On the Suicide of a Preacher’s Son

Rick Warren
Rick Warren (Photo credit: kev/null)

 

By now we have all heard the news of the tragic suicide of the youngest son of Pastor Rick Warren, Matthew. He was just 27 years old. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/06/son-of-pastor-rick-warren-commits-suicide/?hpt=hp_t2)

 

Suicide committed by anyone is tragic and sad …and unbelievably painful…but I imagine that when it’s the preacher’s kid, the pain for the family is even greater. People have expectations of preachers and their families that are too often unrealistic. The kids are under tremendous pressure, and their lives are often more scrutinized, with more criticism leveled at them with less empathy, sympathy and/or understanding that one might expect religious people to dole out.

 

It is a fact that preachers’ kids often feel more isolated, more alone …and many times, more angry than other kids. They are held to a higher standard, and they grow sensitive to what “the saints” say about them, to them, or say around them. They often, but by no means always, grow up with a bitter taste in their mouths about “church folk” and organized religion. Families of the preacher often tread in deep water with swift and unrelenting undercurrents …and nobody seems to care. One of the most powerful moments for me came several years ago when a member said to me that she wanted to embrace my children, that they had “lent” me out to people for years and nobody had really embraced them. That was the first and only time anyone had said anything like that to me. I appreciated it, and so did my children.

 

But that kind of sensitivity to preachers, their families and their children is only too rare. We can only imagine the pain of Rick and Kay Warren. Unfortunately, however, there are sure to be people who are whispering about the Warren family and their troubled son. Some will say that while Pastor Rick was ministering to people all over the world, he “couldn’t even” deal with his own son. That is the reality, too often, of church culture.

 

What people do not realize, or care to realize, is that the preacher is a human being, as are his/her children. The expectations on both are unrealistic, and people who are “with you” on one day are “against you” on yet another. There are only a very few who embrace the preacher and his/her family sincerely, with no agenda.

 

The attitude of people toward mental illness is poor in general; nobody wants to identify or share that he or she is mentally ill – and yet, so many of us are!  Ironically, the church, where it should be “safe” to talk about and share one’s struggles, including debilitating depression, multiple personalities, bi-polar disease, schizophrenia – has no monopoly for doling out kindness and/or legitimate help and compassion.

 

And if the one with the mental illness is the preacher’s son or daughter, chances are the compassion is even less.

 

Of course, I am not saying that that is or was the case with Matthew. Perhaps Saddleback Church was very compassionate and helpful and supportive, but churches in general are not known to be that way. Unfortunately, too many churches are known to be unkind, exclusive and judgmental, and the children of the preachers know that very well.

 

Add to the already painful situation that many individuals consider suicide to be cowardly. I had only one person in my congregation commit suicide while I was pastor, and I tried my best to draw the attention of people to her gifts, and to an acknowledgement of her pain. I suggested that she, who was one to express her love for God in praise and movement, was dancing in heaven, comforted by God. While some in attendance at her funeral received what I said, others were so angry that when I reached out to them to hug them, they turned away. People in general are not so forgiving and understanding when it comes to suicide.

 

I am praying that at Saddleback, the love will outweigh any criticism or judgment that may be there. I am praying that the suicide of the preacher’s son will be an opportunity for people to show the love of God for that family and for the young man who was so unhappy that he chose to be with God on his time, not God’s. I am sure God understands, but I’m not sure about the people.

 

A candid observation …

 

 

 

 

 

Ritual vs Reponsibility

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997); at a pro-life meeting in 1986 in Bonn, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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see filename (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something beautiful and mesmerizing about ritual, such as that we are seeing as the Roman Catholic cardinals who have processed into the Sistine Chapel, ready to begin the concave that will result in the election of a new pope.

The garb of the cardinals, their slow procession, the haunting Gregorian chants being sung, the swell of organ music…could make one settle into a spirit of piety – which I imagine people do – and actually feel closer to God for a few moments.

But ritual has its drawbacks. While many have argued that we need it, it seems not beyond the pale to believe that too many of us get seduced by ritual, leaving the work of “the church” in the dust.

