More Thoughts about Suicide

From My Youth Up


Merle Haggard


hard times come early when you’re born with the blues
                 From Born with the Blues by Merle Haggard

Afflicted and close to death from my youth up
               From Psalm 88 by the Sons of Korah



"Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world" (John 16:21). So women who, in the agonies of childbirth, can literally get angry with their husbands for making them pregnant, and who sometimes swear, "I will never go through this again," go on to have more babies - sometimes many. 

It is generally true that it is difficult to talk or write about painful experiences when the pain is not present. It is difficult to write about being severely, deeply depressed when you're not there. That's something of my difficulty at present, though, for me, what Churchill called his "black dog" is never so far away from me as for me to feel he has found another trail to follow. 

1. Responses.  I received a number of responses following my original post (Thoughts about Suicide), and I am grateful for them. Some were simple affirmations of continuing respect and love, which are appreciated whether justified or not. Others were of the "I understand," or "Thank you for understanding," sort, whether based on personal experience, or having walked through the experience with loved ones, or having witnessed a particular problem such as the need for some kind of "reform" of the way the medical establishment responds to persons who have "suicidal thoughts." I am appreciative of two men, one for whose Internet publication I gather materials, and another whose pulpit I fill once in awhile, who, despite my offers to release them from any obligation to me, confirmed their desire for me to continue my service.  I am in debt to three men of the Reformed Episcopal Church who have ministered to me, my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dan Morse; my pastoral counselor (or, as I call him, "father confessor"), the Very Rev. Curtis Crenshaw; then my friend, mentor, and former colleague in Roanoke, the Rev. Rich Workowski for their counsel and support. I am particularly appreciative of those who told me I need to continue writing (though I know there are those who did not respond who probably think the contrary), not just on the same or similar topic, but on other subjects I have addressed in previous Blog posts. Some people commented on my "courage" to write transparently. I am not sure whether the virtue of courage was at work or not, but I am thankful for the encouragement. I will note just two of many meaningful comments. One from a friend I have never met face to face:
I wrote a review for 'Night Driving' in the latest edition of Modern Reformation. If you read it, you may pick up on some clues that when I wrote it, I was about where you were. Or have been. I am also Reformed and thoroughly endorse the book. It was a brilliant and cathartic book that I recommend to anyone who feels they have done too much to too many people and deserve the isolation they feel.

So I can assure you that not all Reformed folk disapprove of that book. I read it precisely because I was in a place where I felt abandoned and alone. Those days still come and go but I wanted to recommend the book to anyone to whom darkness has been or does feel to be their only consistent companion.
The other is from a dear friend and member of a church I served:

I am glad you wrote this. You have walked beside me through tough times, tho I was not suicidal, I was depressed. And you were a help and “got me through." I have always found the story of William Cowper to be encouraging to me...I believe your gift of helping is a result of your own struggles.

2. Don't. If you are a person, who struggles with persistent, serious depression and who may have had or be having"suicidal thoughts," the one thing I must say is, "Don't"; or to quote from the old Bob Newhart as psychologist dealing with a neurotic person routine, "Stop it. Just stop it." 

I do know how weak those words may be to you, but the reality is that suicide is wrong. It is a sin against the commandment, "Thou shalt do no murder" which forbids "offing" oneself, not just others.

It was not long ago that there was a consensus that suicide was both a churchly sin and a civil crime. Perhaps you remember the scene in It's a Wonderful Life when the bridge tender says to George Bailey and Angel Second Class Clarence, "Suicide's a crime around here." The Roman Catholic Church has historically taken a very strong stand against suicide, considering it a mortal sin, which, there being no opportunity for repentance, is damning. Roman Catholics who killed themselves were denied Christian funerals and burial in consecrated ground. However, the RCC has "relaxed" its view of suicide. In order for suicide to be a mortal sin, one has to be capable of making the free decision to take one's life. That is, one has to be in his "right mind" for suicide to count as mortal sin. That leads some Roman Catholics ethicists to say that few, if any, suicides are mortal sins, for who in his right mind takes his own life?

