Death & dying

Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friends and loved ones mourn Wednesday’s death of Heidi Hall, a former religion and education editor for The Tennessean.

As noted by that newspaper, the cause of her passing was metastatic colorectal cancer. She was 49.

Hall wrote a final story, published Thursday.

“It's the story of her life — of losing everything when she left the (Jehovah’s) Witnesses — and finding a new family of her own,” RNS editor-in-chief Bob Smietana noted on Twitter.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Yes, our own Terry Mattingly is a tough critic.

But he gave an extremely positive review to Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer’s piece that ran this week with this headline: The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

“If you start reading this one, you will want to read it all,” tmatt said.

Amen.

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A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

This weekend’s think piece offers a look at yet another religion-news story that — for those with the eyes to see — could be linked to America’s current struggles with loneliness, depression and suicide.

If you missed it, please consider listening to last week"‘s “Crossroads” podcast, with ran in a piece with this headline: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide.

Much of this discussion, of course, was linked to the suicide of a California megachurch leader, the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, who was the co-founder of a national ministry for those facing issues of depression and suicide. He had been very open about his own struggles and, on the day he died, he led a funeral service for a woman who had just committed suicide.

In the past week or so, GetReligion posts have mentioned several issues linked to this depression and suicide — from cyber-bullying to cellphone addiction, from sky-high college loan debts to sleep deprivation. There has been some frank talk about clergy who are pushed over the edge by stress.

Now, here is a stunningly honest piece by a journalist — former CNN religion-beat pro Peggy Wehmeyer — that ran in the New York Times under this double-decker headline:

What Lies in Suicide’s Wake

Along with everything else, I wasn’t prepared for the stigma of becoming a widow this way.

Wehmeyer’s husband took his own life in 2008, during a struggle with pancreatic cancer. There is no explicit religion angle in this essay, other than the sobering reality that the people who lead religious congregations cannot sit back and ignore the pain that lingers for the spouses and families of those who commit suicide. It’s the crisis that often remains hidden.

The opening anecdote in this piece is long, detailed and agonizing. It’s a dinner party — not that long after her husband’s death — and Wehmeyer is trying to find a way to answer the questions of the woman seated next to her. Are you married? Divorced? No, widowed. The scene unfolds:

I’d always thought divorce signaled a failure in life’s greatest commitment. But in the months and years after my husband’s death, I discovered that there’s something worse than a marriage that ends in divorce — a marriage that ends the way mine did.

My table mate tiptoed further into fragile, off-limits territory.

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

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.

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Debate continues, after AP report on Catholic church's apparent blessing of assisted suicide

Debate continues, after AP report on Catholic church's apparent blessing of assisted suicide

t looked like an innocuous religion story and the kind we often get here in the Pacific Northwest: A positive feature on a dying man who decided to end his life through euthanasia –- and about a Catholic church that played a role in it all.

Until complaints started to pour in, asking why a Catholic priest and parish appeared to be giving their blessing to assisted suicide. What followed was a comedy of errors on the part of an archdiocese caught flatfooted by the event.

Yes, this is an old story. But the debates are going on and on and on.

Dated Aug. 25 (yes, I am a few weeks late on this), the Associated Press story began thus:

The day he picked to die, Robert Fuller had the party of a lifetime.

In the morning, he dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt and married his partner while sitting on a couch in their senior housing apartment. He then took the elevator down three floors to the building’s common room, decorated with balloons and flowers.

With an elaborately carved walking stick, he shuffled around to greet dozens of well-wishers and friends from across the decades, fellow church parishioners and social-work volunteers. The crowd spilled into a sunny courtyard on a beautiful spring day.

A gospel choir sang. A violinist and soprano performed “Ave Maria.” A Seattle poet recited an original piece imagining Fuller as a tree, with birds perched on his thoughts.

