Friday, June 8, 2018

Suicidal moments: Hiding in plain sight

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Over the past few days there have been 2 rather high profile people, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who made the decision that their lives were no longer worth living.  The reaction from society has been one of sadness and wonder as to why two successful people would choose to end their lives in such a tragic manor.  As always there is lots of speculation surrounding deaths and yet it seems the end result is always the same.  No one except the person who died will ever truly know the real reason for his or her actions.  No matter the reason, the choice to take ones own life is a real and present struggle for many people, including people that you associate with on a daily basis.  People struggling with suicidal thoughts may or may not show signs of their feelings, they may or may not ask for help, and most importantly they may or may not respond when asked if they are struggling with those same feelings.   

According to a recent survey published by the US Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates in the United States have increased by over 25% in the last twenty years.  In Pennsylvania, the suicide rate has increased over 34% in the same time frame.  Those are unbelievable numbers.  31% more Pennsylvanians are ending their lives than twenty years ago.  Between 2012 and 2016, over 9000 Pennsylvanians took their own lives in comparison to 3300 people who were victims of homicide.  Almost three times as many people took their own lives as were murdered by someone else!  It is a serious issue that we must take notice of. 

By now, you might be asking why is this important to Jay and what can he add to the conversation?  What I am about to write might be the toughest thing I have ever out down on paper, and especially published on a blog or social media Yet it is something that needs to be said.  The truth is something I have not told many people in my life, including my own family and one that I feel must be addressed now in order to help other people who might be going through the same thing.  I have been suicidal more than once in my life.  I suffer from anxiety and depression and have been in a dark place where I could not see a future for my life, a place where the only way I saw of getting out of the darkness was to meet God and Jesus face to face and beg for forgiveness for killing myself.   In reading Kate Spade’s story, I feel like I’m staring into a mirror.  I know the pain and desperation.  Luckily for me, my story did not end that fateful night when I had a loaded gun next to me.  That night, I had sent a note to my closest and trusted friends thanking them for standing by me and apologizing for my actions.  In a miraculous twist of fate, I was given a second chance at living, seeing that my work in this life wasn’t complete.  The next morning I received calls and text messages from them and was seeing a therapist that same day in order to help me start to make sense of my feelings.  Since that day, I have regularly seen a therapist and am not shy in telling people that.  For me my therapist, literally saved my life.  Unfortunately, the struggle with mental illness is never completely over.  I continue to struggle with depression and anxiety and as a result of therapy now understand when I find myself in a dark place how to take care of myself and when I need to reach out to others for help.  I am not ashamed or too proud to say that I fight the fight alone.  I am surrounded by people who love and care for me and my well being and cannot thank them enough for helping me when I reach out to them.  

Over the last ten or so years, I realize I have many God given gifts to offer.  Through my discernment to the priesthood, my time in seminary and now my work in youth and family ministry, I am able to offer those gifts to others.  And I thank God every day for that.  On a mission trip a few years ago, I opened up to the youth about my struggles with suicide.  I explained that they might believe that I have my stuff together but I too have struggled.  I was an awkward teenager trying to fit into the crowd feeling like I had no friends or others to reach out to. I knew the pain of being bullied endlessly wishing I could vanish from existence.  I struggled with almost failing out of college my first semester freshman year.  I fought the horrible failure surrounding the end of my marriage and having a son living 2500 miles from me.  In essence, I wanted them to understand that I can empathize with their pain and suffering.  I survived and so can they.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, of not being adequate, not being able to make it through another day, PLEASE reach out for help!  If you are afraid to ask for help, don’t be.  It is the best thing you can do for yourself today.  Ending your own life is a permanent solution to a temporary struggle.  I know all too well that it doesn’t feel like that when you are contemplating it, but trust me it is true.  Life can get better. 

Photo by Tiago Bandeira on Unsplash

If you are reading this and think you know someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask them!  Beyond what popular belief is, asking a person whether they want to kill themselves will not make them do it.  Asking a person that question might give them the space they need to open up and express their feelings.  Be prepared to listen without judgment.  Don’t ask too many questions, let the person talk, cry and get emotional.  And most importantly don’t be afraid, the person is opening up to you because they trust you.  If you feel they are going to kill themselves, ie.  Have a plan, a way to do it and the time in mind, immediately call 911.  If the person doesn’t have those things, continue to talk and encourage them to reach out for professional help.  If you or they need help with finding professional help, call or text a helpline, doctor or a priest.

Since that fateful night, I have learned much about myself.  First, I understand that suicide is not a sin, which precludes someone from entering heaven.  On that fateful night, Jesus was standing next to me praying for me not to do it.  I also know that if I had, Jesus would have been there to welcome me home.  Secondly, I know that I must always take my medications and get regular blood work as my depression is partly triggered by a malfunctioning thyroid gland and so without proper medication levels I become severely depressed.  Thirdly, that there is a continuous need for me to see a professional therapist to ensure I don’t fall into the dark abyss again.

