After hearing the news of a pastor, Teddy Parker, whom I do not know, it was clear to me that I should wait to post anything about it in this forum – first, out of respect for his family and those who knew and loved him; second, because of what it triggered for me on a personal level, I needed a minute.
Hearing stories such as this one, hits way too close to home. I not only ache internally, but it hurts so deeply that the pain becomes physical. As I sat weeping and sorrowful a few thoughts came to mind as I thought about not only this tragedy, but many more people who struggle to keep living – people for whom deciding to live or die is a daily decision; hell, never mind “daily,” but a moment by moment, hour by hour decision.
Relating to Parker, I did not want to assume mental illness played a role, yet I am not surprised as it is now being reported that he perhaps endured years of struggle with mental illness.
As an African American with a historical association and rearing in predominantly African American communities of faith, I was disappointed (not surprised) by a few of the reactions I read.
Most of the responses/reactions I read said things like:
Pray for pastors, they have a hard job
The devil is busy
Congregations/church folks need to take it easy on pastors
Pastors are human just like everybody else.
The above statements are not only lacking, they are also a bit. Let me explain.
“Pray for pastors.” It is easier to say “pastors have a hard job,” and we need to support them, not be a burden them than it is to address issues of mental health care. It is easier to spiritualize issues than to address practical needs. But easier doesn’t equal helpful. As a fellow struggler, many faith filled people sincerely believe that the way healing and wholeness happens is for me to go to church, pray, call on Jesus and trust God to make a way – period! I am not opposed to praying and such, but when that’s where it stops, first it make me want to cuss, then it moves me to educate and enlighten in hopes of dispelling ignorance.
Should we pray for pastors? YES! Should we pray for those who battle, and I do mean battle mental health challenges? Also yes! Is that all we need to do? NO. Will prayer alone keep pastors or anyone else from ending their lives? Not at all!
“The devil is busy.” OK, and the point is what? That’s my first reaction. But beyond that, I am not convinced that the devil had anything to do with this suicide. I believe we need to take a deeper look at reasons why people end their lives. As one who has walked through depressive episodes, I find that there are a host of “spiritual” people who take the easy way out by being hyper spiritual and glossing over real issues – somehow unable to open their minds to the realness of mental illness and mood disorders – medical conditions that need treatment, not statements like “the devil being busy.” Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.
“People need to take it easy on their pastors.” What the hell?! The first problem is that this statement is an indictment on congregations and to say such things in the context of this young pastor’s death is to accuse and make assumptions regarding how his congregation treated him. Second, though I have been in church all my life and have awareness that church folks are a bit trifling and downright cruel and unreasonable at times, there are some things that we as spiritual leaders have to take ownership of – our self care, utilization of the word “no,” refusal to play into being put on pedestals and the like. Perhaps ego won’t let us destroy that beast? Perhaps our passion and drive for ministry and serving God won’t let us quit or take regular breaks? Who really knows?
Pastors are human just like everyone else. This is true – very true, but the fact that there is such a big deal being made over the fact that a “pastor” completed suicide suggests we don’t really believe that. Perhaps a shift in thinking is necessary – the position does not make one less human nor super human.
So in thinking not only about Parker, but about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:
1. Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”
2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.
3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.
4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental. They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.
5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.
6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.
7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.
8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.
9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person’s permission of course].
10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.
11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.
Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.
Here are just a few resources that might help:
Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)
Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman
Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams
Beyond Blue (the blog)
Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out – Kirk Byron Jones
Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones
The use of paradoxical and polar opposite concepts seems unavoidable to me these days. Perhaps indicative of where I am with life right now; perhaps it is because paradox is important and needs acknowledgment and pondering. Some realities are nonsensical in the truest sense of the word. When bad days turn into bad weeks, and bad weeks become bad months; when “one of those days” turns into multiple bad days; when the God of more than enough seems like the God of less than enough, barely enough, not nearly enough – believing and doubting appear simultaneously possible.
Dialog with others reveals that one can be in relationship with God for years, and still reach a point in life where the existence and involvement of God is questionable. They are not sure whether what they have believed is truth or a hoax. Would we still classify them as believers though they are in a place of doubting?
