I relate. Therefore I am.

As a person with a degree in physics, and an ongoing student of quantum physics, I am convinced that there are no “things,” only relationships. Relationships are primary, and when we try to isolate something from everything else, we are dealing with approximations. The number π can be stated precisely as the relationship between a circle and its diameter, but in isolation we can only state it approximately as 3.14159… (and on and on). Relationships are primary. Things are secondary.

I have also come to believe that this is the case with human beings. “Human being” can only be defined by relationships, the relationship to others, to the created order, to the cosmos, and to a Universal Consciousness, what some of us choose to call God. Relationships are primary. To define a human being as an individual apart from their relationships is always secondary, and an approximation. To say that an individual has blue eyes tells us something about the frequency of light scattered by their irises, but what is that information worth compared to the value that society places on blue eyes (or not), or even more importantly, that blues eyes were a significant factor in the blossoming of a romantic relationship?

When we say that an individual is suicidal, it is always an approximation and secondary. I have never spoken with an individual who was suicidal who did not name a relational issue as a major factor in their thinking, usually a relationship (or lack of it) with a loved one, an employer, or a community. It’s not that an individual diagnosis is useless, anymore than π is useless. However, it is important to remember that it is only an approximation, and that a fuller description requires an understanding of the relational network in which they are embedded.

The implications are not trivial.

One is that the reference to a person as suicidal is secondary and always approximate. It is more accurate to speak of suicidal relationships. If I know a person who is considering suicide, and I do, it is more accurate to say that “I am in a suicidal relationship” rather than “I have a suicidal friend.” To say I am in a suicidal relationship is much more precise in several ways. First, it acknowledges that I have a role to play in their thinking that can either mitigate or accelerate it. This doesn’t make me finally responsible for any action they take or don’t take. A single fire extinguisher may not be enough to put out a house fire, but the moral responsibility to try is important. Second, it acknowledges that the trajectory of my life will be profoundly and inescapably impacted by the decision to live or die. Finally, speaking of suicidal relationships rather than suicidal persons might help avoid overtreating the individual in isolation with various chemical or cognitive therapies, rather than addressing their relationships with family, friends, or the natural world. The complex is always primary, even if it requires more effort to understand.

To speak of God is always an approximation, and always inaccurate. However, we do not need to be able to define God precisely in order to say “I am a child of God,” and to speak of that relationship with confidence and conviction. I cannot say precisely what a tree is, or my wife, or my friend. What I can say precisely is that I am in a loving relationship with all of them.

If I can only know that, I will never consider suicide again.

Not so Fast

Suicide Prevention Aims To Get Ahead Of Pandemic's Added Pressures : Shots  - Health News : NPR

Many of us who are invested in suicide prevention were heartened by Meghan Markle’s courageous disclosure of her suicidal thinking, resulting from the stresses imposed by tabloid media and the institutional system of which she was a member. We would hope that such an honest depiction would signal to people everywhere that suicidal thoughts are not simply a plague of the down and out, the weak and wanting, or the sick and shameful. We would also hope that society would begin to realize that, given enough overwhelming stresses or devastating losses, combined with a lack of resources, anyone can begin to think about killing themselves. We can hope that increased awareness, to one degree or another, will indeed emerge.

Yet, what happened in reaction to the interview should temper our expectations.

“It was a very soft-serving, soapy interview in Meghan’s favor,” royal biographer Anna Pasternak told the BBC. “None of Meghan’s real behavior was questioned. It was an absolute exercise in torching the house of Windsor.”

Britain’s tabloid newspapers, the object of some of Harry’s most pointed interview remarks, took a customarily raucous tone in summing up what was said. “I WANTED TO KILL MYSELF,” blared the headline in the Daily Mail.

And Pierce Morgan of Good Morning, Britain, reacted to Meghan Markle’s disclosure with “I don’t believe a word she says, Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report.”