Life is too important for anyone to end it intentionally.  You are loved.  You are perfect just as you are.  Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  There are people who can help so reach out and ask!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Pinterest and a Faith Community

Social Media, depending upon a person’s age, can be seen as a waste of time, a tool used to interact with your friends or something that can be informative and educational.  Recently, there has been lots of discussion about how social media can change people’s perceptions of things based upon the articles that show up on their pages.  One aspect of social media that isn’t discussed much are the educational uses.  

During seminary we spent time looking at ways that the church could use social media for its benefit.  Part of the final project was to create educational uses for social media.  The group I was a part of, looked at Pinterest.  Prior to the project, I saw pinterest as a platform mainly for sharing craft and cooking ideas.  After all the demographics of Pinterest users is 81% female with an average age of 40 years old. (  Yet in continuing to look at the facts about the users, collectively they are an incredible market.  For businesses the demographic is an exceptional value: 72% of users research products via pinterest, 93% said they use Pinterest to plan for purchases and 87% said they have purchased something because of Pinterest.  So how could a faith community use Pinterest as well?

First, we must understand what Pinterest is.  According to the Pinterest website, “Pinterest is where people discover new ideas and find inspiration to do the things they love! Pins are ideas that help you get creative or try something new, whether you’re planning a camping trip or collecting home improvement hacks.  Pins are saved to boards, keeping your ideas organized and easy to find. Follow other people or boards that are saving ideas you’re interested in, so you can do even more of what you love. “(

Now that we understand what Pinterest is, we can see how can a faith community use the platform for good.  There are loads of topics that are important to people that attend church.  By creating boards on those topics and placing valuable information on them, the church is able to quickly help people find resources in times of need.  When I created St. Matthew’s Pinterest account, I began by creating boards on subjects ranging from death, grief, hospice, book recommendations, and inspirational quotes, all of which are important to a faith community. 

Creating the boards is only the first step though.  Like all filing systems, it is important to keep the information up to date and meaningful.  As time goes on, I hope the boards of St. Matthew’s will continue to increase and change.  Pinterest is a social media platform after all so it cannot remain stagnant.  Since its inception, St. Matthew’s pinterest account has increased to eighteen boards with more in the planning stages. 

I encourage you to visit our boards and to explore the resources we have shared as well as recommending new board ideas.   Pinterest is here to stay and it is no longer just for crafts and cooking!

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Safe Place for our Teens

I was recently contacted the mother of a high school student who didn’t know what to do.  She had used the car and found marijuana between the seats.  Like most parents would do, she immediately got both angry and scared and searched through the child’s room.  During the search, she found more drug paraphernalia as well as notebooks filled with sketches and thoughts.  What she read scared her even more.  The notes and sketches mentioned wanting to die, wondering whether death would be better than life.  Not knowing what to do, she confronted her child.  The child admitted that they had been using drugs but that they were in a healthier place now.  Her child had been using drugs to counter the effects of depression.  It may sound like an unusual occurrence but it is anything but that. Over the course of my ministry at St. Matthew’s, I have had a similar conversation with multiple parents because not only do today’s youth have easy access to mind altering substances at an alarming rate but they also suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts frequently and mainly in silence.

Depression, drug use and suicide are topics that are frequently discussed in the news, on social media and on the Internet.  There are many people that have opinions and solutions concerning these issues and I am sure that many are very good ideas.  I’m not here to debate or discuss them, but rather to offer some suggestions about how we, as parents, grandparents and caregivers of teens can try to “break open” our teens and give them a space to discuss the issues they are facing in a safe non-judgmental manner. 
While your teen may never be able to have the conversation with you in a face-to-face manner, many teens are willing to have the conversation in writing.  One of the best ideas I have heard comes from a blog,  Rachel, the author of the blog and the mother of a teenage girl, says that no matter how hard she tried to talk to her daughter, her daughter wouldn’t open up.  Finally she got the idea to give her daughter a notebook in which she could write down anything she needed to say.  On the first page of the journal, Rachel wrote this,

“No mistake you make is bigger than my love.  
You are never alone. 
I love you, just as you are today.  
You can always come home.”  

