University Congregational Church
Aug. 17, 2014
“Creating a Compassionate Connection”
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every illness among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered. Matthew 9: 35-36
“Weary and scattered”. Another version reads “harassed and helpless”. Weary and scattered; harassed and helpless… have you ever felt that way? So many people are “weary and scattered” and cannot find a healing connection to another person. Sometimes, this is because people internalize a sense that they are worthless and at fault, when it is in fact the harm done to them that have created this sense that ‘I am not worthy of love.’
This week, we lost Robin Williams to suicide. And social media blew up with opinions, stories, tributes, and tirades about it. The sad, ironic twist is that Robin Williams brought so much laughter and joy to people in several generations. Yet, at the last, in his own soul, he could not find joy. Robin’s death sheds light on our common humanity.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It kills more people than motor vehicle accidents and more than twice as many as homicide. It’s time we talked about it in the church. More than 39,000 people die by suicide each year — meaning as many as 107 other individuals may have died this way on the day Williams took his life.
As one who has participated in and led grief groups, I will readily admit that I have a soap box about the stigma attached to suicide. The phrase “commit suicide” is laden with religious history and doctrine. To “commit” literally means making:
- A mistake
- A crime
- An immoral act
And so, when talking about suicide I teach the words “took her own life” or “he died by suicide” instead of commit suicide.
For centuries, religions of all sorts have condemned those who took their own lives. In Catholicism and Judaism, those who died by suicide were buried in a separate part of the cemetery and many were refused burial rites at all. It was only 1983 when the Pope proclaimed that the church would allow funeral and burial rites to those who died by suicide. In evangelical Christianity and in Islam, suicide is considered a sin. Because this ultimate sinful act cannot be repented of, it has often been treated as an unforgivable sin.
Because of these doctrines and beliefs about taking one’s own life, the church has done (in my opinion) a great disservice to grieving families and even to God. What do these ideas say about our God? That a divine being looks upon a person who has lost any hope in life with judgment and distain? In my book, that is abusive theology.
But we don’t want to err on the other side either. Suicide should not be presented as a means to resolve or escape one’s problems. “Suicide doesn’t make you free,” wrote Dr. Bill Schmitz, “and it doesn’t take away pain… it disperses pain to family and friends.” When a person takes their own life, they are dead, and that loss is devastating.
The God in whom I live and move and have being is a God of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Love like this is greater than our attempts to judge and dismiss people.
One of the hardest things for people to do is forgive themselves. Compassionate connection, one person to another, can be a way people can touch the pain of wrongs done to them, or by them, and begin to let that go. When Robin Williams played a role of therapist in Good Will Hunting, his character portrayed that kind of compassionate connection. While counseling a young man about abuse in his past, Williams’ character repeated to the young man, “It’s not your fault.” “I know,” said the young man. “It’s not your fault.” repeated Williams. Again and again… until the tears flowed… “it’s not your fault”.
One of the major reasons I believe in being a member of a church is that church – at its best – is a place of hope and healing. When we are weary and scattered, harassed and hopeless, the church can be a place of hope and healing. It doesn’t mean that we always do it perfectly. But that is what we are called to do and be – a place of healing and hope.
It has profound implications! Being a place of healing and hope doesn’t happen without effort. “The church” is not an entity in and of itself. In order for the church to exist, it has to have people. And those people are the ones who make the church a place of sanctuary to the weary and scattered, to the harassed and helpless. We – are the church. We – are the ones who create the healing and hope, the compassionate connection.
Anne Lamott says it this way: “I would much prefer that God have a magic wand, and not just a raggedy love army of helpers.” But we are God’s embodiment in this world – and when tragedy hits, our task is to enfold in love those who get hurt.
Anne Lamott wrote this week: In all barbarity and suffering, in Iraq, India’s ghettos, in the African Ebola towns, in St. Louis and its racial tensions, and in Robin Williams’ death, “we see Christ crucified. I don’t mean that in a sweet Christian way. I mean it in the most ultimate human and existential way. The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, ‘Oh, it will all make sense someday.’ The thing is, it may not. Yet, we still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water.”
It’s not enough to mourn the loss of a great actor and comedian. His life is resurrected and it has meaning each time a person – you or me – reaches out to those with addiction or depression.
It’s not enough to be horrified with the barbaric treatment of the people in Iraq, or the conflict between Hamas & Israel. Those stories are worth telling when we find God in them; when we find resurrection in them; when we find hope somewhere in them. It’s easy to sit around with our friends and despair over the world’s events. It’s tempting to sit on the sofa and cry for all the terrible news out there. But as people of faith, we are called to something more.
Compassionate connections. Like Jesus, when we see the weary and scattered, we are moved with compassion. This is different than sadness or hopelessness. Compassion is an active word.
- It means we get up off of the sofa and donate to suicide prevention.
- It means we stop the despairing conversation and volunteer somewhere to bring hope to the hopeless.
- We take bread to the lonely.
- We visit the sick.
- We offer a word of hope and healing to the depressed.
- We mentor and teach children.
The gravity of life knocks us down, even the strongest or the funniest of us. And we need a lot of help getting back up. As the daughter of Robin Williams said, “the entire world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence. We’ll just have to work twice as hard to fill it back up again.”
Anne Lamott, Aug. 12 blogpost