Suicide and salvation

Eight years ago this week, my phone rang Saturday afternoon. It was one of my closest pastor friends. He began, “Greg, my son shot himself to death, today.” He then gave me the privilege of ministering to his family in those difficult days.

Many people are confused about suicide. Many wonder if a person is automatically damned if he takes his own life. I hope the funeral sermon I preached answers vital questions.

All names have been changed.

This sketch reminded me of Mark, who was in his early twenties.

Dear members of the congregation, friends of Mark, and especially to his family: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

You might think you are here for Mark, or for the Schultzes. You might think this is about Mark. Everyone knows that’s what a funeral is for, to speak well of our loved one and remember him. I will certainly do that, but that’s not really what this is about. When I talk about Mark, please hear everything I say under this heading: what the Lord Jesus did for Mark.

As your presence here is a marvelous show of love and support for the Schultzes, you are in this church to lean, with all your weight, upon the gifts and promises of God the Father, purchased and won for you through His Son Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all of your sins, so that you possess life which defeats the grave, so that you are saved from death, devil, and damnation.

This sermon has three sections. First, a little bit about the man Mark was—about the young man, from what I learned on Monday when visiting with the Schultzes, who was a bright, funny, creative, precocious, talented, caring, loving, and empathetic young man. Second, an important section about sin, about the topic that you don’t want me to talk about today but one on which people always have so many questions: taking one’s life, and about your own battles with the enticing world, the tempting devil, and the weak flesh in which each one of us lives. Finally, the best part: the eternal life to come in the resurrection from the dead.

Part One

As I take up the first section, I must bathe it in the fact that Mark wasn’t simply the multi-gifted guy you knew him to be, but he was, first and best, a child of God. Mark was conceived and born a sinner. As he received every physical attribute from his parents, he received their spiritual attributes, the sin of every generation which stems from Adam’s original sin.

Because Alan and Beth loved Mark, they quickly took Mark to the font of forgiveness; the baptism of Jesus Christ in which Mark became the righteous possessor of his Lord’s promises: faith in Jesus Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of all his sins. God’s Word declares that the baptized one is joined with Christ in His death and raised with Christ in His resurrection, and that the baptized one puts on Christ as a robe of righteousness.

In every way, Mark was a typical, young, American male. I read all of his interests on his Facebook wall, and the many posts of his friends. I’ve heard the family stories.

The Lord equipped Mark with a fine body and a wonderful mind. Dad and Mom want you to know that Mark succeeded in sports because he was persistent. But, they were most pleased with the caring nature of their firstborn son. See, Mark simply could not bear to see anyone get hurt, nor to hurt anyone. You know, Alan and Beth, that sounds to me like living the Golden Rule.

Mark’s siblings want you to know how gifted their big brother was, the things he did to make them laugh—many of which are definitely only for family consumption—how compassionate he could be with them, and that he was such an awesome musician.

To all of you, who knew and loved Mark, he was special because he was a neat and nice guy. But, of eternally greater importance, to God the Father Mark was as holy as Jesus Christ, for God the Father always saw Mark through his Savior. Mark was holy in God the Father’s eyes, righteous and beloved, because Jesus is righteous and beloved of the Father, and Mark belonged to Jesus—Mark belongs to Jesus.

Here is Mark’s confirmation verse, Revelation 7:14: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (all Bible passages NIV). When Mark’s soul arrived in heaven, he joined this crowd which is gathered around the throne of God the Father and the Lamb Jesus Christ. Mark did, indeed, arrive in heaven from the great tribulation of this world and of his personal struggles, and now Mark is declared with all the other saints in heaven to be one whose robe was washed white—pure, holy, freed from the penalty of sin—in the blood of the Lamb.

That’s what the Lord Jesus did for Mark when Mark was baptized and throughout Mark’s life. That’s what Jesus does for you, the baptized who still live in this great tribulation. Lean on that today. Trust in that tomorrow. Rejoice in Christ forever.