Sometimes disillusion and discouragement replaces clarity and hopefulness. No need to deny this – if God is God, it makes sense to me that God prefers honesty above pretense. Crying, praying and wondering, yet hoping, and shutting down, going silent in prayer and drawing odd conclusions.
Quite a few Christians that I know are ok with reading about ancient Bible characters that doubted, experienced and even did negative things. Yet somehow, when it comes to people today having some of the same experiences, we gasp, point fingers of shame and should not, as if God does not understand and as though God also gasps. Hiding behind the stories of others and denying our own realities is hypocrisy at its best.
A notable difference in our stories and their stories – both positive and negative, faith filled and doubt plagued, is that their stories are recorded in a book published for all of us to see and read. With reluctance we expose our hearts and put aspects of our lived experiences on display. We share the good, and hide the bad, thereby creating an allusion for others, conveying a message to others who struggle that the struggle they face is somehow unique. Falsehood helps no one! Though our lives are not recorded for any and everyone to read about, we are still just as human as they were. But it’s easier to talk about “them and those,” than it is to acknowledge “me and mine” – distancing ourselves from their stories as though they are somehow not our stories too.
But the question remains, is it possible to be a person of faith who questions? Is it possible to believe and simultaneously doubt and question everything you once believed and were nearly sure of – especially when God seems distant and uninterested in us and the things that are hurting us? Could it be that even when doubt overwhelms our existence, there is still a minutia of faith that remains?
There are places within ancient biblical text that allude to the possibility – people such as the dad of a child in trouble who cried “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” or Thomas, a follower of Jesus whom we label according to his moment of doubt as though “doubting” is his first name.
Being honest about our doubts is somewhat scary. But could this being we refer to as God be more compassionate than a finger pointing, shame on you type of God, welcoming our doubts and receiving our questions as prayer or at the very least honesty? Perhaps God understands when no matter how hard we try, things don’t change? Perhaps God understands when smiles are replaced with frowns and laughter with tears? Perhaps God even understands when our faith and confidence turn into doubt and fear. Maybe God is “standing” gently by us, listening, guiding, and compassionate towards us.
I have doubts, no sense in lying about it – moments when I question as deeply as Job and laugh as boldly as Sarah and Abraham. There are things that I don’t know, there are things that I thought I knew, but I am no longer so sure of. But if God is in fact real, I know that I am loved by this God. What I don’t know is how much I trust/believe.
Many Christian folks will never admit to having doubts, after all we are referred to as “believers.” Truth is, sometimes we feel abandoned, alone and disregarded by God and by others. Sometimes the strength to hope, to dream and to continue moving forward eludes us. What I have discovered is that when courage does comes and we feel free enough to acknowledge doubts, a friend or two walks away. They may not call it walking away, but their silence speaks volumes, their decision to no longer interact with you, and ask “how are you?” are not so subtle hints that they have abandoned you. Individuals who only desire to hang around you when you are a happy, believing faith filled, positive Christian and stand aloof and at a distance when you are filled with pain, and not so happy and positive, are…, well I don’t know what to call them???
All I know is that pain – whether physical or emotional, is real. Some pain leaves us speechless. We want to talk, but no words will come; we want to scream, but our vocal cords won’t cooperate (plus, it might disturb our neighbors too). Sometimes all we can produce are moans, sighs, tears.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try, because even in the trying nothing works out and all that remains is disappointment. Sometimes just when you think you are moving forward, growing and progressing, you discover that you are bound to the place where you’ve always been.
Sometimes we have more questions than answers. And whether we believe the character Job in Hebrew text is real or fictional, reading the book of Job reveals a clear picture of questioning as a result of what one is experiencing – questions for God, questions for himself and questions for his friends. Here are a just a few:
QUESTIONS FOR HIS “FRIENDS”
But why? Have I ever asked you for a gift? Have I begged for anything of yours for myself?
Have I asked you to rescue me from my enemies, or to save me from ruthless people? Honest words can be painful, but what do your criticisms amount to? Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?
Look at me! Would I lie to your face? Stop assuming my guilt, for I have done no wrong. Do you think I am lying? Don’t I know the difference between right and wrong?
“Is not all human life a struggle? Lying in bed, I think, ‘When will it be morning?’ But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn.