I must leave aside any extended comments on the "end of life" issues that come with modern medicine. Surely taking the lives of infants with birth defects or of older persons with a "low" quality of life is wrong, through active or passive measures, and must devalue all human life and contribute to the brutalization of society. But end of life issues can be complicated. Is there virtue in suffering intractable pain? I have known Christian doctors, for instance, who do not have a problem with erring on the side of giving "too much morphine" when a person is near death. But the presumption must stand that one must not take his/her own life or seek the aid of others in doing so.

To my knowledge in the Bible there are seven recorded suicides: In the Old Testament there are the cases of Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), Samson (Judges 16:28-30), Saul (1 Samuel 31:3,4), Saul's armor bearer (1 Samuel 31:5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:18). The one case of suicide involving one who seems to me to be a believer, for all his moral weaknesses and failings, is that of Samson. The most sobering case of suicide occurs in the New Testament, that of our Lord's own disciple and betrayer, the son of perdition (John 17:12), Judas (Matthew 27:3-5, Acts 1:15-20). 

But there is nothing in Holy Scripture to indicate that  the sin of suicide is the sin without forgiveness. I believe there are many cases of believers, whose professions of faith are not to be doubted, who have taken their own lives. For instance, when I lived in Pittsburgh, there was the case of a faithful minister of a conservative Presbyterian church, who, suffering pain with incurable cancer, took his own life while his wife was away from the house attending a Bible study. This was a case of a believer, who (wrongly I believe, though I have not been where he was) concluded, "I cannot go on like this." 

One thing that ought to be noted is that, while it is worthwhile to make the arguments, statements such as, "Look at how God has used your life," or, "Think of the friends, relatives, and loved ones who will be bereaved by your loss," may be completely ineffectual. George Bailey, who was suicidal because he thought that his business had failed beyond recovery and that he and his family would be subjected to scandal (he even to prison), was given the "gift" of "a chance to see what the world would be like without you." "Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" The "message" of the movie is a quote from Mark Twain inscribed by Clarence in a copy of Tom Sawyer, "Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."* The problem for the suicidal person is that none of that rings true to him/her. While he/she may be sufficiently rational to see that such a selfish act will cause havoc and pain in the lives of loved ones, he/she does not believe it is because they prefer him alive as he is now. 

On the other hand, it may be something apparently mundane that will save a life. I read of a man near to committing suicide who got a call from a friend, inviting him to do something with him, that interrupted his plan and saved his life. That is a life saved by something very ordinary: "I think I'll go get something to eat with John rather than kill myself." You never know what God may use. It cannot be your fault if someone takes his/her own life, hence there is no reason for guilt if it happens. But the greatest human deterrence and the greatest gift you can give to the deeply depressed person is presence, availability, interest, acceptance.

To conclude this section: If you are deeply depressed, fight it however you can. If you have suicidal thoughts: Don't do it. It's a sin against God, others, and yourself.

3. Somebody's Got to Do It. My wife and I could hardly be more different. She is an intensely practical person who doesn't spend (she would probably say "waste") a lot of time reflecting on life. She asks, "What needs to be done next? Wash the dishes? OK, then I'll wash the dishes." I ask, "Why are there dishes? Why must they be washed?" 

Forgive me for giving in to ethnic stereotypes, but, like her father before her, my wife is German. She is about responsibility, work, order. I am about angst, rumination, feeling. She has spent (perhaps I should say "wasted") nearly 50 years trying to put me in good order. She also is, as I have said before, the only woman I have ever known who could have lived with me this long and not killed me. As Ray Price sang, "She's got to be a saint, 'cause, Lord knows, that I ain't." She is, beyond any doubt, God's great grace communicated to me through a fellow embodied soul or ensouled body.

She wonders why anyone would choose to be like me (if one can be said to choose it). And, why, being as I am, do I do things - read a little poetry, read a few novels, and listen to country music - that seem to minister to and intensify the misery to which I am prone? The simple answer is because those things give expression to my experience, make me feel that others have walked my path, and, whether a sign  good, bad, or indifferent, cause my soul to say, "Amen."  