Part Two

Moving to section two, we need to address some sticky questions. How can a loving Jesus let such terrible things happen? Doesn’t God promise to never give us more than we can bear? And, I will dare to ask the one that’s so hard to talk about: can a person go to heaven who took his own life?

How can a loving Jesus let such terrible things happen? A few years ago, when I was in a similar, tragic situation in Port Hope, it came to me to answer this question thus: do you want God to step into your life every time you are about to sin? Can you imagine if, every time you might misuse God’s name or tell a lie, He would zap you just enough to stop your mouth; or every time you were about to covet or lust or hate, He would turn your thoughts into fields of daisies and butterflies; or every time you are about to open the fridge for that evening snack that you don’t need, He would slam the fridge door on your fingers?

Do you want a God who controls your life? Is that what love does—build fences around us so that we can never do wrong, so that we can never get hurt?

As all parents do, Alan and Beth let Mark grow and let him go into the world. Jesus did the same for Mark. As Alan and Beth always had their hearts watching over Mark, and were always there to take his calls, answer his questions, and provide for his needs, so much more did the Lord Jesus always take Mark’s calls, answer his prayers, and provide for his needs. Alan and Beth let Mark make mistakes—that’s what love does, it gives freedom to do right and freedom to fail. From heaven, Jesus gave Mark freedom to live his life, to pass the tests of life or to fail them, but He always loved Mark, and in the ways that matter for Mark’s eternal life, He always kept Mark safe. Never did Jesus leave Mark; never did He forsake Mark.

The Lord doesn’t control our lives and, to ease into the second question, He does not give us more than we can handle—well, hold on; let’s look at what the Word of God says in full: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Here’s what happens: every person has his own set of struggles, trials, and temptations—tests of weakness, illness, and maladies of every type. For you, the Christian, when there is no other answer—when you can’t fix a problem, or cure an illness, or avoid a temptation, or pass a test—there is always God’s answer to your trouble: Jesus Christ and His strength, His compassion, His forgiveness, and the wisdom of His Holy Spirit.

So, here’s what happens: we don’t always pay attention to the last part of this passage: “But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” We follow our own thinking. We listen to the ways of the world. And that wily devil, who has been learning our weaknesses, having been observing us all of our lives, knows exactly where to strike with his evil intentions. And we don’t stand up under it. We fall.

We ask: how can a Christian take his own life? Fair enough. As long as we are asking, let’s also ask:

  • How can a Christian cheat on his wife?
  • How can a Christian, who knows that God forgives his every sin for Christ’s sake, still hold onto grudges and not forgive others?
  • How can a Christian steal?
  • How can a Christian gossip?
  • How can a Christian sass his dad or mom?
  • How can a Christian delight in getting drunk?
  • How can a Christian misuse Jesus’ holy name?

The fact of our sinful nature is that we Christians commit every sin under the sun. To recognize this is not to excuse this. And please hear this clearly: nothing I say, today, gives anyone permission to do harm to himself. Listen to Beth Schultz on this: first, if Mark were healthy, this would never have happened and, second, Mark never meant to hurt anyone.

What I am working to achieve in this sermon is understanding: understanding of our frail minds and bodies; understanding of our brother, Mark; and, best of all, understanding God’s grace, Jesus Christ’s love, and the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence . . . especially when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Thus, we land on the question: how can a person go to heaven who took his own life? Actually, we can shorten it, for the question is the same for all: how can a person go to heaven? For this, I need only proclaim the promises and gifts of Jesus Christ:

  • 1 Timothy 1:15: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
  • John 3:17: “For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
  • And, two verses later: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”
  • Romans 14:7-8: “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
  • Romans 8:39: “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • Finally, in John 6:40 hear the Lord Jesus: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Part Three

This takes us to the third and best section of the sermon—Jesus’ promise: “I will raise him up at the last day.” This is what Job was talking about: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the end he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I, and not another!”

Mark knows that His Redeemer lives, and in the end Mark will stand upon the earth, and after his skin has been destroyed, yet in his resurrected flesh he will see Jesus.

