Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

This week’s “Crossroads” podcast about the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson (click here to tune that in) was not business as usual. Here is my original GetReligion post on this topic: “Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all.”

For me, this topic got personal really quick.

First, there was the subject of depression and suicide. Anyone who has wrestled with depression (or has had loved ones face that darkness) knows that, at times, people swim in what seems like an ocean of irrational feelings and impulses.

My senior year of high school was like that. Several times I kind of came to my senses and would not know how I got to where I was — usually the classical music section of the main Port Arthur, Texas, music store. I still cannot hear the second movement of Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), without shuddering. There are memories there (cue at 8:46 and hang on).

I am sure that whatever I experienced was only a glimpse of what Wilson faced. It’s amazing to me that he preached on these topics and bravely took on the task — the calling — of helping others. Wilson said that he wanted God to show him a purpose for his life. He had to know that answering the call involved risk.

Also, then there was the timing of this week’s tragedy. Yes, this unfolded hours just before Suicide Awareness Day. And then came the anniversary of Sept. 11.

I found myself thinking about Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar who served as a chaplain for New York City firefighters. He ran into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with the first responders. When the South Tower fell, firefighters discovered that the 69-year-old priest had collapsed. His heart gave out. Firefighters carried his body out of the rubble and placed at the altar of the nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Then the firefighters went back to work.

This priest had to know that there was risk involved in running into that last fire. But that was part of his calling. At his funeral, his friend Father Michael Duffy said this in the sermon:

Mychal Judge's body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number '1' on the top. Of the thousands of people who perished in that terrible holocaust, why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal's goal and purpose in life was to bring the firemen to the point of death so they would be ready to meet their maker.

Mychal Judge could not have ministered to them all. It was physically impossible — in this life. In the next few weeks, we're going to have name after name of people who are being brought out of that rubble. And Mychal Judge is going to be on the other side of death — to greet them. …

That made me think of this tweet from hours before Wilson’s death.

As I read about Wilson’s death, and read news stories about this latest 9/11 anniversary, these two images connected in my mind.

In his ministry to those contemplating suicide, Wilson had to know that he was running into dangerous “fires,” especially in light of his own pain and weaknesses. But he was doing what he believed he was called to do. It’s impossible to know how he slipped, hours after that last funeral, into another pit of depression in which, for a moment, he could not hear the truth contained in his own ministry.

That’s really all I have to say about that, right now.

However, I hope that journalists will dig deeper into the valid news topic that haunts Wilson’s death — the struggles that religious congregations have when, or it, they dare to discuss depression and suicide. As Pastor Todd Wilken and I discuss in this podcast, these topics will be impossible to avoid in an age when researchers are warning that loneliness and doubt are on the rise, especially among young adults.

Readers who want to know more about this topic can also see this column I wrote in 2017, focusing on the work of the Rev. Todd Peperkorn, author of "I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression." Here is a key passage:

Many pastors and counselors still think mental illnesses are spiritual problems caused by "sinful choices" alone, instead of complex puzzles of brokenness in body, mind and spirit, he said, at a Lutheran Public Radio conference earlier this summer in Collinsville, Ill. 

Thus, they believe mental illness is the "result of a lack of obedience. And so, if you could only manage to obey God a little more, a little better, then any mental illness that you had would magically go away." This leads to a blunt prescription: "Sin less! Got that? All of your problems are going to go away if you would just stop sinning. So get on with that. … You kind of turn Christianity into Weight Watchers."

Peperkorn stressed that he has seen this hellish struggle from both sides — as a pastor and as a patient with clinical depression. Just over a decade ago, he said, he found himself working his way through Holy Week to Easter, while also pondering the end of all things — as in suicide.

"I was contemplating and planning my own death," the Rocklin, Calif., pastor told the hushed crowd.

Please check out this week’s podcast, and pass it on.

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