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Monday, October 08, 2007

The Illusion of Security

In Dante's Inferno, there is a group of trees that are, in reality, the souls of suicides who landed in Hell for their final misdeed. In Hell's clean justice, these unfortunates are now trapped in the bodies of trees so that they can do no more mischief to their flesh.

That pleasure is reserved for the Harpies (birds with the breasts and heads of women), who squabble among the trees, ripping off twigs and limbs from the branches, which subsequently bleed, and with the blood come the moans of the suicides. This is the only way they can express themselves.

This little gouache image is actually two images, if you look closely, you can see the rope around the neck, the hands held up high above the head, the twisted torso and legs.

As a pious, obedient and religiously educated child, I received early and careful instruction that the "tortures of eternal damnation" were reserved as the fate for those who committed suicide. I don't remember anyone calling up Dante's image of the Suicide Tree, but I clearly remember being told that anyone who had committed suicide would not be allowed a "Christian burial" and could not be buried in "hallowed ground."

I also clearly remember a family whose son returned from the "Korean Conflict" a tortured man. One day, he walked into an abandoned neighborhood lot, stripped himself naked in the middle of a cold, dark winter's night and shot and killed himself.

As if his parents weren't tormented enough, the church of my youth quite literally added insult to injury by refusing to bury their son from the church or in the church cemetery.

I remember being one of the neighborhood kids who slipped out beyond our parent's sight to venture in the high grass of that vacant lot to find the exact spot of his death, ghoulishly coming the dirt for evidence of his blood. That activity soon stopped after one of the nuns told us that if any of his blood got on any part of our bodies or clothing that we, too, would go straight to hell when we died.

I was later to learn that, at that time, the Roman Catholic church, most mainline Protestant denominations, and even The Episcopal Church, held the theological position that suicide was one of the manifestations of the "sin against the Holy Spirit" and, as such, was, as Jesus said, "unforgivable".

Eternal damnation was also thought to be the only fate sufficient to convey the gravity of the sin of taking one's own life, rather than placing one's fate in the hands of the One who had given it life.

I remember thinking then, at age 10 or 12, that surely the church had this backward. The 'tortures of the damned' is the fate that must drive someone to suicide and that just as surely, a loving God would understand this and offer this poor soul rest eternal in death.

Thank goodness, times have changed and with it, even the pastoral theology of the church. We used to believe that suicide was one of the manifestations of "the unforgivable sin" against the Holy Spirit. We now know that many things can lead people to such desperation - none of which is theological in reason.

I've been thinking about this a great deal since Friday night. We've had a tragic
suicide and attempted murder in our community.

On Friday night, a 41 year old mother of two picked up her 10 year old daughter and a friend from school. After dropping off the friend at her home, the mother brought her daughter for a walk in The Great Swamp - a wildlife refuge here.

Somewhere in The Great Swamp, something happened. It has been reported that the mother took a belt and strangled her daughter, thinking that she had killed her. She then took a knife and stabbed her self once in her own stomach and then struck the fatal blow to her own neck.

The daughter eventually awoke from her horrific nightmare, only to discover the bloodied body of her mother lying next to her. She ran screaming from The Great Swamp and was found by hikers who summoned police for help.

The girl was admitted overnight to the hospital and was released the next day to go home with her stunned and grieving father and younger brother.

As you can imagine, this town is in absolute shock. Just a few weeks ago, our sense of security and safety was shaken by the revelation that a
47 year old Chatham township father of three boys, a softball coach, was charged as a sexual predator, having been discovered online in a sexually explicit conversation with what he thought was a 13 year old girl.

On Friday morning, the
local newspaper reported that the state police had arrested 40 men and one woman on child pornography charges. The 'adults' included a part-time girls volleyball referee from Avenel, a quality assurance executive from Budd Lake and a deli owner from Middlesex. The pornographic films depicted children ranging from ages 4 - 9 being raped and tortured.

I know that God's mercy and forgiveness is extended to all who truly repent, but if there is a 'suicide tree' I trust it is reserved for people who rape and torture little children, and those who enjoy watching movies of them. If there are 'Harpies' I hope they 'pick' on those who are predators and stalk young and innocent victims on the Internet.

I've read a copy of the letter sent home to parents today by the superintendent of schools. In a very carefully written and caring letter, parents are informed about the intensive services that are being provided for the elementary classmates of their 4th grade friend who almost died at the hands of her mother.

Additionally, he invites parents to two sessions of discussions with school faculty and psychologists in order to help them deal with their children's questions and concerns at home.

He writes, "One common theme of those discussions is to assure your children that this is a safe community; they attend a safe school; and there are many trusted adults and educators who will be available at school and at home."

Of course, this is absolutely right. This is necessary for our children to know if they are ever to heal from this sort of trauma.

And, yet . . . . as adults, we know that security and safety in this life are just illusions.

Nothing in this life is guaranteed.


It is painfully obvious to our children, and to us, that this is no longer a safe community. Indeed, the world is no longer a safe place - if it ever was. Neither is it true that all adults can be trusted.

Those illusions have been completely shattered by recent, well-publicized events.

I hope there is a lesson in these tragic events. Indeed, I want to suggest that there are many, many lessons for us in each and every one of these these tragic events.

I hope more parents hug more of their children more often. I hope families choose to spend more time together as families. I hope families spend some time rethinking priorities and making changes in the ways they think about and use their affluence.

I hope families come to understand that this life is the only one we get, this time together is the only time we have, and the only way we can feel safe is when we stay focused on the love we have and the love we share.

I hope more parents think about this senseless death and these obscenities in our community and begin to think of how they are the replicated daily in the global village of the world-wide community of children and parents. I hope we are moved to do something where we live as well as the world in which we live.

I hope you join me in prayer for healing in our little town. May God help us find the ability to forgive, the courage to love, and faith in God's abundant mercy, justice and peace.

In the words of the benediction I use at the end of every service:

Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us; so be swift to love, and make haste to do kindness. And the blessing of God,

+Creating Presence
Redeeming Love
and Holy, Life-giving spirit

be upon you and all those you love and pray for this day, and forever more.



KJ said...

Even now the belief that those who end their lives damn themselves to hell is prevelant where it ought not to be. My cousin and his wife had to wrestle with this a few years ago when their adolescent son killed himself.

Ours is not a God that abandons the soul when its mind is under attack; that would be contrary to his/her nature.

Bill said...

KJ said... "Ours is not a God that abandons the soul when its mind is under attack; that would be contrary to his/her nature."