First Corinthians fifteen tells us four ways our bodies go into the earth because of death, and four ways in which death will be conquered in the resurrection given to us by Jesus Christ.

First, the body that is sown into the earth is perishable—that is, we live in bodies that can and do die, and we can’t stop it. But, the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be imperishable—never to be touched by death again.

Second, the body that is sown into the earth is laid to rest in dishonor—that is, it is a shame that our bodies should be captured in a casket. But the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised in glory—the resurrected body will never again be held captive.

Third, the body that is sown into the earth is sown in weakness—these present bodies succumb to disease, to old age, to accidents, to every manner of harm which silence them. But the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised in power—no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain will ever visit our resurrected bodies.

Finally, the body that is sown into the earth is a natural body—we are shackled to the laws of this corrupted world, in this sinful nature. But the body Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised a spiritual body—and of this I can barely speak, because you and I cannot begin to imagine what it will be like to transcend the only world we know.

All of this, dear friends, Jesus Christ prepared for Mark and for you. So, for now, Mark’s soul delights in heaven, at the foot of the Lord Jesus’ throne, praising Jesus for his salvation. So, for now, you delight in the house of Jesus, at His altar-throne, from which He is proclaimed in the Gospel, in which you are baptized into His gifts, and from where you are fed upon His living body and blood.

I close with this verse from Romans, which is really hard to digest: “We rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And, hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time . . . While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Dear Alan and Beth, and all who loved Mark: God’s Holy Spirit is at work today so that in your suffering your faith will be strengthened that you might persevere, building your Christian character by which you live in hope for the rest of your days in this great tribulation—the sure and certain hope which is Jesus Christ, the Victor over death.

Your Victor. Mark’s Victor. Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Another Port Hope tragedy

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Two days ago, we were chilled to the bone at the news of the sudden passing of Adam Reinke, aged thirty years and ten months, who hailed from Port Hope. When I was Adam’s pastor, things were always familiar and friendly with us. I liked him.

I recall first talking with Adam at Ramsey Funeral Home. Three months after I arrived in Port Hope. For the wake of his six-year-old niece, Carly.

Carly had been hit by a car and died almost immediately. Uncle Adam was riding bikes with her into town from his family’s house a couple of miles outside of town. Despite the quick-thinking action he took, it could not be enough.

They were only a block from the village’s edge. A block from our church school’s playground. Measly yards from where the speed limit drops to twenty-five. The lethal combination would be an elderly woman who perhaps did not have the vision or reflexes she once had, a young girl who would not benefit from the experience of an older biker, and a section of road where the shoulder immediately falls off and into the ditch.

Adam’s sister, Melody, would plant a white cross to commemorate the event next to the road at the site of the tragedy, complete with a stuffed dog to stand guard. This was the road on which I jogged the most. Over the next thirteen years, I must have run by that cross a thousand times. It always took me back to those sad days.

Adam was fifteen that year. So was my son, Addison. They were classmates in one of Port Hope’s smallest-ever classes. Their class began high school numbering seven. Only five would graduate. And now the Port Hope Class of ’04 numbers 04.

One did not remain in school to graduate. Then, Chelsea, only two years after Carly, became the second tragic death in my Port Hope pastorate. Three weeks shy of starting her senior year, Chelsea was driving home from a friend’s when—we could never figure out why; did she swerve to miss a deer?—she went off the road and so violently entered the ditch that her injuries resulted in her death hours later.

On the shore of Lake Huron, at the hangnail of Michigan’s Thumb, Port Hope is a village of 265. The countryside is very rural. There simply are few people for miles. Statistically, there should have been no more tragedies over my final eleven years as pastor of St. John.

Statistics, however, don’t live in the real world. Only two years later, on Halloween night, yet another single-car crash would take the life of one of our church’s high school seniors, and this one was surrounded by controversy: Did swirling animosity prompt someone to tinker with Derek’s truck and to bring on his losing control and flying off the road to his death? The police said ‘no,’ but so many questions remained.

