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A Pastor’s Presence

I talked to my friend on the phone the night before he ended his own life. In fact, we had talked confidentially on a number of occasions over the previous few months. He was normally a good communicator- interesting, articulate, cohesive, still able to find humor in life’s situations. This particular phone call was different though. It came late one night while I was on vacation a few hours away. He was in a low place, alone in the darkness. Sadness and hopelessness consuming him. I excused myself from our family gathering to take a walk around the campground to talk with him. In another phone call about 2 weeks prior to this one, he had made reference to suicide without actually saying the word. Was he dealing with passive ideation? Was he in his car heading to a location to take his life as we spoke? Was he calling out for help? Or was he just seeing what it felt like to use those words?

As I walked around the campground and listened to my friend talk, he sank deeper and deeper into a darker place. He had questions. This time the questions were not about money or relationships or work. They were about eternity: would his damaged relationships be restored in Heaven, what would happen to him if he killed himself… things of a markedly different nature than before. He was lost in a very dangerous maze and couldn’t find his way back to the door. I feared that this time he had even lost the desire to find his way back.

Being too far away to be of immediate physical assistance, I made him promise me that he had another friend on standby who could embrace him if things got any worse. He said he did.

I received a phone call the next morning. It was not him. This call wasn’t from my dear friend, it was from his wife. The news that no pastor, counselor, or helper wants to receive: her husband had taken his own life. He was so young; too young. Wasn’t the advice good enough? If he had only asked for anything, we would have given it to him. What about his family? His mother, his 2 daughters, his wife? He was surrounded by many good counselors. Both of faith and of clinical nature. It appears no amount of answers would ever add up to enough.

In the wake of this event, I don’t remember talking very much about God with his wife. This would be a ministry of presence rather than one of words. Now some may consider it a dereliction of duty to bypass such an opportunity to interject Christian counseling. But it is vital to remember that, in these times, survivors may not wish to even hear the name of Jesus. They often deal with a full range of emotions regarding the Lord, from extreme anger to unbelief to total surrender, and everything in between. I know of good Christian people who have experienced traumatic situations that made them so mad at God they couldn’t even speak his name. Even in the silence, God is still there.

By her own account, it was not any great counsel that I as a pastor provided that balmed the wounds. It was no sound theological construction that made her finally understand. Nor was it the church’s loving kindness that brought everything full circle. One could even say that the wounds are still open, that the understanding is still incomplete, and that the circle resembles more of a series of piecemeal arcs. The point is that the silence itself, the very absence of words of Godly counsel, can be the place where the greatest self-inspection occurs for the survivor. It was enough for her to know that there was one standing in the gap in Jesus’ name.

My friend’s wife later recounted that it was my attention to little repairs and construction projects on her house that represented the necessary presence of Christ. This was especially true as she processed the degree to which the church was present, or completely absent, through her grieving and recovery. Perhaps it was the fact that she knew that help was only a phone call away- especially help from a pastor who knew what it meant to show up, keep quiet, solve a problem, have a 3 minute check-up, and leave. Unless otherwise asked to stay for an extended discussion of course. The pace was hers. She was, and still is, free to set the tempo and rhythm of her recovery. And I’m glad to say that she is doing very well today.

Perhaps you have suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide. Maybe you’d like to talk about it. Maybe you’d just like someone to sit with you. Or maybe you’d just like to keep our card by your phone for when you are ready. I, and our team, are glad to extend the care that loves you right where you are.