Recently at my church we had an event take place that was so horrific it’s hard to write about. One of our more esteemed members, with an active lay ministry, shot and killed himself in front on his wife on Christmas Eve after losing his job. For a long list of reasons (not the least of which is that I don’t have ministerial credentials) I was not asked to speak at his funeral, but if I had been this is what I would say. I put this here because it touches many of the issues I discuss on this site, so perhaps this is the best venue after all.
It is a difficult thing to get up and say much of anything meaningful after the tragic end of our friend. Those who have spoken before me have waxed eloquently about his life–his warm personality, his burden for the souls of those around him, his active leading of cell groups and outreach to single people, his regal treatment of his wife, and all of the other things he did that made him an outstanding and beloved member of our church. And yet his end–an end which has deeply wounded us all–begs for some kind of explanation after the life he lived.
One of those before me has simply stated that he was overcome by depression he could not control. Honestly, I cannot take this explanation at face value. I am aware that an axiom of moral theology is that we cannot be held responsible for those things we cannot control. But I also know that the church I grew up in, steeped in the Fruedian paradigm so fashionable in the 1960’s, basically adopted the position that there were no moral absolutes and no moral resonsibilities. Once we start attributing everything that we do to internal forces beyond our control, we obviate the whole concept of sin and ultimately of our responsibility to turn ourselves over to Jesus Christ in salvation. We only need to look at the world around us to see where this kind of thinking has landed us.
Am I saying that our friend eradicated his eternal life along with his natural one? I am not. His life–all of it–is done, and he, like all of us, must give his own account to God for it. Our task is not to determine what other people’s eternities are, but to change them for the better. But in the midst of this tragedy–one that has torn all of our hearts–there is a lesson for all of us who remain on the earth to live the life that God has given us.
When our ancestors–spiritual and literal–turned their backs on the religion their dread Sovereigns gave them, they rejected a liturgical form of worship for the one we have today. At the centre of this worship is the preaching of the Word. This was supposed to make for a more God-centred form of worship and life. But it puts a man at the centre as well. The great besetting danger of this form of Christianity–both as Pentecostals and as Evangelicals–is that, in attempting to make our worship God-centred, we end up making it more man-centred than we were supposed to.
This was not God’s intent for us. "For it is by God’s loving-kindness that you have been saved, through your faith. It is not due to yourselves; the gift is God’s. It is not due to obedience to Law, lest any one should boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created, by our union with Christ Jesus, for the good actions in doing which God had pre-arranged that we should spend our lives." (Eph. 2:8-10) The idea that all that we do for God should have ultimately come from God is something that should permeate our entire Christian life.
Today we hear our friend eulogised for the good things he has done and the people to whom he ministered. But all of the worth of all that he did depends upon whether his works came from God, whether they served God’s purpose, and whether they were for God’s glory or his own. We believe that his purpose was to further the kingdom of God on this earth. That being the case, our focus must be on God, not man. We must remember him not because he was an especially good person in and of himself, but because he did the will of the One who sent him. (John 4:34)
And that leads us to the urgent question that all of us–especially his family and closest friends gathered today–have. How was it possible that someone who did all of the things he did and meant so much to us could take himself away in the horrific manner that he did? Clinincal speculation is interesting but ultimately not helpful for us who remain. We are masters in our society at focusing on pain relief rather than lesson learning and problem solving. His death, like his life, has a lesson for us that is both comforting for the present and educational for the future.
The reality is that our friend, like all of us, was a sinner saved by grace–a grace which, by definition, neither he nor us deserved. We humans have wandered the earth for many years, leaving a legacy of failure and pain. The world is such that, as one character in my fiction sermonised, "this life is too painful that we love it so much." But God has offered us his free gift of salvation and eternal life, and has not withdrawn that offer because we are not up to it. Our task today is to realise that God’s faithfulness transcends human failure–our friend’s failure, our failure–and that the good things he did in Jesus’ name should not be forgotten, as they brought people to the only real purpose this life has and the only viable way out of it.
My prayer today for you is that you will look past the tragedy that has ripped our lives, that we will continue to live and grow together in the love and knowlege of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that we will "…lay aside everything that hinders us, and the sin that clings about us, and run with patient endurance the race that lies before us,our eyes fixed upon Jesus, the Leader and perfect Example of our faith, who, for the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, heedless of its shame, and now ‘has taken his seat at the right hand’ of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1b-2)