Wrestling With God

Today I am preaching and presiding over the Eucharist at Pennfield Presbyterian Church. Here is the sermon.

Click here to read the biblical text.

Back when I was in college, I had a pretty strict and narrow view of the Christian life. I thought that certain doctrines must be believed without question and certain moral precepts must be followed without deviation. If I followed these guidelines, or so I thought, life would inevitably work out well for me because I would be blessed by God.

All of this came to a screeching halt during my senior year, as I returned from a student mission trip to Eastern Europe. Just before I left, I was flirting rather intently with a lovely fellow student from my church, with whom I’d had on-again/off-again romance. I left for the trip high on cloud nine, thinking that we were finally about to get together for good. I thanked God for leading me to do things “the right way”: I was a serious student of the Bible, volunteering at my church, on the leadership team of my campus ministry, spending my spring break delivering presents to orphans in Romania, and about to begin a relationship with a wonderful person who I both respected and liked very much. I was doing and believing all the right things, therefore God was blessing me.

But life and relationships, as I have learned after a decade in ministry and marriage, are often much more complicated than that. I came back from that trip to find out she had met someone else over the break, had started dating him, and was moving to Mexico. This felt like a slap in the face at the time. What was the point of all that hard work if it didn’t lead to me being blessed in the way I want? I was utterly confused.

I’m not the only one who has had to deal with disappointment like that. A lot of people have very specific ideas about the spiritual life that don’t necessarily correspond to the way things actually are. People think that growing spiritually leads to material prosperity, inner peace, lessened doubts, better behavior, or harmony within the family unit.

As we should do with all things in life, I would like to test that hypothesis by holding it up to the light of Scripture.

In today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, we get to spend time with one of my favorite people in the whole Bible: Jacob. God has been involved in Jacob’s life from the beginning. There were prophecies spoken about him while he was still in his mother’s womb. He was the heir of God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac. He was destined to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He had dramatic visions of angels going up and down between heaven and earth on a ladder. If anyone had a deep, spiritual connection with God, it was Jacob.

But does that also mean that Jacob had a smooth life, or that he was morally impeccable, or that he never struggled with doubt? Apparently not, according to the text of the Bible.

If we were to read the whole of Jacob’s story, we would see that he had a very complicated relationship with an overbearing and manipulative mother, a contentious relationship with his twin brother, and a tendency to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wanted in life.

Jacob’s miscreant ways eventually led him to go on the run as a fugitive, after cheating his brother out of his birthright. He ended up living and working in a foreign country, where he was lied to and manipulated to a strange double-marriage with two sisters and a house full of kids who fought even more than Jacob and his brother had.

After several years, Jacob was finally forced to return home when he found himself with nowhere else to go. He was still terrified that his brother might be out to get him, so he sends his whole family and everything he owns ahead of him as a bribe, in a desperate attempt to manipulate his way back into his brother’s good graces. And so it was that Jacob finally found himself alone and empty-handed on a cold, sleepless night in the desert.

That night in the desert, Scripture tells us, Jacob was wrestling with something. The identity of the one with whom he struggled is not at all clear. At first, the text says it is a man, though some have speculated that it might have been an angel. Modern psychologists might theorize that Jacob was wrestling with his own unconscious self. But ultimately, as we learn from Genesis, Jacob is really wrestling with God.

Even though he is exhausted and in pain, Jacob refuses to let go. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” he says. The strange figure asks Jacob his name and then gives him a new one: Israel, which means, “He wrestles with God.” Taken aback, Jacob asks the stranger his name, and the stranger responds cryptically, “Why is it that you ask my name?” and blesses him. The story ends with Jacob limping off into the rising sun: wounded and blessed at the same time, having glimpsed the face of a God whose name he didn’t even know.

I think it’s fairly plain to see, by this point, that Jacob’s special relationship with God did not in fact lead to inner peace, good behavior, or the absence of doubt. This is why I like Jacob so much: not because he was a hero, but because he wasn’t. Jacob’s messed-up life reminds me of my own. And it gives me great comfort to know that, if God wouldn’t give up on someone as flawed as Jacob, then God won’t give on me either.

Jacob’s new name, Israel, means “he wrestles with God.” This name has been given to God’s people in Scripture ever since. In the New Testament, the Apostle refers to the nascent Church as
“the new Israel.” We are the ones who wrestle with God. We, no less that Jacob, limp our way through life, simultaneously wounded and blessed.

