Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit

Preaching Hope in Darkness, a Review

Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit by Scott M. Gibson and Karen E. Mason is excellent for addressing one of the most vital and yet ignored topics from the pulpit.

For every fourteen suicide deaths each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide, and three thousand people think about suicide. About 8 million Americans have suicidal thoughts each year.

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Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit

The first time I preached a funeral for a victim of suicide, it was overwhelming, numbing, and I felt ill-prepared to care for the survivors afterward. That also describes every other time I have preached a funeral following a suicide. It’s easy to complain about the things we didn’t learn in Seminary. However, we are blessed with resources from experienced pastors and caregivers that continue to sharpen our service and give us the help we need to minister in the most challenging circumstances.

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I Feel Like I Gave Blood Sunday Morning

I’ve Teach Us to Number Our Daysbeen reading “The Sermon Doctor” by Harry Farra with my associate minister. It’s a great little book and we’re using it to sharpen our skills together. In the book, Farra’s Sermon Doctor quotes Martin Luther in saying, “the preacher was part of the sermon . . . you couldn’t separate the sermon from the sermonizer. We become part of the message.” I felt the weight of that this past Sunday.

Fifteen years ago my brother committed suicide. In preaching this series on death I knew that I would have to address suicide and to do so I would have to dig deep into my personal experiences. I doubt I’ve ever preached as personal a sermon as this one.

As with other sermons in this series, this one begins with a practical talk. This one is from Kay Wheeler, a hospice nurse who explains what hospice is and does.

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Those Very Difficult Funeral Sermons

I hesitated posting this message but after talking to the family of the deceased I was told to post it if I felt it might help someone. I certainly hope it can.

I try to put a lot of effort into funeral sermons. Back in Bible College, my ministry professor told us, “Be known for your funerals.” I took those words to heart and have really tried to do my best. I’ve done a lot of them too. I have a mortician friend who often uses me for difficult funerals. I’ve done a lot of state funded funerals for families that have next to nothing. I’ve also done a few for people living in group homes for the developmentally disabled. Those are very dear to my heart.

And I’ve done suicides.

Those are never easy, but this one was exceptionally difficult. A young man in our church took his own life. We’re a small community and everyone knows everyone else. The whole town was rocked. Over the course of the week following the suicide, we had high school students in our building for counseling and simply a place to get away and be together. We met with them in the schools, on the streets, anywhere they were.

Speaking at such an event is difficult enough. Knowing what to say and how to bring peace into the situation can seem impossible. It may have been if it weren’t for my own loss through suicide.

In 1999 my brother took his life. In the midst of that terrible experience I had what I can only describe as a very unique touch from God and an awareness of His presence like never before. There’s not enough room here to write about it, but maybe I will later. The verse at the center of this sermon was also at the center of my heart through that experience. Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

I’ve had many positive comments following this message. People have told me they were amazed how I didn’t shy away from the issue of suicide but addressed it with love and grace. The family told me they were comforted because I seemed to know exactly what to say.

Truth be told, Austin’s funeral sermon was the one I would have preached for my brother if I could have. I used my own pain and what I’ve learned in the fifteen years since to address the situation in front of us. I think Rick Warren is right, “Don’t waste your pain; let God heal it, recycle it, utilize it and use it to bless other people. Use your pain as a model for your message and a witness to the world.”