A year ago, he got cancer of the tongue and decided against chemo, saying he’d go the assisted suicide route. His decision was understandable. The cancer was causing him slowly to choke to death. His throat was so blocked up, he had to take food through a gastric tube. Radiation would just prolong the agony.

Fuller began returning more often to the Catholic church he had long attended. His spiritual views were hardly orthodox — he considered himself a shaman, and described his impending death as a state of “perpetual meditation” — but Seattle’s St. Therese Parish was known for accommodating a range of beliefs.

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

It was another wild week, to say the least, for people who are following the hellish details of the Jeffrey Epstein case and the fallout from his death.

I am referring, of course, to his reported suicide in his non-suicide-watch cell, which contained no required roommate (check), no working video cameras (check) and no regular safety checks by his sleeping and maybe unqualified guards.

Forget all of that, for a moment. While you are at it, forget the mystery of how he ended up with a broken hyoid bone near the larynx, something that — statistically — tends to happen when a victim is strangled, as opposed to hanging himself with a sheet tied to a bed while he leans over on his knees. And go ahead and forget about that painting (or print) of Bill Clinton photographed in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, the portrait of the former president wearing a vivid blue dress, red women’s high-heeled shoes and a come-hither look while posed relaxing in an Oval Office chair.

No, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on some of the hell-based rhetoric unleashed by the disgraced New York City financial wizard’s death. This was hooked to my “On Religion” column for this week, which opened rather bluntly (if I say so myself):

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds, playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal contacts file — politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others — was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people. … The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation — a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

By the way, would this discussion or moral theology and eternity be any different if we were talking about the Rev. Jeffrey Epstein or Rabbi Jeffrey Epstein?

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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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Friday Five: RNA lifetime winner, new Forward editor, funny obit, Jeffrey Epstein, Rob Moll tribute

Friday Five: RNA lifetime winner, new Forward editor, funny obit, Jeffrey Epstein, Rob Moll tribute

The Religion News Association hit the jackpot with this selection.

Cathy Lynn Grossman — “one of the giants of the modern religion beat” — will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award on Sept. 22 at RNA’s 70th annual conference in Las Vegas.

The announcement was made this week.

“I'm thrilled, surprised and humbled! (but obviously not too humble to post it on social media. Ha!!),” Grossman, who is best known for her 24 years with USA Today, said in a public Facebook post.

Past recipients include GetReligion’s own Richard Ostling, retired longtime religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press.

In other Godbeat news, Religion News Service’s Yonat Shimron reports:

Jodi Rudoren, an associate managing editor at The New York Times, was named the new editor-in-chief of the revered Jewish publication the Forward on Tuesday (July 23), marking a new beginning for an organization that has weathered tough times.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is not the normal kind of religion story that I share in this space, but it’s too good not to include.

Dave Condren, who spent 20 years with the Buffalo News, including 14 as a religion reporter, wrote his own obituary.

This is just the first hint that it’s definitely worth your time:

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Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

It’s one of the mantras I recite every now and then when describing journalism trends in this troubled age: Opinion is cheap, while information is expensive.

Week after week, readers send us the URLs to opinion pieces and op-ed essays about subjects that, in a previous age, might have received serious news coverage that explored the views of people on both sides of these arguments and standoffs.

This does not mean that these pieces are not important or that they don’t contain valid information about important news stories.

That’s certainly the case with this “opinion column” that was published recently by the Alabama Media Group — AL.com — with this headline: “Why does God need public records? In Alabama, that’s a real question.” The author is political columnist Kyle Whitmire.

The overture is somewhat confusing, but that’s sort of the point. What we have here is a case that involves press freedom, religious freedom, the death penalty and who knows what all. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Why in the name of God would anyone need a public record?

After all, doesn’t the Almighty already know what those documents show?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. For Tabitha Isner, they were real, asked of her by a lawyer for the Alabama prison system. And she had to answer under oath.

Swear to God.

Or, if you care about transparency and accountability in government, just swear.

Like the Holy Bible, maybe we should start in the beginning.

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