Moreover, it seems to me, somebody's got to do it. What if everyone were like my wife? Who would do the philosophy? For that matter, who would know there are any philosophical questions? Who would write the country songs? Who would sing them? Who would write the novels and poetry? Who would have written the darker Psalms (Calvin described the Psalms as "an anatomy of the whole soul")? Who would have asked, "How long, O Lord? Where are you, O Lord? Why, O Lord?" Who could have written a Psalm 88 that ends on a more bereft note than it begins? I love the title of Carl Trueman's chapter, "What Shall Miserable Christians sing?". If you attend a church where everyone stands for 15-20 minutes singing praise songs led by a rock band, the answer is, "Nothing." Even as it took someone who knew the joys of erotic love to write Song of Solomon, so it took someone who knew disillusionment with life to write Ecclesiastes, and someone who deeply felt the heavy hand of God to write Lamentations.

The truth, it seems to me, is that just as there must be people who do things; so there must be people who think things. Just as there must be people who look outward; so there must be those who look inward. Just as there must be people who see the glass as half full; so there must be those who see it as half empty (and those, too, who see it as neither - but as just a half glass of water). Just as some people are upbeat; others are downbeat. (Something I found freeing recently was when I said to a secular counselor, "I can't remember ever not being depressed," and he replied, "Perhaps that's just the way you are. Maybe we can learn some ways to live with it.") Just as some spend much time on the Mount of Transfiguration beholding our Lord's glory; so some must go to dark Gethsemane and spend much time understanding our Lord's agony. 

Not for a moment would I excuse the self-sensitivity, self-pity, self-absorption, and the other besetting sins of us depressives, but I take some comfort in believing that God can use and work through depressives in all their weakness and failings, too. 

4. Childhood and Religion

'Til He gives me my call, the hardest of all
Will be learning to live with myself 
From Learning to Live with Myself by Merle Haggard


I must reflect a little on my childhood and religious experiences. As I do that, you are right to ask, "Do you think your life has been unique? Do you think that either your home or religious upbringing were worse or harder than that of others?" Absolutely not! I know of, respect, and am convicted by others who, going through far worse things than I can imagine, not only have endured but triumphed. Their hardships made them strong, even grateful. The best I can do at explaining the differences is something that was said to me long ago. "Different people process different things in different ways." 

I have wondered many times if my being a depressive is the cause of the way I have processed my family and religious experiences, or if the way I processed my family and religious experiences is the cause of my being a depressive. I have come to believe the relationship is not either/or but symbiotic.

I am deliberately going to avoid talking about my home life. I do that for two reasons: a) concern not to violate the 5th Commandment and b) awareness of my own parental failings. I will, rather, say one specific positive thing which requires alluding to one negative: I grew up in a time when parents still believed in "beating the hell" out of their kids, but I have always felt that my father was the one human being who would never - no matter what - give up on me. 

What I will say more about is my religious upbringing. The conservative Southern Presbyterianism in which I grew up consisted of several disparate elements: Calvinism, revivalism, fundamentalism, dispensationalism, legalism, and higher life-ism. (This same "coalition" brought the Presbyterian Church in America into existence.) Justification by faith alone was clearly taught and preached, but so was legalism and guilt. There were rules that "consecrated" Christians observed, including prohibitions of such worldly practices as dancing, card playing, going to movies, smoking, drinking, etc. The legalistic aspect of this might be summed up by two Garrison Keillor sayings I recall: "We didn't do anything; we just thought about sex all the time," and "Guilt is good; it's the only thing that keeps some people in line." Now in my case all this was exacerbated by my attending from second through ninth grades, Pensacola Christian Reformatory, supported by fundamentalists involved in Child Evangelism and/or the Gideons, founded by two Bob Jones graduates who were Child Evangelism workers, and staffed mainly by teachers trained at Bob Jones. I will say that Pensacola Christian School did a number on me.

In my experience the underlying emphasis was on experience. Had you really asked Jesus into your heart? If you died tonight were you really sure you would awake in heaven? Did you have just head knowledge or also heart knowledge? Now many of my childhood friends have nothing but fond memories of this environment. But, not I. How many times did I ask Jesus to come into my heart or wrestle with whether I ought go down the aisle at this or that meeting? The issue was on whether what had happened in your life was the authentic experience.

