September 20, 2015

Talking about the Tough Stuff

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Christianity is not a pilgrim path for the light-hearted or the lazy.  Our lives are on the line, and this is a daily experience.  We humans don’t like to talk about death much, and here in our scriptures, Jesus did just that.  He talked about his life purpose and his death to disciples who were still trying to figure things out.  Jesus challenged them to change their attitudes towards life and towards who he was.  In two of our gospels, Matthew and in Mark, the writers wanted us to know that he had this conversation not in Jerusalem or in Nazareth or even in Samaria.  He had ‘the talk’ in Caesarea Philippi, the district filled with Roman temples and Hebrew rulers like Herod who had compromised their faith in order to fit in with the government of Rome.  I don’t know about you, but talking about being the Messiah, the hero that the people hoped would save them from empires, in the shadow of a roman temple sounds pretty suicidal to me.  I think it would be like driving a Volt to the Syncrude plant in Fort McMurray, or going to downtown Edmonton during rush hour traffic in a John Deer tractor, parking it in the middle of Churchill Square and talk to your buddies about where you are going to plant the corn and the canola next spring.  Yeah, over there by that statue, that gets plenty of sunshine, or it will once we bulldoze the Citadel Theatre.

No wonder Peter called Jesus on it.  Let’s not talk about death!  Let’s not talk about losing the war before we’ve even grabbed our weapons!  For Peter thought it would be about war, most people did think the prophecy would come about with bloodshed and violence.  Being right could only be proved by forcing people at sword-point to realize it.  Might is right, and if God is with us, why, Jesus, why are you talking about defeat?

Going back to Churchill Station, the farmer says, yup, I’ll probably demolish this and that to get the farmland back and then the cops will shoot me.  Nobody wants to hear such a thing.  It sounds like suicide, and perhaps that was what was going on in Peter’s head too.  Jesus being rash, Jesus not having a plan for success, Jesus needs to go off on one of those retreats to teach leaders how to be, well, a better leader.  Nobody wants to follow someone who is already talking about defeat.  About death.

Speaking of death is never easy.  I got an e-mail this week from the Movember fellows who raise money and awareness for prostate and testicular cancer.  This time Movember tackled suicide prevention.  They wrote, “Men are pretty good at talking about sports, work, movies or the latest gadget, but we need to get better at talking about the significant stuff going on in our lives - things like losing a job, the breakdown of a relationship or becoming a father for the first time. These things happen to all of us, and for some, they prove challenging to the point where they have the potential to derail us.”

I was surprised to read this and even more surprised to hear that in Canada, 11 people will die today by their own hand.  That’s more than breast cancer.  Men are more successful than women at suicide, and usually get it right the first time.  Nunavut, if it was a country, would have the second highest suicide rate in the world.  The most dangerous time for men is when they are between 45 and 49 years old, and there is an upswing again at 80.  Children as young as 10 are recorded, too.  Factors that contribute can be unemployment, depression, sexual orientation, living on reserve, family violence, substance abuse or just the challenges of living in a hectic society where no one seems to have time to listen.

Listening is the key.  Being a safe person, a sanctuary for those feelings can make a huge difference to those who are struggling.  And it happens to us all.  We all know someone or of someone who made that terrible choice.  The day that I heard our church treasurer had let depression get the best of him and that his family and children were in shock was a turning point for one congregation.  But it’s not just people struggling with mental illness.  I can remember when I was a young adult away at university wondering what it would feel like and would anyone notice or care.  There didn’t seem to be anything to hope for in my life.  I was a dunce with boys, I was flunking out of school, I was a drain on my parents’ finances, and I didn’t have someone to talk to.  Luckily for me, or God was at work, someone came into my life, listened without putting his agenda on me and said, “have you thought about going back to church?”  What a stupid idea that was! How could some moldy old superstition have anything to do with my life?  But it gave me hope, and it gave me a purpose and it gave me many someones I could really talk to.

Movember wrote, “Tragically, for too many men, the first and only time they talk about how these changes have affected them is in a suicide note. So, we have a simple message - Men, we need to talk, especially when things get tough.”

Jesus knew how to talk about the dark and dangerous things, he talked honestly about his life and the life of his followers.  We who call him “messiah”, are called to also be honest and talk about the tough stuff.  However, we need to remember James’ wise words that our tongues can be dangerous.  Not all of us are able to rein it in and listen calmly without interruption to taboo topics.  Not all of us are called to be teachers or suicide prevention experts.  But we can point the way to people we know are good listeners.  We can say, “so and so is safe,” or “let me drive you to the emergency room”, or “let me go with you to the doctor’s office” and so on.  We can ask, “where do you find hope?” and remember that for hundreds of years, people just like us have pointed to gatherings just like this as a place to find that hope.  Jesus is my hope and my messiah.  Who do you say that he is?

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