Monday, January 14, 2008

A Baptismal Reflection on Suicide

It all starts in baptism. I joined our younger children in church school this morning to explore that very subject, how baptism is the moment when God sets up headquarters within a human life. You may describe this as happening by invitation (next Sunday, a sweet little girl named Sophia will be baptized here because her parents invite this partnership between Sophia and God), or you might describe this happening by recognition of the claim God has upon every human life. However you understand it, baptism is the moment of joy on earth and in heaven, the celebration and support of relationship between the God of all and the all of one person, child of God.

It all starts in baptism. In our Lord’s baptism, what starts is his public ministry. He will fulfill Isaiah’s vision of God’s anointed servant, and this baptism in the muddy waters of the Jordan is his anointing. He will fulfill justice and righteousness on the earth. The very heart of the ancient covenant between God and Israel beats in Jesus and Christians hear Isaiah’s words fitting him perfectly: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Once our Lord’s public ministry is complete in his death and resurrection, every person baptized in his name becomes his partner in covenant relationship with God. Open to every baptized person is Jesus’s passion for justice, Jesus’s commitment to right relationship of love for God, and for neighbor as for self.

It all starts in baptism, our entering a community of covenant promise and fulfillment. The baptismal covenant that we will reaffirm together next Sunday calls us to a life of worship, a life of repentance, a life of expressive faith, a life of recognizing Christ in all other people, and a life of respect for the dignity of every human being.

What starts in baptism is a reverence for life. Christianity has no unique claim on that: reverence for life is taught and reached by many religious pathways. But this is what we see in Jesus, who fulfills not just the dramatic vision of Isaiah (opening blind eyes and freeing people from dungeons of fear and despair) but also the quiet vision of Isaiah: “…a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench… He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”

“A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

That verse has always intrigued me, its two metaphors resisting explanation while inviting imagination. Today I wonder if those two images, the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick, might help me speak about the unspeakable, the suicide last Monday of a man whom I liked and admired, Hank Payne, 14th President of Williams College.

His death has shaken and bewildered countless friends, colleagues and students both former and present, and, beyond our imagining, his family. But it isn’t only his death that I’ll have in mind today. I attended a poetry reading at Bennington College on Thursday, and there, months after the fact, they were preparing to gather students and faculty of the Bennington Writers Seminar for a memorial tribute to their founder and former Director, the poet Liam Rector, who took his life last summer.

Are men at higher risk of successfully committing suicide than women? Yes, four times so.

Each year, at least thirty thousand Americans, and as many as fifty thousand, take their own lives. There are more suicides than homicides in this country annually. Each year, between a quarter million and three-quarters of a million Americans attempt suicide. Of them, women outnumber men three to one.

To put these numbers in some context, it’s sobering to realize that worldwide the U.S. suicide rate is 45th among 95 nations: in 44 other countries, the rate is higher.

These statistics suggest that more than a few of us in this room have lost a loved one—or more than one—in this way. More than a few of us have lived through an attempt made by someone we love. Or may be the survivor of an attempt.

“A bruised reed he will not break. A dimly-burning wick he will not quench.” What is the most common cause of suicide? Untreated depression.

No one who knew Hank Payne seems to think that he suffered from that. No one knows. Everyone who knew him knows that human beings don’t come with keener intellects than his, that his educational, administrative, fundraising, and community accomplishments were remarkable. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes a friend as saying, “…if you knew him, you would say, ‘Here is this bright, funny, thoughtful guy, great job, broad interests, lovely family. He’s got everything going for him… I don’t know if anybody will ever know.”

His rabbi remembers Payne as a man who preferred to stand at the entrance to the synagogue, welcoming visitors and handing out prayer books, rather than take his own seat. “After the funeral,” said Rabbi Karpuj, “I still had a feeling of ‘This isn’t real. This isn’t happening.’ It’s very hard to grasp this and make any sense of it.”

Hank’s and Deborah’s first grandchild is due in weeks.

In their holiday letter to friends—Hank’s project—he wrote about their “gentle giant dog Abe,” who keeps them busy “serving his love of walks and his love of just being loved.” The one note of sadness in this letter: the death of his mother last year, at 92.

Since 2000, he served as President of Woodward Academy in Atlanta, the largest private preparatory school in the country, and led them in a $47 million campaign. Last year, he joined two new boards, professional and cultural.

Within this gentle, gifted, committed man, was there a bruised reed? Was the wick of his inner lamp dimming? Was he living so much outside himself that there wasn’t much inner man left? That he should choose to jump from the balcony of an eighth-floor hotel room, was this to relieve and escape the vertigo, the imbalance of intolerable claims on his mind and heart and soul?

If so, we are left seeing the irrationality, the last and lethal distortion, that a pathway to escape should destroy the escapee and lock a family in a maze of unknowing.

Destroyed, also, is our orderly expectation that such an alien experience as this should not happen to the likes of us. Denial, of course, has a long half-life and will again insist on its own way, in time. Until then, we must pay attention to ourselves, to one another, and to God.

“This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is the voice of God. I believe that if we’re listening to God who sets up headquarters in the human spirit, we will hear this voice, this message of unexpectable delight, this sheer epiphany of relentless love. “You are my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.”

If you’re having a hard time imagining that being said to you by God, perhaps you’ll suspend judgment and entertain the possibility of such grace. On days when this voice is hard to hear, it’s still speaking—and on those days we need others to hear it for us, with us. “You are my daughter, my son; with you I am well pleased.”

This was first said by the God of Israel to the Jew Jesus. We can be sure that this voice is there to be heard more widely than in just our own faith.

So much static blocks our hearing this voice. So much severe theology argues against amazing grace. Too much, too often, we try to build our own covenant faithfulness as if it were a tower that could get us to heaven.

It is God’s covenant faithfulness that will do that. We have only the brilliance of this love with which we are loved, to build with in this world. If we will not hear the baptismal voice of God’s approval, the baptismal invitation to partnership, the baptismal recognition of the treasure of community, then reverence for life may go unfed, bruised reeds may be broken, dimly-burning wicks quenched. The very, very busy exhausting life that then is left… may not be life.

Life requires more than requirements. The will to live has to be fed by deeper channels than those we have to listen to, day in and day out, those channels that bring us the voices of our bosses, our parents, our checkbook balance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, soccer schedule, reactionary politics, reactionary religion, late-night news, and the alarm of the clock radio.

We need feeding through deeper channels where living waters flow. We need light from higher sources to shine into the dark places we constantly reach into, just to get by. Life requires protecting the reeds by which we make our music, weave our meaning, breathe when underwater. Life requires tending the wicks that, before they can burn, must soak in oils of healing, sit in the fearless myrrh of the magi, absorb deep down the sweet oil of chrism that reaches the forehead in baptism, tracing the cross that must speak to the human spirit its truth, meaning, and mystery.