?”
“I hope so,” he replied.
I remembered this conversation, a day or two before I heard about his suicide. Coincidence? Perhaps. Except that, otherwise, I would have no reason to think of them. A woman walked by me at a campground who reminded me of his girlfriend.
Wonder if they ever got married? I thought to myself, smiling inwardly. They were together for such a long time. Popular in school; and confident and smart enough to probably land good jobs and have a few kids, by now.
As I know now, he never married her, but married another woman and had 3 boys. Apparently, his father had committed suicide when he was young, also leaving 3 young boys – he and his brothers. Man, the things you don’t know about a person.
The second guy – C – had left school for a while, and then came back to attend Grade 12 the same year I was. He wore cowboy boots, and a stern expression, and you could always hear the steady beat of his feet as he walked staunchly up and down the halls. I was afraid of him. Until, he joined our class and I realized his temperament wasn’t as harsh as his appearance. He chose our graduation motto – “Well Worth the Wait,” from the song “Long Time Running” by The Tragically Hip. He was quoted in the local paper, talking about how great it felt to finish high school and how glad he was that he had come back.
However, a couple of months before grad, just as the winter was lifting, there had been a tragedy in our town. Three local guys were involved in a car crash that took their lives. Two of them were supposed to have graduated with us.
To my surprise, the principal of our school asked me to read a few verses of scripture at the funeral. I accepted, feeling as though I had been handed something sacred. As I stood behind the podium of that small Catholic church, overlooking two coffins, I read the weighty words of apostle Paul, and struggled to comprehend them:
“For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:53-57 NIV
I wasn’t sure what those verses would mean to anyone until one day, after the funeral, C approached me outside the gymnasium at school. He cried. He thanked me for reading at the funeral, and hugged me, and talked about how the words had encouraged him. He said something about death and how the reading had made him realize how little power it had.
Honestly, I didn’t quite get it yet, myself. But I was glad that he did.
And all in all, I thought that, probably, he’d be ok.
I struggle to reconcile, in my mind, my recollection of C those years ago – hope-filled, and somewhat at peace – with the knowledge that he has now taken his life. Or how T – who from outward appearances, checked the boxes we use to predict a successful life – would find himself in such a pit that he would leave his sons in the same way his father left him. Though I barely knew these men, it brings tears to my eyes. Was there something I could have done? Something I could have said? I feel an urge to go back to my hometown, and do something about this epidemic of despair. But what could I do?
And I think about the church. I think about how a pandemic has closed its doors. I think about the congregation, the individual people. Those of us whose faith has, perhaps, cooled off…being lulled away down a nonchalant path of apathy, self-service, and disconnect.
I see the normalization of substance use and abuse. The churches must shut down. But liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries remain open, because people rely on them to cope. May I remind you: 3 suicides in 7 months, in a tiny, alcohol and drug-saturated town. How well are we coping?
A culture that also normalizes, or even glorifies, killing and dying, while diminishing the sacrilege of human life. Where defenseless, unborn children, unhesitatingly and unblinkingly, have their lives taken away. (And no, the pandemic hasn’t slowed that down, either.) Where resources that could have gone to improving palliative care are diverted to legalize assisted dying, and the aged or ill can choose to end their lives rather than live out the remainder of their allotted days with friends and families.
Where children are regularly fed images of death and darkness: skulls, zombies, vampires, ghosts, demons, and themes of being possessed by evil. (Just watch the cartoons.)
I don’t want to point fingers, or shame anyone. I write this to myself as much as anyone. But please, let’s awake to the fact that evil has not slowed down. Let’s not become so enclosed in our self-isolating bubbles that we forget the role of the church in offering hope to the people who may be grappling for it. Could we, perhaps, seek them out? Could we find them?
No, I don’t quite know how to, either. But what is the church, besides a body of people who love the Lord and love other people? Is the church a building, whose doors are nailed shut? A system, vulnerable to breakdown and financial collapse?
Or is it individuals, banded together in hope and love? If you love the Lord, He has undoubtedly saved, healed, or dragged you through something. Was it despair, that He delivered you from? Depression? Illness? Abuse? Death? Addiction? Suicide? Divorce? Tell someone. They may be scrambling to find the hope that you now have.
Who reached out to you? Which member or members of the church body held out their hands, their Bibles, their homes, their hearts? Remember them. Do not despise or diminish the power of the church.
The church is an essential service. Undoubtedly so, more than ever. You can close the building. But you can’t shut down the church.
Let us not forget, to be the church.
“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16:18-19 NIV
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Revelation 1:18 NIV
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Proverbs 18:21 NIV
How do you think the church’s role has changed because of the world wide pandemic? What are our responsibilities, as Christians, in light of the present situation? How may we reach out to others? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.