Have you ever heard a truly great preacher? I’m not talking about the stereotypical hell-fire-and-brimstone one the church of olden days churned out. I’m also not referencing the feel-good spiritual gurus who dominate the airwaves now, who seem to be OK with everything except not leaving a donation in the collection box.
No, I’m talking about a honest-to-goodness great preacher. The type that intellectually challenges you. He lights up your mind, softens your heart and touches your soul. You leave his sermon feeling like a better individual, ready to go back into society and morally uplift your fellow man.
I heard one once. My grandparents would take me to hear him any time he made a congregational speech in our area. I’d sit there, at the age of 10, and be mesmerized by his knowledge of not just the Christian faith, but also the time period in which it was born. His sermons were like seminars, expanding what you thought you knew about your faith and making you a stronger person for it.
And then, one day, our local paper arrived in our mailbox. I read the front page and couldn’t believe: he was dead. Cause of death? Suicide. Wait, what? I knew he had been sick. He had been seeking treatment for a series of physical and mental ailments. But, suicide? A troubled feeling settled in my stomach.
That’s because to most people who grew up in a religious household – and even many who didn’t – suicide was seen as one of those few “unpardonable sins.” You were going straight to hell for it, no doubt. It was the most selfish act imaginable, as it deeply wounds both the ones you know and love each day and your Creator who bestowed you with the gift of life.
My whole body began to hurt. The man who I had idolized growing up, who I thought was one of the most good-natured, holy guys around, was now in hell? How was that even possible? As the knot in my stomach got bigger, my mind raced for answers.
Suicide was a very easy thing to condemn, until someone you knew and loved committed the deed. I remember my parents calmly coming to my aid. “He wasn’t in his right mind, Alex,” my father told me. “Right,” my mother added. “He had been mentally ill for nearly a year. He was in and out of the hospital all the time. You don’t need to worry. God will forgive him.”
Perhaps God did, but his brother, a fellow preacher, had not. Neither had quite a few others who worked with him and had heard his magnificent sermons over the years. Standing in line for visitation at the funeral home, I overheard others murmur, “I can’t believe he chose to go out that way.” The community was undeniably shaken.
There have been a number of columns written in recent days about suicide following the death of Robin Williams. Most of them have attempted to defend the actor and offer excuses for why suicide doesn’t have to be viewed in a negative light.
Even with all of these words provided, it’s still a hard reality to accept. Someone taking their own life leaves such a profound hole of sadness and mental anguish in the family and friends of the departed. To give the action a spiritual green light seems emotionally illogical at best.
However, I do believe it’s fair to point out there are an increasing number of suicides in our society that aren’t the result of disgust with one’s life, but rather the direct result of some form of mental illness. If you’ve ever heard of someone doing something outlandish and thinking “they’d never do that in their right mind,” odds are they weren’t. I think the same applies to suicide.
Whether depression is the culprit or some other even more severe mental complication, the decision is sad, abnormal and certainly “not them.” The Robin Williams we’ve heard in memories from his family and fellow co-stars was a happy, loving father, husband and man. The man who ended his life by hanging on Monday was certainly not the same spiritual being.
And I think that explanation also applies to the preacher who I looked up to a decade ago. He was a great man whose illness led him to a very sad, unfortunate end. I choose to remember the man who divinely inspired so many like myself, not the individual whose death was splashed on the front page of the local paper because that wasn’t him.
Many of us are linked to at least one suicide in our lifetimes. Maybe it was a direct family member. Perhaps it was a friend, neighbor or co-worker who decided to end his or her own life. We may not have been able to change the circumstances, but we can choose to change our attitudes. We can offer our love and support to those affected. We can remember the person we knew before the incident. And, maybe, in time, we can forgive, because without forgiveness, our sadness will never truly be alleviated.