As if we, this tiny community, were not hurting enough, the very next summer a young wife and mother of three, whose youngest I had just baptized, was killed only 500 feet from her destination when an elderly woman blew through a stop sign and slammed into the driver’s side, killing Amy immediately—but thankfully causing only a couple a scratches to her infant, who enjoyed near-miraculous protection from her car seat.

That was the end of the car accident deaths, but the tragedies refused to cease. They came with such regularity that I would lament to my brother pastors, “Have you had even one tragedy? Or more than one? We can’t go two years without having one.” Indeed, we never got to breathe easily for more than two years as we would finally number seven tragedies in ten years.

I came to call myself the Disaster Pastor.

The next was a terrible situation that affected an entire family. It began with the secret, self-birth of a child who was stillborn—or was he?—by the fourteen-year-old mother who had not told anyone she was pregnant and had a build that could hide the fact, to learning who the father was, to the mother losing legal rights to her four minor children, to their losing their home and our inviting them to take refuge in the parsonage as they searched for a place to live.

On the heels of that, one of our Marines lost his legs to a landmine in Afghanistan. Joey was a classmate of my youngest, Alex. Joey’s and Alex’s co-best friend, Shawn, made the trip with Julie and me to see Joey in Washington D. C., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, we were humbled at the sight of many men in various states of limb loss and stages of recovery, and invigorated by their determination to overcome their hurdles. Joey, I am pleased to report, has done good things despite his bad break.

The final tragedy was one that was not imaginable. Indeed, it was so inconceivable that for months afterward I would mutter, “I can’t believe I am the pastor of a person who was murdered.”

Rhonda’s marriage now estranged, she was moving out. Her husband decided, so the thinking goes based on things he had said, that if he could not have their young daughter under his roof all the time, then neither could she. He kidnaped his wife, drove her far from home, got a hotel room, shot her to death, then did the same to himself.

That was my final tragedy, but as I learned over the years that too many had occurred before I moved to Port Hope, they have continued since I left in 2014. Andy, a husband and father of four, died in a one car accident, and now Adam. And all of the folks I’ve mentioned in this piece were members of St. John.

Adam will be sorely missed. A hole has been excavated in the heart of his fiancé and their young daughter, and the large, tight-knit Reinke clan. His friends lost a friendly guy with a kind manner and a ready smile. No more will they find him in his usual haunt, the bowling alley, where he honed his talent for nailing the pins.

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He did it!  Twelve consecutive tosses of the ball to knock down every pin!  (Thanks to Michael Schave, from whose Facebook page I copied this picture.)

When my son, Addison, and I talked Sunday evening, in his distraught state Add got stuck on, “He was only thirty, Dad! Why??? I’m thirty!” My reaction was simply to cry with my son. Add already has learned how precarious life can be. It was two years ago that we nearly lost him, and he is married with two young children who would have been devastated.

I buried so many people in Port Hope—150—that I came to say two things: “Death totally screws up a party,” and, “Death stinks.”

Since we all hate death, and we all have death as our common enemy, to have the cure is the greatest human desire.

Jesus Christ is The Cure, He who went to His death in order to take on the cause of our mortality and is the only person ever to be raised from the dead never to die again.

When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies (John 11:25),” and when He declares, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28),” and when He vows, “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40),” Christ speaks as One who has authority. Who is to be trusted. In whom to place your faith.

I hate death. I hate being punched in the gut. I hate these sorrow-filled goodbyes. You do, too. Everyone does.

I long for the day of the great reunion, when my Jesus will make everything right. When we will be resurrected from the dead into immortal, glorious bodies, to live on the new earth forever. When there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

Until then, we persevere in faith toward Christ. We take every death as a punch to the gut, but we catch our breath and get back into the fight of faith. We fight the good fight because it is a fight worth battling, because no one but Jesus Christ has won the ultimate battle of life and death.

This Christmas, I hope you stop and think, “THIS is the true meaning of Christmas: Jesus came to live in order to give me the cure for death.”