Then I went to seminary where I became acquainted with experimental Calvinism. There were still the old fundamentalist revivalists, the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship men who preached in chapel, but now there was something new - exposure to a real Calvinistic emphasis on experience. I think of the Presbyterian, John Gerstner, and his emphasis on preparation to receive grace. But primarily Baptists such as Al Martin. I remember Ernie Reisinger, a saintly man, who applied his message with, "Have you closed with Christ" - terminology I did not know the meaning of because I had never heard it before. Al Martin truly "disturbed" me - a good thing in experimental Calvinism. The emphasis was still on reality and authenticity, but with new terminology - primarily regeneration and conversion. Had you been truly regenerated? Were you really converted? This has led me - I am tempted to say millions of times in the last 50 years - to despair over my spiritual condition and sins, and to pray, "If I am not a Christian, make me a Christian. If I am not regenerated, regenerate me. If I am not converted, convert me." But always the underlying doubt - the fear that I, having preached to others, should be a castaway, or that like Judas, who preached and did miracles, I might not know the Lord. Countless times I have thought of myself, "He saved (or at least preached the gospel to) others; himself he cannot save." It is hard to live with oneself; it is hard to live - period - with such torturing doubts. 

Here is the question it has come down for me lately. How much is God the Father like the father of the prodigal? Is he really straining for a glimpse of his returning son? Does he really interrupt the son's confession and contrition, immediately give gifts that can never be earned, and start the party that comes from his present, unreserved joy? How much is Christ like the true elder Brother, sharing the Father's celebration and, if necessary, heading down the road to bring the Prodigal back again and again because it gives the Father joy? Or to put it in more earthy terms, "Does God love and accept the ones he has 'fixed' or does he love and accept screw-ups, not just one time screw-ups, but repeat screw-ups? 

That is the answer to "learning to live with myself" - living with the screw-up you are and others accurately tell you you are.

I identify with these lines by Brennan Manning:

It is for the younger and older prodigals
who’ve come to their senses
   again, and again, and again, and again.

With that, I think I am through with this - at least for now.

I must tell a story. Bill Peterson was the football coach who began Florida State's emergence from the shadow of the University of Florida. An alumnus invited him to my church to speak to a Men and Boys breakfast. Bill did not know what kind of church he was in, so he told a joke about a policeman who encountered a man about to jump off a bridge. Cop: "Don't do it, man. Think about your family." Man: "I haven't got any family." Cop: "Well, think about your friends." Man: "I haven't got any friends." Cop: "Then think about Robert E. Lee." Man: "Who's Robert E. Lee?" Cop: "Well then, jump, you damn Yankee."

Thoughts about Suicide

Like One Set Loose Among the Dead*



I just hope you're not so sad,
You're gonna go down suicide.
from Tear Stained Letter
by Richard Thompson


Berryman




Cowper






John Berryman experienced four broken homes. When Berryman was a boy, his father, John Allyn Smith, an unemployed banker, who, though still living with the family was going through a divorce with his wife, "very early in the morning, rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window and did what was needed" - killed himself. A devoted altar boy, Berryman lost his faith: "my father's suicide when I was twelve blew out my most bright candle faith." Berryman's mother married another John whose last name was Berryman from whom John Berryman received his last name. That marriage eventually ended in divorce. John Berryman, the poet, was married three times and twice divorced.

Berryman was an intellectual, scholar, academic, and Pulitzer Prize winning poet. He also was idiosyncratic, a depressive, an alcoholic hospitalized numerous times, an adulterer, a difficult person. In 1970 he experienced a religious re-conversion: "I fell back in love with you, Father," and described himself as "Under new management, Your Majesty: Thine." But he continued to struggle with both depression and alcohol abuse. On the morning of January 7, 1972, he jumped to his death in the Mississippi River from a bridge in Minneapolis.

Well, you may be thinking, this is simple: John Berryman was obviously never a true Christian. It is not surprising, then, that he died as his father before him died. 

But let me tell you about another man.

He was also a great poet, a friend of John Newton, an evangelical Christian who led his brother to a profession of evangelical faith when his brother was dying. Though his poetry ranged widely, many of this poet's poems were religious in nature, and quite a few of those are still sung where Christians still sing hymns. He wrote, "There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel's veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains...The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away." His name was William Cowper. 

