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 She sees herself as ‘defective’ and acts withdrawn toward everyone.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

Bigger on the Inside

16804237_589992294532094_7234591692770521407_o
Thank you for everything, North Church!

My final sermon at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the service bulletin. Biblical readings included.

As many of you have got to know me over the past few years, one of the first things you must have realized is that I am a sci-fi geek. Among the many movies and TV shows I enjoy is the BBC series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien known only as “the Doctor” as he travels through time and space. The Doctor’s vessel for these travels is a ship called “the TARDIS”, which looks like a simple phone booth on the outside, but on the inside…

On the inside is a vast structure of control panels, rooms, hallways, and even a swimming pool. The running gag for all fifty years of the show’s history is the astonishment experienced by the Doctor’s human companions as they enter the TARDIS for the first time.

Invariably, the first, gasping words out of their mouths are, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

I love that line, as well as the wonderment that inspires it. For my fellow Christians, who also happen to be fans of the show, I like to say that this is a perfect description of the Church Catholic: It’s bigger on the inside.

From the outside, Christianity is just another of the world’s religions. Like all the others, we have rituals, sacred texts, spiritual practices, and a moral code. We have produced brilliant works of art, philosophy, philanthropy, and inspired workers for social change. It’s also true that we have blood on our hands: moments, sometimes even centuries, when we have sold our souls for power and money. We have hurt and killed in the name of our religion, much to the chagrin of our founder, I imagine.

In the same way, Jesus of Nazareth, when seen from the outside, looks a lot like another founder of the world’s religions. He is admired by many as one of the “great souls” of history. He was a teacher, moral philosopher, and revolutionary movement leader.

But Jesus, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, is much bigger on the inside.

Viewing Jesus from the inside, as Christians do, he is Divine. His whole being radiates with the essence and energies of God. When Christians look at Jesus, we see what it means to be fully human. Furthermore, we also find out who God is. And the main thing we learn about God by looking at Jesus is that “God is love.”

The Church also, like her Lord and Savior, is bigger on the inside. More than just a collection of individuals inspired by the two thousand year old teachings of an itinerant rabbi, we understand ourselves to be the very Body of Christ on earth: the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. We are baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit and knit together with bonds that are unbreakable, even by death. When we read the Bible, we don’t just study a historical record of events; we hear the Word of the Lord speaking to us today. When we share bread and wine in the Eucharist, we are spiritually fed at a table whose boundaries transcend all of time and space, and we are joined into one Body with all the saints of ages past and ages to come.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples get their first glimpse into the mysterious reality that Jesus is bigger on the inside. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up Mount Tabor to pray. This event appears in Matthew’s gospel immediately after St. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Peter didn’t realize what he was saying at the time, but he is about to find out.

While they are praying, Jesus’ skin and clothes begin to shine with an otherworldly light. Suddenly, there appears next to him two major figures of Jewish history: Moses and Elijah. What’s happening in this moment is that the veil of this world is being pulled back, ever so slightly, and the disciples are seeing Jesus as he truly is, in his divinity. I imagine their astonishment in that moment being like that of the Doctor’s companions, who enter the TARDIS for the first time and exclaim, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

Moments of insight like this are rare, compared to the everyday experience of faith. They are precious, for that very reason. And they are a grace, coming suddenly or gradually over time, sometimes to those who have spent a lifetime exploring the faith and sometimes to those who are opening up to it for the first time. Authentic Christian faith does not depend on such experiences (in fact, many faithful Christians never have them), but they serve to bolster the faith of those who do.

For me, the enlightening epiphany of Christ’s divinity has emerged through the liturgy of the Church. As I recite the ancient prayers and creeds of our faith, as I open my mind to study the Scriptures and my hands to receive Communion, I often feel myself being “carried along” by the river of the Spirit. When I recite the Collect for Purity, the short prayer we often use at the beginning of worship (i.e. “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”), I imagine my fellow priests and pastors, who have said that prayer for over a thousand years, standing behind me and adding their prayers to my own. It is a moment of transfiguration for me.

There was a time in my life when I struggled to find that experience of faith. Having been raised with a more strict form of biblical literalism in the church of my youth, I assumed that a true Christian must accept every word of the Bible as literally, historically, scientifically, and exclusively accurate. As I grew older and became more educated, I began to question many of the tenets of my faith. “If one part could be inaccurate,” I thought, “then why should I believe any of it?” It was a time of deep spiritual darkness and doubt for me. I wondered whether I could even call myself a Christian anymore, or if I really believed in God at all. I was looking at my faith “from the outside.”

Eventually, I decided to press on as a Christian, embracing doubt alongside faith. I saw myself as an enlightened revisionist. I believed, but I didn’t believe. I accepted it as mythology, rather than fact; poetic, rather than scientific. And I continued to engage with the faith through the liturgy.

But then something unexpected, and very interesting, happened: I had changed the way I was engaging with my faith through the liturgy, but quickly discovered that the liturgy was changing me. Reciting those ancient prayers and creeds, reading the Scriptures and receiving Communion each week, I felt like something (or someone) was waking up inside of me. I would catch myself talking to Jesus, just because I felt like it. I never went back to fundamentalism, but I had a very personal relationship with Jesus again. Not just a philosopher from two thousand years ago, but the risen Christ who lives in my heart by faith. For me, the liturgy of the Church is not just deadpan repetition, but a raft made by saints that carries me to Jesus on the river of the Spirit. It is an experience of transfiguration where I look around and go, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

The other place where I met Jesus again, for the first time, was in serving this congregation as pastor. From the outside, North looks like a small church with big problems. Money is often tight; attendance is lower than it used to be. But this congregation is also “bigger on the inside.”

Most congregations, when faced with financial difficulty, tend to take resources away from church programs and mission; anything to pay the pastor and keep the building. But that’s not what this church did: We cut back on everything but the ministry. We gave away our building to another branch of Christ’s Church that is serving the neighborhood in ways we could never dream of. This church knows what it really means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is not a building or a pastor. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is a community on a mission, and everything we do is in the service of that mission:

  • To love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength;
  • To love our neighbors as ourselves;
  • To go make disciples of all nations.

What makes North Church so special is that it should not be special at all. You are simply doing the things that all Christians should be doing: loving God, loving your neighbors, and being a witness to your community, especially those who are despised and rejected by the world. You are simply doing the things that Jesus did, and that’s what makes it so easy to see Jesus alive and at work in you.’

For three and a half years, I have been among you as one who is called “minister”, but it is you who have ministered to me. You showed me Jesus again, alive and at work in you. And for that, for the privilege of bearing witness to the presence of Christ in your midst, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And I leave you with these now-familiar words. If you remember only one thing from my time with you, let it be this:

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!