Meghan Markle has now joined the ranks of Second Day persons, folks who have passed through a season of suicidal thinking. We welcome her. Unfortunately, she has learned what many of us learned years ago: to the world, the only convincing proof that a person is really considering suicide is a dead body. Short of that grim evidence, all one has to offer is a description of their inner pain. A broken heart cannot be detected by stethoscope, nor verified by x-ray or blood test.

There is another lesson that Second Day persons have learned. Suicidal thinking does not occur in a vacuum; it occurs in systems that are the breeding ground for desperation and hopelessness. Some of these systems ae as small as families, some as large as political institutions, and the churches, businesses, and educational systems in between. These systems can degenerate to such a degree that demeaning and dispiriting behaviors are normalized. No one objects or holds accountability, essentially abandoning a person to fend for themselves, outnumbered and, metaphorically, outgunned.

Here’s the third lesson that Second Day persons have learned. In a contest between a debilitating system and a suicidal individual, the system will win every time. The problem will ultimately be framed as an individual one, the suicidal person is lying, fragile, overly-sensitive, sick, sinister, or seeking sympathy. The reason for this is simple. It takes a lot less effort to locate a problem in someone’s head which can be pathologized or medicated away, than it takes to change an entire system, whether that is a four-person family unit or a junior high classroom. Which is easier, locate the problem in Meghan Markle or make changes in the entire monarchial system of Great Britain?

I have been working in the field of suicide prevention for almost twenty-five years now, beginning with the suicides of three boys in our small community in just seven months. Here is a harsh reality: in some ways, an actual suicide is easier for systems to deal with than persons contemplating suicide. While the tragic loss of life is genuinely grieved, afterwards the system can return to the status quo. A person who has become suicidal in response to how they are being treated is destabilizing. They keep raising issues that upset things. Their absence, either through death or expulsion, calms things down. While people may ponder the question “why” in the short term, that usually does not spark enough energy for real change.

Ultimately, how we deal with individuals vulnerable to suicidal thinking is a spiritual one: How will we treat one another? When someone reports that they are considering suicide, it is an opportunity to ask how we might build better systems, families, schools, churches, and communities, where people want to live rather than die. This does not remove the responsibility from individuals to do the work required to build a sustainable life, including a scaled down version of picking up, moving to another country, renouncing the privileges of royalty, and reinventing one’s life. But the question of that ancient story remains relevant today: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

So, Meghan Markle, welcome to the family of Second Day people. I can’t know for certain if you are telling the whole truth or not. I honestly don’t care. I have no desire for the certainty that only your death would provide. I have had too much of that certainty in my life. I want you alive in the world, not because you are royalty or a former actress or perfect. What I know for sure is that you are a human soul, and like every other human soul, of supreme worth. And if I am going to place my small finger on the scale, its always going to be on that side.

Fe Anam Avis

Personality Cults

For the thirteen-year period between 1977 and 1990, I was a member of a personality cult. When people think of a cult, sharing living space in a specific geographic location comes to mind. Think, for example, of Jonestown in Guyana where 909 persons died by suicide. However, personality cults can function effectively from a distance, holding sway on members over a radius of hundreds of miles, especially given the internet. In the case of the personality cult of which I was involved there were both resident and non-resident members.

The setting for this cult was a religious community, but it really wasn’t a religious cult in the strict sense of the word. Actually, it was quite orthodox in its doctrine. Its daily worship service and hours of prayer followed a mainline denominational liturgy. That was part of what fooled me. Since I had always defined cults in religious terms by their errant doctrine, I missed the personality cult entirely.

Belonging to a personality cult was a valuable experience for me. It is one lens through which I can begin to understand our current environment. It is not the only lens. There are powerful political and economic forces at play. They are not fooled. In fact, they see exactly what is going on. They can use a personality cult to their own particular advantage in the pursuit of political or economic power, no matter the cost to communities and families, or the deterioration of the world our grandchildren will inherit.

A personality cult is formed around a leader or pair of leaders who implicitly or explicitly require loyalty to their authority. In my case, we took a vow to come under the spiritual authority of the leaders. Disloyalty was penalized in a number of ways ranging from public scolding to exclusion from meetings of elite members. People who decided to leave the community were set forth as negative examples in the teaching of the leaders. A member who was disloyal could go from being a darling to a pariah in a very short period of time. This creates a culture of fear and keeps people in line.