Faith is a struggle for everyone. None of us lives a life that is free of problems, failure, and inconsistency. We have family drama, raging doubts, character flaws, and dashed hopes. We are flawed and finite creatures in desperate need of grace.

The good news is that we also have a God who is not unaccustomed to meeting sinners in the midst of their own self-made mess. The great story of Scripture is that God, when we humans had foolishly tried to become the masters of our own destiny and instead become slaves to forces beyond our control, became a man and came to wrestle with us in the darkness of this world.

This God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, went toe-to-toe with arrogant and hypocritical religious leaders. He smacked his forehead repeatedly at his blundering disciples. He was exhausted by the seemingly endless needs of sick and oppressed people who came begging for his help. Finally, he stood silent and defiant before the mighty judgment of imperial Rome, in the person of Pontius Pilate.

God’s wrestling with the world eventually led Jesus to the cross, where he refused to strike back, but instead absorbed the blows of human violence into his own body. His death ended the wrestling match between God and humanity. Selfish humanity, it seemed, had wrestled with God and won.

But therein lies the trick, you see. Scripture and tradition tell us that Christ descended into hell after his death and proceeded to rip the gates open from the inside, thereby freeing the souls who were trapped inside.

On the third day after these things took place, God raised Jesus from the dead, overcoming the power of death and hell forever.

Brothers and sisters, this is good news for us who struggle. Knowledge of God’s boundless grace gives us the strength to be gentle with ourselves in our own struggles with sin and doubt. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we finite creatures are constitutionally incapable of out-sinning God’s infinite love for us. All the might of our selfishness, violence, and hate cannot stem the tide of divine grace. God loves you and there is, quite frankly, nothing you can do about it.

God’s grace also gives us the ability to be patient with others who struggle with faith. If I accept that I am utterly imperfect, but loved by God anyway, then I can extend that same grace to my friends, neighbors, and enemies.

Friends, faith is not about getting it right. It’s not about having the answers, or being free of doubt, or living morally impeccable lives. None of us is perfect. Life isn’t perfect.

In the face of life’s imperfections, faith is an act of courage that we undertake with all the storms of fear still raging inside of us. Faith is the refusal to let go through long, sleepless nights. And in the end, faith is the slow, painful limp into the sunrise, blessed with a new identity and a glimpse at the face of a God whose name we don’t even know.

Desert

My wife’s thoughts on her recent mission trip to the borderland.

the beautiful changes...

Listen here

DesertI stood at home and wept.

I wept at the sight of hostas and Queen Anne’s lace
   and petunias and lambs’ ears
   that grew
   while I was in the desert.
I wept in gratitude for rain I did not see or hear
   or feel on my skin
   when it watered my gardens
   in my absence.
I wept with shame that my garden can thrive in neglect
   and yield tomatoes that I do not earn and flowers
   that bud and blossom to my surprise.

I wept out of loneliness
   in my empty house while my family traveled without me
   jealous of those returning to homes
   filled with family and animals while
   my welcome was an overgrown garden
   and a swarm of houseflies.
I wept for the intimacy of the journeylaugh
   that we will not experience…

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Nothing Can Separate Us

First time back in the pulpit in several months. Delivered this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, MI.

Click here to read the Lessons.

Back when I was working as a counselor for drug addicts in upstate New York, a client came to me one day with a question about spirituality. He was working the Twelve Steps program through Alcoholics Anonymous, which leans heavily on faith in High Power to help a person find sobriety. He had never thought much about God, but figured he should start by reading the Bible.

He asked me, “Where should I begin?”

And I responded, “Why not at the beginning? Start with the book of Genesis.”

“Why Genesis?” he asked.

And I told him, “Because it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gave up on them either!”

That really is my favorite part of the book of Genesis. In it, we hear the story of four generations from an extremely dysfunctional family. It’s full of deceit, betrayal, manipulation, sex, and violence. I sometimes read it and wonder whether Abraham and his descendants belong in the Bible or on some sleazy daytime talk show.

The picture we get in today’s first Lesson from Genesis is perfect example of that. Jacob is on the run as a fugitive from justice after cheating his brother out of his inheritance. He finds a home and goes to work for his mother’s relatives in a neighboring country. Jacob’s uncle, Laban, lies to him about his contract and changes the terms without telling him. The women in this story, Rachel, Leah, and Zilpah, are tossed around like pieces of property and never get to have a say in their own destiny. After the section we read today, Jacob goes on to do some pretty crafty lying himself. The whole situation is a mess!