Bet let me tell you some other things about him your minister or "worship leader" probably has not told you. Cowper was also was a depressive, spent time in an insane asylum, and attempted suicide four times. He knew what it was like to go to church and get nothing out of it: "Thy saints are comforted I know and love thy house of pray'r; I therefore go where others go, but find no comfort there." Though he continued to hold an evangelical faith and believed others were saved, he became convinced that he was "damned beneath Judas." After a dream that confirmed to him his reprobate condition in 1793, Cowper never attended church or said a prayer (we know about). Though John Newton did not doubt Cowper's salvation, he died in 1800 convinced hell was his destiny. Cowper's story is not the stuff of evangelical experimental testimony.

Now, let me tell you about another person. The title of this Blog post, Thoughts about Suicide, is a double entendre. I have thoughts about suicide I want to share, but I also have thoughts about suicide - or suicidal thoughts as they are called. 

Twice my suicidal thinking has resulted in hospitalization. Once 8 years ago and most recently 5 weeks ago. I have wrestled with whether to write this, and even as I write, am wrestling with whether to publish it. My suicidal thoughts involve not just me but my family. Should my wife and sons and their families who, of course, know about these things, have to deal with their friends and extended families knowing this about me?

Then hardly anyone beyond the immediate family knows this about me. Over the years people have said some nice things about my ministry, not just my preaching and teaching, but even my personal concern for them and pastoral care of them. Will this disillusion and disappoint them? Possibly - probably? Will I lose friends because of this? I could. God forbid that any should question the faith I have preached because of it. I also have friends and relatives who do not hold the historic Christian faith, some having never believed it, some having left it. Again, God forbid that my confession should confirm them in disbelief. Also, I have been living in a new area for less than a year, and people among whom I live know nothing of this. What effect will that have on relationships if new friends and acquaintances read this? I may spend the rest of my life here. Would I be happier if they do not know?

But here is the truth. I have been a depressive most of my life. I remember being depressed and doubting my relationship with God as a child. Why? I don't know. Childhood experiences? Maybe. Biology? Perhaps. Spiritual issues? No doubt. I have recently been told by a professional who deals with medications that my depression seems little helped by medications, though with her recommendation I continue to take some. Certainly my depression has been caused by and accompanied by sins that often are concomitant with depression. Even as I write this, I wonder about my motives and if this is simply an exercise in ego. 

Why then write? For these reasons, I think:

1. Though I have deliberately barely touched on the connections between depression and sin and deliberately focused only on thoughts about suicide  so that this is not a tell-all confessional, I think there is some value in being honest about, rather than hiding the reality of, one's experience. That is, is it best to be who you are or to be someone else?

2. I hope that this may help some Christians, who have experienced or may yet have experiences when "darkness is my only friend" (Psalm 88:18), know that they are not alone. That feeling that you are "the only one" or "the only one whose case is so bad as yours" is torture. 

What does it feel like to be so depressed you have suicidal thoughts? Well, it feels like, "I can't go on like this," or, "I don't think I can/don't want to go on like this." If the person is really serious, he/she will probably have some kind of plan. One of the thoughts that might (but not necessarily) restrain someone who believes the Bible is, "Hell is worse, and that could be my destiny, and it is forever." 

Then there is the temptation to projected self-pity - to think of oneself as dead, and feeling like Ralphie in Christmas Story who got pleasure from imagining  himself as a blind adult and his family both feeling extremely sorry for him and engaging in self-recriminations because they helped cause his condition. 

There is also another thought - that some problems would be solved and others' lives would be better off if you were not around. 

Then just about all sinful and negative feelings are present or close to hand: isolation, anger, abandonment, resentment, self-pity, and always despair and hopelessness. Moreover, if others are around, the things you say and do may make it difficult for them to help or even to want to.

If that is your experience, your experience will have its unique aspects, but it is not unique to you. I do not have solutions to offer, but sometimes it helps - a little - to know that others understand almost exactly what you feel, because what you probably think is that no one understands.

And, if you receive mercy from God and others in your circumstances, resolve to be a person who shows mercy to others in the future. It is so easy for us to be like the servant who, forgiven the debt of a fortune, grabbed a fellow servant by the throat because he owed him a small debt.