Of course, none of this is on display at the entry point of a personality cult. People are generally introduced to a personality cult through lavish displays of attention, beautiful buildings and grounds, or well-organized, impressive public events. In my case, all three were brought to bear. Musical concerts, plays, and banner-led parades, were the first point of contact in my particular cult experience. These provided both an air of excitement as well as a sense of normalcy; I saw many people just like me. This sets the hook.

Once you become a member of a personality cult, you discover a significant boundary separating the cult community from other parts of society. It is in the interest of cult leaders to entice you away from other relationships such as family members, friends, romantic interests, and even spouses in some cases. Alienation between those inside a personality cult, and those outside the cult strengthens the bond with the cult leader(s). The arguments that friends and family members have over holiday dinners are no accident. They separate connected people from one another which makes it easier for the personality cult to increase control.

In a personality cult, information obtained from outside the community is considered tainted, and, therefore, suspect. Community-wide reading assignments keep members of the cult focused on information consistent with the leader’s purposes. Cult members are regularly introduced to anecdotal, fringe, and non-scientific channels of information. Questioning this is disloyal. In my particular cult, challenging sources of information was referred to as “being in my head,” which was excoriated.

Thought control is a major component of a personality cult. People hearing this mistakenly think that cult members demonstrate robotic or zombie-like behavior. Instead, thought control is achieved by saturating a person’s thinking with an alternative view of life or a society in particular. In the personality cult I joined, members not only met weekly for teaching from the leaders that would often last for hours. They would listen to cassette tapes many hours a day as well. You could see members listening to portable tape recorders as they were going about daily activities such as gardening, cooking, cleaning, painting, repairing equipment, or simply relaxing. Today that can be achieved through heavy daily doses from outlets consistent with a leader’s purposes, or internet searches designed to communicate information that will reinforce a particular leader’s perspective. Today’s internet provides an ideal vehicle for developing personality cults.

It is important to point out that their submission to thought control does not mean that members of a personality cult are necessarily less intelligent. Many members of my personality cult were quite accomplished as authors, artists, and corporate executives.  Subjects of mind control may, in fact, be extremely intelligent, and adept at citing material garnered from months of research on the internet. However, their research has led them to drill down deeper and deeper into veins of information that close them off to broader inquiry. The assertions of a single leader(s) in a personality cult and their supporters, can outweigh hundreds of other sources of information.

Personality cults tend to view the external world as dangerous, and tap into the fear and anger of members. As a result, they often engage members in elaborate preparations for some imminent disaster. In my particular cult, leaders foresaw a coming famine. Members spent tens of thousands of dollars stocking up on specialty dried food developed with a shelf life of a decade or more. The basements of nearly every home were stocked with large quantities of these boxes covered with plastic film.

As a result of the control and distortion of information in a personality cult, it is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation between a person in the cult and a person outside the cult. In addition, many of the normal sources of authority in society, legal, institutional, educational, religious, and cultural have been weakened in a personality cult and replaced by the authority of the cult leader(s).

It goes without saying that those who belong to a personality cult do not recognize that they are in a personality cult. They believe that they have found a truth that has escaped everyone else. They will tell you, and sincerely believe, that they are properly related to the leader(s) and not being controlled. They will be offended by any suggestions otherwise and will rise to defend the leader(s) even in the face of the most outrageous behaviors. And while folks in personality cults are not bad people, they are likely to see those who disagree not simply as folks of a different opinion, but people who are morally asleep and in need of awakening, or even evil itself.

While I was a member, my personality cult was investigated several times by mainline denominational bodies who issued serious warnings to those considering membership. There were also exposés by the local news media.  These only served to make me more defensive. All mainline and mainstream sources of information are judged in light of a single personality, and believed to be tainted by an explicit or implicit conspiracy.