We too often want to “feel holy,” but are unable and/or unwilling to “do holy,” meaning, “do” the acts and the work which bring those who are suffering into a relationship with God and a new relationship with their world.

Holy rituals, it seems, ought to inspire holy action.  The music, the prayers, the smell of candles and incense, and, finally, the taking of the Holy Eucharist, are not in place just to make humans feel good, or at least that should not be the case. All of the aforementioned ought to make humans “do” good, and “good,” for the purposes of this essay, is helping those who cannot help themselves.

My guess is that everyone reads the Bible with different eyes. Reading is as much a cultural experience as it is a scholarly venture, but when I read the first chapter of Isaiah, where Yahweh says through his prophet Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord…The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? I have more than enough of burnt offering…Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me!…learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow,”  what seems perfectly clear to me is most probably interpreted differently by one who is from a different culture.

The old rituals are as beautiful as they are old…but they were never meant to be ends in and of themselves. What rituals, in fact, what organized religion have largely done, is boxed people into structures, bound by rules and bylaws and budget issues, leaving the “oppressed,” the “fatherless,”  and the “widow” to pretty much fend for themselves.

Someone asked me the other day, “Why, when churches,especially Catholic churches, have so much money are there so many homeless, hungry people?  Does God care about people for real?” Well, it was too loaded a question for me to answer on the spot, but that person is not the first who has asked such a question. What we forget, though, even those of us who ask those questions, is that “the church” is not a building, filled with beautiful, music-bolstered ritual, but is, rather, “we the people.” The world gets better, gets more just and right in the eyes of God by people who understand that very basic distinction and who combine faith and works.

It is easy to be cynical when we see so much suffering in the world, leading us to doubt God, or God’s presence, but the problem isn’t God. According to all I have read, God did not create nor does God require, all the ritual with which we involve ourselves. All we are required to do is “do” the work of God while we are yet alive.

Participating in ritual, though, is more fun, less time-consuming …and, well, spiritually seductive.

Discussion on this always leads to a cultural “fight” over what and who God is, and what God requires. Many will say that Jesus, sent by God, was a socialist, or at least believed in social justice as it is taught today. Others identify that same Jesus as a hard-core capitalist, come pointing to the Parable of the Talents, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are the cultural “eyes” mentioned before. It is quite frustrating to both sides that the other side does not or will not “get it.”

There are so many people caught up in wretched lives, there because of a variety of reasons, but many of them for reasons over which they had little control. Like the poor in Calcutta, where Mother Teresa began her great work, there are “Calcutta” situations everywhere, and remarkably few willing to go and “live amongst” them by offering the deepest and most complete service they can. Too time-consuming. Too distasteful

So, it’s just easier to settle into a Sunday worship experience, and a little heavy ritual from time to time doesn’t hurt. It reminds us of the mysterious tremendum of God. We would rather think about that than “do holy” and minister to people who , far away from ritual, are hurting and lost. The doors of the amazing Sistine Chapel have just been closed; the work of finding a new pope has officially begun. The high ritual has ended…and the world is not changed.

A candid observation …

 

What Does the Bible Say, Really?

There are some things we just don’t think about.

Susan Thistlewaite, Chicago Theological Seminary professor, author and scholar, gives some sobering information in her latest book, Occupy the Bible. She says that we ought to read the Bible from the perspective of the homeless, the hungry, the economically stressed.

It was from their perspective that Jesus formed his ministry, she says …and the Bible says.

In a workshop she gave, she said, “Student debt is approaching one trillion dollars. That’s more than credit card debt and if the trend continues, in a few years, student debt will be higher than the national debt. We need to read the Bible from that perspective.”

Students are stressed out and depressed. They have gone to school and gotten degrees, only to find that they are not able to get work, or enough money to pay their student loans.”Students are stressed out and depressed,” Thistlewaite said. “Some are committing suicide.”

There are a lot of reasons for the economic state of this nation, but greed is a big one, posits Thistlewaite. Greed has led banks and other financial institutions, including those which dole out student loans, to go haywire, thinking not about the people who are getting the loans they are giving out but instead by the profit they will make off people who are really trying to make an honest living.