Think for just a minute how powerful those four lines are.  In four short lines, Rachel told her daughter that no matter what I will be there for you.  Her statements covered something that most teens question and Rachel answered them without being asked.  Maybe you feel that your child already knows those answers, and maybe they do, but when was the last time you said it to them?  Would your teen feel safe coming home from an evening out with friends after drinking or smoking or doing something wrong?  I’m not condoning those behaviors, but I am saying that we as parents must respond rather than react to our teens when they make poor decisions, after all we were teens once and most likely also made bad decisions. 
My response to the mother who called me and when speaking to parents about their teens is make sure you teen knows you love them and there is nothing they say that can change that fact.  They aren’t alone in what’s going on in their lives and that we (parent and teen) will work through this together.  While it may not be a miracle answer, it is an opening for the teen to understand that you are not the enemy but rather someone that they can open up and share their feelings with and know they will be safe in a tumultuous world.  Depression can easily be hidden from people even parents so it is important to look for signs of depression in youth.  Some of the signs and symptoms are: Sadness, irritability, withdrawing from some but not all people, unexplained aches and pains, extreme sensitivity to criticism.  Many of the signs might be attributed to normal teenage growing pains but that isn’t always the reason.  Youth today wrestle with many more issues than we were ever faced with growing up.  In speaking to our kids, I hear them saying that there are very few people that teens today feel safe talking to and who they can open up to so it is of the upmost importance that home is a protected place to talk.  If you feel that you aren’t able to have difficult conversations with your teens, counseling is another possibility with both group and individual options.

            I like to think that trying to get a teen to open up about their feelings is like getting to the heart of an artichoke.  It takes lots of work and perseverance, but once you get to its heart, there is a wonderfully delicious gift.  If you give up while peeling back the layers, you will never know what lies at the center.  Your teenager is the same.  Once in a while, a spine might prick you as you peel it back, but when you get to the center of your teen, you will find a wonderfully created gift from God, a loving caring child.
            If your teen is in crisis due to depression, suicidal thoughts, or other mental challenges, there is someone they can talk to anonymously by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline @ 1-800-273-8255 or by texting HOME to 741741.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sermon's as they are written verse given

I am always amazed that after reading, praying and pondering the lessons for a specific Sunday that I can sit down and either write a sermon or at least have bullet points for that week's sermon.  Sometimes, when I actually write a manuscript for the sermon, what comes out of my mouth during the sermon is not entirely the same.  In fact there are weeks when it is completely different!  This week, I wrote a manuscript and hoped to be close to it when I delivered it.  I'm not sure I really did that though.  For fun, I have attached a link to the video of the sermon and the script is below.

Video of my sermon from Easter 2

Here is the script:

This morning we hear the story of Jesus’ first and second appearance to the disciples after his resurrection.  In His first appearance, Jesus arrives to find his disciples locked away, fearful and not knowing what to do next.  Their leader was no longer present and they were unsure of what the future held for them.  Imagine their surprise and shock when Jesus shows up amongst them?  They were realists, other than a couple of miracles they had seen previously, they believed and knew that those that died stayed dead.  It was not a fact that was lost on them.  Jesus had died and he wasn’t coming back or so they thought until Jesus showed up in the middle of them.
I imagine those first disciples must have been even more freaked out all of a sudden seeing Jesus with them.  That fact wasn’t lost on Jesus either, because he immediately say, Peace be with you.  Jesus knew that at that very moment what the disciples needed most was a calming presence.  Like most of us, when we are startled by something, our hearts and minds race, we need someone to calm us down and bring us peace and Jesus does just that.
Unfortunately, one of the disciples was not with them and was unable to experience the risen Christ.  Thomas, someone that I feel has been given the short end of the stick by forever known as Doubting Thomas, hears from the disciples and doesn’t believe.  Who can blame him?  Thomas wasn’t really a doubter as must as he was a realist.  How many times have we heard something from friends and not believed what they say.  Luckily, we can go to a classic children’s movie for help with this one.  Just like the conductor says to Hero Boy in the polar express,  “Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we cannot see.”  Jesus appearance to the disciples was very real and very true.  It isn’t until Jesus appears again when Thomas is present that Thomas actually believes the disciples. 
It is important for us to take note in both of Jesus post resurrection appearances.  Never once does Jesus shame, ridicule or make fun of the disciples he appears to.  Rather Jesus meets them where they are.  Jesus understands the situation and offers peace and forgiveness to them.  But he doesn’t stop there.  After offering them peace and forgiveness, Jesus tells them to go out into the world and continue doing the same thing to others. 
Jesus isn’t telling just His disciples to do that, he is tell YOU!  He is telling us that we are called to go into the world and offer peace and forgiveness.  Before you start to ask how and why can I do that, remember that Jesus is not sending us into the world by ourselves.  Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to join us.  It is with the power of the Spirit that we are able to do the work we are called to do. 
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  We have been given the first step by being told of the Risen Christ.  Rather than hiding ourselves in a locked room in fear, we must step out into the world in faith believing in a Risen Christ we cannot physically see, offering the peace of the Risen Christ, loving ourselves and one another, forgiving as we have been forgiven and sharing the Good News with everyone.   Now is the time, now is the place,  Go, and make those that have not seen believe!