And that’s the point, I think. By preserving this encounter in Scripture, God presents us with a messed up situation that bears an awful lot of resemblance to our own messy lives. None of us is perfect; none of us lives in circumstances that are ideal. We mere mortals struggle to make the best of things in life and often fall short of our highest aspirations.

But here’s the good news: God never gives up on us, either.

Just like Jacob in the book of Genesis, we are part of a much bigger story that both includes and transcends the messiness of our individual lives. There is a sacred mystery at work within us and among us: some might call it the hand of God.

St. Paul tells us as much in his letter to the Romans, which is our second Lesson this morning. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Later on, he continues, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The Apostle is bold in reminding us that our varied and scattered lives are part of an unfolding story that includes the entire universe and spans the whole of time, from the beginning to its end. In all of our struggles and temptations, we can trust that we are not alone. In the often painful and seemingly random events of our existence, we can trust that life is meaningful. We can trust this, Paul says, because there is One who has created us, loves us unconditionally, and will eventually weave the various threads into a single, unified, and beautiful whole. This is why Paul is so bold to declare:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In short, St. Paul is saying that life is meaningful because we are loved. You are loved. Sitting at your desk and stressed out of your mind, you are loved. Standing in a courtroom while a judge pronounces sentence, you are loved. Crouching in a foxhole while sustaining enemy fire, you are loved. Collapsing to the floor when you get a late-night phone call with awful news, you are loved. Lying in a hospital bed as a doctor says there is nothing more he can do, you are loved.

Love is God’s way of working in the world. That might not seem like much, but it changes everything. Jesus compared it to a seed in today’s Gospel: it starts small but grows into a place where others can make a home.

Even better, Jesus compares God’s work in the world to yeast microbes, which are too tiny and insignificant to be seen by the naked eye, but change the nature of bread. Leaven the dough with yeast, and everything rises.

That’s how God works in the world and in our lives: like yeast in the bread. Starting with a seemingly random collection of matter and energy, God adds something else, something living, to the mix and the whole thing rises. One might think the Almighty would impose the divine will on creation by force, but God chooses to work instead from within, using the smallest and most insignificant lifeforms in the cosmos: people.

When God set out to redeem the world from sin, God took on human flesh and lived among us in the form of a tiny baby, born to a pregnant teenager in what was basically the parking lot of a motel, in a backwater hick-town in an occupied territory of the most powerful country on earth at the time. Yet this seemingly insignificant baby, so the Church tells us, born to the Blessed Virgin Mary and laid in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, is God Incarnate.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loved us, healed us, and taught us to love one another. When we refused to listen to Jesus’ message and turned to the power of state-sanctioned violence to shut him up, God absorbed all of our human hate into the Divine Body. And then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead in order to send us the unmistakable message: “My love is stronger than all of this. All your hate, all your violence, and all your power to deal death cannot stop the power of my love.”

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Love is stronger than death, and nothing we do, nothing life throws at us, can separate us from it. It is the free and unconditional gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.

Friends, this is the Gospel. This is the good news of God in Christ. This is the message that we are called to proclaim to the ends of the earth: That there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.

Just as God did for us in Christ, we are called to embed ourselves in the chaos and messiness of life in this world. We are called to share this world’s pain, to take it into ourselves, and perhaps find a way to heal some of it in Christ’s Name.

The irony is that the work of the Church doesn’t happen in church, but out in the world. We are called to meet people where they are and demonstrate to them, in word and deed, that they are loved. That is what the Church is for. Everything we do is for the sake of that one, singular goal.

That is why this parish hired me as your Community Development Administrator. I can’t do this work for you, but I can facilitate, guide, and encourage you as you do it. That’s why I want to get to know you, listen to your ideas, and open doors wherever I can.

And I certainly hope that, as you do this work of the Church in the world, you will hear anew for yourself the good news that we proclaim to this messed-up world: that you are loved.

Amen.

Sharing the Keys

One of the blessings that Christian faith brings in a person’s life is a sense of purpose. God has created, chosen, and called each and every one of us. Some are called to do this as bishops, priests, and deacons. Some are called to serve ministries within the Church, such as the Vestry, the Choir, or the Sunday School. Some are called to serve the community outside the walls of our parish. All of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.

To fulfill this calling, we need the Church to raise us up “to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NRSV). Through the Church, Christ baptizes and confirms us, reconciles us and heals us, enlightens us with the Word, feeds us in the Eucharist, and empowers us for ministry.