Another aspect of personality cults is that they tend to believe that their engagement in the cult will protect them from maladies affecting others in society who do not have the benefit of their information for foresight. This can include protection from contagious diseases, cancer, or developmental disorders, but also advance warning of social catastrophes which allows the cult to fortify themselves in advance. The personality cult I was connected to evidenced both.

I have struggled over the last several years trying to understand the national landscape from a political or rational perspective. This has only left me confused and frustrated. I think there are a number of valid lenses through which we can view our current situation, but I now believe we are dealing with a personality cult. Having been a member of a personality cult, I realize that it is futile to try to reason with those who have been snared by them.

My escape was the result of four factors.

The first was geographic distance. Moving further away from the community to take another job cut down the degree of exclusivity of communication with other cult members, and new relationships diluted the toxicity of the cult.

Second was the expansion of my information sources. I started reading books, journals, and articles outside the cult’s prescribed channels.

Third, I began to engage in a critique of the cult leader’s agenda in light of what I was learning outside the cult. This felt extremely disloyal at first, and I paid a heavy price for my own thinking (exile), but gradually I began to trust my ability to weigh multiple sources and come to my own conclusions.

Finally, I realized that I had a great deal of fear and anger from my childhood, as well as a search for approval, that was driving my involvement in the cult. By dealing with those gut level emotions through other means, I became happier and less susceptible to the ways that personality cults hook people.

Perhaps another factor was simply the passage of time.  Research suggests that the average length of cult membership is about nine years, and it is reasonable to assume a similar duration for personality cults. Perhaps the best approach for those of us concerned about members of psychological cults is to simply remain an informed, patient, consistent presence over the long term.

I am not sure how any of these paths of escape apply today. The emergence of the internet has made geographic distance irrelevant. That same internet tends to lead people to drill down deeper and deeper into sources that can reinforce a cult personality rather than confront him or her. And the political pressure placed on individuals to remain loyal or lose their careers and status, even to the point of receiving death threats, is enormous.

Nonetheless, it is now clear to me that we are dealing with something that transcends reason, while appearing, in the minds of believers to be quite reasonable. At a minimum, we need to make a greater effort in society to understand personality cults, and, hopefully, protect ourselves and our loved ones from their more corrosive effects.

Fe Anam Avis
November 23rd, 2020

At Least This

The purpose of life in this bodily, finite experience is to develop a soul, not simply mark time. The accumulation of years does not guarantee the enlargement of a soul.  People often ask me if suicide is a sin.  To be honest, I am not sure which is the greater tragedy, the person who dies a natural death, full of years but with a soul that stopped growing decades before, or the young man who discovered the preeminence of love but despaired of ever finding it.

I say to myself, “At least he saw the star.”  And I make the sign of the cross.

Fe Anam

Our Shared Desperations

I remember standing by two pickup trucks parked side by side at the end of a washed out road in the mountains just north of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  We had tied a rope between the beds of the two trucks which formed the head of a line of men, women, and children stretching 75 yards up the muddy, impassible road behind them. These were people stricken by Hurricane Mitch, a Category 5 hurricane that hit Honduras on October 29th, 1998, killing 11,000 people and leaving over 1,000,000 people homeless.

Image result for hurricane mitchThe statistics are not what I remember.  What I remember are the faces of people who had walked all night, many with babes in arms, to get to the physicians, nurses, medicines, and food loaded into the back of those trucks.  It was in those faces that I first learned the power of desperation. If necessity is the mother of invention, surely desperation is the mother of extraordinary actions.

Desperate people will consider extraordinary actions that would be dismissed out of hand in ordinary times. People who were otherwise of the highest moral character have confessed to me that they cheated on university exams, not to appear at the top of their class, but in a desperate attempt to avoid the perceived catastrophe of academic failure.  In the Middle East, people will lead their children onto boats little more seaworthy than rubber rafts with the full knowledge they might all drown in the process. Tens of thousands of people will risk the long, dangerous journey from Honduras to the southern border, an extraordinary decision, not because they are visionaries, but because the threats at home have resulted in such a degree of desperation that the only solutions left are extraordinary ones.