3. I want to say some things to those who may have to put up with people who have suicidal thoughts. You need to know that, much as you might want to help, sometimes neither you nor any other human can. If you've been there, you will not feel it strange that I say also that it is hard not to feel angry with despairing people. And you may well doubt whether the person is serious who tells you he/she does not want to live. You want to say, "Get over yourself," or, "It's late and time for the pity party to be over," or, "There are people who have died who would have loved to live, and look at you." There may be well-meaning Christians who will want to quote Bible verses, offer an extended prayer**, or recommend a book or CD. Others, even professionals, may say what the person needs is some really tough love that allows him/her to be miserable - "to sit with" what has brought him/her to this place.  

The most important thing you can do is to be there. And that may be the one thing the person who needs you may not allow. In addition you may find that you do not want to be around the person in such a condition. Try to remember that the person has given up on him/herself. Your being there says, "But I haven't." The person feels abandoned. Your presence says, "But you're not. I'm here." The person feels, "I can't go on." Your being there may communicate, "Let's do it together."

There are no simple, easy, or guaranteed to work answers. Do what you can. When you have, put it in God's hands. And always remember, if the worst happens, it's not your fault. There are things you can't stop from happening. The person "who goes down suicide" makes a choice. To him/her it may seem the only choice; nevertheless, it is his/her choice.

4. I want someone to tell the medical establishment that it needs to think about the way it responds to people with suicidal thoughts. I may be wrong, but here is what I think: If a person goes to or is taken to a hospital, the hospital will have two priorities: a. Prevent the person from harming him/herself or anyone else. b. Keep the hospital or health professional from getting sued. There will be little concern about what the person is feeling, or why, or how to help. In fact, the patient's needs are at best secondary to the needs of the medical industry. 

In Mississippi there is a 72 hour "hold" put on suicidal patients. That means you will be held against your will for 72 hours. Let me tell you from my most recent experience some things a patient may experience: No legal rights. You can fight the "hold,"  but you will lose, and the judge may commit you to the state hospital. So it's better to go ahead and go to "X Facility." There you may experience an environment that reminds you of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. You may be subjected to such things as: deeply humiliating "procedures," playing a game of hitting balloons with rubber sticks, sitting around a table where you are the healthiest, most sentient, and sanest person. Spending your nights with a baby sitter. Being denied books in your room (I was able to persuade them to let me keep my Prayer Book.). When I finally met the psychiatrist, it was when the "team" met to decide what to do with me. His personality made a dish towel just used to dry the supper dishes seem both interesting and empathetic. When he asked about health conditions, he told me that it is not possible to have together two health conditions that I do have. About the only thing he said was that they would like me to stay a few more days. I declined. 

If you say, "Well, it's your own fault; you didn't have to go through any of that," I agree. Still my conclusion for myself (I do not recommend it to others) was: "If you are having suicidal thoughts, do not go to a hospital or tell a medical professional. If you weren't really suicidal before, you may become so by the 'treatment' you receive." I don't know what can be done, but something needs to be done about the way hospitals and medical professionals deal with people who have "suicidal ideation." 

5. Churches and denominations of churches need to realize that attendees, members, and ministers may be, to quote James Taylor, "moving in silent desperation." Some are living in the shadows because they cannot risk transparency. Their experience does not match the Christian experience they hear about in sermons and testimonies, the experience they themselves think they should be having, or the experience it seems everyone else is having. Yes, there are people who go to churches who are chronic whiners, people whose greatest joy is to complain, people who want to talk constantly about their favorite subject - themselves. Even those folks need the ministry of the church, because the church includes all sorts of folks. 

But somehow the church needs to communicate to real sufferers that it's OK to be honest about who you are - your struggles, your sins, your despairing moments - and that the church will not promise to pray for you, then forget you, look down on you, hope you'll find another church. In other words, the church needs to be the church - a fellowship of fellow pilgrims and strugglers. The church should be the first place the despairing person can turn and know he/she will be accepted, even held onto tightly. That person needs the Communion of the Lord and the communion of the saints.