When new people come into the Church, they aren’t interested in simply being consumers of a product, nor are they interested in filling a pre-defined slot on a committee. They want to discover and realize that deep sense of purpose that God has placed in their hearts.

Christ understood this truth and used it to empower his apostles for ministry. He said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). Do you remember getting the keys to your first car? Your home? Your office? With keys comes power. By giving away the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Christ is willingly stepping aside to make room for others. He shares his divine power so that others can participate in building God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We, as members of Christ’s Body in the world today, must do the same.

This can seem like a scary thing for long-time parishioners. We wonder, “What if the person with whom I share power proves to be inept or irresponsible? What if their vision for the Church’s worship and ministry differs widely from my own? What if my own parish becomes unrecognizable to me?”

These are indeed frightening questions, but the alternative is even more terrifying. We might ask instead, “What if our parish ceases to be a dynamic force for good in our community? What if there are people in my neighborhood who do not yet know the love of Christ, or the deep sense of purpose that life in Christ can bring? What if one such soul were to visit us and find only a stagnant institution that is wedded to its own comfort, rather than invested in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Questions like these should chill us to the bone. To be sure, there are many parishes in the world today that fit this sobering description. I remember speaking once with an older parishioner (not at St. Thomas) who had a moment of clarity during a congregational crisis, when no new leaders could be recruited to continue the basic functioning of the parish. She was in her late 70s, speaking to a clergyman in his 30s. She observed, “When I was younger in the Church, I remember the older generation intentionally stepping aside to let us lead the Church in a new direction. It occurs to me now that my generation has not done the same thing for yours.”

To be clear, I don’t think the situation in our parish is nearly that dire. We are already making room for newer and younger people in leadership. The word “Youth” appears prominently on our signage, not because we have a large program for teenagers or young adults, but because we invite younger people to be present in all areas of parish life: Staff, Vestry, Altar Chapter, Choir, Sunday School, and Summer Breakfast Program can all point to persons under the age of 40 in their leadership. This is a great start. The next step is to learn from them, listen to them, and let their ideas and concerns challenge our status quo.

There is no competition here. We need each other. The solution is not for older or longtime members to go away or stop serving, but for those who currently have the power to share it willingly with those who do not. What we need from learned, experienced, and wise elders is mentorship.

Younger and newer members need the wisdom of their elders to guide them along the right path. Longtime parishioners need the dynamic energy of the young to drive them forward. If the Church was a car, the young would be the engine and the elders would be the steering wheel. Lose the steering and you have a dangerous wreck; lose the engine and you have a useless hunk of metal.

Christ taught his apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).

Let us lead by becoming servants to one another in Christ. Let us make room for one another in the leadership of the Church. Let us share with one another “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” as Christ did with St. Peter. Let us set aside our power, our privilege, and our preferences and invite one another to fulfill the high calling that God has placed in our hearts.

On Being Living Stones

Abbot Andrew Marr OSB
St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers
Sermon on the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church

Imaginary Visions of True Peace

altarWhite 1

Sermon for the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, May 9

The abbey church has been a profound delight for me to pray in since I first visited here to discern if I had a monastic vocation. I’m still here, so maybe I do. I missed out on the Anglo-Catholic setup we once had which I am sure was also beautiful, but I deeply appreciate the simplicity of our worship space that has nurtured me and many others for many years. Our church is something to celebrate.

Much as I love this building and its space, I think the best way to celebrate it is to reflect on how we can be the Church with the help of this Church building. Solomon admitted that the temple could not contain God since not even the heavens can contain God. Moreover, we hope we don’t need Jesus’ ministry of throwing money changers…

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When God Smacks You in the Head

I’ve been wanting to write more about my recent transition from the Presbyterian Church to the Episcopal Church, but a hectic schedule has not allowed. Hopefully, I will get to that soon. I’m sorry for leaving my readers in the dark, but living life has taken precedence over documenting it.

The transition process has been full of providential coincidences, deepening relationships, and a profound sense of finally settling into a church tradition where I can feel at home.

I have had a steep learning curve in my new job as parish administrator at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek. I’m grateful that the community there has been wonderfully welcoming and patient with me as I learn how to juggle these new responsibilities. I have desperately needed to learn the administrative and financial aspects of church life, which this job allows me to do. Knowing about these things will make me a much stronger presbyter when I (hopefully) return to that role in a few years. I believe I am exactly where God has called me to be for this moment.