Suicidal thinking may seem alien to many of us but in most cases it is simply the same experience of desperation giving rise to a different kind of action, the contemplation of taking one’s own life.  This, too, is extraordinary:  it is a contemplation that most people would not ordinarily consider.  The fact that some do doesn’t tell us much about their character; it does give us some inkling of the titanic desperation that is sweeping all hope from the horizon of their lives.

Amidst all the divisions of our day, I have come to realize that people fleeing Honduras on foot, parents loading their children into rafts on the Mediterranean Sea, women remaining in abusive intimate relationships, teenagers dying of opioid addictions and middle-aged men and women who are killing themselves at unprecedented rates share more in common than they realize: a level of desperation leading them to take extraordinary actions. When life amps up the desperation, the distinction between the heroic and the blameworthy blurs in our thinking.

If you want an experience of shared humanity, reflect on a time in your life when you felt truly desperate, for in that experience is the psychic kernel of the refugee, the relationally trapped, the addicted, and the suicidal.  Remember as well that the desperation of another can often be eased by the simplist acts of kindness.

Today I watched a video about a ministry caring for refugees after they crossed the border and were processed by ICE.  I was touched by the dedication of the volunteers who worked tirelessly in an overwhelming situation.  However, what moved me the most was one of the refugees.  ICE had allowed him to keep his guitar, and he walked around the hundreds of parents and children in the center singing songs in Spanish to cheer them up. When we allow our own experience of desperation to connect us with the desperation of others, a healing compassion begins to bubble up in our souls.

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.    H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Love to all…Fe Anam Avis




Suicide in a non-Redemptive Society

When I was in seminary, we debated the meaning of the “unforgivable sin” referenced by Jesus.  Today we hear little of that debate.  The debate we now seem to be having is over shame, namely, what is the unredeemable shame.

Though they seem oh so similar, guilt and shame are quite different.  Guilt has an objective quality to it that exists independent of emotion.  A man who robs a bank is guilty of theft whether he feels guilty or not.  Shame is different.  Shame is the experience of having failed a social standard.  I would feel ashamed to drive a dirty car in a funeral procession because it is uncouth, but I wouldn’t stand guilty before God.

We knew how to deal with guilt because it resulted from sin.  Sin required acknowledgement, confession if you will.  Combined with the making of amends in cases where that would not harm another, the guilty person could be assured of pardon both by God and by the community of faith.  In most Christian traditions, confession of sin is an integral part of the worship experience.  What often follows if a passing of the peace, a symbol of the fact that confession not only restores our right relationship with God, but also with other people.

This is the essence of the gospel or “good news.”  Dickens’ forgiven Scrooge can find a place at the Cratchit Christmas table.  The promiscuous woman from the streets finds a friend in Jesus. Even murderous Saul can be forgiven.  Guilt is humbling, but straightforward.

Shame is a whole other matter.  If guilt is humbling, shame is humiliating. Because it is based on social more’s that go in and out of fashion, shame tends to be arbitrary.  What is praised in one season is shameful in another.  In addition, shame tends to be tribal and therefore a matter of loyalty.  Disloyalty to the tribe, or reflecting poorly on the tribe, is always shameful, often unredeemably so.  Finally, shame is dispersed.  When guilt is the issue, a pastor or priest can pronounce forgiveness on behalf of the community.  Shame that is resolved with one person may not be resolved with the next.  Everyone has different criteria for redemption, if redemption is possible at all.

Unlike guilt, there is no clear remedy for shame.  In fact, shame is generally unredeemable.  Though contrite confession is generally demanded, it usually aggravates the problem of shame rather than resolving it.  Public officials who confess their sins of one sort or another may be forgiven, but the shame will not be diminished.  In fact, it is likely to be weaponized to gain advantage over them.  Thus, it is advantageous for them to lie since that is what a shame-based society rewards.

