Choose Life

Choose Life

A Sermon by The Very Rev'd Thomas C.H. Scott, D. Min.
August 19, 2001
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
1509 Ridge Avenue
Evanston, IL
847-864-4806
TCHSCOTT@aol.com (may be duplicated with attribution and notification)

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In the Name of God: creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. AMEN.

I received an anguished telephone call recently from one of our Church School Teachers. He was heartbroken by the recent suicide of a young woman from a neighboring parish. All three of his children knew her and liked her. He asked me to preach about this tragic circumstance, saying, "Just tell our children not to kill themselves. Tell them not to kill themselves."

So I shall begin with that bald statement: dear young people, do not kill yourselves! Do not ever make that terrible and irrevocable decision, no matter what the motive, provocation or purpose. Do not kill yourself. When things seem atrociously bad, have enough humility and humor to admit you don't know everything about tomorrow, and let yourself stick around to see how different things can be.

I read recently of an experiment in which a person wrote down all the bad things about life on a day when everything was a mess, and later wrote down all the good things on a day when things were smooth. The person found that both lists were about the same things: relationships, family, school, work, money, self, plans for the future. Perhaps you remember the line, "nothing is bad or good but thinking makes it so". Mood and perspective change. Suicide, as someone put it, is a permanent solution to a temporary situation.

As a parent and a parish priest, I have a great stake in what I am saying. I also want to make it clear that I know there are those among us whose lives have been forever changed by the suicide of a child or other family members or friends. It is important for me to say that I believe in my heart and soul that our Lord Jesus Christ loves and cherishes and takes to Himself those who end their lives. Suicide does not separate us from the love of Christ.

As a parent, I have wanted to spare my children much of what I knew growing up. Part of caring for my children, now both teenagers, has been a matter of putting together a good, wholesome, safe environment at home and helping to create the same circumstance in school, sports, and other activities.

All of us are wonderfully fortunate to live in Evanston and the North Shore. We are able to provide so much security and even luxury for our children -- at least in relative terms -- and we are able to push back many of the struggles of life in many ways. We do so gladly. We want our children to be older, more mature and experienced, before they have to grapple with the serious problems of living. We do not want them to be broken before they bloom.

But the world our young people live in is not easy, no matter how much we have worked to make it a better place for them. Just as we faced the troubles of our time, so they face the difficulties of the present day. What our children contend with are challenges that will undo the soul, as terrible as any we ever faced and perhaps more insidious because they are not immediately obvious. Consider, for example, the situation of two of the most famous, admired and desired people our young people care about: Mariah Carey and Ben Affleck.

Mariah Carey is among the most talented and successful singers of the day. Her five octave range and expressive voice join with her good looks and outgoing manner to make her a superstar vocalist. She is now confined to an institution for rest and care and the long process of putting her life in order after coming to the point of physical and emotional collapse.

Ben Affleck, multi-talented writer and actor, with the adoration of millions of fans and the acclaim of his peers is now in a facility that specializes in treating alcoholism. The person who wrote "Good Will Hunting", a powerful story of a young man becoming his true self, cannot himself be on his own. It remains to be seen whether he can be clean and sober or if he will implode again and again like his older brother in addiction, Robert Downey, Jr.

If the idols of a generation falter, where do their admirers turn? This is no abstract question, it matters a great deal to our young people. We older folks need to remember our struggles and offer young people a look at our anguish over the loss of heroes and idols. For Latinos, the murder of Selena three or so years ago was a serious as the death of John Lennon. If the "music died" for the boomers with the death of Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly, we must remember the same kind of death in a small plane of the R&B singer Aaliyah, that is rocking the youth world today.

Our contribution to the next generation comes from the wisdom we have accumulated, hard won though it was and only partially secured even now. Some of what we share we've acquired through facing the very same temptations and difficulties that are in front of our young people. After all, we faced the disillusioning shock of watching Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Phil Ochs and others, do themselves to death with booze, drugs and unrelieved mental anguish. Those of us who are friends of Bill Wilson or are otherwise involved with recovery programs have had to admit we were fairly on the way to that sad end ourselves, but woke up just in time.

We struggled with a war and political scandal and social revisions on a massive scale through the Civil Rights movement industrial and agricultural struggles, and the massive reorienting of our society in every way. But we, the baby boomers, know what it means to have to make sense of a world that was not what our parents thought it was. And we did not have many reliable heroes to help with that process. Many of those we thought might serve us were assassinated, were self-destructive, got as co-opted by money and flashy lifestyles as have many others before and since, were corrupt in their motives -- serving themselves not others -- or just simply got tired. We had ideals and ideas, hopes and dreams, and our own array of shortcomings. We were young and full of possibilities and problems, too. The truth is, if it was a golden age, it was not an easy time in which to live.

We were often afraid and uncertain about ourselves. We did not always have a clear guide to knowing what matters. We were often unsure of our own capacity to commit to people and causes that we knew we cared about, but did not know how to do much for. In short, we were much like you, the young men and women we see at our dinner table, in the world, and in this parish; we were like you, hard as it is to believe; we were like you whom we care about so much even if we fail to act on it well sometimes.