I have a special word about ministers, and that is to say how thankful I am to be in the Reformed Episcopal Church. I have concerns about the theological/liturgical direction of my church, but I have found that my church is pastoral toward pastors. My Bishop and the minister from whom I receive spiritual counsel, know not only about my depression and experiences of suicidal thoughts but also about my sins. Yet I am still a minister of Word and Sacrament and am still welcome at the Lord's Table. My pastoral counselor asked me to watch a YouTube video. It was about an hour and a half long, so I watched in two parts. When we met, he asked me what I thought he wanted me to get out of the video. I said, "When I watched the first half, I thought you wanted me to conclude that I am no Christian at all." He responded, "That never crossed my mind." That is one of the most encouraging things anyone has ever said to me. My Bishop has held me accountable, including giving admonishment and warning, but he has been kind, patient, and supportive throughout. My experience of my church has been that it looks on people as did Jesus,"who had compassion on them" (Matthew 9:36).

I think there is also a place for what today is called "talk therapy." The practice of psychoanalysis is no more (save for a few places), thank God. The emphasis today is, "Where are we now? Where do we go from here? How do we get there?" I think there is value in talking with someone in an unguarded, even earthy, fashion whose goal is to understand and help you practically.

Lately I have got help from a book some of my Reformed friends may disapprove, Night Driving: Thoughts of a Prodigal Soul. My story here is somewhat like the title of that book.  I am better now, else I could not write this. But this is not a "victory in Jesus" story. It is a story of someone God has apparently chosen to hold onto despite himself. Its testimony is only, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us."  It is a story in progress not a story with all the loose ends brought together in a satisfying conclusion. In that sense it is like Psalm 88, a Psalm that leaves us uneasy because at the end the Psalmist has it no more together than he did at the beginning. The one hopeful note in the Psalm is...


    But I, O Lord, cry to you;

        in the morning my prayer comes before you.

                                                                   Psalm 88:13

                                 

*Psalm 88:5

** I like this prayer for "Those in Mental Darkness" from The Book of Common Prayer: "O Heavenly Father, we beseech thee to have mercy upon all thy children who are living in mental darkness. Restore them to strength of mind and cheerfulness of spirit, and give them health and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."






Celebrating the 70th Birthday of Israel

On the 14th of May Israel will celebrate the 70th Anniversary of its modern creation in 1948. I thought posting something from my old Blog The Christian Curmudgeon would be appropriate. 



Israel Is Not Israel

Modern National Israel 
Is Not Old Testament Israel



The older I get the more I know, to use Donald Rumsfield's phraseology, that there are "known unknowns" and there are "unknown unknowns." There are things we do not know, and we know that we don't.  We know we do not know the date of the Second Coming of Christ. We know enough to know we don't know that. 

But there are things we do not know of which we have no awareness at all. With regard to the past, we can give examples of what were "unknown unknowns." Until the new physics came along we did not know that there are particles that behave chaotically - that is non-predictably. But with regard to the future, we cannot give examples simply because we do not know enough to know we don't know. 

One of my known unknowns is what God is going to do with ethnic Israel. Even to try to define "ethnic Israel" is an exercise in frustration. What does "all Israel will be saved" mean? Does Paul teach us that all elect ethnic Jews will be saved or does he teach us that there is yet to be a mass turning of ethnic Jews to Christ? I take a "wait and see" approach to this issue.

But one of my "known knowns" is that, if there is to be a mass turning of the Jews to Christ, it does not require a national homeland for ethnic Jews in the approximate location of ancient Old Testament Israel. Jews can turn to Christ as well in the United States, or Egypt for that matter, as in the modern state of Israel.

The modern state of Israel is geographically strange. It encompasses only part of the territory promised to God's people in the Old Testament. Specifically, while Israel has settled Israelis in the west bank area, Israel does not encompass "Judea" and "Samaria" to say nothing of any east bank territory one may believe that God meant to give the Israelites.

Here is one proposed map of Israel according to the allotments to the tribes:

Allotments to Tribes

Here is a map of the approximate borders of Israel in the time of Solomon, the apex of ethnic/national Israel's territorial control.

Israel in Solomon's Time

But what about the modern state of Israel?

Last summer the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America divested itself of stock in three companies that sell to Israel materials that have military uses. Many evangelicals tried to prevent this action and decried it after it was taken.