We live in a society of diminished guilt and escalated shame.  There a number of factors.  A decline in the role of faith communities has encouraged this drift away from guilt toward shame.  Our consumer culture plays a role also.  It is in the interest of corporate marketing to create a social framework where people of all ages are shamed by not purchasing in one form or another.  Our political system needs us to be tribal and to police any perceived disloyalty with severe sanctions.  Social media provides the perfect platform for shaming.  It is easy to be controlled by the withholding of a “like” from a post.

Since we already know that the risk factors in suicide tend to cluster around losses of hope and social connections, it is easy to see how a non-redemptive shaming culture poisons both and makes suicide more likely. The book of Proverbs gets it right when affirming that “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and nothing dangles an unreachable hope in front of our eyes like a shame-based society. Exile is one of the most primal fears of a human being, and becomes a self-destruct signal to a wide-range of mammals including human beings.

This all may sound strange to the ears of those living in what appears to be an “anything goes” morality.  The problem with a shame-based, non-redemptive society is that we think we are having conversations about morality (right and wrong) when what we are really having are debates about what we will shame or not shame, in which tribes, and whether the shame is terminal.

My solution, I’m afraid, is not very original.  I believe the good news of Jesus Christ invites us into a very different kind of conversation.  Here I am not talking about the shame-based version of the Gospel that is espoused in different ways by folks on both sides of the spectrum.  I’m talking about “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the Gospel.”

Join me as I join you.  Love to all.


Suicide: Is it Our Fault?

As a person who has spent over 20 years as a pastor, I have been directly involved with an equal number of suicides, roughly one per year.  In a few of those the primary factor has clearly been a mental health issue, usually depression.  I am not a mental health professional so I cannot speak knowledgably to those situations beyond reporting what I have observed. In one case, the wife of a fellow clergyman slipped into a post-partum depression and was so determined to take her life that she did so in the locked down psychiatric ward of a prominent hospital.  Her tragic suicide and a few others like hers have convinced me that we cannot prevent all suicides no matter our skill or passion for saving lives.

However, for a large number of the persons I have known who died by suicide, depression was either not the primary factor or, in some cases not a factor at all.  Stressors in their lives triggered a situational depression or simply overwhelmed them to the point that even their otherwise intact mental and emotionally processes could see no way out other than suicide.

Consider these suicides:

  • A student who was assaulted in a hazing and didn’t know how to live with the shame of it.
  • A second student who was ridiculed by a teacher in front of his class.
  • A third student who was caught flipping the bra strap of a fellow student and could not face the shame of a meeting with the principle.
  • A closeted gay pastor who returned home at 10:00 pm to find the media at his doorstep.
  • A young man who felt snubbed by members of an upscale community because he had a blue collar job.

These are just a few of the cases where the primary factor in the suicide was not depression but desperation created or exacerbated by external factors: divorce, relational breakups, health issues, bullying, unemployment, financial or legal problems, etc.

Or take a moment to read through the list of student comments on retreat in response to the question:  “What kinds of things are being said to you at school?”


A steady diet of these kinds of statements can easily become a source of desperation. In its most recent research, the Center for Disease Control has found that at least half of all suicides fall into the category of desperation. As a former pastor, I can speak to these.

In the aftermath of a suicide, everyone is seeking reassurance that they are not to blame.  The school administration wants reassurance that it wasn’t a lack of training that led to the suicide.  The teachers want reassurance that it wasn’t the occasional hostile classroom environment that led to the suicide.  The students want reassurance that it wasn’t the bullying and shunning that led to the suicide. The community wants reassurance that it wasn’t the ferocity of the monthly public school board meetings that led to the board member’s suicide. The church wants reassurance that it wasn’t the way they would treat an outed gay clergyman that led to the suicide.

“She simply had a mental illness. He was depressed. It had nothing to do with the fact that she was bullied, ostracized, harangued, shamed, threatened, or terrified by the actions of others.  A mental illness is like cancer.  Right? We don’t cause mental illness in an individual any more than we cause cancer.  We didn’t put those pills in her mouth or the gun in his hand.  It’s no use wringing our hands in some fruitless self-examination.  Isn’t that right, Pastor?  It isn’t our fault, right?”