At the same time, this new season is not without its own pain and anxiety. First of all, I am still grieving my previous call as pastor of North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I had hoped to remain in that position for much longer than I did. Even after I came to the realization that I was not a Presbyterian, I was determined to stay on for the sake of serving that amazing group of people. Unfortunately, the financial realities made it impossible for me to continue in the call.

Second, the reality has begun to sink in that I am taking a substantial risk by hopping between denominations like this. The Anglican commitment to the historic episcopate (a theological commitment I have come to agree with, btw) means that I will have to re-enter the discernment process for ordination. The process will take several years. And there is the possibility, however slight, that a bishop might look at my situation and not decide to move forward with ordination. My priest assures me that this, while technically possible, is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the fear sometimes keeps me up at night. I felt it acutely this weekend at the Diocesan Church Development Institute (DCDI), where clergy and parishioners from two Michigan dioceses gathered to learn about helping members grow spiritually, live together in community, and nurture transformative change. I was thinking about how much I love this when the terror struck that I might never again be able to invest my whole life in pastoral ministry, as I have for the last decade.

But God is not without a sense of humor.

Today’s epistle reading at the Daily Office was from 1 Peter 5:1-11. St. Peter writes as an apostle, bishop, and priest (presbyter, translated as “elder” in the NRSV) in the Church. He exhorts the leaders of the Church “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it not for sordid gain but eagerly.” (1 Pe 5:2)

I heard the following words as if they were spoken directly to me in this moment:

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pe 5:6-7)

And I then I read the following as a promise:

“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Pe 5:10)

As one trained in the arts of biblical exegesis and church history, I am fully aware of the dangerous situations that arise when one inserts one’s personal desires and fears into the text of Scripture. Furthermore, I know how church bodies work and have come to trust in the process of discernment that happens with the bishop in concert with relevant committees. There are no guarantees that I will ever become a priest in the Episcopal Church. Even if I do, the path will not be short or easy.

But the promise I hear in this text is that my life is destined to reflect God’s “eternal glory in Christ” and I will be given whatever manna I need to make that journey safely. I write these words from a place of faith, knowing that those same old fears are likely to reassert themselves in the next few years, days, or even moments. May God grant me the grace to trust the promise, even as my own heart screams in terror.

Last night, I was venting these fears to my wife at some length (ad nauseum, she might say). I eventually paused to go say Evening Prayer. Reaching down to get a hymnal from the bottom shelf, something must have shifted. There was a noise on the shelf above me and a sudden, stinging pain in the back of the head. I turned around to see what had fallen and hit me… it was my ordination certificate.

PCUSA Ordination Certificate.JPG

COME OUT FROM BEFORE YOUR TABERNACLES (Reblog)

COME OUT FROM BEFORE YOUR TABERNACLES

By Paul Nesta

Great article from The Living Church, cites the following passage from Bishop Frank Weston. Click here to read the whole thing.

I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. Now mark that — this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. … And it is folly — it is madness — to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.[1]

-Bishop Frank Weston, to the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress

The Dark Phoenix

Out of the ashes

of fear and conflict

rises the dark phoenix.

With an enemy’s face

and a mother’s heart.

Feasting on death

to nourish new life.

She beckoned me in,

not knowing what I was in for.

Her house

a home.

That which I should shun,

a liturgy of light.

That from which I run

is become a friend.

She has spread a table before me

in the presence of mine enemies.

Chased by Ghosts: Suicide and the First New Episode of ‘Doctor Who’

[SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing details of series 10’s first episode. If you want to see it for yourself first, then stop here. You have been warned.]

Like so many others, I was beside myself to finally see a new episode of Doctor Who, after an entire year of absence from the small screen, save for the annual Christmas special. And the first episode of the new series did not disappoint.

In it, we see the return of Peter Capaldi, in his final season as the Doctor, along with the cheeky Nardole, who we have come to know from the last two Christmas specials. We also meet Bill Potts, the new companion played by Pearl Mackie.

In this episode, we meet Bill, who works in the university cafeteria. In addition to being inexplicably drawn to the Doctor’s lectures at the university, she also develops a crush on the enigmatic, but seemingly sad, Heather.

All Heather wants is to get away from everything. She sees herself as ‘defective’ and acts withdrawn toward everyone. Heather’s one place of solace is a mysterious puddle in a back alley on campus. She spends time staring into it, trying to figure out why her reflection doesn’t look quite right.

Eventually, the puddle (which turns out to be something else entirely) consumes Heather and leaves a ghost-like entity in her place. What follows are some delightfully scary encounters in the tradition of Japanese horror films like Ringu.