Lately with regard to the conflict in Gaza much support for Israel has been expressed. Panelists on Fox's Special Report, especially Charles Krauthammer, strongly support Israel's action. Rush Limbaugh supports of Israel, saying that the Palestinian groups must be defeated and subdued before there can be peace in the area. Israel must impose peace on its defeated foes. I have also seen a number of posts by Christian friends supporting the Israeli incursion. For the purposes of this Blog let me grant that the Israeli action is politically, militarily, and morally necessary. That granted for now, I want to question reasons for the support of Israeli actions. 

It seems to me that some Christians' support of just about anything Israel does assumes that Jewish people have continuously dwelt in and occupied territory in the geographic area that came to be known as Palestine or, if you prefer, Canaan from the days of Joshua or post-Exilic days (take your pick) forward. But that is not the case. Here is a map showing Jewish settlement from 1881 to 1914.



The Balfour Declaration of 1917 vaguely committed the British government to the establishment of a Jewish "homeland" in Palestine. However, a geographical grant of territory to Jews did not come about until 1947 when the United Nations partitioned Palestine between the Israelis and the Arabs (or Palestinians). The Jewish state of modern Israel declared its existence in 1948. The Arabs did not like partition or the existence of the state of Israel, so a war ensued.

Here are maps of the U.N. Partition and of the 1948 war:




There is a good chance there would have been no Israeli state, at least not for quite awhile, had it not been for virulent anti-Semitism in Europe and particularly had the Holocaust not occurred. This ratcheted up demands for a "safe homeland" for Jews (how is that working out?). After World War II, when Britain still governed Palestine, the British gave up efforts to control it, partly because of Jewish terrorism against the British (carried out by men such as Menachem Begin, later Prime Minister). At the same time there was growing Jewish pressure in the United States which led to President Trueman's supporting (at least in part because of electoral considerations) the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. From that time forward there has been almost continuous conflict (including 3 wars) about the land between the Jews and the Palestinians. Still the modern state of Israel does not occupy the territory claimed by Old Testament Israel. 

Here is a map of Israeli territory before the 1967 War and today.


Israel 1967 and Today

A question we must ask is:

Does the Israeli state have a right to the territory allotted to the tribes of Israel by Joshua? If you are a dispensationalist, you do think that, because you believe that the Jews are God's people, that there is a future for Israel distinct from the church, and that the Old Testament land belongs to Israel by divine right. You believe that the human race is divided both as believers and unbelievers and as Jews and Gentiles.  We live in a parenthesis (the Church Age) which will be followed by God's implementation of his original plan for Israel and the fulfillment of his ancient promises to Israel. 

My question to those who are not dispensationalists is, Why do you respond to the actions of the Israelis on dispensationalist assumptions? That is, Why do you respond to the conflicts in Palestine as though you believe a geographical land belongs to ethnic Jews and the modern Jewish state? Or, Why do you instinctively support what the Israeli state does as though it has a special status that trumps every other consideration?

In other words, it seems to me that the right way to view the national claims and geographical aspirations of ethnic Jews is to view them the same as we would any other group of people in the world. It is to view these claims and aspirations as we would if (as is the case) ethnic Jews do not have a Biblical claim to land in the Middle East. The modern state of Israel is no different from any other nation as to its rights and obligations. 

The state of Israel does exist. We may question whether it was wise to establish a state for ethnic Jews in Palestine. But we may not question the fact of its existence. As a state it has no less but also no more rights than any other state. We have no reason to condemn Israel's actions when they fall within the rights we recognize for ourselves or any other nation. But we also have no reason to support Israel as though it were a special case.

I find the situation with Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jews, and Palestinians politically, militarily, and morally vexing. I have trouble sorting out the right and the wrong, the wise and the foolish, the workable and the unworkable. I do not know what a just, wise, and workable solution looks like. What I do know is that there no Biblical reason to look at these questions as though the modern state of Israel is a special case.

Modern Israel is just another country that is in the world and whose existence is recognized by the United Nations. No less. No more.

When Abraham walked the land of Palestine and God told him that every place his foot fell would belong to his descendants, God was giving Abraham and his descendants a sign of and down payment on the much bigger promise to give him the whole world (Romans 4:13). And who are Abraham's descendants who have inherited this promise? He is "the father of all who believe without being circumcised... and...the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised" (Romans 4: 11,12). The promise of the world will be gained, not by armies, rifles, artillery shells, and missiles, but now by the gospel and in the end by coming again of the Lord.