What I am now going to write I say to the broader community, never to an individual.

When we both corporately and individually contribute to the desperation of a person who sees no way out other than suicide, we have to examine those actions as a way of preventing future suicides.

In these cases of desperation the answer is not psychotherapy and a pill.  It requires that we all look at how we treat one another rather than place the entire burden on the desperate individual.  For the purposes of this article I will focus only on the faith community.

Therapist, friend and colleague, Michelle Snyder writes that “we are doing a good job de-stigmatizing mental health services in faith community at the same time that we are hyper-stigmatizing other behaviors that leave people isolated and hopeless.”

Here is an example of Michelle’s point.  Several years ago, a woman came to me after a suicide awareness training with this dilemma:

“I found out my brother was having an affair and had left his wife.  Naturally as a Christian, I felt it my duty to have nothing to do with him.  I cut off all communication.  Now I have heard from a relative that he is suicidal.  How do I reach out to him and yet stay faithful to my Christian values?”

I had two reactions.  First, what courage it took to raise the question!  Second, how poorly we have equipped people in the church to deal with those who disappoint us!

What this agonized woman was describing was an approach to church discipline called shunning.  Shunning usually occurs in response to a failure, real or perceived, on the part of the person being shunned. It is a form of rejection that gives rise to some of the most painful of human emotions.  The same part of the brain that registers the physical pain when you strike your thumb with a hammer also registers the emotional pain of being shunned.  While shunning doesn’t leave bruises or blacken eyes, the pain is often deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury. The pain suffered may be worse than that caused by any other experience in life including childbirth.

Shunning is a common, unchallenged feature of church life.  There are many forms of it.

  • Political shunning occurs when a person with a minority perspective is excluded from positions of political power.
  • Social shunning occurs when a person with a minority perspective is excluded from social opportunities.
  • Disciplinary shunning occurs when a person violates certain moral standards of the community. Generally these are focused on sexual misconduct or misappropriation of funds.  Most other sins do not result in shunning.

These types of shunning have reached the point in the church where they have been normalized.  When I asked the woman I described above if she could think of any other way of dealing with her disappointment in her brother besides shunning she could not. When I suggested to her another option she was grateful, but also somewhat puzzled that she had not considered such a simple approach before.

Then there is bullying.  We think of bullying among students in school or employees in a toxic work environment. Bullying also is an unchallenged feature of church life.  A number of years ago, I had a conversation with a prominent pastor who was serving a church where members would openly attack one another in congregational meetings.  When he would describe the viciousness of these attacks in his presence, I asked him how he responded.  He replied, “I do nothing.  I remain a non-anxious presence.”

Sometimes pastors themselves are guilty of bullying from the pulpit.  Pulpits are tempting places for bullying because all the power is on one side.  Those attacked can’t respond either because they are not given an opportunity, or, worse yet, they are not present.  I think when preachers criticize other pastors or church leaders by name either because they disagree with them or due to some moral failing, it is a form of uncontested bullying.  This type of bullying knows no stripe; I hear it from both conservative and progressive preachers.  And it is so common that it seems acceptable.

At first glance that may have nothing to do with folks in the pew.  However, everyone sitting in those pews has something to hide.  It may be that they are in love with someone or that they have decided to get a divorce, that they have cheated on their taxes, or that they are suicidal.  Sermons that focus on the faults of others by name give the message that if you fail you risk (1) being called out by name, (2) behind your back, and (3) punished.  This is feedback no one would dare give a preacher because they would have to come out of hiding to do so. This is also the perfect recipe for deepening suicidal desperation.

Finally there is stunting.  To stunt is to prevent from growing or developing properly.  Churches, of course, speak of and encourage certain kinds of growth like increases in knowledge or involvement.  What is more difficult for them to deal with are transformational changes in behavior or orientation.  In those cases the message that people hear is, “It is easier for me to be dead than different.”

I heard a conference speaker describe the experience of receiving a phone call from her son informing her that he was gay.  Here’s what she said, “If I had to make the choice between this phone call telling me my son was gay and a phone call informing me that my son had been killed in a car accident, I would have preferred the car accident.”