QUESTIONS FOR GOD
Why won’t you leave me alone, at least long enough for me to swallow! If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of all humanity? Why make me your target? Am I a burden to you?
QUESTIONS FOR HIMSELF (reflection)
Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? Why was I laid on my mother’s lap? Why did she nurse me at her breasts? Why wasn’t I buried like a stillborn child, like a baby who never lives to see the light?
I don’t have a lot of answers. I do, however, have a plethora of questions. And I choose honesty over pretense and I believe God is honored in honesty.
All of the questions may not get answers, but we can still ask them as a means of being honest about our hearts, what we feel, what we wonder about and to release some of the pain we feel; to help us process our grief, suffering, pain. And who knows, we may eventually arrive at a place of peace with the unknown and incomprehensible even if the questions and doubt never go away. Having doubt does not mean that I don’t have faith; it just means that faith is not the only thing I have.
When we clean up our stories and present the censored, sanitized version of those stories, concealing the truth of whom and how we are – sure we maintain the image of perfection, but that doesn’t make it real and actual or helpful.
Having doubts and denying those doubts doesn’t somehow make them less real. Being annoyed with unanswered and unanswerable questions due to the trouble not only in our individual lives, but also in the world around us – racism, injustice, poverty, illness, the list goes on, is natural and human.
Life can cause us to identify with Job who in essence says that no matter where I look or which direction I face, I cannot find God and the evidence says that God is not there (Job 23:8-9). This is not Job’s starting point in relation to God and if we keep reading, it is obvious that this is not the ending point. BUT it should not be denied, dismissed or ignored that these words are also part of his experience in relation to “God.”
I am guessing that quite a few of us have these experiences, but to avoid shocking, confusing and devastating those near to us, we remain silent about these times, and only give voice to our faith filled, confident moments. The problem is that this approach is not real – it makes us a fraud, hypocritical, and quite frankly insensitive to others. So own your doubts, be unashamed of where you find yourself in life and try to keep moving forward.
1. One of the greatest gifts we can give to folks having a difficult time is letting them know they are not alone. Never underestimate the gift of presence.
2. Having people around you who believe when all you can do is doubt, is priceless
3. The theological perspective of “you must have done something wrong to be going through what you’re going through” is flawed, twisted and a bunch of #%&@%#!
4. Just because a person is still holding on doesn’t mean they’ve never considered giving up.
5. It’s ok to question God, correct or argue with crazy responses from friends, and admit that you despair of life and sometimes despise the day you were born like Job did (eventually, I must write about that brother and his wife too).
6. When you are so angry that you don’t have anything to say to God, having praying people in your life helps. They pray for us when we can’t (and don’t want to) pray for ourselves.
8. Folks who claim that they have never been pissed off at God or wanted to give up could possibly be lying or maybe just need to live a while longer in order to find out that it is possible to get there.
9. When people are courageous enough to expose their heart/soul, we should be compassionate enough to support rather than run away from them/avoid them.
10. Sometimes the people you never expected to “be there” are there in ways that provide healing and a sense of relief. They listen more than they talk, they call, they check in with you….
11. [In relation to claiming the status of “friend”] Asking people what they need is so much better than assuming you know what they need. It might even preserve/strengthen a friendship
12. Sometimes people ignore you in the name of “I didn’t know what to do/say,” which leads to an increase in your feelings of isolation.
13. Sometimes forgiving those who add to your pain (knowingly or unknowingly) is frustrating and difficult.
14. God provides others when some neglect you and say they “thought” they needed to give you space. What!?
15. Every smiling face is not happy…. When you take time to look beyond the surface, sometimes you’ll discover the pain of a soul that is crying. Be kind. Be gentle.
16. God can handle expressed anger and doubt and will love us anyway.
17. Faith = holding on when everything in you has quit, given up.
18. People say a lot when they are silent and sometimes the silence is just plain loud!
19. Presence truly is a gift – just being there goes a long way. Nuff said. (I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating). 🙂
20. Scars are evidence that not only have we been hurt, but that we have been healed. But when the wound is still fresh and open, gentleness is appropriate.
I am pretty sure that the list is not complete, I am continually learning…. What would you add to this list?