Jesus was a revolutionary, primarily because he challenged the Roman government. He didn’t get into trouble because he taught people to love; he got in trouble because he challenged the status quo. He got into trouble because he taught people that the kingdom in which they should seek comfort was the heavenly kingdom, where there was fairness and equality amongst people,  not the earthly kingdom, headed by the Romans, which led people into economic despair and support economic inequality.

“Theology begins where pain is,” says Thistlewaite. And clearly, there is pain amongst the people who are working and still cannot make ends meet. That group includes students, but also the so-called “working poor,” who, in spite of working sometimes two and three jobs, are still struggling to keep their heads above water. The economic state of our nation is slowly wiping out the middle class, and, observes Thistlewaite, there can be no democracy without a middle class.

Our economic dilemma is made all the worse as the issue is argued using the Bible as justification for both liberal and conservative positions. Thistlewaite says that “the Right thinks the Bible supports free market capitalism.” The Left, conversely, uses the Bible to support an economy which supports equal distribution of wealth. Parables, like found in the Book of Matthew 25:14-30, where a wealthy landowner gave three different “slaves” (translated from the Greek “doulos”) rewarded the two who multiplied money given to them, and cast out the one who hid the money given to him, invite two different interpretations, one from the Left, one from the Right. Who, in that parable and others, is doing the will of God, asks Thistlewaite.

One Bible. Two desperately different interpretations …and the odd men out are the struggling, working poor.

We don’t want to think about the state of our economy or what God really demands. It is totally inconceivable to me that anyone would think that God supports poverty or the abject and real suffering that is endured by the working poor, just as it is inconceivable to me that a good God would support racism or sexism or militarism. I grew up believing that a good God wanted all people to be taken care of, that God wanted economic and social justice for all people. Is that naive?

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, naiveté notwithstanding, seem to support misery, with a very few people being very comfortable at the expense of many poor people suffering. People got into big trouble with God in the Bible for not being hospitable, not taking care of widows and the poor. God didn’t change, did He/She?

There are some things we don’t want to think about it, but we need to. Bottom line, there’s too much suffering caused by economic distress, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world.

A candid observation …

Visit Thistlewaite’s website at http://www.occupythebible.org

What WOULD Jesus Say?

Sometimes, I find myself wishing Jesus would come to earth for a few days and clear some things up.

He could probably settle a lot of the confusion that swirls around him.

It would be interesting to see how he looked, and what he would say about pictures that have him with that long brown hair.

But mostly, it would be interesting to get his take on what he reportedly said.

This little diatribe comes on heels of my reading a comment on a blog, “Unedited Politics,”  which had put President Obama’s recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on his site. One of the comments said something to the effect that Jesus wanted individuals to help poor people, that “social justice makes Christians lazy.”

Seriously?

The person who made the comment  referred to the Biblical passage found in three of the Gospels, where Jesus says to people around him, in response to their ire at a woman anointing his feet with some very expensive oil, that “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That passage is found in Matthew and John as well.

Someone had apparently lifted that passage of scripture as proof that Jesus is a supporter of social justice, i.e., societies helping the poor, and the writer of the comment took issue, lifting up the “social justice makes Christians lazy” jewel.

That comment has bothered me all day. It reminded me of how the late Strom Thurmond once said, in acknowledging that Jesus advised us to help and love our neighbors, that Jesus would certainly allow us to “choose our neighbors.”

I know from having studied how the words of the Bible have been manipulated in order to keep certain power relationships intact – meaning the Bible’s words have been used to justify sexism, racism, militarism.

But Jesus’ words seem so…obvious. How is it that anyone could think that the words of Jesus do not mandate us to engage in social justice, to take care of each other, the “least of these,” as he said in the Gospel of Matthew?

The late Derrick Bell writes, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, that racism is permanent, that it will never go away. That is a sad and sobering thought, but if the words of the One who was sent to teach us about the love of God cannot or are not interpreted uniformly, perhaps Bell is right.