Heather wanted to get away, and she got her wish by becoming ‘the pilot’ of a liquid alien spaceship, but at the cost of her humanity. Her pursuit (haunting) of Bill is driven by her last conscious thought, a promise to not leave without Bill herself.

What the episode stirred up for me are memories of being a suicide survivor. For those unaware of the term, suicide survivors are the loved ones of those who take their lives. We are the ones who get left behind when someone decides that this world isn’t worth living on anymore.

I have known several such people, but the one who stands out most prominently is my college roommate, Rob, who took his own life in March of 2001, during my junior year at Appalachian State University.

The suicide of a loved one is a wound that never fully heals. With time and good inner work, it stops bleeding and becomes a scar, but the mark abides and the absence is felt forever. In a figurative sense, Rob’s ghost follows me across space and time.

Release only comes for Bill when she stops running, turns to face Heather’s ghost, and finally lets her go with the words, “I really liked you.”

Those of us who get left behind by suicide live with that same kind of haunting presence. I really liked Rob. Was I not a good-enough friend? What could/should I have said on that last weekend together, when he looked so pale and gaunt, but I dismissed it as a weight-loss routine? What questions should I have asked on the night he died, when we chatted via Instant Messenger, and I prattled on and on about my latest personal drama? I will never know.

All I remember is the next day, when Rob’s campus minister met me outside our dorm and told me that Rob was dead. Later that week, I attended my first Roman Catholic mass and began to fall in love with liturgical worship. I started going to mass regularly after that. Even though I never converted to Roman Catholicism, that journey has now led me to the Episcopal Church, where I am beginning the confirmation process and hope to pursue ordination to the priesthood. I’m grateful for that experience, but it still doesn’t redeem Rob’s death. I carry that scar with me to this day.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that suicide is a worse crime than murder. “The man who kills a man,” Chesterton writes, “kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” (Orthodoxy, Ch. 5)

Now, let me be perfectly clear that I reject any notion of the belief that all suicide victims are necessarily condemned to hell for eternity. Such theology is indefensible from a moral or biblical standpoint. Rob was overcome by his bipolar disorder when he refused to take his medication. He failed to manage his disease, so it raged out of control and left the rest of us with a permanent scar.

None of that is fair. It was unfair that Rob had to live with bipolar disorder. It was unfair that he chose to go off his meds. It is unfair that his loved ones have to deal with the consequences forever.

But this unfair situation cannot be dealt with by assigning blame and running away from the ‘evil’ that is haunting us.

As the Doctor so keenly observes in the episode, “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. And hunger looks a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery.”

The situation only finds resolution when Bill stops running and turns to face Heather’s ghost. In a moment of tenderness for the monster, she reaches out, takes her hand, and says, “I really liked you.” Then she let Heather go.

If I had one more face-to-face encounter with Rob, that’s all I would say to him.

If you are like me and Bill, suicide survivors, don’t waste your time with the blame game, which has no winners. That ghost will haunt you from here to the other side of the universe. The whole thing is patently unfair, but we can’t demand “a life for a life” when the life lost is the one that was taken to begin with. We have to forgive, to let go, in order to move on. With time, grace, and care, the bleeding will stop and the wound will become a scar. But scars are stories and can be useful in the healing of others.

If you are like Heather, wanting to end your suffering by running away from this world, I urge you to reach out and seek help before it is too late. Don’t seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are more who love you than you realize. Don’t outsource your suffering onto others by becoming a ghost. In the words of Scripture, “There are more for you than there are against you.” There are people, some of them even strangers, who would rush to your aide if they knew how dire the situation was. Seek them out.

Start here:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255

Remains

For today as well

Hopping Hadrian's Wall

For the feast of St. Joseph

I ask for what remains:
torn, tattered
leftovers of power’s playtime,
the broken-open
body of a mouse
after the cat has had her fun.

I ask for what no one wants:
dashed hopes,
the possum
who never made it
to the other side.

I ask for what offends:
fragrance of death,
the skunk who stank
for three days
after being run down.

I ask for these things:
What harm could it do?
You have no use for them anymore.
Let me unburden you of
this nuisance.

This stumbling block,
which the builders rejected,
will be the head of the corner
in an altar of undressed stones.

I know what power
lies under the earth.
I have seen the heart of heaven
in the bowels of hell.

This is the secret
I carried with me
from Arimathea to Glastonbury.

Learn it
and you too
will…

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