This sounds extreme but it is not as rare as we might think.  Churches often do not do well with people who need to make major life changes in order to create a life that does not make them want to kill themselves.

They may oppose these changes directly which can become a form of bullying or passively which can become a form of shunning.  In any case the message is the same: “Who you are is now unacceptable.”  This is deadly in ways that have been thoroughly researched and documented.

What does all this mean?  You can take just about any person who is mentally and emotionally intact, subject them to shunning, bullying, or stunting and they will likely descend into some degree of desperation.  If that desperation becomes deep enough, suicide will begin to seem like the only way out.  Suicide doesn’t require that they be depressed, bipolar, schizophrenic, or possessed of any other diagnostic category.

It simply means they are human.

Jesus said that we will be judged by how we deal with the “least of these,” and certainly those who have come to such a point of desperation that they consider their life is no longer worth living would join the hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers who also fall into the “least of these” category.  Simply treating people with dignity, no matter who they are, connecting rather than avoiding, and journeying with people through the changes they need to make to survive and thrive is also suicide prevention, and perhaps the best kind.

Love to all,


My Father from Otway to Columbus

My Father grew up in Otway, Ohio, a small town a few miles north of the Ohio River.  He was ten years old when the Depression hit, so his teenage years were spent in poverty.  One of twelve children, he lived in a home without indoor plumbing or electricity.  The coal stove positioned between the sitting room and dining room provided the only heat in the house.

He quit school in the eighth grade to support the family by working at the saw mill adjacent to their home.  By the time I was a boy, all the remnants of the saw mill were gone except for a huge orange pile of sawdust.  I briefly tried playing in that pile but soon discovered that the ants inhabiting it were not the cute critters I encountered on the sidewalks in the city where I lived.

My dad joined the Civilian Conservation Corp in his late teens which took him to Oregon where he lived in 3C camps with other men his age working on public service projects in national and state parks.  Every time I go into a park and see the vintage buildings and picnic tables, I think of him.  Upon his return, World War II broke out.  He joined the Army and shipped to Panama, guarding the Canal from German attempts to choke off supply ships.

After the war ended he teamed up with his brothers to sing in Free Will Baptist Churches in the Otway area.  I recently learned that he first met my mother after singing in one of those services which, I suppose, made her one of the original groupies.  They were married soon after, and I was born almost nine months to the day later.  There’s just something about a band.

Of the many things that my father did that had a profound, positive effect on my life, I remember two today.

First, he saw the writing on the wall with regard to the declining opportunities in Scioto County and headed north to the city of Columbus.  As a child and young adult, I could not appreciate the magnitude of that relocation and the sacrifice of nearly everything he held dear.  While Columbus is only about a hundred miles north of Otway, it might as well be Mars for someone moving from a tight knit community in Appalachia.  He was an immigrant of sorts. To the end of his days, my father called Otway “down home,” told stories of the people he had grown up with, and sang the songs he had first learned in church.

I have survived and even thrived in life by my ability to live in multiple geographic areas, work in different settings, and adapt to different cultures.  It hasn’t always been easy as it wasn’t easy for my father, but his example settled deep into my psyche.

Second, my father was grateful for everyone who gave him a helping hand, even his children.  We eventually moved to a home on an acre of land just east of Columbus with a big garden and an even bigger yard so there were multiple chores to deal with in every season of the year.  In addition, my father often drove used cars living on the edge of their final breakdown and requiring almost constant repair.  All this kept my brother and I busy with one task or another, often for entire days.  But at the end of the day as we were resting sore muscles and soothing scratched up hands he would always say, “Russ, I really appreciate your helping me today.”

My Father and I didn’t see eye to eye on many things.  The worlds of the university and graduate school were as alien to him as Columbus was to Otway.  Nevertheless, as I approach the evening of my life he sits with me in the spaces of my memory and I find myself saying to him, “Dad, I really appreciate your helping me through today.  Thank you.”

Happy Father’s Day and love to all,