I guess it makes no difference that people in the Bible were always under some kind of oppression, so a mandate for social justice would make sense. From the beginning, there was always a “we” and a “them;” oppressors included the Egyptians, the Assyrians, Babylonians,Persians, Greeks and finally, the Romans. In times of prosperity, the people of God would forget their God and go after the pagan gods, trying their best to fit into that society. Always, the oppressors would take economic advantage of the oppressed, but the oppressed, instead of turning back toward the the Hebrew god who had led them through the wilderness, would turn toward those whom they could see and aspire to be like them.

It spelled disaster for God’s people, if the Bible is to be believed.

I have heard people reject what seems to be a god who turned away from his people because of their apostasy, but goodness, is anything in the Bible sacred, beyond convenient translation and interpretation?

If a person can interpret the words of Jesus in such a way that would make social justice not a central part of Jesus’ message, then what is sacred? What WOULD Jesus say?

I wish he’d come for a visit, if just for a few days.

A candid observation …

Jesus, the Homeless Hero

Every now and then, a question will come from out of nowhere that is so profound one has to stop and think. Such a question was in a post by Paul Raushenbush on the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/shane-claiborne-new-monastics_b_1156525.html) this week: How can you worship a homeless man on a Sunday and evict him on a Monday?

The question was in reference to Jesus, the Christ, whose birth Christians the world over will celebrate this Sunday. The scriptures that will be read, describing the night the child was born in a manger “because there was no room in the inn,” are romantic at best, because they camouflage the fact that even in Jesus’ time, the issue of class was a problem.

Jesus, the Palestinian Jew (despite Newt Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians are an “invented” people) was not part of the in crowd. His parents were not wealthy, not even close; they did not belong to the upper class. Clearly, that is the case, because had they had money, someone, somewhere would have found room for this very pregnant woman.

Throughout Jesus’ life, he posed a problem for the powers that be. Scholars including James Cone, William R. Herzog and the Paulo Freire  and Obery Hendricks have suggested that Jesus’ life and ministry was all the more dangerous and difficult for him because he was part of the oppressed class, and spoke against oppression in what some would call “subversive speech.”

We Christians are too far removed from the Palestine and Roman Empire of Jesus’ day; we have a need to believe in the myth of Jesus as opposed to his hard message. We forget that Jesus saw the elitist class of Jerusalem collaborate with the Roman government, something that resulted in more oppression for “the least of these.”

Jesus, in Matthew 25, was not an observer, looking into the lives of the oppressed; he was an insider, looking out, and not liking what he saw.

Freire  said that understanding Jesus’ life that way, we understand that the parables were not “earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” but rather they were earthy stories with heavy meanings.”  William Herzog, in his book, Parables as Subversive Speech,” said that Jesus was aware of the exploitation of the masses that went on, and he challenged it. Herzog said that the “parable was a form of social analysis, every bit as much as it was a form of theological reflection.”

We Christians do not want that, though. It seems that we cannot fathom the idea that Jesus was not mild and meek, but was instead a rabble rouser, every bit as irritating and annoying to some as is Michael Moore or the late Rev Dr. Martin Luther King. The thought that Jesus might indeed be in the midst of an Occupy tent camp repulses those of us who hold onto myth.

The truth is that we tend to deify people once they are gone. Jesus was hated when he was alive; once he died, he became a hero. The week of his death, according to the Bible, was one in which this schizophrenic type of belief was obvious; on a Thursday, they hailed him as a hero, but a couple of days later, egged on by the religious elitists, they urged the government to crucify him.

That biblical reality notwithstanding  even in hero status, the message and mission of Jesus as a social revolutionary is a message that the hero-makers want to, frankly, subvert, recast, and ignore. We are not unlike the Maundy Thursday crowd, praising Jesus (for our own selfish purposes) one moment, but then rejecting him three days later.

He was not rich enough, not “right” enough, not “connected” enough, to be worth caring about deeply. The upper class cares for its own but Jesus just did not belong to them.

We Christians may not all be upper class, but we have issues and beliefs which we hold onto, and frankly, this notion of Jesus as a revolutionary, one who challenged the status quo, just does not work for us.

Sad.

In essence, we are still capable of worshipping him, a homeless man, on a Sunday …and evicting him on a Monday.

A candid …and painful …observation.

 

Jesus the Homeless Hero © 2011 Candid Observations