One young person I know said to me recently that the big difference that exists between the baby boom generation and her own is that while it is true that we had to deal with drugs and a world full of violence and the perils of consumerism and the dizzying changes in male and female roles and expectations of society and family, we still had causes and issues we could give ourselves to wholeheartedly that could help us define ourselves. Our issues appeared to be clear cut and well enough defined so that one could take a stand and make a difference. Now, she says, this is not so easy to do.

She finds that counter-cultural affirmations are co-opted by corporate entities that quickly learn how to profit from anything that can be marketed and sold -- for example, the latest version of Woodstock was not a regional music festival, it was a commercial venture with an eye to television replays on cable channels. Searching for a cause and seeking a vision seem to lead to a frustrating dissipation of energy and focus when she tries to see where and how to get involved and make a difference. Convictions become vague, rootless sentiments when there is not much in the way of direct action available. What, she asks, can she DO about global warming, the ozone problem or multi-national corporate exploitation of the third world?

My response was that "back in the day" we asked the same questions. In addition, there was not as much consciousness of a "youth movement" per se, as some romantic pseudo-historical portrayals or remembrances of those days might suggest. For every long-haired freak, hippie, or political activist, there were plenty of mainstream folks the same age who might walk on the wild side a bit on weekends, but that was about it. Yes, there was the Democratic National Convention here in Chicago, but there were more critics of the demonstrators from among those of the same age as than there were sympathizers around the country. We did know that the philosopher Rene Dubos was right: you have to think globally and act locally if you want to make a difference where you are and feel connected everywhere else.

Then as now, nobody, whatever their place on the political and social spectrum in those days, liked being lumped together with others anymore than young folks now like to be regarded as one mass of youth to be categorized or marketed to or cultivated as a population group. All of this taken together seems to have helped some of us take our inquiring and restless hearts on a spiritual journey that led us to Anglican Christianity and its way of life. We understand that we are still learning and living into the life that we know God is calling us to have. We do not do this as well as we would like to do it. We are, as it were, still under construction. But, if I may, I would like to offer five insights we know are true and valuable and conform to the affirmations of our adult Christian faith.

  1. Keep on working to know yourself and to recognize the reality that others are different from you. What you learn about yourself and have to live with about yourself, is uniquely you. God has said that you, as you are, are worth everything God can give, and the story of Jesus Christ includes each of us. And God does not give us life and love and the presence of the Spirit grudgingly, but joyously, hopefully, and freely.

  2. Be true to yourself and in doing so, understand that you can let others be themselves. God is at work in the world and with you and in them. They are not here simply for your benefit or guidance, nor are you expected to place yourself at their disposal or conform yourself to their patterns or expectations or preferences. What does it profit us, asks Jesus, if we gain material comfort or have a good reputation, if we lose our very soul and self in the getting? We surrender serenity striving for security.

  3. Forgive yourself for not being able to live up to those first two things I said, and have compassion on the struggles of others. Foresight, even if we have it, depends for a lot of its usefulness upon values and experiences -- which are often in short supply for young folks, and older folks as well. Moreover, mistakes occur and stuff just happens. Come to me, says Jesus, everyone who feels overwhelmed and bowed down with living, and learn about how to live. He is not anxious or frightened about having to learn his role and place and he does not hold himself back from what is before him for fear of failure or unpopularity. He is not jealous, envious or rude about others' attainments.

  4. Commit yourself to the work of becoming yourself. Learn what is important in life generally and to what matters to you particularly. Jesus says, it is like the situation of a person plowing a field. If you put your hand on the plow, you have to put yourself into it, and not look away from it, says Jesus, or you go crooked. You can change your goals where and when you need to, but you can't think to reach them without focusing your whole self on them. Likewise admit when you start plowing crooked. No one is perfect, but the one who is too scared to be wrong is the farthest from being where they want.

  5. Commend yourself to God in every part of your life and do the same for others. All of us are dependent upon the love and care of God for our future, and that future is ultimately certain, though our present and near future sometimes look bleak or set against us. But here is the wonderful surprise: In giving over our lives to the care and providence of God, we are actually freed to become ourselves in a way we had not been before. Jesus commended himself to His father in heaven and was raised up and shown to be in life with the Father. Jesus said that everyone who is his friend and companion will be part of the life that He has with God the Father.

If I may offer an image to you to help make what I have been saying concrete, think of this: Life is not a synchronized swimming event with your friends or your generation. Life is more like an interpretive dance that you are part of by right of being born. Your authenticity, your capacity to communicate, your commitment to develop your talents and skills, your willingness to receive and to give and to work with the props and pieces on your portion of the stage will be the gauge and measure of your satisfaction and joy. To this I would add that the music you dance to is in your soul, even while the rhythm is heavily dominated by the tides of the world and the times you live in.

Have courage, young friends, along with persistence, curiosity about tomorrow, and gratitude for the chance to be who you are and a commitment to making a daily contribution to the stream of life -- these are the qualities you already possess in greater measure than you know and are what you need to live on. Let it be so in the Name of Him through whom we live and move and have our being: Jesus Christ our Lord, the source of life and the fountain of our peace and joy which flows over our lives more than we know or ask for.

AMEN


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